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CHAPTER XXVII
 

PRINCES OF THE PRISON

 

ONE day I was sitting in the large common cell, teaching the difficult art of writing. One of the prisoners formed the intricate letters with especial care. His name was Simon Saloff; he was an old man with long, silvery locks and beard, which gave him the appearance of a patriarch from the Bible but which did not prevent him from being a firebrand and a recidivist.

During the lesson I heard a signal in the corridor and, some moments later, I saw a group of people stopping before the grilled door of the cell. Among them I recognized the Prosecutor, the Chief of Police and some other officials. As they entered the room, the Commandant of the Prison ordered every one to his feet and, when we were all standing, whispered something to a greyhaired, grave-looking official with stripes on his sleeve indicating a high rank. This man turned to me and said:

"I thank you for teaching the prisoners. It is a very commendable act on your part."

"I take it that it is no act of special merit but simply a duty which I perform in place of the Government, since it pays no attention to this side of the prison life," I answered with a bow.

The high official looked sharply at me and said, as though to no one in particular:

"There are still many things to be reformed within these walls!"

It turned out that he was Prince Shirinsky-Shikhmatoff, the Inspector-General of all the Russian prisons, who was at this time on a tour of inspection through the institutions of the Far East. He had the name of being a wise and liberal official, a reputation which his acts frequently justified.

The Prince began asking the prisoners whether they had any complaints to make regarding their treatment. As was usually the case, no one responded, for the prisoners almost never phrase complaints to these higher inspecting authorities but prefer to fight their own battles over their rights and privileges. When, however, the Prince asked if they had any petitions to submit to the tribunal, the whole room crowded around him and handed him all manner of requests, scribbled in untutored hands on dirty bits of paper. It is difficult to understand why they persist in doing this, for these petitions are never given any consideration; yet the ceremony of presenting them stubbornly persists and, in the jargon of the prisons, is called "volinka." The secretary of the Prince collected all these documents which the prisoners thrust forward and carelessly shoved them into his dispatch case.

The last to approach the Inspector-General was Saloff, the old patriarch. In a mysteriously impressive manner he recited to the Prince the story of his incarceration and made out a very logical case, showing himself to have been the victim of a judicial error. The words and the voice of the patriarch were fraught with such sincerity that Prince Shirinsky became so interested that he listened attentively and finally came close to the old man, questioned him and began making notes on some paper in his wallet. As he spoke, Saloff so warmed to his subject that his arms loosed themselves in excited and most appealing gestures. He wiped his streaming eyes and beat upon his breast.

When the Prince had noted down the most important details of the case, he turned to the Prosecutor and said:

"I desire personally to go through the records of the trial of this honourable old man."

"Certainly, Your Excellency," the Prosecutor answered.

"May the Almighty reward you a hundredfold," exclaimed the deeply moved Saloff, as he seized the hand of the Prince and tried to kiss it; "father, benefactor, protector of the unfortunate, guardian of innocent sufferers! …" The patriarch was sobbing loudly.

With a little bow to all of us, Shirinsky went out with his escort. Not fifteen minutes later the Commandant of the Prison in great agitation made the round of all the cells, asking if the Prince's wallet with all his money and documents had been found by anyone, but with no result. As the troubled and angered Prince crossed the prison yard in the direction of the big gate, from a second storey window someone threw the wallet down, so that it landed right in front of the departing Inspector-General. While he was stooping to pick it up, from somewhere came the cry of:

"Chiu! Chiu!" which at once awakened the sleeping beast that lodged in the breast of every prisoner and brought from all sides violent repetitions of this call, by means of which the men voice their hate and disdain for the authorities. The prison regained its silence and calm only when the wicket gate closed behind the dignitary.

