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CHAPTER XLIX. VERA DOUKHOVA.
"So this is what it means, this," thought Nekhludoff as he left the prison, only now fully understanding his crime. If he had not tried to expiate his guilt he would never have found out how great his crime was. Nor was this all; she, too, would never have felt the whole horror of what had been done to her. He only now saw what he had done to the soul of this woman; only now she saw and understood what had been done to her.
Up to this time Nekhludoff had played with a sensation of self-admiration, had admired his own remorse; now he was simply filled with horror. He knew he could not throw her up now, and yet he could not imagine what would come of their relations to one another.
Just as he was going out, a jailer, with a disagreeable, insinuating countenance, and a cross and medals on his breast, came up and handed him a note with an air of mystery.
"Here is a note from a certain person, your honour," he said to Nekhludoff as he gave him the envelope.
"You will know when you read it. A political prisoner. I am in that ward, so she asked me; and though it is against the rules, still feelings of humanity - " The jailer spoke in an unnatural manner.
Nekhludoff was surprised that a jailer of the ward where political prisoners were kept should pass notes inside the very prison walls, and almost within sight of every one; he did not then know that this was both a jailer and a spy. However, he took the note and read it on coming out of the prison.
The note was written in a bold hand, and ran as follows: Having heard that you visit the prison, and are interested in the case of a criminal prisoner, the desire of seeing you arose in me. Ask for a permission to see me. I can give you a good deal of information concerning your protegee, and also our group. - Yours gratefully, VERA DOUKHOVA."
Vera Doukhova had been a school-teacher in an out-of-the-way village of the Novgorod Government, where Nekhludoff and some friends of his had once put up while bear hunting. Nekhludoff gladly and vividly recalled those old days, and his acquaintance with Doukhova. It was just before Lent, in an isolated spot, 40 miles from the railway. The hunt had been successful; two bears had been killed; and the company were having dinner before starting on their return journey, when the master of the hut where they were putting up came in to say that the deacon's daughter wanted to speak to Prince Nekhludoff. "Is she pretty?" some one asked. "None of that, please," Nekhludoff said, and rose with a serious look on his face. Wiping his mouth, and wondering what the deacon's daughter might want of him, he went into the host's private hut.
There he found a girl with a felt hat and a warm cloak on - a sinewy, ugly girl; only her eyes with their arched brows were beautiful.
"Here, miss, speak to him," said the old housewife; "this is the prince himself. I shall go out meanwhile."
"In what way can I be of service to you?" Nekhludoff asked.
"I - I - I see you are throwing away your money on such nonsense - on hunting," began the girl, in great confusion. "I know - I only want one thing - to be of use to the people, and I can do nothing because I know nothing - " Her eyes were so truthful, so kind, and her expression of resoluteness and yet bashfulness was so touching, that Nekhludoff, as it often happened to him, suddenly felt as if he were in her position, understood, and sympathised.
"What can I do, then?"
"I am a teacher, but should like to follow a course of study; and I am not allowed to do so. That is, not that I am not allowed to; they'd allow me to, but I have not got the means. Give them to me, and when I have finished the course I shall repay you. I am thinking the rich kill bears and give the peasants drink; all this is bad. Why should they not do good? I only want 80 roubles. But if you don't wish to, never mind," she added, gravely.
"On the contrary, I am very grateful to you for this opportunity. . . I will bring it at once," said Nekhludoff.
He went out into the passage, and there met one of his comrades, who had been overhearing his conversation. Paying no heed to his chaffing, Nekhludoff got the money out of his bag and took it to her.
"Oh, please, do not thank me; it is I who should thank you," he said.
It was pleasant to remember all this now; pleasant to remember that he had nearly had a quarrel with an officer who tried to make an objectionable joke of it, and how another of his comrades had taken his part, which led to a closer friendship between them. How successful the whole of that hunting expedition had been, and how happy he had felt when returning to the railway station that night. The line of sledges, the horses in tandem, glide quickly along the narrow road that lies through the forest, now between high trees, now between low firs weighed down by the snow, caked in heavy lumps on their branches. A red light flashes in the dark, some one lights an aromatic cigarette. Joseph, a bear driver, keeps running from sledge to sledge, up to his knees in snow, and while putting things to rights he speaks about the elk which are now going about on the deep snow and gnawing the bark off the aspen trees, of the bears that are lying asleep in their deep hidden dens, and his breath comes warm through the opening in the sledge cover. All this came back to Nekhludoff's mind; but, above all, the joyous sense of health, strength, and freedom from care: the lungs breathing in the frosty air so deeply that the fur cloak is drawn tightly on his chest, the fine snow drops off the low branches on to his face, his body is warm, his face feels fresh, and his soul is free from care, self-reproach, fear, or desire. How beautiful it was. And now, O God! what torment, what trouble!
Evidently Vera Doukhova was a revolutionist and imprisoned as such. He must see her, especially as she promised to advise him how to lighten Maslova's lot.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER L. THE VICE-GOVERNOR OF THE PRISON.