The Prisons of Despair: An Experience in the Russlan Cheka

[The narrator of this experience was on his way home to America from Tabriz, Persia, where for a year previous he had been working in connection with the Near East Relief. It was necessary for him to pass through the Caucasus, and because of the absence of banking facilities, it seemed important that he provide himself with foreign specie. Somewhat recklessly he procured American gold to the extent of about one hundred dollars. Gold is contraband, and Mr. Groseclose was promptly arrested. The difficulty might have been arranged, but the Cheka found on his person, also, an American Legion card, and a tiny slip of paper carrying a memorandum of his life-insurance policy. This they had translated ‘New York Life Police,’ and judging it in connection with his Legion card, the Russian authorities connected him in some way with the government Secret Service. Instantly the suspicion arose that Mr. Groseclose was a spy, and the dreadful dilemma in which he found himself was an immediate consequence.]

I

EVEN during the noisy harangue in Russian, of which I could catch only the raspingly repeated word contraband which the greasy official boomed at me, I was not alarmed. But when he ceased what seemed to me his gleeful pouring of the tiny handful of gold from one palm to the other, to step to the wall telephone and shout ‘ Cheka ‘ into the mouthpiece, I knew I had something to think about. Cheka — the Commission Extraordinary, the secret police of the Communists, which holds every activity in Russia under its scrutiny and its unnumbered victims in its mysterious prisons, with its power to arrest even high commissars and condemn them without trial, its clandestine executions — it is the element in Bolshevism of which even its masters are afraid. I remember how Dodge, the broad-shouldered young Englishman had laughingly referred to his two days in the prison of the Cheka, and how, later, after he had been ordered out of the country, it was whispered that the Cheka had executed his Georgian interpreter for the sole reason that he had been connected with the Englishman.

I had time for only a word with Martin, as I was hurried out of the door into a Ford truck which the soldiers had peremptorily requisitioned from him. I was put in the back, with a sullen-looking soldier carrying a fixed bayonet, and off we bumped down the cobbled street of the water-front. The car soon turned off into the boulevard that borders the upper beach. At the upper end of this boulevard stood the American personnel house, and an American flag flew from the roof. We were getting near enough for me to distinguish the colors and the stars, when the car stopped and I was ordered out. I withstood the insistence of the soldier long enough to fill my mind with the picture of that waving flag before I entered the building. How little I realized that even a prison wall could not separate me from that bit of color, that even then a corner of it, as it were, was to flutter through the bars and cover me with its protecting fold!

I was left alone in a small outer room, where I sat for an interminable time, it seemed. My mind became the background for a moving shadowshow of shapes and fancies, plans, doubts, fears. I heard faintly the rolling whistle of a ship, and the ghost of a vessel seemed to pass across the screen, bearing with it my companions. The afternoon sun crept in, giving a Midas touch to a heap of débris in a far corner of the room. Outside I could see it glinting against the towering crosses of the cathedral. That was before that fatal Christmas Day when the Communists burned Christ and all the prophets in effigy, and tore down those resplendent crosses, to replace them with a red flag. Soon the great bells sounded their deep-toned music for the evening Mass, Russian church bells, — so few of which are now permitted to ring, — which I shall never forget. Their song, too, was to flutter through the bars, until it seemed as if the Orthodox Church had stretched out some mysterious wing to hover over me with its protection and comfort.

II

My thoughts were interrupted by a guard, who silently appeared and with a grunt motioned me to follow him. I was led down a corridor to a small room, in which sat a man wearing a green cap. In two short words he asked my name, which he wrote down, and then began to examine my luggage. It consisted merely of a bed-roll and a handbag containing toilet articles and extra linen. After fingering disdainfully every article it contained, with much turning of the pockets and examining of the seams, he turned his attention to the bag itself. This he thumped carefully all round, to see if it contained a secret pocket, felt along the edges, and would have ripped open a partially torn seam had not the fabric been too tough, so that he dubiously desisted. Finally he extracted all the straps, the cords from the bed-roll, my collars and belt and every other article of which I might make use in strangling myself, laboriously wrote out a receipt for them and gave it to me, and then motioned for me to go.

