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7b: ‘Rose’ Noble Moves (b)

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Author Topic: 7b: ‘Rose’ Noble Moves (b)  (Read 15 times)
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« on: March 02, 2023, 09:46:36 am »

I could not think what to do.

I was unarmed, for I had left my pistol for Rowley when he had taken my place: the other fire-arms hung upon a wall of the chamber, all of them loaded, but all of them out of my reach. Yet, had they lain by my side, the fellow had me in check; and I knew that, were I to move, he would shoot me down. For all that, my case was nothing to what it must be when Ellis and Job were come. Till then, at least, we were but man to man: but, if ‘Rose’ Noble was able to bring but one of them up, I was as good as lost: and so was our enterprise. That I must, therefore, take action before they could enter the shoot was very evident, and I saw at once that when he went to admit them was the moment to make my attempt. His torch, of course, was his blessing, and my unspeakable curse: but for this we should have been better matched, for, though he had his pistol, I knew my way about and was, indeed, accustomed to moving in the gallery without any light. I, therefore, determined, something desperately, that, when he stooped for the flap, by hook or by crook I must dash the torch from his mouth, and, if I could not there and then follow up this assault, at least to jump to one side and so out of his ken.

And here it came to me that, so far as his torch was concerned, my luck was indeed dead out; for if ever any one of us went up or down the shoot without saving his torch from the water, whether because he forgot it or took the chance, so surely that torch was useless and would give no glimmer of light until it had been looked to and its battery changed.

So we stood, with the flap between us, I trying to watch ‘Rose’ Noble behind the glare of the torch, he with his eyes upon mine, and both of us, I fancy, awaiting the throb of the bell.

At length:

“Well,” said ‘Rose’ Noble.

I moistened my lips.

“There’s nothing doing,” said I. “Of course, you can do me in, but it won’t help you. For one thing, I’m not going to talk: for another, I’ve nothing to say, for---believe me or not, as you please---it’s Mansel and Hanbury together that do the sums. You talk about guys that get stuck: why, you’ve never been anything else. You’ve been stuck at the top of the well----”

“See here,” said ‘Rose’ Noble thickly, “when I want a ---- lecture, I’ll let you know. Meantime I’ll give you a hunch: and that is, get right with God.” The man’s hand was shaking: and I think this angered him, for he let out a frightful oath. “You say you’re not going to talk,” he continued presently. “Well, there’s your right eye gone. I don’t set up for a surgeon, but my hand don’t always shake, and an inch of red-hot wire makes a nice, clean job. And, maybe, when you’re short of a light, you’ll find your tongue: it’s not an operation you’ll find in the medical books, but, by ----, I’ve known it work.”

I suppose that the monster saw that his words had shocked me---as, indeed, to be honest, they had; for, while they were dreadful enough, the meaning with which he spoke them was unmistakable: at any rate he laughed hideously---the fat laugh of a satyr, that made my blood run cold.

And, as he laughed, the light of his torch went out.

We were both of us taken by surprise: but for this particular accident he, I imagine, was more unready than I, and, though he fired, he was an instant too late, for I had taken my chance and leaped to the right.

The crash of the explosion covered what noise I made, and, before the racket was over, I was at the foot of the ramp, straining my ears.

I heard him grope for my body and curse when he found me gone. The next moment he fired again, and the bullet parted my hair. He must have fired at a venture; but so good was the shot that it seemed as though he could see, and I turned and fled up the ramp, like a startled hare.

Now, before I had taken ten steps, I saw the faint glow of the candles alight in the oubliette: these I had clean forgotten, but now in a flash I knew that I could not have made a more unfortunate move, for, having escaped from one light, here I was making my way towards another. To make matters worse, as I perceived my mistake, I missed my footing and fell, making the deuce of a noise: and in an instant I heard ‘Rose’ Noble behind.

There was now nothing for it but to go on up the ramp, for this was far too narrow for me to let him go by: indeed, I fully expected that he would fire again, but I suppose he was minded to husband his shots. I, therefore, went rapidly on and had just decided to make a dash for the candles and put them out, if I could, before ‘Rose’ Noble could reach the oubliette, when he let out a “Ha” of triumph, which showed me that he had viewed the glimmer ahead.

