A Rock in the Baltic by Robert Barr
Chapter XIX. "Stone Walls do not a Prison Make"
In a very short time Drummond became as expert at the rock dissolving as was his friend. He called it piffling slow work, but was nevertheless extremely industrious at it, although days and weeks and, as they suspected, months, passed before the hands of the two friends met in the center of the rock. One lucky circumstance that favored them was the habit of the gaoler in visiting Drummond only once every four days.
The Lieutenant made his difficult passage, squeezing through the newly completed tunnel half an hour after a loaf had been set upon his table. Jack knew that the steamer had recently departed, because, two days before, the Governor had sent for him, and had exhibited a quantity of material recently landed, among other things a number of electric bells and telephones which the Governor was going to have set up between himself and the others, and also between his room and that of the clerk and gaoler. There were dry batteries, and primary batteries, and many odds and ends, which made Jack almost sorry he was leaving the place.
Heavy steps, muffled by the thickness of the door, sounded along the outer passage.
"Ready?" whispered Jack. "Here they come. Remember if you miss your first blow, we're goners, you and I."
Drummond made no reply, for the steps had come perilously near and he feared to be heard. Noiselessly he crossed the cell and took up his position against the wall, just clear of the space that would be covered by the opening of the door.
At the same moment Jack switched off the light, leaving the room black. Each of the two waiting prisoners could hear the other's short breathing through the darkness.
On came the shuffling footsteps of the gaoler and lantern-bearer. They had reached the door of Number One, had paused, had passed on and stopped in front of Number Two.
"Your cell!" whispered Jack, panic-stricken. "And they weren't due to look in on you for four days. It's all up! They'll discover the cell is empty and give the-- Where are you going, man?" he broke off, as Drummond, leaving his place near the door, groped his way hurriedly along the wall.
"To squeeze my way back and make a fight for it. It's better than--"
Lamont's hand was on his shoulder, and he whispered a sharp command for silence. The two attendants had halted in front of Number Two, and while the lantern-bearer fumbled with the awkward bolt, his companion was saying:
"Hold on! After all, I'll bring the other his food first, I think."
"But," remonstrated the lantern-bearer, "the Governor said we were to bring the Englishman to him at once."
"What if he did? How will he know we stole a half minute to give the Prince his dinner? If we bring the Englishman upstairs first, the Prince may have to wait an hour before we can get back with the Englishman."
"Let him wait, then."
"With his pocket full of roubles? Not I. He may decide to give no more of his gold pieces to a gaoler who lets him go hungry too long."
"I've got the door unfastened now and--"
"Then fasten it again and come back with me to Number One."
Faint as were the words, deadened by intervening walls, their purport reached Jack.
"Back to your place," he whispered, "they're coming!"
The rattle of bolts followed close on his words. The great door of Number One swung ponderously inward. The lantern-bearer, holding his light high in front of him, entered; then stepped to one side to admit the gaoler, who came close after, the tray of food in his outstretched hands.
Unluckily for the captives' plan, it was to the side of the cell opposite to that where Alan crouched that the lantern-bearer had taken his stand. There was no way of reaching him at a bound. The open door stood between. Were the gaoler to be attacked first, his fellow-attendant could readily be out of the cell and half-way up the corridor before Alan might hope to reach him.
The friends had counted on both men entering the room together and crossing as usual to the table. This change of plan disconcerted them. Already the gaoler had set down his tray and was turning toward the door. Alan, helpless, stood impotently in the shadow, biting his blond mustache with helpless rage. In another second their cherished opportunity would vanish. And, as the gaoler's next visit was to be to Number Two, discovery stared them in the eyes.
It was Jack who broke the momentary spell of apathy. He was standing at the far end of the cell, near the stream.
"Here!" he called sharply to the lantern-bearer, "bring your light. My electric apparatus is out of order, and I've mislaid my matches. I want to fix--"
The lantern-bearer, obediently, had advanced into the room. He was half-way across it while Lamont was still speaking. Then, from the corner of his eye, he spied Alan crouching in the angle behind the door, now fully exposed to the rays of the lantern.
The man whirled about in alarm just as Alan sprang. In consequence the Englishman's mighty fist whizzed past his head, missing it by a full inch.
The gaoler, recovering from his amaze, whipped out one of the revolvers he wore in his belt. But Jack, leaping forward, knocked it from his hand before he could fire; and, with one hand clapped across the fellow's bearded lips, wound his other arm about the stalwart body so as to prevent for the instant the drawing of the second pistol.
