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7a: ‘Rose’ Noble Moves (a)

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Author Topic: 7a: ‘Rose’ Noble Moves (a)  (Read 16 times)
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« on: March 02, 2023, 09:45:22 am »

THERE was, naturally, much to be said: but, till Mansel returned to the dungeon, there was nothing to be done. And, since the commentary he made, so soon as he heard my news, was far more valuable than the swarm of conclusions which we had drawn out of the matter, I will set it down, using his words.

“A great deal is depending on how much the tanner saw. If he saw two come in the car, the presence of a third must have told him that we have some hiding-place hereabouts: if he saw the relief carrying timber, that should have made him think: but, if he saw the boat cross the river, he must know a damned sight too much. And it was a moonlit night.

“The point is---what will he do?

“His instinct will be to put the innkeeper wise. But the innkeeper is in balk. He will, therefore, endeavour to communicate with him without the knowledge of the thieves. And the only way to do that is through the inn.

“Now, I think it more than likely that now and again the landlord returns to his inn---under escort, of course. Otherwise, long before now, a hue and cry would have been raised. And that wouldn’t suit ‘Rose’ Noble. About once a week, I imagine, they take him back to the inn: and they give him to understand that, if he gets out of the car, that’s the last living movement he’ll make. Again, he has, without doubt, been straitly advised that upon the first sign of any attempt at his rescue he will immediately die. If they’ve got these things into his head---and, though he can’t speak German, from what I’ve seen of ‘Rose’ Noble, I should say he was ‘above Babel’---not fifty home-sweet-homes will drag him out of that car; and he probably tells his people that he’s having the time of his life. And that’s the way, I expect, they get their supplies.

“Very well. If the tanner tells the innkeeper, what will the latter do? I think it more than likely that he will give us away. I don’t say he’ll do so deliberately: but the tanner’s tidings will startle him, and, unless he’s alone to receive them---and that is most improbable---the thieves will perceive his emotion and demand to be told its cause.

“The first thing to do, therefore, is to visit the inn. If I had known this last night, I’d have gone there to-day. As it is, we must wait. I imagine that trouble is coming: but, unless the luck is against us, I don’t think it’s coming just yet.”

And that, for the moment, was as much as Mansel said: but, as later that night I sailed through the sleeping country towards St. Martin, I could not help wondering whether I was not making this now familiar journey for the last time, and, though the next day was fair as a day can be, I had no pleasure in it, and the pastime of fishing seemed to have lost its savour. Yet, I might have spared my concern; for, when I returned to the dungeon, it was to find all well, and throughout the relief we seemed to have the world to ourselves.

That night Mansel and Hanbury visited the track below the combe, but found no sign of water drawn out of the well. When Bell and I were come, we began to take in more wood: by dint of working till cock-crow without a break, we carried all that was left, to our comfort more of mind than of body, for, when it was all under ground, we could hardly move.

While we were thus engaged, some fifteen yards of our tunnel started to bulge and had to be shored up before we continued the shaft.

The next day Mansel visited Lerai and ate his lunch at the inn. The landlord’s wife proved only too willing to talk, and the first thing that Mansel learned was that her husband seemed to have thrown in his lot with the thieves, though what in the world they were doing and where they were she could not tell. With that, she had wrung her hands and presently thrown her apron over her head, declaring with tears that, if there was rogues’ company to be had, her lord would be sure to find it, though it lay a day’s journey off: for his mother had been a Roman, and, though she had died at his birth, the blood of lawlessness was in his veins. Then Mansel drew a bow at a venture and, observing that he would have thought that rogues in Carinthia were few, casually spoke of a tanner as the one rustic we had met that had worn the look of a knave. At once the hostess had let out a gush of abuse, avowing that the man and his brother were the black sheep of that part of the land, that her husband knew them well, and had harboured one for a fortnight when a warrant was out for his arrest. On the last two days, she added, the tanner had come to the inn, and, despite her insistence that her husband was away on a journey, had each time stayed for some hours, as though in a hope of his return. But on neither of those two days had the closed car come, as it did from time to time, to take up all manner of food. And here she fell to raving about the strangers’ score, by now amounting to some seventy English pounds, of which not one penny had been paid, declaring that here was the proof that her husband’s union with the thieves was something sinister, for that he was strict as a bailiff where debts were concerned. “However,” says she in the end, “no wind’s so ill that it blows no scruple of good: for the strangers’ ways may be evil, but the tanner’s are worse; and, at least, my husband is out of some villainy, for, now that the tanner has twice gone empty away, I do not think he will return.”

