Mathias Sandorf/Page 06

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Mathias Sandorf.


CHAPTER IX.
THE DONJON OF PISINO.
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The fortress of Pisino is one of the most curious specimens of those formidable buildings which arose in the middle ages. It has a fine feudal aspect. It only wants the knights in its vaulted halls and the ladies in their long broaded robes and pointed bonnets at its arched windows, and the archers and crossbowmen on its machicolations, its battlemented galleries, at the embrasures its mangonels, its portcullis and its draw-bridges. The stone-work is still intact; but the governor with his Austrian uniform, the soldiers with their modern weapons, the warders and turnkeys who no longer wear the particolored costume, half yellow and half red, of the old days, strike a false note in the midst of all this magnificence of the past.

It was from the donjon of this fortress that Count Sandorf was endeavoring to escape during the last hours before his execution. A mad attempt, no doubt; for the prisoners did not even know in what part of the donjon their prison lay, nor anything of the country across which they would have to journey after their escape.

And perhaps it was fortunate that their ignorance was complete in the matter. Had they known more they might have recoiled before the difficulties, to say nothing of the impossibilities, of such an enterprise.

It is not that this province of Istria offers no favorable chances for an escape, for no matter what direction the fugitives took they would reach the sea-coast in a few hours. It is not that the streets of Pisino are so carefully guarded that there is a risk of being arrested at the very first step. But to escape from the fortress, and particularly from the donjon occupied by the prisoners, had up to then been considered impossible. Even the idea had never occurred to any one.

The situation and exterior arrangements of the donjon in the fortress of Pisino were as follows: The donjon occupies one side of the terrace with which the town here ends. Leaning over the parapet of this terrace the eye plunges into a large, deep gulf, whose rugged sides, covered with thick entanglements of creepers, are cut down perpendicularly. Nothing overhangs the wall; there is not a step to enable any one to ascend or descend: not a fence to halt at; not a prominence to seize hold upon in any part of it; nothing but the uncertain lines, smooth, rubbed and irregular, which mark the oblique clearage of the rocks. In a word, it is an abyss which attracts, fascinates and never gives back anything that drops into it.

Above the abyss rises one of the side walls of the donjon, pierced with a few windows giving light to the cells on the different floors. Were a prisoner to lean out of one of these openings he would recoil with terror, lest vertigo drag him into the void below. And if he fell, what would be his fate? His body would be dashed to pieces on the rocks at the bottom, or it would be carried away by the torrent whose current during flood is irresistible.

The abyss is the Brico, as it is called in the district. Through it runs a river known as the Foiba. This river finds its only outlet in a cavern which it has gradually cut out of the rocks, and into which it falls with the impetuosity of a tide-race or a whirlpool. Where does it go as it passes under the town? No one knows. Where does it reappear? Not one knows of this cavern, or rather this canal, bored in the schists and clays—no one knows the length, the height or the direction. Who can say what thousands of angles, what forests of pillars supporting the enormous substructure of the fortress and entire city its waters are dashed against in their course? Many bold explorers, when the water-level has been neither too high nor too low, have taken a light boat and endeavored to descend the Foiba through the gloomy tunnel, but the arches have been too low and have soon interposed an impracticable obstacle. In fact, nothing is known of this subterranean river. Perhaps it is lost in some still deeper cavern and enters the Adriatic below the tidemark.

Such, then, was the Brico, of which Count Sandorf did not even know the existence; and as the only escape was by the window of his cell, which opened above the Brico, he would be almost as certain to meet his death there as if he stood in front of the firing party on the morning of his execution.

Zathmar and Bathory waited but for the time to act, ready to remain behind, if necessary, and sacrifice themselves to help Count Sandorf, or ready to follow him, if their flight would not hamper his.

“We'll all three go,” said Sandorf. “Wait till we get out before we separate!”

Eight o'clock then struck from the clock in the town. The prisoners had only twelve hours to live.

