A.P. Chekhov - In the Court
AT the district town of N. in the cinnamon-coloured government
house in which the Zemstvo, the sessional meetings of the
justices of the peace, the Rural Board, the Liquor Board, the
Military Board, and many others sit by turns, the Circuit Court
was in session on one of the dull days of autumn. Of the
above-mentioned cinnamon-coloured house a local official had
"Here is Justitia, here is Policia, here is Militia -- a regular
boarding school of high-born young ladies."
But, as the saying is, "Too many cooks spoil the broth," and
probably that is why the house strikes, oppresses, and
overwhelms a fresh unofficial visitor with its dismal
barrack-like appearance, its decrepit condition, and the
complete absence of any kind of comfort, external or internal.
Even on the brightest spring days it seems wrapped in a dense
shade, and on clear moonlight nights, when the trees and the
little dwelling-houses merged in one blur of shadow seem plunged
in quiet slumber, it alone absurdly and inappropriately towers,
an oppressive mass of stone, above the modest landscape, spoils
the general harmony, and keeps sleepless vigil as though it
could not escape from burdensome memories of past unforgiven
sins. Inside it is like a barn and extremely unattractive. It is
strange to see how readily these elegant lawyers, members of
committees, and marshals of nobility, who in their own homes
will make a scene over the slightest fume from the stove, or
stain on the floor, resign themselves here to whirring
ventilation wheels, the disgusting smell of fumigating candles,
and the filthy, forever perspiring walls.
The sitting of the circuit court began between nine and ten. The
programme of the day was promptly entered upon, with noticeable
haste. The cases came on one after another and ended quickly,
like a church service without a choir, so that no mind could
form a complete picture of all this parti-coloured mass of
faces, movements, words, misfortunes, true sayings and lies, all
racing by like a river in flood. . . . By two o'clock a great
deal had been done: two prisoners had been sentenced to service
in convict battalions, one of the privileged class had been
sentenced to deprivation of rights and imprisonment, one had
been acquitted, one case had been adjourned.
At precisely two o'clock the presiding judge announced that the
case "of the peasant Nikolay Harlamov, charged with the murder
of his wife," would next be heard. The composition of the court
remained the same as it had been for the preceding case, except
that the place of the defending counsel was filled by a new
personage, a beardless young graduate in a coat with bright
buttons. The president gave the order -- "Bring in the
But the prisoner, who had been got ready beforehand, was already
walking to his bench. He was a tall, thick-set peasant of about
fifty-five, completely bald, with an apathetic, hairy face and a
big red beard. He was followed by a frail-looking little soldier
with a gun.
Just as he was reaching the bench the escort had a trifling
mishap. He stumbled and dropped the gun out of his hands, but
caught it at once before it touched the ground, knocking his
knee violently against the butt end as he did so. A faint laugh
was audible in the audience. Either from the pain or perhaps
from shame at his awkwardness the soldier flushed a dark red.
After the customary questions to the prisoner, the shuffling of
the jury, the calling over and swearing in of the witnesses, the
reading of the charge began. The narrow-chested, pale-faced
secretary, far too thin for his uniform, and with sticking
plaster on his check, read it in a low, thick bass, rapidly like
a sacristan, without raising or dropping his voice, as though
afraid of exerting his lungs; he was seconded by the ventilation
wheel whirring indefatigably behind the judge's table, and the
result was a sound that gave a drowsy, narcotic character to the
stillness of the hall.
The president, a short-sighted man, not old but with an
extremely exhausted face, sat in his armchair without stirring
and held his open hand near his brow as though screening his
eyes from the sun. To the droning of the ventilation wheel and
the secretary he meditated. When the secretary paused for an
instant to take breath on beginning a new page, he suddenly
started and looked round at the court with lustreless eyes, then
bent down to the ear of the judge next to him and asked with a
"Are you putting up at Demyanov's, Matvey Petrovitch?"
"Yes, at Demyanov's," answered the other, starting too.
