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3a: The Battle with the Springs (a)

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Author Topic: 3a: The Battle with the Springs (a)  (Read 14 times)
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« on: March 01, 2023, 07:30:45 am »

WHEN, ten minutes later, Mansel sat down on a bench and told us that we were forestalled, Hanbury and I stared at each other in dismay.

Before we could speak, Mansel proceeded to take the whole of the blame.

“I chose the wrong evil,” he said. “We had six hours’ start of Ellis, and I threw it away. I thought I was fighting a battle when I was running a race. And that was a bad mistake. And now we’ve all three got to think. Ellis has got the wheel, with the Law behind him: we’ve got the chart. The very least he expects is a compromise.”

“Never,” said I.

“I agree,” said Mansel, “for every reason. And that’s why we’ve got to think how to get the wheel.”

He rose then, and, promising to return in half an hour, sauntered away with Tester at his heels.

Hanbury and I sat still in the bright sunshine, saying little, but racking our brains for some way out of the pass.

To me it seemed to be surely a case of stalemate, a position which could only be relieved by our withdrawal from the field. If we had plainly retired, Ellis would hesitate to purchase, for to expend two or three thousand pounds on preventing another from taking what you would like to enjoy is the investment of a Crœsus, and, though there was a chance that his purchase would suggest to us the wisdom of coming to terms, to stake so much money so blindly would be unwarrantable. And I think that Hanbury thought the same, for beyond insisting that Mansel had made no mistake, to which I heartily agreed, he only remarked that the race was seldom to the swift, and that he was glad to have seen Salzburg.

The half-hour had not expired before Mansel came back, and, after glancing at his watch, sat down on the bench between us and asked me once again to describe Ellis.

I did so carefully.

“That was the fellow I saw,” said Hanbury.

“Very well,” said Mansel. “Now, listen. A week ago in London we dined at the Carlton Grill. There and then we agreed to buy Wagensburg, if the place was for sale. At the table next to us was seated a coarse-looking man, who seemed more than once to be listening to what we said. All of us noticed this, but, after we left the grill-room, we thought no more of the matter and went our ways. Yesterday we saw him again in the streets of Salzburg, and it occurs to us that he is the man who holds an option to purchase Wagensburg. If we are right, it is clear that he is no genuine purchaser, but an unprincipled villain, who is merely seeking to enrich himself at the vendor’s expense.” With that he rose to his feet and knocked out his pipe. “And now, we’ll go back to the house-agent. We’re all very angry, you know: but if I seem too much annoyed, you can try to calm me down.”

What followed I shall never forget.

By the time we arrived at the office, Mansel was seemingly beside himself with rage, and, when we were presently admitted to the agent’s room, he began to storm and rave like any madman. At first, such was his incoherence, that the agent was frightened to death, but, so soon as he gathered that Mansel was not angry with him, but with some common enemy, he became greatly excited, and, apparently catching the frenzy which possessed Mansel, demanded with howls of fury to be informed of the truth. This he was so long denied that I thought he would have lost his reason, for Mansel, while withholding the facts, never ceased to recite the most horrid and galling conclusions, and the unfortunate agent was actually squinting with emotion when Mansel had mercy upon him and told him his tale.

To judge from its effect, he told it very well, for, long before he had finished, the agent’s eyes were burning with wrath and indignation, and, when Mansel said he would wager that Ellis had never set foot in Carinthia, much less laid eyes upon Wagensburg, the other screeched that it was true, and that, when he had opened and shown him his book of photographs of properties for sale, Ellis had actually studied the opposite page. That Mansel would not have committed such an error was very obvious, for he had spoken throughout as though he knew Carinthia as well as the palm of his hand, and had constantly referred to castles and villages by name and to Wagensburg itself with a skilful familiarity which would have deceived a Judge. Indeed, all things considered, it was not at all surprising that the agent was swept off his feet and, snatching up a copy of the letter he had yesterday sent to Ellis, thrust it into Mansel’s hands and demanded brokenly to be told what he should do.

