From President to Prison/Chapter 31

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CHAPTER XXXI
 

SAINTS AND PIRATES

 

THE population of the prison was, generally speaking, grey and uniform, though I did at times meet some very strange types, which could never have been found in ordinary life.

I have spoken of Daria the Black, whom I met the first day of my stay in a criminal prison. Lowering, always looking on the ground, always gathering some herbs, digging at some roots or plants growing in the prison yard, always in a hurry, a person of few words—such was this poison woman.

Conveyed to the prison from a great distance, she had no visitors such as the ordinary prisoner received; but I was told that from time to time longing seized her and that then at the next full moon she would sit at the window, grinding up some herbs and stones, and would whisper:

"Come! Come!"

It was said that on the next Sunday after these incantations a gipsy woman would appear during the visitors' hour, bringing some little gifts and dainties, and would spend her whole time telling fortunes, as she read them from palms or from a pack of old, greasy cards.

During my stay in the prison one of these visits occurred. The Black Daria with her incomprehensible telegraphy called to her the gipsy woman, who squatted on the ground and told the fortunes of all the women convicts. No objection was made to this by the prison authorities, as the wives of the keepers and other prison officials wanted to profit by the advice of the sorceress. Finally the gipsy had satisfied the curiosity of all the women prisoners save Daria, who waited beside her, as lowering and as mysterious-looking as ever. After the others had gone, the prophetess sat for a long time muttering something, then took a new pack of cards and began to tell Black Daria's fortune. Several times she reshuffled and dealt the cards, evidently incredulous and wishing to verify their pronouncement; then she turned and said to Daria:

"In a week you will be free—in a week's time!" Daria's eyes were filled with astonishment, as she asked of the gipsy:

"I shall be free?"

"The cards say so and they are never mistaken," replied the gipsy woman, and added: "Show me your left hand."

As she said this, she drew from her pocket a small phial, washed the palm of Daria with the fluid it contained and began to examine the close network of lines that streaked it.

"Do you see," she whispered, "this is the line of torture, of suffering. One, two—seven lines cross it, which mean that from this day seven nights will pass and you will be free. Look! The line continues clearly to the little finger. In a week's time you will be free!"

The keeper on duty told me this, and, when I asked Daria, she confirmed the tale. Strange as it may seem to those of us who would like to keep the world well down on its scientific basis, within just a week a document arrived from Kazan, in which it was stated that it had been quite accidentally discovered that the crime for which Daria was being held in prison had been committed by another and that, consequently, the court ordered her release, inasmuch as the years already spent in prison covered the total of the sentences imposed upon her for her other offences. The next day Daria the Black was free.

With her departure there went out from our prison a very characteristic type of an adviser and counsellor with a great influence among women convicts. Practically every Russian prison, where there are women serving sentences, had its Black Daria, looked upon with a certain amount of respect and a great deal of awe by the other women inmates.

As starosta I often met Daria and was also frequently brought into contact with another type rather common in the prisons. The special representative in this case happened to be one Shutkoff, called "the Librarian."

His biography was short and sad. He was a half-educated man, who had once been an official in some institution and had been arrested for a slight offence, which brought upon him a short term of imprisonment. The unbearably hard life behind the bars and his shame and longing drove him to attempt escape. Recaptured, he was committed for three years, only to escape again and receive an additional penalty of three years more, with the result that Shutkoff, an ordinarily quiet and modest man, became a confirmed inmate of the prisons. In spite of the usual effects upon most men put behind the bars, Shutkoff remained quiet and modest-mannered and developed an almost insane mania for reading.

For whole days at a time he remained in the prison library, reading all sorts of books, magazines and old newspapers and at regular intervals rearranging the shelves according to his ever-changing systems. One day he would place the books according to their subjects, the next he would order them all about and have them line up according to their heights or to the colours of their bindings and, on the following day, he would judge them according to their thickness. As he was captured and recaptured in different towns and had served his sentences in various places, he knew the libraries of several institutions and had rearranged all of them. He was everywhere well known and liked for his amiable, quiet disposition, for his serviceableness and for his good character. He wrote the prisoners' letters, completed his own memoirs, and, in addition, composed love-sonnets and a tragedy in ten acts, which was destined to outshine Shakespeare. The authorities always looked upon him with a feeling of real sympathy and respect; and when he returned, after one escape, in the custody of soldiers and police, the keepers would smile a friendly welcome and say to him:

"Again you have come to pay us a visit, Mr. Shutkoff! Without you the library has fallen into sad disorder."

