A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter XVIII. Cell Number One
Cell Number One was a great improvement on Number Nine. There was no shelf of rock, or stone bench, but a cot bed in the corner, a table, and a wooden chair. The living spring issued from the living rock in a corner of the room. When the gaoler and his assistant had retired and shoved in the outside bolts, Jack lit his candle and a cigarette, feeling almost happy. He surveyed the premises now with more care. The bed was of iron and fastened to the floor. On the top of it was a mattress, a pillow, and a pair of blankets. At its head a little triangular shelf of rock had been left in the corner, and on this reposed a basin of tin, while a coarse piece of sacking took the place of a towel. Jack threw off his overcoat and flung it on the bed, intent on a satisfactory wash. He heard something jingle in the pockets, and forgetting for the moment what it could possibly be, thrust his hand in, and pulled out a glass-stoppered bottle of ozak. He held it out at arm's length, and stared at it for some moments like a man hypnotized.
"Holy Saint Peter!" he cried, "to think that I should have forgotten this!"
He filled the tin basin with water, and placed it on the table. Again he dissolved a minute portion of the chemical, and again filled the syringe.
"I must leave no marks on the wall that may arouse attention," he said, and taking the full syringe to the arch over the torrent, and placing the candle on the floor beside him, he gently pushed in the piston. The spray struck the rock, and the rock dissolved slightly but perceptibly. Coming back to the table he stood for a few minutes in deep thought. Although the cot bed was fixed to the floor, and although it was possible that the shelf in the next cell coincided with its position, the risk of discovery was too great to cut a passage between the two cells there. The obvious spot to attack was the interior of the tunnel through which the streamlet ran, but Jack, testing the temperature of the water with his hand, doubted his physical ability to remain in that ice-cold current more than a few minutes at a time, and if he worked in the tunnel he would be all but submerged. He feared he would perish with cold and cramp before he had made any impression on the rock.
To the edge of the stream he drew the table, and, mounting it, examined the upper orifice through which the water escaped when the cell was full. He found he could stand on the table and work in comfort until he had excavated sufficient rock to allow him to clamber into the upper tunnel and so continue his operations. The water he used would flow through the tunnel, and down to the main stream in the next cell. All he had to do was to dissolve a semi-circular hole in the rock that would bend round the end of those steel bars, and enter the tunnel again on the other side. Eager to be at work, he took the full basin, shoved it far along the tunnel until it was stopped by the bars, then, placing his candle beside it, and standing on the table, he began operations.
The limestone, under the influence of the spray, dissolved very slowly, and by the time the basin of water was exhausted, all the effect visible under the light of the candle was an exceedingly slight circular impression which was barely visible to the naked eye.
"I must make the solution stronger, I think," he said, grievously disappointed at the outcome of his labors, and as he looked at it he heard the clank of the withdrawing bolts. Blowing out the candle he sprang to the floor of the cell, picked up the table, set it down in the center of the room, groped for the chair, and sat down, his heart palpitating wildly at the fear of discovery.
Followed as usual by the man with the lantern, the gaoler came in, carrying a bowl of hot steaming soup, which he placed on the table, then he took from his pocket a spoon, a small hunk of black bread, and a piece of cheese. In the light of the lantern Lermontoff consulted his watch, and found it was six o'clock. The gaoler took the lantern from his assistant, held it high, and looked round the room, while Lermontoff gazed at him in anxiety, wondering whether that brutal looking official suspected anything. Apparently he did not, but merely wished to satisfy himself that everything was in order, for he said more mildly than he had hitherto spoken:
"It is a long time since any one occupied this cell."
Then his eye rested on the vacant corner shelf.
"Ah, Excellency," he continued, "pardon me, I have forgotten. I must bring you a basin."
"I'd rather you brought me a candle," said Lermontoff nonchalantly, although his lips were dry, and he moistened them as he spoke; then, to learn whether money was valueless on the rock, as the Governor had intimated, he drew from his pocket one of the remaining gold pieces, glad that he happened to have so many, and slipped it into the palm of the gaoler's hand, whose fingers clutched it as eagerly as if he were in St. Petersburg.
"I think a candle can be managed, Excellency. Shall I bring a cup?"
"I wish you would."
The door was again locked and bolted, but before Lermontoff had finished his soup, and bread and cheese, it was opened again. The gaoler placed a tin basin, similar to the former one, on the ledge, put a candle and a candle-stick on the table, and a tin cup beside them.
