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CHAPTER XXXII
 

A WHIRLWIND IN THE DUST

 

"HAVEN'T you heard what happened, Starosta?" asked the convict servant who was working in the political wing, as he entered my cell one morning.

"Last night three new prisoners arrived and were put in the cell with the Ivans, who started, as is their wont, to beat and rob them. They thrashed two of them, but the third one gave them all such a licking that scarcely anyone is able to get up this morning. He went through the room like a whirlwind."

"And what about him?" I asked, remembering my first prison talk with Mironoff.

"He is sitting there on his bench whistling and telling such funny stories that the Ivans are roaring with laughter over him."

After dinner I went along to see the new arrival, so graphically described by my prisoner servant. I found the stranger seated in the chair and regaling his hearers in a quiet, melodious voice with such yarns that they were beside themselves with laughter. He was of enormous height, broad-shouldered, slightly stooping and had a chest as big and round as a church dome. He was just in the act of recounting the amusing story of how he had happened to land in prison.

"Back home in Poland I heard that railroad workers were well paid in Siberia and consequently started out for this part of the world. After a while I began putting aside some money and allowed myself to dream about buying a piece of land for my old parents and of living there with them myself. I am a locksmith and consequently, with this desire to get ahead, I worked in the town during my hours away from the railway shops and did everything I could to increase my earnings.

"One Sunday I went to the station to see the express go through. When it pulled up, an elegantly dressed gentleman got out of the first-class carriage, looked round a bit and then came up to me. He asked me what I was doing and, hearing that I worked here and had a house, he seemed very pleased and begged me to take care of a valise for a friend of his, who would call and claim it. He warned me to observe great caution and gave me twenty-five roubles for my help to him. I felt terribly lucky, took the valise home and afterwards surrendered it to another gentleman who called for it. This repeated itself several times a week and brought me fine profits, but I give you the word of an honest convict that I did not even suspect what was going on.

"However, a few months later I understood it all with painful clearness. The revelation came one night when the police and the gendarmes invaded my place, searched everywhere and found the valise, which had only that day been given in trust to me, and in it articles which they said had been stolen. I was arrested and, though I defended myself as vigorously as I could before the tribunal, I was convicted and sentenced to half a year in prison. I could not bring myself to tolerate such an injustice, as I was entirely ignorant of the fact that thieves had made a hiding place of my lodging; yet all my petitions and protests, which I presented, proved of absolutely no avail. Then I decided to fly away. I climbed the wall but had the misfortune to meet a patrol. I fought with the soldiers, killed one and badly wounded a second, following which I was condemned to a term of eight years."

"Yes, it is often so," one of the other prisoners sadly observed.

"Yes, but it ought not to be so," exclaimed the Pole heatedly, as he rose and straightened his bulky shoulders. "I never can reconcile myself to this and never shall. How many times have I escaped and how many men have I killed—and for what reason? Just because of a strange coincidence and the injustice and indifference of the judges."

I made the acquaintance of the new inmate of the prison. His name was Thomas Wierzbicki; he was of superhuman strength but of childlike naiveté and gentleness. Through our long talks I discovered a deep despair in this great hulk of a body with its disingenuous soul, a despair that could easily turn itself into madness.

"It is of no moment whether I was condemned for six months or eight years; it matters only that, when the prison door was closed behind me, I was deprived of the respect of other men. My old parents wept when they learned what had happened; but they have not pardoned me, forgetting me instead as though I were no more among the living. Oh sir, the Russian tribunal murdered my soul. Do you understand what this means? A pure and honest soul. Can I forgive them? Never! Never!"

As he said this, he struck the table so loudly that the other prisoners thought he was about to deal with me as he had with them and some even started to come to my aid. But the giant, after this explosion, moved over closer to me and began to weep.

"They wronged him," muttered Boitsoff, and continued with a sigh: "He will remain for ever a real prisoner and will show them something."

I also made the acquaintance of the other prisoners who had been brought in with Wierzbicki. One of them was called Barabash and was a young, intelligent, good-looking man with black hair and eyes and a dark complexion that gave him the appearance of a creole. After the first hostile contact with his future prison companions, when the old Ivans had beaten and robbed him, Barabash was always in a state of fear, trembling at the slightest disturbance and nervously looking around like a trapped beast.