"Oh, Lord!" the Librarian would sigh with a show of importance and, as soon as he was duly enrolled in the prison office, go right off to begin his literary work.

He knew a mass of titles of books and had a quantity of notions of various sciences terribly jumbled together. He was very proud of all his learning, going so far at times as to air theories of his own creation, which were unique and preposterous. But he never quarrelled and, when he met anyone more learned than himself, he simply went away as though offended and always thereafter avoided him.

I knew from time to time several of these librarians and looked upon them as monomaniacs produced by the prison life, and I often wondered why these good and harmless fools were kept within its walls. It was even a matter of record that one of these librarians, when caught by the police after an escape, was taken to their office, watched the record being written up and was then told:

"You see, you have been caught again. Please go to the prison and present this document. Yes, it is hard, but such is the law."

The story runs that the librarian took the order for his imprisonment in his hand, smiled timidly, bowed and went away. After he had looked in all the shop windows on his way across the whole town, he turned up at the prison, presented his documents entitling him to a place and went off to the library, from where one fair day he again fled, only to meet the inevitable fate of recapture and reincarceration among the books.

The librarians are always attracted by religious people and religious matters, to all of which Shutkoff was no exception. His two intimate friends were Grushko and Nikoloff. They always walked together, discussing in low, earnest voices the most serious questions of faith and doctrine; and, though it afterwards came out that they were men of different views, they never quarrelled but seemed always most tolerant of one another's opinion. Evidently their discussions dealt with principles from an academic standpoint in a manner that is not frequently found even among highly educated people without the prison walls; and their talks seemed always polite and full of mutual respect.

One day, when those of us in the political wing of the prison sat drinking tea and enjoying a few strawberries we had gathered from our own bed, the Commandant of the Prison came along and asked us if we would care to go into town for church the following Sunday, inasmuch as Shutkoff and Grushko had begged for this privilege and as he could, under authority received from the Prosecutor, allow others of us to go out under guard with them to the service. Two of my companions profited by this opportunity to get away from the prison for a while and joined the Sunday morning party that marched off to church.

It was not until two o'clock, when the Commandant had already begun to feel some anxiety about them, that they finally returned and then with all of them save the political prisoners and Grushko—that is, Shutkoff, two other prisoners and the soldiers—drunk. My companions explained the state of the others by saying that, when they were all leaving the church, they were surrounded by a crowd of men and women, who frequently murmured, "The poor fellows!" and finally went off and brought them back rolls, cakes, sausages and eggs, and then plied them with vodka, which the soldiers of the guard could not refuse. Of all of them only Grushko, a venerable-looking old man with a long white beard, resisted the pressure of hospitality and did not drink anything.

After their return it seemed as though Shutkoff and his friends had imbibed so much of the powerful alcohol that the vapours overcame all the men living in the same room with him and even some of those on another floor. When, in the course of this poisoning process, several serious rows and even fights took place, the authorities ordered a search throughout all the building, in the belief that someone had thrown a keg of vodka over the wall, which the prisoners had managed to pick up without the notice of the guard. But, as generally happened, nothing was found, and matters gradually quieted down to their usual monotonous course.

The following Sunday the same thing occurred and repeated itself for three consecutive weeks. However, on this last occasion the pious convicts, on their return from the church, were sidetracked into the prison office and carefully searched, as a result of which the privilege of religious worship was withdrawn and the mystery of the incredibly potent influence of the alcohol fumes in the prison satisfactorily cleared up. Among the pious was found a vodka smuggler and this was none other than—the venerable Grushko! When ordered to undress, he was exceedingly troubled but failed to prevent the authorities from imposing upon him this indignity. When his prison clothes were off, they found a good-sized, pliant rubber tube filled with vodka wound round his body.

Once uncovered, the old man made a clean breast of it all. While the convicts and their guard were being treated outside the church, the organizers of this hospitable demonstration cleverly managed to fill up Grushko's supply reservoir with the strongest of spirits, which he afterwards diluted and sold on his return to the prison for a very handsome profit to them all. Of course, after this unmasking of the religious pilgrimages, the drinking was ended, and Grushko remained for a long time in the underground cell doing a compulsory penance.

