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5b: We go to Ground (b)

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Author Topic: 5b: We go to Ground (b)  (Read 15 times)
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« on: March 01, 2023, 12:23:12 pm »

No one of them was suitably attired for manual labour, but Job was wearing a pair of white flannel trousers, which might have afforded him comfort, had he not been so anxious to keep them clean. In this the labour was against him, and his manifest concern for their condition was constantly provoking ‘Rose’ Noble’s wrath.

Ellis was not to be seen, which satisfied us that he was behind the breastwork, performing the duties of a sentinel according to his lights.

Now, all this encouraged me greatly, and, I fancy, Mansel as well; for it was plain as a pikestaff that, though the thieves ‘meant business,’ when they felt the pinch of labour there was only one man among them worth his salt, and that, if they could not draw water any better than they could build walls, their chances of reaching the shaft were slight indeed, to say nothing of Ellis’ exhibition, for which he deserved to be shot. All the same, there were still six paces between us and the fir, which was our immediate goal, and these lay in view of the meadow and all its occupants.

Now this, though I did not then know it, did not matter at all, for what Mansel had wanted to do was to reach some point from which he could see the well. And this we had done. So, after a little, he brought out a second nail and pressed it into the ground. The distance between the two nails was eighty-one yards. He then took the bearing of the well from the second nail. When he had done this, for an hour he lay very still, like a dog, with his eyes fixed upon the meadow and his chin on his hands. He told me later that during that time he endured the torment of a thief who, holding already some earring of very great value, regards its fellow from without some jeweller’s shop; for that, having got so far, not to be able to measure the distance from where we lay to the well was exasperating indeed.

At last he whispered to me to move a few paces back towards the house and to wait for him in a place where the cover was thick.

I had hardly done so before I saw Carson’s head a little way to our left, and, so soon as he saw that I saw him, he nodded and disappeared.

As soon as Mansel was back, he spoke in my ear.

“I think we must make a bid for the distance from the covert to the well. We may not need it; but, if we don’t take it now, I don’t think we shall be able to take it at all. Unless I’m mistaken, they’re not only building a shelter: they’re building their future home: and the idea of surveying even the curtilage of ‘Rose’ Noble’s bower, when occupied, makes no appeal to me. Now to drive them out of the meadow would be of no use: they’d certainly run for shelter, but, as soon as they’d won it, they’d stand; and then, though they might not hurt us, they’d see us at work. And that would be fatal. The only thing to be done is to draw them into the combe. Please, therefore, go back and get Hanbury. Leave the house together and see that Bell or Rowley pulls up the ladder out of sight. Then make your way to the combe, bearing West, well away from the meadow, beyond the sentinel peak. Locate their depot of stones and try to pick up their car. Then decide two things---first, what feint is most likely to draw them into the combe, and, secondly, how you and Hanbury are going to retire on the house. When you’ve taken these two decisions, await a convenient moment, and then demonstrate. Fire, start the engine of the car, shout---according as you think best. If you can do it, I should think the car is a sure draw. And the moment you’ve got them going, fade right away. For heaven’s sake take no risks: it isn’t worth it. And a minute and a half is enough for Carson and me. Now, is all that clear?”

I nodded.

“Good,” breathed Mansel. “As you go, please release the tape and pocket the nail: and remember, take your time.”

“I will,” I said.

Then I turned and left him, and started to crawl back towards the house.

It was, I suppose, some thirty minutes later that Hanbury and I rounded the south-western shoulder of the sentinel peak to see the closed car below us on a grass-grown track, close to a ruinous byre. Of this the walls were standing, and had been rudely loop-holed: but the roof was gone. Still, the place made a good block-house, and the ground about it was clear, affording a field of fire. The track was wet and muddy, because of all the water which we had drawn from the well: and, further East, the ground to the North of the track had the look of a bog. Two or three blankets were lying spread out in the sun, and bottles and papers and tins made a disorderly litter about the spot. A door of the car was open, and on this hung somebody’s coat: a couple of empty glasses stood on the running-board.

