A.P. 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
"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 nut for?"
"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 our lines."
"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 about weights!"
"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 with!"
"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
"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 magistrate
"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
"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 when?"
"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
"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, shamming!"
"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 a
"You'd better tell me about the shillisper next," said the
"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 to prison."
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
"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."
knuckle-bones: a game where players throw sticks at a pattern
made of knuckle-bones
mouth: superstitous gesture to keep the devil from entering his
one-eyed Semyon: typical Russian peasant nickname
account: the list of those who did and did not pay taxes