Another of these friends of the librarian, Michel Nikoloff, had been condemned to two years of imprisonment for vagrancy and for a persistent habit of changing his name and documents. Tall of stature, thin, already far from young, he walked with a stoop and was always wrapped in thought. His face was sharp and emaciated, and had its far from agreeable characteristics thrown into high contrast by a pair of large, pensive black eyes. He spoke slowly in a deep bass voice and never smiled. This quiet, wise man was never in anyone's way and attracted no attention.

One could only wonder at the incomprehensible provisions of the Russian law, which dealt out prison punishment for such men as Nikoloff, a type which could, alas, be frequently met in Russia, where the immense spaces, the admixture of Mongolian nomad blood and the discontent with the physical conditions of existence combined to develop in the people a form of psychic deviation which found its expression in the love of moving, of wandering about with the nomads' disregard of the stereotyped and the material, of tramping, if you will. As the police never allowed people to travel about too frequently from one place to another without some acceptable reason, these nomads of to-day had frequently to change their names and to appear with new documents at short intervals, often using the papers of some companion of the road who had passed away and naturally being caught in the occasional necessity of having to prove that he was not dead, as the records showed.

In what way did these tramps exist? They lived as the birds, by picking up what they could. The Russian peasants called them "passing men" or "passengers" and never refused them hospitality and food, for which the passing men always paid in some form of work, as practically all of them knew tailoring, boot-making or doctoring. Those of the medical profession undertook the cure of all ills through miraculous means, with whisperings, incantations, magic herbs and sorcerer's formulas, which they acquired from the gipsies as the relics of banished centuries.

I learned quite accidentally what sort of a man Nikoloff was one day when he came into the wash-room with two other convicts while I was there. Without paying any attention to me, he continued the conversation he had evidently begun in the cell.

"To pray is a good thing, but every prayer does not reach God—not every one, oh no!"

"Tell us how," came in an earnest voice from one of his companions, a man with a pale, emaciated face and sad, appealing eyes.

Nikoloff lighted the candle in the lantern hanging in the middle of the room, for it was already twilight, and began speaking in his slow, deep voice.

"If it is difficult for you to pray, your thoughts cannot follow closely the meaning of the words, and you will be repeating them without understanding. And such a prayer is worth nothing, for it will be caught on its way to Heaven by the devil, who, supported by his black hosts, lays in wait for us everywhere, even in church. One must know how to pray. The prayer must have such strength that each word of it will burn into the mind and heart; each word must be sent forth not only by the lips but by every fibre of the body, by every drop of blood, by every sigh. Only we really know how to pray, only we. I shall teach you … but do not disclose the secret!"

He stopped and came over to me, bent low and began to whisper:

"Starosta, you understand the torture and the longing of men living here. Everything that one can give them of consolation or relief will be a commendable act, agreeable unto God. Do not be astonished, Starosta, and tell no one of what you are about to see."

"Very well," I answered.

Then Nikoloff drew from his breast a bronze cross on a little chain, hung it on the wall and, crossing himself many times, knelt, touched the floor with his forehead, rose and repeated the same movements again and again, making each quicker than the last. Through it all he muttered in supplication only one sentence:

"Christ be merciful unto us!"

The convicts stood by like two immovable statues, with their eyes riveted upon him and their lips moving inaudibly. Nikoloff's face grew even paler, his mouth was open, he breathed with a whistling sound and his eyes were larger than ever. Finally he sprang to his feet, ran to the middle of the room and, continually repeating these same words, began making circles, ever smaller and smaller, until he was whirling in one spot with such speed that I saw two faces and four hands in the glimmering light. But he still continued so to increase his speed that he became but a shadow, almost transparent, and finally melted away in the darkness that his own twirling had produced by extinguishing the candle. In a second I heard the thud of a falling body and ordered the convicts to relight the lamp, while I busied myself about Nikoloff, who lay unconscious on the floor.

His eyes were open and staring, foam encircled his mouth, his breast heaved with a rattling sound and he was still repeating, in a hoarse and almost inaudible voice:

"Christ be merciful unto us!"

After some minutes Nikoloff was once more seated on the bench, able, though breathing heavily, to go on with his exhortation.