We had just observed all this when Punter and the innkeeper came plodding into view, the latter dragging the hurdle, as though he were tired of life. Arrived at the byre, Punter lay down on the ground, while the other began to pluck some stones from what was left of a pen by the side of the byre. He worked slowly enough in all conscience, yet too fast, I suppose, for Punter, for, when the hurdle was laden, the latter stared upon its burden and then, as though the sight shocked him, covered his eyes and lay back upon the ground. Indeed, so ludicrous was his demeanour that Hanbury and I began to shake with laughter, and, when his unfortunate companion began to gesticulate in manifest apprehension of the trouncing this delay would provoke, we could have roared with mirth. Punter, however, took no notice at all, and at last the other sat down and put his head in his hands.

Before they moved again, our plans were laid.

From what we remembered of the combe, there would come a moment when Punter, mounting the slope, could see ‘Rose’ Noble, yet have the car in his eye. At that moment we were to sally upon the car. I was to start her engine and, as though by accident, sound the electric horn, while Hanbury was to attack her petrol-tank. Directly we heard the cries sure to be raised, we were to fire at random, and I was to run up the track and Hanbury down. Once out of sight we were to take to the woods and make our way back to the castle, I by way of the shrine and Hanbury, who was fleeter of foot, by the line we had come.

The plan was simple enough, and, I think, sound: in fact, as I shall presently show, it served its purpose: but this it did at a price which we did not expect to pay, for I had just started the engine, after sounding the horn, and was watching Punter’s frenzy upon the brow of the rise, when two hands closed upon my windpipe with a grip so savage that I was unable to breathe, much less utter a sound. Be sure I fought like a madman, but the man behind me was strong and had the advantage. His thumbs were braced against the back of my neck, which might have been in a vice, and, having once got such a hold, for him to prevent me from leaving the driver’s seat was very easy. It seemed a long time before I heard cries raised, and then the noise of a shot. This sounded faint, and blurred, for the blood was pounding in my head, and I knew I was losing consciousness. Then I heard more cries, which seemed confused and distant, and I was still trying to determine what they might mean, when my senses left me.

---

I was sitting up on the ground, with my back to the near fore-wheel of the closed car. The hub-cap was hurting abominably, but about this I could do nothing, because I was lashed to the spokes and could not move. ‘Rose’ Noble was sitting on a box a few feet away, and, immediately opposite me, Ellis was leaning against the jamb of a doorway, framed by a high stone wall, with a cigar in his mouth. For a moment or two I could not make out where I was: then I saw that the car had been moved to the farther side of the byre, which now stood between it and the combe, and wholly concealed it from anyone North of the track.

I must have lain unconscious a long time, for the sun had just gone down.

“What do you know?” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

“I refuse to talk,” said I, “until you loosen this cord. I expect to be tied up, but this hub-cap is breaking my back.”

Ellis laughed and spat, but ‘Rose’ Noble only regarded me, rubbing his nose. Then, to my surprise, he rose and, coming behind me, began to loosen my bonds. Ellis’ surprise was plainly greater than mine, for, when he saw ‘Rose’ Noble’s purpose, he started forward with an oath, and dropped his cigar.

“What the devil are you doing?” he cried.

The other told him not to be a fool.

When the strain was gone, I thanked him, and he made fast the cords.

“And now,” he said, resuming his seat on the box, “what do you know?”

“I believe,” said I, “there’s a chamber at the bottom of that well.”

“How far down?” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

“Most of the way,” said I. “I can’t tell you for certain, because there was still too much water when last I went down: but I think it lies pretty low.”

“Were you the last to go down?”

“I was.”

“Can you speak German?” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

“Not a word.”

I knew what was in his mind, and was glad to make a true answer, for to lie when your statement cannot be checked is one thing, but to give a reply which another captive may instantly show to be false is another matter.

“When you say ‘a chamber’,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “what do you mean?”

I told him of the well-digger’s statement, only omitting to speak any word of the shaft.

“Then the treasure’s under water?” he said.

“It must be,” said I. “In some recess in the wall.”

“How far down did you get?”

“About forty feet below high-water mark.”

“That tells me nothing,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “How close did you get to the bottom of the well?”

