Open main menu
CHAPTER XVII
 

AWAITING THE HEMLOCK

 

I BEGAN to look around me. My cell was not very large, four steps in length and three wide. It had a massive, vaulted ceiling, so low that I could almost reach it with my hand; but, when I started to do this, the soldier cried in a voice that seemed made for intimidation:

"That is not allowed. I shall shoot!"

I left the ceiling in peace and turned to the window, which was not more than a foot square, was heavily barred and so nearly covered by boards on the outside that I could only see a narrow strip of black night sky and some stars. They shone calmly and indifferently, quite as they had when, in my little-appreciated freedom, I watched them as I hunted in the gorges of the Sikhota Alin, as I cruised the softly undulating waters of the Japan Sea or as I wandered the thronged and laughter- loving boulevards of the Paris I had known so well and that now seemed as far from me as the Palace of the Tsar must have seemed to the life-prisoners in the cells of Sakhalin. Once more the calm and majestic indifference of Nature impressed me.

"That is not allowed. I shall shoot," came again the voice of the soldier and drove my thoughts from me.

"What is not allowed? To think?"

"It is not permitted to go near the window. If you do, I shall shoot," repeated the soldier.

I saw that my liberty was destined to be somewhat restricted. Sitting down on the narrow iron bed, I began inspecting the walls by the light of the smoking lamp hanging from the ceiling. The sides of my domicile were plastered but were terribly dirty, badly cracked and covered with spots and innumerable inscriptions. In the corner immediately above the bed was a big wet-looking place, which, when I touched it, proved to be ice. Evidently water had been leaking in through a hole in the roof and, in the severe cold of the Manchurian winter, had frozen in the room.

"It is not allowed to touch the walls," the soldier grunted.

"You will shoot?"

"Yes," he mumbled, "according to the regulations."

"Wise regulations," I remarked. But the soldier made no answer, only keeping his face there in the aperture and staring at me with apparently anxious, servile eyes.

I was still sitting in my fur coat and cap. When I took them off, intolerable cold penetrated to my very bones, causing me to tremble and shudder so, that there was nothing to do but to get back into my furs and lie down on the inhospitable bed, which creaked and bent under my weight, seeming to take revenge upon me by poking me in the side with a broken bar. Dampness and a sharp, acid odour came from the hard pillow, while the military blanket had a terrible smell and felt almost wet from its contact with the clammy cold.

I lay down with wide-open eyes, thinking of nothing but always feeling the persistent stare of the soldier. Soon I was conscious of the fact that I was really thinking of nothing at all and began to search for the reason of this unusual state of my mind. The answer was not far to seek. Instinctively my whole organism was feeling the uncertainty of each new moment. I had been thrown into this military prison, the most relentless and most stern of all, in a disgusting hole of a cell with frozen, damp walls and with a miniature barred window covered with planks. I realized clearly that at any moment they could take me out into the yard, stand me against the wall and put some nickel bullets into me; and I knew that General Ivanoff would have no scruples about paying the score in this way. Therefore, of what use were any thoughts of mine? So again I stopped thinking and fell to staring at the dirty rounded ceiling, feeling pangs of cold in my feet and up my back.

But a new enemy recalled me to my senses, coming in squads and attacking me with such energy that one might easily have supposed them to belong to the Black Hundreds of the Union of the Russian Nation and to have been sent against me by General Ivanoff with special orders that no quarter be given. I struggled desperately with them, marvelling all the time that my soldier guard did not call to me that this was also not allowed. He simply observed my defensive campaign and was silent.

I saw units made up of large and small members, coming along the wall in such formations that their strategy recalled to my mind that of a well-directed fleet. The big specimens bore down slowly and majestically like dreadnoughts with great waves rolled back at the water line, while on their flanks the little ones scurried like protecting lines of destroyers. This revolting enemy reached far ahead of its time and employed against me all of the known arts of modern warfare; for, catching me on both flanks, it enveloped me in a disgusting odour than which no modern poison gas could have been more repulsive. They even made air raids by crawling up the ceiling and bombing directly down upon me from this vantage point.

