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5a: We go to Ground (a)

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Author Topic: 5a: We go to Ground (a)  (Read 14 times)
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« on: March 01, 2023, 12:21:33 pm »

BY the time I awoke the next morning some order had been restored, and a table, upon which Rowley was serving breakfast, had been set in the harness-room. My head was sore and tender, but did not ache, and, though I would have liked to go out and breathe some fresh air---for neither by door nor window did the harness-room give upon the outside of the castle---I felt very little the worse for anything that had happened the night before.

Then Mansel and Hanbury appeared from the kitchen hall, and I learned that Carson and Bell were guarding the kitchen-quarters from the first floor of the house. To command the courtyard was simple, for this could be done from any window that looked upon it: and, as luck would have it, the South-West corner of the castle ran into a staircase-turret, from which anyone approaching the kitchen from the meadow side could be easily shot down.

There was, of course, a very great deal to be settled, but we had but to raise one issue to perceive that its consideration was depending upon our determination of another, and, by the time we had breakfasted, we had done little but agree upon two or three matters of fact.

The innkeeper knew of the treasure and where it lay. How he had learned the secret, it was idle to speculate: as like as not, he had held it for years, but, because he would not share it except with his two confederates, he had perforce been content to let the treasure lie. How nearly we had played into his hands was a disturbing thought.

The thieves as good as knew where the treasure lay: and, in view of what had to be done to reach the chamber, it seemed probable that they would press the innkeeper into their service: knowing what manner of men they were, the fellow would go reluctantly.

Our party, alone of the three, knew of the iron bars. This knowledge was of great value, for it showed that any dash for the treasure was doomed to failure, and that, even if we still had the well, unless we could work undisturbed, our chances of lifting the bags by way of the shaft would be almost negligible. Mansel had watched the water, whilst he was down in the well, and at the mouth of the shaft it rose at the pace of at least thirty inches an hour: and, since to cut through one bar would take the best part of three hours, such a load of labour, coming at the end of an exhausting day, would be more than five men could carry, unless they had each one the strength and endurance of a giant. And that would mean posting but one sentry, which was unthinkable.

Even reinforced by the landlord, the thieves would not labour as had we. For one thing, they had neither the physique nor the condition of body which we enjoyed: for another, they were out of their element. For all that, we hoped very much that they would make an attempt to re-empty the well, for that would keep them occupied and leave us more or less free to go about our business of finding another way. For that, if we were not to abandon the enterprise, we must clearly do.

And here we stepped into a very slough of difficulty: for, without the enemy’s knowledge, to drive a new shaft to the chamber was demanding the cunning of an Odysseus, and how, in the face of such aggression as we had met the night before, we were at once to prosecute such travail, hold the stables and maintain our supplies was a question which not one of us could pretend to answer. And yet, as luck would have it, thanks to George Hanbury’s most intelligent observation, this Gordian knot was unloosed within the hour.


When we had breakfasted, Mansel desired Hanbury to relieve Carson, and me to take Bell’s place, so that the two could come down and get some food, and it was half an hour later, when Bell had returned to the post which commanded the courtyard, that Hanbury asked Mansel and me to come to the staircase-turret, where Carson was keeping watch.

Admission to the turret was gained from a secondary hall, which cut the servants’ quarters from the rest of the house: like the kitchen and the servants’ hall, the turret had plainly survived, when the rest of the castle was burned, for it was manifestly aged and most solidly built: I imagine that of late years it had served as a back staircase to the mansion, for there was no other, and modern oil lamps were still hanging upon its walls; but it was a dark, break-neck place, and the servants that had to use it must have complained bitterly. The stair was winding and two feet six inches in width: the rises of the steps were high, and their treads at their broadest point were none too broad: the latter were, of course, wedge-shaped and tapered to nothing. There was, however, good handhold in the shape of a fine, deep groove cut in the outer wall and running up with the stairs. Walls, steps and all were smooth and had once shown a high polish, seldom found upon stone.

All this Hanbury showed us by the light of a torch.

“And now,” said he, “here is a curious thing.”

With that, he began to descend---for we had gone slowly up---and, when we were all but down, showed us a little landing, which we had scarcely observed, in the midst of the stair.

There were but two steps below it, between it and the hall: and the landing curved, as did the steps it served.

“But for this landing,” said George, “the stairs would not be so steep. It’s hardly a landing: it’s really the third stair up---with a very broad tread: about four feet in breadth. And the height it has cost the staircase has been regained by making inconveniently high the rises of the following stairs.”

When he had pointed this out, it was quite evident.

“And now,” he continued, “look at the hand-rail.”