The letter acknowledged the receipt of five pounds, and stated that, by virtue of having paid that sum, Ellis had secured the sole right to purchase Wagensburg for two thousand five hundred pounds, and that this right would endure for one calendar month.

“Lease me the property to-day,” said Mansel, laying the letter down, “for fifty years at a rent of five pounds a year: in return, I’ll undertake, if Ellis doesn’t exercise his option---and when he hears of the lease I don’t believe he will---to purchase Wagensburg forthwith for three thousand pounds.”

For a moment the agent stared, then he began to laugh like a maniac; and Mansel with him.

The two laughed till they cried, as did Hanbury and I, for, though we did not understand what was the joke, unmoved to witness such paroxysms of mirth was beyond our power.

At last:

“Prepare the papers,” said Mansel, sinking into a chair and taking out bank-notes. “I’ll give you three hundred pounds as an earnest of the purchase price, to be returned to me if Ellis goes on.”

With that, he turned to Hanbury and me and told us what he had arranged, while the agent ran into an adjoining room and began to give instructions to one of his clerks. Very soon we heard a typewriter in action and within half an hour the two Agreements had been signed. Then Mansel wrote the agent a cheque for twenty-five pounds and said that that was compensation for the trouble and annoyance he had caused by discussing his private affairs in a public place: and so we parted, full of goodwill and understanding, which were immensely enhanced by the knowledge that we had undone a common enemy.

At six o’clock the next morning we left for Lerai, servants and baggage and all, in the two cars. We spent the night at the inn, and the next day, in compliance with instructions from Salzburg, the postmaster brought us the keys of Wagensburg.

Be sure we had taken possession within the hour.

---

To pick our quarters was plainly the first thing to do, and, after a short consideration, we decided to use the kitchen and servants’ hall. These were both spacious, and looked not into the courtyard, but on to the woods and meadows towards the great well. They were served by a decent hall, with a house door at either end, and a passage led into the stables by way of a harness-room. All this was very convenient. As well as possessing a certain privacy, the rooms were easy of access and could be approached directly from either side of the mansion: once within the stables, the cars would be under our hand; and, whether they were in the kitchen or in the harness-room, where it was arranged they should sleep, our servants would never be more than a few steps away.

So soon as the decision was taken, that part of the house was opened, the stable doors were set wide and the servants fell to cleaning our quarters as hard as they could “for,” said Mansel, “once we’re dug in, we’ve little or nothing to fear: but come on a man whose house is out of order, and you’ve an ally in his camp who is worth as much as yourself.”

Then he gave me a map and binocular, and asked me to stay on the terrace as sentinel, desiring me to locate what roads I could see and, when I had done that, to take Tester and prove the ground towards Lerai and see if there was a spot conveniently near from which the village and the bridge could be observed.

Then he and Hanbury began to unload the cars, unpacking the stores which we had bought at Salzburg and disclosing a quantity of stuff which we had brought from England, prominent among which were some electrical apparatus and a great deal of wire.

I saw no more, for I had my work to do, but, when I came back with my report---which was negative, for I could discover no point at all reasonably near from which the village could be viewed---two of the servants were washing the empty cars, the kitchen fire was burning, the hall was full of gear, orderly arranged, a table was set for luncheon under a tree, and the band of a well-known London restaurant was making us free of a selection from La Bohême.

When our meal was over, we sat and smoked on the terrace, while the servants were eating theirs, and then, for the first time, I began to appreciate the full charm of our surroundings.

The grandeur of the landscape which the terrace was commanding, as no royal box ever commanded a stage, the dignity of the pleasance upon which we sat, and the high woods all about us, made our present life seem like a handsome dream: and the silence, the sunlight and the sweet air showed me a side of Nature such as I never expect to see anywhere else.

My musing, however, was soon ended, for Mansel asked me to point out the roads I had managed to identify, and, though these were few, before he and Hanbury had imbibed what information I had, the servants had finished eating and Carson and Bell had returned to their work on the cars.