"I thought there was no part of Russia where bribery was extinct," said the Prince to himself, as the door closed again for the night.
After supper Lermontoff again shined his table, stood upon it, lit his candle, and resumed his tunnelling, working hard until after midnight. His progress was deplorably slow, and the spraying of the rock proved about as tiring a task as ever he had undertaken. His second basin-full of solution was made a little stronger, but without perceptible improvement, in its effect. On ceasing operations for the night he found himself in a situation common to few prisoners, that of being embarrassed with riches. He possessed two basins, and one of them must be concealed. Of course he might leave his working basin in the upper tunnel where it had rested when the gaoler had brought in his supper, but he realized that at any moment the lantern's rays might strike its shining surface, and so bring on an investigation of the upper tunnel, certain to prove the destruction of his whole scheme. A few minutes thought, however, solved the problem admirably: he placed the basin face downwards in the rapid stream which swept it to the iron bars between the two cells, and there it lay quite concealed with the swift water rippling over it. This done, he flung off his clothes, and got into bed, not awakening until the gaoler and his assistant brought in bread, cheese and coffee for breakfast.
The next day he began to feel the inconveniences of the Governor's friendship, and wished he were safely back to the time when one loaf lasted four days, for if such were now the case, he would be free of the constant state of tension which the ever-recurring visits of the gaoler caused. He feared that some day he might become so absorbed in his occupation that he would not hear the withdrawing of the bolt, and thus, as it were, be caught in the act.
Shortly after lunch the Governor sent for him, and asked many questions pertaining to the running of the dynamo. Lermontoff concealed his impatience, and set about his instructions with exemplary earnestness. Russian text books on electricity at hand were of the most rudimentary description, and although the Governor could speak German he could not read it, so the two volumes he possessed in that language were closed to him. Therefore John was compelled to begin at the very A B C of the science.
The Governor, however, became so deeply interested that he momentarily forgot his caution, unlocked a door, and took Lermontoff into a room which he saw was the armory and ammunition store-house of the prison. On the floor of this chamber the Governor pointed out a large battery of accumulators, and asked what they were for. Lermontoff explained the purposes of the battery, meanwhile examining it thoroughly, and finding that many of the cells had been all but ruined in transit, through the falling away of the composition in the grids. Something like half of the accumulators, however, were intact and workable; these he uncoupled and brought into the dynamo room, where he showed the Governor the process of charging. He saw in the store room a box containing incandescent lamps, coils of silk-covered wire and other material that made his eyes glisten with delight. He spoke in German.
"If you will give me a coil of this wire, one or two of the lamps, and an accumulator, or indeed half a dozen of them, I will trouble you no more for candles."
The Governor did not reply at the moment, but a short time after asked Lermontoff in Russian how long it would be before the accumulators were charged. Lermontoff stated the time, and the Governor told the gaoler to bring the prisoner from the cell at that hour, and so dismissed his instructor.
One feature of this interview which pleased Lermontoff was that however much the Governor became absorbed in these lessons, he never allowed himself to remain alone with his prisoner. It was evident that in his cooler moments the Governor had instructed the gaoler and his assistant to keep ever at the heels of the Prince and always on the alert. Two huge revolvers were thrust underneath the belt of the gaoler, and the lantern-holder, was similarly armed. Lermontoff was pleased with this, for if the Governor had trusted him entirely, even though he demanded no verbal parole, it would have gone against his grain to strike down the chief as he ruthlessly intended to do when the time was ripe for it, and in any case, he told himself, no matter how friendly the Governor might be, he had the misfortune to stand between his prisoner and liberty.
Lermontoff was again taken from his cell about half an hour before the time he had named for the completion of the charging, and although the Governor said nothing of his intention, the gaoler and his man brought to the cell six charged batteries, a coil of wire, and a dozen lamps. Lermontoff now changed his working methods. He began each night as soon as he had finished dinner, and worked till nearly morning, sleeping all day except when interrupted by the gaoler. Jack, following the example of Robinson Crusoe, attempted to tie knots on the tail of time by cutting notches with his knife on the leg of the table, but most days he forgot to perform this operation, and so his wooden almanac fell hopelessly out of gear. He estimated that he had been a little more than a week in prison when he heard by the clang of the bolts that the next cell was to have an occupant.