Then he showed us that the hand-rail ceased where the landing began, and began again at once where the landing ceased.

“Finally,” said Hanbury, “look at this rise.”

With that, he stepped into the hall and lowered the torch.

At the top of the third rise, that is to say, two inches below the landing, were two little slots in the stone.

By Jove,” cried Mansel. “An oubliette.”

“An oubliette,” said Hanbury. “The innkeeper said there were no cellars, and I’ve no doubt he’s right. But, if this isn’t Axel the Red’s superfluous-guest-chamber, the next time I see him I’ll walk right up to ‘Rose’ Noble and ask him the way to go home.”

Then he showed us that the broad tread or landing was composed of four stones, three of which were slabs and could probably be withdrawn, as the lid of a pencil-box: but the fourth was fixed. Each was wedge-shaped, that is to say, it had the shape of a step.

“And now imagine,” he concluded, “those three slabs withdrawn. The guest is descending in the dark. Suddenly he steps into space, and, when he clutches at the hand-rail, the hand-rail is gone. What sort of a fall he has remains to be seen.”

Without a word, Mansel turned and left us, to seek some implements, while I went down on my knees and put my two forefingers into the slots. These led into two holes, cut in the broad tread, and, so soon as I felt them, I had no longer any doubt that Hanbury’s conclusion was no fancy, but a substantial truth.

And so it proved.

Mansel returned with a sponge, and was quickly followed by Rowley, bearing some tools and cord.

So soon as the landing was cleansed, it was easy to discern the joints and even the scratches, made upon the wall of the turret when the slabs had been withdrawn.

These marks were slightly higher than we should have expected to see them: but Mansel said that that showed that, before we could draw it out, we must somehow raise the edge of the first slab, for no doubt there was a fillet below, which held it locked into place.

In this he was right, and, but for his wit, we might have sought to withdraw the slab for forty days in vain: but, when we had raised it no more than an eighth of an inch, by means of a wedge, it yielded at once to our efforts and came directly away without any fuss.

Here let me say that the workmanship expended upon this devilish contrivance deserved a worthier theme, for the trap was most beautifully made. Each slab was recessed upon one of its edges, flanged on the other and mitred on either side, and each lay so snug against its fellow, the turret wall and the spindle round which the staircase curled, that, as Mansel said at the time, “only a brilliant observation would have seen anything at all in the landing but clumsiness of construction.”

We had now before us a hole, admitting to some dark place, so Mansel went off to recover and mend the search-light, while Hanbury, Rowley and I withdrew the remaining slabs. When these had been displaced, the hole revealed was some three and a half feet long: and of all the unfortunates who ever stepped into that space I cannot think one was saved; for, as I have said already, there was there no hand-rail, the stonework around was polished, and the sides of the trap were mitred, so that even the chances of an ape that had once lost its balance there would have been small indeed.

The air that came from below smelt fairly fresh and was not dank. But the darkness was impenetrable.

Presently Mansel returned, with the search-light in working order, and, when we had made this fast, we lowered it into the hole.

The first thing its beam revealed was the ‘bed’ upon which any victim of the trap must fall.

This was nothing less than a Cornish stile, that is to say, six low, thin fences of stone, built parallel and eighteen inches apart. As these were full forty feet below the trap, that anyone, falling upon them from the staircase, could fail to be broken in pieces was unthinkable. The very look of them shocked us, for it was terrible to regard preparation so nice, deliberate and permanent to send a fellow creature to meet his God.

Presently Hanbury spoke.

“Let me go down,” he said. “I’m not afraid of ghosts.”

“I’ll come with you,” said I. “It’s a two-man job.”

When Mansel had brought the search-light, he had brought a rope also, as well as the measuring-line. But he had not brought the seat which we had used in the well; so Rowley was sent for this and for a loose cushion, which we could use as a pad between the rope and the stone.

While he was gone, Mansel kept sniffing the air and, after a little, announced that the oubliette had some opening we could not see.

“I can feel no draught,” he said, “but I’ll swear that this air is fresh. And that’s as it should be. It was sometimes advisable to empty an oubliette, but to use the trap for that purpose would have been inconvenient. There was, therefore, a second entrance.” He stopped there to clap Hanbury on the back. “If I am right,” he continued, “and such an entrance exists on the northern or river side---well, if George Hanbury likes to demand two thirds of the treasure as his share, I don’t believe we can fairly dispute his claim.”

Though I had not Mansel’s foresight, I heartily agreed, for, if we had air to breathe the dungeon was plainly the place from which to drive our shaft, and, though a vent-hole would conduct the sound of our labour, provided it gave upon the river, there would be no one to hear.