The guard obligingly took my handbag, while with one hand I grasped the bed-roll and with the other supported my sagging trousers, and then off, through a long barracks-room filled with lounging Red soldiers of a very filthy sort, into a large court at the back. Here the prisoners had just finished their afternoon promenade and were filing back into the cell, when I was thrust into their midst. A voice with a shipyard accent called out in English, —

‘Come right in, stranger, and make yourself to home.’

This voice belonged to Louis, a man I was to learn to love. Louis was a young Russian-American, who claimed parentage on both sides of the Atlantic and whose life had been spent between, and who was to assume the task of sponsor, interpreter, and good friend.

The prison cell was a long room, with a double row of shelves along either side, six feet deep, and serving for bunks. If one were lucky, as I, to have a bed-roll at the time of arrest, he could sleep comfortably; if not, he lay on the rough boards with nothing to cover him but his coat. In the centre of the room were a long table and a long bench. At the end was a tiny fireplace, where a tinier fire valiantly endeavored to ward off the chill. On the fire a pot of tea was brewing. When the strength of the tea had been thoroughly extracted by vigorous boiling, the pot was set on the table.

‘Come on, stranger,’ invited Louis; ‘dinner is served in courses, and we ‘ll now have the first. Here is a cup.’

The cup was a condensed-milk can, with the edges carefully bent down so that one might not cut one’s lips. We sweetened our tea with tiny tablets of saccharine, and with it ate black bread. When Louis saw that I was not relishing the bread, he advised me to toast it, and showed me how, by running a big lump of it on a splinter of wood and holding it over the fire. The taste was slightly improved.

‘If ye don’t like it, don’t eat it. We serve plenty in this tavern. The next course will soon follow.’

In a few minutes a dishpan full of thin soup was drawn from the fire and put on the table. The prisoners gathered around it and began to ladle with big wooden spoons.

‘Here,’ said Louis, ‘ye’re a gentleman from America, and ye ‘re not used to Russian customs. Eat yours here.’

He started to fill my empty cup with the soup, so that I might eat apart. I assured him, however, that I preferred to eat with the others, stating that they might get more than I did; and he roared his approval.

I forgot, in the general air of camaraderie, the seriousness of our situation, and soon was on terms of intimate acquaintance with the others. The fact that I was an American put me in a superior position in their eyes, and my action toward the soup had only increased the favor, I found. When the meal was over, I started to assist in clearing the table, but I was stopped. The prisoners had established themselves in a most military-like fashion. A chief ruled over the room like a petty tsar, and two persons were delegated each day to the necessary tasks of policing the room. The chief was a young and very energetic Russian, who had formerly held a position of responsibility in the Communist government, in charge of food-distribution. He had cleverly forged seals and signatures, and had organized a complete system of goods-distribution on his own account, selling and transporting government wares throughout Russia by means of a whole corps of clandestine agents. He had been discovered, and was saved from summary execution only by his passionate enthusiasm for the Communistic system. The ardor of the officials soon cooled, his case was forgotten, and not long after, he was released. Meanwhile his energy had found an outlet in organizing and directing this band of prisoners, over which he had despotically appointed himself master.

‘In this tavern,’ Louis began in explanation, ‘the management provides only quarters and black bread. This organization is our own idea, or rather his. Now and then our friends on the outside are allowed to send in food, that is, if they happen to have it to send and if they happen to know we are here and not elsewhere. My wife sent me some last time, and,’ clenching a brawny fist, ‘there’s skimping to pay. But with what we get we make this soup, because it goes further that way. Eat hearty, for ye may not have it every day. We can also have a broom, water, and wood. We can chop our own wood, so that some of us get out in the open now and then. The broom came from the barracks, but those soldiers never used it, so they gave it to us. They are from north Russia, and are dirty, not clean like us. But what’s the matter with yer clothes, stranger?’

Louis had observed how, in the absence of a belt, my loose trousers were hard put to maintain themselves, and in a moment he had produced a string and was fastening it around the loops in such a way that a belt was not necessary. Meanwhile the dishpan had been washed, the spoons put away, and the table well scrubbed. From some hidden corner sets of chess and checkers were produced. Such things were forbidden, and these had been made by wetting the black bread into a dough, moulding it in the desired shapes, and then letting it dry. They had been discovered once or twice by the guards, until it was threatened to cut down the bread ration; and now, when they were not in use, they were hidden in adroitly concealed places.

