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CHAPTER XXVI
 

"SARYN DA NA KIECHKU"

 

THE prison is asleep. A light, easily roused slumber has gradually drawn its quieting mantle over the bodies stretched out on wooden beds or benches and covered with spotted blankets, or simply the ordinary grey cloaks of the prisoners. No noises of scraping bolts and rattling locks are heard; only the loud tread of the guard on duty in the corridor breaks the unusual silence. At times the measured reports of his steps die down and his dimming outline disappears in the darkness, to emerge again a few moments later in the lighted end of the long corridor, behind whose grated and barred doors the unhappy inmates sleep or ponder how they may escape. For the nonce the oaths and curses invented by the prisoners, the scoldings of the keepers and the continuous clankings of the irons have ceased.

Cell No. 1, opposite my little window, is also silent, held in the dim thrall of a small lamp that gives forth a cloud of odours but very little light. In the corner near the door there stands a big iron bucket, the parasha, the worst torture of the criminal prison. On the wooden benches along the walls are sleeping about one hundred of the most important members of the colony of condemned, for these are the so-called "Ivans" or old, hardened habitual criminals, men who for years have been intimately acquainted with all the prisons of Russia, with the stupefying cold of the Siberian winters, with the katorga or penal colony of enforced hard labour, with Zerentoui, Akatoui and Onor.

Cell No. 1 had this night gone late to rest, for long after midnight their card-playing continued in spite of the threatening calls of the guards. One among them, Basil Drujenin, did not sleep. He lay on his back with his hands under his head and stared out of his wide-open eyes at the circle of yellow light which the lamp threw on the dirty ceiling. He was pondering stubbornly over something, and at times his eyes brightened as some wave of hope swept through his dreams. Finally, as an idea struck him, he suddenly sat up and loosed the noisy spirits that seemed always to be hiding in his irons. From the benches around him came the mutterings of his dreaming mates, indistinct words, generally meaningless but sometimes charged with terrible coherency.

Basil sat for a long time listening and waiting. Finally, before dawn, there travelled along the bricks of the wall an indistinct sound, that told it had come through winding and circuitous ways. It was repeated a second time and Drujenin smiled. He knew and recognized the signal of his friend, Elia Lapin, who was living out a punishment in irons in a subterranean cell. Thrice Basil struck the wall with his own irons to apprise his friend that he was listening. Then he heard more distinctly the combination of raps so well known to every prisoner—one loud stroke, five low ones and again two heavy blows, which was the regular code form of Saryn da na kiechku.

Drujenin smiled joyfully and, stretching himself across his bed, answered with one sharp knock on the wall. Again silence ruled, for the prisoner, after the last clanking of his irons as he turned on his side, seemed to have fallen asleep.

In the east the skies soon reddened, for a new day, a prison day, was once more beginning. The guard rang a bell, swung near the stairway, and shouted:

"Take out the parashas! Quick!"

Up from the benches rose those among the men who had not lost all sense of obedience to commands or who, perhaps, were morally weaker in their resistance of other wills upon their own, and took out the awful iron buckets. At the same time activity began in the kitchen, where the prisoners on duty started rattling the copper and tin kettles, preparing water for tea or setting the balanda, or soup, to cook. Such a hubbub was set up by this rattling of the kettles, the chopping of the meat, the laughter, shouts and ever-present oaths, that no one could expect or hope for sleep. Throughout the prison the men rose, stretched and washed, accompanying it all with a ceaseless stream of monstrous oaths. No one muttered a prayer; no one made the sign of the Holy Cross.

As Drujenin rose, he came to the middle of the room with his clanking irons and there stopped to attach them by a leather thong to his belt. He was a man of thirty years, short but strong and graceful; not what one would call good-looking but having bold, hazel eyes, which seemed never to wink and thus not only gave to his face a dreamy character but an impression of the watchfulness of a wild animal.

After a few moments the guard opened the door, so that the prisoners could go down to the kitchen for their tea and bread. Returning with the hot beverage and lumps of the prison black bread, the men ate and drank in silence, hid their cups as they finished and then split up into little groups. The greater part of them began playing cards, quarrelling and even fighting among themselves over the game; others read newspapers or well-thumbed books; while a few wrote letters to people who possibly no longer existed or who, perhaps, lived only in their imaginations. Generally these were love-letters. Three Georgians sat apart by themselves and in low voices exchanged short sentences, full of sadness and longing.

