The House of the Dead, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Chapter 10.

Freedom!

This incident occurred during my last year of imprisonment. My recollection of what occurred this last year is as keen as of the events of the first years; but I have gone into detail enough. In spite of my impatience to be out, this year was the least trying of all the years I spent there. I had now many friends and acquaintances among the convicts, who had by this time made up their minds very much in my favour. Many of them, indeed, had come to feel a sincere and genuine affection for me. The soldier who was assigned to accompany my friend and myself—simultaneously discharged—out of the prison, very nearly cried when the time for leaving came. And when we were at last in full freedom, staying in the rooms of the Government building placed at our disposal for the month we still spent in the town, this man came nearly every day to see us. But there were some men whom I could never soften or win any regard from—God knows why—and who showed just the same hard aversion for me at the last as at the first; something we could not get over stood between us.

I had more indulgences during the last year. I found among the military functionaries of our town old acquaintances, and even some old schoolfellows, and the renewal of these relations helped me. Thanks to them I got permission to have some money, to write to my family, and even to have some books. For some years I had not had a single volume, and words would fail to tell the strange, deep emotion and excitement which the first book I read at the jail caused me. I began to devour it at night, when the doors were closed, and read it till the break of day. It was a number of a review, and it seemed to me like a messenger from the other world. As I read, my life before the prison days seemed to rise up before me in sharp definition, as of some existence independent of my own, which another soul had had. Then I tried to get some clear idea of my relation to current events and things; whether my arrears of knowledge and experience were too great to make up; whether the men and women out of doors had lived and gone through many things and great during the time I was away from them; and great was my desire to thoroughly understand what was now going on, now that I could know something about it all at last. All the words I read were as palpable things, which I wanted rather to feel sensibly than get mere meaning out of; I tried to see more in the text than could be there. I imagined some mysterious meanings that must be in them, and tried at every page to see allusions to the past, with which my mind was familiar, whether they were there or not; at every turn of the leaf I sought for traces of what had deeply moved people before the days of my bondage; and deep was my dejection when it was forced on my mind that a new state of things had arisen; a new life, among my kind, which was alien to my knowledge and my sentiments. I felt as if I was a straggler, left behind and lost in the onward march of mankind.

Yes, there were indeed arrears, if the word is not too weak.

For the truth is, that another generation had come up, and I knew it not, and it knew not me. At the foot of one article I saw the name of one who had been dear to me; with what avidity I flung myself on that paper! But the other names were nearly all new to me; new workers had come upon the scene, and I was eager to know their doings and themselves. It made me feel nearly desperate to have so few books, and to know how hard it would be to get more. At an earlier date, in the old Major’s time, it was a dangerous thing indeed to bring books into the jail. If one was found when the whole place was searched, as was regularly done, great was the disturbance, and no efforts were spared to find out how they got in, and who had helped in the offence. I did not want to be subjected to insulting scrutiny, and, if I had, it would have been useless. I had to live without books, and did, shut up in myself, tormenting myself with many a question and problem on which I had no means of throwing any light. But I can never tell it all.

It was in winter that I came in, so in winter I was to leave, on the anniversary-day. Oh, with what impatience did I look forward to the thrice-blessed winter! How gladly did I see the summer die out, the leaves turn yellow on the trees, the grass turn dry over the wide steppe! Summer is gone at last! the winds of autumn howl and groan, the first snow falls in whirling flakes. The winter, so long, long-prayed for, is come, come at last. Oh, how the heart beats with the thought that freedom was really, at last, at last, close at hand. Yet it was strange, as the time of times, the day of days, grew nearer and nearer, so did my soul grow quieter and quieter. I was annoyed at myself, reproached myself even with being cold, indifferent. Many of the convicts, as I met them in the court-yard when the day’s work was done, used to get out, and talk with me to wish me joy.

“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 noble, 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 pass there—thousands, thousands! God! 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, horny 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.

Yes, farewell!

Liberty! New life! Resurrection from the dead!

Unspeakable moment!

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53