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The malefactor in action

Seasonal Quip



  The Malefactor




 A tiny, very thin little peasant stood before the examining magistrate. He wore a striped shirt and patched trousers; his shaggy beard, his pockmarked face, his eyes scarcely visible under their bushy, overhanging brows gave him a harsh and forbidding expression, to which a mane of matted, unkempt hair added a spider-like ferocity. He was barefoot.
  "Denis Grigorieff," began the magistrate, "come nearer and answer my questions. While patrolling the track on the seventh of last July, Ivan Akinfoff, the railroad watchman, found you at the one hundred and forty-first verst (1.1 km or 0.7 Mi) unscrewing one of the nuts that fasten the rails to the ties. Here is the nut you had when he arrested you. Is this true?"
  "What's that?"
  "Did everything happen as Akinfoff reports?"
  "Yes; just as he reports."
  "Very well. Now, what was your object in unscrewing that nut?"
  "What's that?"
  "Stop your "What's that?" and answer my question; why did you unscrew that nut?"
  "If I hadn't needed the nut I wouldn't have unscrewed it," grunted Denis, glancing at the ceiling.
  "What did you need it for?"
  "What for? We make sinkers out of nuts."
  "Whom do you mean by "we"?"
  "We - the people, the peasants of Klimoff."
  "Look here, man, no playing the idiot! Talk sense, and don't lie to me about sinkers!"
  "I never lied in my life," muttered Denis, blinking.
  "How can one possibly fish without sinkers, your honor? If you baited your hook with a shiner or a roach, do you think it would sink to the bottom without a sinker? You tell me I am lying!" laughed Denis.
  "A fine bait a shiner would make, floating on the top of the water! Bass and pike and eels always take ground bait; a floating bait would only be taken by a garfish, and they won't often take it. Anyway, we haven't any garfish in our river; they like the open."
  "Why are you talking to me about garfish?"
  "What's that? Didn't you ask me about fishing? All the gentlemen with us fish like that. The smallest boy knows more than to fish without a sinker. Of course, there are some people who don't know anything, and they go fishing without sinkers. Fools obey no laws."
  "So you tell me you unscrewed this nut to use as a weight?"
  "What else should I have unscrewed it for? To play knuckle-bones with?"
  "But you might have made a weight out of a piece of lead or a bullet or a nail or something."
  "Lead does not grow on every bush; it has to be bought; and a nail wouldn't do. There is nothing so good to make a weight of as a nut. It is heavy and has a hole in it." .
  "What a fool he is pretending to be! You act as if you were one day old or had just dropped from the clouds. Don't you see, you donkey, what the consequences of this unscrewing must be? If the watchman hadn't found you, one of the trains might have run off the track and killed everybody, and you would have killed them!"
  "God forbid, your honor! Do you think we are wicked heathen? Praise be to God, kind master, not only have we never killed anybody, we have never even thought of it! Holy Mother preserve us and have mercy upon us! How can you say such things?"
Denis smirked and winked incredulously at the magistrate.
  "Huh! For how many years has the whole village been unscrewing nuts, and not an accident yet? If I were to carry a rail away, or even to put a log across the track, then, perhaps, the train might upset, but, Lord! a nut, pooh!"
  "But can't you understand that the nuts fasten the rails to the ties?"
  "Yes, we understand that, and so we don't unscrew them all; we always leave some; we do it carefully; we understand."
Denis yawned and made the sign of the cross over his mouth .
  "A train ran; off the track not far from here last year," said the magistrate. "Now I know why."
  "What did you say?"
  "Now, I say, I know why that train ran off the track last year."
  "Yes; you have been educated to know these things, kind master; you can understand just why everything is; but that watchman is a peasant who doesn't know anything; he just grabbed me by the coat collar and dragged me away. One ought to judge first and drag afterward. But a peasant has the sense of a peasant. You might write down, your honor, that he hit me twice - in the mouth and in the chest."
  "Another nut was found when your house was searched. Where did you unscrew that one, and when?"
  "Do you mean the nut that was lying under the little red chest?"
  "I haven't any idea where it was lying, but it was found. Where did you unscrew it?"
  "I didn't unscrew it; it was given to me by Ignashka, the son of one-eyed Simon. That is, I am speaking of the nut under the little chest; the one in the sleigh in the courtyard, Mitrofan and I unscrewed together."
  "Which Mitrofan?"
  "Mitrofan Petroff. Haven't you heard of him? He's the man that makes fishing-nets and sells them to the gentlemen. He needs a lot of nuts in his business - a dozen to every net."
  "Listen! In Article 108 I of the Code it says that "Whoever intentionally commits an act of injury to a railroad, whereby an accident might result to the trains, and who knows that such an accident might result" - do you hear that? "who knows" - "shall be severely punished." You could not but have known what this unscrewing would lead to. The sentence is exile and hard labor."
  "Of course, you know that better than I do. We people live in darkness. How can we know such things?"
  "You know all about it perfectly well. You are lying and shamming ignorance."
  "Why should I lie? Ask anybody in the village if you don't believe me. They never catch a thing but roach without a sinker; even gudgeons hardly ever bite unless you use one."
  "Now you are going to begin on those garfish again!" smiled the magistrate.
  "We don't have garfish in our river. If we let the bait float on the top without a sinker we sometimes catch a perch, but not often."
  "Oh, stop talking!"
Silence fell. Denis stood first on one leg and then on the other and stared at the table, winking rapidly as if he saw the sun before his eyes and not a green table cover. The magistrate was writing quickly.
  "I shall have to arrest you and send you to prison."
Denis stopped winking, raised his heavy eyebrows, and looked inquiringly at the magistrate.
  "How do you mean - to prison? Your honor, I haven't time! I have to go to the fair to collect the three rubles that Gregory owes me for tallow."
  "Stop talking! Don't interrupt!"
  "To prison! If there was any reason, of course I'd go, but, living as I do - what is it for? I haven't robbed anyone; I haven't even been fighting. If it's the payment of my rent you are thinking about, you mustn't believe what the bailiff says, your honour. Ask anyone of the gentlemen; that bailiff is a thief, sir!"
  "Stop talking!"
  "I'll stop," mumbled Denis. "All the same, I'll swear under oath that the bailiff has muddled his books. There are three brothers in our family - Kuzma and Gregory and I - "
  "You are interrupting me. Here, Simon!" called the magistrate, "take this man away."
  "There are three brothers in our family," murmured Denis as two strapping soldiers took hold of him and led him out of the room.
  "I can't be responsible for my brother. Kuzma won't pay his debts, and I, Denis, have to suffer! You call yourselves judges! If our old master, the general, were alive he would teach you judges your business. You ought to be reasonable, and not condemn so wildly. Flog a man if he deserves it - "


Footnote