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CHAPTER LIII. VICTIMS OF GOVERNMENT.
Passing back along the broad corridor (it was dinner time, and the cell doors were open), among the men dressed in their light yellow cloaks, short, wide trousers, and prison shoes, who were looking eagerly at him, Nekhludoff felt a strange mixture of sympathy for them, and horror and perplexity at the conduct of those who put and kept them here, and, besides, he felt, he knew not why, ashamed of himself calmly examining it all.
In one of the corridors, some one ran, clattering with his shoes, in at the door of a cell. Several men came out from here, and stood in Nekhludoff's way, bowing to him.
"Please, your honour (we don't know what to call you), get our affair settled somehow."
"I am not an official. I know nothing about it."
"Well, anyhow, you come from outside; tell somebody - one of the authorities, if need be," said an indignant voice. "Show some pity on us, as a human being. Here we are suffering the second month for nothing."
"What do you mean? Why?" said Nekhludoff.
"Why? We ourselves don't know why, but are sitting here the second month."
"Yes, it's quite true, and it is owing to an accident," said the inspector. "These people were taken up because they had no passports, and ought to have been sent back to their native government; but the prison there is burnt, and the local authorities have written, asking us not to send them on. So we have sent all the other passportless people to their different governments, but are keeping these."
"What! For no other reason than that?" Nekhludoff exclaimed, stopping at the door.
A crowd of about forty men, all dressed in prison clothes, surrounded him and the assistant, and several began talking at once. The assistant stopped them.
"Let some one of you speak."
A tall, good-looking peasant, a stone-mason, of about fifty, stepped out from the rest. He told Nekhludoff that all of them had been ordered back to their homes and were now being kept in prison because they had no passports, yet they had passports which were only a fortnight overdue. The same thing had happened every year; they had many times omitted to renew their passports till they were overdue, and nobody had ever said anything; but this year they had been taken up and were being kept in prison the second month, as if they were criminals.
"We are all masons, and belong to the same artel. We are told that the prison in our government is burnt, but this is not our fault. Do help us."
Nekhludoff listened, but hardly understood what the good-looking old man was saying, because his attention was riveted to a large, dark-grey, many-legged louse that was creeping along the good-looking man's cheek.
"How's that? Is it possible for such a reason?" Nekhludoff said, turning to the assistant.
"Yes, they should have been sent off and taken back to their homes," calmly said the assistant, "but they seem to have been forgotten or something."
Before the assistant had finished, a small, nervous man, also in prison dress, came out of the crowd, and, strangely contorting his mouth, began to say that they were being ill-used for nothing.
"Worse than dogs," he began.
"Now, now; not too much of this. Hold your tongue, or you know - "
"What do I know?" screamed the little man, desperately. "What is our crime?"
"Silence!" shouted the assistant, and the little man was silent.
"But what is the meaning of all this?" Nekhludoff thought to himself as he came out of the cell, while a hundred eyes were fixed upon him through the openings of the cell doors and from the prisoners that met him, making him feel as if he were running the gauntlet.
"Is it really possible that perfectly innocent people are kept here?" Nekhludoff uttered when they left the corridor.
"What would you have us do? They lie so. To hear them talk they are all of them innocent," said the inspector's assistant. "But it does happen that some are really imprisoned for nothing."
"Well, these have done nothing."
"Yes, we must admit it. Still, the people are fearfully spoilt. There are such types - desperate fellows, with whom one has to look sharp. To-day two of that sort had to be punished."
"Flogged with a birch-rod, by order."
"But corporal punishment is abolished."
"Not for such as are deprived of their rights. They are still liable to it."
Nekhludoff thought of what he had seen the day before while waiting in the hall, and now understood that the punishment was then being inflicted, and the mixed feeling of curiosity, depression, perplexity, and moral nausea, that grew into physical sickness, took hold of him more strongly than ever before.
Without listening to the inspector's assistant, or looking round, he hurriedly left the corridor, and went to the office. The inspector was in the office, occupied with other business, and had forgotten to send for Doukhova. He only remembered his promise to have her called when Nekhludoff entered the office.
"Sit down, please. I'll send for her at once," said the inspector.
Turn to the next chapter: CHAPTER LIV. PRISONERS AND FRIENDS.