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6b: Tester gives Tongue (b)

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Author Topic: 6b: Tester gives Tongue (b)  (Read 15 times)
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« on: March 02, 2023, 05:01:09 am »

“Then, what’s their game?” said ‘Rose’ Noble, half to himself.

“You can search me,” said Punter. “I’ve dreamed about it o’ nights.”

“One thing’s plain,” said the other. “They’re banking upon our failure to lick those springs.”

“An’ I don’t blame them,” muttered Job. “I’d back the ---- myself.”

Punter disregarded the gloss.

“An’, when we’ve chucked in our hand, they’re comin’ back.”

“That’s too easy,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “Besides, they’re a heap too careful to swallow a risk like that. Big Willie’s not got his feet up. But I’d give a bag of money to know his game.”

“Rose,” said Punter, “they’re waitin’. What else can they do? They didn’t half like that bomb. So they gave us the well. But they’re watchin’ an’ prayin’ all right, and, as soon as the pump starts suckin’, they’ll show a leg.”

“Maybe they will,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “But don’t tell me they’re sitting still. I’ve seen these Willies before, and they’re not that shape. I’d swear they were digging, but where’s their ---- shaft?”

“ ‘Diggin’ ’,” said Job. “My Gawd.”

“Where’s the use?” said Punter. “Say they’ve drove a tunnel as far as the well: you’d want half Lancashire to do it, but say they have. Well, who’s going to pull out a brick? There’s nothin’ the matter with the treasure, but there’s fifty tons of water waitin’ the other side. Talk about a dam burstin’. You don’t have to be an engineer to----”

“There’s a snag somewhere,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “I can feel it in my bones. They’re moving: I’ll swear they’re moving: and I think they’re under ground. What did they want with the well that afternoon?”

“They wanted the buckets,” said Punter.

“No they didn’t,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “If that was all they were after, why wouldn’t young Willie speak? If you want my opinion, those buckets are down in the well. When Mansel had got what he wanted, he just looked around to see what mess he could make: and the buckets came first.”

“You don’t say?” said Punter. And then, “The dirty dog.”

I was aghast at the man’s perspicacity, but Mansel, beside me, began to shake with laughter.

“The point is,” said ‘Rose’ Noble, “what did Big Willie want?”

No one vouchsafed any answer, and, after a pause, he continued, weighing his words.

“That pup was too blasted glib with his answers about the well. He wasn’t lying, but he talked like a ---- guide. Why? I’ll give you two answers, and you can take your choice. Either he was giving us a line which they had found N.B.G.: or else he left out of his budget some one essential fact.” He hesitated there for a moment. Then he went slowly on, speaking as though to himself. “ ‘A chamber,’ he called it: and then, ‘a recess in the wall’.”

“That’s right,” said Punter. “You bet it’s a sort of a cell, with a gratin’ to keep the bags from washin’ away.”

“Much more likely walled up,” the other replied. “No point in wet gold, if you can have it dry. And there’s where I’m bogged,” he added violently, “There’s something below they know of that we can’t guess. By ---- if I knew where they were.”

“Might help, might not,” said Punter.

“ ‘Might’?” sneered ‘Rose’ Noble. “ ‘Might’?” I could hear him suck in his breath. “Any one of the six would do: Little Willie, for choice. I shouldn’t lose him twice. And I guess he’d see the point of putting us wise. A man mayn’t value his life, but he’s always devilish sticky about parting with one of his skins.”

With his words came the chink of glass, and some liquid was poured.

“Seein’ ’s better than believin’,” said Punter. “Here’s to the ---- pump.”

I suppose the toast was honoured, and, after a moment, somebody rose to his feet.

“You two stay here,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “I’m going out for a stroll.”

Had I been alone, I should have run for cover, and, as like as not, had a bullet in my back for my pains. But Mansel stood fast. By his instant direction, Carson and I lay down while he set his back to the wall, sank his chin on his chest—to hide, as he afterwards told me, the white of his face---and folded his arms.

It seemed an age before ‘Rose’ Noble passed by, for he went very slowly, as a man in his enemy’s camp, and every four or five paces he stood where he was, still as a graven image, using his eyes and ears. Indeed, I shall always believe that the fellow’s instinct had told him that we were at hand, for I never saw demeanour so suspicious, and I think that, but for the light of the lamp with which he had just been sitting, which had taken the edge from his vision, he must have perceived Mansel, for he certainly looked straight at him for two or three seconds at a time.

