Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 5

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Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 5

This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.

V

TWO years had passed. Several of my comrades had died, several had become insane, but nothing was heard yet of our case coming before a court.

My health gave way before the end of the second year. The oak stool now seemed heavy in my hand, and the five miles became an endless distance. As there were about sixty of us in the fortress, and the winter days were short, we were taken out for a walk in the yard for twenty minutes only every third day. I did my best to maintain my energy, but the "arctic wintering" without an interruption in the summer got the better of me. I had brought back from my Siberian journeys slight symptoms of scurvy; now, in the darkness and dampness of the casemate, they developed more distinctly; that scourge of the prisons had got hold of me.

In March or April, 1876, we were at last told that the Third Section had completed the preliminary inquest. The "case" had been transmitted to the judicial authorities, and consequently we were removed to a prison attached to the court of justice, --- the house of detention.

It was an immense show prison, recently built on the model of the French and Belgian prisons, consisting of four stories of small cells, each of which had a window overlooking an inner yard and a door opening on an iron balcony; the balconies of the several stories were connected by iron staircases.

For most of my comrades the transfer to this prison was a great relief. There was much more life in it than in the fortress; more opportunity for correspondence, for seeing one's relatives, and for mutual intercourse. Tapping on the walls continued all day long undisturbed, and I was able in this way to relate to a young neighbor the history of the Paris Commune from the beginning to the end. It took, however, a whole week's tapping.

As to my health, it grew even worse than it had lately been in the fortress. I could not bear the close atmosphere of the tiny cell, which measured only four steps from one corner to another, and where, as soon as the steampipes were set to work, the temperature changed from a glacial cold to an unbearable heat. Having to turn so often, I became giddy after a few minutes' walk, and ten minutes of outdoor exercise, in the corner of a yard enclosed between high brick walls, did not refresh me in the least. As to the prison doctor, who did not want to hear the word "scurvy" pronounced "in his prison," the less said of him the better.

I was allowed to receive food from home, it so happening that one of my relatives, married to a lawyer, lived a few doors from the court. But my digestion had become so bad that I was soon able to eat nothing but a small piece of bread and one or two eggs a day. My strength rapidly failed, and the general opinion was that I should not live more than a few months. When climbing the staircase which led to my cell in the second story, I had to stop two or three times to rest, and I remember an elderly soldier from the escort once commiserating me and saying, "Poor man, you won't live till the end of the summer."

My relatives now became very much alarmed. My sister Hélène tried to obtain my release on bail, but the procureur, Shúbin, replied to her, with a sardonic smile, "If you bring me a doctor's certificate that he will die in ten days, I will release him.'' He had the satisfaction of seeing my sister fall into a chair and sob aloud in his presence. She succeeded, however, in gaining her request that I should be visited by a good physician, --- the chief doctor of the military hospital of the St. Petersburg garrison. He was a bright, intelligent, aged general, who examined me in the most scrupulous manner, and concluded that I had no organic disease, but was suffering simply from a want of oxidation of the blood. "Air is all that you want," he said. Then he stood a few moments in hesitation, and added in a decided manner, "No use talking, you cannot remain here; you must be transferred."

Some ten days later I was transferred to the military hospital, which is situated on the outskirts of St. Petersburg, and has a special small prison for the officers and soldiers who fall ill when they are under trial. Two of my comrades had already been removed to this hospital prison, when it was certain that they would soon die of consumption.


In the hospital I began at once to recover. I was given a spacious room on the ground floor, close by the room of the military guard. It had an immense grated window looking soutb, which opened on a small boulevard with two rows of trees; and beyond the boulevard there was a wide space where two hundred carpenters were engaged in building wooden chanties for typhoid patients. Every evening they gave an hour or so to singing in chorus, --- such a chorus as is formed only in large carpenters' artéls. A sentry marched up and down the boulevard, his box standing opposite my room.

My window was kept open all the day, and I battened in the rays of the sun, which I had missed for such a long time. I breathed the balmy air of May with a full chest, and my health improved rapidly, --- too rapidly, I began to think. I was soon able to digest light food, gained strength, and resumed my work with renewed energy. Seeing no way in which I could finish the second volume of my work, I wrote a résumé of it, which was printed in the first volume.

In the fortress I had heard from a comrade who had been in the hospital prison that it would not be hard for me to escape from it, and I made my presence there known to my friends. However, escape proved far more difficult than I had been led to believe. A stricter supervision than had ever before been heard of was exercised over me. The sentry in the passage was placed at my door, and I was never let out of my room. The hospital soldiers and the officers of the guard who occasionally entered it seemed to be afraid to stay more than a minute or two.

