Seven Who Were Hanged
THERE IS DEATH AS WELL AS LIFE
Sergey Golovin never thought of death, as though it were something not to be considered, something that did not concern him in the least. He was a strong, healthy, cheerful youth, endowed with that calm, clear joy of living which causes every evil thought and feeling that might injure life to disappear from the organism without leaving any trace. Just as all cuts, wounds and stings on his body healed rapidly, so all that weighed upon his soul and wounded it immediately rose to the surface and disappeared. And he brought into every work, even into his enjoyments, the same calm and optimistic seriousness,-it mattered not whether he was occupied with photography, with bicycling or with preparations for a terroristic act. Everything in life was joyous, everything in life was important, everything should be done well.
And he did everything well: he was an excellent sailor, an expert shot with the revolver. He was as faithful in friendship as in love, and a fanatic believer in the "word of honor." His comrades laughed at him, saying that if the most notorious spy told him upon his word of honor that he was not a spy, Sergey would believe him and would shake hands with him as with any comrade. He had one fault,-he was convinced that he could sing well, whereas in fact he had no ear for music and even sang the revolutionary songs out of tune, and felt offended when his friends laughed at him.
"Either you are all asses, or I am an ass," he would declare seriously and even angrily. And all his friends as seriously declared: "You are an ass. We can tell by your voice."
But, as is sometimes the case with good people, he was perhaps liked more for this little foible than for his good qualities.
He feared death so little and thought of it so little that on the fatal morning, before leaving the house of Tanya Kovalchuk, he was the only one who had breakfasted properly, with an appetite. He drank two glasses of tea with milk, and a whole five-copeck roll of bread. Then he glanced at Werner's untouched bread and said:
"Why don't you eat? Eat. We must brace up."
"I don't feel like eating."
"Then I'll eat it. May I?"
"You have a fine appetite, Seryozha."
Instead of answering, Sergey, his mouth full, began to sing in a dull voice, out of tune:
"Hostile whirlwinds are blowing over us..."
After the arrest he at first grew sad; the work had not been done well, they had failed; but then he thought: "There is something else now that must be done well—and that is, to die," and he cheered up again. And however strange it may seem, beginning with the second morning in the fortress, he commenced devoting himself to gymnastics according to the unusually rational system of a certain German named Mueller, which absorbed his interest. He undressed himself completely and, to the alarm and astonishment of the guard who watched him, he carefully went through all the prescribed eighteen exercises. The fact that the guard watched him and was apparently astonished, pleased him as a propagandist of the Mueller system; and although he knew that he would get no answer he nevertheless spoke to the eye staring in the little window:
"It's a good system, my friend, it braces you up. It should be introduced in your regiment," he shouted convincingly and kindly, so as not to frighten the soldier, not suspecting that the guard considered him a harmless lunatic.
The fear of death came over him gradually. It was as if somebody were striking his heart a powerful blow with the fist from below. This sensation was rather painful than terrible. Then the sensation was forgotten, but it returned again a few hours later, and each time it grew more intense and of longer duration, and thus it began to assume vague outlines of some great, even unbearable fear.
"Is it possible that I am afraid?" thought Sergey in astonishment. "What nonsense!"
It was not he who was afraid,-it was his young, sound, strong body, which could not be deceived either by the exercises prescribed by the Mueller system, or by the cold rub-downs. On the contrary, the stronger and the fresher his body became after the cold water, the keener and the more unbearable became the sensations of his recurrent fear. And just at those moments when, during his freedom, he had felt a special influx of the joy and power of life,-in the mornings after he had slept soundly and gone through his physical exercises,-now there appeared this deadening fear which was so foreign to his nature. He noticed this and thought:
"It is foolish, Sergey! To die more easily, you should weaken the body and not strengthen it. It is foolish!"
So he dropped his gymnastics and the rub-downs. To the soldier he shouted, as if to explain and justify himself:
"Never mind that I have stopped. It's a good thing, my friend,-but not for those who are to be hanged. But it's very good for all others."
And, indeed, he began to feel somewhat better. He tried also to eat less, so as to grow still weaker, but notwithstanding the lack of pure air and exercises, his appetite was very good,-it was difficult for him to control it, and he ate everything that was brought to him. Then he began to manage differently—before starting to eat he would pour out half into the pail, and this seemed to work. A dull drowsiness and faintness came over him.
"I'll show you what I can do!" he threatened his body, and at the same time sadly, yet tenderly he felt his flabby, softened muscles with his hand.
