A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter XIV. A Voyage into the Unknown
After the Captain left him, Lermontoff closed and bolted the door, then sat down upon the edge of his bed to meditate upon the situation. He heard distant bells ringing on shore somewhere, and looking at his watch saw it was just eleven o'clock. It seemed incredible that three-quarters of an hour previously he had left the hospitable doors of a friend, and now was churning his way in an unknown steamer to an unknown destination. It appeared impossible that so much could have happened in forty-five minutes. He wondered what Drummond was doing, and what action he would take when he found his friend missing.
However, pondering over the matter brought no solution of the mystery, so, being a practical young man, he cast the subject from his mind, picked up his heavy overcoat, which he had flung on the bed, and hung it up on the hook attached to the door. As he did this his hand came in contact with a tube in one of the pockets, and for a moment he imagined it was his revolver, but he found it was the metal syringe he had purchased that evening from the chemist. This set his thoughts whirling in another direction. He took from an inside pocket one of the bottles of ozak, examining it under the candle light, wishing he had a piece of rock with which to experiment. Then with a yawn he replaced the materials in his overcoat pocket, took off his boots, and threw himself on the bed, thankful it was not an ordinary shelf bunk, but a generous and comfortable resting-place. Now Katherine appeared before his closed eyes, and hand in hand they wandered into dreamland together.
When he awoke it was pitch dark in his cabin. The candles, which he had neglected to extinguish, had burned themselves out. The short, jerky motion of the steamer indicated that he was aboard a small vessel, and that this small vessel was out in the open sea. He believed that a noise of some kind had awakened him, and this was confirmed by a knock at his door which caused him to spring up and throw back the bolt. The steward was there, but in the dim light of the passage he saw nothing of the sentinel. He knew it was daylight outside.
"The Captain, Excellency, wishes to know if you will breakfast with him or take your meal in your room?"
"Present my compliments to the Captain, and say I shall have great pleasure in breakfasting with him."
"It will be ready in a quarter of an hour, Excellency."
"Very good. Come for me at that time, as I don't know my way about the boat."
The Prince washed himself, smoothed out his rumpled clothes as well as he could, and put on his boots. While engaged in the latter operation the door opened, and the big Captain himself entered, inclosed in glistening oilskins.
"Hyvaa pyvaa, Highness," said the Captain. "Will you walk the deck before breakfast?"
"Good-day to you," returned the Prince, "and by your salutation I take you to be a Finn."
"I am a native of Abo," replied the Captain, "and as you say, a Finn, but I differ from many of my countrymen, as I am a good Russian also."
"Well, there are not too many good Russians, and here is one who would rather have heard that you were a good Finn solely."
"It is to prevent any mistake," replied the Captain, almost roughly, "that I mention I am a good Russian."
"Right you are, Captain, and as I am a good Russian also, perhaps good Russian Number One can tell me to what part of the world he is conveying good Russian Number Two, a man guiltless of any crime, and unwilling, at this moment, to take an enforced journey."
"We may both be good, but the day is not, Highness. It has been raining during the night, and is still drizzling. I advise you to put on your overcoat."
"Thanks, Captain, I will."
The Captain in most friendly manner took the overcoat from its hook, shook it out, and held it ready to embrace its owner. Lermontoff shoved right arm, then left, into the sleeves, hunched the coat up into place, and buttoned it at the throat.
"Again, Captain, my thanks. Lead the way and I will follow."
They emerged on deck into a dismal gray morning. No land or craft of any kind was in sight. The horizon formed a small, close circle round the ship. Clouds hung low, running before the wind, and bringing intermittently little dashes of rain that seemed still further to compress the walls of horizon. The sea was not what could be called rough, but merely choppy and fretful, with short waves that would not have troubled a larger craft. The steamer proved to be a small, undistinguished dingy-looking boat, more like a commercial tramp than a government vessel. An officer, apparently the mate, stood on the bridge, sinewy hands grasping the rail, peering ahead into the white mist that was almost a fog. The promenade deck afforded no great scope for pedestrianism, but Captain and prisoner walked back and forth over the restricted space, talking genially together as if they were old friends. Nevertheless there was a certain cautious guardedness in the Captain's speech; the wary craft of an unready man who is in the presence of a person more subtle than himself. The bluff Captain remembered he had been caught napping the night before, when, after refusing to tell the Prince the direction of the steamer, he had given himself away by mentioning the Gulf of Finland. Lermontoff noticed this reluctance to plunge into the abyss of free conversation, and so, instead of reassuring him he would ask no more questions, he merely took upon his own shoulders the burden of the talk, and related to the Captain certain wonders of London and New York.
