The Shadow of the Gloomy East/Chapter 5

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The Poisoners

THE drama of life has its own laws everywhere. In the palaces of princes and bankers and in the thatched cottages of the peasants. Hatred, treason, revenge, betrayed love, criminal instincts are not confined to the towns; they are to be found in the little villages, lost in the wilderness, the mountains or marshes. There still remain visible traces of dark paganism or Mongolian psychology, of a nomad, of the destroyer and annihilator who exterminates for the sake of extermination and destruction.

More often than not the drama ends with a stab of the knife or a hit with an axe or club. But this method of settling accounts causes police intervention, court inquiry and sentence, and the man breathing with vengeance employs other means: he invokes the assistance of the "viedunya," an old woman who boasts expert knowledge of all kinds of poisons.

These Russian village Locustas are excellent botanists, and the science—gradually falling into desuetude—of the various peculiarities of different grass leaves, herbs, flowers, and roots, is being carefully preserved among the "witches." These women roam the fields, deserts, and forests the whole year round—except perhaps during the most severe winter months—gathering the healing or death-dealing plants and those required for various practices of witchcraft.

Such vegetable poisons as strychnine, conine, nicotine, atropine, or morphia, the poison of putrid meat (cadaverine, putrescine), the poison of special viper glands, spiders, frogs, the poisonous germs of tetanus and other bacteria, parasites of the sylvan plants or bogs—all these are known to the "viedunyas," the heirs of pagan lore.

The science of poisoning is kept a most profound secret, and handed over as a tradition from one witch to the other, usually her nursling and pupil. It often happens—sometimes it seems almost a necessity—that the witches are deaf and dumb, either from their birth or rendered so by the "viedunya," who either kidnaps a child somewhere, or obtains it from some poor illiterate peasant family for the horrible profession.

The poisoners employ besides for their practices human hair, powdered glass, or bovine or piscatory gall.

The poison is administered in food or drinks, or else a knife is poisoned, with which the victim is accidentally cut; or the victim is drugged in his sleep, the pillows having been sprinkled with venomous liquid, or the deadly plant is introduced into the pillows and acts through its vapours.

When, during the first Russian Revolution, I was sentenced to imprisonment for two years, which I spent in Siberia, I saw a woman poisoner who had been condemned to fifteen years' hard labour for a series of crimes. She was an elderly, lean, blackhaired, sinister-faced hag, with her eyes always cast down. Her movements were slow and lazy; there was something of a wild animal in the cautiousness of her gait and the manner in which she turned her head. It was only rarely that she lifted her eyes, but when she did so, I was struck with the heavy, immovable glare of those black pupils which pierced into the very soul. The woman's name was Irene Gulkina. How many agonies of human beings, tossed in pain and fear, slain by her terrible and sinister science, had been looked upon by those apparently calm eyes? What thoughts rested in that head, so gravely and deliberately moving upon the long thin neck?

She was a grand criminal. The courts discovered twenty victims killed by this "viedunya" in various districts, for the poisoners naturally cannot remain in one place, but after each crime move away somewhere else, appeasing the suspicious with money and gifts.

All of a sudden the news spread throughout the prison that a new crime committed by this woman had been detected. One of the courts in Southern Russia proved that the heirs of a certain rich proprietor entered upon their heritage with the benevolent assistance of Gulkina, the proprietor and several direct heirs having been put out of the way. Further developments followed quickly, till one day an order reached the prison authorities demanding that the woman be sent back from Siberia to the South of Russia.

Her manner seemed to become even more profound, grave, and slow. She ceased lifting her eyes altogether and to address anybody.

The other inmates of the prison cell understood that Gulkina knew that she would be condemned to death. Meanwhile she spent all the day in the prison yard, walking with her head downcast and gazing obstinately upon the ground.

"She is being tormented by a mortal terror." the prisoners explained to me, "It's always the case with those who know they are going to be hanged."

At last the day appointed for her removal to Russia approached. The night before the "viedunya" fell ill; bathed with sweat and writhing with pain, she quickly lost strength and fainted. She was brought round and fell asleep. At an early hour of the morning the guard noticed that she was lying in an unnatural position. The prisoner was dead.

The great criminal had inflicted upon herself the just penalty of her crimes with the aid of some poison grass she discovered while walking in the prison yard and scouring the ground. A few leaves of this were found in the little knot twisted together in her handkerchief.