"In such manner ought one to pray, only thus! Then you will hear your prayers fall at the feet of the Creator, like the low rustling of sweet-scented flowers. … We know this; yet we also know that in the noise of day, in the bustle of life among untutored men, one cannot pray in such a way. Consequently, we flee from men, we hide at night in solitary houses or in the homes of the enlightened and there we pray. …"

Then I realized what this old man really was, so evidently mysterious in the eyes of all who came in contact with him. He belonged to a sect known in the Orthodox Church as the "whirling ones." This sect originally came from Byzantium and was in all likelihood of the same extraction as the Whirling Dervishes of the Islamic faith, whom I have run across in the Crimea, at Trebizond in Turkish Asia Minor and in the northern part of Persia in the mosques between Resht and Teheran.

In this same stone sack I met another one of these many prison acquaintances whose lives were permeated with suffering and despair, the old convict, Maxim Suvoroff. He was always silent, and I never knew just why it was that he came up to the fence one day and began to talk with me, speaking in a mysterious sort of voice that searched the heart and seemed to indicate some strong inner urge for expression.

"To-day, sir, is a terrible day for me, for it is the anniversary of my crime. It is an old story, now that I have been twelve years in prison. Twelve years! Is it not a long time?"

I was silent, afraid of diverting the course of his thoughts. After a moment he continued:

"You are young, sir, and you cannot remember back to those times when long caravans of sledges, laden with tea and silk, trekked slowly across the vast Siberian stretches of snow. We drove them from Kiakhta to Irkutsk, where the principal custom-house and the largest depots of the leading firms were located. Each driver, or yamstchik, had two sledges to look out for; and I have sometimes seen a caravan of five hundred of these sledges, which thus counted two hundred and fifty men. The life was hard, for we travelled day and night, sleeping on the sledges and freezing to the marrow during the terrible cold of the blizzards and the raging northwest winds. We stopped from time to time to rest and feed the horses and took turns in guarding the caravan, as we carried valuable cargo and knew that there were always bands of men along the route who valued it as highly as we did.

"The peasants of the villages along the way followed an occupation which they euphemistically called 'the white one.' Clad all in white, these countrymen would lie in the snow, where their disguise was complete, and during the night, when a caravan stopped to rest, they would crawl up and cut the ropes holding the tea and silk on the sledges. When the drivers started again, sleepy and not knowing that their loads had been tampered with, they pushed forward as usual, until some following sleigh discovered that one ahead was sowing a very lucrative crop for these peasants along the way."

Suvoroff lighted a cigarette and was lost for a while in thought; then he continued his tale.

"I must go back to earlier days. Besides myself my parents had a second son, Gregory, who enlisted in the army but did not come back after his term of service was finished. We learned later that he had married and was living in the Transbaikal.

"On one of my trips I was bringing up the rear of the caravan. As the night was dark, I kept continually looking back, for I was afraid of a robber attack. Suddenly I heard a sound and, looking round, saw a white shadow rise up behind my last sledge and disappear at once. When my companions ran back to me in answer to my shout for help, we investigated the sledge and found that a rope was cut and one bale of silk gone. As we had passed through a large village only an hour earlier, we felt fairly certain that its peasants had made an ambush for us and consequently decided to punish them. With our force of nearly two hundred strong and well-trained men, we carried out our intentions in a way that the village must have long remembered.

"When the police arrested us and our trial was on, we learned that eleven of the peasants had been killed during our raid and among them one Gregory Suvoroff. I asked to be shown the body of this man and recognized my own brother. On that day I made up my mind to spend a large part of my remaining life in prison as a penance to win God's pardon for my crime. Though the tribunal condemned us to only a year's confinement, in view of the fact that we were under the necessity of protecting our caravans from these frequent robberies, I have succeeded, by repeated escapes and open rebellion against the authorities, in having my term extended to twelve years and have still another three left to round out the period of fifteen which I decided should be the length of my punishment. To-day is the anniversary of my brother's death, and perhaps—who knows?—it was my own hand that killed him."

Once more the prison turned before me a page of its martyrs' book and enabled me to look into the depths of another human soul, which is man's own most severe judge. How many such pages from the terrible book of human misery, almost unknown to any save those who had made the record, I could read in the prison!

Once in the evening, during a lecture to the convicts, I remarked that a group of them sitting in one corner were listening very attentively, not to me, however, but to the whispered words of a gaunt, sunburned man with an unusually expressive face. When I asked them rather pointedly if I was not disturbing them, they showed evident signs of being ashamed, and one of them soon came up to me and explained:

"Don't be angry, Starosta; but this new prisoner, the Pike, relates very curious things and, as he will be again transferred to-morrow, we wanted to hear all he has to tell, for it can be of great use to such birds as we. Come and hear what he has to say, Starosta. It is all very curious."