Herein we hoped very much that the woman was right: for, if the tanner’s discovery came to the knowledge of the thieves, our valuable system of reliefs would certainly be imperilled, if not destroyed, to say nothing of the fact that they would instantly know that we were driving a shaft.

I have shown already that, since our brush with the tanner, we berthed the car each night at some different place: but Mansel was not satisfied with this precaution, and presently determined that the relief should always begin at eleven o’clock, and that, from ten o’clock onward, one of the four in the dungeon should watch as much as he could of the opposite shore. This may appear to have been an idle exercise, because the sentry was too distant to see or hear any movement which was made in the danger zone: and I must confess that I did not myself account it worth the expense of a workman---for nowadays we laboured to all hours: but Mansel had given the order, and so it was done.

We had always kept in the dungeon a supply of tinned food, sufficient to last us some days: but this stock we now increased, until, if the worst came to pass, we could live for full three weeks without leaving the oubliette.

However, the days went by and no one troubled us: if the tanner watched us again, we never saw him: the soil at the foot of the gutter was sometimes drenched, but never the marsh we had made it: and, while the enemy’s labour was fitful, and they had, I think, no concerted plan of action, except to deny us the well, we continued to drive our shaft forward with all our might.

And here let me say that we were by now the owners of Wagensburg: for Ellis had let go his option, and Mansel had purchased the place. But I doubt if seigniory was ever so strangely enjoyed---the freeholders having their being, like rats, in the bowels of the earth, and in constant dread of their presence being observed, and their enemies in possession and coming and going and doing just as they pleased.

It was thirteen days to an hour since Tester had bayed the tanner, and Bell and I were engaged at the nose of the shaft, when I heard someone running towards us, and, the next moment, Rowley’s voice. Hanbury desired me, he said, to come to the gallery at once.

Leaving Bell to put out the search-light and follow me down, I immediately left for the gallery, making what haste I could: but, after the glare of the lamp, I was as good as blind, and the light of the candles which were burning in the shaft and the oubliette, was too feeble to guide my steps.

However, at last I was down, to find Hanbury at the middle embrasure, peering into the night.

His report was disquieting indeed.

“There’s someone across the river: I saw the flash of a torch.”

I do not think either of us doubted that the fat was now in the fire: for that anyone but one of the thieves would be using an electric torch about the quarry, or, indeed, for twenty miles round, was most improbable.

The time was half past ten; and Mansel was due to arrive at eleven o’clock.

Now where he would berth the Rolls we could not tell, beyond that it would be at some place within five hundred yards of the spot we had used as a quay: but, since there were but two roads---the one running South from Villach and into the other, which followed the river along---for the thieves to mark her arrival would be most easy; and, once they had seen her stop and her occupants separate, the most maladroit attack could hardly fail.

There was, therefore, but one thing to do, namely, to try to reach Mansel before the Rolls had entered the danger zone; and, since he was always punctual yet never hurried, it was perfectly plain that, if we were to be in time, we had not one moment to lose.

In a twinkling, our plans were laid.

Hanbury, who was a good runner, was to make the attempt: having swum the river and landed a little down stream, he was to strike across country and head for the Villach road. Bell and I were to follow, but, when we had crossed the river, we should approach the quarry and try to locate the thieves, so that, if Hanbury failed, at least we should be able to offer some other support. Rowley was to be left in charge of the oubliette.

Hanbury was gone in an instant, for he was lightly clad and waited for nothing: but for Bell and me to go unarmed would have been idle, and, since we must wrap up our pistols to save them from getting wet, we stripped and did the same with our clothes, before descending the shoot.

