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CHAPTER XXI
 

NOWAKOWSKI'S BOMB

 

THESE weeks spent in such close contact with the other residents of the prison gave me the opportunity for many interesting observations and fascinating experiences. The first came with Nowakowski. The calm, serious old man underwent a great change of disposition. Though he grew angry and nervous, his relations with me were always friendly and good; for, understanding instinctively that an enforced companionship in one room is a difficult and disagreeable trial, I always endeavoured to make my presence as unobtrusive and as little obnoxious as possible. I spoke only when he himself started the conversation, made no disorder or noise in the room and always moved as little and as quietly as possible; and, as Nowakowski bore himself in the same way, we got on very well together. We understood each other almost telepathically, so that we hardly needed to use words. On the other hand, everything outside of our cell angered the old man. The loud steps of the guards in the corridor so upset his equilibrium that he would run to the door and, hammering it with his fists, cry out:

"You put us into this 'stone bag' and even here leave us no peace, you executioners!"

He scolded the prisoners and soldiers, when they ran about in the yard; he continually complained about the badly baked bread which we received from the prison kitchen. One day, when he was especially out of humour, it happened that the Prosecutor and the Colonel in command of the gendarmes visited the prison. The news of this visit had an effect upon Nowakowski entirely comparable with that of the red cloak of the toreador on the maddened Andalusian bull in the Plaza de Toros.

"Executioners! Thieves! Robbers!" he muttered, snorting loudly and angrily.

We heard the doors of the cells being opened one after the other and finally our turn came.

"Have you any complaints to make about your treatment?" asked the Prosecutor, from behind whom peered out the red, smiling face of the Colonel. I was silent, but Nowakowski did not choose to follow my lead and let go at them:

"We have one principal complaint—we are illegally detained in prison, in spite of the fact that we are merely peaceful and cultured men."

The officials were surprised and gazed for a moment in silence. Finally the Prosecutor rebutted with:

"We are in no way responsible for this; we cannot change the sentence of the court. What I am concerned with is complaints about everyday occurrences."

"Look what sort of bread they give us!" exclaimed Nowakowski, snatching the loaf of bread and thrusting it under the nose of the Prosecutor. "The proper baking of bread, I suppose, is no concern of yours either?"

The Prosecutor examined the bread, sniffed it, felt it and handed it to the Colonel, who in turn inspected the loaf, sniffed it, felt it and returned it to Nowakowski.

"Yes," he muttered indecisively.

"Yes what?" the old man asked severely.

"Bread," the authorities answered in return. "Not 'bread,' but badly baked bread," Nowakowski exploded. "I insist upon an inquiry into the matter."

"Well …" was all the Prosecutor had to say, as he bade us good-bye and went out with the Colonel.

After they had gone, Nowakowski, with his round loaf in his hand, took up his post at the door and watched as a cat watches at the hole of a mouse. Then, just as the authorities accompanied by the Commandant of the Prison and the officer on duty, reached the head of the stairs, Nowakowski jerked the door open, rushed out into the corridor and shouted:

"A bomb! A bomb!" as he assumed the classic pose of the discus thrower and hurled the loaf after them. "The bomb" landed with a thud and bounded along the uneven flooring in their direction. The result was as electric as it was unexpected; for the Prosecutor, the Colonel and after them the Commandant and the watchers, jostling one another in panic, fought to get down the stairs away from the bomb of the angry old man. Only the officer on duty kept his head, waited till the loaf had spent its fury, picked it up and, bending over the banister, called out:

"It is only bread, common bread!"

"No, not 'common bread' but uncommonly badly baked bread," Nowakowski shouted at him.

When the old man was summoned to the prison office for this joke of his, I waited with impatience for his return. Contrary to my fears and expectations, he came back quite pleased and smiling, having left in the office all his spleen and anger, which was often only the result of nerves, that plague the prisoners in their unnatural confinement.

"How did you get out of it?"

"The Prosecutor, putting on a bold front, asked me what I called out when I threw the loaf. He was making himself look very terrible, to recover the amount of impressiveness lost by the rapid retreat he beat before the soldiers and watchers out into the prison yard. I answered him quite suavely: 'After throwing the bread, I called out to you that you had forgotten to take the loaf for the inquiry and that it was more like a bomb than bread.' Of course, I never said anything of the sort. I simply wanted to frighten these executioners of the Tsar and had to find some way out of it. Now we shall certainly have good bread and, what is more, we shall never see the Prosecutor again, which will be a great consolation."

And it was the calm, silent Nowakowski, always deeply immersed in thought, who played such a trick! Equally unusual was the result, for we did really have good bread afterwards, and the Prosecutor never paid us another visit.