“Within twenty-five feet.”

The man’s bearing was curiously soft: he was certainly examining me, but his manner was not unpleasant, though something abrupt: all the time he kept his eyes on my face, tilting his chin a little and blinking musingly.

“And now,” he said, looking away, “what are your plans?”

“At the present moment,” said I, “we have no plans.”

For a moment ‘Rose’ Noble did not move. Then he looked round and upon me, with his eyes wide.

I have tried before to describe the horror these lent his countenance, but I do not think I can ever begin to convey the appalling malevolence of his terrible gaze. It was not human: and, as I met it, I felt my hair rise upon my head.

“Guess again,” he purred.

I made him no answer, partly because I dared not trust my voice.

“Mansel,” continued ‘Rose’ Noble, “sent you two guys down here, to draw us away from the well. Why?

I was so much confounded by the man’s discernment that, instead of directly traversing what can only have been a conjecture, dressed up as a fact, I said nothing at all, but only stared upon him like a man in a dream.

Why?

I swallowed with difficulty.

“Mansel doesn’t talk,” I said hoarsely, “even to me. I know he wanted to have a look at the well, but he didn’t say why.”

The eyes seemed to scorch my brain.

Why d’you think?

I could only shake my head.

“He’s lying,” said Ellis. “He knows.”

“Yes,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “He knows.” He raised his voice. “Bunch!” The driver of the car appeared. “Take off the fan-strap.”

I suppose I might have known what was coming, but not until the belt had been taken from the cooling-fan it controlled and I had been spread-eagled, with my back flat against the radiator of the car, did I realise that pressure in the shape of heat, was to be put upon me to open my mouth. I had but a shirt to my back, and I could feel that the radiator was just warm.

“Start her up,” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

Bunch started the engine: then he played with the throttle, until she was ‘idling’ in a leisurely way.

‘Rose’ Noble got to his feet.

“I am not in the habit,” he said, “of wasting my time. I shall, therefore, require your answer before you are taken down. Bear that in mind. Before. So don’t wait too long before announcing your readiness to reply. Leave, so to speak, a margin of endurance.”

The cold, imperious tone stung me to speech.

“That’s not the way,” said I, “to address your betters.”

Ellis, who was moving away, stopped in his stride and turned: Bunch, who was fastening a bootlace, looked up at me, open-mouthed: ‘Rose’ Noble stood very still.

At length:

“That was a mistake,” he said slowly, “which Mansel would never have made.”

“Very likely,” said I, for I saw I had drawn blood, and this exhilarated me. “But then, he’s enough brain for five. And isn’t he quick with his hands?”

‘Rose’ Noble lifted his head and looked at the sky. This was dark with clouds, coming up from the West.

“After all,” he said, as though in soliloquy, “swans sing, don’t they? So why not a cygnet?”

Then he turned and walked firmly away, passing out of sight round the byre: Ellis followed him: and presently ‘Rose’ Noble’s voice called Bunch, and I was left alone.

It was more than half dark now, and already the radiator was growing unpleasantly warm. I attempted to hollow my back, but I was lashed so tight that I could only spare one region at the expense of another. I, therefore, began an endeavour to stretch the cords: unless I could do this quickly, I should not be able, I knew, to do it at all, for to brace myself against the radiator would soon be out of the question. I, therefore, like Samson, put forth all my strength, taking the strain for a quarter of a minute at a time, with the happy result that, after three or four efforts, though the cords held, I must have added full half an inch to their length, for I was able to stand quite clear of the now fiery metal. This was a great relief, but I knew that, unless I was soon to be saved, I had but postponed my torment.

I have often wondered why I did not lose heart, for my plight was really desperate, and my rescue could only follow the very capture of the byre: but, I suppose, a merciful Providence heartens those who else would have no hope at all, so that they may not be called upon to bear too great a burden. So I stood there hopefully, with my eyes on the corner of the byre, listening for any sound.

Suddenly a shot rang out.

Ellis was the first to appear, whipping into safety, like the dastard he was: ‘Rose’ Noble and Bunch followed hastily enough. They all passed into the byre without a word.