Various plans were made by my friends to liberate me, --- some of them very amusing. I was, for instance, to file through the iron bars of my window. Then, on a rainy night, when the sentry on the boulevard was dozing in his box, two friends were to creep up from behind and overturn the box, so that it would fall upon the sentry and catch him like a mouse in a trap, without hurting him. In the meantime, I was to jump out of the window. But a better solution came in an unexpected way. "Ask to be let out for a walk," one of the soldiers whispered to me one day. I did so. The doctor supported my demand, and every afternoon, at four, I was allowed to take an hour's walk in the prison yard. I had to keep on the green flannel dressing-gown which is worn by the hospital patients, but my boots, my vest, and my trousers were delivered to me every day.

I shall never forget my first walk. When I was taken out, I saw before me a yard full three hundred paces long and more than two hundred paces wide, all covered with grass. The gate was open, and through it I could see the street, the immense hospital opposite, and the people who passed by. I stopped on the doorsteps of the prison, unable for a moment to move when I saw that yard and that gate.

At one end of the yard stood the prison, --- a narrow building, about one hundred and fifty paces long, --- at each end of which was a sentry box. The two sentries paced up and down in front of the building, and had tramped out a footpath in the green. Along this footpath I was told to walk, and the two sentries continued to walk up and down --- so that I was never more than ten or fifteen paces from the one or the other. Three hospital soldiers took their seats on the doorsteps.

At the opposite end of this spacious yard wood for fuel was being unloaded from a dozen carts, and piled up along the wall by a dozen peasants. The whole yard was enclosed by a high fence made of thick boards. Its gate was open to let the carts in and out.

This open gate fascinated me. "I must not stare at it," I said to myself; and yet I looked at it all the time. As soon as I was taken back to my cell I wrote to my friends to communicate to them the welcome news. "I feel well-nigh unable to use the cipher," I wrote with a tremulous hand, tracing almost illegible signs instead of figures. "This nearness of liberty makes me tremble as if I were in a fever. They took me out to-day in the yard; its gate was open, and no sentry near it. Through this unguarded gate I will run out; my sentries will not catch me," --- and I gave the plan of the escape. "A lady is to come in an open carriage to the hospital. She is to alight, and the carriage to wait for her in the street, some fifty paces from the gate. When I am taken out, at four, I shall walk for a while with my hat in my hand, and somebody who passes by the gate will take it as the signal that all is right within the prison. Then you must return a signal: 'The street is clear.' Without it I shall not start; once beyond the gate I must not be recaptured. Light or sound only can be used for your signal. The coachman may send a flash of light, --- the sun's rays reflected from his lacquered hat upon the main hospital building; or, still better, the sound of a song continued as long as the street is clear; unless you can occupy the little gray bungalow which I see from the yard, and signal to me from its window. The sentry will run after me like a dog after a hare, describing a curve, while I run in a straight line, and I will keep five or ten paces in advance of him. In the street, I shall spring into the carriage and we shall gallop away. If the sentry shoots --- well, that cannot be helped; it lies beyond our foresight; and then, against a certain death in prison, the thing is well worth the risk."

Counter proposals were made, but that plan was ultimately adopted. The matter was taken in hand by our circle; people who never had known me entered into it, as if it were the release of the dearest of their brothers. However, the attempt was beset with difficulties, and time went with terrible rapidity. I worked hard, writing late at night; but my health improved, nevertheless, at a speed which I found appalling. When I was let out into the yard for the first time, I could only creep like a tortoise along the footpath; now I felt strong enough to run. True, I continued to go at the same tortoise pace, lest my walks should be stopped; but my natural vivacity might betray me at any moment. And my comrades, in the mean time, had to enlist more than a score of people in the affair, to find a reliable horse and an experienced coachman, and to arrange hundreds of unforeseen details which always spring up around such conspiracies. The preparations took a month or so, and any day I might be moved back to the house of detention.


At last the day of the escape was settled. June 29, Old Style, is the day of St. Peter and St. Paul. My friends, throwing a touch of sentimentalism into their enterprise, wanted to set me free on that day. They had let me know that in reply to my signal "All right within" they would signal "All right outside" by sending up a red toy balloon. Then the carriage would come, and a song would be sung to let me know when the street was open.

