A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter XVI. Cell Number Nine
As the sailing-boat cast off, and was shoved away from the side of the steamer, there were eight men aboard. Six grasped the oars, and the young clerk who had signed for the documents given to him by the Captain took the rudder, motioning Lermontoff to a seat beside him. All the forward part of the boat, and, indeed, the space well back toward the stern, was piled with boxes and bags.
"What is this place called?" asked the Prince, but the young steersman did not reply.
Tying the boat to iron rings at the small landing where the steps began, three of the men shipped their oars. Each threw a bag over his shoulder, walked up half a dozen steps and waited. The clerk motioned Lermontoff to follow, so he stepped on the shelf of rock and looked upward at the rugged stairway cut between the main island and an outstanding perpendicular ledge of rock. The steps were so narrow that the procession had to move up in Indian file; three men with bags, then the Prince and the clerk, followed by three more men with boxes. Lermontoff counted two hundred and thirty-seven steps, which brought him to an elevated platform, projecting from a doorway cut in the living rock, but shielded from all sight of the sea. The eastern sun shone through this doorway, but did not illumine sufficiently the large room whose walls, ceiling and floor were of solid stone. At the farther end a man in uniform sat behind a long table on which burned an oil lamp with a green shade. At his right hand stood a broad, round brazier containing glowing coals, after the Oriental fashion, and the officer was holding his two hands over it, and rubbing them together. The room, nevertheless, struck chill as a cellar, and Lermontoff heard a constant smothered roar of water.
The clerk, stepping forward and saluting, presented to the Governor seated there the papers and envelopes given him by the Captain. The officer selected a blue sheet of paper, and scrutinized it for a moment under the lamp.
"Where are the others?"
"We have landed first the supplies, Governor; then the boat will return for the others."
The Governor nodded, and struck a bell with his open palm. There entered a big man with a bunch of keys at his belt, followed by another who carried a lighted lantern.
"Number Nine," said the Governor to the gaolers.
"I beg your pardon, sir, am I a prisoner?" asked Lermontoff.
The Governor gave utterance to a sound that was more like the grunt of a pig than the ejaculation of a man. He did not answer, but looked up at the questioner, and the latter saw that his face, gaunt almost as that of a living skeleton, was pallid as putty.
"Number Nine," he repeated, whereupon the gaoler and the man with the lantern put a hand each on Lermontoff's shoulders, and marched him away. They walked together down a long passage, the swaying lantern casting its yellow rays on the iron bolts of door after door, until at last the gaoler stopped, threw back six bolts, inserted a key, unlocked the door, and pushed it ponderously open. The lantern showed it to be built like the door of a safe, but unlike that of a safe it opened inwards. As soon as the door came ajar Lermontoff heard the sound of flowing water, and when the three entered, he noticed a rapid little stream sparkling in the rays of the lantern at the further end of the cell. He saw a shelf of rock and a stone bench before it. The gaoler placed his hands on a black loaf, while the other held up the lantern.
"That will last you four days," said the gaoler.
"Well, my son, judging from the unappetizing look of it, I think it will last me much longer."
The gaoler made no reply, but he and the man with the lantern retired, drawing the door heavily after them. Lermontoff heard the bolts thrust into place, and the turn of the key; then silence fell, all but the babbling of the water. He stood still in the center of the cell, his hands thrust deep in the pockets of his overcoat, and, in spite of this heavy garment, he shivered a little.
"Jack, my boy," he muttered, "this is a new deal, as they say in the West. I can imagine a man going crazy here, if it wasn't for that stream. I never knew what darkness meant before. Well, let's find out the size of our kingdom."
He groped for the wall, and stumbling against the stone bench, whose existence he had forgotten, pitched head forward to the table, and sent the four-day loaf rolling on the floor. He made an ineffectual grasp after the loaf, fearing it might fall into the stream and be lost to him, but he could not find it, and now his designs for measuring the cell gave place to the desire of finding that loaf. He got down on his hands and knees, and felt the stone floor inch by inch for half an hour, as he estimated the time, but never once did he touch the bread.
"How helpless a man is in the dark, after all," he muttered to himself. "I must do this systematically, beginning at the edge of the stream."
