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3b: The Battle with the Springs (b)

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Author Topic: 3b: The Battle with the Springs (b)  (Read 15 times)
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« on: March 01, 2023, 07:32:26 am »

Presently we heard the drone of a car climbing into the woods, and Hanbury and I passed out of the great gateway and sat down behind the chapel where we could not be seen.

As I afterwards found, the car contained five men, all of whom alighted, three only of whom spoke. These three were Ellis, the man whom I had knocked down, and the other who had answered Mansel at the level-crossing. The last was addressed by his companions as “Rose”---Mansel told us later that he was undoubtedly ‘Rose’ Noble, a man of some position among thieves---and my friend was called “Punter,” though whether that was a nickname I cannot say.

The car came to rest on the terrace, and we heard them alight, but for a moment or two they spoke between themselves, as though they had not seen Mansel, and believed the courtyard empty.

Then:

“Can I help you?” said Mansel.

When Ellis replied, his voice was shaking, and his speech thick with wrath.

“Yes,” he said, “you can. You can pop along off my land. That’ll save me the trouble of putting you out.”

“Oh, are you my landlord?” said Mansel. “Because, if you are, you can help me to clean out your well. It seems to have been used as a cemetery, and I didn’t come here to get typhoid.”

Ellis began to rave, but ‘Rose’ Noble put him aside.

“What’s this wash about landlords?”

“It’s very simple,” said Mansel, stifling a yawn. “If he owns this estate, he’s my landlord. If he doesn’t, he isn’t. So in any event the question of putting me out will not arise. But I tell you frankly I’m fed up about this well. Supposing----”

“Cut it out,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “Ellis here’s got you down. This place was for sale, and he’s bought it.”

“And I hold a fifty years’ lease,” said Mansel. “If he wasn’t told, he should have been. But perhaps they thought if he knew he wouldn’t buy. And now about this well. When I took the place I was given to understand----”

“You’re a great believer in bluff,” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

“You don’t believe me?” said Mansel. “Well, that’s as you please. But if I’m not here of right, why did they give me the keys?”

There was a moment’s silence.

Then: “Lease be damned,” roared Ellis. “I’ve bought the ------ place.”

“That gives you,” said Mansel, “no shadow of right to be here. Unless I’m behind with my rent, you can’t set a foot on this land---for fifty years.”

At this there was a great uproar, and I slipped into the road and up as close as I dared, to see that all was well.

‘Rose’ Noble and Punter were holding back Ellis, while Mansel was sitting still upon the rim of the well, with one leg cocked over the other, and a pipe in his mouth.

Presently the storm abated, and Ellis suffered Punter to lead him away to the car, on the step of which he sat down and mopped his face, while ‘Rose’ Noble continued to play the hand.

“Leases and what-not,” he said, “don’t cut much ice with me. The Law’s well enough in its place, but I guess we can do without it this afternoon.”

“If you mean,” said Mansel, “that you want to stay here and talk, I won’t ask you to withdraw for a quarter of an hour.”

“That,” said ‘Rose’ Noble quietly, “is exactly what I meant.”

With that, he took out a cigar and leaned his back against a tree.

“Do you seriously think,” he said, “that we’re going to sit right down and let you lift that treasure under our eyes?”

“Not for one moment,” said Mansel cheerfully.

“Then,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “why don’t you face the facts? We’re five to one and two boys: this isn’t exactly Holborn: and we’re not afraid to strike.”

“I know Ellis isn’t,” said Mansel.

At that Ellis started up with a volley of oaths, but ‘Rose’ Noble cursed him into silence, and returned to the charge.

“You know where that treasure is?”

“I do and I don’t,” said Mansel. “To be perfectly frank, I was going to start looking to-day, but this infernal well has upset my plans. You must have water, you know.”

“Quit that line,” said the other sharply. “And tell me---what do you know?”

“Yes, I see the fire-arm,” said Mansel. “But it doesn’t faze me. Unless I misjudge you, you’re not going to make the mistake which was made not far from Chartres three weeks ago.”