During this time I had been carrying on a conversation through the medium of Louis; but he had been interpreting all my remarks in a way that set the whole company into laughter. I suspected that he was robbing me of my robe of honor, when a quiet Russian in the corner of the room addressed me in French to advise me of this very thing. This man was a former Russian noble, named Nicholas. He had campaigned in Mongolia, had hunted with the Tsar, and during the war had served as a high emissary. He had been in this prison now six months, and no charge had ever been laid against him except that he was a former noble. He took his fate with that calm stoicism and childlike simplicity so peculiar to the Russians, regarding it as only another of those adventures which Providence had for him, and full of the powerful faith bred by the Orthodox Church that this same Providence which had so often cared for him still guarded him. When I expressed sympathy for him, he turned it aside and began to question me.

‘You will not be here long,’ he said. ‘They want only your money, because they need it badly; and when you have been here long enough to give it up and be glad, they will turn you loose. But if they thought you a spy, you could expect nothing — neither trial, nor sight of your friends, nor priest. But you will be free soon, for the Americans will learn of this, and they will use their influence.’

Had I known that ‘the Americans’ were to come every day for weeks, vainly trying to secure my release, or to get to speak to me, or to learn what my condition was, and that they were always to be politely refused by the officials of the Cheka, I should not have been so reassured. But Louis, who, I learned later, was the moving spirit of the affair, was suggesting games and asking me to join in, which I did. The most popular game it seemed, for newcomers at least, was one played with a spoon and blanket. Two people were placed on a bench and covered with a blanket, while the others marched round and thumped one or the other lightly on the head, with the idea that the person should guess who had touched him. I shortly found myself on the bench, with Louis opposite me. I had seen this game played before, and I had quietly provided myself with a spoon from the rack and had hidden it under my arm. The group circled around, and I saw Louis’s arm slip out from under the blanket and rise in the air. But before it could descend, I had given him a resounding whack on the head with the spoon I carried. He bellowed something in Russian, and then tore off the blanket and looked at me, grinning.

‘Ah, Amerikanski, I thought ye had told us ye had never been in jail before. Ye must have been, or where did ye learn that trick ? ‘ he roared; and from that time Louis was my staunchest friend.

I fell asleep that night in better spirits than I had imagined possible. Morning found me again somewhat disconsolate. I had distributed my blankets to those who had no covering, and the one I had retained had not warded off the chill and had but little assuaged the hardness of the planking. My head was light from the vileness of the air, for, Russian fashion, all had insisted that the window be kept tightly closed during the night. Outside there was a murky drizzle which only increased the general spirit of despondency. The others had already made tea, and Louis came up to me with a cupful and a piece of bread. I thanked him, but found little comfort in it. After a little, the rain cleared somewhat and Louis asked me if I would like to cut some wood.

‘I ‘ll get the guard to put yer name down and mine, because he likes me, and we ‘ll spend the morning that way.’

The woodpile was outside in the court, and about it were scattered two or three dull axes and a saw. Under a balcony sat the guard who was over us, idly pivoting his rifle on the pavement, while lounging around in groups were other soldiers, talking and joking. Every now and then Louis interposed a sally of his own, which set them all in laughter. To this our guard was indifferent. I wondered at Louis’s familiarity with them.

‘Oh, they are good enough,’ he said, ‘if ye just treat them right. They’re no more Communist than I am, but they are hungry, and in the army they get fed. The only trouble with them is that they are dirty, not clean like we are. They’re from north Russia. They send the soldiers from here up there, and bring those fellows down here, where they don’t have any friends, and so don’t mind doing the dirty work their officers make them do. They don’t have any more liberty than we, and sometimes not as much to eat.’

A little later I lighted a cigarette. One of the soldiers saw me and came up and asked for one. I gave him the rest of my package, which he took and distributed among his fellows.