On all fours he reached the margin of the rivulet, and felt his way along the brink till his head struck the opposite wall. He turned round, took up a position that he guessed was three feet nearer the door, and again traversed the room, becoming so eager in the search that he forgot for the moment the horror of his situation, just as, when engaged in a chemical experiment, everything else vanished from his mind, and thus after several journeys back and forth he was again reminded of the existence of the stone bench by butting against it when he knew he was still several feet from the wall. Rubbing his head, he muttered some unfavorable phrases regarding the immovable bench, then crawled round it twice, and resumed his transverse excursions. At last he reached the wall that held the door, and now with breathless eagerness rubbed his shoulder against it till he came to the opposite corner. He knew he had touched with knees and hands practically every square inch of space in the floor, and yet no bread.
"Now, that's a disaster," cried he, getting up on his feet, and stretching himself. "Still, a man doesn't starve in four days. I've cast my bread on the waters. It has evidently gone down the stream. Now, what's to hinder a man escaping by means of that watercourse? Still, if he did, what would be the use? He'd float out into the Baltic Sea, and if able to swim round the rock, would merely be compelled to knock at the front door and beg admission again. No, by Jove, there's the boat, but they probably guard it night and day, and a man in the water would have no chance against one in the boat. Perhaps there's gratings between the cells. Of course, there's bound to be. No one would leave the bed of a stream clear for any one to navigate. Prisoners would visit each other in their cells, and that's not allowed in any respectable prison. I wonder if there's any one next door on either side of me. An iron grid won't keep out the sound. I'll try," and going again to the margin of the watercourse, he shouted several times as loudly as he could, but only a sepulchral echo, as if from a vault, replied to him.
"I imagine the adjoining cells are empty. No enjoyable companionship to be expected here. I wonder if they've got the other poor devils up from the steamer yet. I'll sit down on the bench and listen."
He could have found the bench and shelf almost immediately by groping round the wall, but he determined to exercise his sense of direction, to pit himself against the darkness.
"I need not hurry," he said, "I may be a long time here."
In his mind he had a picture of the cell, but now that he listened to the water it seemed to have changed its direction, and he found he had to rearrange this mental picture, and make a different set of calculations to fit the new position. Then he shuffled slowly forward with hands outstretched, but he came to the wall, and not to the bench. Again he mapped out his route, again endeavored, and again failed.
"This is bewildering," he muttered. "How the darkness baffles a man. For the first time in my life I appreciate to the full the benediction of God's command, 'Let there be light.'"
He stood perplexed for a few moments, and, deeply thinking, his hands automatically performed an operation as the servants of habit. They took from his pocket his cigarette case, selected a tube of tobacco, placed it between his lips, searched another pocket, brought out a match-box, and struck a light. The striking of the match startled Lermontoff as if it had been an explosion; then he laughed, holding the match above his head, and there at his feet saw the loaf of black bread. It seemed as if somebody had twisted the room end for end. The door was where he thought the stream was, and thus he learned that sound gives no indication of direction to a man blindfolded. The match began to wane, and feverishly he lit his cigarette.
"Why didn't I think of the matches, and oh! what a pity I failed to fill my pockets with them that night of the Professor's dinner party! To think that matches are selling at this moment in Sweden two hundred and fifty for a halfpenny!"
Guided by the spark at the end of his cigarette, he sought the bench and sat down upon it. He was surprised to find himself so little depressed as was actually the case. He did not feel in the least disheartened. Something was going to happen on his behalf; of that he was quite certain. It was perfectly ridiculous that even in Russia a loyal subject, who had never done any illegal act in his life, a nobleman of the empire, and a friend of the Czar, should be incarcerated for long without trial, and even without accusation. He had no enemies that he knew of, and many friends, and yet he experienced a vague uneasiness when be remembered that his own course of life had been such that he would not be missed by his friends. For more than a year he had been in England, at sea, and in America, so much absorbed in his researches that he had written no private letters worth speaking of, and if any friend were asked his whereabouts, he was likely to reply:
"Oh, Lermontoff is in some German university town, or in England, or traveling elsewhere. I haven't seen him or heard of him for months. Lost in a wilderness or in an experiment, perhaps."