Ellis leapt to his feet.

“How long are we going to stand this?” he cried. “Put it across the---once for all. Shove the cards on the table. I’m sick of being chewed.”

‘Rose’ Noble disregarded him.

“You drew on me,” he said quietly, “by the side of the railway line. You made a hole in my car.”

“Two,” said Mansel. “Two holes, counting the petrol-tank.”

The other lighted his cigar.

“Two holes,” he said slowly. “And Punter was knocked down. And in spite of all that, I’m going to give you your choice.” He threw away the match and folded his arms. “Give us your map or plan or note or whatever it is: give up possession quietly: give me your word to keep out of Austria for the next six months, and I’ll let the three of you go.”

“I see,” said Mansel. “What’s the alternative?”

“We take possession,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “here and now: you will stay as our guests until the treasure is found. How long that period will be will depend upon your ability to withstand the inclination to drink. When it has been found, and we are gone, your future will depend upon how long it is before somebody passes this way.”

I never heard words uttered in a tone so cold and merciless, and Ellis appeared almost genial beside this sinister man.

He was a big, hook-nosed fellow with sandy hair. His face was grey and flabby, and he was very fat. He had a curious way of hooding his eyes, but when he drew back his lids---and this was seldom---you seemed to be looking upon two coals of fire, that were consumed with hatred of everything they saw.

When he had spoken, there was a little silence.

Then:
“That’s the stuff,” said Punter, with half a laugh.

“You think so?” said Mansel swiftly. “Well, we shall see.” He rose. “And now I’m going to be less generous than you. I’m going to give you no choice---except to withdraw. I’m not going to look for that treasure while you sit and watch me do it. I’m in no hurry: in fact, I’ve time to burn. I’ve taken a lease of this place for fifty years; the fishing round about here is such as I love, and at the present moment, though it doesn’t seem to interest you, I’ve got my hands full with this well. But don’t think, from what I say, that you’re free of these grounds. I’ve a right to order you off, and I’m going to do it right NOW. If after this, you return, you’ll return as trespassers, and you can take it from me that, so far as this estate is concerned, trespassers will be shot.”

With that, he looked round the courtyard, and, seeing, I suppose, something in his movement which they did not understand, the five men followed his gaze.

Asprawl in the mouth of the loft, Bell was covering ‘Rose’ Noble: each of the two open windows was framing a rifle-barrel, with a head and shoulders behind: and Hanbury stood in the gateway, and I was in the mouth of the road.

There was a long silence.

At length:
“That’s two tricks to you,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, rubbing his nose. “But I don’t think you’ll get any more. An ace and a King look pretty, but they only take one trick each, and I’d rather hold the rest of the suit.”

“Are you quite sure you do?” said Mansel.

“Yes,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “and let me tell you this. Before the game’s over you’ll remember this afternoon . . . and the sunshine . . . and the air . . . and the pretty, bright blue sky . . . And when you remember them, you’ll curse the---that bore you, and----”

Mansel had knocked him down, and, pistol in hand, was flat against the trunk of the lime-tree against which ‘Rose’ Noble had lately been leaning, before a man could cry out or a shot could be fired. I have never seen any movements so swiftly made; indeed, looking back at the episode, I cannot honestly say that I remember it in detail, for, though I was looking on, the matter was over before I knew it had begun, and I think that the wits of all present were similarly outrun, for an age seemed to elapse before Ellis started forward with a yell, and a hand to his hip.

“Don’t be a fool,” said Mansel, looking along his barrel into Ellis’ eyes. And then: “Put up your hands.”

I thought the fellow would have fallen down in a fit, for all the blood in his body seemed to go into his face, which grew more black then red, and he put a hand to his throat as though he were choking.

‘Rose’ Noble lay as he had fallen, flat on his back.

“Put up your hands,” said Mansel.

Ellis did so.

“You in the cap,” said Mansel, addressing the man who had driven, “take your seat in the car and turn her round.”

