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CHAPTER XXXIII
 

OUT OF THE STONE SACK

 

IN the course of my prison peregrinations I was finally taken back to Harbin, where I found many old acquaintances and everything unchanged. My prison companions had cared for my vegetables and flowers, the tomatoes and brilliant asters giving me a special welcome back to my first criminal prison.

Only the aquarium had been neglected. The water had evaporated and left a deposit of thick mud at the bottom. The tortoises had fled, but no one knew when or where. When cleaning out the concrete bowl, I found the mud so stiff for my wooden shovel that I brought a bucket of water or two to help me in loosening the mass at the bottom. After a time, when the mud was well moistened and I began again to dig with my shovel, I was astonished and could hardly believe my eyes at seeing in the deeper and more moist layers of the earth little crustaceans and carp flap out of the soil and begin swimming round in the muddy water. They were some of the very ones which I had put into the aquarium and for whose rescue I returned just in time, since a few days more would have dried up their remaining moisture and taken life away.

I had only one week left to remain in prison! A strange unrest took possession of me, growing with each passing day. Was it joy? Was it impatience to be free? I never was quite sure of it, for I could not analyse this feeling which obsessed me. It was perhaps anxiety, or even fear, that I was experiencing at going back into the struggle of ordinary life after an interruption of nearly two years, a period which until this very day hangs over me like a cloud of gloom. I wondered with something approaching to terror how I should ever live once more among men, after I had been down into such abysses of torture and misery. I looked upon everything in another way, in another light, feeling more acutely, understanding phenomena more quickly and more deeply.

The day of September 23, 1907, finally dawned! At eight in the morning the Commandant of the Prison entered my cell and told me that I was free. I made the round of the rooms, taking leave of all my acquaintances. The convicts in silence shook my hand and looked at me with varying expressions of emotion, but in none of their eyes was there any sign of jealousy, positively none.

At the very last I said good-bye to those of my associates in the Revolutionary Government who still remained in prison, and then turned toward the prison door, which already stood open for me to pass. Just before going out, I turned back once more to take a last glance around the yard, and there at all the windows I saw the pallid faces of the convicts looking down at me with unmistakable feeling and good will.

The wicket in the door was closed with a bang behind me, yet it did not drown the sound of the revolutionary song which came from the lips of the political prisoners:

You are the victims of our struggle for the right,
For the liberty, the glory and the honour of the nation.
Weep not then, brothers, who have led us in the fight,
In this hour of eternal and most cruel separation.

A crowd of friends awaited me in front of the prison entrance and soon changed my mood with their greetings and congratulations. One of the men presented me with a beautiful travelling case and in it an address, citing my services during the Revolution and carrying the signatures of some six thousand persons of all grades of society in the population of the Far East.

But life's drama will always have its antithesis—and one came now to give me a most uncomfortable moment, when a police officer stepped up and handed me a document from the Prosecutor, informing me that I had just three days' time in which to liquidate my affairs and leave the territory of the Far East.

Within the given time I was already aboard the train and on my way to St. Petersburg. Once more I was alone, as I was surrounded by those who knew nothing of my life and with whom I felt little inclination to converse about these matters which were filling my soul. I could not understand how they could laugh so carelessly, jest and busy themselves with such trivial matters as they did. I felt that I had come up out of another world and that this darker cosmos had left an ineradicable trace in my soul.

Before my eyes passed the faces of Wierzbicki, Mironoff, the Eagle, Lapin, Barabash and my comrades in the political section. Like a moving picture there glided across the screen of memory a long film of presentations of the bloody, fatally dramatic or touching events of my prison life, each as clear as a tear—the prisoners in movement, in action, with burning or brimming eyes; the disgusting parashas; soldiers on guard; the grey walls of my cell and the barred windows; the keepers pacing the corridors and gazing in through the wickets in the doors. I even heard distinct sounds of life, awakening strong reminiscences—the rattle of cut bars; the clinking of chains; the soft muffled sound of the earth being dug in the tunnel; dull cries of pain, of hate or of supplication; the echoes of fights and of shots.

When, astonished and frightened with the reality of it all, I came back to myself and looked around, I realized that the panorama of the open country was passing before my car window and that out of the rumble of wheels and the booming of the speeding train my memory had, without will of mine, made these other sounds and pictures, heard and seen so many times during that life in the desert of human dust which was dominating all my conscious and subconscious moods.

