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CHAPTER XXIX
 

TWO POLES, A BEAM AND A DANGLING ROPE—THIS THE GUERDON A ROBBER MAY HOPE

 

ONE day I learned that Shilo, the one who had killed the traitorous Tartar, Malaika, had been taken to the court for his trial. No one doubted that Shilo would return condemned to death.

The whole prison became silent. Men talked in subdued voices, as though they were afraid of disturbing some spirit that was dominating the establishment. Many also were frightened or gripped in a vice of longing to be away from it all.

During the exercise hour the prisoners heard the noise of wheels outside the main entrance and, watching intently, saw the door swing open to admit the bent frame of Peter Shilo, seeming more than ever weighted down by his irons. His guard of armed soldiers followed him, as he crossed the yard to the office with a slow, almost despondent tread. As he passed the exercise cage, he cast a glance at the faces of his companions but carried on without a word. However, the prisoners fully understood the meaning in his appeal, for his glance seemed in silence to cry from fright and despair and to beg passionately for their help. The whole figure of Shilo, weakened, bent and listless, impressed itself upon the others.

"All is ended," someone whispered.

"He is already a dead man," a young, red-haired prisoner put in. "Until the evening he will perhaps continue to hope that the Governor will not confirm the sentence … and in the night. … Oh, comrades, it is terrible, terrible to have to live through such a night of torture, when waiting for death!"

After a few moments the Ivans appeared and entered the separate cage set apart for the prisoners in irons. They marched one behind the other, in repulsive, almost terrifying line—and Shilo was the last. He had already mastered his emotions and walked with his usual step, carrying his head high and looking straight into the eyes of everyone.

"It is for to-morrow," he said, coming up to Mironoff and Boitsoff.

"We have heard."

"The judges ended things for me to-day, ended them once for all … they condemned me."

"Well?" came almost involuntarily from the old, experienced prison wolves.

"The gallows," whispered Shilo, and quickly turned away to attempt to walk up and down in his usual manner; but something drew him back close to the others, as though he were afraid to remain with his own thoughts.

"The lawyer who defended me did it well, saying that I was justified in killing the traitor; and, when sentence was passed, he promised to write for me a petition for amnesty."

"They will commute the death sentence to hard prison," Mironoff responded in a half-hearted way, not daring to look straight at the condemned man.

"They will hang me," Shilo replied with conviction. "If there is no word to-night, then it is the end. Well, after all, I must perish sometime."

His voice was becoming unsteady and husky; but then he gathered himself together once more, shook his head in a devil-may-care gesture and broke out in a robber's lay:

Two poles, a beam and a dangling rope—
This the guerdon a robber may hope …

He did not, however, get further with his song but turned back to the middle of the cage, going from one group to another and repeating the same words:

"This night I shall have the answer and I know that I'll have to swing for it."

As he said this, he looked questioningly and with passionate longing into the eyes of his prison friends, expectantly waiting for their protests and for some word of hope and consolation. Then he returned once more to Mironoff and repeated the query to him:

"They will hang me to-night. Don't you think so?"

Mironoff looked him straight in the eyes, thought for a moment and whispered:

"Listen, Peter. During the whole night we can talk together over the telegraph. It will be easier for you. What do you say?"

Shilo felt a cold shiver run over him and gave no answer, turning away instead. A martyr's smile momentarily disguised the true expression of his mouth but disappeared at once.

"Peter, Peter!" called old Ruzia, the Jew, from the second cage.

"What do you want?" asked the condemned man, approaching him.

Ruzia looked around carefully and then whispered to him:

"I shall give you a loaf of bread with something in it."

"What?" demanded Shilo.

"A revolver. When they take you there, use it. Perhaps you will escape. … To a condemned man the risk matters little. Or perhaps you will die fighting … and that is better than the gallows."

"Give it to me!" said Shilo masterfully.

As Ruzia cautiously drew the loaf from out his baggy coat and hurriedly stretched it forth toward Shilo, the latter suddenly withdrew his hand and stepped back from the fence, saying:

"I will not take it, Ruzia; I will not. Time's up for me. … Nothing matters now, for the end must come." These words sounded as the man's final and irrevocable condemnation.

A ball, thrown by one of the prisoners, fell on the ground right near Shilo. He quickly stooped to pick it up and threw it straight up into the air with all his might. As this plaything, made of leather thongs, reached the top of its high flight, Shilo cried out:

"Flee, flee for ever!"

But when the ball came down again in the pen, Shilo shuffled his chains over to it, picked it up and tossed it once more as high as he could, again crying after it:

"Flee! … I give thee freedom. Flee!"

As the ball fell a second time within the enclosure, Shilo scornfully kicked it with his chain-bound foot and turned away.

"Enough of this! I am tired of it all," and without a further word he dragged his chains to his cell.

The exercise hour was over, and the prison was silent except for the sound of the clanging irons and the quick, heavy step of the condemned man, which could be heard throughout the whole second storey. Shilo walked and walked, until finally he lay down, after he had assured himself that the last change of the guards before midnight had taken place. Somewhere a clock struck twelve. The prisoners shuddered and listened, but Shilo made no move. Then suddenly there travelled along the walls a conglomerate of agitated signals.