When this was done, he bade them take up ‘Rose’ Noble and put him into the car. They did so. Then he called the bearers to stand by Ellis’ side.

“You three will follow the car, with your hands above your heads. Drive on.”

The car moved off, but for a moment it looked as though the three pedestrians would rebel. However, I suppose they thought better of it, for, after looking at one another, like sulky dogs, with one accord they turned, and, using what dignity they could, walked out of the courtyard and down the road. Carson and Rowley followed as far as the bend; and that was the finish of a passage which was to spoil for ever my enjoyment of ‘strong’ play-acting, be it never so excellently done: for this was the real thing, and to this day the bare remembrance of the affair will quicken the beating of my heart and set my nerves tingling.

Here let me say that Mansel was a good deal troubled about ‘Rose’ Noble, fearing that the blow he had dealt him might prove fatal, for, as I afterwards learned, he had been a famous boxer, but had long abandoned the sport for fear of killing his man. However, as I shall show, he need have felt no concern.

Before we returned to the well, the six of us sought for points at which a man could play sentry with some success. This was by no means easy because of the woods, but, after a while, we found a ruined shrine on the top of a hill, which commanded the road for some way beyond the bend, and all that side of the estate. The shrine was about six hundred yards from the house, but there was no point nearer one half so valuable. With a sentinel there, we should be safe upon three sides, for to our North lay the river, and from the shrine you could watch the East and South: but the West was the devil. Search as we would, we could find no point at all whence the eye could observe so much as a third of the ground, and I think it would have taken four sentries to make that side secure. We had, therefore, perforce to be content with the hill-top beyond the great well. We did no more than settle these points that afternoon, nor did we visit them again the next day, but thereafter, from dawn to sunset, they were to be regularly occupied. This, to our great inconvenience: but it could not be helped.

We had scarce got back to the well and found that the water had risen eighteen inches in the last three hours, when the landlord of the inn arrived.

He was full of the strangers, who had stopped to ask their way at the inn and had lately returned in such disorder of mind, and was plainly agog to know their business and what was afoot.

We told him that of them we knew nothing till ten days ago, when they had stopped us in a forest with plain intent to rob. We told how we had bayed them, and how I had crippled their car, and supposed that it was sheer rage and a desire to revenge that injury which had induced the villains to dog us to Wagensburg. But, Mansel added, he imagined we had settled their hash, and, unless they were passing venomous, we should not be troubled again.

“All the same,” said he, “they are armed, and I’m taking no chances at all. So, when you come up to see us, come by day, for by night all men look alike, and we don’t want to hurt our friends.”

The landlord seemed perturbed at our tale, because, while Ellis and the driver had presently left in the car, the other malefactors were proposing to stay at his inn. ‘Rose’ Noble, who was still unconscious, had been carried upstairs to bed, and, though no German had been spoken, the others had made him know that they must have lodging and food. They had not asked for a doctor, and seemed untroubled by the condition of their friend: except for one battered suit-case, they had no luggage: their manner was overbearing and such as might be expected of lawless men.

We purposely offered him cold comfort, and, such was his agitation to think that he had been saddled with such undesirable guests, that the poor man displayed little interest in what he had come to see, and, merely inquiring what headway we were making against the springs, abstractedly accepted an order for supplies and set off on his way back to Lerai, like a man in an ugly dream.

By sundown we had taken another seventeen feet of water out of the well.

We were so much exhausted with our labour that not one of us was fit to descend, but we were all highly pleased to think that our net gain that day had been twenty-three feet and a half, and that now but thirty-nine feet of water remained in the well. Indeed, though no one said so, I believe each hoped in his heart that by the evening of the next day we should discover the shaft.

I suppose, that in view of our progress, it was natural to nurse such hopes, for, though we knew that the water would rise in the night, we had so far no knowledge of the well beyond that it had a reputation which had never been determinedly attacked; but our chagrin in the morning was the more bitter, and it was when we pulled up our measuring-line in the grey of the dawn that for the first time we knew that, when the Count committed his two leather bags to the well, he made them wards of a Court which respected no man, which just and unjust alike might seek to move in vain.