"Listen!" I exclaimed to the soldier, "there are too many inhabitants in this cell and there is really no place for me."

"It is not allowed to talk. I——" he began and stopped.

"You will shoot," I answered, finishing his sentence for him. "Very well, but let it be at all these unlicensed intruders."

At this the soldier turned away and laughed in suppressed tones for quite a moment and, when he appeared again at the little grille, his face was less threatening and even a bit merry.

Finally the grey dawn began creeping into the cell. After having covered the whole room with its filmy veil of black, the lamp gave one last death-gasp and went out. The night raiders withdrew their fleets. The soldier on guard was changed; a bugle was heard; the heavy tramp of soldiers' boots sounded down the corridor; shouts, laughs, short, sharp words of command and the rattling of kettles mingled with the noise of passing men to tell me that the soldiers were returning to the guardroom with their tins of tea, Again I heard a distinct command and, following it, the words of the morning prayer chanted by the soldiers:

"O Lord, save Thy people …"

These words had a strange significance here, where it was really only the Almighty who could save the prisoners shut in this awful hole.

Though I was hungry and thirsty, I did not want to ask for anything, not only because of my pride but also because I was surfeited with those words, "It is not allowed! I shall shoot."

As I arose and began to walk, taking four steps for the length of the cell and four steps back, I remembered vividly a bear I had watched in the St. Petersburg Zoo, travelling over in the same manner from one corner of his cage to the other, swaying his head as though in deep despair and casting about glances of inquiry from his little bloodshot eyes.

"I also must have bloodshot eyes, as I have not slept at all," I suddenly thought and even smiled quite involuntarily.

Meantime my guard had been changed, and I found the new one was a young, thin, fair-haired boy, in whose smiling face I was surprised to discover a look of evident good will toward me. I walked for some time, finally becoming giddy with the constant turning motion. For relief I stopped and began to read the scribblings on the dirty wall. For the most part they were in handwritings that were without skill and showed little aptitude in the use of the pen. Many of them were simply curses and oaths, others were love-verses, while one inscription, made with a sharp-pointed instrument in the plaster, arrested my attention and roused within me some indistinct but unbalancing thoughts. Some inmate of the cell, unknown and now dead, had graven in this plaster his final message of despair to the world:

"In an hour's time I shall be shot. … I shall disappear, but my written words shall remain. After all, what is a human life worth?"

A tornado of thought and sentiment swept my mind and heart. Out of it all there came one thought clearer than the rest, and this was my feeling that, if the lawgivers and judges of the land were placed for some days in the same conditions as these of a condemned man in a cell with such an inscription on its walls, there never would be death sentences pronounced in the society of the twentieth century. And possibly, I thought, if a criminal who merits death at the hands of the law could read this simple but mystically terrible inscription, he might be led to weep over his deeds and to curse his crimes for ever, cleansing his heart and soul in a way unknown to the criminal code and to judges, who think logically and loyally but at the same time with coldness and indifference. The inscription remained, while he who wrote it reposes somewhere in a corner of the military burying ground in a grave without a cross, near which no one will weep or sigh; yet, after the death of this author of the words scratched on the walls of his prison cell, there remained those who carried wounds in their hearts and a changeless memory of the man who to them was good, dear and beloved.

On that first morning in Cell No. 5 of the military prison I was ready to add an inscription to that of my predecessor and only refrained from doing it out of fear of hearing once more those sacramental words, degrading to me and to him who pronounced them:

"It is not allowed! I shall shoot."

I looked at my watch and found it was nearly seven o'clock. After another hour I heard a slight commotion in the corridor, accompanied by a broken conversation. The face of the soldier disappeared from the grille, a key rasped in the lock and the Public Prosecutor, Miller, and Colonel Fiedorenko of the gendarmes walked into my cell.

"You were arrested by order of General Ivanoff and will be tried before a field-military court," the Prosecutor officially announced.

"When will the trial take place?"

"The trial will be held in your absence in accordance with the provisions of a special circular order from the Minister of Justice," the Colonel explained, as he thumbed over the papers.

