A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter XII. The Dreaded Trogzmondoff
The Nihilist was shown into the dainty drawing room of the flat, and found Dorothy Amhurst alone, as he had stipulated, waiting for him. He was dressed in a sort of naval uniform and held a peaked cap in his hand, standing awkwardly there as one unused to luxurious surroundings. His face was bronzed with exposure to sun and storm, and although he appeared to be little more than thirty years of age his closely cropped hair was white. His eyes were light blue, and if ever the expression of a man's countenance betokened stalwart honesty, it was the face of this sailor. He was not in the least Dorothy's idea of a dangerous plotter.
"Sit down," she said, and he did so like a man ill at ease.
"I suppose Johnson is not your real name," she began.
"It is the name I bear in America, Madam."
"Do you mind my asking you some questions?"
"No, Madam, but if you ask me anything I am not allowed to answer I shall not reply."
"How long have you been in the United States?"
"Only a few months, Madam."
"How come you to speak English so well?"
"In my young days I shipped aboard a bark plying between Helsingfors and New York."
"You are a Russian?"
"I am a Finlander, Madam."
"Have you been a sailor all your life?"
"Yes, Madam. For a time I was an unimportant officer on board a battleship in the Russian Navy, until I was discovered to be a Nihilist, when I was cast into prison. I escaped last May, and came to New York."
"What have you been doing since you arrived here?"
"I was so fortunate as to become mate on the turbine yacht 'The Walrus,' owned by Mr. Stockwell."
"Oh, that's the multi-millionaire whose bank failed a month ago?"
"But does he still keep a yacht?"
"No, Madam. I think he has never been aboard this one, although it is probably the most expensive boat in these waters. I am told it cost anywhere from half a million to a million. She was built by Thornycroft, like a cruiser, with Parson's turbine engines in her. After the failure, Captain and crew were discharged, and I am on board as a sort of watchman until she is sold, but there is not a large market for a boat like 'The Walrus,' and I am told they will take the fittings out of her, and sell her as a cruiser to one of the South American republics."
"Well, Mr. Johnson, you ought to be a reliable man, if the Court has put you in charge of so valuable a property."
"I believe I am considered honest, Madam."
"Then why do you come to me asking ten thousand dollars for a letter which you say was written to me, and which naturally belongs to me?"
The man's face deepened into a mahogany brown, and he shifted his cap uneasily in his hands.
"Madam, I am not acting for myself. I am Secretary of the Russian Liberation Society. They, through their branch at St. Petersburg, have conducted some investigations on your behalf."
"Yes, for which I paid them very well."
"Our object, Madam, is the repression of tyranny. For that we are in continual need of money. It is the poor, and not the millionaires, who subscribe to our fund. It has been discovered that you are a rich woman, who will never miss the money asked, and so the demand was made. Believe me, Madam, I am acting by the command of my comrades. I tried to persuade them to leave compensation to your own generosity, but they refused. If you consider their demand unreasonable, you have but to say so, and I will return and tell them your decision."
"Have you brought the letter with you?"
"Must I agree to your terms before seeing it?"
"Have you read it?"
"Do you think it worth ten thousand dollars?"
The sailor looked up at the decorated ceiling for several moments before he replied.
"That is a question I cannot answer," he said at last. "It all depends on what you think of the writer."
"Answer one more question. By whom is the letter signed?"
"There is no signature, Madam. It was found in the house where the two young men lived. Our people searched the house from top to bottom surreptitiously, and they think the writer was arrested before he had finished the letter. There is no address, and nothing to show for whom it is intended, except the phrase beginning, 'My dearest Dorothy.'"
The girl leaned back in her chair, and drew a long breath. "It is not for me," she said, hastily; then bending forward, she cried suddenly:
"I agree to your terms: give it to me."
The man hesitated, fumbling in his inside pocket.
"I was to get your promise in writing," he demurred.
"Give it to me, give it to me," she demanded. "I do not break my word."
He handed her the letter.
