Seven Who Were Hanged



The same council-chamber of the military district court which had condemned Yanson had also condemned to death a peasant of the Government of Oryol, of the District of Yeletzk, Mikhail Golubets, nicknamed Tsiganok, also Tatarin. His latest crime, proven beyond question, had been the murder of three people and armed robbery. Behind that, his dark past disappeared in a depth of mystery. There were vague rumors that he had participated in a series of other murders and robberies, and in his path there was felt to be a dark trail of blood, fire, and drunken debauchery. He called himself murderer with utter frankness and sincerity, and scornfully regarded those who, according to the latest fashion, styled themselves "expropriators." Of his last crime, since it was useless for him to deny anything, he spoke freely and in detail, but in answer to questions about his past, he merely gritted his teeth, whistled, and said:

"Search for the wind of the fields!"

When he was annoyed in cross-examination, Tsiganok assumed a serious and dignified air:

"All of us from Oryol are thoroughbreds," he would say gravely and deliberately. "Oryol and Kroma are the homes of first-class thieves. Karachev and Livna are the breeding-places of thieves. And Yeletz—is the parent of all thieves. Now—what else is there to say?"

He was nicknamed Tsiganok (gypsy) because of his appearance and his thievish manner. He was black-haired, lean, with yellow spots on his prominent, "Tartar-like" cheek-bones. His glance was swift, brief, but fearfully direct and searching, and the thing upon which he looked for a moment seemed to lose something, seemed to deliver up to him a part of itself, and to become something else. It was just as unpleasant and repugnant to take a cigarette at which he looked, as though it had already been in his mouth. There was a certain constant restlessness in him, now twisting him like a rag, now throwing him about like a body of coiling live wires. And he drank water almost by the bucket.

To all questions during the trial he answered shortly, firmly, jumping up quickly, and at times he seemed to answer even with pleasure.

"Correct!" he would say.

Sometimes he emphasized it.


At one time, suddenly, when they were speaking of something that would hardly have seemed to suggest it, he jumped to his feet and asked the presiding judge:

"Will you allow me to whistle?"

"What for?" asked the judge, surprised.

"They said that I gave the signal to my comrades. I would like to show you how. It is very interesting."

The judge consented, somewhat wonderingly. Tsiganok quickly placed four fingers in his mouth, two fingers of each hand, rolled his eyes fiercely—and then the dead air of the courtroom was suddenly rent by a real, wild, murderer's whistle—at which frightened horses leap and rear on their hind legs and human faces involuntarily blanch. The mortal anguish of him who is to be assassinated, the wild joy of the murderer, the dreadful warning, the call, the gloom and loneliness of a stormy autumn night—all this rang in his piercing shriek, which was neither human nor beastly.

The presiding officer shouted—then waved his arm at Tsiganok, and Tsiganok obediently became silent. And, like an artist who had triumphantly performed a difficult aria, he sat down, wiped his wet fingers upon his coat, and surveyed those present with an air of satisfaction.

"What a robber!" said one of the judges, rubbing his ear.

Another one, however, with a wild Russian beard, but with the eyes of a Tartar, like those of Tsiganok, gazed pensively above Tsiganok's head, then smiled and remarked:

"It is indeed interesting."

With light hearts, without mercy, without the slightest pangs of conscience, the judges brought out against Tsiganok a verdict of death.

"Correct!" said Tsiganok, when the verdict was pronounced. "In the open field and on a cross-beam! Correct!"

And turning to the convoy, he hurled with bravado:

"Well, are we not going? Come on, you sour-coat. And hold your gun-I might take it away from you!"

The soldier looked at him sternly, with fear, exchanged glances with his comrade, and felt the lock of his gun. The other did the same. And all the way to the prison the soldiers felt that they were not walking but flying through the air—as if hypnotized by the prisoner, they felt neither the ground beneath their feet, nor the passage of time, nor themselves.

Mishka Tsiganok, like Yanson, had had to spend seventeen days in prison before his execution. And all seventeen days passed as though they were one day—they were bound up in one inextinguishable thought of escape, of freedom, of life. The restlessness of Tsiganok, which was now repressed by the walls and the bars and the dead window through which nothing could be seen, turned all its fury upon himself and burned his soul like coals scattered upon boards. As though he were in a drunken vapor, bright but incomplete images swarmed upon him, failing and then becoming confused, and then again rushing through his mind in an unrestrainable blinding whirlwind—and all were bent toward escape, toward liberty, toward life. With his nostrils expanded, like those of a horse, Tsiganok smelt the air for hours long—it seemed to him that he could smell the odor of hemp, of the smoke of fire—the colorless and biting smell of burning. Now he whirled about in the room like a top, touching the walls, tapping them nervously with his fingers from time to time, taking aim, boring the ceiling with his gaze, filing the prison bars. By his restlessness, he had tired out the soldiers who watched him through the little window, and who, several times, in despair, had threatened to shoot. Tsiganok would retort, coarsely and derisively, and the quarrel would end peacefully because the dispute would soon turn into boorish, unoffending abuse, after which shooting would have seemed absurd and impossible.

Tsiganok slept during the nights soundly, without stirring, in unchanging yet live motionlessness, like a wire spring in temporary inactivity. But as soon as he arose, he immediately commenced to walk, to plan, to grope about. His hands were always dry and hot, but his heart at times would suddenly grow cold, as if a cake of unmelting ice had been placed upon his chest, sending a slight, dry shiver through his whole body. At such times, Tsiganok, always dark in complexion, would turn black, assuming the shade of bluish cast-iron. And he acquired a curious habit; as though he had eaten too much of something sickeningly sweet, he kept licking his lips, smacking them, and would spit on the floor, hissingly, through his teeth. When he spoke, he did not finish his words, so rapidly did his thoughts run that his tongue was unable to compass them.

