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CHAPTER XXIII. THE SENTENCE COMMUTED.
"By-the-way, where are you staying?" asked the General as he was taking leave of Nekhludoff. "At Duke's? Well, it's horrid enough there. Come and dine with us at five o'clock. You speak English?
"Yes, I do."
"That's good. You see, an English traveller has just arrived here. He is studying the question of transportation and examining the prisons of Siberia. Well, he is dining with us to-night, and you come and meet him. We dine at five, and my wife expects punctuality. Then I shall also give you an answer what to do about that woman, and perhaps it may be possible to leave some one behind with the sick prisoner."
Having made his bow to the General, Nekhludoff drove to the post-office, feeling himself in an extremely animated and energetic frame of mind.
The post-office was a low-vaulted room. Several officials sat behind a counter serving the people, of whom there was quite a crowd. One official sat with his head bent to one side and kept stamping the envelopes, which he slipped dexterously under the stamp. Nekhludoff had not long to wait. As soon as he had given his name, everything that had come for him by post was at once handed to him. There was a good deal: letters, and money, and books, and the last number of Fatherland Notes. Nekhludoff took all these things to a wooden bench, on which a soldier with a book in his hand sat waiting for something, took the seat by his side, and began sorting the letters. Among them was one registered letter in a fine envelope, with a distinctly stamped bright red seal. He broke the seal, and seeing a letter from Selenin and some official paper inside the envelope, he felt the blood rush to his face, and his heart stood still. It was the answer to Katusha's petition. What would that answer be? Nekhludoff glanced hurriedly through the letter, written in an illegibly small, hard, and cramped hand, and breathed a sigh of relief. The answer was a favourable one.
"Dear friend," wrote Selenin, "our last talk has made a profound impression on me. You were right concerning Maslova. I looked carefully through the case, and see that shocking injustice has been done her. It could he remedied only by the Committee of Petitions before which you laid it. I managed to assist at the examination of the case, and I enclose herewith the copy of the mitigation of the sentence. Your aunt, the Countess Katerina Ivanovna, gave me the address which I am sending this to. The original document has been sent to the place where she was imprisoned before her trial, and will from there he probably sent at once to the principal Government office in Siberia. I hasten to communicate this glad news to you and warmly press your hand.
The document ran thus: "His Majesty's office for the reception of petitions, addressed to his Imperial name" - here followed the date - - "by order of the chief of his Majesty's office for the reception of petitions addressed to his Imperial name. The meschanka Katerina Maslova is hereby informed that his Imperial Majesty, with reference to her most loyal petition, condescending to her request, deigns to order that her sentence to hard labour should be commuted to one of exile to the less distant districts of Siberia-"
This was joyful and important news; all that Nekhludoff could have hoped for Katusha, and for himself also, had happened. It was true that the new position she was in brought new complications with it. While she was a convict, marriage with her could only be fictitious, and would have had no meaning except that he would have been in a position to alleviate her condition. And now there was nothing to prevent their living together, and Nekhludoff had not prepared himself for that. And, besides, what of her relations to Simonson? What was the meaning of her words yesterday? If she consented to a union with Simonson, would it be well? He could not unravel all these questions, and gave up thinking about it. "It will all clear itself up later on," he thought; "I must not think about it now, but convey the glad news to her as soon as possible, and set her free. He thought that the copy of the document he had received would suffice, so when he left the post-office he told the isvostchik to drive him to the prison.
Though he had received no order from the governor to visit the prison that morning, he knew by experience that it was easy to get from the subordinates what the higher officials would not grant, so now he meant to try and get into the prison to bring Katusha the joyful news, and perhaps to get her set free, and at the same time to inquire about Kryltzoff's state of health, and tell him and Mary Pavlovna what the general had said. The prison inspector was a tall, imposing-looking man, with moustaches and whiskers that twisted towards the corners of his mouth. He received Nekhludoff very gravely, and told him plainly that he could not grant an outsider the permission to interview the prisoners without a special order from his chief. To Nekhludoff's remark that he had been allowed to visit the prisoners even in the cities he answered:
"That may be so, but I do not allow it," and his tone implied, "You city gentlemen may think to surprise and perplex us, but we in Eastern Siberia also know what the law is, and may even teach it you." The copy of a document straight from the Emperor's own office did not have any effect on the prison inspector either. He decidedly refused to let Nekhludoff come inside the prison walls. He only smiled contemptuously at Nekhludoff's naive conclusion, that the copy he had received would suffice to set Maslova free, and declared that a direct order from his own superiors would be needed before any one could be set at liberty. The only things he agreed to do were to communicate to Maslova that a mitigation had arrived for her, and to promise that he would not detain her an hour after the order from his chief to liberate her would arrive. He would also give no news of Kryltzoff, saying he could not even tell if there was such a prisoner; and so Nekhludoff, having accomplished next to nothing, got into his trap and drove back to his hotel.
The strictness of the inspector was chiefly due to the fact that an epidemic of typhus had broken out in the prison, owing to twice the number of persons that it was intended for being crowded in it. The isvostchik who drove Nekhludoff said, "Quite a lot of people are dying in the prison every day, some kind of disease having sprung up among them, so that as many as twenty were buried in one day."
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER XXIV. THE GENERAL'S HOUSEHOLD.