"In the Caucasus it must be like a real paradise now," said one of them.

"Everything is in white and pink bloom. Plum and cherry trees make lovely dots all over the green hillside," the second one added.

"In the evening when the sun is setting, everything is silent, so silent. … The herds wind back to the aouls," came from a third, as, with a sigh, he pressed his head between his hands.

"Don't sigh so, you folks from the Caucasus!" one of the other prisoners called over to them. "Without your sighs one dies from longing here. To the devil with you!"

The Georgians only raised their heads, looking like birds of prey.

In the farthest corner of the room a quarrel began over a game in which one of the players had cheated. During the inevitable struggle that followed, knives were bared, and soon the guards took away two wounded men to the hospital. But the affair was soon forgotten and only tranquillity seemed ever to have ruled in the place, as an old white-haired man and a boy, who could not have been over fourteen years of age, sat on a window sill, feeding the pigeons that lighted without fear upon their hands and shoulders.

Under the depressing burden of a day, aimless but full of noise, which was everywhere perceptible, all of the prisoners became more and more sad and silent. Only the old experienced Ivans did not lose their temper. These hardened old philosophers were always ready to give their lives for even a few days of liberty and they lived ever buoyed by the hope of this fleeting joy, which they knew they could gain only through their own strength, courage and inventive faculties. To attain this supreme aim the Ivans always had hidden away in some hole known only to themselves an acid to soften brick and mortar, pyroxylin for blowing out a wall, poison, a saw and a knife. Carelessly and easily they risked their lives and quite as readily took those of others, especially if the life in question was that of a ment (keeper) or a "retriever" (traitor).

Drujenin, lost in thought and apparently oblivious to the life around him, paced up and down the room. In a little while every one turned out for a walk, so that the crowd filled the exercise enclosure in the yard, which was surrounded by the high picket fence that made a cage of it. The men began to run about, to race one another, to toss a ball they had made out of rags and to play at checkers or cards. Drujenin, as he walked about, approached one of the older Ivans and exchanged a few words with him. Then he went off and stood in a comer of the cage, evidently waiting for someone.

In a few moments Elia Lapin came out and entered the enclosure. He carried on his wrists and ankles the heaviest of irons, those used in punishment, while on his whitish-grey face he wore an expression of malignancy and fatigue, which was accentuated by the contrast of the threatening, sharp eyes that looked out from under heavy brows. He walked with feet far apart in a rolling gait, dragging his burdened ankles with a strain that alternately bent and straightened his great, strong back. Without speaking to any one else, he went straight to Drujenin and began to whisper:

"You have the 'hair' (saw)?"

"Yes."

"That is good, for the bars in the wash-room window have got to be cut. You understand?"

Drujenin gave a nod of his head and, leaving his companion, mixed with the other prisoners but all the time he was keeping his eye on the guard and, the moment he was sure the man was not watching, he sidled up to one of the palings in the fence, leaned lazily against it and began rubbing it with something. After a moment he felt a sharp scratch on his finger, rolled over closer to the fence to cover his movements and took from the disclosed slit in the side of the bar a long thin hack-saw blade. Having hidden it inside his blouse, he turned away and began walking leisurely up and down, whistling unconcernedly as he went. Then, after a turn or two, he came up to the fence dividing the cage of the criminals from the yard of the political prisoners and spoke to me in a low voice:

"Comrade, if you hear anything to-night, do not be disturbed, and say nothing to anyone."

"Saryn da na kiechku?" He nodded in affirmation and turned away.

Drujenin was one of those ordinary men of whom the Russian system often made criminals. He had been a simple peasant, following the occupation of a Siberian hunter. Once, when he was returning from one of his regular expeditions into the woods, he was arrested by the police and accused of having taken part in an attack upon a mail courier. Although there was no evidence against him except the bare fact that he was simply found tramping along the road where the attack was made and was carrying his rifle, the examining magistrate kept him in prison for the whole period of the investigation. After a year of hopeless waiting without seeing the case come to final trial, Drujenin escaped and, during the pursuit, wounded two soldiers, was recaptured and then incarcerated on the charge of two crimes.