I went out on the 29tb, took off my hat, and waited for the balloon. But nothing of the kind was to be seen. Half an hour passed. I heard the rumble of a carriage in the street; I heard a man's voice singing a song unknown to me; but there was no balloon.

The hour was over, and with a broken heart I returned to my room. "Something must have gone wrong," I said to myself.

The impossible had happened that day. Hundreds of cliildren's balloons are always on sale in St. Petersburg, near the Gostínoi Dvor. That morning there were none; not a single balloon was to be found. One was discovered at last, in the possession of a child, but it was old and would not fly. My friends rushed then to an optician's shop, bought an apparatus for making hydrogen, and filled the balloon with it; but it would not fly any better: the hydrogen had not been dried. Time pressed. Then a lady attached the balloon to her umbrella, and, holding the umbrella high over her head, walked up and down in the street along the high wall of our yard; but I saw nothing of it, --- the wall being too high, and the lady too short.

As it turned out, nothing could have been better than that accident with the balloon. When the hour of my walk had passed, the carriage was driven along the streets which it was intended to follow after the escape; and there, in a narrow street, it was stopped by a dozen or more carts which were carrying wood to the hospital. The horses of the carts got into disorder, --- some of them on the right side of the street, and some on the left, --- and the carriage had to make its way at a slow pace among them; at a turning it was actually blocked. If I had been in it, we should have been caught.

Now a whole system of signals was established along the streets through which we should have to go after the escape, in order to give notice if the streets were not clear. For a couple of miles from the hospital my comrades took the position of sentries. One was to walk up and down with a handkerchief in his hand, which at the approach of the carts he was to put into his pocket; another was to sit on a stone and eat cherries, stopping when the carts came near; and so on. All these signals, transmitted along the streets, were finally to reach the carriage. My friends had also hired the gray bungalow that I had seen from the yard, and at an open window of that little house a violinist stood with his violin, ready to play when the signal "Street clear" reached him.

The attempt had been settled for the next day. Further postponement would have been dangerous. In fact, the carriage had been taken notice of by the hospital people, and something suspicious must have reached the ears of the authorities, as on the night before my escape I heard the patrol officer ask the sentry who stood opposite my window, "Where are your ball cartridges?" The soldier began to take them in a clumsy way out of his cartridge pouch, spending a couple of minutes before he got them. The patrol officer swore at him. "Have you not been told to-nigbt to keep four ball cartridges in the pocket of your coat?" And he stood by the sentry till the latter put four cartridges into his pocket. "Look sharp! " he said as he turned away.

The new arrangements concerning the signals had to be communicated to me at once; and at two on the next day a lady --- a dear relative of mine --- came to the prison, asking that a watch might be transmitted to me. Everything had to go through the hands of the procureur; but as this was simply a watch, without a box, it was passed along. In it was a tiny cipher note which contained the whole plan. When I read it I was seized with terror, so daring was the feat. The lady, herself under pursuit by the police for political reasons, would have been arrested on the spot, if any one had chanced to open the lid of the watch. But I saw her calmly leave the prison and move slowly along the boulevard.

I came out at four, as usual, and gave my signal. I heard next the rumble of the carriage, and a few minutes later the tones of the violin in the gray house sounded through our yard. But I was then at the other end of the building. When I got back to the end of my path which was nearest the gate, --- about a hundred paces from it, --- the sentry was close upon my heels. "One turn more," I thought --- but before I reached the farther end of the path the violin suddenly ceased playing.

More than a quarter of an hour passed, full of anxiety, before I understood the cause of the interruption. Then a dozen heavily loaded carts entered the gate and moved to the other end of the yard.

Immediately, the violinist --- a good one, I must say --- began a wildly exciting mazurka from Kontsky, as if to say, "Straight on now, --- this is your time!" I moved slowly to the nearer end of the footpath, trembling at the thought that the mazurka might stop before I reached it.

When I was there I turned round. The sentry had stopped five or six paces behind me; he was looking the other way. "Now or never!" I remember that thought flashing through my head. I flung off my green flannel dressing-gown and began to run.

For many days in succession I had practiced how to get rid of that immeasurably long and cumbrous garment. It was so long that I carried the lower part on my left arm, as ladies carry the trains of their riding habits. Do what I might, it would not come off in one movement. I cut the seams under the armpits, but that did not help. Then I decided to learn to throw it off in two movements: one casting the end from my arm, the other dropping the gown on the floor. I practiced patiently in my room until I could do it as neatly as soldiers handle their rifles. "One, two," and it was on the ground.

