Seven Who Were Hanged



The verdict concerning the five terrorists was pronounced finally and confirmed upon the same day. The condemned were not told when the execution would take place, but they knew from the usual procedure that they would be hanged the same night, or, at the very latest, upon the following night. And when it was proposed to them that they meet their relatives upon the following Thursday they understood that the execution would take place on Friday at dawn.

Tanya Kovalchuk had no near relatives, and those whom she had were somewhere in the wilderness in Little Russia and it was not likely that they even knew of the trial or of the coming execution. Musya and Werner, as unidentified people, were not supposed to have relatives, and only two, Sergey Golovin and Vasily Kashirin, were to meet their parents. Both of them looked upon that meeting with terror and anguish, yet they dared not refuse the old people the last word, the last kiss.

Sergey Golovin was particularly tortured by the thought of the coming meeting. He dearly loved his father and mother; he had seen them but a short while before, and now he was in a state of terror as to what would happen when they came to see him. The execution itself, in all its monstrous horror, in its brain-stunning madness, he could imagine more easily, and it seemed less terrible than these other few moments of meeting, brief and unsatisfactory, which seemed to reach beyond time, beyond life itself. How to look, what to think, what to say, his mind could not determine. The most simple and ordinary act, to take his father by the hand, to kiss him, and to say, "How do you do, father?" seemed to him unspeakably horrible in its monstrous, inhuman, absurd deceitfulness.

After the sentence the condemned were not placed together in one cell, as Tanya Kovalchuk had supposed they would be, but each was put in solitary confinement, and all the morning, until eleven o'clock, when his parents came, Sergey Golovin paced his cell furiously, tugged at his beard, frowned pitiably and muttered inaudibly. Sometimes he would stop abruptly, would breathe deeply and then exhale like a man who has been too long under water. But he was so healthy, his young life was so strong within him, that even in the moments of most painful suffering his blood played under his skin, reddening his cheeks, and his blue eyes shone brightly and frankly.

But everything was far different from what he had anticipated.

Nikolay Sergeyevich Golovin, Sergey's father, a retired colonel, was the first to enter the room where the meeting took place. He was all white—his face, his beard, his hair, and his hands—as if he were a snow statue attired in man's clothes He had on the same old but well-cleaned coat, smelling of benzine, with new shoulder-straps crosswise, that he had always worn, and he entered firmly, with an air of stateliness, with strong and steady steps. He stretched out his white, thin hand and said loudly:

"How do you do, Sergey?"

Behind him Sergey's mother entered with short steps, smiling strangely. But she also pressed his hands and repeated loudly:

"How do you do, Seryozhenka?"

She kissed him on the lips and sat down silently. She did not rush over to him; she did not burst into tears; she did not break into a sob; she did not do any of the terrible things which Sergey had feared. She just kissed him and silently sat down. And with her trembling hands she even adjusted her black silk dress.

Sergey did not know that the colonel, having locked himself all the previous night in his little study, had deliberated upon this ritual with all his power. "We must not aggravate, but ease the last moments of our son," resolved the colonel firmly, and he carefully weighed every possible phase of the conversation, every act and movement that might take place on the following day. But somehow he became confused, forgetting what he had prepared, and he wept bitterly in the corner of the oilcloth-covered couch. In the morning he explained to his wife how she should behave at the meeting.

"The main thing is, kiss—and say nothing!" he taught her. "Later you may speak—after a while—but when you kiss him, be silent. Don't speak right after the kiss, do you understand? Or you will say what you should not say."

"I understand, Nikolay Sergeyevich," answered the mother, weeping.

"And you must not weep. For God's sake, do not weep! You will kill him if you weep, old woman!"

"Why do you weep?"

"With women one cannot help weeping. But you must not weep, do you hear?"

"Very well, Nikolay Sergeyevich."

Riding in the drozhky, he had intended to school her in the instructions again, but he forgot. And so they rode in silence, bent, both gray and old, and they were lost in thought, while the city was gay and noisy. It was Shrovetide, and the streets were crowded.