We worked slowly, according to Louis’s suggestion, in order that the work might hold out longer, and so managed to stay in the open air all morning. But the afternoon, save for the fifteen minutes’ promenade, was spent back in the evil-smelling cell, to which even our constant scrubbing could not give a pleasing odor. Nicholas gave me a greasy and well-thumbed copy of a novel of Dumas, in French, which he had in some manner secured; but under the circumstances the scintillating adventures of its heroes only seemed tawdry and unreal. The afternoon finally closed and the light that seeped in turned into a muddy haze. Outside, the cathedral bells began to ring, first the smaller and softer chimes in a thin thread of music, and then a deep-toned anthem as the larger bells joined. Inside, the pale faces of the prisoners raised in prayer glowed through the dusk like wisps of cloud, while the sound filled every crevice of the cell with the brooding spirit of the Church. Comforted, I drew my blanket over me and soon fell asleep.

III

I had now been in the prison of the Cheka a week. I had become somewhat inured to the tension and to the passage of time — a passage broken by the occasional chopping of wood, the brief daily routine of cleaning our cell, the daily changing of the guards, and the occasional appearance of a new prisoner or the disappearance of an old one. A new prisoner was always an occasion for learning the news of the world outside and of introducing him to the various divertissements which Louis was always contriving; but I found it best not to let my mind wander to the fate of those who disappeared. Some, we knew, were free; but the destiny of others, especially those who disappeared during the night, we could only conjecture. To some, freedom; to others, another prison; and to some, a disappearance for all time. There were no trials: one was awakened and told to come; was led somewhere distant from the city, where one was given a spade and told to dig; and then undress; an injection of numbing opiate in the fleshy part of the neck to quiet the struggle; a shot; the earth raked over the hole into which the body had fallen; the clothes divided, and next day sold in the market. Here relatives might by chance come across them and thus gain the only knowledge of his fate.

Louis had been put here for a small civil offense; and although it was not likely that he would be executed, he had no idea how long his incarceration would last. He was always full of optimism, and he was constantly deriding the soldiers and joking with them. This had caught their fancy so that he often received small favors from them. His lightheartedness sometimes annoyed the more sullen of the prisoners, and he was sometimes interdicted from speaking by the chief; but it never failed to strengthen my flagging spirit, and he was constantly encouraging me by assurances that I should soon be free. When I should be, he wanted me to go to his wife and see if she needed anything and tell her not to worry. He wanted me to take her some condensed milk for the baby.

Almost daily the church bells rang and they never failed to put some new hope in me. Their music soothed and comforted me, and I would sit long in expectancy of them. At times they seemed joyous, riotous; at others, their music was wild or sad. Sometimes it was a chant the striker seemed to be playing, sometimes the sprightly music of an opera; but always there was to be felt the imperial and benign message of the Church calling to its own and asserting its unquenchable spirit.

I had many long talks with Nicholas — about the hopes for his country, about the fate of the Church, but never about himself. In spite of the injustice and precariousness of his own situation, he was remarkably free from malice toward the Communists. He regarded them as children, as fools, as beasts or villains; but he looked upon it all as the natural outcome of the sins of the Tsarist system and as only a phase in the great struggle the Russian people were waging to gain complete control of their destiny. He was full of deep patriotism and manifested a passionate resentment against the acts of the Allies toward his country, especially in their encroachments in what he considered the Russian sphere of activity in the Near East. I questioned him about the Church. Toward it his attitude was one of contempt and devout veneration mingled. The icons were frauds, and he laughed at the ignorance of the priests.

‘But the people love them, and to them they mean something. Let the Bolsheviki tear down every church in Holy Russia, the people will not resist. We have a better understanding than you of the meaning of humility, the humility of Christ. It is more powerful than any expressed resentment. Though a red flag wave over every cathedral in Russia, the Church lives and watches over its children. Yes, lives, lives, freed from the shackles of tradition and superstition.’

His chief worry was for the fate of a large collection of rare Afghan laces which he had amassed in years of travel in Transcaspia.

‘The Bolsheviki wish to encourage art, and the opera at Tiflis is still as good as at Naples, but they are ignorant and careless of art objects, and they stifle everything creative.’

