Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
First digital edition 2017 by Anna Ruggieri
In the midst of the steppes, of the mountains, of the impenetrable forests of the desert regions of Siberia, one meets from time to time with little towns of a thousand or two inhabitants, built entirely of wood, very ugly, with twochurches—one in the centre of the town, the other in the cemetery—in a word, towns which bear much more resemblance to a good-sized village in the suburbs of Moscow than to a town properly so called. In most cases they are abundantly provided with police-master, assessors, and other inferior officials. If it is cold in Siberia, the great advantages of the Government service compensate for it. The inhabitants are simple people, without liberal ideas. Their manners are antique, solid, and unchanged by time. The officials who form, and with reason, the nobility in Siberia, either belong to the country, deeply-rooted Siberians, or they have arrived there from Russia. The latter come straight from the capitals, tempted by the high pay, the extra allowance for travelling expenses, and by hopes not less seductive for the future. Those who know how to resolve the problem of life remain almost always in Siberia; the abundant and richly-flavoured fruit which they gather there recompenses them amply for what they lose.
As for the others, light-minded persons who are unable to deal with the problem, they are soon bored in Siberia, and ask themselves with regret why they committed the folly of coming. They impatiently kill the three years which they are obliged by rule toremain, and as soon as their time is up, they beg to be sent back, and return to their original quarters, running down Siberia, and ridiculing it. They are wrong, for it is a happy country, not only as regards the Government service, but also from many other points of view.
The climate is excellent, the merchants are rich and hospitable, the Europeans in easy circumstances are numerous; as for the young girls, they are like roses and their morality is irreproachable. Game is to be found in the streets, andthrows itself upon the sportsman's gun. People drink champagne in prodigious quantities. The caviare is astonishingly good and most abundant. In a word, it is a blessed land, out of which it is only necessary to be able to make profit; and much profit isreally made.
It is in one of these little towns—gay and perfectly satisfied with themselves, the population of which has left upon me the most agreeable impression—that I met an exile, Alexander Petrovitch Goriantchikoff, formerly a landed proprietor in Russia. He had beencondemned to hard labour of the second class for assassinating his wife. After undergoing his punishment—ten years of hard labour—he lived quietly and unnoticed as a colonist in the little town of K——. To tell the truth, he was inscribedin one of the surrounding districts; but he resided at K——, where he managed to get a living by giving lessons to children. In the towns of Siberia one often meets with exiles who are occupied with instruction. They are not looked down upon, for they teachthe French language, so necessary in life, and of which without them one would not, in the distant parts of Siberia, have the least idea.
I saw Alexander Petrovitch the first time at the house of an official, Ivan Ivanitch Gvosdikof, a venerable old man,very hospitable, and the father of five daughters, of whom the greatest hopes were entertained. Four times a week Alexander Petrovitch gave them lessons, at the rate of thirty kopecks silver a lesson. His external appearance interested me. He was excessively pale and thin, still young—about thirty-five years of age—short and weak, always very neatly dressed in the European style. When you spoke to him he looked at you in a very attentive manner, listening to your words with strict politeness, and with a reflective air, as though you had placed before him a problem or wished to extract from him a secret. He replied clearly and shortly; but in doing so, weighed each word, so that one felt ill at ease without knowing why, and was glad when the conversation cameto an end. I put some questions to Ivan Gvosdikof in regard to him. He told me that Goriantchikoff was of irreproachable morals, otherwise Gvosdikof would not have entrusted him with the education of his children; but that he was a terrible misanthrope, who kept apart from all society; that he was very learned, a great reader, and that he spoke but little, and never entered freely into a conversation. Certain persons told him that he was mad; but that was not looked upon as a very serious defect. Accordingly, the most important persons in the town were ready to treat Alexander Petrovitch with respect, for he could be useful to them in writing petitions. It was believed that he was well connected in Russia. Perhaps, among his relations, there were some who were highly placed; but it was known that since his exile he had broken off all relations with them. In a word—he injured himself. Every one knew his story, and was aware that he had killed his wife, through jealousy, less than a year after his marriage; and that he had given himself up to justice; which had made his punishment much less severe. Such crimes are always looked upon as misfortunes, which must be treated with pity. Nevertheless, this original kept himself obstinately apart, and never showed himself except to give lessons. In the first instance I paid no attention to him; then, without knowing why, I found myself interested by him. He was rather enigmatic; to talk with him was quite impossible. Certainly he replied to all my questions; he seemed to make it a duty to do so; but when once he had answered, I was afraid to interrogate him any longer.
After such conversations one could observe on his countenance signs of suffering and exhaustion. I remember that, one fine summer evening, I went out withhim from the house of Ivan Gvosdikof. It suddenly occurred to me to invite him to come in with me and smoke a cigarette. I can scarcely describe the fright which showed itself in his countenance. He became confused, muttered incoherent words, and suddenly, after looking at me with an angry air, took to flight in an opposite direction. I was very much astonished afterwards,when he met me. He seemed to experience, on seeing me, a sort of terror; but I did not lose courage. There was something in him which attracted me.
A month afterwards I went to see Petrovitch without any pretext. It is evident that, in doing so, I behaved foolishly, and without the least delicacy. He lived at one of the extreme points of the town with an old woman whose daughter was in aconsumption. The latter had a little child about ten years old, very pretty and very lively.
When I went in Alexander Petrovitch was seated by her side, and was teaching her to read. When he saw me he became confused, as if I had detected him in a crime. Losing all self-command, he suddenly stood up and looked at me with awe and astonishment. Then we both of us sat down. He followed attentively all my looks, as if I had suspected him of some mysterious intention. I understood he was horribly mistrustful. Helooked at me as a sort of spy, and he seemed to be on the point of saying, "Are you not soon going away?"
I spoke to him of our little town, of the news of the day, but he was silent, or smiled with an air of displeasure. I could see that he was absolutely ignorant of all that was taking place in the town, and that he was in no way curious to know. I spoke to him afterwards of the country generally, and of its men. He listened to me still in silence, fixing his eyes upon me in such a strange way that I became ashamed of what I was doing. I was very nearly offending him by offering him some books and newspapers which I had just received by post. He cast a greedy look upon them; he then seemed to alter his mind, and declined my offer, giving his want of leisure as a pretext.
At last I wished him good-bye, and I felt a weight fall from my shoulders as I left the house. I regretted to have harassed a man whose tastes kept him apart from the rest of the world. But the fault had been committed. I had remarked thathe possessed very few books. It was not true, then, that he read so much. Nevertheless, on two occasions when I drove past, I saw a light in his lodging. What could make him sit up so late? Was he writing, and if that were so, what was he writing?