After a moment or two:

“That was Job’s side,” said Ellis. “Why doesn’t the ---- come in?”

“Because he’s asleep,” sneered ‘Rose’ Noble. “That’s the only thing that would keep Job at his post.”

Then I heard two more shots, and almost at once Bunch cried:

“There he is by the rotten stump. I can see his pants.”

Here came another shot, and those in the byre cried out that Job was down.

“Serve him right,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “for showing them where to shoot. This isn’t Wimbledon.”

“He’s up,” cried Bunch. “He’s up. Punched, though. Lame as a ---- tree.”

“What did I say?” said ‘Rose’ Noble. And then, with a dirty oath, “He’d be something more than lame if I’d been behind him.”

Here came the scuttle of feet, and Punter rounded the byre and flashed within.

“Job’s stopped one,” he cried, panting.

“You must teach him to run,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, acidly. “Take the right wall.”

“Curse this dark,” said Ellis. “I can’t see a ---- thing.”

“There’s nothing to see,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “We’ve only got to sit tight an’----”

“He’s down again,” cried Bunch. “Crawlin’ in.”

“Oh, ---- Job,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “Crawling or lying, what the hell do we care? Time to----”

A little burst of fire drowned what else he was saying, and I heard a bullet strike upon stone, and another sing over my head.

“Three flashes in front,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “Now for the other two.”

As though in reply came two shots, not far away.

“Five,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “Thank you, you clumsy fools. Ellis, they’re under that hump, trying to move around. Keep your eye on the track: they can’t cross that unseen. Bunch, take the left with Ellis and watch that road.”

“Job coming up, Punter,” said Bunch. “Don’----”

The profane unanimity with which his companions consigned poor Job and all his works to the devil argued that they had slight use for a wounded man. Had it been Ellis or ‘Rose’ Noble, I do not think the others would have been any more concerned; for they were confederates of necessity, and not at all of choice.

There was another spurt of shots.

“Three from the hump,” said Ellis. “An’ they don’t fancy that road.”

“Show you can see it,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “just to encourage the swine.”

As Ellis fired, Job crawled round the edge of the byre into my view, trailing his left leg. When he was round, he stopped short of the doorway, as though he had done enough. After a little, he propped himself on an elbow and looked about him.

The firing was hotter now, and, once and again, Ellis fired down the road. He or ‘Rose’ Noble always counted the flashes in a loud voice.

Job had seen me and was plainly puzzled by my attitude, for he craned his neck and peered, like a dim-sighted man. But even this inspection did not apparently satisfy his curiosity, for, after a little, he fell again upon his face and started to drag himself painfully almost up to my feet. There he lay for a moment, as though the effort had been too much for him. Then his arm stole out, and I felt him cutting my bonds.

“One flash from the right,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “Punter, watch your road.”

“Three from the hump,” said Ellis, and fired again.

“Can you walk?” breathed Mansel.

“Yes,” said I, free and trembling.

“Follow me.”

He stepped out of sight of the doorway behind the car, with me in his wake. Then he put his hand under my arm, and we began to run. A hundred yards later he stopped, to rip Job’s trousers from his legs. Then we crossed the track and headed straight for the combe. Half way up this, Mansel drew his pistol and, standing with his back to the byre, fired four shots in succession into the air.

“That’s the rally,” he explained. “And now you get back to the house. The courtyard door is open. And you might give Tester some water and tell him that I shall be back in a quarter of an hour.”

---

Mansel was as good as his word, and twenty-five minutes later we were all six within doors.

If I had then expected to hear his tale, I was disappointed, for Carson was sent forthwith to prepare the cars, and Rowley and Bell made ready to enter the oubliette.

Bell was the older of the two, and Mansel put him in charge.

“Move very carefully,” he said, “and make no unnecessary noise. During the day you may take down one of the shutters and open the shoot. You may do the same by night, provided you show no light. If I don’t come to-morrow night, I shall come the next night without fail: but not, of course, during the day. The bell from the shoot is muffled, so sleep with it to your ear; and test it at dusk.”