When I first made Drujenin's acquaintance, he had already spent five years in prison. From time to time despair overpowered him and, under the scourge of it, he attacked the guards like an infuriated beast, only to pay the inevitable penalty of a period in irons. Yet, in spite of these temporary fits of wild rage, the prison authorities were fond of Drujenin, for he was at other times polite and reserved. The Commandant of the Prison even went so far as to admit to me one day that he was sure the man was undergoing an unjust imprisonment as the victim of a judicial error.

Following a hot day, as noisy as usual, the twilight finally came to bring us the cool of evening, though this had to be offset by the smelling lamps in the rooms. After supper we suddenly heard a shrill whistle, protracted and strong.

"That is Lapin," whispered one of the Ivans, as he winked knowingly at his companion.

"We must be ready," added a second one; and, going to the door, he shouted in the corridor: "Music and the theatre!"

As though by military command, singing started in all the cells, followed by dances with great stamping of boots and all sorts of extraordinary noises in accompaniment. This was the "music," and, when the guards sought to restore quiet among the prisoners, "the theatre" began, that is, rows, quarrels, requests for the prison starosta and for the Commandant of the Prison, who "persecutes the prisoners" and makes their lot unnecessarily hard by denying them the innocent pleasure of dancing and song. These rows and discussions kept the whole upper storey of the prison in a constant turmoil until ten o'clock.

In the meantime Drujenin took no part in the disturbances, simply looking on with a disdainful smile at all this useless hubbub. When it had quieted down, he approached the Commandant of the Prison and said meekly:

"Sir Chief, please relieve me of my irons. See how they have chafed and wounded my wrists and ankles! I shall never again deserve punishment at your hands."

The Commandant, having remarked the conduct of Drujenin during the row and thinking by this bit of diplomacy to allay the excitement running through the whole prison, ordered him to the smithy to have his irons taken off. In a little while the happy man returned without his chains and with sparkling eyes that told of his relief.

As two of the prisoners were about to go to the washroom for the parasha, Drujenin said to one of them:

"You remain here. Do you understand? I shall do it for you."

As he arrived with the second prisoner in the washroom, he whispered something to the men who were already there from the other cells, at which they all began washing the buckets with a great noise and such scuffling or horse-play among the receptacles that they kept up a continuous racket. During this time Drujenin cut the light bars over the wash-room window. When he had finished his task, he jumped up on the sill, and looked carefully around to see whether there was anyone about before he dropped to the ground. Just below the window there was an old, long-unused well, with which the mains of the heating system came together from conduits that led to the several buildings.

The man who had helped Drujenin replaced the window-bars in such a way that they would not be noticed except after close inspection, and, after a few moments, all the men returned with the parashas to their different rooms. As the roll-call of the prisoners always took place during the supper hour, the disappearance of Drujenin could only be discovered in the morning. The precaution was taken by his cell-mates to have a dummy, made of his clothes, lying on his boards covered with a blanket.

Once Drujenin had alighted on the ground, he carefully removed the rotten planking over the old well and let himself down, hanging on with his hands, until his feet searched out the opening of the conduit through which the mains passed. Then he carefully scrambled down and entered this narrow tunnel and crawled along it with his sides scraping the walls and his head knocking against the dirty covering. At intervals he saw faint streaks of light breaking into the conduit and proceeded much more cautiously where these showed, for he knew that this light was shining down through cracks in a floor and could not be certain whether it came from rooms occupied by the authorities or from a cell. At one of these places he struck his head against a small bit of wood that had been stuck between the boards and there he stopped, rapped carefully on the flooring and was rewarded by the sound of the slow, heavy steps of a man in irons and by a hoarse, hushed voice which whispered:

"Fly! No one has yet noticed anything."

It was Lapin speaking, he who had found this conduit during his confinement in the subterranean cell and had excavated a branch tunnel in the direction of the wall, working in the ground like a mole in order that someone from among his prison associates might escape from the death or madness that threatened him. He himself could not make use of this avenue of freedom because of his heavy irons, which, however, had not prevented him from doing all this burrowing work for some unknown member of the prison colony. It turned out happily that the candidate for escape was none other than his friend and old prison companion, Drujenin, or "Vaska," as he was generally known among the others.

