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CHAPTER LII. NO. 21.
"May I look in?" asked Nekhludoff.
"Oh, certainly," answered the assistant, smiling, and turned to the jailer with some question.
Nekhludoff looked into one of the little holes, and saw a tall young man pacing up and down the cell. When the man heard some one at the door he looked up with a frown, but continued walking up and down.
Nekhludoff looked into another hole. His eye met another large eye looking out of the hole at him, and he quickly stepped aside. In the third cell he saw a very small man asleep on the bed, covered, head and all, with his prison cloak. In the fourth a broad-faced man was sitting with his elbows on his knees and his head low down. At the sound of footsteps this man raised his head and looked up. His face, especially his large eyes, bore the expression of hopeless dejection. One could see that it did not even interest him to know who was looking into his cell. Whoever it might be, he evidently hoped for nothing good from him. Nekhludoff was seized with dread, and went to Menshoff's cell, No. 21, without stopping to look through any more holes. The jailer unlocked the door and opened it. A young man, with long neck, well-developed muscles, a small head, and kind, round eyes, stood by the bed, hastily putting on his cloak, and looking at the newcomers with a frightened face. Nekhludoff was specially struck by the kind, round eyes that were throwing frightened and inquiring glances in turns at him, at the jailer, and at the assistant, and back again.
"Here's a gentleman wants to inquire into your affair."
"Thank you kindly."
"Yes, I was told about you," Nekhludoff said, going through the cell up to the dirty grated window, "and I should like to hear all about it from yourself."
Menshoff also came up to the window, and at once started telling his story, at first looking shyly at the inspector's assistant, but growing gradually bolder. When the assistant left the cell and went into the corridor to give some order the man grew quite bold. The story was told with the accent and in the manner common to a most ordinary good peasant lad. To hear it told by a prisoner dressed in this degrading clothing, and inside a prison, seemed very strange to Nekhludoff. Nekhludoff listened, and at the same time kept looking around him - at the low bedstead with its straw mattress, the window and the dirty, damp wall, and the piteous face and form of this unfortunate, disfigured peasant in his prison cloak and shoes, and he felt sadder and sadder, and would have liked not to believe what this good-natured fellow was saying. It seemed too dreadful to think that men could do such a thing as to take a man, dress him in convict clothes, and put him in this horrible place without any reason only because he himself had been injured. And yet the thought that this seemingly true story, told with such a good-natured expression on the face, might be an invention and a lie was still more dreadful. This was the story: The village public-house keeper had enticed the young fellow's wife. He tried to get justice by all sorts of means. But everywhere the public-house keeper managed to bribe the officials, and was acquitted. Once, he took his wife back by force, but she ran away next day. Then he came to demand her back, but, though he saw her when he came in, the public-house keeper told him she was not there, and ordered him to go away. He would not go, so the public-house keeper and his servant beat him so that they drew blood. The next day a fire broke out in the public-house, and the young man and his mother were accused of having set the house on fire. He had not set it on fire, but was visiting a friend at the time.
"And it is true that you did not set it on fire?"
"It never entered my head to do it, sir. It must be my enemy that did it himself. They say he had only just insured it. Then they said it was mother and I that did it, and that we had threatened him. It is true I once did go for him, my heart couldn't stand it any longer."
"Can this be true?"
"God is my witness it is true. Oh, sir, be so good - " and Nekhludoff had some difficulty to prevent him from bowing down to the ground. "You see I am perishing without any reason." His face quivered and he turned up the sleeve of his cloak and began to cry, wiping the tears with the sleeve of his dirty shirt.
"Are you ready?" asked the assistant.
"Yes. Well, cheer up. We will consult a good lawyer, and will do what we can," said Nekhludoff, and went out. Menshoff stood close to the door, so that the jailer knocked him in shutting it, and while the jailer was locking it he remained looking out through the little hole.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER LIII. VICTIMS OF GOVERNMENT.