At last, however, the darkness swallowed him up, and Mansel lifted his head. For a moment he stood peering: then he signed to me to lie still and began to steal, like a shadow, the way the other had gone. I was taken aback at his movement, for, armed though he was, to go after the monster alone seemed out of reason. And, when I remembered the humour ‘Rose’ Noble was in, I broke into a sweat.

It was not Mansel’s way to shoot a man in the back, and, since I made sure he was gone to kill ‘Rose’ Noble, I lay awaiting his challenge with my heart in my mouth. But, after four or five minutes, to my surprise and relief, Mansel emerged from the shadows, as silently as he had gone, and whispered to Carson and me to get to our feet. Then he drew our heads together and spoke in our ears.

“ ‘Rose’ Noble has gone to the castle: while he’s out of the way, I’m going to satisfy Punter that we’re playing a waiting game. Carson will stay here and watch. If ‘Rose’ Noble returns, shoot him. If he doesn’t, the moment I say ‘Good night,’ make straight for the sentinel peak. Chandos, you come with me, and do as I say.”

With that, he walked round the redoubt, with me at his heels. A gap in the wall to the South served as a narrow doorway and suffered the gutter to pass, and, after a careful survey, Mansel stepped lightly within.

“Good evening,” he said. “Put up your hands, please. And, above all, make no sound.”

The prohibition was needless, for Punter and Job were so much dumbfounded that neither of them, I am sure, could have cried out to save his life. Indeed, they sat like two waxworks, staring upon Mansel as though he were an apparition, with their jaws fallen and their eyes bulging out of their heads. Both were unshaven, and Punter was in his socks: a sorry pair of boots was standing on the rim of the well. The covered portion of the fastness was directly opposed to the doorway---above which hung a canvas blind, now hitched to one side---on the farther side of the well: and, since the two were there seated with their backs to the wall, Mansel had stepped to one side to have them in better view.

“Put up your hands,” he repeated.

The two obeyed.

Something between them and Mansel stirred in its sleep: and I saw that this was the innkeeper, stretched on the bare ground and tied, like a dog, to one of the pillars of the well.

“I’m sorry to intrude,” said Mansel, “but I’ve come all the way from Vichy, and to make such a journey for nothing is not my way. The really annoying thing is I’ve forgotten my measuring-line: but I dare say you can lend me some cord. William, there’s a coil on your left. Just make it fast to that crow-bar, and take the depth.”

I instantly fell to work, and a moment later the crow-bar was descending the well. While I was thus engaged, Mansel continued to talk.

“You see,” said he, “though I don’t suppose you know it, these springs are intermittent. It’s a well-known thing in Natural History, an intermittent spring. It ebbs and flows, you know, rather like the tides of the sea. Well, we had them on the ebb: and, if you’d got down to it that night you’d have had the treasure. I confess I was rather anxious, but when I took the depth the next day, while you were down in the combe, to my intense relief I found that the flood had begun. Now I shouldn’t tell you all this if the information would do you the slightest good. But it won’t: and I’ll tell you why. Because you don’t know when to expect the ebb. That’s where the well-digger’s statement is so valuable. Of course you can find out---by the process of---er---exhaustion.”

Here I touched bottom and began to pull up the bar.

“When it’s up,” said Mansel to me, “extend your arms and measure from tip to tip. You’re just six feet, aren’t you?”

I nodded, and he returned to Punter and Job.

“Of course, to get up against Nature is no end of a job. There’s a proverb you probably know, which is rather in point. ‘You can drive Nature out with a pitchfork, but she’ll always come back.’ I know you’re not using a pitchfork: you’re using a bucket instead. But, pitchfork or bucket, as you see, the result is the same. She always comes back.”

The cheerful tone in which Mansel delivered this dismal homily and the unpleasantly obvious pertinence of his remarks had their effect: for Punter looked ready to burst with mortification, and Job was regarding his second comforter with the fishy stare of one who perceives his fortune to be almost too repugnant to be true. Indeed, I had much ado to keep a straight face, and I dared not look at Mansel, for, if our eyes had met, I am sure the humour of the case would have been too much for us. I, therefore, busied myself with measuring roughly as much of the cord as was wet, and presently reported my finding of fifty-four feet.

“Dear, dear,” said Mansel. “That’s shocking. Why, the well will be full before dawn. You might just as well have rested to-day. Never mind. There’s nothing like exercise. And I expect you miss Ellis and Bunch.”