"My dearest Dorothy," she read, in writing well known to her. "You may judge my exalted state of mind when you see that I dare venture on such a beginning. I have been worrying myself and other people all to no purpose. I have received a letter from Jack this morning, and so suspicious had I grown that for a few moments I suspected the writing was but an imitation of his. He is a very impulsive fellow, and can think of only one thing at a time, which accounts for his success in the line of invention. He was telegraphed to that his sister was ill, and left at once to see her. I had allowed my mind to become so twisted by my fears for his safety that, as I tell you, I suspected the letter to be counterfeit at first. I telegraphed to his estate, and received a prompt reply saying that his sister was much better, and that he was already on his way back, and would reach me at eleven to-night. So that's what happens when a grown man gets a fit of nerves. I drew the most gloomy conclusions from the fact that I had been refused admission to the Foreign Office and the Admiralty. Yesterday that was all explained away. The business is at last concluded, and I was shown copies of the letters which have been forwarded to my own chiefs at home. Nothing could be more satisfactory. To-morrow Jack and I will be off to England together.
"My dearest Dorothy (second time of asking), I am not a rich man, but then, in spite of your little fortune of Bar Harbor, you are not a rich woman, so we stand on an equality in that, even though you are so much my superior in everything else. I have five hundred pounds a year, which is something less than two thousand five hundred dollars, left me by my father. This is independent of my profession. I am very certain I will succeed in the Navy now that the Russian Government has sent those letters, so, the moment I was assured of that, I determined to write and ask you to be my wife. Will you forgive my impatience, and pander to it by cabling to me at the Bluewater Club, Pall Mall, the word 'Yes' or the word 'Undecided'? I shall not allow you the privilege of cabling 'No.' And please give me a chance of pleading my case in person, if you use the longer word. Ah, I hear Jack's step on the stair. Very stealthily he is coming, to surprise me, but I'll surprise--"
Here the writing ended. She folded the letter, and placed it in her desk, sitting down before it.
"Shall I make the check payable to you, or to the Society?"
"To the Society, if you please, Madam."
"I shall write it for double the amount asked. I also am a believer in liberty."
"Oh, Madam, that is a generosity I feel we do not deserve. I should like to have given you the letter after all you have done for us with no conditions attached."
"I am quite sure of that," said Dorothy, bending over her writing. She handed him the check, and he rose to go.
"Sit down again, if you please. I wish to talk further with you. Your people in St. Petersburg think my friends have not been sent to Siberia? Are they sure of that?"
"Well, Madam, they have means of knowing those who are transported, and they are certain the two young men were not among the recent gangs sent. They suppose them to be in the fortress of 'St. Peter and St. Paul', at least that's what they say."
"You speak as if you doubted it."
"I do doubt it."
"They have been sent to Siberia after all?"
"Ah, Madam, there are worse places than Siberia. In Siberia there is a chance: in the dreadful Trogzmondoff there is none."
"What is the Trogzmondoff?"
"A bleak 'Rock in the Baltic,' Madam, the prison in which death is the only goal that releases the victim."
Dorothy rose trembling, staring at him, her lips white.
"'A Rock in the Baltic!' Is that a prison, and not a fortress, then?"
"It is both prison and fortress, Madam. If Russia ever takes the risk of arresting a foreigner, it is to the Trogzmondoff he is sent. They drown the victims there; drown them in their cells. There is a spring in the rock, and through the line of cells it runs like a beautiful rivulet, but the pulling of a lever outside stops the exit of the water, and drowns every prisoner within. The bodies are placed one by one on a smooth, inclined shute of polished sandstone, down which this rivulet runs so they glide out into space, and drop two hundred feet into the Baltic Sea. No matter in what condition such a body is found, or how recent may have been the execution, it is but a drowned man in the Baltic. There are no marks of bullet or strangulation, and the currents bear them swiftly away from the rock."
"How come you to know all this which seems to have been concealed from the rest of the world?"
"I know it, Madam, for the best of reasons. I was sentenced this very year to Trogzmondoff. In my youth trading between Helsingfors and New York, I took out naturalization papers in New York, because I was one of the crew on an American ship. When they illegally impressed me at Helsingfors and forced me to join the Russian Navy, I made the best of a bad bargain, and being an expert seaman, was reasonably well treated, and promoted, but at last they discovered I was in correspondence with a Nihilist circle in London, and when I was arrested, I demanded the rights of an American citizen. That doomed me. I was sent, without trial, to the Trogzmondoff in April of this year. Arriving there I was foolish enough to threaten, and say my comrades had means of letting the United States Government know, and that a battleship would teach the gaolers of the rock better manners.