Then Rowley returned with the seat and the loose cushion, and, without more ado, Hanbury was lowered into the oubliette. When he was down, I followed, full of instructions from Mansel to walk delicately and, above all things, not to give tongue, “for,” said he, “there is never any mistaking a voice which comes from under ground, and, if, as I think, we have found the clue to our labyrinth, it would be a thousand pities to put the enemy wise.”

The dungeon was some thirty feet square and roughly walled with stones, laid in cement. The weight of the turret was taken by three tremendous piers, between two of which lay the stile: this hideous thing was built of clean-cut stone, with a low wall at either end to hold the fences in place. The piers and the stile stood in a corner of the dungeon and took up much of its room. The place did not seem very damp, but was chill and smelt of the earth. So far as we could see, the walls were everywhere sound.

All this I observed with difficulty, for Hanbury had found a doorway, before I was down, and would scarcely permit me to look around for impatience to see whither the postern led.

The doorway was barred by an old iron gate, with a great clumsy lock, whose tongues, when shot, protruded into the stone jamb: but, though the gate was closed, it was not locked---an old negligence, I suppose, of some varlet which the Count himself might have pardoned, since the dead cannot open gates whether they be fastened or no.

The doorway admitted to a passage some five feet wide. This began at once to descend: there were no steps, but a very steep, smooth incline, upon which, such was its angle, it would have been easy to fall: but some old iron dogs, cemented at regular intervals into the walls, afforded handhold.

We descended gingerly: Hanbury went first, and I came behind him, with the lamp in my hand.

We had gone, it seemed, a long way, when the passage ran suddenly into another chamber, not so big as the first and, though lofty, not nearly so high. Its longer wall---for it was rectangular---was before us and contained three deep embrasures, the slits of which were rudely blocked with timbers, which were barred, like shutters, into place. That these windows looked out upon the world was evident, for, so soon as we masked the search-light, little streaks of daylight were appearing from all three. And from them, of course, came the air which had kept the great dungeon fresh.

At first it seemed that this was as far as we could go, but, after a little, we found a loose slab in a corner, close to the window wall. This was round, like a cellar-plate, and might have sealed the mouth of a cistern, for a bar had been sunk in its middle, by which a strong man could lift it out of its place.

We were by now quite sure that we were in a gallery which had been cut out of the cliff and that, when the shutters were down, we should see the river below us and the road on its farther side: but, though to my mind it did not matter---for, by the embrasures, we could have plenty of air---the slab did not look to me as though it was concealing an entrance, because, for one thing, it was round and, for another, too small to be hiding a flight of steps. And here I was at once right and wrong, for, when I had lifted it aside, the daylight showed us no entrance, but an exit as clean and simple as ever I saw. This was plainly a shoot, big enough to let a man’s body, and leading at a very steep angle directly to the river below. It was round and smooth, like a drain, and about a third of its mouth was under water.

We discovered later that the shoot in fact discharged into a deep pool: and I think there is little doubt that the bodies of those who had died upon the stile in the oubliette were afterwards disposed of in this way: for a corpse had but to be loaded, head and foot, and then shot into the pool, to sink into well-nigh impregnable oblivion.

That the passage by which we had come was little more than a ramp, down which to drag a body was child’s play, I think supports this view: but we never could make up our minds upon the purpose which the gallery or second chamber had been constructed to serve. It may have been a dungeon: it may have been merely the dreadful ‘robing-room’ in which the dead were ‘attired’ for their last journey: it may have been a retreat to which the Count could withdraw, if the castle fell, where he could rest for a while before he made his escape. Be that as it may, so far as we were concerned, it was a perfect withdrawing-room, airy, secluded, safe, and actually adjoining the dungeon from which we must drive our shaft.

And that was as far as I could see.

Then we returned to the dungeon, and Hanbury ascended, and Mansel came down in his stead. I showed him all we had found. When we came to the shoot, he laughed.

“We’re doomed to get wet,” he said.

I did not understand, and said so.

Mansel fingered his chin.

“William,” he said, “that bomb put the wind up us properly. So much so that this very night we leave Wagensburg---bag, baggage and cars---never to return. At least, that, I trust, is what ‘Rose’ Noble will think. Of course, he’s no fool, ‘Rose’ Noble. But, if we leave the stable doors open, he’ll have something to go on, won’t he? And I think we might call at the inn, to say ‘Good-bye’ to the landlord. That would be almost artistic.”

I could only stare.

Mansel laughed. Then he waved a hand at the chamber.