"That is Shilo," was whispered through all the rooms.

The condemned man spelled out word after word.

"Mironoff, Mironoff, it is already past midnight and there is no answer from the tribunal! I am so terribly afraid. … What will it be? Shall I die? Is it possible?"

"Christ have mercy on us!" breathed one of the prisoners near Mironoff, sighing and wringing his hands.

Mironoff answered with firm, strong raps.

"Such is life. We live to-day and are gone to-morrow. Each of us must one day die, Peter."

"But it is night already, and at dawn, they will come and get me. Is it possible? Oh, Lord!"

"Don't give way, Peter; don't be afraid. We shall all cross, sooner or later, all of us."

"But I am afraid … I am afraid—and of what?"

The signals through the wall ceased, yet for a long time the whole prison listened in an unreasoned terror of suspense. But from the cell of the condemned man there came no further sound. Only the barking of dogs and the other never-ceasing noises of the night floated in from the town, while through the banks of black clouds scudding north the moon searched out an occasional rift to look down upon the dark, threatening mass of the prison.

"I am afraid. Give me some help!" came once more in the code of the condemned.

This time Mironoff did not answer.

"Is he asleep? What is the matter?" asked one of the prisoners with a show of impatience.

"Hush!" hissed old Boitsoff.

Once more they listened more intently, for Shilo was wildly signalling, hurrying the words and not always ending them. In his torture by deadly fright he was begging aid of someone. Suddenly Mironoff broke in with his raps, striking the wall with something hard and firm.

"Peter, do you hear?" he queried.

"Listen! It is hard to die without fighting, I know. Why not cheat them and … do it yourself?"

The prisoners all held their breath. Shilo was silent for some moments and then asked:

"Tell me how?"

Again the whole prison listened. Through the medium of his same, sure, firm strokes Mironoff wired back just one word:

"Glass!"

In the hush that followed the prisoners strained their ears with ever-increasing tenseness, but at first they caught only the ordinary waves of the night lapping up their buttressed isle; but finally they distinguished clearly the unmistakable noise of breaking glass—then silence again.

This in turn was quickly broken by the changing of the guard with its accompanying calls of the soldiers and keepers, the rattle of grounding arms and the rhythm of marching feet. As soon as quiet once more reigned, the appeal of Mironoff was heard.

"Shilo!" No answer, and again the signals, frightened and quick:

"Shilo! Shilo!" But the condemned sent no reply.

"Everything is finished," moaned Boitsoff in a dismal voice. "God have mercy on his soul!"

The words of the old prisoner were mingled with the frantic knocks of Mironoff, repeatedly calling to his prison friend.

It was a terrible night, one that I shall always remember as a frightful nightmare. Perhaps those of you who have never experienced the nerve-wearing strains of prison life or have never been under sentence of death may feel that there is some exaggeration in the emotions I have tried to depict as harassing this night; but I felt them all a thousand times more keenly than any reader can vicariously do, especially those of Shilo, for I had gone through it all myself only some months before. Throughout the night I lay pressing my fevered head between my hands, feeling as though pity, despair and hate were gnawing at my heart and poisoning my soul.

I really do not know how long I spent in this state, but suddenly I jumped from my bed and peered out of my window, through which the first rays of the dawn were visible. I had no more than reached it, when, from out of the deep silence of the hours before the day, there suddenly came along the walls a new rush of hurried signals.

"It is I, Shilo. I am amnestied! Really amnestied! … When the guard was changing, I was taken to the chancery to be given the news of a telegram from the Governor, saying that my sentence had been changed to life imprisonment. I have only just returned to my cell. Amnestied. … Life!"

Among the prisoners a buzz like that in a hive commenced, full of emotion, joy and thankfulness.

During the regular daily inspection by the Commandant the prisoners asked for a service in the prison chapel. Although I am not of the Orthodox Russian Church, I went also, expecting to see a very unusual ceremony; nor was I disappointed.

Shilo was in the leading group of the praying prisoners. He prayed passionately, with most graphic gestures making the sign of the Cross, kneeling and bowing repeatedly before the altar. When he rose up and fastened his gaze upon the holy emblem, his eyes were full of such a faith and thankfulness that I felt the soul of this criminal, who had passed through the torture of awaiting death, was at this moment at the feet of God, the Supreme Judge. As he held his eyes steadily on the Cross, he wept and repeated only one word:

"Life … Life!"

The convicts watched their chained companion, who saw and heard nothing around him in his earnest, ardent prayer, and the fires of emotion and joy lighted their eyes. Surely, in this moment of great relief and spiritual quickening, a wise, well-spoken word of consolation, encouragement and hope might easily have snatched from the clutches of criminal instinct many of these lost, tormented souls. But all this happened in that bag of human dust, this dust which interested nobody and into whose soul nobody cared to look.