Seven Who Were Hanged
Under the same ringing of the clock, separated from Sergey and Musya by only a few empty cells, but yet so painfully desolate and alone in the whole world as though no other soul existed, poor Vasily Kashirin was passing the last hours of his life in terror and in anguish.
Perspiring, his moist shirt clinging to his body, his once curly hair disheveled, he tossed about in the cell convulsively and hopelessly, like a man suffering from an unbearable physical torture. He would sit down for awhile, then start to run again, he would press his forehead against the wall, stop and seek something with his eyes—as if looking for some medicine. His expression changed as though he had two different faces. The former, the young face, had disappeared somewhere, and a new one, a terrible face that had seemed to have come out of the darkness, had taken its place.
The fear of death had come upon him all at once and taken possession of him completely and forcibly. In the morning, while facing almost certain death, he had been care-free and had scorned it, but toward evening when he was placed in a cell in solitary confinement, he was whirled and carried away by a wave of mad fear. So long as he went of his own free will to face danger and death, so long as he had death, even though it seemed terrible, in his own hands, he felt at ease. He was even cheerful; in the sensation of boundless freedom, of brave and firm conviction of his fearless will, his little, shrunken, womanish fear was drowned, leaving no trace. With an infernal machine at his girdle, he made the cruel force of dynamite his own, also its fiery death-bearing power. And as he walked along the street, amidst the bustling, plain people, who were occupied with their affairs, who were hurriedly avoiding the dangers from the horses of carriages and cars, he seemed to himself as a stranger from another, unknown world, where neither death nor fear was known.
And suddenly this harsh, wild, stupefying change. He can no longer go where he pleases, but he is led where others please. He can no longer choose the place he likes, but he is placed in a stone cage, and locked up like a thing. He can no longer choose freely, like all people, between life and death, but he will surely and inevitably be put to death. The incarnation of will-power, life and strength an instant before, he has now become a wretched image of the most pitiful weakness in the world. He has been transformed into an animal waiting to be slaughtered, a deaf-mute object which may be taken from place to place, burnt and broken. It matters not what he might say, nobody would listen to his words, and if he endeavored to shout, they would stop his mouth with a rag. Whether he can walk alone or not, they will take him away and hang him.
And if he should offer resistance, struggle or lie down on the ground—they will overpower him, lift him, bind him and carry him, bound, to the gallows. And the fact that this machine-like work will be performed over him by human beings like himself, lent to them a new, extraordinary and ominous aspect—they seemed to him like ghosts that came to him for this one purpose, or like automatic puppets on springs. They would seize him, take him, carry him, hang him, pull him by the feet. They would cut the rope, take him down, carry him off and bury him.
From the first day of his imprisonment the people and life seemed to him to have turned into an incomprehensibly terrible world of phantoms and automatic puppets. Almost maddened with fear, he attempted to picture to himself that human beings had tongues and that they could speak, but he could not—they seemed to him to be mute. He tried to recall their speech, the meaning of the words that people used in their relations with one another—but he could not. Their mouths seemed to open, some sounds were heard; then they moved their feet and disappeared. And nothing more.
Thus would a man feel if he were at night alone in his house and suddenly all objects were to come to life, start to move and overpower him. And suddenly they would all begin to judge him: the cupboard, the chair, the writing-table and the divan. He would cry and toss about, entreating, calling for help, while they would speak among themselves in their own language, and then would lead him to the scaffold,-they, the cupboard, the chair, the writing-table and the divan. And the other objects would look on.
To Vasily Kashirin, who was condemned to death by hanging, everything now seemed like children's playthings: his cell, the door with the peephole, the strokes of the woundup clock, the carefully molded fortress, and especially that mechanical puppet with the gun who stamped his feet in the corridor, and the others who, frightening him, peeped into his cell through the little window and handed him the food in silence. And that which he was experiencing was not the fear of death; death was now rather welcome to him. Death with all its eternal mysteriousness and incomprehensibility was more acceptable to his reason than this strangely and fantastically changed world. What is more, death seemed to have been destroyed completely in this insane world of phantoms and puppets, having lost its great and enigmatic significance, becoming something mechanical and only for that reason terrible. He would be seized, taken, led, hanged, pulled by the feet, the rope would be cut, he would be taken down, carried off and buried.
And the man would have disappeared from the world.
At the trial the nearness of his comrades brought Kashirin to himself. For an instant he imagined he saw real people; they were sitting and trying him, speaking like human beings, listening, apparently understanding him. But as he mentally rehearsed the meeting with his mother he clearly felt with the terror of a man who is beginning to lose his reason and who realizes it, that this old woman in the black little kerchief was only an artificial, mechanical puppet, of the kind that can say "pa-pa," "ma-ma," but somewhat better constructed. He tried to speak to her, while thinking at the same time with a shudder:
"O Lord! That is a puppet. A mother doll. And there is a soldier-puppet, and there, at home, is a father-puppet, and this is the puppet of Vasily Kashirin."
