In prison - The Amphibian Man by Alexander Belyaev

Acting on the instruction of the Court the experts examined the state of Ichthyander’s mental ability. They found he had great difficulty answering the simplest questions. Even when asked about the year, month or day Ichthyander kept answering, “I don’t know.” Yet, the experts were hesitant to declare him mentally deficient, for they realized that the state of his mind was due to his exceptional background and that the scope of his knowledge was bound to be limited. “Not responsible for his actions” was what they finally agreed on. And that made him unamenable to the law. The case against him was dropped and a guardianship suggested. Promptly two persons came forward: Zurita and Baltasar.

Salvator had been right in saying that Zurita had informed against him to get his revenge. But that was only part of the story. Zurita wanted Ichthyander back in his hands and saw the guardianship as an easy short-cut to that end. Zurita had not stopped at the expense of bribing the officials in charge with a dozen of his finest pearls and was now awaiting results in smug confidence.

Baltasar had claimed natural guardianship rights. But that was throwing straws against the wind. In spite of Larra’s efforts the experts refused to consider his client’s paternity on the strength of one witness, a brother of Baltasar’s at that.

Larra was not aware of the backstage influences in the case. Baltasar as plaintiff, as father robbed of his son, had been useful at Salvator’s trial; Baltasar as Ichthyander’s guardian ran counter to the interests of the Law and the Church.

Cristo who was now living at his brother’s was greatly worried about Baltasar. The old Indian would sit motionless for hours at a stretch, forgetting about food and sleep, then suddenly start rushing about the shop in a frenzy of excitement, shouting, “My son! My son! “ and hurling abuse at everything Spanish.

One day after another of such fits Baltasar said to Cristo:

“I’m going to the prison, brother. I’ll give my best pearls to the jailors so they let me see my son. Ill speak to him. Hell know I’m his father. A son will know his father. My blood’s sure to speak up in him.”

Try as he would Cristo could not dissuade his brother. Baltasar was adamant.

In prison he entreated some guards, wept at the feet of others, giving pearls to all till he finally got inside Ichthyander’s cell.

The small cell scantily illumined through the slit of a barred window was stuffy and smelly; the jailors didn’t bother to change the water in the tank often enough, nor did they carry away the fish offal the strange prisoner left after his meals.

Baltasar approached the tank and looked at the dark mirror of the water’s surface.

“Ichthyander! “ he called softly, and again, “Ichthyanderi “ but apart from a slight ripple on the surface nothing happened.

Baltasar waited a little, then stretched out a shaky hand and dipped it into the tepid water. It struck a shoulder. Instantly Ichthyander’s head popped out of the tank, followed by his shoulders.

“Who are you? What do you want?”

Baltasar sank onto his knees and stretching out his arms began rapidly:

“Ichthyander, your father’s come to you. Your real father. Salvator isn’t. Salvator’s an evil man. He disfigured you, Ichthyander! Look at me closely. You know I’m your father, don’t you?”

Water trickled in slow drops out of Ichthyander’s thick hair onto his pale face and down off his chin. His gaze was fixed on the old Indian, wistful and quizzical.

“I don’t know you,” he said.

“Ichthyander,” cried Baltasar, “look again! “ and, suddenly, clutching Ichthyander’s head, he pressed it to himself and started kissing it frenziedly, sobbing aloud.

Trying to escape the unexpected caresses Ichthyander splashed about in the tank, sending little eddies spilling over the rim onto the floor. All of a sudden a strong hand took Baltasar by the scruff of his neck, lifted him up bodily and threw him aside. He struck his head against the wall and slumped down.

When he opened his eyes it was to see Zurita towering over him, his right hand balled into a fist, his left flourishing a sheet of paper in triumph.

“See this? It’s the guardianship order. You’ll have to hunt elsewhere for a rich son for yourself. As to the young man here I take him home with me tomorrow. Got that?”

From where he lay huddled up against the wall Baltasar growled menacingly. The next moment, with a savage yell, he was up and at his enemy. Snatching the order out of Zurita’s hand and stuffing it into the mouth, he went on hitting out at the Spaniard. Zurita hit back.

The jailor, who witnessed the fight from the doorway, felt that the moment demanded the strictest neutrality; they both had been liberal in greasing his palm and he wanted to be loyal to both. So it wasn’t until Zurita started throttling Baltasar in dead earnest that the jailor stirred to action.