I was absent from our town for about three months. When I returned home in the winter, I learned that Petrovitch was dead, and that he had not even sent for a doctor. He was even now already forgotten, and his lodging was unoccupied. I at once made the acquaintance of his landlady, in the hope of learning from her what her lodger had been writing. For twenty kopecks she brought me a basket full of papers left by the defunct, and confessed to me that she had already employed four sheets in lighting her fire. She was a morose and taciturn old woman. I could not get from her anything that was interesting. She could tell me nothing about her lodger. She gave me to understand all the same that he scarcely ever worked, and that he remained for months together without opening a book or touching a pen. On the other hand, he walked all night up and down his room, given up to his reflections. Sometimes, indeed, he spoke aloud. He was very fond of her little grandchild, Katia, above all when he knew her name; on her name's-day—the day of St. Catherine—he always had a requiem said in the church for some one's soul. He detested receiving visits, and never went out except to give lessons. Even his landlady he looked upon with an unfriendly eye when, once a week, she came into hisroom to put it in order.
During the three years he had passed with her, he had scarcely ever spoken to her. I asked Katia if she remembered him. She looked at me in silence, and turned weeping to the wall. This man, then, was loved by some one! I took away the papers, and passed the day in examining them. They were for the most part of no importance, merely children's exercises. At last I came to a rather thick packet, the sheets of which were covered with delicate handwriting, which abruptly ceased. It had perhaps been forgotten by the writer. It was the narrative—incoherent and fragmentary—of the ten years Alexander Petrovitch had passed in hard labour. This narrative was interrupted, here and there, either by anecdotes, or by strange, terrible recollections thrown in convulsively as if torn from the writer. I read some of these fragments again and again, and I began to doubt whether they had not been written in moments of madness; but these memories of the convict prison—"Recollections of the Dead-House,"as he himself called them somewhere in his manuscript—seemed to me not without interest. They revealed quite a new world unknown till then; and in the strangeness of his facts, together with his singular remarks on this fallen people, there was enough totempt me to go on. I may perhaps be wrong, but I will publish some chapters from this narrative, and the public shall judge for itself.
Our prison was at the end of the citadel behind the ramparts.Looking through the crevicesbetween the palisade in the hope ofseeing something, one sees nothing but a little corner of the sky,and a high earthwork, covered with the long grass of the steppe.Night and day sentries walk to and fro upon it. Then one perceivesfrom the first, thatwhole years will pass during which one will seeby the same crevices between the palisades, upon the sameearthwork, always the same sentinels and the same little corner ofthe sky, not just above the prison, but far and far away. Representto yourself acourt-yard, two hundred feet long, and one hundred andfifty feet broad, enclosed by an irregular hexagonal palisade,formed of stakes thrust deep into the earth. So much for theexternal surroundings of the prison. On one side of the palisade isa great gate, solid, and always shut; watched perpetually by thesentinels, and never opened, except when the convicts go out towork. Beyond this, there are light and liberty, the life of freepeople! Beyond the palisade, one thought of the marvellous world,fantastic as a fairy tale. It was not the same on our side. Here,there was no resemblance to anything. Habits, customs, laws, wereall precisely fixed. It was the house of living death. It is thiscorner that I undertake to describe.
On penetrating into theenclosure one sees a few buildings. Oneach side of a vast court are stretched forth two woodenconstructions, made of trunks of trees, and only one storey high.These are convicts' barracks. Here the prisoners are confined,divided into several classes. At the end of the enclosure may beseen a house, which serves as a kitchen, divided into twocompartments. Behind it is another building, which serves at onceas cellar, loft, and barn. The centre of the enclosure, completelybarren, is a large open space.Here the prisoners are drawn up inranks, three times a day. They are identified, and must answer totheir names, morning, noon, and evening, besides several times inthe course of the day if the soldiers on guard are suspicious andclever at counting. Allaround, between the palisades and thebuildings there remains a sufficiently large space, where some ofthe prisoners who are misanthropes, or of a sombre turn of mind,like to walk about when they are not at work. There they go turningover their favourite thoughts, shielded from all observation.
When I met them during those walks of theirs, I took pleasure inobserving their sad, deeply-marked countenances, and in guessingtheir thoughts. The favourite occupation of one of the convicts,during the moments of liberty left to him from his hard labour, wasto count the palisades. There were fifteen hundred of them. He hadcounted them all, and knew them nearly by heart. Every one of themrepresented to him a day of confinement; but, counting them dailyin this manner, he knew exactly the number of days that he hadstill to pass in the prison. He was sincerely happy when he hadfinished one side of the hexagon; yet he had to wait for hisliberation many long years. But one learns patience in aprison.
One dayI saw a prisoner, who had undergone his punishment, takeleave of his comrades. He had had twenty years' hard labour. Morethan one convict remembered seeing him arrive, quite young,careless, thinking neither of his crime nor of his punishment. Hewas nowan old man with gray hairs, with a sad and morosecountenance. He walked in silence through our six barracks. When heentered each of them he prayed before the holy image, made a deepbow to his former companions, and begged them not to keep a badrecollection of him.
I also remember one evening, a prisoner, who had been formerly awell-to-do Siberian peasant, so called. Six years before he had hadnews of his wife's remarrying, which had caused him great pain.That very evening she had come to the prison,and had asked for himin order to make him a present! They talked together for twominutes, wept together, and then separated never to meet again. Isaw the expression of this prisoner's countenance when here-entered the barracks. There, indeed, one learns to supporteverything.
When darkness set in we had to re-enter the barrack, where wewere shut up for all the night. It was always painful for me toleave the court-yard for the barrack. Think of a long, low,stifling room, scarcely lighted by tallow candles, and full ofheavy and disgusting odours. I cannot now understand how I livedthere for ten entire years. My camp bedstead was made of threeboards. This was the only place in the room that belonged to me. Inone single room we herded together, morethan thirty men. It was,above all, no wonder that wewere shut up early. Four hours at leastpassed before every one was asleep, and, until then, there was atumult and uproar of laughter, oaths, rattling of chains, apoisonous vapour of thick smoke; a confusion of shaved heads,stigmatised foreheads, and ragged clothes disgustingly filthy.
Yes, man is a pliable animal—he must be so defined—abeing who gets accustomed to everything! That would be, perhaps,the best definition that could be given of him. There werealtogether two hundred and fifty of us in the same prison. Thisnumber was almost invariably the same. Whenever some of them hadundergone their punishment, other criminals arrived, and a few ofthem died. Among them there were all sorts of people. I believethat each region of Russia had furnished its representatives. Therewere foreigners there, and even mountaineers from the Caucasus.
All these people were divided into different classes, accordingto the importance of the crime; and consequentlythe duration of thepunishment for the crime, whatever it might be, was thererepresented. The population of the prison was composed for the mostpart of men condemned to hard labour of the civilclass—"strongly condemned," as the prisoners used to say.They were criminals deprived of all civil rights, men rejected bysociety, vomited forth by it, and whose faces were marked by theiron to testify eternally to their disgrace. They were incarceratedfor different periods of time, varying from eight to ten years. Atthe expiration of their punishment they were sent to the Siberiandistricts in the character of colonists.