The steward advanced respectfully to the Captain, and announced breakfast ready, whereupon the two men followed him into a saloon not much larger than the stateroom Lermontoff had occupied the night before, and not nearly so comfortably furnished. A plenteous breakfast was supplied, consisting principally of fish, steaming potatoes, black bread, and very strong tea. The Captain swallowed cup after cup of this scalding beverage, and it seemed to make him more and more genial as if it had been wine. Indeed, as time went on he forgot that it was a prisoner who sat before him, for quite innocently he said to the steward who waited on them:
"Have the poor devils below had anything to eat?"
"No orders, sir," replied the steward.
"Oh, well, give them something-- something hot. It may be their last meal," then turning, he met the gaze of the Prince, demanded roughly another cup of tea, and explained:
"Three of the crew took too much vodka in St. Petersburg yesterday."
The Prince nodded carelessly, as if he believed, and offered his open cigarette case to the Captain, who shook his head.
"I smoke a pipe," he growled.
The Captain rose with his lighted pipe, and together they went up on deck again. The Prince saw nothing more of the tall sentinel who had been his guard the night before, so without asking permission he took it for granted that his movements, now they were in the open sea, were unrestricted, therefore he walked up and down the deck smoking cigarettes. At the stroke of a bell the Captain mounted the bridge and the mate came down.
Suddenly out of the thickness ahead loomed up a great black British freighter making for St. Petersburg, as the Prince supposed. The two steamers, big and little, were so close that each was compelled to sheer off a bit; then the Captain turned on the bridge and seemed for a moment uncertain what to do with his prisoner. A number of men were leaning over the bulwarks of the British ship, and it would have been quite possible for the person on one boat to give a message to those on the other. The Prince, understanding the Captain's quandary, looked up at him and smiled, but made no attempt to take advantage of his predicament. Some one on board the English ship shouted and fluttered a handkerchief, whereupon the Prince waved his cigarette in the air, and the big boat disappeared in the thickness of the east.
Lermontoff walked the deck, thinking very seriously about his situation, and wondering where they intended to take him. If he were to be put in prison, it must be in some place of detention on the coast of Finland, which seemed strange, because he understood that the fortresses there were already filled with dissatisfied inhabitants of that disaffected land. His first impression had been that banishment was intended, and he had expected to be landed at some Swedish or German port, but a chance remark made by the Captain at breakfast inclined him to believe that there were other prisoners on board not quite so favorably treated as himself. But why should he be sent out of Russia proper, or even removed from St. Petersburg, which, he was well aware, suffered from no lack of gaols. The continued voyage of the steamer through an open sea again aroused the hope that Stockholm was the objective point. If they landed him there it merely meant a little temporary inconvenience, and, once ashore, he hoped to concoct a telegram so apparently innocent that it would win through to his friend, and give Drummond at least the knowledge of his abiding-place. The thought of Drummond aroused all his old fear that the Englishman was to be the real victim, and this enforced voyage was merely a convenient method of getting himself out of the way.
After lunch a dismal drizzle set in that presently increased to a steady downpour, which drove Lermontoff to his cabin, and that room being unprovided with either window or electric light, the Prince struck a match to one of the candles newly placed on the washstand. He pushed the electric button summoning the steward, and, giving him some money, asked if there was such a thing as a piece of stone on board, carried as ballast, or for any other reason. The steward said he would inquire, and finally returned with a sharpening stone used for the knives in the galley. Bolting his door, Lermontoff began an experiment, and at once forgot he was a prisoner. He filled the wash-basin with water, and opening one of the glass-stoppered bottles, took out with the point of his knife a most minute portion of the substance within, which he dissolved in the water with no apparent effect. Standing the whetstone up on end, he filled the glass syringe, and directed a fine, vaporous spray against the stone. It dissolved before his eyes as a sand castle on the shore dissolves at the touch of an incoming tide.