We then went to work with the wire which Mansel had brought, and, after two hours, had laid an invisible trap across the road of approach, and clean around the castle as far as the garden door which we were to use. This we connected to a battery, and then to a bell which hung in the kitchen hall, and, after a little adjustment, to our great content the arrangement worked very well, for the slightest pressure at any point was instantly reported. Then we laid a wire between the stables and the kitchen, and another from the kitchen to the great well, and so established a means of communication which might at any moment prove of great value. When this had been done, we turned our attention to installing electric light, and before sundown our quarters were adequately illumined, and the search-light which belonged to the Rolls was able, at our will, to reveal the depths of the well, as I will warrant they had never been revealed before. Then supper was served, and Mansel drew up some orders for the following day. These will sufficiently appear, but he wrote out some general orders which stayed pinned up in the hall, and, so far as I can remember, this was how they ran.

(1) Reveille at 4 a.m.
Breakfast at 7 a.m.
Supper one hour after sundown.

(2) No light of any kind which can be seen from the courtyard will be shown even for an instant.

(3) Accumulators will be charged, if necessary, from 4.15 a.m. and, in any event, each engine will be started and run for five minutes from that hour.

(4) So long as any sign of occupation can be seen from the courtyard, the road of approach will be watched.

(5) The alarum tape, wires and bells will be tested at reveille, dinner-time and sundown.

(6) In addition to their other duties: Carson will take sole charge of the cars and the electrical apparatus. Rowley will act as quarter-master and cook. Bell will clean the quarters and maintain the water supply.

(7) No one will leave the castle without acquainting me.

(8) The first sign of any approach will be immediately signalled.

(9) There will always be someone in the kitchen if there is no one on guard.


I can remember no more, but these rules show that Mansel did all that he could to guard against surprise and to insure that our work should go forward with the least embarrassment.

For all that, we were none too well placed. To gain the curtilage of the castle, without being observed, was singularly easy, and the well was two hundred yards from the garden door, so that anyone at all curious and prudent could watch our labour by the hour, and any sudden, determined aggression by three or four armed men would be difficult to counter.

We sat on the terrace for a while before going to bed, and heard some music from London, and at length the news, and, but for Mansel, Hanbury and I, I think, would have sat there most of the night, for a full moon was shining out of an empty sky and the prospect which the terrace commanded seemed more lovely than ever.

We were up and abroad the next morning before it was light, and, as soon as the alarums had been tested, repaired to the well.

Mansel had all ready a measuring-line. This was a very fine cord knotted at every inch and tagged at each foot, and at each end was fastened a lump of lead. The use of this proved that what the well-digger had said of its capacity was substantially correct, for the well was two-thirds full of water, and its depth was ninety-six feet. Allowing for the facts that the man would have spoken of metres, and not of feet, and that in so many years a deposit had surely been formed at the bottom of the well, we had no reason to suppose that his actual figures were not as good as ours. Sixty-two feet of water lay in the well.

I have already said that the well was twelve feet across, and, after a moment’s calculation, Hanbury drew in his breath.

“That chamber is sealed,” he said, “faster, I fancy, than even the well-digger dreamed. If we had a pump----”

“We should be no better off,” said Mansel. “A pump can push water, but to pull it up from a depth is beyond its power. If we installed a plant to supply the house, to make sure of water we should have to sink the pump; and no pump that ever was made could empty this well. Whether we can do it by bucket I can’t possibly tell, but I’m told that the last six months have been unusually dry, and so, if we go all out, I think we may be able to beat the springs.”

Hanbury examined the cupola which sheltered the well.

“We have two pulleys,” he said. “If we put a beam across and above the windlass, we can use two buckets together and, with the windlass, three.”

“That’s right,” said Mansel. “And now here’s another point. We must make a gutter to take the water away. If we don’t do that it’ll find its way back to the well.”

Then he picked up a stirrup and, looping the leather on to the hook which was dangling over the well, asked me if I would go down and see what I could.

I was only too ready to comply, but before I descended he made me put on a warm coat against the chill, and fastened about me a length of fine wire rope. I then set my foot in the stirrup and gripped the chain, and, Hanbury working the windlass and Mansel paying out the rope, I passed down into the well.