As to the criminals of the military section, they were notdeprived of their civil rights—as is generally the case inRussian disciplinary companies—but were punished for arelatively short period. As soon as they had undergone theirpunishment they had to return to the place whence they had come,and became soldiers in the battalions of the Siberian Line.
Many of them came back to us afterwards, for serious crimes,this time not for a small number of years, but for twenty at least.They then formed part of the section called "for perpetuity."Nevertheless, the perpetuals were not deprived of their right.There was another section sufficiently numerous, composed of theworst malefactors, nearly all veterans in crime, and which wascalled the special section. There were sent convicts from all theRussias. They looked upon one another with reason as imprisoned forever, for the term of their confinement had not been indicated. Thelaw required them to receive double and treble tasks. They remainedin prison until work of the most painful character had to beundertaken in Siberia.
"You are only here for a fixed time," they said to the otherconvicts; "we, on the contrary, are here for all our life."
I have heard that this section has since been abolished. At thesame time, civil convicts are kept apart, in order that themilitary convicts may be organised by themselves into a homogeneous"disciplinary company." The administration, too, has naturally beenchanged; consequently what I describe are the customs and practicesof another time, and of things which have since been abolished.Yes, it was a long time ago; it seems to me that it is all a dream.I remember entering the convict prison one December evening, asnight wasfalling. The convicts were returning from work. Theroll-call was about to be made. An under officer with largemoustaches opened to me the gate of this strange house, where Iwasto remain so many years, to endure so many emotions, and ofwhich I could not form even an approximate idea, if I had not gonethrough them. Thus, for example, could I ever have imagined thepoignant and terrible suffering of never being alone even for oneminute during ten years? Working under escort in the barrackstogether with two hundred "companions;" never alone, never!
However, I was obliged to get accustomed to it. Among them therewere murderers by imprudence, and murderers by profession, simplethieves, masters in the art of finding money in the pockets of thepassers-by, or of wiping off no matter what from the table. Itwould have been difficult, however, to say why and how certainprisoners found themselves among the convicts. Each of them hadhishistory, confused and heavy, painful as the morning after adebauch.
The convicts, as a rule, spoke very little of their past life,which they did not like to think of. They endeavoured, even, todismiss it from their memory.
Amongst my companions of the chain I have known murderers whowere so gay and so free from care, that one might have made a betthat their conscience never made them the least reproach. But therewere also men of sombre countenance who remained almost alwayssilent. It was very rarely any one told his history. This sort ofthing was not the fashion. Let us say at once that it was notreceived. Sometimes, however, from time to time, for the sake ofchange, a prisoner used to tell his life to another prisoner, whowould listen coldlyto the narrative. No one, to tell the truth,could have said anything to astonish his neighbour. "We are notignoramuses," they would sometimes say with singular pride.
I remember one day a ruffian who had got drunk—it wassometimes possible for the convicts to get drink—relating howhe had killed and cut up a child of five. He had first tempted thechild with a plaything, and then taking it to a loft, had cut it upto pieces. The entire barrack, which, generally speaking, laughedat his jokes, uttered oneunanimous cry. The ruffian was obliged tobe silent. But if the convicts had interrupted him, it was not byany means because his recital had caused their indignation, butbecause it was not allowed to speak of such things.
I must here observe that the convicts possessed a certain degreeof instruction. Half of them, if not more, knew how to read andwrite. Where in Russia, in no matter what population, could twohundred and fifty men be found able to read and write? Later on Ihave heard people say, and conclude on the strength of theseabuses, that education demoralises the people. This is a mistake.Education has nothing whatever to do with moral deterioration. Itmust be admitted, nevertheless, that it develops a resolute spiritamong the people. But this is far from being a defect.
Each section had a different costume. The uniform of one was acloth vest, half brown and half gray, and trousers with one legbrown, the other gray. One day while we were at work, a little girlwho sold scones of white breadcame towards the convicts. She lookedat them for a time and then burst into a laugh. "Oh, how ugly theyare!" she cried; "they have noteven enough gray cloth or browncloth to make their clothes." Every convict wore a vest made ofgray cloth, except thesleeves, which were brown. Their heads, too,were shaved in different styles. The crown was bared sometimeslongitudinally, sometimes latitudinally, from the nape of the neckto the forehead, or from one ear to another.
This strange family had a general likeness so pronounced that itcould be recognised at a glance.
Even the most striking personalities, those who dominatedinvoluntarily the other convicts, could not help taking the generaltone of the house.
Of the convicts—with the exception of a few who enjoyedchildish gaiety, and who by that alone drew upon themselves generalcontempt—all the convicts were morose, envious, frightfullyvain, presumptuous, susceptible, and excessively ceremonious. To beastonished at nothing was in their eyes the first andindispensablequality. Accordingly, their first aim was to bear themselves withdignity. But often the most composed demeanour gave way with therapidity of lightning. With the basest humility some, however,possessed genuine strength; these were naturally all sincere. Butstrangely enough, they were for the most part excessively andmorbidly vain. Vanity was always their salient quality.
The majority of the prisoners were depraved and perverted, sothat calumnies and scandal rained amongst them like hail.Our lifewas a constant hell, a perpetual damnation; but no one would havedared to raise a voice against the internal regulations of theprison, or against established usages. Accordingly, willingly orunwillingly, they had to be submitted to. Certain indomitablecharacters yielded with difficulty, but they yielded all the same.Prisoners who when at liberty had gone beyond all measure, who,urged by their over-excited vanity, had committed frightful crimesunconsciously, as if in a delirium, and had beenthe terror ofentire towns, were put down in a very short time by the system ofour prison. The "new man," when he began to reconnoitre, soon foundthat he could astonish no one, and insensibly he submitted, tookthe general tone, and assumed a sort of personal dignity whichalmost every convict maintained, just as if the denomination ofconvict had been a title of honour. Not the least sign of shame orof repentance, but a kind of external submission which seemed tohave been reasoned out as the line of conduct to be pursued. "Weare lost men," they said to themselves. "We were unable to live inliberty; we must now go to Green Street."
"You would not obey your father and mother; you will now obeythongs of leather." "The man who would not sow must nowbreakstones."
These things were said, and repeated in the way of morality, assentences and proverbs, but without any one taking them seriously.They were but words in the air. There was not one man among themwho admitted his iniquity. Let a stranger nota convict endeavour toreproach him with his crime, and the insults directed against himwould be endless. And how refined are convicts in the matter ofinsults! They insult delicately, like artists; insult with the mostdelicate science. They endeavour not so much to offend by theexpression as by the meaning, the spirit of an envenomed phrase.Their incessant quarrels developed greatly this special art.
