A Call to Labor
Convict 341 walked slowly through the doorway of his cell, faced about as the door clanged shut, and stood in a wholly unmilitary attitude of attention, waiting for the inspection of the guard who would soon pass his compartment.
A uniformed man passed along in front of the tier of cells, looking into each to make a final check and see that it contained its rightful occupant.
Convict 341 waited only until the guard had looked at him, then slowly sank down upon the cot and stared straight ahead. Thus he sat motionless, and there came a relaxation of the stern, expressionless face which he had turned toward the guard.
The reason for this was that the gray wall had melted away. Bright, warm sunlight streamed through the trees that stood sentinel-straight upon the slope of a small mountain; golden shafts of summer sunshine pierced deep into the clear, cold waters of a hidden lake.
Convict 341 was not of those hill-born men who smother in the confinement of walls; not a man who had roamed the great outdoors, or had known happiness only in those far distant places where the air of freedom is untainted by the pursuits of man. He had been a clerical worker in a great city, where he had occupied a cell not unlike the one that was now his home.
But the siren, then, was not a signal of an attempted escape; it was a call to labor from which there was no escape. His name had meant no more to his employer than his number now meant to the warden.
And the lake of his visioning was only a watercolor that had hung upon the office wall at Smedley & Sons, Importers, since his office boy days. It had been a symbol to the boy who swept out the office and ran errands. It was a symbol when the boy became the assistant bookkeeper, and it was still a symbol to the man who for twenty years was a trusted cashier.
The salary had not been great. Good enough, perhaps, for a vacation at some mountain retreat, but the man who was to become No. 341 had dreamed his dream too long. He wanted to forget the gray walls of the office, to shut out the weird taunts of the factory siren that summoned others to work and to whose summons he responded. There had grown up in him a great ambition that took complete control of his actions, his dreamings, his planning. He must own for himself the great peace and quiet of that hidden lake where the sunlight did not filter through masses of smoke, and only the imagined songs of free birds avoided the hush of complete silence.
He had saved some money when he was thirty, but an illness had used up the fund, and then he knew that he must resort to other means than saving. He invested small sums, bet at long odds at the races, risked small amounts on the Chinese lottery. But his losings about offset his winnings, and his dreams came no nearer to realization.
Then he knew. He must really gamble. No more long shots. One supreme game where he would t the only treasure he possessed. His dream. If he won, it would be fulfilled. If he lost, it would be gone forever. But into this game he must put his best. There must be no ill-considered moves, no hasty action. Only care—thought—deliberation.
He was thirty-two years of age when he perfected his plans—long, careful plans that occupied all of his spare time. Even when he was in his cage, he would pause to stare into space, not at the vision of the lake, but blankly, as one who is lost in deep thought.
Suddenly he evinced a new interest in the business. He studied accountancy at night and asked many questions about the conduct of the company's affairs.
At last he found it. A flaw in the system of accountancy used by the firm, a failure to carry out the proper checks to insure accuracy. If he were careful he could win through. Immediately he commenced to appropriate small sums of the money that passed through his hands.
The goal was fixed. Ten years, with each golden day contributing its mite toward the ultimate figure that was the sum of freedom. Patience, perseverance—a little luck and the game would be won.
One day Jimmy, the office boy, stood staring at the watercolor of the mountain lake. Turning to the man who was to become Convict 341, he said:
"Wouldn't I like to go swimming in that lake, though? Hot day like this. It would be fine, wouldn't it?"
That had started the only friendship No. 341 had ever known. His gray eyes looked kindly from out the sallow face, for here was someone else who also had a vision —his vision.
"Some day," he had said to the boy, "I am going to quit working here and get me a lake like that."
"Say, that would be a great idea," said the boy. Then doubtfully: "But that would take money—"
"It would take money," admitted the man, but the words were not those of one who spoke of impossible hope.
The summer before he lost the game, he had given the boy ten dollars to go to a boys' summer camp. It was his only charity. The boy had come back with enthusiastic tales of his wonderful week. Then the game had ended, and Convict 341 had lost his bet.
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A Symbol of Freedom
His first few weeks in the penitentiary had been almost unbearable. Not that he was offended by the prison fare, or the discipline, or the confinement. His life was not so different than it had formerly been, and he rather enjoyed his work on a lathe in the carpentry shop. His great agony was due to the ending of his dream. The long hours, with nothing to think about — he had lived with this one plan, this one hope, so long that there was nothing left.
For how could a man of forty-two plan what he would do when he was sixty-two, And this was his home for the next twenty years. Twenty years was a harsh sentence for his offense, but the prosecutor had made much of his breach of trust and the man who had for so long retired within himself had not known how to plead for leniency. Without friends or influence, there was small hope that the sentence would ever be shortened.
The siren sounded. Its long, sobbing, throaty blasts were blended with the shrieks of smaller sirens as the prison cars, loaded with gray-uniformed men, dashed out of the great gates and raced off in the distance.