They sat down. Then the colonel stood up, assumed a studied pose, placing his right hand upon the border of his coat. Sergey sat for an instant, looked closely upon the wrinkled face of his mother and then jumped up.

"Be seated, Seryozhenka," begged the mother.

"Sit down, Sergey," repeated the father.

They became silent. The mother smiled.

"How we have petitioned for you, Seryozhenka! Father—''

"You should not have done that, mother——"

The colonel spoke firmly:

"We had to do it, Sergey, so that you should not think your parents had forsaken you."

They became silent again. It was terrible for them to utter even a word, as though each word in the language had lost its individual meaning and meant but one thing—Death. Sergey looked at his father's coat, which smelt of benzine, and thought: "They have no servant now, consequently he must have cleaned it himself. How is it that I never before noticed when he cleaned his coat? I suppose he does it in the morning." Suddenly he asked:

"And how is sister? Is she well?" "Ninochka does not know anything," the mother answered hastily.

The colonel interrupted her sternly: "Why should you tell a falsehood? The child read it in the newspapers. Let Sergey know that everybody—that those who are dearest to him—were thinking of him—at this time—and—"

He could not say any more and stopped. Suddenly the mother's face contracted, then it spread out, became agitated, wet and wild-looking. Her discolored eyes stared blindly, and her breathing became more frequent, and briefer, louder.

"Se—Se—Se-Ser—" she repeated without moving her lips. "Ser—"

"Dear mother!"

The colonel strode forward, and all quivering in every fold of his coat, in every wrinkle of his face, not understanding how terrible he himself looked in his death-like whiteness, in his heroic, desperate firmness. He said to his wife:

"Be silent! Don't torture him! Don't torture him! He has to die! Don't torture him!"

Frightened, she had already become silent, but he still shook his clenched fists before him and repeated:

"Don't torture him!"

Then he stepped back, placed his trembling hands behind his back, and loudly, with an expression of forced calm, asked with pale lips:


"To-morrow morning," answered Sergey, his lips also pale.

The mother looked at the ground, chewing her lips, as if she did not hear anything. And continuing to chew, she uttered these simple words, strangely, as though they dropped like lead:

"Ninochka told me to kiss you, Seryozhenka."

"Kiss her for me," said Sergey.

"Very well. The Khvostovs send you their regards."

"Which Khvostovs? Oh, yes!"

The colonel interrupted:

"Well, we must go. Get up, mother; we must go." The two men lifted the weakened old woman.

"Bid him good-by!" ordered the colonel. "Make the sign of the cross."

She did everything as she was told. But as she made the sign of the cross, and kissed her son a brief kiss, she shook her head and murmured weakly:

"No, it isn't the right way! It is not the right way! What will I say? How will I say it? No, it is not the right way!"

"Good-by, Sergey!" said the father. They shook hands, and kissed each other quickly but heartily.

"You—" began Sergey.

"Well?" asked the father abruptly.

"No, no! It is not the right way! How shall I say it?" repeated the mother weakly, nodding her head. She had sat down again and was rocking herself back and forth.

"You—" Sergey began again. Suddenly his face wrinkled pitiably, childishly, and his eyes filled with tears immediately. Through the sparkling gleams of his tears he looked closely into the white face of his father, whose eyes had also filled.

"You, father, are a noble man!"

"What is that? What are you saying?" said the colonel, surprised. And then suddenly, as if broken in two, he fell with his head upon his son's shoulder. He had been taller than Sergey, but now he became short, and his dry, downy head lay like a white ball upon his son's shoulder. And they kissed silently and passionately: Sergey kissed the silvery white hair, and the old man kissed the prisoner's garb.

"And I?" suddenly said a loud voice.

They looked around. Sergey's mother was standing, her head thrown back, looking at them angrily, almost with contempt.

"What is it, mother?" cried the colonel.

"And I?" she said, shaking her head with insane intensity. "You kiss—and I? You men! Yes? And I? And I?"

"Mother!" Sergey rushed over to her.

What took place then it is unnecessary and impossible to describe... .

The last words of the colonel were:

"I give you my blessing for your death, Seryozha. Die bravely, like an officer."

