Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Escape

THE prisoner seemed to submit to his fate with patience. He thanked the attendant who brought him his rations with a nod and smile, and disposed of the food with an appetite which seemed to indicate a cheerful temper. A visit which the peddler paid him the second day of his imprisonment was apparently received as a welcome relief. The two had a long and friendly conversation, nor did Cedric utter a word of complaint against his treatment.

In reality the young chief was keeping under his rage with an effort almost unbearably painful. That he should be chained like a dog to the wall was an intolerable grievance; he, a free man, and the son of a long line of chiefs which boasted the blood of the great Odin himself! The iron did indeed enter into his soul, and the seeming calm of his outward patience concealed a whole volcano of inward fury. It was only the hope of freedom that kept him calm. It was that he might not diminish this hope, this almost desperate chance, by the very smallest fraction that he ate and drank with such seeming cheerfulness. He would want, he knew, all his strength for an escape. He would support it and husband it to the utmost.

And for an escape, unknown to his keepers, he was steadily preparing. The chain which bound him to the wall was fastened round his right arm and leg, and the fastening would have seemed secure to any ordinary observer. But such an observer would not have made the necessary allowance for the young man's ordinary vigour and endurance. His hand was large and muscular; far too much so, one would have thought, to pass through the ring which had been welded round the arms. But he possessed an unusual power of contracting it. To exercise this power was indeed a painful effort, causing something like an agonizing cramp; still it was an effort that could be made, and made without disabling the limb. It could not, however, be done twice, because the hand, recovering its shape from the extraordinary pressure to which it had been subjected, would infallibly swell. Cedric, accordingly, after satisfying himself that it could be done, postponed actually doing it till the moment of escape had arrived.

The fastening of the leg was less manageable. He would not have scrupled to do as the Spartan prisoner is said to have done, and cut off the foot which impeded his escape, but he had positively nothing with which this could be done. The only alternative was to drag the staple from the wall, and to carry it and the chain along with him. Fortunately, strong as it was, it was light. The staple at first seemed obstinate. It had indeed been subjected to tests which satisfied the villa blacksmith of its capacity of resistance. But repeated efforts, made with all the enormous strength which the young giant could bring to bear, weakened its hold, and at last it gave. The prisoner was prudent enough not to complete the separation of the iron from the walls. It would have been difficult to replace it so as to escape the notice of the attendant. Accordingly the drag was relaxed as soon as the first indications of yielding were felt. The time for attempting the escape was a subject of much anxious deliberation. The obvious course would have been to choose some hour between midnight and dawn; but Cedric had heard from time to time the step of some one walking up and down before his prison, and he guessed that it might be guarded at night, but left during the day-time, on the presumption that the captive would scarcely make an effort to escape while it was light. It was this accordingly that he resolved to do.

Shortly after sunrise the attendant paid him his customary visit, bringing with him the morning meal. Cedric pretended to be but half awake, and, returning his salutation in a mumbling, sleepy tone, turned again on his side, as if to continue his slumbers. But the moment after the man had left the room he was at work. He dragged his hand through the ring, at the cost of a pang which taxed his endurance to the utmost; pulled the staple from the wall, wound the chain round his leg, and wrenching away one of the iron bars of the window, dropped through the opening thus made on to the ground. His calculation was correct. The ground was clear. Then another question presented itself to him. Should he attempt to escape as he was? He knew where a boat was commonly kept, and it had been his plan to take this and row out to sea in the hope of meeting some one of his countrymen's galleys. If he once got off from the shore he was free, for if the worst came to the worst, he could at least die as a free man should. But should he go unarmed, and with the hampering chain about his leg? A moment's consideration—no more was possible—decided him. He would make one more bold effort. The forge was close at hand, and he knew from having worked there that at that hour in the morning it was commonly empty, the workmen leaving it for their morning meal. There he could find what he wanted, a file to release himself from the chain, and a weapon.

The forge was empty, as he had expected. The question was, How long would it remain so? The workmen, he could see, had but just left it. The fire had not died down to the lowest, showing that the bellows had been recently at work, and a piece of iron that had been left, half-wrought, on the anvil, was still hot, as he could feel from putting his hand near it. It might be safest to take a file and escape with it at once. On the other hand, it would be far better to release himself at once from his encumbrance, in the event of having to run or fight for his life. He might count, he thought, upon half an hour, and he resolved to file away the chain then and there. With admirable coolness he sat down and applied all the strength and skill which he possessed to the work, and had finished it in little more than half the time which he had reckoned to have undisturbed. He then caught up a sword which hung on one of the walls. It was an old-fashioned weapon, but Cedric, who knew good iron when it came in his way, had tried its temper, and knew it to be capable of doing good service.

So far everything had favoured him, nor did his good fortune desert him now. He found the boat, which was one commonly used for fishing by the inmates of the villa, ready furnished with oars and a small mast and sail. There were even, by good luck, a small jar of water, some broken food in a hamper, left by a party which had been using it the day before, with some fishing lines. These, Cedric thought to himself, might be useful if he failed to fall in with any of his countrymen.

Jumping on board, he plied his sculls rapidly, going in the direction of the sea, and keeping as close under the shore as possible, so as to be out of sight of the villa. As it happened, this precaution was unnecessary. His absence was not discovered till shortly after noon, when the attendant, bringing the midday meal, was astonished beyond measure to find the room empty. But another danger threatened him, a danger which he had not indeed forgotten, but against which he had known it to be impossible to take any precautions. This was the chance of meeting with the Count's squadron as it was returning to the island; and it was this that he actually encountered.

Just as he had reached the mouth of the Haven and was turning his boat eastward, he saw within a hundred yards of him one of the Roman galleys. It was not the Count's own vessel, for this had been delayed by an accident to the rigging, and was now many miles behind, but was in charge of the second-in-command. The recognition was mutual. Cedric's tall figure was not one that could be easily mistaken, nor could it be doubted that he was attempting an escape. Had the Count been there he would probably have parleyed with the fugitive. The officer in command was not so considerate.

"Shoot," he cried, "he is trying to escape," and as he spoke he seized a bow which lay on deck, and took aim at the Saxon. His order was immediately observed, and a shower of missiles was directed at the boat. They all fell short, for Cedric had by this time increased his distance. In a minute or two, however, the ship was put about, and then began to gain rapidly on the solitary rower.

Another volley was discharged, and this time one of the arrows took effect, wounding the fugitive slightly in the left arm. The situation was desperate. To remain in the boat was to await certain death. A third volley would unquestionably be fatal. Cedric jumped overboard, but still clung to the side of the boat. It was only just in time. The third volley was discharged, and rattled on the upturned keel of the boat so thick as to show plainly what the fate of the occupant would have been. Still, though he had escaped for the moment, Cedric's fate seemed sealed. The boat had given him shelter for the time, but to go on clinging to it would be to ensure his capture. He left it, and after making a few vigorous strokes, threw up his arms from the surface of the water, and uttering a loud cry, disappeared.

His quick eye had discerned a great mass of sea-weed floating on the water about fifty yards away, and his ready intelligence had seen a chance, small indeed and almost desperate, but still a chance of escape. Swimming under water to the sea-weed, he was able to come to the surface and to take breath under its shelter.

On board the galley every one of course supposed him to have sunk. His action of the lifted arms and the loud cry had been natural enough to deceive the most wary observer. The boat was righted and secured by a rope, and the galley pursued its way to the villa, while Cedric was left to make the best of his way to the land.

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