I learned afterwards not only that it was the "honourable old man" who had thrown down the empty wallet, which the Prince picked up without opening, but also that Shirinsky discovered, on arriving at his hotel, that, in addition to his money and his papers, his watch and chain and a diamond pin from his tie had likewise been left among the prisoners. Of course, none of the authorities in the prison had any knowledge as to who the thief actually was. And it was quite as natural that no results should have attended the search that was made; for, when prisoners can manage to hide anything up to a stolen locomotive, it was no task at all for them to cache such small articles as money and jewellery. In a prison there are hundreds of hiding places between the bricks of the walls, which are as movable as the keys of a piano, and in planks slit with a saw and afterwards closed up with bread.

In such a despicable and false manner did the "honourable old man," the Biblical patriarch Saloff, repay the really well-intentioned Inspector-General for his sympathetic attitude in the old man's case. Some years later, when I was living in St. Petersburg, I quite fortuitously happened to glance at an article which stated that a Prince Shirinsky, who had formed the habit of borrowing money from the leading citizens of a little town without giving it back, had been arrested. The account continued that the investigation which followed revealed the Prince as a usurper, that he had no right to the position he claimed.

As I pondered over the article for a moment, wondering why it had arrested my attention, I suddenly recalled the prison room and the striking figure of Saloff, beating his breast and kissing the hand of the grave and stately Prince.

"Well, old prison bird, you must have flown and hidden under the cover of the stolen documents!" And I saw, as though it were in actual life before me, the cynical, careless face of my pupil, the patriarch, playing the rôle of Prince, after the limited tutoring he had received for it in our "prison academy."

In one of the gaols I met an old acquaintance, who turned up there in a group of Georgians. After they had been registered in the office and had come out into the yard for a walk, one of them approached me and laughingly exclaimed:

"Well, it is not nice to forget old friends. I am Prince Eristoff."

I had known of the family for a long time but had no distinct recollection of having met this member of it.

"I am sorry, but I don't remember you. I knew some Eristoffs in St. Petersburg. …"

"This Eristoff," he replied, tapping himself on the breast and laughing heartily, "was presented to you in another place." He glanced at his companions, who smiled very broadly and all turned toward me.

"I don't remember," I repeated.

"Have you forgotten those djighits of the old coalmine shaft by the Sungari whom you smoked out of their hole like badgers with a charge of pyroxylin?"

Recalling very distinctly the "elves" whom I had treated rather gruffly after they fired on us, I replied with a laugh:

"Ah yes, I remember you very well."

"We have all collected here," remarked Eristoff, "I, Gogio, Navadze—and you? This is indeed a strange meeting."

"Yes, it is strange. But what brought you here? Surely some 'misunderstanding,' such as you told me about then."

"H—m," muttered Eristoff. "They accuse us of having organized an attempt upon a cashier in Harbin."

"Against the one who was carrying a bag of money down to the river with a soldier as a guard and who was killed, and the bag thrown across a hedge, where it disappeared without a trace?" I hazarded.

"Yes. You also know about this?"

"I saw the whole thing with my own eyes. I even remember the figure of the man who attacked the pair," I replied, as I began to cast my eye over the tall, graceful form of Eristoff. He smiled, lowered his eyes and said:

"Strange things occur in this world."

In spite of what had passed between us near the Sungari and of the part which Eristoff had played in the bank-cashier affair, I struck up a close friendship with these children of the Caucasus, who had in their natures all the strength and freshness of the mountains, the warmth of constant sunshine and untrammelled boldness—the characteristics of outdoor, liberty-loving men. They did not compliment me by remaining long to cultivate and enjoy my society, for they flew away and in a manner that merits being told.

Late one night a new prisoner was brought into the room where the Georgians had been placed with some of the Ivans, who had been spending half their lives in transfers from one prison to another. The new-comer was about twenty-five years old, and possessed a tall, lithe figure that indicated great strength, but he was silent and gave the impression of being very shy. The inmates of the room accorded him a far from amiable reception.

"A pike (a man put in prison for the first time)!" they murmured. "They put him among us real prisoners?"