Then we lowered them into the dungeon, and, when they had found the search-light, we slid the slabs back into place. Mansel oversaw this action, himself wiping every edge with great particularity: and, when it was done, he took a handful of dust, which he had got from some chamber, and sprinkled it over the landing from side to side. Then he took a cloth and smeared the dust to and fro, finally wiping it off into an empty tin. When he had done this, not a joint was visible.

Much of the ceiling of the hall which led to the turret had been brought down by the bomb, and the powder had floated up the staircase and settled on every tread. That we had been busy hereabouts was, therefore, most evident, for the stairs were covered with footprints, especially about the mouth of the oubliette. We, therefore, swept the staircase as far as the windows we had used, after which Mansel took off his shoes and powdered it over again by dashing a bag full of plaster against the wall. We then pulled down most of the remains of the ceiling, to cover our use of the hall, and, when all the powder had settled, Hanbury and I walked once up and down the stairs.

So soon as this was done, we repaired to the stables, and, whilst Hanbury kept watch in the gateway, Mansel and Carson and I man-handled the cars through the courtyard on to the road of approach. When we felt them moving under their own weight, we put on the brakes. The Rolls was in the rear.

Then Mansel closed the stables and left by the kitchen hall door, locking it behind him: and, a moment later, we were moving down the drive in silence, except for the creak of leather and the brush of the tyres.

Hanbury and Carson rode in the first car, and Mansel, Tester and I went in the Rolls. When we came to the first bend, Mansel switched on our lights.

Lest someone of the village should notice that we were but four, Hanbury and Carson were to thread it as fast as they could, while Mansel and I were to stop and call at the inn.

This we did, to find the innkeeper’s wife in an uneasy temper, for, said she, her husband had gone out at dusk the day before, but had not said whither he was going, and had not returned. She rather feared, she added, that he was gone after some gypsies who always passed through Carinthia at this time of the year, and sometimes had with them horses which they were too ready to sell below their market worth. Mansel shrugged his shoulders and paid our account. When the woman asked if we were going, he said we should be back in ten days.

With that, we left her standing in the mouth of the inn, and, presently overtaking the others, reached Villach within the hour.

And there, whilst we ate our supper, Mansel told me his tale.

“I measured the distance,” he said, “from the second nail to the well. I made sure we should rouse friend Ellis behind the breastwork, but Carson had him covered, so I counted him out. The distance was one hundred and eleven yards. I sank the three buckets and I cut the two pulleys adrift and let them fall. Then, for the first time, I glanced at the sconce. It was empty, except for a hat on the top of a stick. By the side of the stick was a brazier, made out of a tin, and a handful of tobacco on some charcoal was smouldering gently. Not a very elaborate device, but, as no doubt ‘Rose’ Noble surmised, quite good enough to fool me.

“I confess that I felt humiliated, but I was much more alarmed. I had sent you down to play with an empty car---not to take tea with Ellis, who, you were sure, was asleep a quarter of a mile away.

“I reached the edge of the wood, to the right of the combe, in time to see the car being backed out of sight behind the byre. You were lying on the ground---to my great relief evidently no worse than senseless, for Ellis was lashing your wrists behind your back. Then he and Bunch picked you up and lugged you behind the byre. I observed that this had been loop-holed.

“It was clear that nothing could be usefully done towards your rescue until the sun was down and you had regained consciousness: so I left Carson to watch and returned for reinforcements. Hanbury, of course, believed you half-way to the shrine. While I was gone, Job and Punter were posted on either side of the combe. The landlord was tied to a tree---I suppose, for the night. Job went to sleep, of course: and, for the second time, Carson laid him out. It was then that I had the idea of assuming his personality. I pretended a wound, of course, to cover my limp: to tire and crawl in was the corollary of the wound. But I never hoped to find you without the byre.”

When I tried to say I was grateful, he would have none of my thanks.

“Had I been in your case,” he said shortly, “you would have done the same.”

For all that, to go down alone to that byre was a brave thing to do: and I think the knowledge that discovery would almost inevitably entail a fate far more dreadful than any sudden death would have daunted most men I know.

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