Open main menu

From President to Prison/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV
 

UNCONDEMNED PRISON COMPANIONS

 

ONCE, when I was labouring under the irritating influence of such a period of depression, I happened to be walking up and down near our beds of cucumbers and tomatoes. As I made out something moving among the leaves, I began to search for the cause and found a young sparrow with an injured wing. I had, naturally, no idea whence he came nor how he had received his injury, but in my own condition of restricted movement, I felt a particularly keen sympathy for him, took him to my cell and washed and dressed his wound. After I had bound his wing to his body with a bandage, I placed him on the window sill, where my bit of gauze that had been stretched to keep out the flies, this veritable plague of Harbin, was an all-sufficient prison wall for him. Then I made him a nest in a little box, put water and food near it and went away. When I returned, I was as happy as a boy at seeing that he had been pecking at the bread, and I felt quite sure that he would recover, though I had much anxiety as to his ability to fly again.

After some days my little cell-mate became quite tame, taking his food readily from my hand and making known, with piercing little shrieks, his wish to be moved from the window to the table. Several days later I decided to take off the dressing. As soon as the little fellow was relieved of his bandages, he began a noisy demonstration of his joy, jumping into the air, fluttering his wings and trying to fly. On the first day he made no success of it, but on the second he managed to flutter from the window to my table, overturning my inkstand in a particularly bad landing he made. From this moment on he became more and more adept and was soon making lively rounds close to the ceiling and filling the cell with his vivacity and chirping.

I was greatly relieved by the companionship of my fellow-prisoner and was really deeply impressed by the manner in which he showed his keen sensibility to my state of mind. I had frequent proofs of it. When I was in a peaceful, calm mood, he acted as though he were almost mad, lighted on my shoulder or my head, pecked me mischievously or hopped about on my paper. When, as was so often the case, I was sad and dull, the bird would sit silent and motionless on the window sill, looking at me. Then, however, only a glance and a smile or a chirp to him was sufficient to rouse him and bring him tumbling over to my table, to jump and chirp about in his very evident endeavour to cheer me up. At dawn he would waken me with flying about the cell or by lighting on my face and peeping at me, insistent that I should get up to provide him with his breakfast and fresh water for his bath.

He was veritably a wise little creature, for he knew men and understood them, as he looked into their souls with his black, beady eyes. He liked the Commandant of the Prison, who came for an inspecting round each week. The moment he entered, the bird gave him a greeting of unmistakable friendliness, lighted on the table and, hopping about in a most amusing manner, would cautiously manoeuvre for a good position near the gallooned sleeve of the visitor. But when the Prosecutor came, he acted quite differently, usually hiding in his nest and keeping entirely silent. If the Prosecutor remained for a longer time in the cell, the bird would sometimes perch on the window sill, spread his wings and squeak abuses in common, hysterical tones. Once the door had closed behind the unwelcome guest, my winged friend would immediately start flying about joyfully and showing his evident pleasure.

When I made sure that the sparrow was quite well and strong, I decided to set him free, to send him back as a messenger, as it were, to that world of liberty which was so near in linear feet but so immeasurably distant in fact from those of us who could not accompany him. I took him out into the yard, where nearly the whole prison had assembled to bid him God-speed. As I lifted my hand from his wings, he arose like an unhooded falcon in quest of his quarry and shot up toward the trees just outside the prison wall. Though he never came back, I was not angry with him, for I understood that liberty, to which he was restored, was the highest right and greatest treasure of living beings and that, with it and its ramifications, any creature might be all-engrossed.

Remaining as long as I did in prison, I found and developed many interesting and gratifying friendships among animals. In the number of these friends I counted cats, dogs, rats, tortoise, fish, a hen and—a spider. Through these acquaintances in the animal kingdom I learned, first of all, that animals are tamed very readily, but that they must be given to know what man wants of them and that he will give them what they desire. Also I came to feel sure that animals have a sixth sense, telepathic, very acute and something akin to the "side line" of the fish. By its medium they sense and understand the psychology of other living beings around them, not even excepting spiritually complicated man.

Rats, for instance, these big grey rodents, so bold, greedy and cautious, are quickly tamed and can be moulded into friends. However, to reveal the condemning truth, they are entirely actuated by selfish motives; for they give thought to their own welfare only and for this will make diplomatic agreements with man. In my cell there was a nest of these rodents, and, as I do not like such fellow-lodgers, I was planning to stop up the hole, when I observed that the colony consisted of only a mother and five little ones. It became evident that the mother was a widow, since I never saw a second grown one which could be regarded as the husband, and the old rat had, according to my way of thinking, such a sad and depressed look as well became a widow.