The criminal prisoner condemned to a long term of servitude dreams ever of the possibilities of an escape and is consequently always preparing something for such an eventuality. He secretly removes bricks from the walls, saws the boards in the floor, slowly and laboriously cuts through iron bars, gives anything asked for a saw, a knife or the short crowbar which is called by the prisoners a "Tommy" and is used for breaking locks and sometimes even achieves to the ownership of a shpayer or revolver. Such preparations for escape sometimes become a real mania in the older habitués, as their thoughts and hands are continuously working in this direction. No official knows the plan of the prison so well as the Ivans do. They are minutely acquainted with every possible hiding hole, especially those that are underground, because from these it is easier to burrow the tunnels that will take them beyond the walls and to liberty.

During my wanderings through different prisons I frequently saw in the possession of the prisoners astonishingly detailed plans of several "stone sacks," carrying the dimensions of the space separating the outer walls from the most advantageous places for making escapes, as well as remarks as to the type of earth one would have to deal with, hard or friable, sandy or stony, wet or dry.

After Drujenin stopped under Lapin's cell and received from him the assurance that all was clear, he continued along the conduit in search of the lateral which Lapin had drifted in for him. His friend had evidently given him clear instructions, as he did not make the mistake of turning into any of the side branches but kept right on through the main artery, guiding himself by crawling along the largest pipes, which lay wrapped in asbestos and rags at the bottom of the tunnel. As he passed beneath my own cell, I heard a low scraping noise; but, since he did not attempt to speak to me, I gave him no signal. I must say that I warmly wished he might succeed and I mentally calculated how many more metres he had to go to reach the barrier which separated us all from liberty. I was excited, breathed hard and had hands that were cold from emotion.

Drujenin continued to crawl. Soon he came to the smaller tunnel and advanced a few feet only before his head struck the foundation wall of the building. Here he carefully felt the bricks with his hands until he discovered the hole made by Lapin. From this aperture to the street ran a still smaller mole runway under the enclosure wall. This passage was so much narrower that the fugitive could only lie flat on the earth and wriggle along. He had to move very slowly, as air was scarce and each successive exertion weakened him a little. Just as his heart was pounding furiously and the arteries in his temple were throbbing, Drujenin arrived at an enlarged place, where he could kneel. He felt for the planks which Lapin had told him were placed there to keep the earth from caving and disclosing the outer mouth of the passage.

With better air there, he stopped and listened as in a trance. A dead silence reigned. Assured that the time was ripe, the escaping man carefully removed the boards and made a hole with his hand in the thin covering of earth that was all that now separated him from the outside world and everything it held in store for him. As he slowly pressed his head and shoulders out through the hole, he saw above him the night sky, unbounded by prison walls. With one final spring he was out and ready to make full use of the liberty he had gained.

"Seize him! Seize him!" shouted one of the outside sentinels—and shrill whistles mingled with the sound of running soldiers.

Before Drujenin had time to realize what had happened and to draw his knife, he was thrown from behind, had handcuffs clapped on his wrists and was surrounded by a group of keepers and soldiers under the leadership of the Commandant of the Prison. They quickly took him for his hope-blasting return journey and were soon in the prison office, writing up the record of his escape preparatory to putting him back into his chains.

When he re-entered Cell No. 1 pale as a ghost, with trembling lips and eyes full of pain, no one said a word to him; for they all understood, as though they were their own, the feelings of this man who, with only one step more to go to reach the coveted liberty, had been snatched back into the hated prison with dull, cold despair fastened upon his soul as firmly as the gyves on his body. Drujenin went straight to his bench and threw himself down upon it to the old dirge of his restored irons. For a long time he never moved, and only when he thought that every one else was asleep, did he press his head with his hands and put his face into his pillow to stifle the wails of hopeless suffering which were struggling for expression.

The next day, when the whole room in significant and expectant silence waited for Drujenin to give them the details of the frustrated attempt, the depressed man pronounced only one short sentence:

"Malaika is a retriever (traitor)!"