As they only worked under the threat of an immense stick, theywere idle and depraved. Those who werenot already corrupt when theyarrived at the convict establishment, became perverted very soon.Brought together in spite of themselves, they were perfectstrangers to one another. "The devil has worn out three pairs ofsandals before he got us together,"they would say. Intrigues,calumnies, scandal of all kinds, envy, and hatred reigned aboveeverything else. In this life of sloth, no ordinary spiteful tonguecould make head against these murderers, with insults constantly intheir mouths.
As I said before, there were found among them men of opencharacter, resolute, intrepid, accustomed to self-command. Thesewere held involuntarily in esteem. Although they were very jealousof their reputation, they endeavoured to annoy no one, and neverinsulted one another without a motive. Their conduct was on allpoints full of dignity. They were rational, and almost alwaysobedient, not by principle, or from any respect for duty, but as ifin virtue of a mutual convention between themselves and theadministration—a convention of which the advantages wereplain enough.
The officials, moreover, behaved prudently towards them. Iremember that one prisoner of the resolute and intrepid class,known to possess the instincts of a wild beast, was summoned oneday to be whipped. It was during the summer, no work was beingdone. The Adjutant, the direct and immediate chief of the convictprison, was in the orderly-room, by the side of the principalentrance, ready to assist at the punishment. This Major was a fatalbeing for theprisoners, whom he had brought to such a state thatthey trembled before him. Severe to the point of insanity, "hethrew himself upon them," to use their expression. But it was aboveall that his look, as penetrating as that of a lynx, was feared. Itwasimpossible to conceal anything from him. He saw, so to say,without looking. On entering the prison, he knew at once what wasbeing done. Accordingly, the convicts, one and all, called him theman with the eight eyes. His system was bad, for it had the effectof irritating men who were already irascible. But for theCommandant, a well-bred and reasonable man, who moderated thesavage onslaughts of the Major, the latter would have caused sadmisfortunes by his bad administration. I do not understand how hemanaged to retire from the service safe and sound. It is true thathe left after being called before a court-martial.
The prisoner turned pale when he was called; generally speaking,he lay down courageously, and without uttering a word, to receivetheterrible rods, after which he got up and shook himself. He borethe misfortune calmly, philosophically, it is true, though he wasnever punished carelessly, nor without all sorts of precautions.But this time he considered himself innocent. He turned pale,and ashe walked quietly towards the escort of soldiers he managed toconceal in his sleeve a shoemaker's awl. The prisoners wereseverely forbidden to carry sharp instruments about them.Examinations were frequently, minutely, and unexpectedly made,andall infractions of the rule were severely punished. But as it isdifficult to take away from the criminal what he is determined toconceal, and as, moreover, sharp instruments are necessarily usedin the prison, they were never destroyed. If the official succeededin taking them away from the convicts, the latter procured new onesvery soon.
On the occasion in question, all the convicts had now thrownthemselves against the palisade, with palpitating hearts, to lookthrough the crevices. It was known that this time Petroff would notallow himself to be flogged, that the end of the Major had come.But at the critical moment the latter got into his carriage, andwent away, leaving the direction of the punishment to a subaltern."God has saved him!" said the convicts. As for Petroff, heunderwent his punishment quietly. Once the Major had gone, hisanger fell. The prisoner is submissive and obedient to a certainpoint, but there is a limit which must not be crossed. Nothing ismore curious than these strange outbursts of disobedience and rage.Often a man who has supported for many years the most cruelpunishment, will revolt for a trifle, for nothing at all. He mightpass for a madman; that, in fact, is what is said of him.
I have already said that during many years I never remarked theleast sign of repentance, not even the slightest uneasiness withregard to the crime committed; and that most of the convictsconsidered neither honour nor conscience, holding that they had aright to act as they thought fit. Certainly vanity, evil examples,deceitfulness, and false shame were responsible for much. On theother hand, who can claim to have sounded the depths of thesehearts, given over to perdition, and to have found them closed toall light? It would seem all the same that during so many years Iought to have been able to notice some indication, even the mostfugitive, of some regret, some moral suffering. I positively sawnothing of the kind. With ready-made opinions one cannot judge ofcrime. Its philosophy is a little more complicated than peoplethink. It is acknowledged that neither convict prisons, nor thehulks, nor any system of hard labour ever cured a criminal. Theseforms of chastisement only punish him and reassure society againstthe offences he might commit. Confinement, regulation, andexcessive work have no effect but to develop with these menprofound hatred, a thirst for forbidden enjoyment, and frightfulrecalcitrations. On the other hand I am convinced that thecelebrated cellular system gives results which are specious anddeceitful. It deprives a criminal of his force, of his energy,enervates his soul by weakening and frightening it, and at lastexhibits a dried up mummy as a model of repentance andamendment.
The criminal who has revolted against society, hates it, andconsiders himself in the right; society was wrong, not he. Has henot, moreover, undergone his punishment? Accordingly he isabsolved, acquitted in his own eyes. In spite of differentopinions, every one will acknowledge that thereare crimes whicheverywhere, always, under no matter what legislation, are beyonddiscussion crimes, and should be regarded as such as long as man isman. It is only at the convict prison that I have heard related,with a childish, unrestrained laugh, thestrangest, most atrociousoffences. I shall never forget a certain parricide, formerly anobleman and a public functionary. He had given great grief to hisfather—a true prodigal son. The old man endeavoured in vainto restrain him by remonstrance on thefatal slope down which he wassliding. As he was loaded with debts, and his father was suspectedof having, besides an estate, a sum of ready money, he killed himin order to enter more quickly into his inheritance. This crime wasnot discovered until a month afterwards. During all this time themurderer, who meanwhile had informed the police of his father'sdisappearance, continued his debauches. At last, during hisabsence, the police discovered the old man's corpse in a drain. Thegray head was severed from the trunk, butreplaced in its originalposition. The body was entirely dressed. Beneath, as if byderision, the assassin had placed a cushion.
The young man confessed nothing. He was degraded, deprived ofhis nobiliary privileges, and condemned to twenty years' hardlabour. As long as I knew him I always found him to be careless ofhis position. He was the most light-minded, inconsiderate man thatI ever met, although he was far from being a fool. I never observedin him any great tendency to cruelty.The other convicts despisedhim, not on account of his crime, of which there was never anyquestion, but because he was without dignity. He sometimes spoke ofhis father. One day for instance, boasting of the hereditary goodhealth of his family, he said:"My father, for example, until hisdeath was never ill."
Animal insensibility carried to such a point is mostremarkable—it is, indeed, phenomenal. There must have been inthis case an organic defect in the man, some physical and moralmonstrosity unknownhitherto to science, and not simply crime. Inaturally did not believe in so atrocious a crime; but people ofthe same town as himself, who knew all the details of his history,related it to me. The facts were so clear that it would have beenmadness not to accept them. The prisoners once heard him cry outduring his sleep: "Hold him! hold him! Cut his head off, his head,his head!"