We were soon across the water, and, having made the bank at a place where a gurgling brook ran into the river, were able to dress in its gully without much apprehension of being seen or heard.

Indeed, the night itself was an invisible cloak: I never remember darkness so impenetrable: and there was not a breath of air.

I then did my best to consider what manner of ambush the thieves would determine to lay, but could only decide that the track which led to the quarry and the junction of the two roads were, for the moment, the two most probable points: we, therefore, crossed the road and began to move towards the junction, in the hope of hearing some sound which would help us to a better understanding of what was afoot. The track which led to the quarry ran out of the Villach road.

We had come, so far as I could judge, to within fifteen yards of the junction, when I heard the murmur of a voice a little way off. I at once stood still, the better to hear whence it came, but even as I did so, it ceased. After straining my ears in vain, I went cautiously on, to be instantly checked by a rope, stretched breast-high across the road, and stout enough to stop or disable a car that sought to pass by. This discovery shook me, for it showed that the thieves not only knew what to expect, but intended to take no chance of losing their prey. However, I was thankful to have made it: and, since Bell had with him his knife, we immediately severed the rope and let it lie.

It now seemed certain that, if we went on, past the junction, we should come to another rope, for to bar but one of two doors would have been out of reason: it was also equally clear that we had now come to the verge of the danger zone, and that this lay, roughly triangular, about the junction, with its base running directly from rope to rope, and its apex lying somewhere upon the Villach road.

Since I had no plan of action, to open the road, if we could, seemed plainly the first thing to do: and, with this intent, we picked our way to the river and started to hug its edge, in order to give the junction as wide a berth as we could.

We had reached a point opposite the junction, and, from where I was standing, I could see the pale smear which the Villach road made upon the black of the night, when I felt Bell’s fingers close upon my arm. I suppose his grip was telltale, for, though he breathed no word, in that instant I certainly knew that the worst had happened, and that Hanbury had lost his race.

So we stood, still as death, for five seconds: then I heard the brush of a tyre, as it rounded a hairpin bend.

I have heard it said that, though the approach of a crisis is apt to scatter the wits, its sudden descent will sometimes whip them back into a battle array. So it was with me at that moment: for, though for a quarter of an hour I had been groping feverishly, my disorder suddenly left me, and I saw as clear as daylight what I must do.

At once I drew my pistol and fired twice across the road.

I thought the consequent din would never die; but at last the echoes faded, and we were able to listen for lesser sounds.

The Rolls had stopped.

Now, though we had ruined the ambush, there was still the devil to pay, for I knew the way was too narrow to let the Rolls go about, and that to reverse in such darkness along so crooked a road was out of the question. But it suddenly came to my mind that if Mansel were to switch on his headlights and run for it towards Lerai, that is to say turn to the left at the junction, we should be out of the wood; for the thieves would almost certainly suffer the car to go by in the full expectation that she would be wrecked by the rope. I, therefore, decided to join Mansel as quickly as ever I could and, whispering to Bell to follow, hastened across the foreshore and on to the road.

Pitch-dark though it was, I dared not go directly by way of the Villach road, and we had just started back towards Lerai, when I heard the deep breath of an engine, and then the Rolls coming, with the rush of a mighty wind.

Mansel had divined the best course, and was making his dash. And all would be well, provided he turned to the left. If, at the junction, he turned to the right instead . . .

I know that for one long moment my heart stood still.

Then, throwing caution to the winds, Bell and I turned and raced for the second rope.

The junction was now bright as day, and the car was so close that, had there been nothing to gain, I should not have crossed its path, but have waited for it to go by. I found myself praying that Mansel would turn to the left. As he swooped at the corner I ran clean into the rope, but the Rolls was round and coming before I had opened Bell’s knife. I slashed at the rope like a madman, but before I could cut it right through the car swept by, and, ripping it out of my hand, mercifully snapped asunder such strands as were left.

As we ran in the wake of the Rolls, I heard an ejaculation and then a spurt of high words, but, though I was sure I heard Ellis, I could not distinguish ‘Rose’ Noble’s masterful voice.