"By St. Peter of Russia!" he cried, "I've got it at last! I must write to Katherine about this."
Summoning the steward again to take away this fluid, and bring him another pailful of fresh water, Lermontoff endeavored to extract some information from the deferential young man.
"Have you ever been in Stockholm?"
"Or in any of the German ports?"
"Do you know where we are making for now?"
"Nor when we shall reach our destination?"
"You have some prisoners aboard?"
"Three drunken sailors, Excellency."
"Yes, that's what the Captain said. But if it meant death for a sailor to be drunk, the commerce of the world would speedily stop."
"This is a government steamer, Excellency, and if a sailor here disobeys orders he is guilty of mutiny. On a merchant vessel they would merely put him in irons."
"I see. Now do you want to earn a few gold pieces?"
"Excellency has been very generous to me already," was the non-committal reply of the steward, whose eyes nevertheless twinkled at the mention of gold.
"Well, here's enough to make a jingle in your pocket, and here are two letters which you are to try to get delivered when you return to St. Petersburg."
"You will do your best?"
"Well, if you succeed, I'll make your fortune when I'm released."
"Thank you, Excellency."
That night at dinner the Captain opened a bottle of vodka, and conversed genially on many topics, without touching upon the particular subject of liberty. He partook sparingly of the stimulant, and, to Lermontoff's disappointment, it did not in the least loosen his tongue, and thus, still ignorant of his fate, the Prince turned in for the second night aboard the steamer.
When he awoke next morning he found the engines had stopped, and, as the vessel was motionless, surmised it had reached harbor. He heard the intermittent chuck-chuck of a pony engine, and the screech of an imperfectly-oiled crane, and guessed that cargo was being put ashore.
"Now," he said to himself, "if my former sentinel is at the door they are going to take me to prison. If he is absent, I am to be set free."
He jumped up, threw back the bolt, opened the door. There was no one there. In a very few minutes he was on deck, and found that the steamer was lying in the lee of a huge rock, which reminded him of Mont St. Michel in Normandy, except that it was about half again as high, and three times as long, and that there were no buildings of any kind upon it, nor, indeed, the least sign of human habitation.
The morning was fine; in the east the sun had just risen, and was flooding the grim rock with a rosy light. Except this rock, no trace of land was visible as far as the eye could see. Alongside the steamer was moored a sailing-boat with two masts, but provided also with thole-pins, and sweeps for rowing. The sails were furled, and she had evidently been brought to the steamer's side by means of the oars. Into this craft the crane was lowering boxes, bags, and what-not, which three or four men were stowing away. The mate was superintending this transshipment, and the Captain, standing with his back against the deck-house, was handing one by one certain papers, which Lermontoff took to be bills of lading, to a young man who signed in a book for each he received. When this transaction was completed, the young man saluted the Captain, and descended over the ship's side to the sail-boat.
"Good morning, Captain. At anchor, I see," said Lermontoff.
"No, not at anchor. Merely lying here. The sea is too deep, and affords no anchorage at this point."
"Where are all these goods going?"
The Captain nodded his head at the rock, and Lermontoff gazed at it again, running his eyes from top to bottom without seeing any vestige of civilization.
"Then you lie to the lee of this rock, and the small boat takes the supplies ashore?"
"Exactly," said the Captain.
"The settlement, I take it, is on the other side. What is it-- a lighthouse?"
"There's no lighthouse," said the Captain.
"Sort of coastguard, then?"
"Yes, in a way. They keep a lookout. And now, Highness, I see your overcoat is on your back. Have you left anything in your room?"
The Prince laughed.
"No, Captain, I forgot to bring a portmanteau with me."
"Then I must say farewell to you here."
"What, you are not going to maroon me on this pebble in the ocean?"
"You will be well taken care of, Highness."
"What place is this?"
"It is called the Trogzmondoff, Highness, and the water surrounding you is the Baltic."
"Is it Russian territory?"
"Very, very Russian," returned the Captain drawing a deep breath. "This way, if your Highness pleases. There is a rope ladder, which is sometimes a little unsteady for a landsman, so be careful."
"Oh, I'm accustomed to rope ladders. Hyvasti, Captain."
"Hyvasti, your Highness."
And with this mutual good-by in Finnish, the Prince went down the swaying ladder.