One night I heard the guard enter and lead him out. I waited, horrified, but in about an hour he returned. His face was, as ever, calm, but I detected a slight quivering as he lay down by me. He laughed, however, and whispered, —

‘What do you suppose they wanted? They asked me about you, whether I thought you a contrebandier. I laughed and said, No. They said they did n’t think so either. And then they told me my case has been fully examined and that in a few days I am to go to Archangel. Archangel, where the snow is a verst deep, where I may live free, so long as I do not leave Archangel. And so the Government does not have to give me even black bread; if I starve to death or freeze in the snows, the Government may say that they have not done it. Tavarish,’ clutching my blanket, ‘if you get out before I am taken away, go to my brother, I pray, and tell him to send me my sealskin coat when they next allow food to be brought in. I may need it.’

I thought long about Nicholas, until I fell into a horrible dreaming sleep. But next morning he seemed even calmer and more vivacious than usual. During that day there was put among us a poor fellow whose condition was more pitiable, and who for the time drew me away from the case of the Russian noble. He was a young German, pale and nervous, who had been brought in from another cell, where he had been alone for five months past, and had seen no one but his guard. His diet during this time had been only the black bread and pale tea which the Government gave. Previously he had spent six months in solitary confinement in that terrible cellar in Moscow and he was now so weak that they had finally put him in with us, where he might find slightly more nourishing food and something to reawaken his lagging interest in life.

He had been connected with the German consulate at Tiflis, and was on his way back to Germany by way of Moscow, when he was suddenly arrested and imprisoned. His name on the register had been changed, so as to deceive any official inquiry by the German Government. I wrote his name in the lining of my shoe, and promised to get word to his people when I was released. But that night something happened which threw grave doubts on any hopes I had for release, or at least put it off indefinitely. And when I was finally released, it was only to learn a few days later that he had been among the ninety-four who were executed in Tiflis when the Communists went through their prisons and decimated the list in a terrible reprisal for the assassination of a local commissar.

IV

I had fallen into a deep sleep that night, and the last thing I had heard was the change of guard and the monotonous counting of the prisoners: — ‘Ahdine, dua, tri —’

I do not know what time it was when I was awakened by a rough shaking and pulling on my blanket. I turned, to see the heavy form of a soldier and bayonet silhouetted against the pale outline of the window. The soldier said something in Russian, which I knew meant for me to follow him. As I slipped into my shoes and overcoat, I quietly awakened Louis. He was immediately alert.

‘Louis, they arc taking me away. In case I don’t come back — ‘ But I did not finish. I realized with a thud that his case was as hopeless as mine.

Going ahead and followed by this stolid figure, I was made to march out into the courtyard and then into a passage opposite. After several turns a door opened and I stood before a rough desk, behind which sat an officer in the eternal green cap and a man dressed as a sailor, who spoke to me in broken English: he was the interpreter.

‘What is your name?’ he asked.

My mind vaguely turned on the foolishness of the question as I told him.

‘What are you doing in Russia? Where were you in December, 1917 — in November, 1920? Are you a Communist? Who was your father? Have you ever been exiled by the former Russian government?’

I answered all his questions as best I could, and the answers were all written down in a big form which I was afterward to sign. I was examined and cross-examined for what seemed ages, until my mind was thoroughly fagged. The officer finished his grueling. A moment’s silence; then he burst out, —

‘We have evidence that you are a member of the American secret police. The papers we have found on you indicate as much. What have you to say?’

‘Have you had the papers translated?’ I asked.

‘We have not had them all translated yet. It is difficult. But one of the cards is yellow, and resembles those which all police agents carry.’

‘But have you not questioned the Americans here in charge of the relief work? Surely you can trust them, and they will tell you who I am.’

‘All the Americans are spies, no doubt,’ he said. ‘Else why are they carrying on this relief work? It is to get into the country to report, and to carry on the capitalistic propaganda. Your country has no love for the Communists.’

‘At any rate, you will remember that I am an American citizen.’

‘Yes, we remember.’