The Rolls had vanished, and I was beginning to wonder whether it would not be wiser to let Bell go on, while I returned to see what the thieves were doing and, if I could, meet Hanbury, when Mansel rose out of the shadows and spoke my name.

I told him my tale.

“I’m much obliged,” he said quietly. “You were up against time and the thieves, and you beat them both. When I am so placed, I hope I shall do as well. I think it likely that Hanbury missed his way: it’s very hard to go straight on a night like this. And that’s why we must get back. Your shots will bring him to the junction, and we don’t want an accident.”

With that, he showed us the boat and the sculls in a ditch, and proposed to take to the water and scull down stream. “For the way of a river,” said he, “is swift and safe and silent, and I was a fool not to have used it before.”

In this he was unfair to himself, for the relief nowadays took up the best part of an hour, four water-journeys having to be made each night: and, if these journeys had been considerably lengthened, we should have been worn out before we could get to bed.

Then he told us that the Rolls was gone, and would not come back that way; but that Carson had orders to be at the culvert at three, and, if no one of us came before four o’clock, to return to Salzburg. Before he went, he would leave a note wedged in the brickwork, to say he was safe, and, when twenty-four hours had gone by, he would come there again. So he would continue to do, until one of us came to meet him or he found a note under the arch.

“And now for Hanbury,” said Mansel: “and then for the oubliette.”

We slipped down the river noiselessly, and, when we approached the bend, at a signal from Mansel, Bell, who was rowing, rested upon his oars. We could hear no sound at all, and, after drifting for a moment, Mansel whispered to Bell to head for the shoot.

So thick was the darkness that Bell, not unnaturally, sculled to the side of the stream and, when he could make out the bank, began to follow this down.

We had just passed the slope of the woods and come to the cliff, when a torch was flashed twice from the bank five paces away. Before we could think, came two flashes from the opposite side.

And that was all.

At once Bell lay on his oars: but, after listening intently, Mansel bade him scull for the shoot.

Almost at once we were there, and Mansel put up a hand and rang the bell.

So soon as the flap was lifted:

“Listen, Rowley,” says Mansel, putting his mouth to the shoot. “Is Mr. Hanbury with you?”

“No, sir.”

“Have you anything to report?”

“Two flashes a moment ago, sir: but nothing else.”

Mansel turned to me.

“William,” he said, “I don’t think we’re out of the wood. To be perfectly honest, I’m altogether at sea. I know neither what to do nor what to think. But what bothers me most of all is---where is ‘Rose’ Noble? That being so, I’d rather you held the fort. So you go up, and send Rowley down to me. And then we’ll go and find George.”

I did not at all relish the prospect of garrison duty at such a time; for, if trouble was coming, to be mewed up within sound of the skirmish would be well-nigh unbearable. But, since I had nothing to plead but my own reluctance, I stripped with what haste I could, and, two minutes later, Rowley had taken my place.

The night was so dark and so still that, for a moment, I thought the windows were shuttered, and was stupidly astonished to find the timbers gone: and, when I looked out, I might have been gazing into a bottomless pit. However, I took my seat in the middle embrasure and, cupping my chin in my palm, stared resolutely into the darkness, with my ears pricked to gather the faintest sound. But all I could hear was the regular lap of the water against the face of the cliff.

It had all along been in my mind that Mansel and Hanbury would cross: and, when, but a short five minutes after the former had left, the bell from the shoot announced the latter’s return, I was less surprised than provoked by this well-worn trick of Fortune: for there was Mansel gone out on a sleeveless errand into the midst of some danger he could not read, and that at a time when the last thing we needed to do was to play the spy and everything was to be gained by lying close below ground.

However, the milk was spilt: and, since to tread water is a laborious exercise, I lost no time in setting aside the flap and letting the ladder down.

It was immediately clear that George was very near spent, for, when I called to him he had not the breath to answer and when at last he was fairly upon the ladder, he hung there, panting, like a dog on a sultry day. I asked if I should come down, but he took no notice, and, after a little while, he began to ascend. I was alarmed by his demeanour, which was that of the survivor of some catastrophe, and, squatting down at the head of the ladder, reached out my hands to help him out of the shoot.