These unhappy meditations were interrupted by the clang of bolts. He thought at first it was his own door that was being opened, but a moment later knew it was the door of the next cell up-stream. The sound, of course, could not penetrate the extremely thick wall, but came through the aperture whose roof arched the watercourse. From the voices he estimated that several prisoners were being put into one cell, and he wondered whether or not he cared for a companion. It would all depend. If fellow-prisoners hated each other, their enforced proximity might prove unpleasant.
"We are hungry," he heard one say. "Bring us food."
The gaoler laughed.
"I will give you something to drink first."
"That's right," three voices shouted. "Vodka, vodka!"
Then the door clanged shut again, and he heard the murmur of voices in Russian, but could not make out what was said. One of the new prisoners, groping round, appeared to have struck the stone bench, as he himself had done. The man in the next cell swore coarsely, and Lermontoff, judging from such snatches of their conversation as he could hear that they were persons of a low order, felt no desire to make their more intimate acquaintance, and so did not shout to them, as he had intended to do. And now he missed something that had become familiar; thought it was a cigarette he desired, for the one he had lit had been smoked to his very lips, then he recognized it was the murmur of the stream that had ceased.
"Ah, they can shut it off," he said. "That's interesting. I must investigate, and learn whether or no there is communication between the cells. Not very likely, though."
He crawled on hands and knees until he came to the bed of the stream, which was now damp, but empty. Kneeling down in its course, he worked his way toward the lower cell, and, as he expected, came to stout iron bars. Crouching thus he sacrificed a second match, and estimated that the distance between the two cells was as much as ten feet of solid rock, and saw also that behind the perpendicular iron bars were another horizontal set, then another perpendicular, then a fourth horizontal.
While in this position he was startled by a piercing scream to the rear. He backed out from the tunnel and stood upright once more. He heard the sound of people splashing round in water. The screamer began to jabber like a maniac, punctuating his ravings with shrieks. Another was cursing vehemently, and a third appealing to the saints. Lermontoff quickly knelt down in the watercourse, this time facing the upper cell, and struck his third match. He saw that a steel shield, reminding him of the thin shutter between the lenses of a camera, had been shot across the tunnel behind the second group of cross bars, and as an engineer be could not but admire the skill of the practical expert who had constructed this diabolical device, for in spite of the pressure on the other side, hardly a drop of water oozed through. He tried to reach this shield, but could not. It was just beyond the touch of his fingers, with his arm thrust through the two sets of bars, but if he could have stretched that far, with the first bar retarding his shoulder, he knew his hand would be helpless even if he had some weapon to puncture the steel shield. The men would be drowned before he could accomplish anything unless he was at the lever in the passage outside.
Crawling into his cell again he heard no more of the chatter and cries of the maniac, and he surmised that the other two were fighting for places on bench or shelf, which was amply large enough to have supported both, had they not been too demented with fear to recognize that fact. The cursing man was victorious, and now he stood alone on the shelf, roaring maledictions. Then there was the sound of a plunge, and Lermontoff, standing there, helpless and shivering, heard the prisoner swim round and round his cell like a furious animal, muttering and swearing.
"Don't exhaust yourself like that," shouted Lermontoff. "If you want to live, cling to the hole at either of the two upper corners. The water can't rise above you then, and you can breathe till it subsides."
The other either did not hear, or did not heed, but tore round and round in his confined tank, thrashing the water like a dying whale.
"Poor devil," moaned Jack. "What's the use of telling him what to do. He is doomed in any case. The other two are now better off."
A moment later the water began to dribble through the upper aperture into Jack's cell, increasing and increasing until there was the roar of a waterfall, and he felt the cold splashing drops spurt against him. Beyond this there was silence. It was perhaps ten minutes after that the lever was pulled, and the water belched forth from the lower tunnel like a mill race broken loose, temporarily flooding the floor so that Jack was compelled to stand on the bench.
He sunk down shivering on the stone shelf, laid his arms on the stone pillow, and buried his face in them.
"My God, my God!" he groaned.