Famous Stories from Foreign Countries/In Prison
It was midnight. Oppressive silence reigned in the prison. Occasionally one caught the sound of the heavy, even tread of the watchman. The little round holes in the tower of cells looked very black against the space about them. They looked like great eyes of the dead.
In the room of the prison superintendent there was a light. There two men sat opposite each other at a table upon which a piece of paper was outspread. They were the superintendent and his helper. They pointed with pencils to names of prisoners who in the morning would be brought out to be sentenced.
“There it is again!” said the superintendent, throwing down his pencil.
“What’s the trouble?” inquired his companion.
“A new prisoner. With those confounded chains he disturbs me day and night.”
“Why does he make such a noise?”
“Why? How should I know? All the time that dog of a giaour walks about and gives me no rest. The devil take a business like mine! In all the years I have been here I have never got used to it—that accursed sound.”
This time the noise was louder.
“I can’t stand that!” roared the superintendent.
“I can’t stand that sound any longer. Last night I never closed an eye because of it.”
The helper began to laugh.
“Why do you laugh?”
“Why do I laugh? A boiled hen would laugh if you should say to it that the wolf is afraid of the sheep. What’s the use of your anger and discomfort? Silence him.”
“Silence him! Easy enough to say.”
“Tell him to go to sleep.”
“But what if he doesn’t sleep?”
“Make him sleep! There’s a way, isn’t there?” pointing to the rows of knouts along the wall. The light of cruel impulses shone in his little eyes.
Kli-r-r! Kli-rr-rr—Again the shuddering rattle of rusty iron. The superintendent began to meditate. He bit his lips angrily and left the room. He turned toward the cell from which the sound came, opened the circular window and roared.
“You dog of a giaour, stop rattling those chains! Keep still!”
“I’m not doing anything,” came a voice from within.
“Why do you make such a noise all the time?”
“Why? The chains—they knock against each other.”
“Then why do you move?”
“What shall I do?”
“Sleep! Sleep! If you don’t, I’ll—” The superintendent did not finish the sentence.
“Sleep—that’s easy to say,” thought the prisoner.
“How can the defender of man’s freedom sleep—if he is buried alive and has no hope?”
The mind of the haiduk was a volcano; the cell was narrow, the chains heavy. The rattle of chains was the hideous song of autocracy, which since the beginning of time has echoed from prison walls.
The superintendent went away. The prisoner stood still for a moment, pondered the words, then began to move about again. He tried to walk softly along the wall, carefully, little step by little step. And the chains rang and rang disturbing the night.
“How long has the good-for-nothing been here?” inquired the helper.
“Three days ago they caught him in Toprag-Gale. He must be a bad lot who can not sleep. No one knows who he is nor whence he came.”
“Will he ascend—it?”
“What? You mean the gallows? Of course—if they sentence him!”
They were silent. It was not a suitable subject for conversation. Therefore they thought about it a good deal and said nothing. The silence was broken by a sudden crash of the chains.
“Just wait till daylight, you dog of a giaour!” murmured the superintendent. “Wait!”
The helper got up, said good night and went out.
Daylight came and the hour when the prisoners are given their breakfast.
“Now you’ll keep still forever, Giaour,” murmured the superintendent, who, with a dish full of food approached the cell of his noisy prisoner. He opened the door and placed the food upon the floor. The prisoner was sleeping. He went out stealthily. He closed the door but did not go away. Something held him to the spot. He put his eye to the keyhole and looked in. The prisoner was handsome. He had an air of nobility. His broad brow was unclouded as if noble thoughts moved behind it. The face indicated strength of character. There was something about the sleeping figure that affected the superintendent peculiarly. Fear awoke in his heart. He tried to suppress this feeling which was new to him. Why did he stand there and watch him? Why did he not go away? He did not know and he did not like to think about it. He tried to reason with himself.
He saw the prisoner get up and approach the food. He followed every movement. His knees began to tremble. He leaned heavily against the door. He wanted to turn away but he could not. His throat began to feel dry. Why should he destroy that noble looking figure with the broad brow and inspired eyes? He opened the door and called:
The prisoner looked up at him in surprise.
“Wait! I can’t do it. Rattle your chains all you want to.”
He picked up the plate, ran from the room and closed the door. The prisoner understood. A smile passed across his lips like the last, faint glimmer of sunset. He rejoiced. Under the low roof of prison, behind locked doors, he had conquered.
Kli-r-r! Kli-rr-rr—This time the chains were clanging through the village of A—. Between rows of glittering bayonets appeared from time to time, a white face. The prisoners were being led to the place of execution. Even in daylight this clanging of chains was terrifying. Doors were quickly shut, windows closed. This sound was the terror of the land. It filled the streets, and made the hearts of the brave tremble. A crowd had accumulated about the square. There were judges, lawyers, court accountants. The superintendent was there too, and his helper.
“I did not do it. I am not to be blamed,” the superintendent kept whispering to himself. The judge turned to the prisoner.
“You are A— from the village of A—?”
“No; I am not from A—.”
“K— is your friend?”
“I do not know him.”
“Did you kill G— ?”
“Yes; he was my enemy.”
“You procured weapons and took them to S—?”