Now the slightest reflection would have told me that, moving from him to the glow, which was actually framed by the postern at the head of the ramp, I was offering such a target as no marksman could very well miss; and I think he must surely have been upon the edge of bringing me down, when the bell from the shoot was rung. Perhaps he held his hand to hear if it rang again: but, if so, he lost his chance, for I suddenly perceived my folly and fell on my face. As I did so, the bell rang again: and then a third time.

At once ‘Rose’ Noble began to descend the ramp.

There was but one thing to do, and that was to follow him down. Once Ellis and Job were in, my race was as good as run. So down I went, moving beneath the shelter of the noise that he made---for till you had the way of it the descent of the ramp was a difficult exercise---and racking my brain for some fair opportunity of giving battle.

The rifles and, certainly, two pistols were hanging upon the West wall, that is to say, about three feet from the shoot: we kept them there on purpose that they might be always convenient to anyone leaving the chamber: but, for me, they could not have hung in a more unfortunate place, and I could not think how to reach them without ‘Rose’ Noble’s knowledge that I was at hand.

Suddenly my heart leaped, and I thought of the wood.

At the eastern end of the gallery lay some timber, for we had not carried it all into the oubliette; and, though a joist was plainly a clumsy weapon to ply within four walls, I was cheered by the thought that it was also a formidable arm and possessed the clear advantage of a considerable range.

I, therefore, made haste to come down to the foot of the ramp, but, as I gained the chamber, I heard ‘Rose’ Noble setting aside the flap. How he had been so quick I cannot tell, but I saw in an instant that, if I was to dispute the entrance of Ellis and Job, I had not a second to lose. As I groped for the timber, I heard the ladder go down, and at that moment I touched a case of tinned food. This was open. Without waiting to think, I picked up a tin---what it contained I know not; but I think it was fruit---and hurled it with all my might at where ‘Rose’ Noble must be. I know that it hit him, for he let out a cry of pain: but, before he could fire, I had flung another tin.

The case was full, and I had discharged five tins before I heard him coming with a volley of oaths. Instantly I whipped to the ramp and, as he went by, darted to the opposite wall. In a moment I had a pistol and, as he fired into the timber, I jerked up the ladder and, thrusting my arm into the shoot itself, fired directly into the water below. That this would discourage Ellis I felt very sure; and, since he had no instructions except to ring the bell, he could hardly be blamed, if, after such a reception, he beat a retreat. But there was still ‘Rose’ Noble: and I knew very well that, though I had prevented his fellows, I had done so at the price of provoking most deeply the wrath of this terrible man. And, indeed, in a moment I heard a sound which told me that what had gone by was a skirmish and that the battle à outrance was just about to begin. I heard the long, heavy breathing of a man who is out to kill.

I had never heard it before: but it is a sound as fearful as it is expressive; and I must honestly confess that, when I heard it, I was frightened to death. However, I tried to take heart by thinking that the odds were in my favour, for now we both were armed and I was not only the more agile, but knew our surroundings as the palm of my hand.

My first impulse was to fire in that direction from which the breathing came: but then I saw that the flash of my pistol would betray me and that, unless I hit him, before I could move, he would return my shot. And there, of course, he had the advantage of me: for, while I knew little of fire-arms, beyond that they must be handled with infinite care, ‘Rose’ Noble gave the impression of being as ready with a pistol as are most men with a pen. Yet, strange as it seems, I found his bullets far less dreadful than his presence itself, and the thought that he must be approaching pricked me to make a move.

The first thing I did was to stumble upon the flap, and at once I heard him move forward towards the shoot. Instinctively, I shrank back, to find myself in the corner of the North and West walls. How I had missed the shoot I do not know, but there it was at my feet: I could feel its current of air.

If I did not move now, I was lost---that is to say unless I could kill my man: for I was literally cornered, and, if ‘Rose’ Noble came on, he would, any moment now, cut off my escape. I, therefore, stole to my left and had come to the first embrasure, some five feet away, when something swept past my chin and, then, lightly touching the wall on my left, sailed horizontally back, missing me this time by a hair’s breadth.