Night began to close in—a night which promised to be very dark. Thick, almost motionless, clouds unrolled themselves cumbrously across the sky. The atmosphere was heavy, almost unbreathable, and saturated with electricity. A violent storm was coming on. Lightning had not yet passed between these masses of vapor, heaped around like so many accumulators, but distant growlings were heard along the summits of the hills that encircle Pisino.

Under such circumstances there might have been some chance of success, if an unknown gulf had not gaped beneath the feet of the fugitives. In a dark night they might not be seen; in a noisy night they might not be heard.

As Sandorf had instantly recognized, flight was only possible through the window of the cell. To force the door, to cut into its strong planks of oak, all bound and ironed, was not to be dreamed of. Besides, the step of a sentinel resounded on the flags of the corridor. And once the door was cleared, how were they to find their way through the labyrinth of the fortress? How were they to pass the portcullis and draw-bridges, at which there were always so many men on guard? On the side of the Brico there was no sentinel; but the Brico was a better defense to the face of the donjon than a cordon of sentries.

Sandorf then went to the window and examined it, to see if they could squeeze through it.

This window was exactly three and a half feet wide and two feet high. The gap widened, as it ran outward through the wall, which hereabouts was nearly four feet thick. A solid crossbar of iron guarded it. It was fixed in the side near the interior opening. There were none of those wooden boards which allow the light only to enter from above, for they would have been useless, owing to the position of the opening. If, then, the crossbar could be removed or displaced it would be easy to get through the window, which was not unlike an embrasure in a fortress wall.

But once the passage was free, how were they to make the descent down the perpendicular side? By a ladder? The prisoners had not one and could not make one. By the bedclothes? They had only the heavy woollen counterpanes thrown on the mattresses which lay on the iron frames fixed to the wall. It would have been impossible to have escaped by the window if Count Sandorf had not noticed a chain, or rather an iron rope, hanging outside, which might aid them to escape.

The cable was the lightning conductor fixed to the crest of the roof above the side of the donjon, the wall of which rose straight from the Brico.

“Do you see that cable?” said Count Sandorf to his two friends. “You must have the courage to use it if you want to make your escape.”

“The courage we have,” said Zathmar; “but have we the strength?”

“What does it matter?” replied Bathory; “if strength fail us we shall die an hour or two sooner, that is all.”

“There is no need to die, Stephen,” said Sandorf. “Listen to me, and you also, Ladislas; do not miss any of my words. If we possessed a rope, we should not hesitate to suspend ourselves outside the window, so that we might slip down it to the ground. Now, this cable is better than a rope, because its rigidity will render its descent much easier. Like all lightning conductors, there is no doubt but that it is fastened to the wall with staples. These staples will be fixed points, on which our feet may find a rest. There is no swinging to dread, because the cable is fixed to the wall. There is no vertigo to fear, because it is night, and you will see nothing. Then, once through the window, we have only to keep our coolness and courage, and we are free. That we risk our lives is possible. But it gives us ten chances to one; whereas, if we wait till the morning, and our keepers find us here, it is hundreds upon hundreds to one that we have to die!”

“Be it so,” replied Zathmar.

“Where does the cable end?” asked Bathory.

“In a well, probably,” answered Sandorf; “but certainly outside the donjon, and we'll take advantage of it. I do not know. I only see one thing at the end of it, and that is liberty—perhaps!”

Count Sandorf was right in his supposition that the lightning conductor was fastened to the wall by staples at equal distances. The descent would thus be easy, for the fugitives could use the staples as stepping-stones to keep them from sliding down too swiftly. But what they did not know was that when it left the crest of the plateau on which rose the wall of the donjon, the iron cable became free, floating, abandoned in the void, and its lower end plunged into the waters of the Foiba, then swollen by recent rains. Where they reckoned on finding firm ground at the bottom of the gorge was a foaming torrent, leaping impetuously into the caverns of the Brico. If they had known this, would they then have recoiled from their attempted escape? No.