The guard led me back. The sky was beginning to turn gray, and against it the bare branches of a tree stretching above the wall made a great scrawling silhouette. I felt, rather than heard, the key rasp in the lock, and somehow I found my pallet. But I was too disturbed to sleep. Espionage. I remembered the words of Nicholas, and they drummed sickeningly in my ears.

‘If they thought you a spy, you could expect nothing, neither trial, nor sight of your friends, nor priest.’

There was light enough in the chamber to distinguish faintly the forms of the huddled sleepers. A wisp of morning breeze, brought in as the door opened, set some of them to coughing slightly. Louis was awake and spoke to me.

‘Louis,’ I whispered, ‘they think I am a spy.’

‘I know it; don’t worry. They think we are all counter-revolutionaries. Ye must get word to yer friends, so that they will know what to do. Here’s a pencil. Take good care of it, for it ‘s the only one on the place as far as I know. Write a note as small as ye can and give it to me, and I ‘ll see that yer friends get it.’

Obeying him, I went over to the window and wrote a note on a greasy bit of paper in which food had been sent in. It was brief, anonymous, and stated only this new development. When it was finished I gave it to Louis.

That morning at the woodpile a stick of wood flew up and landed at the feet of one of the guards — the same one, I noticed, who had asked me for the cigarette. Louis went after it, and as he did so he brushed against him. That night he told me how he had sent the note.

‘The soldiers are good fellows, only they are dirty; and they know how hard it is for us. But you have to be careful, for they are paid to tell on one another.’

But the cheerful genius of Louis no longer reassured me. Dim forebodings weighed on me like heavy lead. The church bells were ringing outside, and for the moment they lifted me out of my despair into the exaltation of another world. But they soon ceased and I seemed more oppressed than ever. In the middle of the night, the door of the cell was hurled open, and the commandant stood before us flanked by a squad of soldiers.

‘Someone here sent out a letter,’ he roared. ‘Who was it!’

Louis interpreted what the man had said, and as he did so, he quietly gripped my leg. The other prisoners, terror-stricken, were silent.

‘Search the place,’ the officer commanded.

I realized with horror that I still had the pencil in my pocket. There was no time to conceal it now. Fearfully, while the soldiers were engaged with the others, I drew it out and slipped it into my trouser cuff. Soon a greasy soldier was feeling all over my body and running his fingers into all the pockets of my clothing. He exuded a vile smell and, as he bent over, the dirty peak of his cap grazed my face. He finally grunted and turned his attention to another, and I breathed in relief. The commandant and his soldiers finally withdrew, mumbling.

This was only a respite. Presently two guards reappeared and led Louis out. A moment later, we heard, even back in our cell, a bull-like roar. Then a series of yells, but they seemed more in anger than in pain. The prisoners pressed around the window to catch, if possible, any words that might reach us. Finally, Louis appeared: the door was flung open and he was hurled into our midst panting, triumphant. The prisoners enveloped him with a torrent of questioning, which was to me an incoherent babbling.

‘Oh, the dirty cowards!’ he yelled. ‘They were trying to make me tell who had sent the note. They think that I know, because I am the only one that talks to the soldiers. They tried to put me in the “little room,” but I cursed them and told them I would n’t, and they were afraid to touch me. They know there is revenge. Oh, they call this a government of the workingman, but if it is, why do they torture poor fellows like us, who have never done anything! The cowards! But they let me go.’

His tirade was interrupted by the appearance again of the commandant with his soldiers. He shouted something in Russian, and the soldiers started toward Louis. Louis jumped back in the bunk and caught the sides with his hands so as to brace himself. Then he raised his legs and began to kick, meantime filling the room with oaths and yells. The soldiers could not come at him except at the cost of a blow from those powerful extremities, and they hung back. The commandant yelled an order, and the soldiers fixed their bayonets.

‘Oh, ye dirty cowards!’ shouted Louis in English, forgetting himself in his excitement; ‘why don’t ye come at me like men! ‘

‘Louis,’ I called, ‘I ‘ll tell.’

‘No ye don’t,’ he shouted, more excited than ever. ‘ ‘T would never do. Let them go. They’re cowards, I say, they ‘re cowards. For God’s sake, don’t tell. It will ruin us all.’

The soldiers had raised their bayonets, but Louis only swung his great legs more viciously.