Now, I had intended to set my hands under his arms, but the moment I touched him he threw an arm round my neck. To save myself from falling I instinctively flung myself back and, since in that instant he heaved, the two of us fell down together on to the flags.

“Thanks very much,” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

Then I felt the mouth of a pistol pressed tight against my throat.


I can never describe the disgust and the horror I felt: but the brain is a curious member, and, as I lay there on the pavement, with the bulk of his body upon me, I could not help thinking that ‘Rose’ Noble’s ascent of the shoot was a remarkable feat for a man of his corpulent habit, and wondering how he had made it without the support of an oath.

He was lightly clad, but the clothes he was wearing were drenched; and the absurd conceit that I was in the clutches of some aquatic monster was most repugnant. Nevertheless, I had the sense to lie still: and, after a little, ‘Rose’ Noble got to his knees.

For a moment he fumbled: then the bright eye of a torch illumined the chamber.

At this my heart leaped up, for, had he desired to apprise Mansel of his entry, he could not have found a surer or swifter way; for all the three windows were open, and their sudden radiance was bound to publish my plight.

‘Rose’ Noble got to his feet and bade me do the same. I was glad to obey. Then he stepped back and looked about him.

“So,” he said, after a while. Then he leaned forward and spoke down the shoot. “Bunch.”

“Hullo,” said Bunch from below.

“You saw me ring that bell?”

“Yes,” said Bunch.

“Fetch Ellis and Job over here. When you’re back, ring three times.”


‘Rose’ Noble straightened his back.

“Pull up that ladder,” he said.

“Not on your life,” said I. “You’ve come to the wrong house.”

I could hardly see him, for the light was full in my face: but I felt his eyes upon mine.

At length he took a deep breath.

“Stand back,” he said, thickly.

I did so, folding my arms.

At once he straddled the shoot, and, putting the torch in his teeth, with his free hand felt for the ladder and pulled it up. Then he picked up the flap and sank this into its place.

This show of strength surprised me, for the flap was very heavy, and I would never have believed that a man so fat and flabby could have made light of such a task.

‘Rose’ Noble took the torch from his mouth and leaned his back against the wall.

“When Ellis comes,” said he, “I shall ask you to show us around. I like to think that you will grant that request.” I said nothing, and after a moment he continued slowly enough. “Nobody likes getting stuck: but, when he’s stuck good and proper, the wise guy swallows his dose. And now, listen to me, you young fool. I’ve taken possession here, and here I stay: so long as I stay, Mansel will remain outside: he’s very welcome to get up that drain---if he can; but, short of the ladder, I don’t believe he’ll try. If he wants the well, he can have it: but I rather fancy he’ll be thinking more about you---they say blood’s thicker than water . . . Well, he’s welcome to think. If he asks me, I haven’t seen you: I found the ladder waiting and came right up.”

“D’you think he’ll believe you?” said I.

“Why not?” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

I had no answer to make, for, as I spoke, I saw the force of his words. Here truth was stranger than fiction: and Mansel would never believe that I had handed him in.

“And so,” said ‘Rose’ Noble quietly, “I guess we can count Mansel out.”

“Don’t you believe it,” said I. “He’s made rings round you in the past, and he’ll do it again.”

“Maybe he will,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “But unless and until he does, I reckon it’s up to you.”

“Indubitably,” said I.

‘Rose’ Noble sighed.

“No fool like a young fool,” he said. Then he leaned forward. “Why put me up, when you haven’t a card in your hand?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Much cry, but little wool,” said I. “Come to the point. Are you trying to do a deal?”

“Yes,” said ‘Rose’ Noble. “I am. Maybe it’s a shade one-sided; but you gave it that name.” He jerked his torch at the ramp which led to the oubliette. “I’ve yet to see these diggings; but I haven’t played ‘King o’ the Castle’ for a whole raft of years, and I guess it’ll save us all time if you give me the book of the rules. In return, I offer you a painless captivity, a hell of a lot of hard work, and a free pass-out three days after we touch.”

I laughed.

“It is one-sided,” said I, as cheerfully as I could.

“These sort of deals often are,” was the grim reply.
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