BY ANTON CHEKHOV
An exceedingly lean little peasant, in a striped
hempen shirt and patched drawers, stands facing
the investigating magistrate. His face overgrown
with hair and pitted with smallpox, and his eyes
scarcely visible under thick, overhanging eyebrows
have an expression of sullen moroseness. On his
head there is a perfect mop of tangled, unkempt
hair, which gives him an even more spider-like
air of moroseness. He is barefooted.
"Denis Grigoryev!" the magistrate begins. "Come
nearer, and answer my questions. On the seventh
of this July the railway watchman, Ivan Semyonovitch
Akinfov, going along the line in the morning,
found you at the hundred-and-forty-first mile
engaged in unscrewing a nut by which the rails
are made fast to the sleepers. Here it is, the
nut! . . . With the aforesaid nut he detained you.
Was that so?"
"Was this all as Akinfov states?"
"To be sure, it was."
"Very good; well, what were you unscrewing the
"Drop that 'wha-at' and answer the question;
what were you unscrewing the nut for?"
"If I hadn't wanted it I shouldn't have unscrewed
it," croaks Denis, looking at the ceiling.
"What did you want that nut for?"
"The nut? We make weights out of those nuts for
"Who is 'we'?"
"We, people. . . . The Klimovo peasants, that is."
"Listen, my man; don't play the idiot to me, but
speak sensibly. It's no use telling lies here
"I've never been a liar from a child, and now
I'm telling lies. . ." mutters Denis, blinking.
"But can you do without a weight, your honour?
If you put live bait or maggots on a hook, would
it go to the bottom without a weight? . . . I am
telling lies," grins Denis. . . . "What the devil
is the use of the worm if it swims on the surface!
The perch and the pike and the eel-pout always
go to the bottom, and a bait on the surface
is only taken by a shillisper, not very often
then, and there are no shillispers in our
river. . . . That fish likes plenty of room."
"Why are you telling me about shillispers?"
"Wha-at? Why, you asked me yourself! The gentry
catch fish that way too in our parts. The silliest
little boy would not try to catch a fish without
a weight. Of course anyone who did not understand
might go to fish without a weight. There is no
rule for a fool."
"So you say you unscrewed this nut to make a
weight for your fishing line out of it?"
"What else for? It wasn't to play knuckle-bones
"But you might have taken lead, a bullet. . . a
nail of some sort. . . ."
"You don't pick up lead in the road, you have
to buy it, and a nail's no good. You can't find
anything better than a nut. . . . It's heavy, and
there's a hole in it."
"He keeps pretending to be a fool! as though
he'd been born yesterday or dropped from heaven!
Don't you understand, you blockhead, what
unscrewing these nuts leads to? If the watchman
had not noticed it the train might have run off
the rails, people would have been killed--you
would have killed people."
"God forbid, your honour! What should I kill
them for? Are we heathens or wicked people?
Thank God, good gentlemen, we have lived all
our lives without ever dreaming of such a
thing. . . . Save, and have mercy on us, Queen
of Heaven! . . . What are you saying?"
"And what do you suppose railway accidents
do come from? Unscrew two or three nuts and
you have an accident."
Denis grins, and screws up his eye at the
"Why! how many years have we all in the village
been unscrewing nuts, and the Lord has been
merciful; and you talk of accidents, killing
people. If I had carried away a rail or put
a log across the line, say, then maybe it might
have upset the train, but. . . pouf! a nut!"
"But you must understand that the nut holds
the rail fast to the sleepers!"
"We understand that. . . . We don't unscrew them
all. . . we leave some. . . . We don't do it
thoughtlessly. . . we understand. . . ."
Denis yawns and makes the sign of the cross
over his mouth.
"Last year the train went off the rails here,"
says the magistrate. "Now I see why!"
"What do you say, your honour?"
"I am telling you that now I see why the train
went off the rails last year. . . . I understand!"
"That's what you are educated people for, to
understand, you kind gentlemen. The Lord knows
to whom to give understanding. . . . Here you have
reasoned how and what, but the watchman, a peasant
like ourselves, with no understanding at all,
catches one by the collar and hauls one along. . . .
You should reason first and then haul me off.
It's a saying that a peasant has a peasant's
wit. . . . Write down, too, your honour, that he
hit me twice--in the jaw and in the chest."
"When your hut was searched they found another
nut. . . . At what spot did you unscrew that, and
"You mean the nut which lay under the red box?"
"I don't know where it was lying, only it was
found. When did you unscrew it?"
"I didn't unscrew it; Ignashka, the son of
one-eyed Semyon, gave it me. I mean the one
which was under the box, but the one which
was in the sledge in the yard Mitrofan and
I unscrewed together."
"Mitrofan Petrov. . . . Haven't you heard of him?
He makes nets in our village and sells them to
the gentry. He needs a lot of those nuts. Reckon
a matter of ten for each net."
"Listen. Article 1081 of the Penal Code lays
down that every wilful damage of the railway
line committed when it can expose the traffic on
that line to danger, and the guilty party knows
that an accident must be caused by it. . . (Do
you understand? Knows! And you could not help
knowing what this unscrewing would lead to . . .)
is liable to penal servitude."
"Of course, you know best. . . . We are ignorant
people. . . . What do we understand?"
"You understand all about it! You are lying,
"What should I lie for? Ask in the village if
you don't believe me. Only a bleak is caught
without a weight, and there is no fish worse
than a gudgeon, yet even that won't bite without
"You'd better tell me about the shillisper
next," said the magistrate, smiling.
"There are no shillispers in our parts. . . . We
cast our line without a weight on the top of
the water with a butterfly; a mullet may be
caught that way, though that is not often."
"Come, hold your tongue."
A silence follows. Denis shifts from one foot
to the other, looks at the table with the green
cloth on it, and blinks his eyes violently as
though what was before him was not the cloth
but the sun. The magistrate writes rapidly.
"Can I go?" asks Denis after a long silence.
"No. I must take you under guard and send you
Denis leaves off blinking and, raising his thick
eyebrows, looks inquiringly at the magistrate.
"How do you mean, to prison? Your honour! I have
no time to spare, I must go to the fair; I must
get three roubles from Yegor for some tallow! . . ."
"Hold your tongue; don't interrupt."
"To prison. . . . If there was something to go for,
I'd go; but just to go for nothing! What for? I
haven't stolen anything, I believe, and I've
not been fighting. . . . If you are in doubt about
the arrears, your honour, don't believe the
elder. . . . You ask the agent. . . he's a regular
heathen, the elder, you know."
"Hold your tongue."
"I am holding my tongue, as it is," mutters
Denis; "but that the elder has lied over the
account, I'll take my oath for it. . . . There
are three of us brothers: Kuzma Grigoryev,
then Yegor Grigoryev, and me, Denis Grigoryev."
"You are hindering me. . . . Hey, Semyon," cries
the magistrate, "take him away!"
"There are three of us brothers," mutters
Denis, as two stalwart soldiers take him and
lead him out of the room. "A brother is not
responsible for a brother. Kuzma does not
pay, so you, Denis, must answer for it. . . .
Judges indeed! Our master the general is
dead--the Kingdom of Heaven be his--or he
would have shown you judges. . . . You ought
to judge sensibly, not at random. . . . Flog
if you like, but flog someone who deserves
it, flog with conscience."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~