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The Etiquette Of Escape
by [?]

There is a girl in one of William de Morgan’s books who interrupts the narrator of a breathless tiger-hunting story with the rather disconcerting warning, “I’m on the side of the tiger; I always am.” It was the sporting instinct. Tigers may be wicked beasts who defend themselves when they are attacked, but one cannot help feeling a little sorry for them. Their number is up. The hunters are too many, the rifles too accurate, for the hunted to have any real chance. So she was on the side of the tiger; she always was.

In the same way I am on the side of the convict; I always am. Not, of course, until he is a convict. But when once the Law has condemned him, and he is safely in prison, then he is only one against so many. It is impossible not to sympathize with his attempts to escape. Perhaps, if one lived close to a prison, in a cottage, say, whose tenant was invariably called upon by any escaping prisoner and made to exchange clothes with the help of a crow-bar, one might feel differently. But in theory we are all of us inclined to applaud the man who fights successfully such a lone battle against such tremendous odds; yes, even if it was the blackest of crimes which sent him into captivity.

It is, therefore, extraordinarily jolly to read about the escape of political prisoners from gaol. One has to stifle no protests from one’s conscience while applauding them, for it is absurd to suppose that the world is any the worse place for their being loose again. Probably they are much more dangerous in prison than out of it. But besides applauding them, one envies them heartily. What fun they must have had when arranging it! What fun, too, to attempt an escape, when the worst that can happen to you, if you are recaptured, is that the next escape becomes a little more difficult. No bread and water, no punishment cell for a political prisoner.

All the same, these are not quite the ideal escapes. I am a trifle exigent in such matters. I allow my prisoners a little latitude, but there are certain rules which must be observed. Sinn Feiners, for instance, make it much too easy for themselves. Their friends from outside are permitted to visit them, and to discuss openly (but of course, in Irish) all the arrangements for the great day. When the day comes, they make off by motor-car, and as likely as not have a steam-yacht waiting for them on the coast. It was not thus that I used to escape in the early nineties. I observed the rules.

The first rule was that the only means of communication with outside was the roll of bread which formed one’s principal meal. Biting eagerly into the bread, the hungry prisoner found himself entangled in a message from his loved one. Of course, in these last few years he would just have thought that it was part of the bread, perhaps a trifle more indigestible than usual, but in those days he would have no excuse for not realizing that his Araminta was getting into touch with him. This first message did not say much; just “All my love, and I am sending a file to-morrow,” so as to prevent him from breaking his jaw on it. On the next day, he would open the roll cautiously, and behold! a small file would be embedded within.

It is wonderful what can be done with quite a small file. But we must remember that the world moved more slowly in those days. One had leisure in which to do a job of work properly. Perhaps our prisoner took a couple of years filing the gyves off his wrists (holding the file carefully in the teeth), and another year to remove the manacles from his ankles. Fortunately he was left alone to pursue these avocations. The goaler pushed in the daily portion of bread and water, but made no inquiry about his prisoner’s well-being. Only the essential tame rat kept him company, and Araminta outside, to whom he dropped an occasional note to say that he had done another millimetre that morning. Perhaps she did not get it; it was borne swiftly away by the river which flowed beneath the walls, and never came to the opposite bank, whereon she waited for him. But she did not lose hope. These things always took a long time.

And then, when the fetters had been removed, and two of the bars in the narrow window had been sawn through, there came the great moment. The prisoner was now free to tear his sheet and his blanket and his underclothes into strips, and plait himself a rope. One had to time this for the summer, of course. One couldn’t go cutting up one’s shirt in the middle of winter. So, upon a dark night in August, the prisoner tied his rope to the remaining bar, squeezed through the window, and let himself down into space. Was the rope long enough? It wasn’t, of course; it never was. But, once at the end of it, the prisoner would realize, his senses quickened by the emergency, that it was too late to go back. From the extreme end he breathed a prayer and dropped…. Splash! And five minutes later he was embracing Araminta. There was no pursuit; they were sportsmen in those days, and it was recognized that he had won.

That is the classic mode of escape. But there are variants of it which I am prepared to allow. The goaler may have a daughter, who, moved by the romantic history and pallor of the prisoner, may exchange clothes with him. The prisoner may pass himself off for dead, may be actually buried, and then rescued from the grave just in time by the pre-warned and ever-ready Araminta. There are many legitimate ways of escape, but the essential thing is that all messages to the prisoner from his Araminta outside should be conveyed in his loaf of bread. To whisper them in Irish is too easy, too unromantic.

But in any case I am on the side of the prisoner. I always am.