"I must prepare a welcome for him," he said, and so turned out the electric light at the end of the long flexible wire. He had arranged a neat little switch of the accumulator, and so snapped the light on and off at his pleasure, without the trouble of unscrewing the nuts which held in place one of the copper ends of the wire. Going to the edge of the stream and lighting his candle, he placed the glass bulb in the current, paid out the flexible line attached to it, and allowed the bulb to run the risk of being smashed against the iron bars of the passage, but the little globe negotiated the rapids without even a perceptible clink, and came to rest in the bed of the torrent somewhere about the center of the next cell, tugging like a fish on a hook. Then Jack mounted the table, leaned into the upper tunnel, and listened.
"I protest," Drummond cried, speaking loudly, as if the volume of sound would convey meaning to alien ears, "I protest against this as an outrage, and demand my right of communication with the British Ambassador."
Jack heard the gaoler growl: "This loaf of bread will last you for four days," but as this statement was made in Russian, it conveyed no more meaning to the Englishman than had his own protest of a moment before brought intelligence to the gaoler. The door clanged shut, and there followed a dead silence.
"Now we ought to hear some good old British oaths," said Jack to himself, but the silence continued.
"Hullo, Alan," cried Jack through the bars, "I said you would be nabbed if you didn't leave St. Petersburg. You'll pay attention to me next time I warn you."
There was no reply, and Jack became alarmed at the continued stillness, then he heard his friend mutter:
"I'll be seeing visions by and by. I thought my brain was stronger than it is-- could have sworn that was Jack's voice."
Jack got speedily and quietly down, turned on the switch, and hopped up on the table again, peering through. He knew that the stream had now become a river of fire, and that it was sending to the ceiling an unholy, unearthly glow.
"Oh, damn it all!" groaned Drummond, at which Jack roared with laughter.
"Alan," he shouted, "fish out that electric bulb from the creek and hold it aloft; then you'll see where you are. I'm in the next cell; Jack Lamont, Electrician and Coppersmith: all orders promptly attended to: best of references, and prices satisfactory."
"Jack, is that really you, or have I gone demented?"
"Oh, you always were demented, Alan, but it is I, right enough. Pick up the light and tell me what kind of a cell you've got."
"Horrible!" cried Drummond, surveying his situation. "Walls apparently of solid rock, and this uncanny stream running across the floor."
"How are you furnished? Shelf of rock, stone bench?"
"No, there's a table, cot bed, and a wooden chair."
"Why, my dear man, what are you growling about? They have given you one of the best rooms in the hotel. You're in the Star Chamber."
"Where in the name of heaven are we?"
"Didn't you recognize the rock from the deck of a steamer?"
"I never saw the deck of a steamer."
"Then how did you come here?"
"I was writing a letter in my room when someone threw a sack over my head, and tied me up in a bundle, so that it was a close shave I wasn't smothered. I was taken in what I suppose was a cab and flung into what I afterwards learned was the hold of a steamer. When the ship stopped, I was carried like a sack of meal on someone's shoulder, and unhampered before a gaunt specter in uniform, in a room so dazzling with electric light that I could hardly see. That was a few minutes ago, Now I am here, and starving. Where is this prison?"
"Like the Mikado, as Kate would say, the authorities are bent on making the punishment fit the crime. You are in the rock of the Baltic, which you fired at with that gun of yours. I told you those suave officials at St. Petersburg were playing with you."
"But why have they put you here, Jack?"
"Oh, I was like the good dog Tray, who associated with questionable company, I suppose, and thus got into trouble."
"You ought to be glad. I'm going to get out of this place, and I don't believe you could break gaol, unassisted, in twenty years. Here is where science confronts brutality. I say, Drummond, bring your table over to the corner, and mount it, then we can talk without shouting. Not much chance of any one outside hearing us, even if we do clamor, but this is a damp situation, and loud talk is bad for the throat. Cut a slice of that brown bread and lunch with me. You'll find it not half bad, as you say in England, especially when you are hungry. Now," continued Jack, as his friend stood opposite him, and they found by experiment that their combined reach was not long enough to enable them to shake hands through the bars, "now, while you are luxuriating in the menu of the Trogzmondoff, I'll give you a sketch of my plan for escape."
"Do," said Drummond.
"I happen to have with me a pair of bottles containing a substance which, if dissolved in water, and sprinkled on this rock, will disintegrate it. It proves rather slow work, I must admit, but I intend to float in to you one of the bottles, and the apparatus, so that you may help me on your side, which plan has the advantage of giving you useful occupation, and allowing us to complete our task in half the time, like the engineers on each side of the Simplon Tunnel."