Nearly all the convicts dreamed aloud, or were delirious intheir sleep. Insults, words of slang, knives, hatchets, seemedconstantly present in their dreams. "We are crushed!" they wouldsay; "we are without entrails; that is why we shriek in thenight."
Hard labour in our fortress was not an occupation, but anobligation. The prisoners accomplished their task, they worked thenumber of hours fixed by the law, and then returned to the prison.They hated their liberty. If the convict did not do some work onhis own account voluntarily, it would be impossible for him tosupport his confinement. How could these persons, allstronglyconstituted, who had lived sumptuously, and desired so tolive again, who had been brought together against their will, aftersociety had cast them up—how could they live in a normal andnatural manner? Man cannot exist without work, without legal,natural property. Depart from these conditions, and he becomesperverted and changed into a wild beast. Accordingly, everyconvict, through natural requirements and by the instinct ofself-preservation, had a trade—an occupation of somekind.
The long days of summer were taken up almost entirely by ourhard labour. The night was so short that we had only just time tosleep. It was not the same in winter. According to the regulations,the prisoners had to be shut up in the barracks at nightfall. Whatwas to be done during these long, sad evenings but work?Consequently each barrack, though locked and bolted, assumed theappearance of a large workshop. The work was not, it is true,strictly forbidden, but it was forbidden to have tools, withoutwhich work is evidently impossible. But we laboured in secret, andthe administration seemed to shut its eyes. Many prisoners arrivedwithout knowing how to make use of their ten fingers; but theylearnt a trade from some of their companions, and became excellentworkmen.
We had among us cobblers, bootmakers, tailors, masons,locksmiths, and gilders. A Jew named Esau Boumstein was at the sametime a jeweller and a usurer. Every one worked,and thus gained afew pence—for many orders came from the town. Money is atangible resonant liberty, inestimable for a man entirely deprivedof true liberty. If he feels some money in his pocket, he consoleshimself a little, even though he cannot spend it—but one canalways and everywhere spend money, the more so as forbidden fruitis doublysweet. One can often buy spirits in the convict prison.Although pipes are severely forbidden, every one smokes. Money andtobacco save the convicts from the scurvy, as work saves them fromcrime—for without work they would mutually have destroyed oneanother like spiders shut up in a close bottle. Work and money wereall the same forbidden. Often during the night severe examinationswere made, during which everything that was not legally authorisedwas confiscated. However successfully the little hoards had beenconcealed, they were sometimes discovered. That was one of thereasons why they were not kept very long. They were exchanged assoon as possible for drink, which explains how it happened thatspirits penetrated into the convict prison. The delinquent was notonly deprived of his hoard, but was also cruelly flogged.
A short time after each examination the convicts procured againthe objects which had been confiscated, and everything went on asbefore. The administration knew it; and although the condition ofthe convicts was a good deal like that of the inhabitants ofVesuvius, they never murmured at the punishment inflicted for thesepeccadilloes. Those who had no manual skill did business somehow orother. The modes of buying and selling were original enough. Thingschanged hands which no one expected a convict would ever havethought of selling or buying, or even of regarding as of any valuewhatever. The least rag had its value, and might be turned toaccount. In consequence, however, of the poverty of the convicts,money acquired in their eyes a superior value to that reallybelonging to it.
Long and painful tasks, sometimes of a very complicated kind,brought back a few kopecks. Several of the prisoners lent by theweek, and did good business thatway. The prisoner who was ruinedand insolvent carried to the usurer the few things belonging to himand pledged them for some halfpence, which were lent to him at afabulous rate of interest. If he did not redeem them at the fixedtime the usurer sold them pitilessly by auction, and without theleast delay.
Usury flourished so well in our convict prison that money waslent even on things belonging to the Government: linen, boots,etc.—things that were wanted at every moment. When the lenderaccepted suchpledges the affair took an unexpected turn. Theproprietor went, immediately after he had received his money, andtold the under officer—chief superintendent of the convictprison—that objects belonging to the State were beingconcealed, on which everything was taken away from the usurerwithout even the formality of a report to the superioradministration. But never was there any quarrel—and that isvery curious indeed—between the usurer and the owner. Thefirst gave up in silence, with a morose air, the things demandedfrom him, as if he had been waiting for the request. Sometimes,perhaps, he confessed to himself that, in the place of theborrower, he would not have acted differently. Accordingly, if hewas insulted after this restitution, it was less from hatred thansimply as a matter of conscience.
The convicts robbed one another without shame. Each prisoner hadhis little box fitted with a padlock, in which he kept the thingsentrusted to him by the administration. Although these boxes wereauthorised,that did not prevent them from being broken into. Thereader can easily imagine what clever thieves were found among us.A prisoner who was sincerely devoted to me—I say it withoutboasting—stole my Bible from me, the only book allowed in theconvict prison. He told me of it the same day, not from repentance,but because he pitied me when he saw me looking for it everywhere.We had among our companions of the chain several convicts called"innkeepers," who sold spirits, and became comparatively rich bydoing so. I shall speak of this further on, for the liquor trafficdeserves special study.
A great number of prisoners had been deported for smuggling,which explains how it was that drink was brought secretly into theconvict prison, under so severe a surveillance as ours was. Inpassing it may be remarked that smuggling is an offence apart.Would it be believed that money, the solid profit from the affair,possesses often only secondary importance for the smuggler? It isall the same an authentic fact. He works by vocation. In his stylehe is a poet. He risks all he possesses, exposes himself toterrible dangers, intrigues, invents, gets out of a scrape, andbrings everything to a happy end by a sort of inspiration. Thispassion is as violent as that of play.
I knew a prisoner of colossal stature who was the mildest, themost peaceable, and most manageable man it was possible to see. Weoften asked one another how he had been deported. He had such acalm, sociable character, that during the whole time that hepassedat the convict prison, he never quarrelled with any one. Born inWestern Russia, where he lived on the frontier, he had been sent tohard labour for smuggling. Naturally, then, he could not resist hisdesire to smuggle spirits into the prison. How many times was henot punished for it, and heaven knows how much he feared the rods.This dangerous trade brought him in but slender profits. It was thespeculator who got rich at his expense. Each time he was punishedhe wept like an old woman, and swore by all that was holy that hewould never be caught at such things again. He kept his vow for anentire month, but he ended by yielding once more to his passion.Thanks to these amateurs of smuggling, spirits were always to behad in the convict prison.