I knew too well the portentous meaning of this. The whole of Russia groaned under the bloody hand of a great body of independent military courts, called "express tribunals," which dealt specially with the revolutionists and sentenced thousands of them to death. I felt as though my heart had stopped in my breast and a lump of ice had taken its place. However, I mastered my emotion and, forcing myself to speak calmly, I asked:

"May I write letters to my family, sir?"

"You will still have time for this," the Prosecutor answered, as he gave a glance full of meaning toward the Colonel. They went away, and the door clanged behind them. As the key once more scraped in the lock, the face of the soldier, full of real pity, appeared at the opening.

After my uncongenial visitors had gone, I was brought a cup of tea with a slice of the black bread of the soldiers as my breakfast. For the noon meal I received a plate of cabbage soup, a dish of black gruel and a piece of bread. In the evening the leg which I had twisted during the fight with the hunghutzes at Udzimi gave signs of protest against the unheated cell and began to be excruciatingly painful. Unable to walk, I went to bed and could not move my foot to get up, when the warder brought me in an evening meal of a plate of gruel, tea and the ceremonial bit of bread. The hip joint was so swollen and painful that I groaned and hissed like an angry python. Fortunately the changing guards at the door of Cell No. 5 did not forbid me to groan, so that I was left this one consoling outlet for my feelings.

This second night again I did not sleep, as I spent it fighting with the fleet and the escadrilles of my enemies of the night before, reinforced by another branch of more important, though less disagreeable, antagonists. These were the big, reddish-grey rats with long, bare tails, which came from holes and cracks around the floor in whole families and soon occupied all the desirable terrain in front of my position. They seemed to think that an armistice had been forced on me at the very outset, as they jumped on my bed and on the bench, where the remnants of the bread and gruel remained and, as confident as guests in a first-class hotel dining-room, took little heed of my protests. When I hissed at them, they squeaked back a thin answer and watched me for the moment with their shining black eyes.

I only broke off the armistice and engaged in open battle, when an evidently more enterprising and audacious beast jumped from the chair on to my bed and began approaching my face, hypnotizing me with his eyes as he came on. I gave a sudden lunge and a sharp cry. Like ripe pears from a tree, the rats were thrown off my bed and struck the floor with a thud, scampering off in all directions. However, they soon returned and gave evident signs of their intention to divide up my blanket, eat my bread and inspect my face. This became too much, so that I opened an artillery fusillade against them, shying one of my boots into the most compact group and following it with another so effectively that a good bit of squeaking told of the accuracy of my fire. After this they all retreated to their dugouts, and only from time to time a mysterious shadow, gliding through my cell, told me that their scouts were still about. This war with the rats, which sickened and disgusted me, lasted through the whole of my stay in Cell No. 5.

On the second day of my prison life I learned that I was not abandoned by my friends outside. The soldier on guard after dinner was the fair-haired boy whose acquaintance I had already made. For a long time I noticed that he stood in silence and that he was carefully watching the corridor. All of a sudden he caught my eye and gave a hiss, at the same time throwing a folded bit of paper through the grille. Someone from the great realm of liberty outside our prison walls had written me of momentous events. The travesty of a trial in absentia had already taken place, and we had been condemned to death by shooting. Then this was the end of it all—"… but to the grave."

However, a difference of opinion had developed in the Staff of General Ivanoff, where a large group of influential officers was opposed to the sentence and strongly urged a retrial, not before the "express tribunal" but before the regular military court. Many different elements in the civil population also supported this demand.

"Do not despair," continued my unknown correspondent, "for telegrams have been sent to St. Petersburg in your behalf; and, although General Ivanoff intercepted and stopped the first messages, we have found a way to circumvent him."

This promised help held a shadow of hope, however small—and it appeared very small; for Ivanoff, possessing unlimited powers, need pay little heed to protests and might order any night that we be taken from the cells and shot down, thus making of the question a simple fait accompli. This method was one much in vogue during the time of the Tsars, just as it has been under their successors, the Soviets, of which we have an illustration in the shooting down at Petrograd of the Prelate Budkiewicz in this year of 1924, which has revolted the whole civilized world.