“There, there, don’t strangle him.”

However, deaf with rage, Zurita was pressing on his advantage and there’s no saying how it would have ended had a familiar voice not called out at that point.

“Senor guardian priming himself for his new duties-splendid! Well, what are you standing here for? Don’t you know your duties?” Salvator rapped at the two jailors for all the world as if he were the governor of the place.

Salvator’s words had immediate effect: the jailors rushed to drag the men apart. The noise attracted more jailors and soon order was restored.

Even in prison, even in face of a sure conviction, Salvator had retained his strength of spirit and his ability to command.

“Take them away,” he ordered. “I want to be left alone with Ichthyander.”

And the jailors complied. In spite of their noisy protests Zurita and Baltasar were taken away and the door shut.

When the clatter of boots had died away Salvator went across to the tank.

“Come out of there, Ichthyander,” he told the amphibian who had just looked out of the water. “I want to examine you.”

Ichthyander did as he was told.

“Nearer to the light,” Salvator went on, “that’s it. Breathe in and out. Deeper. Once more. Stop breathing. That’s it,” he said as he tapped Ichthyander’s chest and listened to his irregular breathing.

“Short of breath, aren’t you?”

“Yes, Father,” said Ichthyander.

“You’ve got only yourself to blame, you know,” said Salvator. “You shouldn’t have stayed on land for so long at a time.”

Ichthyander dropped his head and was lost in thought for a moment. Then he suddenly looked up straight into Salvator’s eyes.

“But why, Father?” he asked. “Why does everybody else live on land and I can’t?”

Salvator had more difficulty meeting that gaze, full of hidden reproach, than answering questions in Court. But he didn’t turn Ms eyes away.

“Because you possess what nobody else possesses: the ability to live under the water,” he said. “Supposing you had the option of becoming like everybody else here on land or living only in the ocean. What would you choose?”

“I don’t know,” Ichthyander drawled, after a moment’s though’t. The ocean and the land-meaning Gutierrez-were equally dear to him, but Gutierrez was lost for him now.

“The ocean, I should say,” he said.

“As a matter of fact you’ve chosen it already-by your disobedience. Now that the balance in your body’s upset it’s only the ocean for you, I’m afraid.”

“The ocean, yes, but not this horrible tank, Father. Ill die here! Oh, if only I could be back in the ocean! “

“I’ll do my best to see you delivered from prison as soon as possible,” Salvator said, smothering a sigh. “Keep a stiff upper lip, my boy,” and tapping on his shoulder by way of encouragement Salvator went out.

Back in his cell he sat down on the stool at the narrow table and fell into meditation.

Like any other surgeon he knew the bitter taste of failure. Quite a few people had died under his knife before he had attained his present skill. Yet his mind was not burdened by memories. Dozens had died to save thousands. He found the ratio comforting.

Now this was different. Ichthyander was his special pride. In Ichthyander he loved his best achievement. Besides, he had grown fond of the boy over the years and looked on him as his own son. So he sat there, worried, thinking about Ichthyander’s present condition and what the future held for him.

Somebody knocked at the door.

“Come in,” said Salvator.

“I’m not intruding, Professor?” the governor said in a low voice as he came in.

“Not at all,” Salvator said, rising. “How are your wife and child?”

“Very well, thank you. I’ve sent them to my wife’s mother, way in the Andes.”

“That’s right, mountain air is just the thing for them,” said Salvator. Throwing a glance at the door the governor came closer to Salvator.

“I owe you my wife’s life, Professor,” he began, his voice still lower. “I love her. I can’t-”

“No thanks are needed. I only did my duty.”

“Ill always feel I’m deeply in your debt,” said the governor. “And it’s not only that. I’ve got no education to speak of, but I read my newspaper and I know Professor Salvator’s worth. If you ask me, a person like you oughtn’t to be in prison, together with thieves and tramps.”

“As far as I know,” Salvator said with a smile, “my learned colleagues are doing their hardest to get me transferred to a padded cell.”

“An asylum is still a prison,” the governor retorted, “and even worse. Instead of thieves youll have lunatics for mates. No, that mustn’t happen,” and lowering his voice to a whisper, he said, “It’s not only for their health I send my family into the mountains. This is what I decided. Ill help you escape and will cut and run myself. Need made me take my job but I hate it. They won’t find me; as for you, you’ll leave the country. There’s something more I wanted to tell you,”he added after some hesitation. “I’m giving away an official secret, a state secret-”

“You needn’t do that,” Salvator interrupted him.

