If any asked the student, which
He thought the prettiest among
A score of Moscow school-girls, “Young
And gentle Vera Sassulitch,”
He answered with a ready tongue.
Netchaieff was the student named,
And Vera and his sister moved
In the same social grade, and loved
Each other, and the student claimed
The heart of Vera unreproved.
But oft Netchaieffs mind was bent—
With passion which to youth belongs—
Upon the many cruel wrongs
Of a despotic Government,
Deriding it in tales and songs.
And some of these to Vera given,
Around her drew the fatal coil
Of eager spies, whose hateful toil
Already had the student driven
For ever from his native soil.
And Vera, only seventeen,
A maiden spotless as the snow—
Still troubled by the heavy blow
Of broken love, which youth is keen
To feel, in all its bitter woe—
Suspected by the grim police,
Despite her innocence, her tears,
To satisfy a despot’s fears
Was dragged from home and love and peace,
To pine in prison two long years.
There time rolled, like a viewless sea,
In breaking waves of nights and days,
And dull, monotonous prison ways;
And not a face did Vera see
Save the stern jailor’s sphinx-like gaze.
The clanking of the shouldered gun,
The sentinel’s unfailing stride,
The wind blown through the courtyard wide,
Free, while of freedom there was none
For any human soul inside:
The striking of the fortress clock,
Making the weary prisoner weep-
So many hours remained ‘ere sleep
Would come, her sinking heart to mock
With dreams of home, in slumber deep—
Such was her life; and Vera strove
To guess what purpose there could be
In robbing her of liberty,
And gentle friends, and holy love—
And when the jailor turned the key
At night and morn to bring her food,
From day to day, from year to year,
She questioned him with many a tear—
“If you are human flesh and blood,
Tell me, why am I lingering here?”
But silent as the blocks of stone
Of which the fortress walls were built,
Where many a patriot’s blood was spilt,
He answered not a single tone,
And left her ignorant of guilt.
At length (in secret, as of old
They brought her to the dreary cell)
One night, when the slow prison bell
The Janitor’s approach foretold,
On her astonished ears there fell
The magic sentence, “You are free!”
No reason could her tyrants find
Longer a simple girl to bind;
And Vera gained her liberty
To pacify the public mind.
Soothed by a tender mother’s care,
A glimpse of happiness returned—
New life within her bosom burned,
With wholesome food and pleasant air;
And not a cloud could be discerned
O’er those brief days of freedom, rich
In love and tenderness, and blest
With simple joys and needed rest,
When fated Vera Sassulitch
Once more was taken in arrest;
But a “paternal Government,”
Fearing the wrath of honest men,
Or sting of democratic pen,
Resolved upon her banishment
Afar beyond the public ken.
Therefore, one leaden wintry day—
Giving no time for fond caress,
For parting word, or change of dress—
They bore her many a league away,
To spend her days in loneliness.
The frost was keen, she scarce could stir,
And might have perished of the cold,
But pity, dear to Christ of old,
Touched the rude soldiers guarding her—
Would that in characters of gold
I might the simple record tell!
How, with pure, sacred, human love—
Love such as cynics scarce reprove,
Love which, from earth whereon we dwell,
Doth many a heavy yoke remove—
A soldier covered Vera warm,
In his own furs, against the blast,
As o’er the frozen wastes they passed;
And, after weeks of snow and storm,
They reached the exile’s home at last.
A rouble and a book in French,
A tiny box of homely sweets—
A remnant of her school-girl treats—
Was all her store. Well might she blench,
Thus cast adrift in lonely streets,
Beneath a wintry northern sky,
Ill clad, to wander o’er the snow,
And watched wherever she might go
By sleepless iron tyranny,
Indifferent to human woe.
Thus Vera, friendless and unhoused,
With bitter want and bitter tears,
In exile passed eleven years,
Until her very soul was roused
To trample on her woman’s fears.
Her own distresses she had borne
As meekly as a cloistered nun,
And her unhappy fate had won
Pity from people as forlorn
As any underneath the sun.
But Vera had an honoured friend
With whom, when youth was in its flower,
She often passed a blissful hour;
He, daring boldly to contend
With some extreme abuse of power,
Soon with authority at odds,
And marked by the detested race
Of spies, was in a public place
Scourged, like the vilest slave, with rods,
And scarce survived the foul disgrace,
Not woman, but avenger now,
Vera appeared to feel the blows
Dealt to her friend, and fiercely rose,
With sacred wrath upon her brow,
The cruel tyrants to oppose.
The instigator of the wrong,
Of which none dared to speak aloud,
Was Trepoff, insolent and proud—
Ever with fetter, brand, and thong
Striving to quell the timid crowd.
Without a thought, or plan, or plot,
None giving counsel or advice,
Without considering the price
The act might cost her, Vera shot
The hated chief of the police!
He was but wounded—Vera’s aim
Was not intended for his heart,
She only sought in hovel, mart,
And palace, to awake the claim
Of justice, and thus bore her part;
And made no effort to obtain
Her freedom when they came to seize
Their victim, binding her with ease,
And to the gloomy cells again
Taking her by the law’s decrees.
But, spite of despots, holy truth
Had pierced the sullen prison wall,
And bolder tongues began to call
For justice. Vera’s wrongs, her youth,
Her provocation, touched them all.
And when, to the Tribunal brought,
Her advocate the story told
With simple truth and accents bold,
And swiftly, eloquently wrought
Upon the hearts of young and old,
Telling the poor excuse for which
(When little older than a child)
A jealous Government exiled
Unhappy Vera Sassulitch,
Into the chill Siberian wild:
The jurors, through oppression bold,
Acquitted her, and students leapt,
And workmen cheered, and women wept,
As through the streets the tale was told,
When Vera from the prison stept,
Quitting the fortress that glad morn,
Welcomed by thousands, rich and poor;
Yet ‘ere she reached her mother’s door,
Again she was from freedom torn,
And saw her peaceful home no more!
What dreams of vengeance since have filled
The heart of Vera few can tell;
Yet this we know, that freedom’s spell,
Until life’s latest pulse is stilled,
Will strife with tyranny compel.
Whether amid Siberian snows,
Or exiled far beyond the sea,
She yet may wander sad but free,
Or in the grave may find repose,
Her name a household word will be!
Poems: Grave and Gay (London: Tinsley, Brothers, 1880): 65-74.