The convict next him at the lathe whispered.
"God! I hope he makes it!"
Then they were herded to their cells, where they remained until the chase had abated and the investigation following had been completed.
"Who was it?" he whispered cautiously to the man at the next lathe.
"Did he make it?"
"No; they got him. He's in the black hole."
Twice that year he was first startled, then thrilled, by the wild cry of that siren. His symbolism was reversed now. The siren was the symbol of a soul's dash for freedom. It was another game, a fresh deal. If the siren would only remain silent a little longer! Just a little more time, and the escape might be successful!
He began to see against the gray wall of his cell a glorified watercolor. Once more he took up the dream of his lifetime. Perhaps it was not too late. Now it was a game against time, the game of one man against a mighty siren.
With improvised tools stolen from the work room, he spent long hours chipping, chipping, at the concrete. His progress was barely noticeable. In a year, he had made progress. In two years he could see hopes for his plan. Three years, and he was certain that he could get out of the cell. He was now held only by a shell.
But there were other obstacles. One was that he must make his way to the prison yard and then scale the wall.
A train stopped at the station at eight forty-five o'clock each evening. He must get over the wall, drop to the roof of this train, and be whisked away into the darkness, for the cleared country about the walls was so thoroughly lighted in all directions that it would be impossible for him to make his escape on foot.
The men were returned to their cells at six o'clock. At seven-thirty and at nine they were required to stand up in front of their cots for inspection.
The seven-thirty inspection was the greatest obstacle to his plan. He could not be in his cell at that time if he were to be successful in his flight, for at that time there was a change of guards at the wall and in the yard, and he must take advantage of this circumstance so that he would not be discovered from the outside.
One night at seven-thirty, as the guard passed his cell. Convict 341 remained standing until the guard was in front of him. As the guard looked within, 341 started to sit down then straightened up. For two weeks he did this at exactly the same time.
Then he did not straighten up as the guard looked at him, but sank lower toward the cot. This he kept up for another two weeks.
Next he sat down just as the guard looked within. For weeks, as the guard appeared at the door. No. 341 sat down. Then he commenced sitting-down just before the guard came to the door, and finally remained seated until the guard had passed. One night there was a relief guard. Number 341 remained seated holding a newspaper before his face as he had done for several days. The new guard called him to attention. Was his careful plan going to avail him nothing?
The next night he hesitated long, debating whether to stand or to remain seated on the chance that his old guard was back. He was in a terror of apprehension as the steps of the sentry approached. He was tense as he remained seated with a newspaper before his face. If it were the new guard, he would be reported and forced to stand, perhaps to abandon his entire plan. Four years of work to vanish in despair.
But the guard passed by.
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The Symbol Of Slavery
The time for his escape was at hand. It was winter, for he had chosen the short days in order that darkness might conceal him, once he was out of that circle of light about the buildings. If he were observed by a guard and the train stopped, he would be able to slip off the train and have a chance of winning free.
Convict 341 had no friends outside of the walls who were enough interested in him to write him even an occasional letter. During the entire period of his incarceration, he had never received any communication from the world outside. When one evening, Guard Conroy was handed a postcard for 341, he was interested. This was unusual.
Being curious, he examined it. It was a picture of a mountain lake with a hillside of tall trees. The writing was a boyish scrawl.
You will be glad to hear I am living at a lake just like the picture. I ran away and bummed it here and got a job with a rancher. He owns the lake. Wish you were here. It sure Is great for swimming aud everything.
Guard Conroy walked down the corridor and tossed the card through the bars. "Letter for you!" he called, as he passed on. The figure on the bed was interested in the newspaper held before his face. There was no response. A few minutes later. Guard Conroy made the seven-thirty inspection. As usual, 341 did not stand up, but as the guard passed by, he saw that the postcard still lay on the floor. He wondered at the convict's indifference to the first piece of mail he had ever received.
"Hey, there!" he called. "Why don't you read that postcard?"
There was no response.
Guard Conroy went on with the inspection, and as he went, he kept turning over in his mind the refusal of 341 to read the card. So he walked back to the cell.
"Stand up, 3411" he ordered.
No. 341 remained seated on his cot.
"Come, now, snap out of it!" commanded the guard in a louder voice.
Sure, now, that something was wrong, he unlocked the steel door and entered the cell, and pulled away the newspaper.
A dummy sat on the cot and 341 was gone.
The siren screamed again. The guards rushed from their quarters. Cars sprang from garages and through the gateways, as the massive gates swung open. The hunt was on.
The inmates were lined up at the doors of their cells, and a check was made to see if any others were missing.
The prison yard was searched, and under a box that had contained new machinery for the shop. Convict 341 was found. The siren had beaten him. It was, after all, the symbol of slavery.
And the siren had held as a trump in that game of time a card with the picture of a mountain lake, bearing a kindly message from the only friend Convict No. 341 had in all the world!
~ The End ~