“Dormitory and parlour,” he said, “until the treasure is won. The cars stabled at Villach: supplies delivered by night, by means of the shoot. And, when we’re through, what an exit! Simple, unobtrusive and swift. All we need is a boat. Of course, George Hanbury should receive the D.S.O. And I think perhaps Axel the Red deserves a ‘mention.’ ”


By noon we had lowered into the oubliette everything loose that we had, except, of course, some arms and the furniture of the cars. Then Mansel and Carson descended, to arrange the electric light and install a muffled bell which should ring from the mouth of the shoot.

By lunch-time all was in order, and we had but to lay our plans.

These were easy to make.

We soon decided to leave Rowley and Bell behind in the oubliette, while the rest of us took the cars and left for Villach. To procure a good base should be easy; but we might have to go to Salzburg to find a collapsible boat. It seemed likely that we should be back by the following night. But, before we left the castle, there remained to be done two things of some importance. The first was to see, if we could, what action the enemy was taking: and the second, to determine, once for all, the direction in which to dig our shaft.

Now, when I perceived the gravity of this decision, the extreme difficulty of taking it and the impossibility of verifying its accuracy, I must honestly confess that my heart failed me. Had we had the estate to ourselves, to drive a tunnel near two hundred yards in length and twenty-five feet below ground, so as to hit a chamber some six feet square, would to my mind, have been a very difficult feat: but to accomplish this without being able so much as to survey, with this idea, the surface beneath which we were to burrow, without one definite measurement upon which to found our endeavour, would be, I felt, to perform a miracle.

Indeed, I said as much; to find, to my relief, that we were not so ill-equipped as I had imagined: for it appeared that, the evening before, whilst I was in the well, Mansel had pulled out a compass and taken a bearing by which he had determined the angle at which the shaft left the well. “And that,” said he, “is the kernel of the knowledge we need. The rest I will get, if not to-day, to-morrow: and, if not to-morrow, the next day. There’s, therefore, no cause for concern. Finally, we have yet to reconnoitre: and if we can wring a survey out of a reconnaissance, so much the better.”

Such comfortable words, coming from Mansel, went far to rout my misgivings, but I could not help hoping very hard that some sort of survey would be made possible by the enemy’s absence from the well, and at once proposed that I should go up to the roof, and, taking care to keep out of sight, see if I could perceive any sign of activity. To this suggestion Mansel agreed, and within five minutes I was upon the slates, looking towards the great well.

I could not see the meadow for the bushes and trees, but work of some sort was proceeding about the well, for, though there was no sound of the windlass, I heard repeatedly the smack of stone upon stone, and once the loose clatter of stones being shot on to the ground. These sounds I could not interpret, and, since I could hear nothing else and could see nowhere any movement, I presently descended to the hall and made my report.

That the thieves were drawing no water delighted us all, for nothing could have shown us more plainly how much they were underrating the activity of the springs. Moreover, by their failure to bale, they were throwing away the precious fruit of our labour, and, of their ignorance, letting slip an invaluable advantage. When we had first taken possession, some fifty-five feet of water had covered the mouth of the shaft: at daybreak this morning it was hidden by, at the most, nineteen: but, if they did not begin baling before dawn on the following day, the water would by then have regained almost the whole of the ground we had been at such pains to capture.

“Which shows,” said Hanbury, “that the innkeeper isn’t with them. If he were, he’d have put them wise.”

“Don’t be too sure,” said Mansel. “It’s a hundred to one they wouldn’t take his advice: but what is still more likely, is that he’ll hold his tongue. He doesn’t want to help ‘Rose’ Noble to the treasure. What would be his reward? Why, as like as not, they’d leave him down in the well. He knows that perfectly. And that’s why I very much hope they have impressed him. It will keep him out of mischief, and the quality of help he’ll give them will do as much harm as good.”

It was then arranged that he and I and Carson should go out on patrol, while Rowley watched the courtyard, and Hanbury and Bell covered our advance from the other side of the house.

Carson was to start from the courtyard, pass through the great gateway and move towards the meadow, with the path on his left: Mansel and I were to start from the West of the mansion: and we were to meet, if we could, in a dip which lay between the meadow and the trees which sheltered the house.

Before we set out, we closed the mouth of the dungeon. Then we took a pistol apiece: and Mansel put in his pocket a compass and a measuring-tape.

“And please remember,” he said, “we’re not out to fight: we’re going to see what’s afoot and to mark the lie of the land: a fuss, therefore, means failure: if there’s anyone in our way we must wait till he moves: he’s sure to do that before sundown, and it’s only just two. And there’s the slogan for to-day: ‘Take your time.’ ”

Mansel and I could only emerge from a window upon the first floor, for all those below were barred: but we had a short rope-ladder, which we had not yet tried. This certainly served our purpose, but it was the most awkward appliance I ever have used, for its rungs were of rope and gave way beneath my weight in a most disconcerting manner.