The news that Malaika, the Tartar, a fellow-inmate of Cell No. 1, had divulged the planned escape to the authorities and that he was to be given as reward, first, the position of cook in the warden's quarters and, later, his freedom, made the round of the prison with lightning speed. In the big room and in several of the smaller cells men gathered in groups and were earnestly discussing something. Finally everything quieted down and Drujenin, in an indifferent voice as though he were reciting some anecdote, told the story of his unsuccessful attempt.

At the regular hour the prisoners went out for their walk in apparently the same manner as on any other day, yet the experienced eyes of the keepers detected a strong undercurrent of excitement running through the crowd. As the prisoners were crossing the yard on the way to the exercise pen, Malaika emerged from the warden's kitchen to go to the ice-house. In a second the men had surrounded him, were pushing him along in their midst to the cage and were joking with him good-naturedly. Though at first greatly frightened, Malaika began quieting down when he discovered that none of the Ivans from Cell No. 1 were in the crowd; but this was only a momentary calm, for he suddenly blanched white, as he discovered this group of old criminals coming out of the building. He was just on the point of crying out to attract the attention of one of the keepers, when a prisoner threw a jacket over his head and successfully muffled him, while the others surrounded him and hid him from any outside observation.

After a moment the jacket was removed, and Malaika trembled, for Lapin stood before him and looked into his face with an expression that told volumes to the frightened man.

"You are afraid," said Lapin, "because you know what you did, you dog of a traitor, and what you have to expect!" He thought a moment and continued:

"I could strike you under the heart and kill you, but I want to give you a chance for salvation. Listen! If you have time to reach the second wall, no one will touch you; if not …"

Lapin had not time to finish, as Malaika had already started pushing his way through the prisoners and was calling wildly for the keepers. Before Malaika had gone very far in the yard, a big prisoner, called "Shilo" or "the Awl," threw himself on the Tartar, who, without stopping, flashed his knife to defend himself. But Shilo was too quick for him, as he stretched his great manacled arms above the traitor's head and brought his irons down upon it with such force that the man dropped as though he had been struck by lightning.

In a twinkling all the prison authorities were on the scene of the tragedy, the dead Malaika was removed to the hospital, the silent Shilo was put in a subterranean cell to await the advent of the examining magistrate, all the prisoners were driven back to their quarters and the doors of the cells throughout the whole building locked.

It is always thus. The sentences pronounced by the prisoners never go unexecuted, though the prison will pardon anything except treason.

Mironoff came to see me that same evening and, after a long silence, cautiously asked:

"Starosta, is not treason the most despicable thing on earth?"

"Yes," I answered briefly.

"You are right," he whispered, and left my cell.

But this was not the end of Saryn da na kiechku. Some days later, during the exercise, I saw Drujenin without his irons. His appearance struck me immediately, for he was so pale that he seemed almost transparent, and his eyes shone as though an interior fire blazed out through them.

"What is the matter?" I inquired of him, coming up to the fence around the pen.

"I cannot live longer in this way," he whispered in answer. "I am at the end of my endurance."

After this laconic and, to me, incomprehensible reply, he turned right away and began talking with Lapin. Suddenly the latter stopped abruptly, listened carefully to what his friend was saying and then evidently began explaining something to him, as I caught him surreptitiously pointing to a place in the outside wall.

I was soon to have all this made clear to me. When the exercise hour was finished and the prisoners were on their way to the building, two men slipped out from the crowd—Lapin and Drujenin. At first no one paid any attention to them, and the guards began to call them only when they had reached the enclosure wall. Suddenly Lapin bent over and leaned with his hands against the wall. Drujenin was on his back in a flash and was shot upward as his companion straightened to his full height. This allowed him to reach the coping with one hand, where he swung for an instant before he could secure a hold with his second and begin to scramble up. Only a second was needed to take him over and outside the barrier, but that small measure of time was withheld from him by the Fate that was guiding his destinies. Two or three guards' rifles cracked, the bullets spattered the bricks, Drujenin straightened out, shuddered for a short instant and then slipped quietly to the ground, where Lapin already lay prone with his powerful hands outstretched.

The tragedies of these two men were ended for ever. They had flown from the prison this time and could never again be recaptured nor brought back within its grinding walls.