Another source of income which, without enriching the prisoners,was constantly and beneficently turned to account, was alms-giving.The upper classes of our Russian society do not know to what anextent merchants, shopkeepers, and our people generally,commiserate the "unfortunate!"Alms were always forthcoming, andconsisted generally of little white loaves, sometimes of money, butvery rarely. Without alms, the existence of the convicts, and aboveall that of the accused, who are badly fed, would be too painful.These alms are shared equally between all the prisoners. If thegifts are not sufficient, the little loaves are divided intohalves, and sometimes into six pieces, so that each convict mayhave his share. I remember the first alms, a small piece ofmoney,that I received. A short time after my arrival, one morning, as Iwas coming back from work with a soldier escort, I met a mother andher daughter, a child of ten, as beautiful as an angel. I hadalready seen them once before.
The mother was the widow of a poor soldier, who, while stillyoung, had been sentenced by a court-martial, and had died in theinfirmary of the convict prison while I was there. They wept hottears when they came to bid him good-bye. On seeing me the littlegirl blushed, and murmured a few words into her mother's ear, whostopped, and took from a basket a kopeck which she gave to thelittle girl. The little girl ran after me.
"Here, poor man," she said, "take this in the name of Christ." Itook the money which she slipped intomy hand. The little girlreturned joyfully to her mother. I preserved that kopeck aconsiderable time.
During the first weeks, and naturally the early part of myimprisonment, made a deep impression on myimagination. Thefollowing years on the other hand are all mixed up together, andleave but a confused recollection. Certain epochs of this life areeven effaced from my memory. I have kept one general impression ofit, always the same; painful, monotonous, stifling. What I saw inexperience during the first days of my imprisonment seems to me asif it had all taken place yesterday. Such was sure to be the case.I remember perfectly that in the first place this life astonishedme by the very fact that it offered nothing particular, nothingextraordinary, or to express myself better, nothing unexpected. Itwas not until later on, when I had lived some time in the convictprison, that I understood all that was exceptional and unforeseenin such a life. I was astonished at the discovery. I will avow thatthis astonishment remained with me throughout my term ofpunishment. I could not decidedly reconcile myself to thisexistence.
First of all, I experienced an invincible repugnance onarriving; but oddly enough the life seemed to me less painful thanI had imagined on the journey.
Indeed, prisoners, though embarrassed by their irons went to andfro in the prison freely enough. They insulted one another, sang,worked, smoked pipes, and drank spirits. There were notmanydrinkers all the same. There were also regular card parties duringthe night. The labour did not seem to me very trying; I fanciedthat it could not be the real "hard labour." I did not understandtill long afterwards why this labour was really hardand excessive.It was less by reason of its difficulty, than because it wasforced, imposed, obligatory; and it was only done through fear ofthe stick. The peasant works certainly harder than the convict,for, during the summer, he works night and day. But it is in hisown interest that he fatigues himself. His aim is reasonable, sothat he suffers less than theconvict who performs hard labour fromwhich he derives no profit. It once came into my head that if itwere desired to reduce a man to nothing—topunish himatrociously, to crush him in such a manner that the most hardenedmurderer would tremble before such a punishment, and take frightbeforehand—it would be necessary to give to his work acharacter of complete uselessness, even to absurdity.
Hardlabour, as it is now carried on, presents no interest to theconvict; but it has its utility. The convict makes bricks, digs theearth, builds; and all his occupations have a meaning and an end.Sometimes, even the prisoner takes an interest in what he isdoing.He then wishes to work more skilfully, more advantageously. But lethim be constrained to pour water from one vessel into another, orto transport a quantity of earth from one place to another, inorder to perform the contrary operation immediatelyafterwards, thenI am persuaded that at the end of a few days the prisoner wouldstrangle himself or commit a thousand crimes, punishable withdeath, rather than live in such an abject condition and endure suchtorments. It is evident that such punishmentwould be rather atorture, an atrocious vengeance, than a correction. It would beabsurd, for it would have no natural end.
I did not, however, arrive until the winter—in the monthof December—and the labour was then unimportant in ourfortress. I had no idea of the summer labour—five times asfatiguing. The prisoners, during the winter season, broke up on theIrtitch some old boats belonging to the Government, foundoccupation in the workshops, took away the snow blown by hurricanesagainst the buildings,or burned and pounded alabaster. As the daywas very short, the work ceased at an early hour, and every onereturned to the convict prison, where there was scarcely anythingto do, except the supplementary work which the convicts did forthemselves.
Scarcely a third of the convicts worked seriously, the othersidled their time and wandered about without aim in the barracks,scheming and insulting one another. Those who had a little moneygot drunk on spirits, or lost what they had saved at gambling. Andallthis from idleness, weariness, and want of something to do.
I learned, moreover, to know one suffering which is perhaps thesharpest, the most painful that can be experienced in a house ofdetention apart from laws and liberty. I mean, "forcedcohabitation." Cohabitation is more or less forced everywhere andalways; but nowhere is it so horrible as in a prison. There are menthere with whom no one would consent to live. I am certain thatevery convict, unconsciously perhaps, has suffered from this.
The food of the prisoners seemed to me passable; some declaredeven that it was incomparably better than in any Russian prison. Icannot certify to this, for I was never in prison anywhere else.Many of us, besides, were allowed to procure whatever nourishmentwewanted. As fresh meat cost only three kopecks a pound, those whoalways had money allowed themselves the luxury of eating it. Themajority of the prisoners were contented with the regularration.
When they praised the diet of the convict prison, theywerethinking only of the bread, which was distributed at the rateof so much per room, and not individually or by weight. This lastcondition would have frightened the convicts, for a third of themat least wouldhave constantly suffered from hunger; while, with thesystem in vogue, every one was satisfied. Our bread wasparticularly nice, and was even renowned in the town. Its goodquality was attributed to the excellent construction of the prisonovens. As for our cabbage-soup, it was cooked and thickened withflour. It had not an appetising appearance. On working days it wasclear and thin; but what particularly disgusted me was the way itwas served. The prisoners, however, paid no attention to that.
During the three days that followed my arrival, I did notgo towork. Some respite was always given to prisoners just arrived, inorder to allow them to recover from their fatigue. The second day Ihad to go out of the convict prison in order to be ironed. My chainwas not of the regulation pattern; it was composed of rings, whichgave forth a clear sound, so I heard other convicts say. I had towear them externally over my clothes, whereas my companions hadchains formed, not of rings, but of four links, as thick as thefinger, and fastened together by three links which were wornbeneath the trousers. To the central ring was fastened a strip ofleather, tied in its turn to a girdle fastened over the shirt.
I can see again the first morning that I passed in the convictprison. The drum sounded in the orderly room,near the principalentrance. Ten minutes afterwards the under officer opened thebarracks. The convicts woke up one after another and rose tremblingwith cold from their plank bedsteads, by the dull light of a tallowcandle. Nearly all of them were morose; they yawned and stretchedthemselves. Their foreheads, marked by the iron, were contracted.Some made the sign of the Cross; others began to talk nonsense. Thecold air from outside rushed in as soon as the door was opened.Then the prisoners hurried round the pails full of water, one afteranother, and took water in their mouths, and, letting it out intotheir hands, washed their faces. Those pails had been brought inthe night before by a prisoner specially appointed, according tothe rules, to clean the barracks.
