From President to Prison/Chapter 28

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CHAPTER XXVIII
 

LOVE IN IRONS

 

EVERYWHERE that men and women meet, be it in great and throbbing cities, on the solitary islands of a distant sea or even in those prison wards where night and day the clang of chains is heard—everywhere the little god with bow and quiver silently and persistently stalks his human quarry. He looses his shafts, regardless of whether they are to be messengers of happiness and joy or are to carry torture and pain.

As he courses the open stretches of the great wide world of humanity, so he fights his way through the jungle of the prison, the prison where men and women, penned apart by thick walls and iron bars, grope out a life full of despair and longing, never meeting face to face and only at rare intervals exchanging some distant words. But the prison possesses great inventive faculties and consequently always assists the little god of love to make his targets sure and clear.

The gay little sportsman is not difficult to please. He has an eye for hearts only, and it is nothing to him if the owners happen not to be very good looking. He looses his arrow at his victim with unhesitating keenness, even though she may have a face besmeared with smallpox scars or freckles or set with eyes that are aslant and with a mouth of bad design.

One evening, as I was writing in my cell, I suddenly heard a noise in the yard, the evidently enthusiastic cries of the prisoners, women's voices and, later in the evening and during the whole night, whistlings and telegraphic signals running through the walls. It seemed as though the whole prison had lost its head. Raps on the walls came from everywhere in such a confusion that I could not distinguish and read the separate signals, and I finally went to sleep to the accompaniment of this continual whistling and knocking.

In the morning it all became clear to me. À large group of women had been brought in, all of them culprits condemned to long terms of imprisonment. They had been put on the ground floor directly under the cell of the Ivans, in which I had been wont to set up my moving university, as this was the most populated room in the building.

While I was watering some of the flowers in our garden, I watched a very unusual and impressive, though entirely unrehearsed, scene from life's ever-moving drama. Some of the women prisoners sat in the windows and talked quite loudly with the men on the floor above them. The stories were always serious and usually carried a note of sadness or despair running through them. They told about their lives and the causes of their coming to prison—and what varied causes they were! Betrayed love and jealousy; the brutalities of drunken husbands; harsh material conditions; everyday caprices; the fear of death from hunger for themselves and for their children; degeneracy; natural criminal propensities; discontent with life or some quite distinct psychic deviations, which are tantamount to a terrible and incurable malady—all these were cited as causes that had started these women along the path of crime, which finally led into the prison yard. They spoke of all these things with voices as sad and sincere as though they were at confession, some of them even weeping and wringing their hands. The whole unexpected scene was for me such a strange and moving picture that for a long time I could not regain my composure.

Later, watching what went on, I saw that the Ivans began to send letters, packages of cigarettes, sugar, soap and other little gifts by means of bits of twine and string which they had pieced together. With the aid of these lines there also travelled up from the ground floor the answering missives and the women's gifts, bits of looking-glass, ribbons, tobacco and sometimes even a bit of chocolate or a fruit lozenge.

After dinner, when I went into Cell No. 1 and invited them all to be seated, as I was about to begin a lecture, one of the prisoners came up to me and said rather naively:

"Starosta, to-day we have other things in mind and … here!" pointing to his heart. "Women have come to the prison, and it is a happy day for us. In these awful bags of stone and brick, in these rooms cursed a thousand times, we live a life of depression without any morrow, without hope. When we hear the voices of these women, who have not yet had time to become such monsters as the prison has made of us, we feel as though a breath of fresh, pure air had come in from the outside world; we picture our families, whom we shall certainly never see again; and in thought we transport ourselves to other places, where our mothers, sisters, wives or our betrothed are waiting for us. Hope returns to us, the hope that cleans our souls, rotting here behind these bars." He smiled bashfully and added in a whisper:

"To-day we don't want learning, Starosta!"

I laughed and was just about to go out, when the oldest prisoner in the cell, one Boitsoff, mail-coach robber, came stumping along to me on his wooden leg. The man was seventy years old and carried on his face the marks of cursed Sakhalin—slit nostrils, which were almost hidden by his thick, bristling moustache and a beard that grew far up his cheeks. His height was immense, and he possessed colossal strength, in spite of his age.