‘Oh, oh, oh!’ he yelled in mingled Russian and English, ‘cowards, cowards, cowards!’

The commandant issued an order, and the soldiers suddenly desisted. The door clanked behind them and we were left alone.

‘I told ye they were cowards. They were afraid to take me.’

All was quiet the next day, and Louis was not afterward disturbed, as I later learned. I often wondered at this peculiar element in the character of our captors. When I thought of their brutality and their callous indifference to human suffering, their leniency in this case was amazing. Perhaps it was because they had unconsciously taken a liking to him, as all the rest of us in the cell had, and in their lordly indulgence had let him go; perhaps because, as Louis said, they were cowards at heart, and maintained themselves only because of the great passivity of the Russian people, affrighted when they met real and determined resistance.

That night I was taken to Tiflis. Before I left, Louis slipped me a note on which was finely written these words, —

‘Be of good cheer. We are doing all we can.’

V

That journey was another illustration of the paradoxes that existed under the rule of the Bolsheviki. Although I had never been shown the slightest consideration while in prison, I was here treated as an honored guest. There was one other prisoner with me, and our guards were not common soldiers, but green-capped officials. We traveled in the finest compartment the train afforded. It was upholstered and fairly clean, but the only light was from a tallow candle which one of the officers produced.

The train started off, after much ringing of bells, and the two officers proceeded to make themselves and us as comfortable as possible. They took off their side arms — all they carried — and hung them up, produced cigarettes, and offered them to us, and then began to engage us in a lively conversation. One of them spoke Turkish, with which I was familiar, and my prison companion spoke French.

After a while the train stopped at a large station where a ‘Buffet’ sign was hanging out. Both the officers descended, leaving us quite alone, and presently brought back a large slab of fat pork, some black bread, and a bottle of wine. These they spread out on the seat, and invited us to eat. This strange conduct on the part of our captors caused me to take hope. Perhaps I was going to my freedom. ‘Be of good cheer,’ the note had said. Perhaps they had succeeded in arranging for my release, and this was part of the necessary routine — to be taken to the seat of government. I gnawed at the fat pork, and even the black bread had a savory taste.

‘What do you think of the Communists?’ one of the officers began.

I gave a noncommittal reply.

‘Only those should govern who produce,’ he continued. ‘See this,’ — producing a small cigarette-lighter, — ‘I made that, every bit of it, myself, with my own hands. I am a mechanic. I formerly worked for the Relief, when Haskell was here. One of the officers said he would take me to America, where I could earn four dollars a day, for I am a good worker. But I would not go. I hardly get that much a month, besides my rations, but I would rather stay here where the workingman rules, than go to your rich country, for here I am working for the Cause, working to make the Revolution a success.’

‘Is it a success, your revolution?’ I ventured.

‘Not yet, it is still disorganized, and the workers have yet to perfect themselves in the art of government. But we are learning.’

‘Why do you not allow prisoners trials, and why do you imprison them secretly and without warning?’

‘We arrest men secretly and quickly, so that they may not have a chance to escape beforehand; and we keep them hidden so that we may investigate their affairs without interference, and so that they may not be able to hire false witnesses to tell us lies.’

‘Then you trust no one.’

‘In Russia trust does not exist.’

The candle began to gutter, and the wick sagged in a way to threaten our illumination.

‘The candles are no longer good,’ complained the officer. ‘The chief of the Government candle factory is not an honest man. Before, if a man did not make good candles, he lost trade. But the Communists will remedy this, even though it cost one of their members. He will be arrested soon, and his accounts examined. If it is found that he has cheated the Government,’ — and he drew his index finger in a crook, ‘ping!’