There was nothing for it but that I should close my lecture and ask the Pike to speak loud enough for the whole room to hear, giving us first a short summary of what he had already told the little group in the corner. At that the Pike came to the middle of the room, took the chair and very fluently and picturesquely began his tale.

"We had been living for a long time in Kamchatka in a little village of fishermen and hunters, located on the coast. We busied ourselves catching herring and salmon and hunting seals and whales. We were fairly well off, but not from the returns of our sea industries, for, although these gave us some profits, the work was very difficult, and our boats were inferior to those of the Americans from Alaska and of the Japanese from Hokkaido and Hondo.

"But it came about thus. Once we were working back south along the coast, when the breeze was so light that it hardly filled our sails and we were laboriously pulling along with our oars. Our boats were very heavy with a full catch of herring. All at once my father spied a hayrick on the shore. This astonished him, inasmuch as the nearest village was over fifty miles away, and induced us to land and have a look.

"As we approached the hayrick, some Japanese ran from behind it, took a good look at us and began to shoot. We were fifteen in all and, as soon as everybody was on shore, the battle began. Seeing our larger force, the Japanese soon retreated into the forests, and we began to investigate the hayrick. We found that they had a schooner drawn up on the beach and had disguised it with this covering. It turned out to be a veritable treasure-house, containing a cargo of the finest sealskins from the Commander Islands and of the black fox and sables, which the Japanese had collected from the natives in return for alcohol, tobacco and powder.

"This was the beginning of our real fortune and it enabled us to buy two big schooners, with which to start hunting on the seas in quite a different manner from that we had been following before. We cruised both the Behring and the Okhotsk Sea but not to hunt for whales and seals nor to fish for herring and salmon. Our two well-armed schooners went far out under Japanese colours. When the Japanese pirates, smugglers and illicit traders took us for associates and approached us, we threw off our masks and attacked them, taking from them all the articles they illegally exported from Russia as well as all the alcohol they smuggled in to inebriate and poison the peaceable, stupid natives of Kamchatka.

"It was an excellent business, comrades, with plenty of interest and good profit and without very great risks, as the ocean swallowed up all traces of battle and of our activities. Of course, at times a Japanese bullet or two found its way home or one of us went overboard in the scrimmage and disappeared, but such must always be reckoned with as the cost of the trade and, when one is busy in such a profitable undertaking, one must also take some little risks with the easy gains. Bear this always in mind, comrades, that one can live tranquilly on the shores of Kamchatka and can always find an easy existence. Try to get there, for bold, strong men are always in demand. I remember a fugitive who came to us from Sakhalin—but I reckon it would be better not to speak of this, for that affair was my business only."

"Go ahead and tell us, comrade. Please tell us!" came from different parts of the room. I noticed the Pike paled a bit, as he sat thinking, and suddenly lost all of his levity of manner.

"Well," he continued after a moment more, "he came and he was not alone, for he brought a young woman with him. The two of them had made the journey in a small open boat across the Okhotsk and had worked along the shore until they came to our village. They were both bold and strong, and during the whole summer the man sailed with us. He was an excellent shot and had no equal in using a knife; but, as ill fate would have it, he was hit during one of our fights and afterwards died. The woman was in despair for a long time, during which I consoled her as best I could. Then I fell in love with her and married her. We sailed the sea together on our expeditions, and no man was as happy as I. For me the sun never set during these days, the smile never left my face and the joy in my heart sang an endless song. I thanked God for each new day of life.

"It was this way for four years, until one day a young trader came to our village. He bought all our spoils from us and took them to Vladivostok. My wife took his fancy, and it was evident that he had also found a way to her heart. I noticed, when we were at sea, that she sighed sometimes and at night even wept. On our return from one of our trips, she disappeared from the village the very first night. I understood at once and started right out for the trader's establishment, only to be told there that he had gone for good. However, I verified my suspicion that his schooner had not left and saw plainly that they had fled on horseback. I followed them and …"

Suddenly the Pike gave a frightful cry, fell on the floor and began to writhe with sobs and wails. It was only with difficulty that he was restored to consciousness in the prison hospital. It was plain to all of us that there had risen before the eyes of the pirate a picture of the events which occurred when he overtook the unfaithful wife and the young merchant, who had extinguished the sun of his life and had killed the joy in his heart.