"We'll show him the stuff a real prisoner is made of," whispered the horse thief, Rukla, an immense man, built as though he were carved from granite. All the inmates of the room arose and began to surround the pike, who sat modestly and unmoved at the end of his bench. Only the Georgians did not rise.

Suddenly the youth raised his head, half closed his dark eyes and asked in a sneering, penetrating voice:

"Whom do you want to fight? Me, Demetrius, the Hawk?" As he spoke, he stood up and straightened himself with pride. "Try it, but look well to what you are about," he snapped at the crowd and, with extraordinary ease and agility, bent down and lifted a heavy bench, poised it over some of his hearers and threateningly continued:

"I shall kill you all because you did not recognize the Hawk, you green devils!" Then he laughed at his subdued attackers.

"Fighting is forbidden," came with an oath from a guard through the wicket.

The Hawk looked at him for one short second and then hurled the bench at the door, which boomed and reverberated under the blow. In an instant the keeper's whistle had brought soldiers to his side, and together they opened the door and ordered the Hawk to accompany them to a subterranean cell. He made no resistance and quitted the room with calm dignity, only stopping at the threshold to bow himself out with the parting words:

"Good-bye! Such a leader as I cannot dwell with worms!"

Leaving the room in profound silence, he passed down the corridor with his head in the air and with firm, soldier-like steps. The astonished prisoners remained silent for quite a moment, until finally Rukla muttered:

"Then it was the Hawk? He is quite young still." Someone answered him:

"For three years the people through all the Urals were as frightened by the name of the Hawk as they were by that of the devil. No one ever seemed able to catch him, and he turned up in several places over all Russia." Then followed many legends about this prince of bandits.

After some days of punishment in the subterranean cell, he was brought back to the same room with Eristoff and the other Georgians. On his return the prisoners met him with profound respect.

"Ah, it is well," he smiled; "this I understand."

For several days succeeding his reappearance I met and talked with this bandit leader and carefully studied him. Very polite in his speech, graceful and quiet in movement, he never showed feeling of any kind but always maintained a perfectly calm exterior. However, this was only an apparent calm, like that of a tiger in a cage.

Have you ever observed a tiger in captivity? The magnificent beast of prey lies in stately repose with his powerful paws quietly resting in front of him and with his head poised as proud as a king, his bright, yellow eyes looking off into space without blinking and seeing neither the bars of his cage, the keeper nor the crowds of spectators staring in idle worship. When his pupils, looking like black rifts in the yellow beryls, happen to light on a man before him, one has the impression that he looks right through the human being and sees beyond him the vast range of the forest, to which he silently and deeply longs to return.

The Hawk looked in this same way upon his companions, the keepers and the prison. His soul, wild and untamed, longed for freedom. As he entered the cramping walls, what had such a one left behind? The dangerous adventures which his unleashed, sparkling and restless nature craved as its natural food? And perhaps he saw in the crystal ball of his dreams the garden of cherry-trees with her, the beloved of his young, warm heart, gay, brightly clad and with eyes filled with laughter and with love for him?

Quietly the Hawk made a thorough survey of all his companions in the cell and finally, selecting the Georgians, went to them and whispered:

"Do you want to fly?"

"Indeed we do," Eristoff answered for himself and his companions, "for the court will not show any fondness for us."

"Well, then listen to me."

They deliberated and discussed for a long time; then, after supper, the Hawk went to each one of the men in the room, looked him sharply in the eyes and repeated in every instance:

"I am going to escape with the Georgians. We begin to work to-day. You must help and be silent."

This same night their active preparations were started. The Hawk found a place where someone had cut the boards in the floor and, leaving his clothes on the bench under his blanket, he crawled down through the hole. Soon the prisoners could make out the noise of a small, sharp trowel. The Hawk was digging steadily and only interrupted his work when he heard a low knock on the floor, which told him that the keeper was near the door of the cell. Before dawn the Hawk had the earth packed into two bags and hidden away underneath his board bed. Throughout all his efforts the Georgians assisted him. Naturally the most difficult part of the operation proved to be the transportation of the dirt out of the cell during the day. Some was put in the parasha, which two of the strongest prisoners carried away, pretending that it was very light. The rest of tire earth was taken out in the pockets of the prisoners, when they went for their walk, and was cautiously strewn about and trampled down in the prison yard.