“Death for death,” said Sandorf. “We may die after doing all we can to escape death.”

The first thing was to clear the passage through the window. The crossbar that obstructed it would have to be removed. How was this to be done without a pair of pincers, a wrench, or any other tool? The prisoners had not even a knife.

“The rest will not be difficult,” said Sandorf, “but that may prove impossible! To work!”

And he climbed up to the window, seized the crossbar vigorously with his hand, and felt that it would not require such a very great effort to pull it down.

The iron bars which formed it were loose in their sockets. The stone, split away at the edges, did not offer very much resistance. Probably the lightning conductor, before it was repaired, had been in inferior condition for its purpose, and electric sparks had been attracted by the iron of the crossbar, and had acted on the wall, and how powerful such influence would be we are well aware. This may have been the cause of the breakages round the sockets into which the ends of the bars were thrust, and of the decomposition of the stone, which was reduced to a sort of spongy state, as if it had been pierced by millions of electric points.

This explanation was given by Stephen Bathory as soon as he noticed the phenomenon.

But it was not explanation, but work that was wanted, and that without losing a moment. If they could manage to clear the extremity of the bars, after forcing them backward and forward in their sockets, so as to knock off the angles of the stone, it might be easy to push the iron-work out of the embrasure,which widened as it went outward. The noise of the fall was not likely to be heard amid the long rollings of the thunder which were going on almost continuously in the lower strata of the clouds.

“But we shall never get that iron-work out with our hands,” said Zathmar.

“No!” answered Sandorf. “We ought to have a piece of iron, a blade—”

Something of the sort was necessary, there could be no doubt. Friable as the wall might be round the sockets, the nails would be broken, and the fingers worn till they bled in trying to reduce it to powder. It could never be done without some hard point or other.

Sandorf looked around the cell, which was feebly lighted from the corridor by the small fanlight over the door. Then he felt the walls on the chance of a nail having been left in them. He found nothing. Then it occurred to him that it would not be impossible to take off one of the legs of the iron bedsteads, which were fixed to the wall. The three set to work and soon Bathory called to his companions in a whisper.

The rivet of one of the metal laths forming the lattice-work of the bed had given way. All that was necessary was to seize hold of this by the free end and twist it backward and forward until it broke off.

This was soon done. Sandorf thus obtained a thin piece of iron, about an inch wide and five inches long, which he wrapped around the end with his silk cravat, and with it he began to clear away the four sockets.

This could not be done without some noise. Fortunately the rumbling of the thunder prevented the noise from being heard. During the intervals of silence Sandorf stopped to resume his task as soon as the storm began again. The work advanced rapidly.

Bathory and Zathmar took up their positions near the door and listened, so as to stop him when the sentry went by.

Suddenly a “Sh—sh—sh—” escaped from Zathmar's lips.

The work instantly stopped.

“What is the matter?” asked Bathory.

“Listen,” answered Zathmar.

His ear was again at the focus of the ellipsoidal curve and again there was evident the acoustical phenomenon which had told the prisoners the secret of the treachery

These are the fragments of speech which were caught at short intervals:

“To-morrow—set—liberty—”

“Yes—books closed—and—”

“After the execution—I shall rejoin my comrade Zirone, who is waiting for me in Sicily.”

“Yours has been a short visit to the donjon of—”

Evidently Sarcany and a warder were engaged in conversation. Further, Sarcany had pronounced the name of a certain Zirone, who was mixed up in the whole affair. Sandorf made a careful note of the new name.

Unfortunately the last word, which would have been so useful for the prisoners to know, did not reach them. At the end of the last sentence a violent clap of thunder took place, and while the electricity followed the lightning conductor a shower of sparks escaped from the strip of metal that Count Sandorf held in his hand. Had it not been for the silk with which he held it he would probably have been affected by the discharge.

And so the last word, the name of the donjon, was lost in a loud peal of thunder. The prisoners could not hear it. Had they known in what fortress they were confined and through what district they would have to make their way, how much greater would have been the chances of escape attempted under such difficult circumstances!