And they went away. Somehow they went away. They had been there, they had stood, they had spoken—and suddenly they had gone. Here sat his mother, there stood his father—and suddenly somehow they had gone away. Returning to the cell, Sergey lay down on the cot, his face turned toward the wall, in order to hide it from the soldiers, and he wept for a long time. Then, exhausted by his tears, he slept soundly.

To Vasily Kashirin only his mother came. His father, who was a wealthy tradesman, did not want to come. Vasily met the old woman, as he was pacing up and down the room, trembling with cold, although it was warm, even hot. And the conversation was brief, painful.

"It wasn't worth coming, mother. You'll only torture yourself and me."

"Why did you do it, Vasya? Why did you do it? Oh, Lord!" The old woman burst out weeping, wiping her face with the ends of her black, woolen kerchief. And with the habit which he and his brothers had always had of crying at their mother, who did not understand anything, he stopped, and, shuddering as with cold, spoke angrily:

"There! You see! I knew it! You understand nothing, mother! Nothing!"

"Well—well—all right! Do you feel—cold?"

"Cold!" Vasily answered bluntly, and again began to pace the room, looking at his mother askance, as if annoyed.

"Perhaps you have caught cold?"

"Oh, mother what is a cold, when—" and he waved his hand helplessly.

The old woman was about to say: "And your father ordered wheat cakes beginning with Monday," but she was frightened, and said:

"I told him: 'It is your son, you should go, give him your blessing.' No, the old beast persisted—"

"Let him go to the devil! What sort of father has he been to me? He has been a scoundrel all his life, and remains a scoundrel!"

"Vasenka! Do you speak of your father like this?" said the old woman reproachfully, straightening herself.

"About my father!"

"About your own father?"

"He is no father to me!"

It was strange and absurd. Before him was the thought of death, while here something small, empty and trivial arose, and his words cracked like the shells of nuts under foot. And almost crying with sorrow—because of the eternal misunderstanding which all his life long had stood like a wall between him and those nearest to him, and which even now, in the last hour before death, peered at him stupidly and strangely through small, widely opened eyes-Vasily exclaimed:

"Don't you understand that I am to be hanged soon? Hanged! Do you understand it? Hanged!"

"You shouldn't have harmed anybody and nobody would—-" cried the old woman.

"My God! What is this? Even beasts do not act like this! Am I not your son?"

He began to cry, and seated himself in a corner. The old woman also burst out crying in her corner. Powerless, even for an instant, to blend in a feeling of love and to offset by it the horror of impending death, they wept their cold tears of loneliness which did not warm their hearts. The mother said:

"You ask whether I am a mother to you? You reproach me! And I have grown completely gray during these days. I have become an old woman. And yet you say—you reproach me!"

"Well, mother, it is all right. Forgive me. It is time for you to go. Kiss my brothers for me."

"Am I not your mother? Do I not feel sorry?"

At last she went away. She wept bitterly, wiping her face with the edges of her kerchief, and she did not see the road. And the farther she got from the prison the more bitterly she wept. She retraced her steps to the prison, and then she strangely lost her way in the city in which she had been born, in which she lived to her old age. She strolled into a deserted little garden with a few old, gnarled trees, and she seated herself upon a wet bench, from which the snow had melted.

And suddenly she understood. He was to be hanged upon the morrow!

The old woman jumped up, about to run, but suddenly her head began to swim terribly and she fell to the ground. The icy path was wet and slippery, and she could not rise. She turned about, lifted herself on her elbows and knelt, then fell back on her side. The black kerchief had slipped down, baring upon the back of her head a bald spot amid her muddy-gray hair; and then somehow it seemed to her that she was feasting at a wedding, that her son was getting married, and she had been drinking wine and had become intoxicated.

"I can't! My God! I can't!" she cried, as though declining something. Swaying her head, she crawled over the wet, frozen crust, and all the time it seemed to her that they were pouring out more wine for her, more wine!

And her heart had already begun to pain her from her intoxicated laughter, from the rejoicing, from the wild dancing—and they kept on pouring more wine for her—pouring more wine!

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