Never more than six grey figures glided through the darkness of my cell. One evening when all of them came out of the hole together, I tried an experiment by stamping sharply and watched them scuttle back under the floor. After a moment the old one poked her nose out and emerged cautiously. Gradually she moved farther from the hole and then gave a low call, which brought two little heads above the horizon. When I stamped again, they disappeared, the widow hiding this time behind my box. Once more, when she satisfied herself that quiet reigned, she gave another signal that brought the little ones out, only to be driven back by my repetition of the threatening noise. After this warning, the old one did not appear, but I had the feeling that she was somewhere watching me and trying to make out my wishes. Once there seemed no other development immediately ahead, I threw a bit of sugar on the floor. In an instant the mother appeared from somewhere, snatched it up and disappeared with it in the hole. When she returned immediately, I tossed her a second piece and in this way contributed six consecutive lumps to her larder, one for herself and one for each of her children. From that evening forth I acted thus as her commissary agent twice each day and derived quite unexpected results from my services. The young ones never came out at all, only the widow presenting herself each morning and evening for their rations. At other times I never saw her. If, when she came for supplies, I did not at once notice her, she would scramble upon my box, rise up on her hind-legs and say something to me in low, unobtrusive tones. Then, when I had doled out to her the regulation six pieces of bread, sugar or ham, she immediately carried them off piece by piece into her hole and disappeared for another twelve hours.

One evening the whole family came out again, with the widow leading them and gazing for a moment very knowingly at me, as though she seemed to be saying:

"You understand, don't you?"

The children followed her very quietly and in regular military order. The procession crossed the cell and disappeared into the corridor through a crack under the door. A little later they returned, paraded before me and disappeared in their dugout. From that day forth this review occurred each evening and led me to observe that they went down the corridor to the wash-room in search of water. Evidently the mother was no longer nursing the little ones, so that her offspring had to go for a drink.

Some weeks later the family disappeared without ever returning, and the hole was left empty. I took it for granted that, with the children growing up, the mother had to take them to a centre of more culture than the criminal prison to give to the young rats the benefits of better training and education.

In her relations with me I saw plainly the selfish characteristics of the widow in the fact that she never came to see me save in connection with her own material affairs. She understood that I did not want her family under my feet, on my bed and in my box and not only acquiesced in this, but, as I paid her well, made an agreement with me, which she kept until the day of her departure. However, I must explain that she gave ample evidence of understanding my moods, for in the time of my moral depression she carried away her food rapidly and noiselessly, as though she had no wish to intrude herself into my thoughts. On the other hand, when I was in a brighter mood, she acted very differently, squeaking joyfully and even shaking and tossing the morsels I gave to her, at the same time jumping about in a far from graceful but very amusing manner.

While mentioning my animal friends, I cannot refrain from including a word about a sorcerer, who entered my cell and took up his abode therein. This was a large, dark-yellow spider with a black cross on its back. I had no idea how it came in, thinking that I had perhaps brought it on my clothes from somewhere among my tomato vines. Once inside, it had stretched its web in a corner of the window and lay in ambush for its game. As I saw that it was destined to perish from hunger, owing to the fact that my gauze allowed no flies to enter, and learning from other prisoners that a spider is a fine companion in a cell, I caught flies for it in the yard and threw them into its web, until I was afraid it would burst from over-feeding and want of the customary exercise of its primitive ancestors, who had to roam the wood for their subsistence.

It was an extraordinary creature. I knew by its conduct one or two days in advance whether we were to have fair weather, storm or rain, indicated by the position which my barometer assumed in the middle of its web. Before a coming storm it held tightly to the web with all its feet or even bound itself to it with extra threads; before rain it rolled itself into a ball in one corner of the web and gathered all its legs up underneath its body; while, when dry, hot weather was approaching, it spread its legs as widely as it could, holding on with only two, or even at times with only one of them. I used to wonder whether the spider had rheumatism or had suffered some accident like mine in Udzimi, as I was also very sensitive to all changes in the weather.

But what was more incredible and strange for me was the conduct of my spider when I was in low spirits or filled with longing to be away. Whereas it was usually quite indifferent to me, at such times it showed definite signs of nervous agitation, running across its web, as if to attract my attention, and, when it found this of no avail, even making the web sway back and forth and swinging from it.

One day I sat near the table in a brown study, pressing my head between my hands. Sad thoughts filled my mind, and I was far away from the prison walls, even far away from Asia. Suddenly I felt as though some one were carefully observing me, but I looked round and saw nobody. Glancing about for the spider, I could not find it anywhere. It was neither on its web nor in the window. As this was its first disappearance since it had taken up lodgings with me, I made a search of the walls and room and finally located it. It was right there on the table before me, having let itself down from the ceiling by its self-made aerial route and landed on a clean sheet of white paper that lay among my books. Its two forelegs were raised toward me, and I felt that it was scrutinizing me with its mysterious eyes. It sat in motionless concentration and above it, reaching up to the ceiling, intermittently glittered the silken strand down which it came. Its stern look and upraised feelers reminded me of an ill-tempered teacher scolding a pupil and involuntarily made me laugh outright at the changed being. At this turn of affairs my preceptor, clumsily managing its heavy body, backed away a few steps and transformed itself into the most agile of acrobats, as it reascended its silken path. In a few minutes it was back in the middle of its net, quite evidently calm and pleased, and foretold fair weather. I at once went out and caught it some flies as a reward for diverting me from my sad and burdening thoughts. Apparently wishing to prove that it was well bred and not of a greedy turn of mind, it did not touch any of them for quite a time.

Impressions and observations of this character seem to me now, as I ponder over them, peculiar and almost limited to individuals who live for long months, or even years, quite outside the bournes of ordinary life. There in this desert region, every small thing attracts and holds the attention of the solitary individual, who understands and feels it all through his over-sensitized soul, nerves and mind and who is distracted by nothing, troubled by nothing and fired by nothing.