The convicts chose him themselves. He did not work with theothers, for it was his business to examine the camp bedsteads andthe floors, to fetch and carry water. This water served in themorning for the prisoners' ablutions, and the rest during the dayfor ordinary drinking. That very morning there were disputes on thesubject of one of the pitchers.
"What are you doing there with your marked forehead?" grumbledone of the prisoners, tall, dry, and sallow.
He attracted attention by the strangeprotuberances with whichhis skull was covered. He pushed against another convict round andsmall, with a lively rubicund countenance.
"What are you crying out about? You know that a fine must bepaid when the others are kept waiting. Off with you. What amonument, my brethren!"
"A little calf," he went on muttering. "See, the white bread ofthe prison has fattened him."
"For what do you take yourself? A fine bird, indeed."
"You are about right."
"What bird do you mean?"
"You don't require tobe told."
They devoured one another with their eyes. The little man,waiting for a reply, with clenched fists, was apparently ready tofight. I thought that an encounter would take place. It was allquite new to me; accordingly I watched the scene with curiosity.Later on I learnt that such quarrels were very innocent, that theyserved for entertainment. Like an amusing comedy, it scarcely everended in blows. This characteristic plainly informed me of themanners of the prisoners.
Thetall prisoner remained calm and majestic. He felt that someanswer was expected from him, if he was not to be dishonoured,covered with ridicule. It was necessary for him to show that he wasa wonderful bird, a personage. Accordingly, he cast a side lookonhis adversary, endeavouring, with inexpressible contempt, toirritate him by looking at him over his shoulders, up and down, ashe would have done with an insect. At last the little fat man wasso irritated that he would have thrown himself upon his adversaryhad not his companions surrounded the combatants to prevent aserious quarrel from taking place.
"Fight with your fists, not with your tongues," cried aspectator from a corner of the room.
"No, hold them," answered another, "they are going to fight. Weare fine fellows, one against seven is our style."
Fine fighting men! One was here for having sneaked a pound ofbread, the other is a pot-stealer; he was whipped by theexecutioner for stealing a pot of curdled milk from an oldwoman.
"Enough, keepquiet," cried a retired soldier, whose business itwas to keep order in the barrack, and who slept in a corner of theroom on a bedstead of his own.
"Water, my children, water for Nevalid Petrovitch, water for ourlittle brother, who has just woke up."
"Your brother! Am I your brother? Did we ever drink aroublesworth of spirits together?" muttered the old soldier as hepassed his arms through the sleeves of his great-coat.
The roll was about to be called, for it was already late. Theprisoners were hurrying towards the kitchen. They had to put ontheir pelisses, and were to receive in their bi-coloured caps thebread which one of the cooks—one of the bakers, that is tosay—was distributing among them. These cooks, like those whodid the household work, werechosen by the prisoners themselves.There were two for the kitchen, making four in all for the convictprison. They had at their disposal the only kitchen-knifeauthorised in the prison, which was used for cutting up the breadand meat. The prisoners arranged themselves in groups around thetables as best they could in caps and pelisses, with leathergirdlesround their waists, all ready to begin work. Some of the convictshad kvas before them, in which they steeped pieces of bread. Thenoise was insupportable. Many of the convicts, however, weretalking together in corners with a steady, tranquil air.
"Good-morning and good appetite, Father Antonitch," said a youngprisoner, sitting down by the side of an old man, who had lost histeeth.
"If you are not joking, well, good-morning," said the latter,without raising his eyes, and endeavouring to masticate a piece ofbread with his toothless gums.
"I declare I fancied you were dead, Antonitch."
"Die first, I will follow you."
I sat down beside them. On my right two convicts were conversingwith an attempt at dignity.
"I am not likely to be robbed," said one of them. "I am moreafraid of stealing myself."
"It would not be a good idea to rob me. The devil! I should paythe man out."
"But what would you do, you are only a convict? We have no othername. You will see that she will rob you, the wretch, without evensaying, 'Thank you.' The money I gave her was wasted. Just fancy,she was here a few days ago! Where were we to go? Shall I askpermission to go into thehouse of Theodore, the executioner? He hasstill his house in the suburb, the one he bought from that Solomon,you know, that scurvy Jew who hung himself not long since."
"Yes, I know him, the one who sold liquor here three years ago,and who was called Grichka—the secret-drinking shop."
"Allbrag. You don't know. In the first place it is anotherdrinking shop."
"What do you mean, another? You don't know what you are talkingabout. I will bring you as many witnesses as you like."
"Oh, you willbring them, will you? Who are you? Do you know towhom you are speaking?"
"I have often thrashed you, though I don't boast of it. Do notgive yourself airs then."
"You have thrashed me? The man who will thrash me is not yetborn; and the manwho did thrash me is six feet beneath theground."
"Plague-stricken rascal of Bender?"
"May the Siberian leprosy devour you with ulcers!"
"May a chopper cleave your dog of a head."
Insults were falling about like rain.
"Come, now, they are going to fight.When men have not been ableto conduct themselves properly they should keep silent. They aretoo glad to come and eat the Government bread, the rascals!"
They were soon separated. Let them fight with the tongue as muchas they wish. That is permitted. Itis a diversion at the service ofevery one; but no blows. It is, indeed, only in extraordinary casesthat blows were exchanged. If a fight took place, information wasgiven to the Major, who ordered an inquiry or directed one himself;and then woe to the convicts. Accordingly they set their facesagainst anything like a serious quarrel; besides, they insulted oneanother chiefly to pass the time, as an oratorical exercise. Theyget excited; the quarrel takes a furious, ferocious character; theyseem about to slaughter one another. Nothing of the kind takesplace. As soon as their anger has reached a certain pitch theyseparate.
That astonished me much, and if I relate some of theconversations between the convicts, I do so with a purpose. Could Ihave imagined that people could have insulted one another forpleasure, that they could find enjoyment in it?
We must not forget the gratification of vanity. A dialectician,who knows how to insult artistically, is respected. A little more,and he would be applaudedlike an actor.
Already, the night before, I noticed some glances in mydirection. On the other hand, several convicts hung around me as ifthey had suspected that I had brought money with me. Theyendeavoured to get into my good graces by teaching me how to carrymy irons without being incommoded. They also gave me—ofcourse in return for money—a box with a lock, in order tokeep safe the things which had been entrusted to me by theadministration, and the few shirts that I had been allowed to bringwith meto the convict prison. Not later than next morning thesesame prisoners stole my box, and drank the money which they hadtaken out of it.