When we were down, Hanbury drew up the ladder, leaving only a little grey cord to hang against the wall, some seven feet above ground. We had but to twitch this to bring down the ladder at once; so, though it was very improbable that an unfriendly eye would perceive anything suspicious, our means of ascent was continually assured.

The first thing we did was to gain the shelter of the trees and lie down in the long grass. There we lay for ten minutes as still as death. During all that time we heard not the faintest sound, except, very indistinctly, the stony chink and clatter which I had heard from the roof.

At length Mansel gave the signal, and we began to move.

Using the greatest caution, we crawled South, keeping as close to the castle as the covert allowed. So we came to the corner where the staircase-turret stood. Here, again, we lay still for ten minutes or more. Then Mansel rose to his knees, and from his knees to his feet. For a moment he stood like a statue: then he looked slowly around. The next instant he was at the base of the turret, measuring-tape in hand.

I do not think that anything I ever saw Mansel do impressed me so much as the little survey he made at the foot of the castle wall. He was full in the open, and against the white, sunlit stone he offered a perfect mark: the work he was doing, if seen, would as good as betray our plans: his nearest cover was twenty-five paces away. Yet, though he worked for six minutes, he never once looked about him or even raised his head. Swiftly and silently he used the compass and tape, going about his business with the deliberate precision of one to whom time is no object, and entering figures in a note-book, as though he had the world to himself.

When he had quite finished, he took a long nail from his pocket and, placing its point where he had made a slight mark, pressed it well into the ground: then he hooked the end of the tape upon the head of the nail, and stepped across to where I lay in the grass.

“Kneel for a minute,” he said. I knelt. “You see that fir to our left, with the broken bough like a spout? I’m going to measure exactly how far it stands from the nail. Follow me, with the tape in your hand. Hold it continually taut, so that whatever happens it doesn’t slip off the nail.”

With that, he lay down in the grass and began to steal forward, paying out the tape as he went.

We had crawled and lain still and crawled again for nearly half-an-hour, and, so much were my fingers aching, I was beginning to wish the treasure at the bottom of the sea, when Mansel turned his head and signed to me to come alongside.

I did so gingerly.

“I can smell tobacco,” he breathed.

We were still ten paces from the fir, to which, except for the bushes, we had had a clear run: in threading the tape through these, Mansel had shown infinite patience, for, as may be readily understood, it was a trying exercise, and to perform it noiselessly had entailed a lot of finical labour.

At first I could smell no smoke, but after a moment or two a whiff came to my nose, and I was immediately sure that it came from the South. I told Mansel this, whereupon he at once went forward, bidding me stay where I was. Half a length clear of me he stopped, and, after a long wait, signed to me to come on. When I had done so and was lying alongside, he told me very gently to part the grass.

The first thing I saw was that we were at the end of the covert through which we had crawled and that the fir stood clear, on the edge of the little dip where we were to join Carson. Beyond lay the meadow. In this, twenty paces away, stood a little, curved breastwork composed of flat, loose stones such as go to the making of piled walls, and built to shelter a sentry from every side but the South. This little sconce was occupied, for the smoke we had smelt was floating over its parapet, and the crown of a soft, felt hat was just to be seen. Whoever was there was plainly taking his ease and was sitting down on the ground, with his back to the wall.

In the distance, about the well, ‘Rose’ Noble was directing the building of a kind of redoubt, in the shape of a wall of flat stones piled one upon the other and packed together with earth. These were brought up from the combe, from some wall or cabin, I suppose, which we had not observed, and were borne on a sort of hurdle by a bearer at either end. The sun was hot, and I did not envy them their labour; and, indeed, it was very clear that they did not like it themselves, for they staggered under their loads, like drunken men, and finally discharged them with the slovenly recklessness of one who is past caring.

Some sort of system was observed, for the two that had brought up the stones packed those they had brought into place, while the others reluctantly descended in search of more: but, partly for want of stones and partly because of the laziness of its builders, which was quite laughable to watch, the wall rose very slowly, and I was not surprised to see ‘Rose’ Noble fiercely impatient of such half-heartedness. What he said I could not hear, but the contempt and indignation of his gestures were unmistakable.

Perhaps, for us, the most engaging sight was that of the landlord of the inn, his wrist fastened by a cord to that of Punter, taking his turn with the latter of bringing up stones on the hurdle and packing them into place. A more dejected-looking workman I never have seen, and I imagine he was cursing the treasure and the well and Wagensburg from the bottom of his heart.

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