The House of the Dead or Prison Life in Siberia - novelonlinefull.com
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"Ah, little Father Alexander Petrovitch, you'll soon be out now! And here you'll leave us poor devils behind!"
"Well, Mertynof, have you long to wait still?" I asked the man who spoke.
"I! Oh, good Lord, I've seven years of it yet to weary through."
Then the man sighed with a far-away, wandering look, as if he was gazing into those intolerable days to come.... Yes, many of my companions congratulated me in a way that showed they really felt what they said. I saw, too, that there was more disposition to meet me as man to man, they drew nearer to me as I was to leave them; the halo of freedom began to surround me, and caring for that they cared more for me. It was in this spirit they bade me farewell.
K--schniski, a young Polish n.o.ble, a sweet and amiable person, was very fond, about this time, of walking in the court-yard with me. The stifling nights in the barracks did him much harm, so he tried his best to keep his health by getting all the exercise and fresh air he could.
"I am looking forward impatiently to the day when _you_ will be set free," he said with a smile one day, "for when you go I shall _realise_ that I have just one year more of it to undergo."
Need I say what I can yet not help saying, that freedom in idea always seemed to us who were there something _more_ free than it ever can be in reality? That was because our fancy was always dwelling upon it.
Prisoners always exaggerate when they think of freedom and look on a free man; we did certainly; the poorest servant of one of the officers there seemed a sort of king to us, everything we could imagine in a free man, compared with ourselves at least; he had no irons on his limbs, his head was not shaven, he could go where and when he liked, with no soldiers to watch and escort him.
The day before I was set free, as night fell I went _for the last time_ all through and all round the prison. How many a thousand times had I made the circuit of those palisades during those ten years! There, at the rear of the barracks, had I gone to and fro during the whole of that first year, a solitary, despairing man. I remember how I used to reckon up the days I had still to pa.s.s there--thousands, thousands! G.o.d! how long ago it seemed. There's the corner where the poor prisoned eagle wasted away; Petroff used often to come to me at that place. It seemed as if the man would never leave my side now; he would place himself by my side and walk along without ever saying a word, as though he knew all my thoughts as well as myself, and there was always a strange, inexplicable sort of wondering look on the man's face.
How many a mental farewell did I take of the black, squared beams in our barracks! Ah, me! How much joyless youth, how much strength for which use there was none, was buried, lost in those walls!--youth and strength of which the world might surely have made _some_ use. For I must speak my thoughts as to this: the hapless fellows there were perhaps the strongest, and, in one way or another, the most gifted of our people.
There was all that strength of body and of mind lost, hopelessly lost.
Whose fault is that?
Yes; whose fault _is_ that?
The next day, at an early hour, before the men were mustered for work, I went through all the barracks to bid the men a last farewell. Many a vigorous, h.o.r.n.y hand was held out to me with right good-will. Some grasped and shook my hand as though all their hearts went with the act; but these were the more generous souls. Most of the poor fellows seemed so much to feel that, for them, I was already a man changed by what was coming, that they could feel scarce anything else. They knew that I had friends in the town, that I was going away at once to _gentlemen_, that I should sit at their table as their equal. This the poor fellows felt; and, although they did their best as they took my hand, that hand could not be the hand of an equal. No; I, too, was a gentleman now. Some turned their backs on me, and made no reply to my parting words. I think, too, that I saw looks of aversion on some faces.
The drum beat; all the convicts went to their work; and I was left to myself. Souchiloff had got up before everybody that morning, and now set himself tremblingly to the task of getting ready for me a last cup of tea. Poor Souchiloff! How he cried when I gave him my clothes, my shirts, my trouser-straps, and some money.
"'Tain't that, 'tain't that," he said, and he bit his trembling lips, "it's that I am going to lose you, Alexander Petrovitch! What _shall_ I do without you?"
There was Akim Akimitch, too; him, also, I bade farewell.
"Your turn to go will come soon, I pray," said I.
"Ah, no! I shall remain here long, long, very long yet," he just managed to say, as he pressed my hand. I threw myself on his neck; we kissed.
Ten minutes after the convicts had gone out, my companion and myself left the jail _for ever_. We went to the blacksmith's shop, where our irons were struck off. We had no armed escort, we went there attended by a single sub-officer. It was convicts who struck off our irons in the engineers' workshop. I let them do it for my friend first, then went to the anvil myself. The smiths made me turn round, seized my leg, and stretched it on the anvil. Then they went about the business methodically, as though they wanted to make a very neat job of it indeed.
"The rivet, man, turn the rivet first," I heard the master smith say; "there, so, so. Now, a stroke of the hammer!"
The irons fell. I lifted them up. Some strange impulse made me long to have them in my hands for one last time. I couldn't realise that, only a moment before, they had been on my limbs.
"Good-bye! Good-bye! Good-bye!" said the convicts in their broken voices; but they seemed pleased as they said it.
Liberty! New life! Resurrection from the dead!