"The cells hewn in the rock are completely dark, so I lost all count of time. You might think we would know night from day by the bringing in of our meals, but such was not the case. The gaoler brought in a large loaf of black bread, and said it was to serve me for four days. He placed the loaf on a ledge of rock about three feet from the floor, which served as both table and bed. In excavating the cell this ledge had been left intact, with a bench of stone rising from the floor opposite. Indeed, so ingenious had been the workmen who hewed out this room that they carved a rounded stone pillow at one end of the shelf.
"I do not know how many days I had been in prison when the explosion occurred. It made the whole rock quiver, and I wondered what had happened. Almost immediately afterward there seemed to be another explosion, not nearly so harsh, which I thought was perhaps an echo of the first. About an hour later my cell door was unlocked, and the gaoler, with another man holding a lantern, came in. My third loaf of black bread was partly consumed, so I must have been in prison nine or ten days. The gaoler took the loaf outside, and when he returned. I asked him what had happened. He answered in a surly fashion that my American warship had fired at the rock, and that the rock had struck back, whereupon she sailed away, crippled."
Dorothy, who had been listening intently to this discourse, here interrupted with:
"It was an English war-ship that fired the shell, and the Russian shot did not come within half a mile of her."
The sailor stared at her in wide-eyed surprise.
"You see, I have been making inquiries," she explained. "Please go on."
"I never heard that it was an English ship. The gaoler sneered at me, and said he was going to send me after the American vessel, as I suppose he thought it was. I feared by his taking away of the bread that it was intended to starve me to death, and was sorry I had not eaten more at my last meal. I lay down on the shelf of rock, and soon fell asleep. I was awakened by the water lapping around me. The cell was intensely still. Up to this I had always enjoyed the company of a little brook that ran along the side of the cell farthest from the door. Its music had now ceased, and when I sprang up I found myself to the waist in very cold water. I guessed at once the use of the levers outside the cell in the passage which I had noticed in the light of the lantern on the day I entered the place, and I knew now why it was that the prison door was not pierced by one of those gratings which enable the gaoler in the passage to look into the cell any time of night or day. Prisoners have told me that the uncertainty of an inmate who never knew when he might be spied upon added to the horror of the situation, but the water-tight doors of the Trogzmondoff are free from this feature, and for a very sinister reason.
"The channel in the floor through which the water runs when the cell is empty, and the tunnel at the ceiling through which the water flows when the cell is full, give plenty of ventilation, no matter how tightly the door may he closed. The water rose very gradually until it reached the top outlet, then its level remained stationary. I floated on the top quite easily, with as little exertion as was necessary to keep me in that position. If I raised my head, my brow struck the ceiling. The next cell to mine, lower down, was possibly empty. I heard the water pour into it like a little cataract. The next cell above, and indeed all the cells in that direction were flooded like my own. Of course it was no trouble for me to keep afloat; my only danger was that the intense coldness of the water would numb my body beyond recovery. Still, I had been accustomed to hardships of that kind before now, in the frozen North. At last the gentle roar of the waterfall ceased, and I realized my cell was emptying itself. When I reached my shelf again, I stretched my limbs back and forth as strenuously as I could, and as silently, for I wished no sound to give any hint that I was still alive, if, indeed, sound could penetrate to the passage, which is unlikely. Even before the last of the water had run away from the cell, I lay stretched out at full length on the floor, hoping I might have steadiness enough to remain death-quiet when the men came in with the lantern. I need have had no fear. The door was opened, one of the men picked me up by the heels, and, using my legs as if they were the shafts of a wheelbarrow, dragged me down the passage to the place where the stream emerged from the last cell, and into this torrent he flung me. There was one swift, brief moment of darkness, then I shot, feet first, into space, and dropped down, down, down through the air like a plummet, into the arms of my mother."
"Into what?" cried Dorothy, white and breathless, thinking the recital of these agonies had turned the man's brain.