CHAPTER X.
DOWN THE BRICO.
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Count Sandorf resumed his task at the window. Three out of the four sockets were already scraped away sufficiently to allow the ends of the crossbar to be moved out of them. The fourth was then attacked by the light of the dazzling flashes which constantly illumined the sky.

At half past ten o'clock the work was done. The crossbar was clear of the walls, and could be slipped out of the embrasure. It only had to be pushed forward and dropped on the outside of the wall. And this was done as soon as Zathmar heard that the sentry had reached the far end of the corridor.

The crossbar was moved along the embrasure. It fell over and vanished.

At the moment there was a lull in the storm. Sandorf listened to hear when the heavy frame struck the ground. He heard not a sound!

“The donjon is built on a high rock which rises from the valley,” remarked Bathory.

“The height does not matter,” answered Sandorf. “There can be no doubt that the lightning conductor reaches the ground, because that is necessary for it to be of any use. And so we shall reach the ground without the risk of a fall.”

The reasoning was right, as a rule, but it was wrong in this instance, for the end of the conductor was plunged in the waters of Foiba.

The window being clear, the moment for escape had come.

“My friends,” said Sandorf, “this is what we had better do: I am the youngest, and, I think, the strongest. It is my place, therefore, to be the first to go down this iron rope. In case of some obstacle, which is impossible for us to foresee, preventing my reaching the ground, I may have strength enough to climb back to the window. Two minutes after I have gone, Stephen, you get out of the window and fellow me. Two minutes after him, Ladislas, yon come the same way. When we three have reached the foot of the donjon we will act according to circumstances.”

“We will obey you, Mathias,” answered Bathory. “We will do what you tell us to do; we will go where you tell us to go. But we do not like your taking the greatest share of the danger on yourself—”

“Our lives are not worth as much as yours,” added Zathmar.

“They are worth quite as much in the face of an act of justice which has to be done,” answered Count Sandorf. “And if one of us alone survives he will be the one to perform the act. Shake hands, my friends.”

And then, while Zathmar went to watch at the door of the cell, Sandorf climbed into the embrasure. ' A moment afterward he was hanging in the air. Then, while his knees gripped the iron rope, he slid down, hand under hand, feeling with his feet for the staples on which to rest.

The storm burst forth again with extraordinary violence. It did not rain, but the wind was terrific. Flash over-lapped flash. The zigzags crossed and crossed above the donjon, attracted by its isolated position and its towering height. The point of the lightning rod gleamed with pallid brilliancy as the electricity streamed off in a long spear-point of flame, and the cable shook and swung with the furious lashing of the storm.

The risk that was run in hanging on to this conductor, through which the electricity was traveling, to lose itself in the waters of the Brico, was terrible. Had the apparatus been in perfect condition there would have been no danger of a stroke, for the extreme conductibility of the metal compared to that of the human body, which is very much less, would have preserved the daring man who was suspended from it. But if the point of the conductor were blunted or there were any breakage of continuity in the cable, or a rupture occurred at any spot below, a stroke was quite possible due to the meeting of the positive and the negative; and this without a lightning flash, owing to the tension of the accumulation in the defective apparatus.

Count Sandorf was fully aware of the danger to which he was exposed. A sentiment more powerful than that of the instinct of preservation made him brave it. He slipped down slowly, cautiously through the electric emanations which enveloped him as in a mist. His foot sought each staple down the wall, and for an instant he paused, and as a blinding flash illumined the abyss beneath him he tried, but in vain, to discover its depth.

When Mathias had descended about sixty feet from the window he found a firm resting-place. It was a sort of ledge a few inches wide which marked the beginning of the base of the wall. The lightning conductor did not end here; it went down lower, and—unknown to the fugitive—from this point downward it was unfastened and floated free, sometimes skirting the rocky wall, sometimes swinging in mid-air, sometimes scraping against the rocks that overhung the abyss.