The forces of Nature were against us, and, whilst we slept, the springs had undone our labour, much as Penelope unravelled her famous web.

During the night, the water had risen no less than thirteen feet.

This was a great blow, for, though we were yet ten feet six to the good, it showed that the day before we must have passed springs which gave at a great pace, and that it was more than likely that the lower we went, the slighter would be our gain, until at length we should lose as much by night as we had won by day. In that case, the shaft would only be discovered by a furious spell of work, at the end of which, however exhausted we might be, an effort to reach the chamber would have to be instantly made, while those who did not descend must ceaselessly labour to keep the water down, and so save their fellows from being trapped.

Now, this was all conjecture, to which, I fancy, the dreariness of the hour and a threatening sky made generous godmothers, but there was no blinking the facts that our supper and a short night’s rest had proved extremely expensive, and that, without a sufficiency of food and sleep, we should never be able to counter the activity of the springs.

That any of the thieves would return to trouble us this day seemed so improbable that we took no precautions beyond keeping a servant in the house, and, except that Hanbury and Carson spent an hour laying wire to the west of the castle, to complete our system, we were five to fight the water all day long.

When, half an hour after sunset, the last bucketful was pulled up, there were only nineteen feet of water left in the well.

Had it been possible, we would have returned after supper and made one mighty effort to reach the shaft, but, though Mansel and Carson and I could, I believe, have continued, George Hanbury and Rowley and Bell could hardly stand for fatigue, and would, I think, have fallen asleep at their work: and, since to ask men so weary to play sentry would have been waste of breath, there was nothing to do but look forward to the following day.

Mansel, however, consented to my going down the well, to see what was to be seen, and locate, if I could, with a bar the mouth of the shaft.

Carson had made a small seat, like that of a swing; and this was made fast to the chain. Beneath the seat was a hook, and on this we hung the lamp: the bar we lashed so that it dangled below, just clear of my feet. Then I put on a coat and a lifeline, and they let me down.

The journey seemed unending, and I soon unhooked the lamp and looked about me whilst I was going down.

The condition of the masonry was as perfect as it had been above, but between most of the edges of the stones a thin blade of a knife would have passed, and this, I suppose, meant that they had been laid without cement to suffer the entry of the springs. That these were active was manifest, for fifty feet down the walls were running with water; but there was no gush anywhere, and where the great springs rose I could not tell. When I came to the pool, it was troubled on every side, yet so faintly that, had I not already known what to expect, I would not have believed that so unobtrusive an industry could have been so swift and masterful.

I then hung up the search-light, and took hold of the bar, and, signalling them to lower me till the water was over my knees, began to seek the shaft with all my might. But everything was against me. The bar was too short and too heavy: the water seemed like treacle to my weary arms; if I leaned to one side, my seat swung at once to the other, as though it would cast me out. At last, by rocking myself to and fro, I managed to sound every side for about three feet; but I could do no better and, when I had almost lost my seat for the second time, I took a last look round and gave the signal for the others to pull me up.

Now, I had looked to see if the niches I had found in the sides the day before ran all the way down the well: and I had found that they did so. But not until I was rising did it occur to me that, as the niches had been used, so they could serve again, and that the value of a stage, however rough, from which to search for the shaft or conduct any operations would be inestimable. Before, therefore, they landed me, I begged Mansel to send for a lath with which I might measure how long the beams must be; and, after a little, he let me have my way.

The measurement took some time, for, remembering how nearly I had twice lost my seat, I dared make no movement at all except with my hands, and Mansel and Carson had to hold me close to the wall. Then I could not see, until they had fixed the light, and twice the lath had to be returned and sawn to another length. However, at last it was over, and I was pulled up. And, after supper, that night Carson and I cut two rafters out of an outhouse roof; and, since of the wood in the stables three planks remained, before we lay down to sleep we had our stage.

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