“No; I did not procure the weapons.”
The helper of the superintendent, who until then had listened indifferently, went up to the judge and whispered to him. Then, upon a signal from the judge he walked up to the prisoner and stood directly in front of him, and quite near.
The place of execution became silent. Every one expected something unusual and all eyes were turned toward the two men who stood face to face. It was not two faces that confronted each other, but four eyes . . . four flames. The spectators shivered as if from fear. Something was going to happen, something out of the ordinary. Still they stared at each other, eye against eye. Their eyes did not wink. Their lips did not move. Their eyebrows did not twitch. No sound escaped their lips. No word was spoken. They only looked and looked, and one was in chains, but inspirited with righteous wrath. The other wore the uniform of a Turkish official, and yet he trembled and seemed afraid.
The prisoner stepped back. The chains rattled. He turned away with a gesture of scorn that made the other feel shivers pass down his spine, and he stuttered.
“I—I—know you. You are A—
“Yes,” replied the other. “You were my friend.”
Friend! What a word to use Here! The word took on form and towered like a giant in front of the helper. He saw himself in all his baseness. He was in terror at his own likeness. Ah!—how much blood he had shed for these shining buttons on his uniform. Involuntarily he touched one of the buttons. It was cold like ice. He drew his hand back quickly. How many years had he feigned to be a friend to this hero who fought for freedom, and how many just like him he had tricked and brought to ruin. He touched his sword, then drew his hand back, and glanced at the heavy chains of his old friend and former companion in the strife for liberty. Which was better, the sword of the Turkish official or those rusty chains of the martyr for freedom? This question which he thought he had decided long ago, came up again.
It is night—a gloomy night. A restless wind roamed under the black sky. The helper started for the prison. The superintendent had called him. His walk did not have its usual animation. The darkness was not pleasant, nor the wind either. He kept thinking of things he did not wish to think of. How hard he had tried to hide himself that morning when A— climbed to the gallows. He did not succeed. The prisoner seemed to search for him. He found him. He looked at him again just as he had looked at him on the place of execution. Before he died he wished to burn that look of scorn and contempt into his brain. There—before him in the dark—were two burning points—eyes. He could not go on. He stopped. They were the eyes of his friend. They were just like them—just so large. Should he go on? He meditated a moment and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the two eyes were still looking at him again—only they were larger and there was a different expression within them. He started to run. The eyes disappeared. It was a cat which leaped ahead of him. He laughed at his fear, but he walked faster than usual.
At length he reached the prison yard. He looked timidly toward the place of execution of the morning. He thought the man was buried and all was over. But he saw the body gleaming through the darkness. And when the wind touched it, the gallows moaned and moaned. And the wind carried the sound on and on. The helper ran without looking up, but as he neared the gallows his steps were heavier and heavier. The old shuddering swept over his body. At last, trembling, he entered the room of the overseer. It was light there. At least there was a human being there. The superintendent did not look up; he was thoughtful and both were silent.
“Now you can sleep,” remarked the helper in order to break the oppressive silence. “Now the chains do not rattle.”
“Hark! Don’t you hear that?” Outside, above the sound of the wind, came plainly the creaking of the gallows. It was a sad, monotonous sound, a gigantic slumber song over the body of the heroic dead.
“Why is he not buried?”
“That is what I have called you for. To-morrow morning you are to take him down and bury him—because you were his friend.”
The helper was silent. What an ironic play of wit was this. Anyway he will not make any noise, thought the helper.
The superintendent dropped his head; his eyes were in the shadow. Slowly the helper got upon his feet, took up the lamp and held it in front of the trembling face of the overseer. The overseer threw back his head in anger, grabbed the lamp from the hand of the helper, threw it upon the floor and smashed it into pieces.
“You cowardly betrayer—he was your friend!”
The room was in darkness. In every corner shone a dozen gleaming eyes that kept growing larger and larger. It was frightful; he wished to get away. But he could not find the door. He circled vainly around and around. At last he stumbled upon it. Carefully he opened it and stuck his head out. It was no less terrifying outside; blackness and wind, and the creaking gallows. Ah!—what a sound was that! It penetrated the marrow of his bones and made him suffer. Up there the dead man was shaking in the wind. Where should he go? He made up his mind to run as fast as he could, but he had only taken a few steps when something forced him to look up. There in front of him, in the darkness, were two gleaming, swollen eyes, streaked with blood. His knees gave way. Trembling he turned back toward the door of the overseer.
“Cowardly betrayer!'* murmured the overseer again. The helper turned and ran again. But this time the wind blocked his way and he found himself beneath the gallows. This time the dead man did not seem to be angry. The eyes looked down at him sympathetically and the lips said: “Friend, Friend.”
He twisted and crawled along like a snake. Then with feverish haste he put up the ladder, climbed it, and untied the rope. The corpse fell. Quickly he twisted the same noose about his own neck and swung himself up into the air. With the angry voice of the wind there mingled the peculiar choking sound of a human voice—and then the sound came no more. The two dead men looked at each other, one upon the ground, and the other swinging high in the darkness and the wind.
This work is a translation and has a separate copyright status to the applicable copyright protections of the original content.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1948, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 74 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1961, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 61 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.