I did not trust much to my vigor, and began to run rather slowly, to economize my strength. But no sooner had I taken a few steps than the peasants who were piling the wood at the other end shouted, "He runs! Stop him! Catch him!" and they hastened to intercept me at the gate. Then I flew for my life. I thought of nothing but running, --- not even of the pit which the carts had dug out at the gate. Run! run! full speed!

The sentry, I was told later by the friends who witnessed the scene from the gray house, ran after me, followed by three soldiers who had been sitting on the doorsteps. The sentry was so near to me that he felt sure of catching me. Several times he flung his rifle forward, trying to give me a blow in the back with the bayonet. One moment my friends in the window thought he had me. He was so convinced that he could stop me in this way that he did not fire. But I kept my distance, and he had to give up at the gate.

Safe out of the gate, I perceived, to my terror, that the carriage was occupied by a civilian who wore a military cap. He sat without turning his head to me. "Sold!" was my first thought. The comrades had written in their last letter, "Once in the street, don't give yourself up: there will be friends to defend you in case of need," and I did not want to jump into the carriage if it was occupied by an enemy. However, as I got nearer to the carriage I noticed that the man in it had sandy whiskers which seemed to be those of a warm friend of mine. He did not belong to our circle, but we were personal friends, and on more than one occasion I had learned to know his admirable, daring courage, and how his strength suddenly became herculean when there was danger at hand. "Why should he be there? Is it possible?" I reflected, and was going to shout out his name, when I caught myself in good time, and instead clapped my hands, while still running, to attract his attention. He turned his face to me --- and I knew who it was.

"Jump in, quick, quick!" he shouted in a terrible voice, calling me and the coachman all sorts of names, a revolver in his hand and ready to shoot. "Gallop! gallop! I will kill you!" he cried to the coachman. The horse --- a beautiful racing trotter, which had been bought on purpose --- started at full gallop. Scores of voices yelling, "Hold them! Get them!" resounded behind us, my friend meanwhile helping me to put on an elegant overcoat and an opera hat. But the real danger was not so much in the pursuers as in a soldier who was posted at the gate of the hospital, about opposite to the spot where the carriage had to wait. He could have prevented my jumping into the carriage, or could have stopped the horse, by simply rushing a few steps forward. A friend was consequently commissioned to divert this soldier by talking. He did this most successfully. The soldier having been employed at one time in the laboratory of the hospital, my friend gave a scientific turn to their chat, speaking about the microscope and the wonderful things one sees through it. Referring to a certain parasite of the human body, he asked, "Did you ever see what a formidable tail it has?" "What, man, a tail?" "Yes, it has; under the microscope it is as big as that." "Don't tell me any of your tales!" retorted the soldier. "I know better. It was the first thing I looked at under the microscope." This animated discussion took place just as I ran past them and sprang into the carriage. It sounds like fable, but it is fact.

The carriage turned sharply into a narrow lane, past the same wall of the yard where the peasants had been piling wood, and which all of them had now deserted in their run after me. The turn was so sharp that the carriage was nearly upset, when I flung myself inward, dragging toward me my friend; this sudden movement righted the carriage.

We trotted through the narrow lane and then turned to the left. Two gendarmes were standing there at the door of a public house, and gave to the military cap of my companion the military salute. "Hush! hush!" I said to him, for he was still terribly excited. "All goes well; the gendarmes salute us!" The coachman thereupon turned his face toward me, and I recognized in him another friend, who smiled with happiness.

Everywhere we saw friends, who winked to us or gave us a Godspeed as we passed at the full trot of our beautiful horse. Then we entered the large Nevsky Prospekt, turned into a side street, and alighted at a door, sending away the coachman. I ran up a staircase, and at its top fell into the arms of my sister-in-law, who had been waiting in painful anxiety. She laughed and cried at the same time, bidding me hurry to put on another dress and to crop my conspicuous beard. Ten minutes later my friend and I left the house and took a cab.

In the meantime, the officer of the guard at the prison and the hospital soldiers had rushed out into the street, doubtful as to what measures they should take. There was not a cab for a mile round, every one having been hired by my friends. An old peasant woman from the crowd was wiser than all the lot. "Poor people," she said, as if talking to herself, "they are sure to come out on the Prospekt, and there they will be caught if somebody runs along that lane, which leads straight to the Prospekt." She was quite right, and the officer ran to the tramway car that stood close by, and asked the men to let them have their horses to send somebody on horseback to intercept us. But the men obstinately refused to give up their horses, and the officer did not use force

As to the violinist and the lady who had taken the gray house; they too rushed out and joined the crowd with the old woman, whom they heard giving advice, and when the crowd dispersed they went away also.