"Next time I shall probably put up there too. It's really
impossible to put up at Tipyakov's! There's noise and uproar all
night! Knocking, coughing, children crying. . . . It's
The assistant prosecutor, a fat, well-nourished, dark man with
gold spectacles, with a handsome, well-groomed beard, sat
motionless as a statue, with his cheek propped on his fist,
reading Byron's "Cain." His eyes were full of eager attention
and his eyebrows rose higher and higher with wonder. . . . From
time to time he dropped back in his chair, gazed without
interest straight before him for a minute, and then buried
himself in his reading again. The council for the defence moved
the blunt end of his pencil about the table and mused with his
head on one side. . . . His youthful face expressed nothing but
the frigid, immovable boredom which is commonly seen on the face
of schoolboys and men on duty who are forced from day to day to
sit in the same place, to see the same faces, the same walls. He
felt no excitement about the speech he was to make, and indeed
what did that speech amount to? On instructions from his
superiors in accordance with long-established routine he would
fire it off before the jurymen, without passion or ardour,
feeling that it was colourless and boring, and then -- gallop
through the mud and the rain to the station, thence to the town,
shortly to receive instructions to go off again to some district
to deliver another speech. . . . It was a bore!
At first the prisoner turned pale and coughed nervously into his
sleeve, but soon the stillness, the general monotony and boredom
infected him too. He looked with dull-witted respectfulness at
the judges' uniforms, at the weary faces of the jurymen, and
blinked calmly. The surroundings and procedure of the court, the
expectation of which had so weighed on his soul while he was
awaiting them in prison, now had the most soothing effect on
him. What he met here was not at all what he could have
expected. The charge of murder hung over him, and yet here he
met with neither threatening faces nor indignant looks nor loud
phrases about retribution nor sympathy for his extraordinary
fate; not one of those who were judging him looked at him with
interest or for long. . . . The dingy windows and walls, the
voice of the secretary, the attitude of the prosecutor were all
saturated with official indifference and produced an atmosphere
of frigidity, as though the murderer were simply an official
property, or as though he were not being judged by living men,
but by some unseen machine, set going, goodness knows how or by
whom. . . .
The peasant, reassured, did not understand that the men here
were as accustomed to the dramas and tragedies of life and were
as blunted by the sight of them as hospital attendants are at
the sight of death, and that the whole horror and hopelessness
of his position lay just in this mechanical indifference. It
seemed that if he were not to sit quietly but to get up and
begin beseeching, appealing with tears for their mercy, bitterly
repenting, that if he were to die of despair -- it would all be
shattered against blunted nerves and the callousness of custom,
like waves against a rock.
When the secretary finished, the president for some reason
passed his hands over the table before him, looked for some time
with his eyes screwed up towards the prisoner, and then asked,
"Prisoner at the bar, do you plead guilty to having murdered
your wife on the evening of the ninth of June?"
"No, sir," answered the prisoner, getting up and holding his
gown over his chest.
After this the court proceeded hurriedly to the examination of
witnesses. Two peasant women and five men and the village
policeman who had made the enquiry were questioned. All of them,
mud-bespattered, exhausted with their long walk and waiting in
the witnesses' room, gloomy and dispirited, gave the same
evidence. They testified that Harlamov lived "well" with his old
woman, like anyone else; that he never beat her except when he
had had a drop; that on the ninth of June when the sun was
setting the old woman had been found in the porch with her skull
broken; that beside her in a pool of blood lay an axe. When they
looked for Nikolay to tell him of the calamity he was not in his
hut or in the streets. They ran all over the village, looking
for him. They went to all the pothouses and huts, but could not
find him. He had disappeared, and two days later came of his own
accord to the police office, pale, with his clothes torn,
trembling all over. He was bound and put in the lock-up.
"Prisoner," said the president, addressing Harlamov, "cannot you
explain to the court where you were during the three days
following the murder?"
"I was wandering about the fields. . . . Neither eating nor
drinking. . . ."
"Why did you hide yourself, if it was not you that committed the
"I was frightened. . . . I was afraid I might be judged guilty.
. . ."
"Aha! . . . Good, sit down!"
The last to be examined was the district doctor who had made a
post-mortem on the old woman. He told the court all that he
remembered of his report at the post-mortem and all that he had
succeeded in thinking of on his way to the court that morning.
The president screwed up his eyes at his new glossy black suit,
at his foppish cravat, at his moving lips; he listened and in
his mind the languid thought seemed to spring up of itself:
"Everyone wears a short jacket nowadays, why has he had his made
long? Why long and not short?"
The circumspect creak of boots was audible behind the
president's back. It was the assistant prosecutor going up to
the table to take some papers.