That shaft stung Job into speech.

“ ‘Miss Ellis’?” he groaned. “Oh, good-night, nurse!”

I was shaking with laughter, but Mansel only smiled.

“I passed them, coming from Salzburg. To be frank I don’t think they saw me: but they ought to have known the car. And now I must go. I’m sorry to miss ‘Rose’ Noble, but you must make my excuses and say I was pressed for time. Good night.”

With that he began to go backwards, and I stepped across the redoubt and out of the gap in its wall. The next second Mansel emerged, and we ran like hares for cover towards the sentinel peak.

“Behind a tree,” breathed Mansel. “They’re certain to fire.”

As I whipped round a trunk, somebody fired from the doorway, but the bullet passed over our heads.

“We must wait for ‘Rose’ Noble,” said Mansel. “And, while they’re putting him wise, we can go on our way. You can’t fire straight and argue at one and the same time.”

‘Rose’ Noble must have been returning, when the shot was fired, for we heard his voice almost at once demanding the truth.

Instead of telling him directly that we were at hand in the wood, both Punter and Job began to report what had passed with an incoherence which would have distracted anyone, and in an instant they were all three raving like men possessed. Under shelter of this exhibition, we beat our retreat, and, presently joining Carson, passed over the shoulder of the hill and back the way we had come.

We were well pleased with what we had found, but the head and front of our contentment was naturally furnished by Mansel’s brilliant stroke. Indeed, I cannot believe that the shrewdest of diplomats ever delivered a more dexterous thrust; and, when it is remembered that Mansel’s performance was improvised, that he conceived and executed it with his life, so to speak, in his hand, I think it will be clear that he was a man of lightning apprehension and notable detachment.

By his admirable fable of the intermittent springs he had offered an answer, at once most credible and gloomy, to every one of the problems that troubled the thieves, and had hung a very millstone about ‘Rose’ Noble’s neck, for, by confirming the bulk of the suspicions which the latter had openly avowed, he had highly prejudiced such efforts to hearten his fellows as the monster might presently make.

Indeed, as we afterwards learned, for a fortnight after his exploit, next to no water was taken out of the well, but ‘Rose’ Noble spent all of his time quelling mutinies, eating his own words and striving by hook or by crook to hold the gang together against some future attempt. That in this he succeeded does him, to my mind, great credit, for I have shown many times how ill he was served and what poor stomachs for work or for danger the other thieves had.

And here let me say that, to give the devil his due, ‘Rose’ Noble possessed a commanding personality, swift, vigilant and unearthly strong: and, behind it, like some familiar, stood his astounding instinct, continually showing him things which no manner of wisdom or prudence could ever have perceived. It seems he never ceased to maintain that we were digging, and that with a conviction so infectious that, although he could produce not one jot or tittle of warrant for what he said, the others came to accept this surmise as an established fact, and, though they would draw no water, to search with more or less diligence for any sign of a shaft. And that was, I think, a remarkable achievement: and, as is sometimes the way, it had its reward.


No one of us will ever forget the ninth night of June.

That day we had driven our shaft as far as the point from which Mansel had taken the bearing of the well, that is to say, we had covered just eighty-one yards: and there we had altered our course so as to head directly for where the chamber must lie. It seemed certain that eighty-nine yards, at the most, remained to be pierced; but we had fair reason to think that the distance would prove to be less, and that, when we had covered another eighty yards, we might expect any moment to strike the chamber. We were, therefore, come roughly half way to the region we sought: and this elated us all, as did the knowledge that the thieves were making no serious endeavour to empty the well: for, though because of their vigilance, we had been unable again to approach the redoubt, we had twice visited the spot upon which the gutter discharged and found it comparatively dry.

It was Hanbury’s turn to relieve Mansel: the night was warm and moonlit, and there was no wind at all.

The relief was more than half done: Carson, indeed, had already descended the shoot, and Mansel was stripped to the waist, when we heard Tester give tongue.

Sharp and clear, across the water came his deep, vigorous bark, bold and menacing.

For an instant we stood breathless, staring at the three long windows, through which the sound had come. Then, in a flash, Mansel had entered the shoot. I followed immediately, clad only in a zephyr and shorts, and was in the boat almost as soon as he. Without a word Carson bent to the sculls, and the craft leaped forward.