"Sit down," he muttered, "I want to talk to you."

After I sat down, Boitsoff was silent for a long time. Finally he pointed to the prisoners who were crowding near the window to talk with the women by means of ropes, which are called "telephones" in the language of the prison.

"Do you understand this, Starosta?" he asked in a whisper. When I remained silent, he continued in a still lower voice:

"They are grown up, some of them even old men, and yet they act like boys." He stopped and began filling his pipe, then went on:

"It is the prison that does this. Deprived of all of the joy of life, they seek it as a fish struggles back to the water, as a bird seeks the open sky and as a flower turns to the sun. Where is justice? Will such a form of punishment cleanse and heal the soul? Humanity is committing a great crime, an inexplicable one. We prisoners are human dust. Humanity, in its pursuit of personal happiness and riches, hurries along the great highway of life, rushing upon, trampling and grinding to dust those whom chance or a temporary weakness may have sent to their knees. Humanity, in this mad rush of life, has made us what we are, and man never understands that the time has come to stop hurrying and trampling upon the bodies of others, making new clouds of human dust. When this dust begins to reach the eyes and throats of men and to cover everything about them with a disgusting coating, they gather it up, put it into the stone bag, and, thinking that they have done all that is necessary for their peace, continue to grind out new dust, as they hurry with ever-increasing speed along the road of life. Whither are they going? To the precipice ahead—the day of revenge!"

The eyes of the old robber gleamed, his breast heaved and the words came from his mouth like stones hurled from a catapult. I listened carefully to the tirade of Boitsoff, because I realized that he was voicing the massed thoughts of the population of the Russian prisons. And I thought with terror then what it would mean, if all these men who held such views should one day come forth in a body from their prisons and take into their hands this weapon of revenge.

Fate strangely willed that I should have to be witness to such a supposedly unimaginable event. It was in the days when Bolshevism opened the doors of the prisons and called upon the "human dust" to wreak this long-deferred revenge, at which the perverted mass, wildly intoxicated by its opportunity, made rivers of blood to flow and ravaged as a destroying storm, as a laughing, mocking hurricane, the whole great breadth of the Empire.

In the meantime the life of the prison ran its expected course, reflecting the ordinary manifestations of the normal existence in the world without. While the women were few, the number of men amounted to nearly five hundred, and each one of these wanted to hear the voice of a woman directed to him exclusively. Because of this, quarrels began, jealousy naturally breeding fights, in which not only strong arms and fists came into full play but knives as well. Though this state of affairs filled the prison hospital, the coming of the women had another and more desirable effect, that of cleaning up the atmosphere of the place, as the awful oaths and curses were no longer heard through all the day and the night as well. The men began speaking in low and well-controlled voices, they stopped singing their far from refined songs and gave up their equally questionable stories. Nor did the cleansing and ennobling influence stop here, for the men also began to spruce up their appearance in every way possible, so that one rarely met anyone unwashed, half-clad or with unkempt hair. The prison veritably looked regenerated.

In this unusual atmosphere some love dramas were enacted before my very eyes. One rainy day, when I was sitting in my cell, I heard the following conversation:

"We have told each other everything, Katerina," came in a sonorous, serious voice from the upper cell. "We know each other as well as if we had lived together for years."

"It is true, it is true, indeed," came the answer in a woman's voice. "You have a good heart, that understands the pain of others."

"Listen, Katerina, I was condemned for a term of three years, of which only two months remain."

"You are fortunate," sighed Katerina; "I have still to sit here for two years and have a long road of suffering ahead of me."

"For us two years are nothing. I shall go out and begin to work at once, for I am a carpenter and am skilled at my trade. Now that I have come to know you, I shall not return to my former life with its attempt to get a great deal of money without regard for the consequences. I am a changed man and I want to work honestly."

"You speak rightly and with courage, Paul," the woman answered in a low voice.

Silence prevailed for a time, while both of them were evidently immersed in thought. I had, however, the feeling that the conversation was far from finished and that it needed only a word or two to decide the future that was trembling in the hearts of these two people.

"Katerina," finally came in the subdued voice of the man.