"Mihail Vladimirovitch," said the assistant prosecutor, bending
down to the president's ear, "amazingly slovenly the way that
Koreisky conducted the investigation. The prisoner's brother was
not examined, the village elder was not examined, there's no
making anything out of his description of the hut. . . ."
"It can't be helped, it can't be helped," said the president,
sinking back in his chair. "He's a wreck . . . dropping to
"By the way," whispered the assistant prosecutor, "look at the
audience, in the front row, the third from the right . . . a
face like an actor's . . . that's the local Croesus. He has a
fortune of something like fifty thousand."
"Really? You wouldn't guess it from his appearance. . . . Well,
dear boy, shouldn't we have a break?"
"We will finish the case for the prosecution, and then. . . ."
"As you think best. . . . Well?" the president raised his eyes
to the doctor. "So you consider that death was instantaneous?"
"Yes, in consequence of the extent of the injury to the brain
substance. . . ."
When the doctor had finished, the president gazed into the space
between the prosecutor and the counsel for the defence and
"Have you any questions to ask?"
The assistant prosecutor shook his head negatively, without
lifting his eyes from "Cain"; the counsel for the defence
unexpectedly stirred and, clearing his throat, asked:
"Tell me, doctor, can you from the dimensions of the wound form
any theory as to . . . as to the mental condition of the
criminal? That is, I mean, does the extent of the injury justify
the supposition that the accused was suffering from temporary
The president raised his drowsy indifferent eyes to the counsel
for the defence. The assistant prosecutor tore himself from
"Cain," and looked at the president. They merely looked, but
there was no smile, no surprise, no perplexity-their faces
"Perhaps," the doctor hesitated, "if one considers the force
with which . . . er--er--er . . . the criminal strikes the blow.
. . . However, excuse me, I don't quite understand your
question. . . ."
The counsel for the defence did not get an answer to his
question, and indeed he did not feel the necessity of one. It
was clear even to himself that that question had strayed into
his mind and found utterance simply through the effect of the
stillness, the boredom, the whirring ventilator wheels.
When they had got rid of the doctor the court rose to examine
the "material evidences." The first thing examined was the
full-skirted coat, upon the sleeve of which there was a dark
brownish stain of blood. Harlamov on being questioned as to the
origin of the stain stated:
"Three days before my old woman's death Penkov bled his horse. I
was there; I was helping to be sure, and . . . and got smeared
with it. . . ."
"But Penkov has just given evidence that he does not remember
that you were present at the bleeding. . . ."
"I can't tell about that."
They proceeded to examine the axe with which the old woman had
"That's not my axe," the prisoner declared.
"Whose is it, then?"
"I can't tell . . . I hadn't an axe. . . ."
"A peasant can't get on for a day without an axe. And your
neighbour Ivan Timofeyitch, with whom you mended a sledge, has
given evidence that it is your axe. . . ."
"I can't say about that, but I swear before God (Harlamov held
out his hand before him and spread out the fingers), before the
living God. And I don't remember how long it is since I did have
an axe of my own. I did have one like that only a bit smaller,
but my son Prohor lost it. Two years before he went into the
army, he drove off to fetch wood, got drinking with the fellows,
and lost it. . . ."
"Good, sit down."
This systematic distrust and disinclination to hear him probably
irritated and offended Harlamov. He blinked and red patches came
out on his cheekbones.
"I swear in the sight of God," he went on, craning his neck
forward. "If you don't believe me, be pleased to ask my son
Prohor. Proshka, what did you do with the axe?" he suddenly
asked in a rough voice, turning abruptly to the soldier
escorting him. "Where is it?"
It was a painful moment! Everyone seemed to wince and as it were
shrink together. The same fearful, incredible thought flashed
like lightning through every head in the court, the thought of
possibly fatal coincidence, and not one person in the court
dared to look at the soldier's face. Everyone refused to trust
his thought and believed that he had heard wrong.
"Prisoner, conversation with the guards is forbidden . . ." the
president made haste to say.
No one saw the escort's face, and horror passed over the hall
unseen as in a mask. The usher of the court got up quietly from
his place and tiptoeing with his hand held out to balance
himself went out of the court. Half a minute later there came
the muffled sounds and footsteps that accompany the change of
All raised their heads and, trying to look as though nothing had
happened, went on with their work. . . .
Zemstvo: a district council with locally elected members
Byron's "Cain": dramatic poem (1821) by English poet George
Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
pothouses: low-class pubs
Croesus: a king of Lydia famous for his wealth