Sunday 21 September 2014

How Kropotkin Escaped Prison

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.”

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