The Kiss and Other Stories/On Trial

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ON TRIAL

IN the district capital N. stands a brown Government building, used in turn by the Zemstvo Executive, the Session of Justices, the Peasant, Licensing, Recruiting, and many other local authorities; and here, on a dull autumn day, were held the district assizes.

This was the brown building of which a local official joked: “It's the seat of justice, of the police, of the militia — in fact, quite an institute for young gentlewomen.”

In confirmation of the proverb that too many cooks spoil the broth, this brown building makes a bad impression on the unofficial man by its gloomy barrack-like view, its air of decay, and by the entire absence of even a pretence to comfort, without or within. Even on glaring spring days it is oppressed by deep shadows; and on bright moonlight nights, when trees and houses, blending in one thick shade, repose in deep gloom, it squats alone like a dumpy stone, crushing and out of place, on the modest landscape, spoils the harmony of its neighbours, and breathes an irritable restlessness, as if tortured by memories of past, unforgiven sins. Inside, it is a barn, painfully comfortless. It is strange indeed how these fastidious procurators, judges, marshals of the nobility who at home make scenes over a smoking chimney or a stain on the floor, are reconciled here with the humming ventilators, the sickening smell of wax matches, and the dirty, damp-spotted walls.

When at nine o'clock the court assembled trials began with unusual haste. Case after case ended quickly, “as a church service without hymns”; and no one reaped a single picturesque impression from the hurried, heterogeneous procession of men, movements, speeches, misfortunes, truths, falsehoods. By two o'clock much work had been done: two men condemned to punitive regiments, one criminal of the privileged classes deprived of his rights and sent to gaol, one prisoner acquitted, and one case postponed.

At two o'clock the President announced the trial of Nikolai Kharlamoff on the charge of murdering his wife. The court was constituted as during the earlier cases. The counsel for the accused was a new barrister — a young, beardless “Candidate” in a frock-coat with bright buttons.

“Bring in the accused!” cried the President.

But the accused was already on his way to the dock. He was a tall, sturdy peasant, aged fifty-five, bald, with an apathetic, hairy face, and a great carroty beard. Behind him marched a little insignificant soldier armed with a rifle.

Almost at the door of the dock an accident happened to this soldier. He slipped suddenly, and his rifle flew from his hand. Before it touched the floor he caught it, but knocked his knee sharply against the butt. Whether from pain or from confusion at his awkwardness, the soldier turned very red.

There was the usual questioning of the accused, assembling of jurymen, counting and swearing of witnesses. The indictment was read. A narrow-shouldered, pale secretary, much too thin for his uniform, with sticking-plaster on his cheek, read quickly in a low thick bass, which, as if fearing to injure his chest, he neither raised nor lowered; as accompaniment, the ventilators hummed tirelessly behind the judges' bench; and the general result was a chorus which broke on the silence of the room with drowsy, narcotic effect.

The presiding judge, a short-sighted, middle-aged man with a look of extreme fatigue, sat motionless, and held his hand to his forehead as if shading his eyes from the sun. While the ventilator hummed and the secretary droned, he was thinking of something not connected with work. When the secretary paused to take breath and turn over a page, he started suddenly, and, bending to the ear of his colleague, asked with a sigh —

"Are you staying at Demianoff's, Matvei Petrovitch?"

"Yes, Demianoff's," was the reply, also given with a start.

"Next time I will stay there too. Tipiakoff's is absolutely unendurable. Noise and uproar all night! Tapping, coughing, crying children. It's unbearable!"

The assistant procurator, a stout, sated brunet, with gold spectacles and a neatly trimmed beard, sat motionless as a statue, and, resting his face on his hand, read Byron's Cain. His eyes expressed greedy absorption, and his brows rose higher and higher. Sometimes he lay back in his chair and looked indifferently ahead, but soon again became absorbed in his book. The defending advocate drew a blunt pencil along the table, and, his head inclined aside, thought. His young face expressed only concentrated, cold tedium, such tedium as shows on the faces of schoolboys and clerks who sit day after day in the same places and see the same people and the same walls. The speech he was to make in no way troubled him. And, indeed, what was it? By command of his senior it would follow a long-established convention; and, conscious that it was colourless and tiresome, without passion or fire, he would blurt it out to the jurymen, then gallop away through rain and mud to the railway station, thence to town, where he would be sent somewhere else in the district to make another stupid speech. It was tiresome!

At first the prisoner coughed nervously and paled. But soon even he succumbed to the all-pervading calm, monotony, and tedium. Glancing with dull respect at the judges' uniforms and the jurymen's tired faces, he blinked his eyes indifferently. The legal atmosphere and procedure, fear of which had so tortured him in gaol, acted now as a sedative. Nothing fulfilled his expectations. He had come into court charged of murder; yet he found no threatening faces, no indignant gestures, no loud phrases about justice, no interest in his uncommon lot; not even his judges turned on him a long and searching glance. The dark windows, the walls, the secretary's voice, the procurator's pose—all were soaked with official indifference and exhaled a chill. It seemed as if a murderer were a simple office accessory, as if he were to be judged not by living men, but by some invisible machine, brought God knows whence.

The narcotised peasant did not understand that his judges were as used to the dramas and tragedies of life as hospital doctors are to death, and that it was just in this mechanical impartiality that lay the terror, the hopelessness of his case. For if, instead of sitting still, he had risen and begun to implore, to shed tears for mercy, to repent bitterly, to die of despair — all would have fallen as vainly upon numbed nerves and custom as waves upon a rock.