It was a fine afternoon. We drove to the islands where all the St. Petersburg aristocracy goes on bright spring days to see the sunset, and called on the way, in a remote street, at a barber's shop to shave off my beard, which operation changed me, of course, but not very much. We drove aimlessly up and down the islands, but, having been told not to reach our night quarters till late in the evening, did not know where to go. "What shall we do in the meantime?" I asked my friend. He also pondered over that question. "To Donon!" he suddenly called out to the cabman, naming one of the best St. Petersburg restaurants. "No one will ever think of looking for you at Donon," he calmly remarked. "They will hunt for you everywhere else, but not there; and we shall have a dinner, and a drink too, in honor of the success of your escape."

What could I reply to so reasonable a suggestion? So we went to Donon, passed the halls flooded with light and crowded with visitors at the dinner hour, and took a separate room, where we spent the evening till the time came when we were expected. The house where we had first alighted was searched less than two hours after we left, as were also the apartments of nearly all our friends. Nobody thought of making a search at Donon.

A couple of days later I was to take possession of an apartment which had been engaged for me, and which I could occupy under a false passport. But the lady who was to accompany me there in a carriage took the precaution of visiting the house first by herself. It was thickly surrounded by spies. So many of my friends had come to inquire whether I was safe there that the suspicions of the police had been aroused. Moreover, my portrait had been printed by the Third Section, and hundreds of copies had been distributed to policemen and watchmen. All the detectives who knew me by sight were looking for me in the streets; while those who did not were accompanied by soldiers and warders who had seen me during my imprisonment. The Czar was furious that such an escape should have taken place in his capital in full daylight, and had given the order, "He must be found."

It was impossible to remain at St. Petersburg, and I concealed myself in country houses in its neighborhood. In company with half a dozen friends, I stayed at a village frequented at this time of the year by St. Petersburg people bent on picnicking. Then it was decided that I should go abroad. But from a foreign paper we had learned that all the frontier stations and railway termini in the Baltic provinces and Finland were closely watched by detectives who knew me by sight. So I determined to travel in a direction where I should be least expected. Armed with the passport of a friend, and accompanied by another friend, I crossed Finland, and went northward to a remote port on the Gulf of Bothnia, whence I crossed to Sweden.

After I had gone on board the steamer, and it was about to sail, the friend who was to accompany me to the frontier told me the St. Petersburg news, which he had promised our friends not to tell me before. My sister Hélène had been arrested, as well as the sister of my brotber's wife, who had visited me in prison once a month after my brother and his wife went to Siberia.

My sister knew absolutely nothing of the preparations for my escape. Only after I had escaped a friend had hurried to her, to tell her the welcome news. She protested her ignorance in vain: she was taken from her children, and was kept imprisoned for a fortnight. As to the sister of my brother's wife, she had known vaguely that something was to be attempted, but she had had no part in the preparations. Common sense ought to have shown the authorities that a person who had officially visited me in prison would not be involved in such an affair. Nevertheless, she was kept in prison for over two months. Her husband, a well-known lawyer, endeavored to obtain her release "We are aware now," he was told by the gendarme officers, "that she has had nothing to do with the escape; but, you see, we reported to the Emperor, on the day we arrested her, that the person who had organized the escape was discovered and arrested. It will now take some time to prepare the Emperor to accept the idea that she is not the real culprit."

I crossed Sweden without stopping anywhere, and went to Christiania, where I waited a few days for a steamer to sail for Hull, gathering information in the meantime about the peasant party of the Norwegian Storthing. As I went to the steamer I asked myself with anxiety, "Under which flag does she sail, --- Norwegian, German, English?" Then I saw floating above the stern the union jack, --- the flag under which so many refugees, Russian, Italian, French, Hungarian, and of all nations, have found an asylum. I greeted that flag from the depth of my heart.

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January 21, 2017 17:35:08 :
Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 5 -- Added to http://www.RevoltLib.com.

September 23, 2017 17:45:35 :
Part 5: The Fortress; The Escape, Section 5 -- Last Updated on http://www.RevoltLib.com.

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