Again I recoiled, thus making my second mistake, for an instant later I knew he had picked up a helve and with this was sweeping the chamber to find me out. The moment the helve had sailed back I should have advanced: but I had let the chance go.

I was now fairly back in my corner, when again I heard the helve touch—this time the wall on my right. This to my horror, for it showed that the cast which ‘Rose’ Noble was making was almost done and that in four or five seconds the fellow’s terrible instinct would have its reward.

I, therefore, dropped on one knee and set my left hand on the flags, the better to steady my aim: but I knew that the odds were against me, because the moment he touched me he would know where to fire, whilst I could not possibly tell to within some two or three feet.

‘Rose’ Noble moved like a cat, giving no sound. Only the helve touched again, this time very close. I could hear the lap of the water and feel the air from the shoot flirting my face. And then, all of a sudden, I saw a bare chance of escape.

The flap when sunk into place, lay flush with the pavement, and so was supported by a ledge running around the shoot, cut out of the stone. This ledge was two inches in width---wide enough to give handhold to a desperate man.

Hardly waiting to pocket my pistol, I entered the shoot, and a moment later I was altogether out of the gallery, yet able to re-enter at will, hanging by my hands from the ledge, staring up into the chamber to mark what I could.

I heard ‘Rose’ Noble above me, tapping all around with the helve: I could hear his breathing quite close, and something wet fell from him on to my upturned face. This was blood: so I knew that I must have cut him with one of the tins. Suddenly I heard him stiffen and hold his breath. Then he turned round; and, as in a theatre, by some trick of production to pretend the coming of dawn, you may see the forms of men grow gradually out of the darkness, so I saw the monster begin to take shape.

He was standing crouched, with his knees well bent and his left leg a little advanced: his great head was up and his jaw jutted out like a peak: in his left hand he held the helve and in his right was his pistol, pointed and ready to fire: his pistol arm was crooked and steady as any rock.

He had but to drop his eyes for them to light upon me: but he did not, keeping them fixed, instead, upon what I judged must be the foot of the ramp.

All this I saw at first dimly, but gradually more and more clear, to my great astonishment; for the effect was magical, and I could think of no earthly explanation.

Then in a flash my brain cleared, and I knew it for the work of the search-light, which Mansel or Hanbury was carrying down the ramp. They must have entered the dungeon by way of the trap and, hearing no sound from the gallery, were hastening thither in a concern for me which could wait upon no risks.

And here was I out of action: and there was ‘Rose’ Noble, like a fowler, watching a bird come down into his snare.

There was only one thing to be done.

“Look out! ‘Rose’ Noble!” I yelled, and let myself go.

It was a rough passage and cost me a lot of skin: but, of course, I fell down like a stone and was, I suppose, under water before ‘Rose’ Noble had recovered from his surprise. For he never fired.

A moment later I was swimming down stream.

And that was the end of my adventure; for I had hardly landed upon the castle side, when out of the forest came Rowley and asked me if I was unhurt.

At first I thought I was dreaming, but he said that he had come straight from the staircase-turret, after letting the others into the oubliette. His orders were to put back the slabs, destroy every trace of their removal and then lie close in the woods till break of day. He was then to cross the river, and, if he saw a towel in a window, to come to the shoot.

But I would not wait so long, because I feared that, finding me gone, when he had dispatched ‘Rose’ Noble, Mansel would go out in my quest. So, since the boat was at hand, we at once sculled back to the shoot and there, sure enough, met Mansel about to go out after Rowley and then after me.

“Are you hurt?” said he at once.

“Not a scratch,” said I. “Where’s ‘Rose’ Noble?”

“Up stream, I think,” said Mansel, climbing into the boat.

Then he bade me go up to the gallery and expect him and Rowley again in ten minutes’ time. When I asked him where he was going, he said, “To bestow the boat.”

When I was up in the chamber, I was not surprised that he had asked me if I was hurt, for, though there was little disorder, blood was all over the place. We afterwards learned that this came from ‘Rose’ Noble’s head, which I had cut open—most likely with the first tin I threw. And this shows how tough the man was, for all his grossness: for the tin must have weighed three pounds, and I flung it with all my might.