Each night this burrowing work continued. The Hawk gradually drove his passage down in the direction and under the foundation of the wall, afterwards sloping upward again and making for a drainage ditch that ran down into the river. Day by day the digging increased in difficulty, owing to the fact that the air supply grew ever less and less. The men changed at short intervals and always returned from the tunnel in a state of exhaustion.

After the first few days of their work I could hardly recognize two of the Georgians, so sallow were their faces with pallid lips and sickly looking eyes. Their trembling hands also proved how hard and tiring the task was proving. When I asked Eristoff the reason for these symptoms which I observed in him, he took me into his confidence and told me of all that was going on, asking me also, in case he should perish during the attempt, to send a letter for him.

In the course of a few days the Georgians were so weakened that they could no longer work, and consequently the Hawk had to continue alone. The others could only help him to bring out the earth and hide it under the floor or under the beds. But the Hawk also finally came near to the end of his powers. One night he crawled back into the hole, taking with him the two bags tied to a rope, as though they were buckets on an endless chain, and continued along until he saw the electric pocket lamp which he had left at the end of the tunnel. Lying flat on his face, the Hawk dug with his trowel the fine black earth and managed to fill the bag at his end of the double rope, gave the signal and soon had the other sack at his side ready to be filled. He worked thus for a long time, but his breathing became ever more and more laborious, and his trowel moved much more slowly in the humid earth; nor did he have sense enough to know that blood was trickling from his nose and mingling with the sweat from his forehead and face.

Suddenly he had the impression that some one had dealt him a sharp blow on the head. He felt that he wanted to turn round and protect himself from a second, but something throttled him and he began to choke. A rattling sound came in his throat, the trowel slipped from his hand and he opened his eyes to see only the tunnel end, lighted by the electric lamp. Meanwhile the prisoners were whispering among themselves:

"What a strong man this Hawk is! He works for such a long time without ever coming out."

The small bags of earth, emerging from the end of the tunnel under the floor, gave a rather frightening, mysterious impression of this man who dug there below and sent back these silent messengers of his incredible power. Finally Eristoff remarked that an abnormally long interval had elapsed since the Hawk had given the signal to drag out the bag. The rope was pulled but no answer came.

"He has swooned from want of air," said Eristoff. "We must get him out."

With the help of an additional rope attached to his feet, one of the Georgians crawled in and brought the Hawk out. As soon as he had been restored to consciousness and had rested a little, the intrepid miner returned once more to the tunnel, at whose end the little flashlight burned like a torch of liberty.

The work of these human moles lasted for almost a month, until finally the tunnel joined the principal prison drain that ran into the ditch outside. I remember so vividly being wakened on that memorable night by the noise of crashing benches, the cries and howls of maddened men, the shouts and whistles of the keepers and the pounding of the soldiers' feet through the long corridors. Though it all seemed very real, the experienced ear could detect the artificial character of this hubbub, and I surmised that an escape was being staged. I was quite right, for this same night during the terrible row that was started by the Georgians, whose lead was usually followed by the whole prison, the Hawk, Eristoff and his companions went "flying" beyond the prison walls. This prince of the prison was right when he announced, on the day of his arrival, that he could not live with worms.

We knew that the fugitives were not caught, because on the following day, during the exercise hour of the prisoners, a little keg of vodka was tossed over the wall into the prison yard, carrying on one side of it the single word "Caucasus," and on the other the signature of the Hawk. Unfortunately the cask did not remain in the hands of the prisoners, as it was pounced upon by a guard and taken into the prison office.

This was the "P. P. C." card of the knightly Georgians under their titled Caucasian leader and of the fear-inspiring bandit chief, this "Prince of the Prison."