Alan's first blow had missed clean; but his second did not. Following up his right-hand blow with all a trained boxer's swift dexterity, he sent a straight left hander flush on the angle of the light-bearer's jaw. The man dropped his lantern and collapsed into a senseless heap on the floor, while Alan, with no further delay, rushed toward the gaoler.
The fall of the lantern extinguished the light. The cell was again plunged in dense blackness, through which could be heard the panting and scuffing of the Prince and the gaoler.
Barely a second of time had elapsed since first Jack had seized the man, but that second had sufficed for the latter to summon his great brute strength and shake off his less gigantic opponent and to draw his pistol.
"Quick, Alan!" gasped Jack. "He's got away from me. He'll--"
Drummond, guided by his friend's voice, darted forward through the darkness, caught his foot against the sprawling body of the lantern-bearer and fell heavily, his arms thrown out in an instinctive gesture of self-preservation. Even as he lost his balance he heard a sharp click, directly in front of him. The gaoler had pulled the trigger, and his pistol-- contract-made and out of order, like many of the weapons of common soldiers in Russia's frontier posts-- had missed fire.
To that luckiest of mishaps, the failure of a defective cartridge to explode, the friends owed their momentary safety.
As Alan pitched forward, one of his outing arms struck against an obstacle. It was a human figure, and from the feel of the leather straps, which his fingers touched in the impact, he knew it was the gaoler and not Lamont.
Old football tactics coming to memory, Alan clung to the man his arm had chanced upon, and bore him along to the ground; Jack, who had pressed forward in the darkness, being carried down as well by the other's fall.
Gaoler, Prince and Englishman thus struggled on the stone floor in one indistinguishable heap. It was no ordinary combat of two to one, for neither of the prisoners could say which was the gaoler and which his friend. The gaoler, troubled by no such doubts, laid about him lustily, and was only prevented from crying out by the fact that his heavy fur cap had, in the fall, become jammed down over his face as far as the chin and could not for the moment be dislodged.
He reached for and drew the sword-bayonet that hung at his side (for his second pistol had become lost in the scrimmage), and thrust blindly about him. Once, twice his blade met resistance and struck into flesh.
"Jack," panted Alan, "the beast's stabbing. Get yourself loose and find the electric light."
As he spoke, Alan's hand found the gaoler's throat. He knew it was not Alan's from the rough beard that covered it. The gaoler, maddened by the pressure, stabbed with fresh fury; most of his blows, fortunately, going wild in the darkness.
Alan's free hand reached for and located the arm that was wielding the bayonet, and for a moment the two wrestled desperately for its possession.
Then a key clicked, and the room was flooded with incandescent light, just as Alan, releasing his grip on the Russian's throat, dealt him a short-arm blow on the chin with all the power of his practiced muscles. The gaoler relaxed his tense limbs and lay still, while Alan, bleeding and exhausted, struggled to his feet.
"Hot work, eh?" he panted. "Hard position to land a knockout from. But I caught him just right. He'll trouble us no more for a few minutes, I fancy. You're bleeding! Did he wound you?"
"Only a scratch along my check. And you?"
"A cut on the wrist and another on the shoulder, I think. Neither of them bad, thanks to the lack of aim in the dark. Close call, that! Now to tie them up. Not a movement from either yet."
"You must have come close to killing them with those sledge-hammer blows of yours!"
"It doesn't much matter," said the imperturbable pugilist, "they'll be all right in half an hour. It's knowing where to hit. If there are only four men downstairs, we don't need to wear the clothes of these beasts. Let us take only the bunch of keys and the revolvers."
Securing these the two stepped out into the passage, locked and bolted the door; then Jack, who knew his way, proceeded along the passage to the stairway, leaped nimbly up the steps, bolted the door leading to the military quarters, then descended and bolted the bottom door.
"Now for the clerk, and then for the Governor."
The clerk's room connected with the armory, which was reached by passing through the apartment that held turbine and dynamo, which they found purring away merrily.
Covering the frightened clerk with four revolvers, Jack told him in Russian that if he made a sound it would be his last. They took him, opened cell Number Three, which was empty, and thrust him in.
Jangling the keys, the two entered the Governor's room. The ancient man looked up, but not a muscle of his face changed; even his fishy eyes showed no signs of emotion or surprise.