I began to think again about those who remained within the sack and about those who had passed before my eyes during these twenty lost months. What had they left in my memory, the memory of a normal, trained man who sought to understand everything, to see the least ray of light in the souls of these men, every throb of feeling that likened them to those who had never heard a prison door clang behind them and the long-drawn cries of the guards, as they shouted their "Take care, take care!"

During my journey across the continent I thought often and much about the Russians. Now I had seen them not only in the whirlpool of life in great cities, at liberty, where many surrounding and moulding circumstances compelled them to be like the men of other nations; but also I had looked upon their naked souls without artificial coverings. I had seen them in torture and in suffering, without mask or decorations which hide characteristics so intimately close to them, so innate as to be impossible of perception in the ordinary contacts of everyday life.

I feel that the Russian is the most tragic type in the world. He is born with his terrible malady, a melancholy which, though at times unsensed, always poisons and weakens his soul. From the very moment of his birth he seems to feel the heavy burden of the decrees of Fate.

The Russian psychology reveals itself clearly in three of their proverbs and expressions. One of these very old Russian proverb runs:

"Never say that you will not be a beggar nor a criminal convict."

A real Russian, when asked how life goes with him, will never answer "Good" or "Bad," but only "Nichevo" which translates literally as "Nothing" but really conveys the meaning of "Oh, just middling" or "Nothing out of the ordinary worth mentioning." It signifies that his life is neither good nor bad and conveys the idea that all goes well with him. If he acknowledged that it was well, his overpowering superstition would make him fear some form of retributory punishment on the morrow; whereas, if he stated that it was bad, he would be acknowledging his suffering and thus be fastening this state upon himself. If it is just "Nichevo," he experiences no feeling of suffering nor of fear. For this he is thankful to God, to whom he always turns in his short and simple prayers, not as a son to his Father or as a servant to his Master, but as a slave to an omnipotent tyrant.

And what is better than "Nichevo" for a slave who has no hope of liberty, neither at any time nor at any price, but fears only some new oppression? When he feels no fear, when it is absent, then all is "Nichevo," and this is happiness.

During these ruminations in the train I recalled again the philosophy of a convict which I referred to once before.

"Never despair, because to-morrow is always better than to-day. If to-day life is grim and hard to endure, then the severer trials of the morrow will not be felt so acutely, as one has already become accustomed to suffering. And when bad days shall last for a long time, your whole being will finally yearn for death, so that what is usually looked upon as the most terrible end of everything will come to be, instead of the worst that can happen to you, something to be desired. Also, when a bad day is followed by a little improvement in the morrow, then you will be quite happy with the change for the better. To-morrow is always better than to-day!"

Of course, to men of action and of a fighting spirit this is a slave psychology, the blind guiding power of a slave advancing along the road of life without a will and without ambition, entirely dominated by this force of Fate. For the ordinary Russian, in the grinding conditions of his existence under the governmental systems he has known, this slave psychology is, however paradoxical it may seem in this context, really a saving code of life.

The third national expression referred to is that frequently used word "Avos," which is so difficult to translate.

"Will you have time to get your hay into the barn before the rain?" you ask a Russian peasant.

"Avos," he will answer and will mean something akin to "Perhaps." But this nearest English equivalent indicates, after all, the existence of some real reasons which may exert a good or bad influence upon the work in hand. When one says "Perhaps," the mind takes into consideration all the possibilites, both material and psychological; but Avos carries a significance of something fatal, full of a profound and almost terrible mystery, something like Karma or personified avenging Fate. Avos serves as a sort of incantation before the evil spirits, a formula expressing the complete dependence of man upon the will of unknown and hostile powers.

It is perhaps possible that the changeableness and indecision in the Russian attitude toward life are traceable to these traditional and all-permeating national formulas. Why should they make efforts of mind or body in the fight for an ideal, when Fate will sooner or later do exactly what has been ordained and cannot be changed by human influence?