What was it that shoved this poor man behind the prison bars? His was a short, simple and sad story. He worked as a clerk in a bank, where, during an investigation, it was found that a sum in one of the books was erased and corrected and eleven roubles were missing in the cash. Before the examining magistrate Barabash swore that he never took the money, but this protestation was not enough to clear him. He was committed to prison to await trial and was not allowed any privilege of leaving until his case had been decided.

I really never knew whether Barabash did or did not take these eleven roubles, which proved so tragic for him; but I listened to his insistent oaths that he never stole them and later I witnessed his continuous fright of his surroundings, his burning, scorching shame, his sufferings and finally his death in prison. At his tragic end I had the impression that I saw these eleven tinkling silver coins red with blood, and that in their jingle I heard the words "A crime, a crime!"—but the coins never disclosed who was really the criminal.

All this time that Barabash waited for his trial until death released him, the examining magistrate was in no hurry to bring the matter to court, as no one in Russia ever gave a thought to the sufferings of the human dust.

The third one of this group was a simple, illiterate peasant, with a long beard and with matted hair coming down over his forehead. He had also a leather strap fastened around his head, which made me take him for a village cobbler, an inference that was proved to be quite correct. I never learned what tumbled him into the stone bag. Perhaps when in his cups or in a fit of jealousy he had made too free a use of his short, sharp knife, with which he trimmed the leather for the village boots. I never found out and could only surmise. He was a morose individual, always deeply immersed in his own depressing thoughts, rather old, unalterably serious and usually quiet.

When I made bold to speak to him one day and to advise him to go for a walk, as I had observed that he never moved from his bench, he only shook his head and grunted:

"Leave me in peace. Nothing will help or hurt me any more, for I am doomed to die."

"Is it possible?" I exclaimed, knowing that he was still awaiting trial.

"A fortune teller," he answered with profound conviction, "told me that I was to die in sixty-three days. Of these I have only thirty left to live—then the end!" He sighed deeply, turned his face to the wall and was silent once more. The gentleman was certainly not what one would call sociable or talkative; still I understood his serious mood, as he was discounting each passing day and listening with acutely sharpened ears for the rattling approach of the dreaded reaper.

One day during the exercise hour some of the keepers and the Vice-Commandant entered the pen of the criminal prisoners and began looking over the men, as they were prosecuting a search for some papers which had been stolen from the prison office. Coming up to Wierzbicki, one of the keepers said to him:

"All right, you undress!"

"Please speak politely to me. I am not a beast but a man, and a man ought to be shown respect," the Pole answered and showed signs of emotion in his face.

"You will preach to me, you gallows bird? Undress at once."

"I will not undress," Wierzbicki replied in sharply cut, deliberate syllables. "I never was a thief and I shall not allow anyone to dishonour me a second time. Do you hear?"

"Undress and search him!" shouted the Vice-Commandant.

The keepers made at Wierzbicki, but he took post in the corner of the cage and defended himself as a boar attacked by hounds. In a very short time the keepers were so roughly handled that they had to draw off and call for help. As some others ran out from the office and soldiers appeared from their quarters with their carbines, Wierzbicki shouted:

"Comrades, enough of silence and humility! Our silence only strengthens their injustice; our humility is worse than ignominy. We will not allow these men to torture us, comrades!"

Quite unexpectedly these words fell like a spark in a case of powder. With a dull, menacing roar the convicts made for the fence of the cage and began to strip off the broad pickets, while others grabbed up stones and broken brick. In a moment the fight was on. With the battering blows from the heavy boards and the fusillade of flying missiles, the keepers were soon forced back out of the cage. Hearing the uproar, the Commandant emerged and, sensing at once the full significance of the threatening situation, made a sign with his hand. The keepers fled at once from the yard to within the walls of the building, and the soldiers, gathered near the office entrance, fired a volley that swept the pen.

Barabash, running across the cage in wild fright, gave a despairing cry, crumpled up and rose no more. Wierzbicki went down like a felled oak, with his arms spread as its great, strong branches. With an unfinished curse on his lips the cobbler also dropped on his back and cheated both the tribunal and his gipsy prophet. Some wounded convicts, limping and covered with blood, sought shelter behind a pile of broken bricks in one corner of the cage, while others continued to hurl stones and pieces of wood at the soldiers. After a second volley, fired in the air, things calmed down. One by one the convicts were led out of the cage, chained and taken away into the cells.

In the ominous silence that followed the keepers carried out the bodies of the killed; and then the law authorities arrived, made their investigation and went away, leaving behind them new tortures and vexations for the human dust, which this time nearly succeeded in streaming out of the stone sack, into which it had been rammed for misery and suffering.