“Yes, but… I can’t… for one thing, I can’t carry out the horrid order I’ve received. My conscience would give me no rest all my life. And it’s all right when I think it’s you I’m giving it away to. You’ve done such a lot for me, and the authorities-I owe nothing to them, still less so they’re forcing a crime on me.”

“Are they?” was all Salvator said.

“Yes; I learned they are not going to give Ichthyander to either Baltasar or Zurita for all him being the guardian and the bribe money it’s cost him. They’re going-they’re going to kill Ichthyander.”

Salvator started slightly.

“Is that so? Go on! “

“Yes, kill him. That’s what the bishop has been after all the time, though, I suppose he never said it in so many words. They’ve given me the poison, potassium cyanide, I think they called it. Tonight I’m to spill it into Ichthyander’s tank. The prison doctor’s in on it. Hell certify death was caused by the operation you performed when making Ichthyander into an amphibian. If I don’t do it it’ll go real hard for me. And I’ve got a family to support. They’ve got me right where they want me, you see. I slipped up in the past-nothing serious though. Almost accidental. If I do it, they’ll shut me up for good later, no doubt. Anyhow my mind’s made up; I’m running away. I can’t and won’t kill Ichthyander. To save both of you-at such short notice-is impossible. But I can save you. I’ve thought of everything. I’m sorry for Ichthyander but your life’s more valuable. Youll create another Ichthyander, by your skill, but nobody in the world could create another Salvator.”

When he finished, Salvator shook the man’s hand and said:

“Thank you, but I can’t expose you to all this danger for my own sake-”

“There’s no danger. I’ve thought of everything.”

Wait a minute. I can’t accept this for my own sake. But if you agreed to save Ichthyander you’d be doing more for me than saving myself. I’m full of health and sure to find friends to help me out of prison. But Ichthyander must be freed without delay-all the more so because of what you’ve just told me.”

“I’ll do as you wish,” said the governor.

Left alone, Salvator smiled and said:

“Good. That’ll snatch the bone of contention away right under everybody’s nose.”

For some time Salvator was walking up and down the cell, then he went up to the table, wrote something on a sheet of paper, got up and knocked several times on the door.

“Please ask the governor to come to me.”

When the governor came Salvator said to him:

“There’s another thing I wanted to ask of you. Could you possibly arrange for me to visit Ichthyander today, for the last time?”

“Why, nothing could be easier. No authorities around, the whole prison’s at your disposal.”

“Splendid. And there’s one thing more.”

“I’m at your service.”

“In freeing Ichthyander youll be doing me an immense service — ”

“But you, Professor, you’ve done a lot for me, too.”

“All right, well consider we’re quits,” Salvator interrupted him. “Now, I want to help your family. Here, take this note. It’s just an address, signed with the letter ‘S’ for Salvator. If you’re ever in need of shelter or money remember the address. You can trust the man.”

“But-

“No buts, please. Now take me to Ichthyander.”

Ichthyander was surprised to see Salvator entering his cell for a second time that day. He was even more surprised when he caught his glance, at once sad and tender as never before.

“Ichthyander, my son, listen to me,” said Salvator. “We’re going to part soon, sooner than I expected, and perhaps for very long. Youll get your freedom tonight but I’m still worried about you. If you stay here you might become the slave of Zurita or some other brute like him-” “But what about you, Father?”

“Ill be convicted, of course, and tucked away for a stretch of two or more years. You must tide over it in a place both safe and far away. There is such a place, but very far from here, beyond South America, on one of the Tuamotu or Low Ar
chipelago islands in the Pacific. Youll not find it easy getting there and locating the spot but all the hazards you’re likely to encounter will be nothing compared to the risks you’d run dodging your enemies’ traps here, in the Rio de la Plata.

“Now about your route. You can get there, travelling round South America, either the southern or the northern way. Both routes have their advantages and disadvantages. The northern route is somewhat longer. Besides, you would have to pass through the Panama Canal, which is dangerous. You may be caught, particularly in the locks, or crushed to death by a ship. The canal is rather narrow and shallow. It is 500 feet at the widest and only 45 feet deep, so that the modern ocean-going vessels all but scrape the bottom with their keels.

