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The Cynosure

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Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.




WITH DEEP GRATIFICATION I observe the unfoldment of Harry's mind. My friendship has wakened in him hope and interest in life. Merely to please me, he smilingly reiterated, he would apply himself to reading the mapped-out course. But as time passed he became absorbed in the studies, developing a thirst for knowledge that is transforming his primitive intelligence into a mentality of great power and character. Often I marvel at the peculiar strength and aspiration springing from the depths of a prison friendship. "I did not believe in friendship, Aleck," Harry says, as we ply our brooms in the day's work, "but now I feel that I wouldn't be here, if I had then a real friend. It isn't only that we suffer together, but you have made me feel that our minds can rise above these rules and bars. You know, the screws have warned me against you, and I was afraid of you. I don't know how to put it, Aleck, but the first time we had that long talk last year, I felt as if something walked right over from you to me. And since then I have had something to live for. You know, I have seen so much of the priests, I have no use for the church, and I don't believe in immortality. But the idea I got from you clung to me, and it was so persistent, I really think there is such a thing as immortality of an idea."

For an instant the old look of helpless wonder is in his face, as if he is at a loss to master the thought. He pauses in his work, his eyes fastened on mine. "I got it, Aleck," he says, an eager smile lighting up his pallid features. "You remember the story you told me about them fellers -- Oh," -- he quickly corrects himself -- "when I get excited, I drop into my former bad English. Well, you know the story you told me of the prisoners in Siberia; how they escape sometimes, and the peasants, though forbidden to house them, put food outside of their huts, so that an escaped man may not starve to death. You remember, Aleck?"

"Yes, Harry. I'm glad you haven't forgotten it."

"Forgotten? Why, Aleck, a few weeks ago, sitting at my door, I saw a sparrow hopping about in the hall. It looked cold and hungry. I threw a piece of bread to it, but the Warden came by and made me pick it up, and drive the bird away. Somehow I thought of the peasants in Siberia, and how they share their food with escaped men. Why should the bird starve as long as I have bread? Now every night I place a few pieces near the door, and in the morning, just when it begins to dawn, and everyone is asleep, the bird steals up and gets her breakfast. It's the immortality of an idea, Aleck."


The inclement winter has laid a heavy hand upon Harry. The foul hot air of the cell-house is aggravating his complaint, and now the physician has pronounced him in an advanced stage of consumption. The disease is ravaging the population. Hygienic rules are ignored, and no precautions are taken against contagion. Harry's health is fast failing. He walks with an evident effort, but bravely straightens as he meets my gaze. "I feel quite strong, Aleck," he says, "I don't believe it's the con. It's just a bad cold."

He clings tenaciously to the slender hope; but now and then the cunning of suspicion tests my faith. Pretending to wash his hands, he asks: "Can I use your towel, Aleck? Sure you're not afraid?" My apparent confidence seems to allay his fears, and he visibly rallies with renewed hope. I strive to lighten his work on the range, and his friend "Coz," who attends the officers' table, shares with the sick boy the scraps of fruit and cake left after their meals. The kind-hearted Italian, serving a sentence of twenty years, spends his leisure weaving hair chains in the dim light of the cell, and invests the proceeds in warm underwear for his consumptive friend. "I don't need it myself, I'm too hot-blooded, anyhow," he lightly waves aside Harry's objections. He shudders as the hollow cough shakes the feeble frame, and anxiously hovers over the boy, mothering him with unobtrusive tenderness.

At the first sign of spring, "Coz" conspires with me to procure for Harry the privilege of the yard. The consumptives are deprived of air, immured in the shop or block, and in the evening locked in the cells. In view of my long service and the shortness of my remaining time, the Inspectors have promised me fifteen minutes' exercise in the yard. I have not touched the soil since the discovery of the tunnel, in July 1900, almost four years ago. But Harry is in greater need of fresh air, and perhaps we shall be able to procure the privilege for him, instead. His health would improve, and in the meantime we will bring his case before the Pardon Board. It was an outrage to send him to the penitentiary, "Coz" asserts vehemently. "Harry was barely fourteen then, a mere child. Think of a judge who will give such a kid sixteen years! Why, it means death. But what can you expect! Remember the little boy who was sent here -- it was somewhere around '97 -- he was just twelve years old, and he didn't look more than ten. They brought him here in knickerbockers, and the fellows had to bend over double to keep in lockstep with him. He looked just like a baby in the line. The first pair of long pants he ever put on was stripes, and he was so frightened, he'd stand at the door and cry all the time. Well, they got ashamed of themselves after a while, and sent him away to some reformatory, but he spent about six months here then. Oh, what's the use talking," "Coz" concludes hopelessly; "it's a rotten world all right. But may be we can get Harry a pardon. Honest, Aleck, I feel as if he's my own child. We've been friends since the day he came in, and he's a good boy, only he never had a chance. Make a list, Aleck. I'll ask the Chaplain how much I've got in the office. I think it's twenty-two or may be twenty-three dollars. It's all for Harry."

The spring warms in to summer before the dime and quarter donations total the amount required by the attorney to carry Harry's case to the Pardon Board. But the sick boy is missing from the range. For weeks his dry, hacking cough resounded in the night, keeping the men awake, till at last the doctor ordered him transferred to the hospital. His place on the range has been taken by "Big Swede," a tall, sallow-faced man who shuffles along the hall, moaning in pain. The passing guards mimic him, and poke him jocularly in the ribs. "Hey, you! Get a move on, and quit your shammin'." He starts in affright; pressing both hands against his side, he shrinks at the officer's touch. "You fakir, we're next to you, all right." An uncomprehending, sickly smile spreads over the sere face, as he murmurs plaintively, "Yis, sir, me seek, very seek."

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