"Governor," said Jack with deference, "although you are under the muzzles of a quartet of revolvers, no harm is intended you. However, you must not leave your place until you accompany us down to the boat, when I shall hand the keys over to you, and in cell Number One you will find gaoler and lantern man a little worse for wear, perhaps, but still in the ring, I hope. In Number Three your clerk is awaiting you. I go now to release your prisoners. All communication between yourself and the military is barred. I leave my friend on guard until I return from the cells. You must not attempt to summon assistance, or cry out, or move from your chair. My friend does not understand either Russian or German, so there is no use in making any appeal to him, and much as I like you personally, and admire your assiduity in science, our case is so desperate that if you make any motion whatever, he will be compelled to shoot you dead."
The Governor bowed.
"May I continue my writing?" he asked.
Jack laughed heartily.
"Certainly," and with that he departed to the cells, which he unlocked one by one, only to find them all empty.
Returning, he said to the Governor:
"Why did you not tell me that we were your only prisoners?"
"I feared," replied the Governor mildly, "that you might not believe me."
"After all, I don't know that I should,", said Jack, holding out his hand, which the other shook rather unresponsively.
"I want to thank you," the Governor said slowly, "for all you have told me about electricity. That knowledge I expect to put to many useful purposes in the future, and the exercise of it will also make the hours drag less slowly than they did before you came."
"Oh, that's all right," cried Jack with enthusiasm. "I am sure you are very welcome to what teaching I have been able to give you, and no teacher could have wished a more apt pupil."
"It pleases me to hear you say that, Highness, although I fear I have been lax in my duties, and perhaps the knowledge of this place which you have got through my negligence, has assisted you in making an escape which I had not thought possible."
Jack laughed good-naturedly.
"All's fair in love and war," he said. "Imprisonment is a section of war. I must admit that electricity has been a powerful aid to us. But you cannot blame yourself, Governor, for you always took every precaution, and the gaoler was eternally at my heels. You can never pretend that you trusted me, you know."
"I tried to do my duty," said the old man mournfully, "and if electricity has been your helper, it has not been with my sanction. However, there is one point about electricity which you impressed upon me, which is that although it goes quickly, there is always a return current."
"What do you mean by that, Governor?"
"Is it not so? It goes by a wire, and returns through the earth. I thought you told me that."
"Yes, but I don't quite see why you mention that feature of the case at this particular moment."
"I wanted to be sure what I have stated is true. You see, when you are gone there will be nobody I can ask."
All this time the aged Governor was holding Jack's hand rather limply. Drummond showed signs of impatience.
"Jack," he cried at last, "that conversation may be very interesting, but it's like smoking on a powder mine. One never knows what may happen. I shan't feel safe until we're well out at sea, and not even then. Get through with your farewells as soon as possible, and let us be off."
"Right you are, Alan, my boy. Well, Governor, I'm reluctantly compelled to bid you a final good-by, but here's wishing you all sorts of luck."
The old man seemed reluctant to part with him, and still clung to his hand.
"I wanted to tell you," he said, "of another incident, almost as startling as your coming into this room a while since, that happened six or eight months ago. As perhaps you know, we keep a Finland fishing-boat down in the cove below."
"Yes, yes," said Jack impatiently, drawing away his hand.
"Well, six or eight months ago that boat disappeared, and has never been heard of since. None of our prisoners was missing; none of the garrison was missing; my three assistants were still here, yet in the night the boat was taken away."
"Really. How interesting! Never learned the secret, did you?"
"Never, but I took precautions, when we got the next boat, that it should be better guarded, so I have had two men remain upon it night and day."
"Are your two men armed, Governor?"
"Yes, they are."
"Then they must surrender, or we will be compelled to shoot them. Come down with us, and advise them to surrender quietly, otherwise, from safe cover on the stairway, we can pot them in an open boat."
"I will go down with you," said the Governor, "and do what I can."
"Of course they will obey you."
"Yes, they will obey me-- if they hear me. I was going to add that only yesterday did I arrange the electric bell down at the landing, with instructions to those men to take a telegram which I had written in case of emergencies, to the mainland, at any moment, night or day, when that bell rang. Your Highness, the bell rang more than half an hour ago. I have not been allowed out to see the result."
The placid old man put his hand on the Prince's shoulder, as if bestowing a benediction upon him. Drummond, who did not understand the lingo, was amazed to see Jack fling off the Governor's grasp, and with what he took to be a crushing oath in Russian, spring to the door, which he threw open. He mounted the stone bench which gave him a view of the sea. A boat, with two sails spread, speeding to the southwest, across the strong westerly wind, was two miles or more away.
"Marooned, by God!" cried the Prince, swinging round and presenting his pistol at the head of the Governor, who stood there like a statue of dejection, and made no sign.