The indictment was finished. The President aimlessly stroked the table before him, blinked his eyes at the prisoner, and asked, idly rolling his tongue —

"Prisoner at the bar, do you confess to the murder of your wife on the evening of the 9th of July?"

"I am not guilty," answered the accused man, rising, and holding the breast of his khalat.

The Court hurriedly set about the examination of witnesses, and soon had questioned two peasant women, five men, and the detective charged with the investigation of the crime. All of these, splashed with mud, fatigued with walking and waiting in the witnesses' room, melancholy and morose, told the same tale. Kharlamoff, they agreed, lived with his wife "well," and beat her only when he was drunk. At sunset on the 9th of July the old woman was found in the shed attached to her cabin with her skull beaten in. Beside her in a pool of blood lay a hatchet. When they looked for Kharlamoff to tell him of the tragedy he was neither in the hut nor in the street. They looked for him about the village, searched the drink-shops and huts, but he had vanished. Two days later he appeared at the office, pale, tattered, trembling all over. He was handcuffed and locked up.

"Prisoner!" The President turned to Kharlamoff. "Can you not explain to the court where you spent the two days after the murder?"

"I tramped the country. . . . I had nothing to eat or drink. . . ."

"But if you were innocent why did you hide yourself?"

"I was afraid. . . . I thought I might be accused."

"I see. . . . Very good. Sit down!"

The district physician who examined the woman's body was the last witness. He told the court all that he remembered out of the post-mortem protocol; and added what he had reasoned out on the way to the trial. The President blinked at the witness's new, shiny black coat, his fashionable necktie, his moving lips; and through his head ran the idle thought, "Every one wears short coats nowadays? Why is his cut long? Why long, and not short?"

Behind the President, boots creaked cautiously. The assistant procurator had come to the table to fetch a paper.

"Mikhail Vladimirovitch!" The assistant procurator bent down to the President's ear. "This Koreisky has investigated the case with incredible carelessness. The man's brother was not even questioned; and you can't make head or tail of the description of the hut. . . ."

"What can you do? . . . What can you do?" sighed the President, leaning back in his chair.

"By the by," resumed the assistant procurator; "look, there in the hall, the first bench . . . the man with the actor's face. That is the local money magnate. He has about half a million in ready cash."

"Indeed! He doesn't look it. . . . Well, old man, shall we have an interval?"

"Let's finish the case, and then. . . ."

"How do you know? . . ." The President turned to the doctor. "So you find that death was immediate?"

"Yes, as the result of serious injury to the substance of the brain. . . ."

When the doctor finished, the President looked at the blank space between procurator and defending counsel and asked: "Have you any questions to put?"

The assistant procurator without lifting his eyes from Cain shook his head. The defending counsel moved brusquely, coughed, and asked —

"Tell me, doctor, judging by the size of the wound, could you form any judgment as to . . . as to the murderer's mental condition? That is, I want to know if the size of the wound justifies our concluding that the accused was in an epileptic fit."

The President turned his sleepy, indifferent glance on the defending counsel. The procurator raised his eyes from Cain and looked at the President. But it was a mere look, expressing neither amusement nor surprise, expressing, in fact, nothing at all.

The doctor hesitated. "If you consider the force with which the accused delivered the blow. . . . Otherwise . . . But excuse me, I do not quite understand your point."

The defending lawyer got no answer to his question, and, indeed, needed none. He knew that it had arisen in his mind, and flowed from his lips, merely under the spell of the tedium, the stillness, the humming ventilators. Releasing the doctor, the court examined the articles produced as evidence. First they looked at a caftan, on the sleeve of which was a dark brown spot of blood. The origin of this spot was explained by Kharlamoff as follows —

"Three days before my wife's death Penkoff bled his horse. I was there, and, of course, helped him . . . and I got smeared with blood. . . ."

"But Penkoff has just sworn that he does not remember you being present when the horse was bled."

"I do not know. . . ."

"Sit down."

The court examined the hatchet found beside the dead woman.

"That is not my hatchet," said the accused.

"Whose, then?"

"I do not know . . . I had no hatchet."

"No peasant can carry on his business without a hatchet. Your neighbour, Ivan Timofeitch, who mended the sledge with you, swears that the hatchet is yours. . . ."

"I know nothing . . . only this, that I swear before God" — Kharlamoff extended his hand and opened wide his fingers — "I swear before my true Creator . . . I cannot even remember when I last had a hatchet. I once had one like that, only a little smaller, but my son Proshka lost it. About two years before he was taken as a soldier he went to cut wood — he went playing with the children, and lost it. . . ."

"That will do. Sit down!"

The persistent distrust and unwillingness of all to listen at last irritated and enraged Kharlamoff. He blinked his eyes furiously, and on his cheek-bones appeared two bright red spots.

"Before the eyes of God!" he exclaimed, stretching out his hand. "If you do not believe me, then ask my son Proshka!" He spoke in a rough voice, and turned suddenly to the little soldier who guarded him. "Proshka, where is the hatchet? Where is the hatchet?"

It was a terrible moment. All in court, it seemed, sank into their seats and dwindled to points. . . . Through every head like lightning flashed one and the same terrible thought, and not one out of all of them dared to look at the soldier's face. Each did his best to discredit his own ears, to cherish the delusion that he had not heard aright.

"Prisoner, you are not allowed to speak to the guard!" said the President hastily.

No one saw the soldier's face, and terror flew through the court unseen. The usher rose from his bench, and on tiptoes, swinging his arms, went out of the hall. In half a minute came the sound of dull footfalls and such noises as are heard when sentries are relieved.

All raised their heads and, trying to look as if nothing uncommon had happened, continued their work. . .