From President to Prison/Chapter 30




THE prison destroys a man, poisoning him slowly day by day and hour by hour. Its action is like that of a swelling river in spring, when it imperceptibly carries away bit after bit of its covering of ice. The observer on its banks will only understand what has happened when the ice, which has thus been softened from the top and undermined from the bottom, suddenly breaks up with a roar and a splash, churning the whole stream into mush and foam, till the current seizes the disintegrating fields and carries them down to the all-devouring sea.

The same process of undermining the human strength goes on in prison, where man, at the critical moment, breaks up in the torrent of despair and slips down into the irresistible current that sweeps him along to an unknown deep. Will it be suicide, an explosion of hate or sheer, engulfing madness? No one knows nor can anyone foretell the answer.

I remember with oppressing vividness just such a period in my own prison life, when despair fastened itself upon me and I felt with every fibre of my soul the utter uselessness of my life. All my surroundings were absolutely foreign to me and had for me a dull, yellow mantle of indifference and fatigue; while all with whom I came into contact were likewise alien, not understanding me and living lives that were equally incomprehensible from my viewpoint. Something seemed to be continually dogging my steps and whispering bad counsel to me, words that appeared to be the dictate of a malicious and relentless Fate.

These periods obsessed me with ever-increasing frequency after the first year of prison life. I called them "yellow days" and was morbidly afraid of them, sensing their coming with terror, when from the corners of my cell and from every crevice in the floor peered out the yellow eyes of longing or stretched toward me the noisome feelers of despair.

During one of these periods of yellow days I was particularly unhappy and had the feeling that somehow I had come to the end of my endurance and my strength of will. I feared that I should go mad or lapse into an incurable melancholia. Suddenly, during the worst hours of my despair, a bright ray seemed to penetrate right into my soul, while an incomprehensible and unexpected serenity spread its influence over me. I could not understand or guess what the reason might be; I knew only that something had definitely healed and calmed me.

A week later I was called to the prison office, where I saw a woman in a black gown; but, as the light was poor, I did not recognize her as anyone I knew.

"Your mother has come to see you," said the Commandant in a low voice. "I shall leave you to yourselves."

The Commandant went out, and only then did my mother give way to her mingled joy and pain at seeing her son, but seeing him in prison. But my mother was a woman of strong soul and she quickly regained possession of herself.

She had come alone from St. Petersburg, all the long road only to say good-bye to me before going away with my sister, whom the doctors had ordered abroad for a cure. My mother knew that her second child, her son, was also ill—ill of soul from longing and from struggling with his thoughts, and she consequently could not go away for an extended trip without seeing him and saying good-bye to him. She came for one day only, after having spent twelve in the train and being compelled to leave the same night to recommence the long journey across all of Asiatic and European Russia.

I spent the whole day with her, for, owing to the leniency of the Commandant, I was allowed to take her to my cell. When she entered it, she could not master her feelings and wept with uncontrolled and deep emotion, as only mothers can weep. Finally her trembling lips formed the words:

"And why? Why?"

Ah, mother, I could not at that time explain to you why two of the best years of my life were taken from me, because I myself did not then know and did not understand. I calmed her as I could and as I best knew how.

She shared with me our prison dinner, to which I added tomatoes and other vegetables from our garden. I gave her tea and told her all about the course of the Revolution and about the life of the prisons, trying to make clear to her that this period was not without very definite profit to me, as I strove much morally and completed many pieces of work which had been held in abeyance under the pressure of normal life and might never have otherwise been finished. I showed her my new literary and scientific manuscripts and sketched to her all my plans for the future.

My mother listened to me but busied herself the whole time about my cell, making it look as attractive as she could, rearranging its simple appointments and my books and mending my garments for me. When the lamp was lighted and I saw the beloved head of my mother bent over the table, there came back before me, as in a dream, my childhood, free from pain and care, and a great sadness crept into my heart. I wanted to weep then and to ask, as my mother had:

"And why, why all this?"

Mother evidently sensed the depressing thoughts that were dominating me, because she quickly raised her head, looked into my saddened face and, grasping my hands, said in a commanding, almost severe tone of voice:

"You will withstand everything, my son. You will endure …"

At that moment I felt that I first understood the soul of my mother, a soul, proud, strong and not to be held in bondage to anything. I realized then what the captivity of our country and its oppression by Russia had given to the Polish woman. My mother as a young girl had seen the bloody times of the rising for liberty of 1863, when her father was shot down and she and her mother were forced to hide for long weeks in the forest, as the families of those who fought were hunted and persecuted by the Russian Cossacks. She saw the death of hundreds of the ill-fated insurrectionists, then watched hundreds more of these fighters for Polish liberty being manacled and driven off to banishment in Siberia; she saw the mothers, daughters and wives of insurrectionists thrashed with whips by the Cossacks. With her own fortune confiscated by the Government, she was compelled, after having been accustomed to wealth, to live through years of want and unhappiness; but, by hard work and dominating will, she managed to finish the middle and high schools and, after the few years of married life before the death of my father, she struggled on and won for herself a definite position at the head of a college which she founded and maintained for the education of our youth.

Such was the hard life, often tragic and always filled with struggle, which formed the soul of my mother. She knew that she would endure everything and put this conviction into my heart and mind just as, since childhood, she had instilled into my soul an unshakable faith in the resurrection of my country, Poland!

At about ten o'clock my mother left the prison. She blessed me; she said good-bye with a quiet smile, full of an inner strength and a strong faith; and finally she went away, calm, proud and distant.

Without any suggestion coming from me, the Commandant of the Prison escorted her himself to the station and helped her to settle in the car for the twelve-day journey to St. Petersburg.

Oh, mother, why could you not there before God, where through this year you have prayed for your children, have read out these my memories of our meeting in the prison of the Tsar, this Tsar who killed your father and would have killed your son? With how divinely sympathetic a look would the Most Just Judge have graced you and have said:

"Behold a mother!"