"I am here, Paul."

"Listen to what I have to say. Life crushed us and threw us into prison. We have suffered the great torture of crime, trial and punishment. It is possible and was very likely that we should have remained lost souls for our whole life, forced by the mark of the prison to become habitual criminals; but God ordained that we should meet, and now everything is changed. Now we can help each other, return to the life of freedom and live down the memory of our torture. Do you long for this as I do?"

The woman did not answer for a long time and then only with a hesitating, hardly audible:

"How?"

"Be my wife, Katerina!" the man answered in a low voice, full of evident emotion, solemn as though he were speaking in church. "Do you understand? When I leave the prison, I shall ask permission to marry you."

"But I shall only be free after two years," the woman whispered despairingly.

"That is nothing," came back from the man in buoyant, joyous tones. "I shall wait and work, preparing our home for your coming. Will you say 'yes'?"

"I thank you, Paul. I thank you in the name of God," the woman whispered—and in a moment tears were mingled with her words. "Your heart is good; it is white. … I shall give my life for you. … I thought that I was to perish here; then you came and gave me your hand to help me back to hope, Paul. …"

Someone shouted loudly:

"The water is ready for making tea. Go to the kitchen!"

Their conversation was interrupted, but two months later a ceremony took place in the prison chapel, when Paul Rozanoff, having finished his term, was married to Katerina Gulaieff. There was no wedding breakfast, and after the ceremony the husband went away, and the iron doors slammed behind him, while the wife returned to her prison cell, where she remained, however, quiet, thoughtful and happy. Every Sunday, Paul came to visit her, bringing food and gifts and, with a happy light in his eyes, showing her his hard, calloused hands.

"These two people will not perish," I thought with joy and satisfaction. "The prison will not destroy them but will remain in their lives only as a nightmare of the long ago."

Perhaps this pair, so curiously met and drawn together by suffering, were afterwards very happy and freed by their trials from the lesser difficulties of life. I want to believe that it was so.

When the prisoners had become well acquainted through the medium of the telegraph and "the telephone," the second stage of the prison love-stories was ushered in—they wanted to see one another face to face. In this crisis the inventive faculties of the old prisoners came to their aid. I soon discovered that they had all secured from somewhere looking-glasses. The men above focused broken bits of this wonder glass upon the mirrors which the women held in their hands stretched out through the bars below, and the inspections proceeded. Smiles, flirtations and real coquetry ensued; kisses were even wafted through the air, accompanied by laughs and sighs, as the little god flew back and forth from cell to cell and made most heartless slaughter.

From my own observations and from the accounts of prisoners I know that many very happy and lasting marriages have resulted from the romances of the prison and have survived the severe trials of the "free life," where men struggle for existence in such selfish blindness that they pay little attention to the weaker ones who fall in the fight and try then to drag themselves up again to follow with the rest.

However, the prison love-stories did not always have such pleasant endings. I remember one case that was very interesting from several standpoints. Once in the summer a woman was led into the prison, who was reported to have been brought there through a family drama. She had killed her husband and had given herself up to the judge. During the investigation of her case she was kept in a separate cell by herself. Of a rich merchant family, she was a beautiful woman, tall and gracious, with a mass of soft, fair hair crowning a sweet but very sad face. As she always looked straight ahead out of a pair of dark-blue, widely opened eyes with an expression of astonishment, I thought, when I saw her for the first time, that she was not entirely sane; and I am even now not sure but that this may have been the case. Owing to the appeal in her personality, and also to the fact that someone paid the Commandant of the Prison well for the privilege, she was allowed to walk all day long in the exercise pen; and often I watched her, as she paced back and forth from one corner to the other wrapt in thought and smiling sadly at what was evidently passing time and again through her mind. The prisoners began to question her and tried to make her acquaintance, but she gazed with terror upon the barred windows and the caged beings behind them and never spoke.

"A proud woman," the prisoners decided and paid her no more attention.