When I was close to the water, I bade them stop, and, when they had made all fast, they let down the search-light.

The well was beautifully built, and I do not believe such masonry is often rendered to-day. The stones had been finely cut, and, though no doubt they were cemented together, they were fitted so closely that the cement did not appear. There were no bars at all, nor any foot or handhold that I could see, but presently I discovered a series of niches regularly cut in the wall, one above the other and about two feet apart. They were scarce an inch deep, and I could not believe that there was any man, living or dead, daring or skilful enough to rise or descend by this means. Happening, however, to look round, I perceived another series, exactly corresponding, a quarter of the way round the well. These were more deeply cut; and it immediately occurred to me that these niches had supported one beam of a wooden stage on which the men had stood whilst building the wall. Sure enough, on the opposite side were the niches for the other beam, one twice as deep as the other: so that, given four clean-cut beams, the men who were working could have raised their stage as they pleased, without any help, two feet at a time. One or two pieces of wood were rotting on the surface of the water, and, here and there, little ferns were growing apparently out of the wall, but, otherwise, except that the sides were weather-stained, the well, so far as I could see, was as sound as a bell, and might have only been finished the week before. I could not see the spring working, although I peered very hard, and, since the surface of the water seemed to be motionless, I came to the conclusion that such water as we had drawn had been replaced in the night, and that, having filled this pool to the brim, the little underground stream had resumed its course. And here I soon saw I was right, for there was no watermark above the surface, and the well was plainly full.

All this information I cried to Mansel and Hanbury, and both were greatly delighted at the fine condition of the well; but, as I hung there, seemingly so far beneath them, the magnitude of our task appalled me, and I felt that the silent guardian of the leather bags was to prove a more formidable enemy than Ellis himself.

Then they pulled me up, and the atmosphere seemed sultry after the chill of the well.

Then we went back to the stables, where was some sawn wood, and before it was time for breakfast we had fixed a beam upon the free pillars immediately under the dome, and had lashed a pulley into place upon either side. Whilst we were doing this, Carson and Bell were bringing up planks, of which we had found quite a store, for with these we meant to make a gutter, in the shape of an endless trough, to conduct the water away. By the time we had settled upon the line this should take, it was seven o’clock, so we left the business there and returned to the house.

At breakfast we came to a decision of some importance. This was, plainly, that we should not attempt to conceal our endeavours to empty the well. It was, therefore, arranged that Mansel should drive to Lerai, as soon as he had bathed, and acquaint the landlord of the inn with our intention. He proposed to display great annoyance at being saddled at the outset with such a labour, and, on being asked the reason for our resolve, to say that last night we had drawn up the remains of a baby, which meant, of course, that the whole of the water was foul. He would then procure ropes and buckets and other implements, and even give out that, if after one or two days we needed assistance, he should desire the landlord to find us some men.

So he and Carson left at half past eight, taking the Rolls, whilst Hanbury and I returned at once to the meadow to set to work upon the troughs. With nails and hammer these were easy to make, and, as soon as Bell appeared, we gave him a pick and shovel, and set him to cutting the groove in which our gutter should lie.

Within the hour the bell by the well told us of Mansel’s return, and five minutes later we saw him appear in the meadow and come towards us.

“Did that bell ring?” he said shortly.

“Yes,” said Hanbury.

“Then, if you please,” said Mansel, “never disregard it again.”

And there he left it, for, as I have said, he was a man of few words: but there was that in his voice which there was no mistaking, and Hanbury and I felt as guilty and ashamed as though by some folly we had ruined our enterprise.

Then he told us that his tale had been well received, and that the landlord seemed genuinely distressed at our predicament, “for such,” said Mansel, “he plainly regards it: and when I said that we must empty the well, he threw up his hands. However, when I said that, unless the well could be cleaned, I should give up the place, he sent for buckets and ropes, and promised to come up this evening to see what help he could give. I then sent a wire to Maple’s, telling them not to dispatch my furniture: I fear it may puzzle them, but it supported my case and cleared the air.”