Our passage, usually so soon over, seemed that night as though it would never be done, and I well remember remarking how lovely the landscape looked, and what a queer contrast we offered---all of us dripping, and Carson, except for his shoes, mother-naked. All the time Tester was baying something furiously.

We were unarmed, and, as we came to the bank:

“Single file, please,” said Mansel. “We mustn’t bunch. And, when we come to the track, you will bear to the right and Carson to the left.”

I had the painter, and, before I had made fast the boat, Mansel and Carson were ashore and out of my sight.

Now the track which led to the quarry lay seventy paces or so from the river’s bank, some half of which they had run before I was out of the boat. An impression was, therefore, given that we were but two, and I ran straight into some stranger at the mouth of the track. He had clearly let the others go by and was making good his escape. He was a giant of a man, but I am no feather-weight, and the shock of our encounter sent us both to the ground. I was up in an instant, but he was quicker than I, and, what was worse, fleeter of foot, for, although I pursued him West for a mile or more, he gradually drew away and I had to give up his pursuit.

I then returned to the quarry, to Mansel’s evident relief; for all he had heard was our fall, and, before he had been able to reach the mouth of the track, the stranger and I were out of earshot. The car did not seem to have been touched, and no one of her locks had been tampered with: Tester was safe and sound: neither Mansel nor Carson had seen or heard anyone, and it seemed likely that the man I had chased had been the sole occasion of Tester’s wrath. Particularly to describe him, however, was beyond my power, for we had met in the shadows, and I had not seen his face. He was not one of the thieves nor yet the innkeeper; and, unless they had been reinforced, there was little to suggest that he had to do with the enemy, or, indeed, was anything more to be feared than an inquisitive peasant who had noticed George Hanbury’s arrival and found his behaviour strange. As such we found him unwelcome, but, if he was to see us no more, harmless. Yet, there was about the business one curious, disquieting fact, slight in its way as any ghost, yet one that we could not lay.

The fellow was a tanner by trade. That I could swear, for he reeked of the tannery. Now, I have always found an odour more reminiscent than even a melody, and I have but to become aware of some perfume to remember directly the circumstances in which I have smelt it before. Yet, though, the moment I scented the fellow, I knew I had encountered his like or his occupation quite recently, for the life of me I could not recall when or where it had been, and no artifice of Mansel’s could bring it back to my mind. In the ordinary way we should have dismissed the matter, but we could not help feeling that, if here was a clue to the interloper’s identity, it would be highly imprudent to cast it away; and, for myself, I was puzzled, for it was unlike my memory, having got so far, to be able to get no further. At last, however, we set aside the riddle, for there was work to be done, and, as Mansel said with reason, “sometimes the brain is mulish, and will do better if you put up your cudgel and let it be.”

Our policy had been always to take no avoidable risk, and, since if the car had been discovered, our store of timber also had been remarked, we at once decided to get as much of this as the cover of night would allow into the oubliette. As a rule, the relief had brought enough wood to last us for twenty-four hours, and this much had been delivered by Hanbury and Rowley that night; but, since without timber to advance the shaft would be at best a very perilous business, to transfer every balk that we could seemed but a natural precaution.

We, therefore, set about this removal without more ado. Rowley was brought to help us, while Hanbury and Bell stayed to receive the wood. We laboured with all our might till an hour before dawn, by which time we had carried a great deal, though not, it appeared, so much as we had already employed.

We made no attempt to find a fresh hiding-place for the car; for, for one thing, we had no mind to leave her any more unattended, and, for another, it seemed better in future to berth her each night at a different point, so that, if our visit was expected, at least we should not be playing clean into some peeper’s hands. The boat and sculls we decided to bestow in a culvert some four miles away, for they were nothing to carry, and, to take them up, as we passed, would be but a moment’s work.

The sky was pale when Rowley and I stood again in the gallery, and before Mansel could come to Salzburg, we knew that the sun would be high: but the smell of the timber all about us did our hearts good, and we lay down to sleep for an hour in the comfortable state of a garrison whose store of munitions is no longer without the fort.

Now, whether it was this reflection or the scent of the sawn wood that jogged my memory I cannot tell: but my mind whipped back to the tanner, and in a twinkling I remembered when and where I had noticed his particular odour before. And that put an end to my slumber before it was ever begun, and to that of the others as well: for, though I had clean forgotten it, I now recalled perfectly that I had become aware of the smell of tan at one and the same instant that I was felled from behind on that night of alarms and excursions when Mansel was down in the well.

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