One day the chief warden, accompanied by a soldier, entered his cell. He looked askance at the floor and said gruffly:

"Look! How dirty he has made it!"

Tsiganok retorted quickly:

"You've made the whole world dirty, you fat-face, and yet I haven't said anything to you. What brings you here?"

The warden, speaking as gruffly as before, asked him whether he would act as executioner. Tsiganok burst out laughing, showing his teeth.

"You can't find any one else? That's good! Go ahead, hang! Ha! ha! ha! The necks are there, the rope is there, but there is nobody to string it up. By God! that's good!"

"You'll save your neck if you do it."

"Of course-I couldn't hang them if I were dead. Well said, you fool!"

"Well, what do you say? Is it all the same to you?"

"And how do you hang them here? I suppose they're choked on the sly."

"No, with music," snarled the warden.

"Well, what a fool! Of course it can be done with music. This way!" and he began to sing, with a bold and daring swing.

"You have lost your wits, my friend," said the warden. "What do you say? Speak sensibly."

Tsiganok grinned.

"How eager you are! Come another time and I'll tell you."

After that, into that chaos of bright, yet incomplete images which oppressed Tsiganok by their impetuosity, a new image came—how good it would be to become a hangman in a red shirt. He pictured to himself vividly a square crowded with people, a high scaffold, and he, Tsiganok, in a red shirt walking about upon the scaffold with an ax. The sun shone overhead, gaily flashing from the ax, and everything was so gay and bright that even the man whose head was soon to be chopped off was smiling. And behind the crowd, wagons and the heads of horses could be seen—the peasants had come from the village; and beyond them, further, he could see the village itself.


Tsiganok smacked his lips, licking them, and spat. And suddenly he felt as though a fur cap had been pushed over his head to his very mouth—it became black and stifling, and his heart again became like a cake of unmelting ice, sending a slight, dry shiver through his whole body.

The warden came in twice again, and Tsiganok, showing his teeth, said:

"How eager you are! Come in again!"

Finally one day the warden shouted through the casement window as he passed rapidly:

"You've let your chance slip by, you fool! We've found somebody else."

"The devil take you! Hang yourself!" snarled Tsiganok, and he stopped dreaming of the execution.

But toward the end, the nearer he approached the time, the weight of the fragments of his broken images became unbearable. Tsiganok now felt like standing still, like spreading his legs and standing—but a whirling current of thoughts carried him away and there was nothing at which he could clutch—everything about him swam. And his sleep also became uneasy. Dreams even more violent than his thoughts appeared—new dreams, solid, heavy, like wooden painted blocks. And it was no longer like a current, but like an endless fall to an endless depth, a whirling flight through the whole visible world of colors.

When Tsiganok was free he had worn only a pair of dashing mustaches, but in the prison a short, black, bristly beard grew on his face and it made him look fearsome, insane. At times Tsiganok really lost his senses and whirled absurdly about in the cell, still tapping upon the rough, plastered walls nervously. And he drank water like a horse.

At times toward evening when they lit the lamp, Tsiganok would stand on all fours in the middle of his cell and would howl the quivering howl of a wolf. He was peculiarly serious while doing it, and would howl as though he were performing an important and indispensable act. He would fill his chest with air and then exhale it, slowly in a prolonged tremulous howl, and, cocking his eyes, would listen intently as the sound issued forth. And the very quiver in his voice seemed in a manner intentional. He did not scream wildly, but drew out each note carefully in that mournful wail full of untold sorrow and terror.

Then he would suddenly break off howling and for several minutes would remain silent, still standing on all fours. Then suddenly he would mutter softly, staring at the ground:

"My darlings, my sweethearts!... My darlings, my sweethearts! have pity.... My darlings!... My sweethearts!"

And it seemed again as if he were listening intently to his own voice. As he said each word he would listen.

Then he would jump up and for a whole hour would curse continually.

He cursed picturesquely, shouting and rolling his blood-shot eyes.

"If you hang me—hang me!" and he would burst out cursing again.

And the sentinel, in the meantime white as chalk, weeping with pain and fright, would knock at the door with the butt-end of the gun and cry helplessly:

"I'll fire! I'll kill you as sure as I live! Do you hear?"

But he dared not shoot. If there was no actual rebellion they never fired at those who had been condemned to death. And Tsiganok would gnash his teeth, would curse and spit. His brain thus racked on a monstrously sharp blade between life and death was falling to pieces like a lump of dry clay.

When they entered the cell at midnight to lead Tsiganok to the execution he began to bustle about and seemed to have recovered his spirits. Again he had that sweet taste in his mouth, and his saliva collected abundantly, but his cheeks turned rosy and in his eyes began to glisten his former somewhat savage slyness. Dressing himself he asked the official:

"Who is going to do the hanging? Anew man? I suppose he hasn't learned his job yet."

"You needn't worry about it," answered the official dryly.

"I can't help worrying, your Honor. I am going to be hanged, not you. At least don't be stingy with the government's soap on the noose."

"All right, all right! Keep quiet!"

"This man here has eaten all your soap," said Tsiganok, pointing to the warden. "See how his face shines."


"Don't be stingy!"

And Tsiganok burst out laughing. But he began to feel that it was getting ever sweeter in his mouth, and suddenly his legs began to feel strangely numb. Still, on coming out into the yard, he managed to exclaim:

"The carriage of the Count of Bengal!"

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