It seemed to him that in another moment he would hear somewhere the creaking of the mechanism, the screeching of unoiled wheels. When his mother began to cry, something human again flashed for an instant, but at the very first words it disappeared again, and it was interesting and terrible to see that water was flowing from the eyes of the doll.
Then, in his cell, when the terror had become unbearable, Vasily Kashirin attempted to pray. Of all that had surrounded his childhood days in his father's house under the guise of religion only a repulsive, bitter and irritating sediment remained; but faith there was none. But once, perhaps in his earliest childhood, he had heard a few words which had filled him with palpitating emotion and which remained during all his life enwrapped with tender poetry. These words were:
"The joy of all the afflicted..."
It had happened, during painful periods in his life, that he whispered to himself, not in prayer, without being definitely conscious of it, these words: "The joy of all the afflicted"—and suddenly he would feel relieved and a desire would come over him to go to some dear friend and question gently:
"Our life—is this life? Eh, my dearest, is this life?"
And then suddenly it would appear laughable to him and he would feel like mussing up his hair, putting forth his knee and thrusting out his chest as though to receive heavy blows; saying: "Here, strike!"
He did not tell anybody, not even his nearest comrades, about his "joy of all the afflicted" and it was as though he himself did not know about it,-so deeply was it hidden in his soul. He recalled it but rarely and cautiously.
Now when the terror of the insoluble mystery, which appeared so plainly before him, enveloped him completely, even as the water in high-flood covers the willow twigs on the shore,-a desire came upon him to pray. He felt like kneeling, but he was ashamed of the soldier and, folding his arms on his chest, he whispered softly:
"The joy of all the afflicted!" And he repeated tenderly, in anguish: "Joy of all the afflicted, come to me, help Vaska Kashirin."
'' Long ago, while he was yet in his first term at the university and used to go off on a spree sometimes, before he had made the acquaintance of Werner and before he had entered the organization, he used then to call himself half-boastingly, half-pityingly, "Vaska Kashirin,"-and now for some reason or other he suddenly felt like calling himself by the same name again. But the words had a dead and toneless sound. "The joy of all the afflicted!"
Something stirred. It was as though some one's calm and mournful image had flashed up in the distance and died out quietly, without illuminating the deathly gloom. The wound-up clock in the steeple struck. The soldier in the corridor made a noise with his gun or with his saber and he yawned, slowly, at intervals.
"Joy of all the afflicted! You are silent! Will you not say anything to Vaska Kashirin?"
He smiled patiently and waited. All was empty within his soul and about him. And the calm, mournful image did not reappear. He recalled, painfully and unnecessarily, wax candles burning; the priest in his vestments; the ikon painted on the wall. He recalled his father, bending and stretching himself, praying and bowing to the ground, while looking sidewise to see whether Vaska was praying, or whether he was planning some mischief. And a feeling of still greater terror came over Vasily than before the prayer.
Everything now disappeared.
Madness came crawling painfully. His consciousnesss was dying out like an extinguishing bonfire, growing icy like the corpse of a man who had just died, whose heart is still warm but whose hands and feet had already become stiffened with cold. His dying reason flared up as red as blood again and said that he, Vasily Kashirin, might perhaps become insane here, suffer pains for which there is no name, reach a degree of anguish and suffering that had never been experienced by a single living being; that he might beat his head against the wall, pick his eyes out with his fingers, speak and shout whatever he pleased, that he might plead with tears that he could endure it no longer,—and nothing would happen. Nothing could happen.
And nothing happened. His feet, which had a consciousness and life of their own, continued to walk and to carry his trembling, moist body. His hands, which had a consciousness of their own, endeavored in vain to fasten the coat which was open at his chest and to warm his trembling, moist body.
His body quivered with cold. His eyes stared. And this was calm itself embodied.
But there was one more moment of wild terror. That was when people entered his cell. He did not even imagine that this visit meant that it was time to go to the execution; he simply saw the people and was frightened like a child.
"I will not do it! I will not do it!" he whispered inaudibly with his livid lips and silently retreated to the depth of the cell, even as in childhood he shrank when his father lifted his hand.
"We must start."
The people were speaking, walking around him, handing him something. He closed his eyes, he shook a little,-and began to dress himself slowly. His consciousness must have returned to him, for he suddenly asked the official for a cigarette. And the official generously opened his silver cigarette-case upon which was a chased figure in the style of the decadents.