One day, as she was taking her walk as usual, the Commandant of the Prison approached and talked with her for a long time. The woman, after having been so long without an opportunity to speak with people of her kind, was evidently pleased and began talking vivaciously, once even laughing sincerely and loudly. This was the undoing of her. The prisoners looked out through the bars with flashing eyes upon the apparently lighthearted pair and, when the Commandant took his leave of her, they loosed a storm of curses and awful oaths at the woman. Thoroughly frightened, she left the pen and ran to her cell.

The next day during the exercise hour, when the men were walking in their enclosure, the unknown woman came out into the cage for the women and, approaching the fence on the side toward them, proudly drew herself up and asked of the prisoners in a sad but musical voice:

"Why did you wrong me so yesterday? Why, pray?"

At first the embarrassed prisoners remained silent, but suddenly one of the Georgians, Mikeladze, ran over to the fence and upbraided the woman in anger:

"You are proud toward us, but toward this executioner, the Commandant, no!"

With these words he hurled a stone at her and struck her in the breast. The woman swayed and put her hand to her heart. The political prisoners ran to her aid, while the criminal prisoners at once retreated from their fence. Revenge had been taken, and nobody seemingly paid any attention to the victim—with one marked exception.

He was a new inmate of the prison, a terrible one, as terrifying as a bird of prey. He was even like a bird of prey because of his eyes, his sharp features and his movements, filled with a dominating sense of power. He was called "the Eagle" and had been the leader of a gang of robbers terrorizing the Amur. He wore irons on his hands and feet and expected to be condemned to death, but the tribunal was slow in reaching its decision, owing to the fact that it was having investigations made in several towns through which his bloody trail had passed.

The Eagle was confined in a separate cell, where for whole hours at a time he stood holding the bars and looking out through them at the beautiful woman, as she walked in the yard. The same day he met the Georgian, who had thrown the stone at the woman, in the corridor of the second floor and hurled the man down a flight of stairs with such emphasis that the Georgian had some broken ribs to count when he arrived at the bottom.

"That from the Eagle, because of your treatment of a lady," the man in irons shouted after the fallen Georgian and calmly turned away to go to the kitchen to get water for his tea.

The attack on the good-looking woman excited the women prisoners, who had also taken umbrage at the behaviour of the new arrival. Sneers, petty vexations and nagging began, while some of the old timers even attacked her and injured her rather seriously. Then the authorities moved her to a separate cell on the second floor, for some days after which she was never seen, going neither for walks nor to the kitchen for water. In vain the Eagle watched for her through the bars of his window; in vain also the prison awaited her appearance, wishing with its cry of "Chiu! Chiu!" to manifest its hate and disdain for the person who enjoyed the special favour of the authorities. The sad woman seemed to have disappeared, although it was known to all that she was still somewhere in the prison.

Then there came a night of storm. Lightning constantly rent the black mantle of clouds that covered the sky; thunder shook the prison buildings and emphasized their gloom; terror seemed to have shackled nature; a fearful expectancy filled the souls of the prisoners.

The Eagle gazed up at the black sky, watching the lightning that shredded it, and turned away to pace up and down his cell. Without realizing it, he tramped ever quicker and quicker, like a wild beast in its cage. Suddenly he stopped and looked out of the side window in his corner cell, which was half boarded up. He practically never glanced out through this, as it gave on a narrow alleyway separating it from the next building only ten feet away, in which the openings were also covered with boards. To his surprise he noticed that the window directly opposite had lost its wonted covering and was now hung with a white curtain or a sheet, through which the light shone from someone's cell.

The Eagle stood and watched intently, as the shadow of a person moving about with his hands on his head was thrown on the screen. Suddenly the person came nearer to the window, and the Eagle realized that it was a woman. He climbed up on his bench, so that he could press his face against the pane. When he found the boards bothered him, he seized them in his powerful hands and pulled them away from the rusty nails that held them. As he once more drew close to the pane and looked across to the lighted window, he saw the woman slowly removing the pins from her hair, which fell down over her shoulders and breast like a soft mantle. Involuntarily the Eagle gave an exclamation of surprise and joy, as he realized that it must be the woman who had been maltreated by the prisoners.