"The Baltic, Madam, is the Finlander's mother. It feeds him in life, carries him whither he wishes to go, and every true Finlander hopes to die in her arms. The Baltic seemed almost warm after what I had been through, and the taste of the salt on my lips was good. It was a beautiful starlight night in May, and I floated around the rock, for I knew that in a cove on the eastern side, concealed from all view of the sea, lay a Finland fishing-boat, a craft that will weather any storm, and here in the water was a man who knew how to handle it. Prisoners are landed on the eastern side, and such advantage is taken of the natural conformation of this precipitous rock, that a man climbing the steep zigzag stairway which leads to the inhabited portion is hidden from sight of any craft upon the water even four or five hundred yards away. Nothing seen from the outside gives any token of habitation. The fishing-boat, I suppose, is kept for cases of emergency, that the Governor may communicate with the shore if necessary. I feared it might be moored so securely that I could not unfasten it. Security had made them careless, and the boat was tied merely by lines to rings in the rock, the object being to keep her from bruising her sides against the stone, rather than to prevent any one taking her away. I pushed her out into the open, got quietly inside, and floated with the swift tide, not caring to raise a sail until I was well out of gunshot distance. Once clear of the rock I spread canvas, and by daybreak was long out of sight of land. I made for Stockholm, and there being no mark or name on the boat to denote that it belonged to the Russian Government, I had little difficulty in selling it. I told the authorities what was perfectly true: that I was a Finland sailor escaping from the tyrant of my country, and anxious to get to America. As such events are happening practically every week along the Swedish coast I was not interfered with, and got enough money from the sale of the boat to enable me to dress myself well, and take passage to England, and from there first-class to New York on a regular liner.
"Of course I could have shipped as a sailor from Stockholm easy enough, but I was tired of being a common sailor, and expected, if I was respectably clothed, to get a better position than would otherwise be the case. This proved true, for crossing the ocean I became acquainted with Mr. Stockwell, and he engaged me as mate of his yacht. That's how I escaped from the Trogzmondoff, Madam, and I think no one but a Finlander could have done it."
"I quite agree with you," said Dorothy. "You think these two men I have been making inquiry about have been sent to the Trogzmondoff?"
"The Russian may not be there, Madam, but the Englishman is sure to be there."
"Is the cannon on the western side of the rock?"
"I don't know, Madam. I never saw the western side by daylight. I noticed nothing on the eastern side as I was climbing the steps, to show that any cannon was on the Trogzmondoff at all."
"I suppose you had no opportunity of finding out how many men garrison the rock?"
"No, Madam. I don't think the garrison is large. The place is so secure that it doesn't need many men to guard it. Prisoners are never taken out for exercise, and, as I told you, they are fed but once in four days."
"How large a crew can 'The Walrus' carry?"
"Oh, as many as you like, Madam. The yacht is practically an ocean liner."
"Is there any landing stage on the eastern side of the rock?"
"Practically none, Madam. The steamer stood out, and I was landed in the cove I spoke of at the foot of the stairway."
"It wouldn't be possible to bring a steamer like 'The Walrus' alongside the rock, then?"
"It would be possible in calm weather, but very dangerous even then."
"Could you find that rock if you were in command of a ship sailing the Baltic?"
"Oh, yes, Madam."
"If twenty or thirty determined men were landed on the stairway, do you think they could capture the garrison?"
"Yes, if they were landed secretly, but one or two soldiers at the top with repeating rifles might hold the stairway against an army, while their ammunition lasted."
"But if a shell were fired from the steamer, might not the attacking company get inside during the confusion among the defenders?"
"That is possible, Madam, but a private steamer firing shells, or, indeed, landing a hostile company, runs danger of meeting the fate of a pirate."
"You would not care to try it, then?"
"I? Oh, I should be delighted to try it, if you allow me to select the crew. I can easily get aboard the small arms and ammunition necessary, but I am not so sure about the cannon."
"Very good. I need not warn you to be extremely cautious regarding those you take into your confidence. Meanwhile, I wish you to communicate with the official who is authorized to sell the yacht. I am expecting a gentleman to-morrow in whose name the vessel will probably be bought, and I am hoping he will accept the captaincy of it."
"Is he capable of filling that position, Madam? Is he a sailor?"
"He was for many years captain in the United States Navy. I offer you the position of mate, but I will give you captain's pay, and a large bonus in addition if you faithfully carry out my plans, whether they prove successful or not. I wish you to come here at this hour to-morrow, with whoever is authorized to sell or charter the steamer. You may say I am undecided whether to buy or charter. I must consult Captain Kempt on that point."
"Thank you, Madam, I shall be here this time to-morrow."