I was on the point of suggesting a return to the time-worn method of securing efficiency; but the candle by now barely flickered and it became necessary to spread our blankets. The back of the seat was swung upward and horizontally, making a sort of padded shelf. One of the officers climbed up on this and fell asleep. I was given the seat on which to spread my roll, my companion spread his blanket on the floor, and the second officer curled up in the corner. In a few minutes all were breathing heavily except myself. It was too new an experience, this being escorted under guard, with both guards asleep, and with their arms hung up where either prisoner might take them at his leisure. The window was tightly fastened, as in all Russian trains in winter, but the door sagged open and creaked as the train rounded the curves of the valley. The train stopped at a station dimly lighted with dirty incandescent globes, and the usual wretched crowd struggled into the third-class wagons ahead. After an interminable wait, the bells rang and the train glided into the darkness. There was no jar: in spite of the decrepitude of the coaches the trucks beneath moved silently, and I marveled at the wonderful construction of these Russian railways that still operated smoothly and efficiently after live years of neglect and disrepair.

I wondered at the indifference of the guards to their prisoners: whether it actually meant that we were on our way to freedom; whether it was another illustration of that childlike simplicity of mind that I had observed throughout the East; or whether it was a subtle offer to us to attempt an escape, with certain consequences. My companion had taken it all quite calmly and as a matter of course, and I must have adopted the first-named conclusion for in my wondering I soon drifted into sleep.

VI

The Tiflis prison was worse than the one at Batoum. I seemed to be in a horrible pit, like that described by Poe, which every day contracted, until in the end I and all of us should be crushed between its relentless walls. I had now lost all expectation of succor from my friends, since I was sure they did not know where I was. There was nothing to be anticipated from our captors: in their eyes I was a spy. I no longer had the friendly raillery of Louis to cheer me, or the religious calm of Nicholas. I did not even hear the cathedral bells, which all along had been to me the symbols of the free world without. There were a thousand men in these prisons, twenty in our cell, and they sat with that vacant stare of men who live without hope. Above, on an upper floor, sat the Commission Extraordinary, which each night voted and determined who before morning should be led out to that secret place away from the city, there to dig their graves and lie in them. My soul withdrew into itself, and I sank back into the comatose state of those around me. Only my dreams were pleasant: by some psychology that inner mind still glowed bright, and each night brought me pictures of home and America, until I lay long hours inert that sleep might come to transport me to another world.

One glimpse of the world outside we had. On one side of our cell, and against the roof, was a window. This gave out on a street; but in the street outside a board screen had been set up so that no one might look through. This board screen had got slightly out of place, so that through a slight aperture at the side one might see what passed at a distance.

One of the prisoners sat constantly upon an upper bunk looking out into the street. On certain days his wife passed with their little child. We could tell when they passed by the way his face lighted up. One day his place was left vacant. Thereafter I sat on the bunk and looked out.

It was but a few days until Christmas, and people were passing bearing tiny trees. This was in spite of the proscription of the Communists. One day I saw two figures approaching whom I knew to be Americans. I could not call out, for the guard would have come and shot down into the cell. He had done this on one previous occasion.

I remembered the story of Blondin and Richard — how Cœur de Lion had been rescued by a song. I started whistling the ‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ This song was unfamiliar to the Russians and attracted no attention among them; but the two figures turned and looked intently toward the window. They gave no sign of recognition, however, and soon passed on. I was more hopeless than ever.

A day or so later the guard came and led me before Moghilevsky, who was the president of the Cheka.

‘You are the American who was arrested for carrying contraband, is it not? Well, you are a spy. Your papers are quite suspicious, and we are unable to translate them. But one came today who explained their meaning, and we have now decided to free you. You may go.’

When they had given me back every piece of gold which they had taken, carefully wrapped in tissue paper, and a document with a red seal, which said I might leave the country, and when I was on board a greasy little Greek vessel bearing me to Constantinople, I let my mind consider in relief the experience through which I had passed. I had carried the message to Louis’s wife, I had sent Nicholas his cloak, and I still carried in the lining of my shoe the unavailing message of the poor German. I wondered what it was that had saved me from the fate that was his. I had been in prison on the most serious charge known to the Communists: there had been no official representation of our Government; and had there been, it is doubtful whether the Cheka would have respected it. But I am convinced that, in the end, it was the American flag, which here did not march at the head of an army column or fly at the masthead of an embassy, but before a little band of harassed and often discouraged relief workers and over orphanages and relief stations, — the emblem of life to some thirty thousand orphans and uncounted refugees, — that finally moved the Cheka in their decisions and fluttered between me and their fury.