With a rattle of his irons the prisoner opened his window and sat for a long time watching the lighted frame in the opposite wall, although the shadow of the woman had long since disappeared. After waiting for a sufficient interval to assure himself that the woman was already in bed, he began to sing. It was a wild, monotone chant, like the drive of gusts of rain upon the autumn leaves. He sang about the mighty river, the swift boats of the robbers, about bloody fights, pursuits and escapes; then, with his measured tones swung into a wail, he sang of the prison life; and, after this, louder and more sonorously, he sang of dreams that remain dreams, of love that is already dead. Something at once elemental and beautiful lay in this song of the robber. It was as though the soul of this man were singing, as though a powerful wave mounted to his breast and from there ran out to surge against the prison wall.

Suddenly he stopped singing and began to whistle. From the great chest, deepened by the life of the forest and the river, came forth a low, trembling sound, filled with a sad dreaminess. Gradually the tones augmented in volume and strength, changing to a melody passionate, wild and warm. As I listened to this whistling, I understood the voice of the nightingale in spring, when it sees and hears nothing in its complete obsession by song. It was love, longing for the unknown, beloved woman; it was a request, powerful and masterful.

The woman in the opposite cell felt it also, for the dominating will of the robber lured her to the window. She pushed back the curtain a little and saw his face, full of love, admiration and prayer.

The whistling ceased. The Eagle stretched his manacled hands out toward the woman and whispered:

"I cannot live without seeing you. I cannot!"

The woman remained silent, and he continued to whisper:

"Such a man as I can also love, perhaps, even more deeply and warmly than those of the free life!"

"I am sad …"

"What is it that troubles you? Ease your soul, for I shall understand everything, because I myself have passed through the fire of torture … and I love," came back from the Eagle in unmistakable syllables of warmth and enthusiasm.

The woman, perhaps for the first and last time, told the story of her life and finished with a sigh.

"Just one day of freedom to see my little daughter, and afterwards even death would be endurable."

The Eagle thought profoundly and then said to her:

"Why death? I shall arrange an escape for you, and for this remember the Eagle sometimes and say a prayer for him."

"An escape for me?" she queried, unable to believe her ears.

"Yes," said the Eagle. "Demand that they take you on Saturday to see the magistrate. Such is the law, and they cannot refuse you. The rest will be done for you by others."

"I will never forget you, never, if you do this for me. God will hear the prayers of my innocent child."

Just here the keeper, on his rounds to see that everything was in order, interrupted the talk.

Throughout the next two days the Eagle whistled a great deal, frequently putting his fingers in his mouth and giving long, sharp blasts, which were nothing more than signals in the game he was arranging; for, during the exercise hour on the second afternoon, an invisible hand threw a stone over the prison wall, carrying the short but significant message: "It is all arranged."

Saturday evening the keeper entered the woman's cell and told her that he had come to take her to see the magistrate in accordance with her request. She did not return to prison. The restlessness and suppressed excitement which ruled throughout the night in the prison office gave clear indication that something unusual had occurred. Some days later, I learned from the Commandant that robbers had attacked the keeper who was escorting the woman, taken his arms from him, gagged him and, after having tightly roped him, rolled him under a pile of planks, where he was not discovered until the following day. The woman under escort had disappeared and, up to that date, had not yet been found. The investigation of the affair revealed the fact that she had been at home, taken her little girl and fled.

For a fortnight after the Eagle looked pensive but at the same time happy and proud. The resourceful leader evidently had trusty members of his gang outside the walls, who could be depended upon to carry out his will. He was soon tried and, though he expected a death sentence, he felt that the sad, large-eyed woman and her little daughter had evidently prayed for him, inasmuch as the tribunal unexpectedly found extenuating circumstances and sentenced him to only four years of close confinement.

As he was being taken away to another prison, he ceremoniously bowed to the ground before all the prisoners and officials, as though he were taking an oath to the earth, and said:

"I shall endure my punishment and then I shall search her out, as I cannot live without her."

Only two persons within the prison walls knew to whom the robber chief referred—Mironoff and I. Mironoff, the Eagle's friend, knew it from the chief himself; and from Mironoff I learned it with many of the other details of the story. Both of us were silent—Mironoff, because he was a prisoner; and I, because I had beheld a burning torture and a love, beautiful in its power and its elemental strength.