Besides possessing the peculiarities of a special and abnormal psychology, social and personal, the tragic Russian is a man very easily affected by external influences. I met this type in all the criminal Ivans as well as in all the lesser and more accidental inhabitants of the prisons. His dreamy soul is sometimes uplifted, and then it can be beautiful, but none the less terrible withal. A word pronounced at the right moment can flood it with an emotion as quiet and peaceful as the calm of an autumn evening, or fire it with a burning flame that will touch with crimson everything around.

The soul of the Russian is too little known. Through centuries this soul has yearned for expression and for understanding, for an understanding that was not given it by the Varangians, those first rulers of ancient Russia who came down from the north, nor by the Tartars, who for three hundred years held their foot upon the neck of the Muscovites. Nor was this understanding given it by the Tsars of semi-foreign extraction; neither by the Russian cultured classes, which were foreign and often even hostile to the real nation ever living in the clouds of old times, customs, faith and ideals. The Soviet leaders also have not given this understanding, they who woke and duped the Russian soul with words pointing to liberty, only to shackle Russia even the more strongly with the chains of illegality and to deprive the nation of its last glimpse of hope, its faith in God, and to push it over the brink into the pit of hellish torture, the story of which is the most tragic page in the annals of humanity down through all the long centuries of recorded history.

Taken under the fostering care of wisdom and honesty, the Russian soul could certainly produce treasures of sacrifice and idealism; but, left to itself, it tends to turn criminal, its crimes resulting from its despair and the indescribable longing after something which it does not know itself and cannot visualize. This fact was very graphically demonstrated by the Ivans of the prison, in whom I saw fellow-men led and dominated by those two evil guides, suffering and despair.

Throughout the whole of my homeward journey across the wide continents of Asia and Europe I spent practically all my hours in such ruminations and especially in assembling and marshalling the more dramatic events of my prison life, with the purpose of founding upon them a romance with which I hoped to reach the hearts of thinking Russians and through them win for the mass of prisoners still left in the stone bags some amelioration of their lot. But, although I planned and resolved to execute this work immediately upon my arrival in St. Petersburg, it was really three years before I could batter down the continuing persecutions of the Government and gain for myself stable enough conditions to give me the necessary leisure and mental freedom to complete the work.

However, I have rushed ahead now to speak about experiences which came to me three years after my return to the capital of the Tsars, who had punished me and my forbears before me, because we would not accept and carry their foreign yoke in silence. These three years before the appearance of my romance on the prison life were crowded with many trying events and struggles, to some of which I would refer for a moment to round out the story of this period of my life.

On approaching the capital, I looked forward to finding many of the acquaintances and close friends whom I had made during my university life in the city, and especially to seeing my mother again; but I learned immediately after my arrival that she was away in the Urals with my sister and was seriously ill and weak.

As the two years of revolution and prison life, during which I had paid continuously for food that was brought in to me, had nearly exhausted the money I had previously saved, there was nothing for me at the outset but to look about sharply for some means of earning my livelihood. I took up my abode with my old teacher and friend, Professor Stanislaw Zaleski, who gave me a most hearty and cordial welcome. I soon learned that the position of assistant professor of technical chemistry in the Institute for Architectural Engineers was vacant and that the post was to be filled by competitive examination. Out of the eleven candidates who presented themselves, the Institute, basing their decision upon the scientific works offered by us competitors, selected two, of whom I was one.

After this I had only to deliver three lectures before the selecting board should make their decision. Following these lectures a finding in my favour was brought in and a report sent by the Institute to the Minister of Public Instruction. Here the first sample of what I had to expect from officialdom greeted me and shook my spirit; for, knowing my record, he refused his confirmation and thus blocked my appointment.

Again I set about searching for work. I tried everywhere but was always informed that, however glad they might be to have me, the fact that I had been a political prisoner made it impossible. In the meantime my money was dwindling, so that I very distinctly saw the poorly covered bottom of my little sack. The efforts and recommendations of Professor Zaleski and of the Board of the High Polytechnic Institute in Tomsk, where I had begun my career as a professor in science, proved of no avail.

Finally I gave up trying to secure work along lines of scientific research and teaching and went into an aniline dye factory as simply a chief chemist. Tremendously relieved in mind, I began to work, but my enthusiasm led me into a great tactical error. Observing that the chemical processes in use in the factory were in part faulty, I proposed to the owner certain changes and improvements. Though he was very much pleased and expressed his approval in an immediate increase of my salary, the matter brought me into a little more prominence with the workmen and led to my identification by one of the men, who was acting as a spy for the political police. After he reported to them that there was a suspicious foreman in the factory who knew too much, the officials investigated and some days later ordered my expulsion from the place.