Soon, however, his body grew accustomed to this regime as well, and the fear of death appeared again—not so keen, nor so burning, but more disgusting, somewhat akin to a nauseating sensation. "It's because they are dragging it out so long," thought Sergey. "It would be a good idea to sleep all the time till the day of the execution," and he tried to sleep as much as possible. At first he succeeded, but later, either because he had slept too much, or for some other reason, insomnia appeared. And with it came eager, penetrating thoughts and a longing for life.
"I am not afraid of this devil!" he thought of Death. "I simply feel sorry for my life. It is a splendid thing, no matter what the pessimists say about it. What if they were to hang a pessimist? Ah, I feel sorry for life, very sorry! And why does my beard grow now? It didn't grow before, but suddenly it grows—why?"
He shook his head mournfully, heaving long, painful sighs. Silence—then a sigh; then a brief silence again—followed by a longer, deeper sigh.
Thus it went on until the trial and the terrible meeting with his parents. When he awoke in his cell the next day he realized clearly that everything between him and life was ended, that there were only a few empty hours of waiting and then death would come,—and a strange sensation took possession of him. He felt as though he had been stripped, stripped entirely,-as if not only his clothes, but the sun, the air, the noise of voices and his ability to do things had been wrested from him. Death was not there as yet, but life was there no longer,-there was something new, something astonishing, inexplicable, not entirely reasonable and yet not altogether without meaning,-something so deep and mysterious and supernatural that it was impossible to understand.
"Fie, you devil!" wondered Sergey, painfully. "What is this? Where am I? I—who am I?"
He examined himself attentively, with interest, beginning with his large prison slippers, ending with his stomach where his coat protruded. He paced the cell, spreading out his arms and continuing to survey himself like a woman in a new dress which is too long for her. He tried to turn his head, and it turned. And this strange,, terrible, uncouth creature was he, Sergey Golovin, and soon he would be no more!
Everything became strange.
He tried to walk across the cell—and it seemed strange to him that he could walk. He tried to sit down—and it seemed strange to him that he could sit. He tried to drink some water—and it seemed strange to him that he could drink, that he could swallow, that he could hold the cup, that he had fingers and that those fingers were trembling. He choked, began to cough and while coughing, thought: "How strange it is that I am coughing."
"Am I losing my reason?" thought Sergey, growing cold. "Am I coming to that, too? The devil take them!"
He rubbed his forehead with his hand, and this also seemed strange to him. And then he remained breathless, motionless, petrified for hours, suppressing every thought, all loud breathing, all motion,-for every thought seemed to him but madness, every motion—madness. Time was no more; it appeared transformed into space, airless and transparent, into an enormous square upon which all were there—the earth and life and people. He saw all that at one glance, all to the very end, to the mysterious abyss—Death. And he was tortured not by the fact that Death was visible, but that both Life and Death were visible at the same time. The curtain which through eternity has hidden the mystery of life and the mystery of death was pushed aside by a sacrilegious hand, and the mysteries ceased to be mysteries—yet they remained incomprehensible, like the Truth written in a foreign tongue. There were no conceptions in his human mind, no words in his human language that could define what he saw. And the words "I am afraid" were uttered by him only because there were no other words, because no other conceptions existed, nor could other conceptions exist which would grasp this new, un-human condition. Thus would it be with a man if, while remaining within the bounds of human reason, experience and feelings, he were suddenly to see God Himself. He would see Him but would not understand, even though he knew that it was God, and he would tremble with inconceivable sufferings of incomprehension.
"There is Mueller for you!" he suddenly uttered loudly, with extreme conviction, and shook his head. And with that unexpected break in his feelings, of which the human soul is so capable, he laughed heartily and cheerfully.
"Oh, Mueller! My dear Mueller! Oh, you splendid German! After all you are right, Mueller, and I am an ass!"
He paced the cell quickly several times and to the great astonishment of the soldier who was watching him through the peephole, he quickly undressed himself and cheerfully went through all the eighteen exercises with the greatest care. He stretched and expanded his young, somewhat emaciated body, sat down for a moment, drew deep breaths of air and exhaled it, stood up on tip-toe, stretched his arms and his feet. And after each exercise he announced, with satisfaction:
"That's it! That's the real way, Mueller!" His cheeks flushed; drops of warm, pleasant perspiration came from the pores of his body, and his heart beat soundly and evenly.
"The fact is, Mueller," philosophized Sergey, expanding his chest so that the ribs under his thin, tight skin were outlined clearly,-"the fact is, that there is a nineteenth exercise—to hang by the neck motionless. That is called execution. Do you understand, Mueller? They take a live man, let us say Sergey Golovin, they swaddle him as a doll and they hang him by the neck until he is dead. It is a foolish exercise, Mueller, but it can't be helped,-we have to do it."
He bent over on the right side and repeated:
"We have to do it, Mueller."