Page:Life of John Boyle O'Reilly.djvu/87

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53
HIS LIFE, POEMS AND SPEECHES.

cave. Prison characters, like all others, are seen by different men in different lights. For instance, a visitor passing along a corridor, and glancing through the iron gates or observation-holes of the cells, sees only the quiet, and, to him, sullen-looking convict, with all the crime suggesting bumps largely developed on his shaven head. The same man will be looked upon by the officer who has charge of him as one of the best, most obedient, and industrious of the prisoners, which conclusion he comes to by a closer acquaintance than that of the visitor; although his observations are still only of exteriors. No man sees the true nature of the convict but his fellow-convict. He looks at him with a level glance and sees him in a common atmosphere. However convicts deceive their prison officers and chaplains, which they do in the majority of cases, they never deceive their fellows.

I was a convict in an English prison four years ago, and, before the impressions then received are weakened or rubbed out by time, it may be of interest to recall a few reminiscences. First, let me remove all fears of those who are thinking that, where they least expect it, they have fallen among thieves. I was not in the true sense of the word a criminal, although classed with them and treated precisely the same as they were. My offense against the law was political. I had been a soldier in a cavalry regiment, and had been convicted of being a republican and trying to make other men the same; and so, in the winter of 1867, it came about that I occupied Cell 32, in Pentagon 5, Millbank prison, London, on the iron-barred door of which cell hung a small white card bearing this inscription, "John Boyle O'Reilly, 20 years."

Some people would think it strange that I should still regard that cell—in which I spent nearly a year of solitary confinement—with affection; but it is true. Man is a domestic animal, and to a prisoner, with "20 years" on his door, the cell is Home. I look back with fond regard to a great many cells and a great many prisons in England and Australia, which are associated to my mind in a way not to be wholly understood by any one but myself. And if ever I should go back to England (which is doubtful, for I escaped from prison in Australia in 1869, and so permanently ended the 20 years), the first place I would visit would be one of the old prisons. Remember, my name and many a passing thought are scratched and written on many a small place within those cells which I perfectly well recollect, and it would be a great treat to go back some day and read them. And then, during the time I was in prison, I got acquainted with thousands of professional criminals, old and young, who will be the occupants of the English jails for the next twenty years; and I confess it would be of great interest to me to go back and walk the corridor with all the brimming respectability of a visitor, and stop when I saw a face I knew of old, and observe how time and villainy had dealt with it.