Count Sandorf stopped to recover his breath. His feet rested on the ledge, his hands grasped the iron cable. He saw that he had reached the first course of the masonry of the donjon. But how far he was above the valley he could not estimate.

“That must be very deep,” he thought.

In fact a few large birds, dazed by the brilliancy of the lightning, were flying round him with heavily flapping wings, and instead of rising, sunk out of sight beneath his feet. Hence he must be on the brink of a precipice which fell away, deep down below him.

As the birds disappeared he heard a noise above, and by the light of a vivid flash he saw a confused mass detach itself from the wall.

It was Stephen Bathory escaping from the window. He had grasped the conductor and was slowly slipping down to join Count Sandorf. Mathias waited for him, his feet firmly planted on the narrow ledge. There Stephen could wait while he continued to descend.

In a few minutes both were standing on the narrow stone-work.

As soon as the thunder ceased for an instant they could speak and hear each other.

“And Ladislas?” asked Sandorf.

“He will be here in a minute.”

“Nothing wrong aloft?”

“Nothing.”

“Good! I will make room for Ladislas, and you, Stephen, wait till he reaches you.”

“Agreed.”

A tremendous flash seemed to envelop them in flame. It seemed as though the electricity coursing through the cable had penetrated their nerves. They thought they had been struck.

“Mathias! Mathias!” exclaimed Bathory, under an impression of terror that he could not master.

“Be cool! I am going down! You will follow!” was Sandorf's reply.

And already he had seized the cable with the intention of slipping to the first staple below, where he intended to wait for his companion.

Suddenly there were shouts from above. They seemed to come from the window of the cell. Then these words rang out:

“Save yourselves!”

It was Zathmar's voice.

Immediately a bright light shot from the wall, followed by a sharp report. This time it was not the cable broken by a lightning flash which lit up the gloom; it was not the roar of the thunder which resounded m the air. A gun had been fired, a chance shot probably from one of the embrasures of the donjon. It was just as much a signal to the guard as if a bullet had been aimed at the fugitives. The escape had been discovered.

The sentry had heard some noise. He had called five or six of the warders and entered the cell. The absence of two of the prisoners had been immediately discovered, the state of the window showing how they had escaped. And Zathmar rushing to the window had given the alarm.

“Poor fellow!” exclaimed Bathory. “To desert him, Mathias! To desert him!”

A second time there came the discharge of a gun. The report mingled with the roll of the thunder.

“Heaven have pity on him!" said Sandorf. "But we must escape—we must avenge him! Come, Stephen, come!”

It was time. Other windows on the lower story of the donjon were being opened. New discharges lighted them up. Shouts were heard. Perhaps the warders could run round the base of the wall and cut off the retreat of the fugitives! Perhaps they might be shot!

“Come!” exclaimed Sandorf for the last time.

And he slid down the iron cable, which Bathory grasped immediately after him.

Then they saw the rope hung loosely over the abyss. Resting-places, staples, there were none. They were swinging wildly at the end of the rope, which cut their hands as it slipped through them. Down they went with their knees chafing and bleeding, without the power to stop themselves as the bullets whistled past.

For a minute, for eighty feet and more, they glided down—down—asking themselves if the abyss in which they were ingulfed were really bottomless. Already the roar of the raging waters below them could be heard. Then they understood that the lightning conductor led down into the torrent. What was to be done? To climb back to the base of the donjon they could not; their strength was unequal to the task. And death for death, it was better to chance that which waited for them in the depths below.

Suddenly there came a fearful clap of thunder and an intense electric glare. Although the conductor was not struck, yet the tension of the electricity was such that the iron rope grew white as a platinum thread beneath the discharge of a battery or a pile.

Bathory uttered a cry of despair—and let go.

Sandorf saw him pass him, almost touching him his arms wide open.

And then he let go the iron rope which glowed in his hands; and he fell more than forty feet into the torrent of Foiba which foamed along at the foot of the unknown Brico.