Hanbury had little to tell, beyond that, as Mansel surmised, he had lost his way in the dark and, horrified at hearing my shots, had made at once for the junction to see what was there toward. There he had found Ellis and Job and the tanner and another he did not know. Ellis was raving about the escape of the Rolls and vowing most shocking vengeance against whosoever it was that had cut the ropes; and the four then appeared to be watching the road and the river, in observance of some design he could not comprehend. He had seen the two flashes from the woods, as also had they; and it was Job who had at once repeated the signal. Not long after that, the windows of the gallery had suddenly been illumined, to Hanbury’s horror and the great surprise of the thieves, who seemed too much dumbfounded to utter a word, though the tanner and his fellow let out at once a flood of excited talk. Then Hanbury had left them, to hasten in fear and trembling down to the water’s edge, where he had run into Mansel, himself hot-foot for the boat.

And there, when Mansel returned, he took up the tale.

“ ‘Rose’ Noble was in a boat, moored in mid-stream. I believe he was there all the time. In his eyes the Rolls was a plum, of which he would have been very glad: but our pit-head was the very pie itself. So Ellis was given the job of taking the Rolls: but ‘Rose’ Noble took on the business of locating and seizing the pit-head.

“It was Punter, I imagine, that heard us, as we were sculling down stream, and gave the signal which Hanbury saw Job repeat.

“ ‘Rose’ Noble must have been beside us, whilst you, Chandos, went up and Rowley came down. But, being as shrewd as they make ’em, he held his hand.

“So much for speculation.

“I’ve had some shocks in my life, but the sight of those windows lighted hit me between the eyes.

“We made enough noise embarking to be heard for a furlong or more, but Ellis and Co., I suppose, had no ears to hear. There was no room for Rowley, but he laid hold of the painter and swam behind.

“We missed friend Bunch by inches. I suppose he had lost his direction, for he was sculling down stream. So we came to the shoot. When I saw this was shut, I decided to go for the trap as fast as we could.

“We dropped down stream and landed below the road of approach. I’m afraid we must have broken all Punter’s ‘marks,’ but that couldn’t be helped. Whilst I was forcing the door of the kitchen-hall, George and Rowley ran to the well for rope. They were back with a coil and a blanket before Bell and I had withdrawn the second slab.

“When we were down, we could hear no sound at all. The light we had seen was gone, and I don’t mind admitting that I was deeply concerned. Now a torch always makes you a target; yet I felt I must have light: so I sent Bell off for the search-light without more ado.

“What then happened you know. But for your warning, Chandos, ‘Rose’ Noble must have shot me dead.

“As it was, the tables were turned.

“Hanbury sat down in the ramp with the search-light between his knees: and I took my stand behind him, ready to fire.

“I fancy ‘Rose’ Noble knew that the game was up.

“To bring us within his range, he was bound to enter the beam: and the moment he entered the beam: he would be certainly blinded and almost certainly shot.

“By way of rubbing this in, I audibly requested Hanbury to advance a couple of feet.

“A moment later I heard him go down the shoot.”

Whilst we were eating some supper, I told my tale over again: but, when Hanbury and I would have discussed the future, Mansel checked us with a yawn.

Then he laughed.

“ ‘Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’ ‘Rose’ Noble has gone far enough towards murdering sleep. Don’t let us finish it off.”

Then he told Bell to lay his bed, when he made it, across the flap of the shoot.

“I don’t see how they can lift it,” he added slowly: “but to-night has shown me that I don’t know a risk when I see one, so from now on I’m going to turn every stone.”

And then and there I happened to look at my watch. At first I made sure it had stopped, but, when I had checked it with Hanbury’s, I found it was telling the time. This was five minutes to twelve. And since we had been at supper for half an hour, my passage with “Rose” Noble cannot have taken up more than ten or twelve minutes of time. And that, but for its proof, I never would have believed.

Soon the lights were put out, and we lay down to take our rest: but for an hour or more I could not slumber for thinking of those ten or twelve minutes and how close to death I had come.

And here let me say I was sorry for ‘Rose’ Noble: for, unconscionable villain though he was, he deserved to have won that trick. To enter the gallery, as he did, was a great accomplishment, and, but for the failure of his torch, he must, I think, have brought us all to our knees. Yet, all he got for his valour was a broken head.

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