It became evident that my punishment was not ended with the release from prison. Again I was out of work and again I tramped the whole city in search of a position, but all in vain. Fortunately Professor Zaleski was continuing his efforts for me and learned that a factory for asphalt and roof-coverings in Kieff was looking for a chemist who could not only direct the technical operations but could also work out some inventions, which were needed in their processes.

As I had not sufficient money to make the necessary journey to Kieff, I finally decided to part with my arms after all the years of companionship and service, and with the proceeds from their sale started off to the south.

At the very outset the owner of the factory made a bad impression on me and really displeased me; but, as I had to have work, I disregarded his face, signed an agreement and started in. My first problem was to find some combination of asphalt and coal tar that would be fireproof and as elastic as rubber and that would consequently make a good medium with which to impregnate the roofing paper and insulating material for electric wiring conduits and the like.

I worked as hard as I could for a month and finally succeeded in developing the needed combination, which I called "Aflamite" as it was fire-proof. I remember returning that night to my quarters contented and happy over the thought that I was to receive a bonus of five thousand roubles and ten per cent, of the production profits in addition to my usual salary. In celebration I went that evening to hear Boito's "Mephisto" at the opera and, as I turned in later, dreamed how I should on the morrow show my invention to my employer. I felt then that I should be also able to say to myself that I was at last back on the sure path of honest, scientific work.

Immediately after breakfast the next morning I went to my laboratory to take my notes, report, statement of cost and samples to the owner; but instead of a simple and easy crowning of my efforts, I was met with a catastrophe, a real and tragic catastrophe for me in those times and circumstances. The lock of my desk was broken, and all my records and materials had disappeared. I went at once to the factory office to see the owner but was told that he had left the previous evening for St. Petersburg and that he would not be back for a week.

When he arrived and I told him of what had happened, he smiled and said that I was a naive and not very careful man. From his expression I understood at once that he was not naive and careless and that it was he who had robbed me. When I told him this without equivocation, he did not take offence but simply smiled in triumph and answered:

"You have no proof of it, while I have registered the Aflamite in St. Petersburg. There is nothing to be done about it. This is the struggle for existence."

My first wave of impulse was to try on this crass thief the strength of my muscles, which are also at times weapons in the struggle for existence; but, as I was just on the point of doing so, I saw before me, like a spectre, the dark prison building and within its walls the figures of those who had been chuted into the stone bags because they followed, without thinking or weighing the consequences, their first impulses of indignation and revenge. I shuddered at the picture and slackened the tension of my muscles and fists. I looked straight into the cold, shameless eyes of the man who had stolen the products of my mind—I looked steadily and for so long a time that he was troubled; and then without changing my gaze, I said distinctly:

"You are a common thief. You have wronged a man who has done no evil to you or to any of his kind and who has passed through long months of torture and prison. You knew of all this and took advantage of it, certain that I could not secure justice before the law; but God, the Impartial Judge, will not pardon you. I see in my mind's eye that, before a year is ended, you will die and go before His Tribunal."

I turned and went out, so disappointed and disgusted at the man that I did not even call for the rest of my salary. I hired a room in a cheap hotel and began once more the search for employment. Throughout the following days I visited various industrial plants and sugar factories in South Russia, offering my services as a chemist, but everywhere my revolutionary past blocked the way for me. Then one day a police official came to me with this encouraging bit of information:

"Your former employer, the owner of the asphalt factory, has notified us that you were a political prisoner. If you had a stable occupation, we could wink at your remaining in Kieff; but, inasmuch as you have no employment, the Governor wants you to know that you will be given twenty-four hours in which to leave Kieff and that, if you are not away within this time, you will be returned to St. Petersburg in a convict car for reference to the authorities there."

That same night I left Kieff in a depressed and despondent state of mind, as I was very near to the bottom of my treasure chest. I needed no bookkeeping to tell me this, for, after I had paid the inn account and bought my ticket to St. Petersburg, I had only seven roubles left.