“On the other hand, you’d be travelling in warm seas. Besides, three major shipping lines run westwards from the Panama Canal: two of them to New Zealand, the third to the Fiji Islands and farther. Choosing either of the New Zealand lanes and following the ships or even getting a ride on them would bring you almost to your destination. You’d only have to head a little more to the north and you’d be there.

“Now the southern route is shorter but you’d swim in colder waters, near the northernmost ice floes, especially if you went round Cape Horn. And you’d be ill advised to try to negotiate the Strait of Magellan. It’s much too stormy. It used to be a veritable graveyard for sailing-ships and is still considered very dangerous, particularly on the western side where it’s narrower and reef-ridden. Constant westerners of gale force drive the water before them so you’d have to swim upstream and across whirlpools that even for you might prove fatal.

“And that brings us back to the Cape Horn variant, even if it is longer. There’s the cold-water snag, too, but I hope you’ll get conditioned as you go and remain in good health. As for food youll have plenty of that in any part of the ocean.

“And then, of course, it’ll be a bit more difficult for you to find your way to the Tuamotu Archipelago from down there than from the Panama Canal. There’ll be no busy shipping lines to guide you. But youll have the place’s bearings and will be able to get sun fixes with a set of instruments I made specially for you. I’m afraid they might be quite a burden-”
“I’ll take Leading with me. Hell carry anything there is to carry. I don’t want to leave him behind, anyway. He must be missing me awfully.”

“I wonder who’s missing whom worse,” Salvator smiled. “Well, that’s settled. Splendid. When you get to the Tuamotu Islands, look for a solitary coral-fringed island. You will know it by a long mast with a big fish for a weathercock on its top. You can’t miss it. It might take you one, two or even three months to find it but never mind-youll strike it in the end. The water’s warm there and oysters plentiful.”

Salvator had taught Ichthyander to listen to what he said patiently, without interrupting, but here Ichthyander could not resist the sudden temptation to ask a question.

“But what shall I find on that island?”

“Friends. Kind and loyal friends,” said Salvator. “My old friend, Armand Villebois, the famous French oceanographer, lives there. I got to know and love him many years ago when I was in Europe. He’s a most interesting man but there’s no time to go into that now. I hope youll be able to make friends with him yourself and learn the story of what brought him to that lonely atoll in the Pacific. He’s far from lonely there though. His wife, a fine woman, and their two children live with him. His daughter was born on the island and should be about seventeen now, his son is older, about 25, I should think.

“They know all about you from my letters and I’m sure will receive you like one of the family — ” Salvator stopped short. “You’ll ‘have to spend most of your time in the water, of course. But youll be able to go ashore for a few hours every day. Perhaps, your health permitting, youll be able in the long run to stay as long on land as in the water.

“Armand Villebois will be like a father to you and. you in turn may prove indispensable for him in his scientific work. As it is, you know more about the ocean and its inhabitants than a dozen professors rolled in one.” Salvator smiled ironically. “Those cranks of experts questioned you — all according to the usual rigmarole — and you couldn’t answer because it didn’t happen to concern you. Now had they asked you, say, about the currents, water temperature and salinity in the Rio de la Plata and thereabouts, they would have been able to compile a fat volume of sound science out of your answers. Imagine the amount of facts you could gather-and then pass onto people-were your underwater excursions directed by such a brilliant scientist as Armand Villebois. Between him and you, I’m quite certain of it, you’ll produce a work on oceanography that will be a milestone in the development of that science. And your name will stand on the cover side by side with that of Armand Villebois — hell insist on it, or I don’t know him. Here you’d be forced to serve the base interests of ignorant grabbing people. There youll be serving science, that means the whole of humanity. And I’m sure that in the clear waters of the lagoon and at the Villebois’ you will find a haven and happiness.

“One more piece of advice. As soon as you’re in the ocean-and that should be tonight-go home immediately via the tunnel-there’’s only Jim at home-get the navigation instruments, knife and the rest, find your Leading and start on your way there and then, not even waiting for dawn to break.

“Farewell, Ichthyander, or rather, good-bye.”

Salvator embraced and kissed Ichthyander, which he had never done before. Then he smiled, patted Ichthyander on the shoulder, and saying, “Youll make it all right,” he left the cell.