One of them became afterwards a great friend of mine, though herobbed me whenever an opportunity offered itself. Hewas, all thesame, vexed at what he had done. He committed these thefts almostunconsciously, as if in the way of a duty. Consequently I bore himno grudge.
These convicts let me know that one could have tea, and that Ishould do well to get myself a teapot. They found me one, which Ihired for a certain time. They also recommended me a cook, who, forthirty kopecks a month, would arrange the dishes I might desire, ifit was my intention to buy provisions and take my meals apart. Ofcourse they borrowed money from me. The day of my arrival theyasked me for some at three different times.
The noblemen degraded from their position, here incarcerated inthe convict prison, were badly looked upon by their fellowprisoners; although they had lost all their rightslike the otherconvicts, they were not looked upon as comrades.
In this instinctive repugnance there was a sort of reason. Tothem we were always gentlemen, although they often laughed at ourfall.
"Ah! it's all over now. Mossieu's carriage formerly crushed thepassers-by at Moscow. Now Mossieu picks hemp!"
They knew our sufferings, though we hid them as much aspossible. It was, above all, when we were all working together thatwe had most to endure, for our strength was not so great as theirs,and we were really not of much assistance to them. Nothing is moredifficult than to gain the confidence of the common people; aboveall, such people as these!
There were only a few of us who were of noble birth in the wholeprison. First, there were five Poles—of whom further on Ishall speak in detail—they were detested by the convictsmore, perhaps, than the Russian nobles. The Poles—I speakonly of the political convicts—always behaved to them with aconstrained and offensive politeness, scarcely ever speakingtothem, and making no endeavour to conceal the disgust which theyexperienced in such company. The convicts understood all this, andpaid them back in their own coin.
Two years passed before I could gain the good-will of mycompanions; but the greater partof them were attached to me, anddeclared that I was a good fellow.
There were altogether—counting myself—five Russiannobles in the convict prison. I had heard of one of them evenbefore my arrival as a vile and base creature, horribly corrupt,doing thework of spy and informer. Accordingly, from the very firstday I refused to enter into relations with this man. The second wasthe parricide of whom I have spoken in these memoirs. The third wasAkimitch. I have scarcely ever seen such an original; and I havestill a lively recollection of him.
Tall, thin, weak-minded, and terribly ignorant, he was asargumentative and as particular about details as a German. Theconvicts laughed at him; but they feared him, on account of hissusceptible, excitable, and quarrelsome disposition. As soon as hearrived, he was on a footing of perfect equality with them. Heinsulted them and beat them. Phenomenally just, it was sufficientfor him that there was injustice, to interfere in an affair whichdid not concern him. He was, moreover, exceedingly simple. When hequarrelled with the convicts, he reproached them with beingthieves, and exhorted them in all sincerity to steal no more. Hehad served as a sub-lieutenant in the Caucasus. I made friends withhim the first day, and he related to me his "affair." He had begunas a cadet in a Line regiment. After waiting some time to beappointed to his commission as sub-lieutenant, he at last receivedit, and was sent into the mountains to command a small fort. Asmall tributary prince in the neighbourhood set fire to the fort,and made a night attack, which had no success.
Akimitch was very cunning, and pretended not to know that he wasthe author of the attack, which he attributed to some insurgentswandering about the mountains.After a month he invited the prince,in a friendly way, to come and see him. The prince arrived onhorseback, without suspecting anything. Akimitch drew up hisgarrison in line of battle, and exposed to the soldiers the treasonand villainy of his visitor.He reproached him with hisconduct;proved to him that to set fire to the fort was a shameful crime;explained to him minutely the duties of a tributary prince; andthen, by way of peroration to his harangue, had him shot. He atonce informed his superiorofficers of this execution, with all thedetails necessary. Thereupon Akimitch was brought to trial. Heappeared before a court-martial, and was condemned to death; buthis sentence was commuted, and he was sent to Siberia as a convictof the second class—condemned, that is to say, to twelveyears' hard labour and imprisonment in a fortress. He admittedwillingly that he had acted illegally, and that the prince ought tohave been tried in a civil court, and not by a court-martial.Nevertheless, he could not understand that his action was acrime.
"He had burned my fort; what was I to do? Was I to thank him forit?" he answered to my objections.
Although the convicts laughed at Akimitch, and pretended that hewas a little mad, they esteemed him all the sameby reason of hiscleverness and his precision.
He knew all possible trades, and could do whatever you wished.He was cobbler, bootmaker, painter, carver, gilder, and locksmith.He had acquired these talents at the convict prison, for it wassufficient forhim to see an object, in order to imitate it. He soldin the town, or caused to be sold, baskets, lanterns, and toys.Thanks to his work, he had always some money, which he employed inbuying shirts, pillows, and so on. He had himself made a mattress,andas he slept in the same room as myself he was very useful to meat the beginning of my imprisonment. Before leaving prison to go towork, the convicts were drawn up in two ranks before theorderly-room, surrounded by an escort of soldiers with loadedmuskets. An officer of Engineers then arrived, with thesuperintendent of the works and a few soldiers, who watched theoperations. The superintendent counted the convicts, and sent themin bands to the places where they were to be occupied.
I went with some other prisoners to the workshop of theEngineers—a low brick house built in the midst of a largecourt-yard full of materials. There was a forge there, andcarpenters', locksmiths', and painters' workshops. Akimitch wasassigned to the last. He boiled the oil for the varnish, mixed thecolours, and painted tables and other pieces of furniture inimitation walnut.
While I was waiting to have additional irons put on, Icommunicated to him my first impressions.
"Yes," he said, "they do not like nobles, above allthose whohave been condemned for political offences, and they take apleasure in wounding their feelings. Is it not intelligible? We donot belong to them, we do not suit them. They have all been serfsor soldiers. Tell me what sympathy can they have forus. The lifehere is hard, but it is nothing in comparison with that of thedisciplinary companies in Russia. There it is hell. The men whohave been in them praise our convict prison. It is paradisecompared to their purgatory. Not that the work is harder. It issaid that with the convicts of the first class theadministration—it is not exclusively military as it ishere—acts quite differently from what it does towards us.They have their little houses there I have been told, for I havenot seen for myself. They wear no uniform, their heads are notshaved, though, in my opinion, uniforms and shavedheads are not badthings; it is neater, and also it is more agreeable to the eye,only these men do not like it. Oh, what a Babel this place is!Soldiers, Circassians, old believers, peasants who have left theirwives and families, Jews, Gypsies, people come from Heaven knowswhere, and all this variety of men are to live quietly togetherside by side, eat from the same dish, and sleep on the same planks.Not a moment's liberty, no enjoyment except in secret; they musthide their money in their boots; and then always the convict prisonat every moment—perpetually convict prison! Involuntarilywild ideas come to one."
As I already knew all this, I was above all anxious to questionAkimitch in regard to our Major. He concealed nothing, and theimpression which his story left upon me was far from being anagreeable one.