Here Carson appeared with a bucket as big as a bath: indeed, two men could not have carried it full, but it was made, I imagine, to receive refuse or to hold a store of water upon which a cook could draw. And I must frankly confess that it did my heart good to see it, for I felt that, if we had a giant’s task before us, it was something, at any rate, to have a giant’s tools to use.

By the time we had finished the gutter, which led down out of the meadow into a kind of combe, it was nearly eleven o’clock, and we sat down and drank some beer which Carson had brought.

Then Bell was sent to the kitchen, and Rowley came up in his stead; Mansel went up to the point in the farther wood, from which, as I have said, a man could observe some of the neighbouring ground; and Carson and Rowley took one rope, and Hanbury and I the other.

The work was hard to the point of severity, but the sight of so much water coming up out of the well was fuel to our endeavours, and we worked for twenty minutes without a break. Long before this Mansel had come to our assistance, for to land the buckets, when full, needed another man, and, lame as he was, he performed this awkward task as he did most things, that is to say, as though he had practised it all his life.

When we stopped for luncheon, we had taken eight feet of water out of the well.

When luncheon was over, we sat on the terrace for a little, under the shade of the limes.

Hanbury was asleep, Mansel was reading Lockhart’s Life of Scott---without which work, he said, he never travelled, because it was the best host a man’s mind could have---and I was lazily regarding the opposing country, when I noticed a patch of haze a great way off. I had hardly remarked it before it disappeared, and it came to me in a flash that it must have been dust. At once I rose and took the binocular, and, since I knew precisely where to look for the road, I was in time to see a closed car flash into and out of view on its journey South.

When I told Mansel, he nodded and said he was glad.

“It’s high time,” said he. “If they hadn’t appeared to-day, I should have been uneasy. I like the other side to do the obvious thing.”

With that he put up his volume, and, asking me to tell him when the car reached the spot from which we had first seen Wagensburg, rose to his feet and began to pace the courtyard, with his hands behind his back and his head in the air.

Presently the closed car appeared beyond the river, and when I reported this, Mansel called the servants, and I roused Hanbury and told him what was afoot.

Then Mansel spoke to us all.

“We’re going to be visited,” he said, “by five very angry men. I think there’ll be five, and I’m sure they’ll be angry. This is a good place to receive them for several reasons. I think perhaps I’d better play host, but I shall want some support. Mr. Hanbury will take the gateway, and Mr. Chandos the road: Carson will take that window, and Rowley that: and Bell will occupy the loft. Please be ready, but nobody show himself until you hear me say ‘NOW.’ And whatever happens, don’t fire. I believe in baring the teeth, but to use them, except to bite back, would be very foolish.”

Then the stable doors were opened, the Rolls was brought out, and out of her we were armed---the servants with sporting rifles, and Mansel, Hanbury and I with a pistol apiece.

The servants had been through the War, and took this quietly enough, but I never was so much excited in all my life, and pictures of blood-lettings and feats of arms rose up before me like so many common rooms of which I had been made free.

Then the car was returned to the stables, and the servants went to their posts, while Mansel showed Hanbury and me how a pistol should be handled, and that the safety-catch was the stile between life and death. After that, Mansel took Tester and shut him up in the house, and, when he came back, we sat down on the wall of the well, by the side of the house, until we should hear the car.

While we were there, Mansel inquired if there was any one line which we thought he should take in dealing with Ellis and his friends, “because,” said he, “beyond recommending them to return to the deuce, I’ve no plan at all. I don’t propose to deny that we’re looking for treasure, and I propose to announce that we’re cleaning the well. If you can’t conceal, advertise: it’s the next best thing. But I’ve little else in my mind, except that this courtyard is as much as they’re going to see.”

Hanbury and I had no suggestion to offer, if for no other reason, because to think at all clearly was beyond our power. This mean state of mind, I am sure, was due to our expectation of what was to come, and, since this failing is one which I have never cured, I have the more reverence for Mansel who, I think, could await the Powers of Darkness themselves without turning a hair.

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