Now to my old enemies, my night adversaries and the terrible pain in my leg, a new foe, the most harassing and unmerciful, was added. This was terror. Any talk in the corridor a little louder than usual, the noise of grounding arms, the entrance of the guard with the food—all of these brought me up with a bound to listen with bated breath for what might be coming next. Then, without the necessary will power to stop myself, I arranged my tie and my clothes, as though I were to go out immediately to return nowhere and never. From hour to hour and from minute to minute I awaited and expected the final messenger.

For two whole days I had no news from the outside world. Finally the watchman brought me a white roll and a sausage, saying that they had been sent me from town. For these past two days, owing to my terror and distress, I had eaten nothing, and even now I should not have eaten these really dainty morsels, were it not for the thought that in them I might find something better and more welcome than food. So, making a pretence of eating, I munched the roll and broke off little pieces, until I found that, surely enough, there was enclosed in it a small tightly rolled tube of tissue paper. Carefully, to avoid detection, I unrolled the paper and read:

"The telegrams went to St. Petersburg."

There was nothing more, and the terror stayed with me, as my situation was really unchanged. Just as before, death was right over my head; and, even though the telegram might make a favourable impression in St. Petersburg, the answer could easily be too late, for General Ivanoff had no need to wait in ordering execution of the sentence imposed.

After another day of this torture of waiting for death had passed, I heard, in the evening, when the prison had grown quiet, the noise of voices and of footsteps in the corridor. In a moment my door was opened and General Ivanoff entered, followed by the Captain who was in charge of the prison.

"Death …" thought I, "the end!"

"Cell No. 5, the political prisoner Ossendowski, condemned to be shot, General," the old Captain announced.

"Nobody asked you, Captain," grunted the General, and, without adding anything, turned and went out.

I heard the door of the neighbouring cell open but I could not catch the words of the Captain.

"Surely they will make an end of me this night," I thought, as I pressed together my icy hands. The night hours dragged interminably for me; the prison was quiet; the guards changed with little noise in the corridors; while from the yard floated up the call of the sentinels:

"Take care! Take care!"

I paid no attention to my night raiders. In my distraught state of mind I developed the idea that they understood my torture and, in mercy, left me alone. Nor did I feel the pain in my leg or have any sense of hunger and thirst. For hours long I sat with my eyes fixed on the door, ever expecting it to open for someone to give me the signal to go. With the highest tension I listened to each sound in the prison and the yard.

Finally this seemingly endless night of torture yielded to a day that was but little less harassing to my overwrought nerves. Then at evening, when I once more in benumbed misery faced another night of expecting death, the Commander of the Prison abruptly entered my cell and informed me that I was to be moved to Cell No. 11. This gripped me as a bad sign, for I knew well the custom of the prison to transfer intended victims to another cell in preparation for the execution. There were no formalities, as I needed only to take my hat and coat and follow the Commander down the corridor to my new abode.

Neither I nor anyone else shall ever phrase my feeling, as the door was opened and I was received with shouts of joy by Nowakowski, Lepeshinsky and three others of my associates on the Central Committee.

"Hurrah!" shouted Lepeshinsky, as gay as ever. "Witte[1] has ordered the decision of the 'express tribunal' to be annulled and our case to be brought before the regular military court. There they will not condemn us to death!" Good news, indeed, was this, after five days of continuous expectation of execution!

I often thought afterwards how entirely relative is the idea of happiness. We struggle during our whole lives, straining our minds and physical strength to gain material welfare and a stable place in society. We are always grumbling and always longing for better conditions. Suddenly a catastrophe overthrows us violently, leaving life hanging by a thread. Then the slightest improvement in the extreme conditions is regarded as a supreme happiness. It was so with me on January 22nd, 1906, and then I understood the meaning of life and the want of reality in some of our ideology.

Notes

  1. Count S. J. Witte had now become Prime Minister at St. Petersburg.