"If there are bars in the lower watercourse," objected Drummond, "won't you run a risk of breaking your bottle against them?"
"Not the slightest. I have just sent that much thinner electric lamp through, but in this case I'll just tie up the bottle and squirt gun in my stocking, attach that to the wire, and the current will do the rest. You can unload, and I'll pull my stocking back again. If I dared wrench off a table leg, I could perhaps shove bottle and syringe through to you from here, but the material would come to a dead center in the middle of this tunnel, unless I had a stick to push it within your reach.
"Very well; we'll work away until our excavation connects, and we have made it of sufficient diameter for you to squeeze through. You are then in my cell. We put out our lights, and you conceal yourself behind the door. Gaoler and man with the lantern come in. You must be very careful not to close the door, because if you once shove it shut we can't open it from this side, even though it is unlocked and the bolts drawn. It fits like wax, and almost hermetically seals the room. You spring forward, and deal the gaoler with your fist one of your justly celebrated English knock-down blows, immediately after felling the man with the lantern. Knowing something of the weight of your blow, I take it that neither of the two men will recover consciousness until we have taken off their outer garments, secured revolvers and keys. Then we lock them in, you and I on the outside."
"My dear Jack, we don't need any tunnel to accomplish that. The first time these two men come into my room, I can knock them down as easily here as there."
"I thought of that, and perhaps you could, but you must remember we have only one shot. If you made a mistake; if the lantern man bolted and fired his pistol, and once closed the door-- he would not need to pause to lock it-- why, we are done for. I should be perfectly helpless in the next room, and after the attempt they'd either drown us, or put us into worse cells as far apart as possible."
"I don't think I should miss fire," said Drummond, confidently, "still, I see the point, and will obey orders."
"My official position on the rock, ever since I arrived, has been that of electrical tutor-in-chief to the Governor. I have started his dynamo working, and have wired such portions of the place as were not already wired before. During these lessons I have kept my eyes open. So far as the prison is concerned, there is the Governor, a sort of head clerk, the gaoler and his assistant; four men, and that is all. The gaoler's assistant appears to be the cook of the place, although the cooking done is of the most limited description. The black bread is brought from St. Petersburg, I think, as also tinned meat and soup; so the cuisine is on a somewhat limited scale."
"Do you mean to say that only these four men are in charge of the prison?"
"Practically so, but there is the garrison as well. The soldiers live in a suite of rooms directly above us, and as near as I can form an opinion, there are fourteen men and two officers. When a steamer arrives they draft as many soldiers as are necessary, unload the boat; then the Tommies go upstairs again. The military section apparently holds little intercourse with the officials, whom they look upon as gaolers. I should judge that the military officer is chief of the rock, because when he found the Governor's room lit by electricity, he demanded the same for his quarters. That's how I came to get upstairs. Now, these stairs are hewn in the rock, are circular, guarded by heavy oaken doors top and bottom, and these doors possess steel bolts on both sides of them. It is thus possible for either the military authorities upstairs, or the civil authorities, to isolate themselves from the others. In case of a revolt among the soldiers, the Governor could bolt them into their attic, and they would find great difficulty in getting out. Now, my plan of procedure is this. We will disarm gaoler and assistant, take their keys, outside garments and caps. The gaoler's toggery will fit you, and the other fellow's may do for me. Then we will lock them in here, and if we meet clerk or Governor in the passages we will have time to overcome either or both before they are aware of the change. I'll go up the circular stair, bolt from the inside the upper door, and afterwards bolt the lower door. Then we open all the cells, and release the other prisoners, descend from the rock, get into the Finnish fishing boat, keep clear of the two cannon that are up above us, and sail for the Swedish coast. We can't miss it; we have only to travel west, and ultimately we are safe. There is only one danger, which is that we may make our attempt when the steamer is here, but we must chance that."
"Isn't there any way of finding out? Couldn't you pump the Governor?"
"He is always very much on his guard, and is a taciturn man. The moment the tunnel is finished I shall question him about some further electrical material, and then perhaps I may get a hint about the steamer. I imagine she comes irregularly, so the only safe plan would be for us to make our attempt just after she had departed."
"Would there be any chance of our finding a number of the military downstairs?"
"I don't think so. Now that they have their electric light they spend their time playing cards and drinking vodka."
"Very well, Jack, that scheme seems reasonably feasible. Now, get through your material to me, and issue your instructions."