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8: The Race for the Chamber

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« on: March 02, 2023, 10:53:28 am »

THE next morning we held a short council.

The system of reliefs, which had served us so long and so well, was now a thing of the past: and we were all agreed that, once we had closed our bases, except to communicate with Carson or to go out as a spy, no one must leave the dungeon until the treasure was won.

That the stranger whom Hanbury had seen was the tanner’s brother we had no doubt, and, to judge from the fellow’s demeanour, so far as we were concerned, the two were at one with the thieves: if this were so, since they were the innkeeper’s allies, our enemies now numbered eight, instead of five.

Yet, neither of these conclusions troubled us near so much as the thought that ‘Rose’ Noble must know that there was a second entrance into the oubliette. This was a serious matter: for, now that he knew, he would not rest till he had found it, and, as if that were not enough, we had left him a definite clue. Rowley had covered our tracks as best he could, but he could not repair the door which Mansel had forced: its broken condition the thieves were bound to remark, and, the instant they saw it, they would know that the entrance they sought led out of the castle itself. “And so,” said Mansel, “It’s only a matter of time. It may take them a day or an hour: but in the end they’ll find it, and then the balloon will go up.”

Now, if we guarded the trap, though they found it, to force an entry that way might be very hard, for three men armed, in the darkness, could hold it against an army, similarly equipped. But what a man has done once, he will do again; and we had little doubt that, if we opposed their entry, they would at once resort to the use of that terrible weapon which they had already employed, that is to say, of bombs: and stand up to these we could not, if for no other reason, because against such an attack no man born of woman could hope to hold such a place. We could bar the postern of nights, we could set an electric alarum above the stile, we could keep watch: but more we could not do, and must try the fortune of war when the moment came. But Mansel decided that in future we must always go armed, even though we were working at the nose of the shaft.

It was then arranged that the next morning I should go to the culvert, and, taking the Rolls from Carson, send him back to the dungeon and myself drive to St. Martin for the last time.

“You see,” said Mansel, “at the moment we’re not up against Time: but I shouldn’t be surprised if we were, before the curtain comes down. Give me five minutes’ start, and I’ll be at Calais five hours before ‘Rose’ Noble: but not if I’ve got to trip round, paying my bills. So we’ll do three more reliefs. When you’ve bade farewell to St. Martin, Hanbury can visit Villach; and then I can go to Salzburg and make all smooth and clear for us to withdraw. I think we should each go alone, because four’s none too many to hold the fort. And I think we’ll have Tester here: he’ll rather like this place, and he’ll be devilish useful, watching that trap.”

With that we talked no more, but went to work, Mansel and Hanbury to setting the electric alarum, and Rowley and Bell and I to driving the shaft.

Thirteen days had gone by since we had altered our course, and so well had we wrought in this time that but twenty-three yards lay between us and what we had come to call “live ground.” We gave it that name, because, though we knew it was surrounding the chamber, as a garden a house, we were far less certain where within it the chamber lay. We hoped and believed that, by holding straight on through this region, we should strike some part of the chamber before we had gone five yards: we were equally sure that, if we had not found it in nine, this would be because we had passed it; and, in such an event, we proposed to go no further, but to drive a new shaft at right angles through the middle of the live ground. We had made up our minds that this region was not more than nine yards square, and we steadfastly refused to consider that somewhere within its area the chamber did not lie.

Whether the progress we made was actually swift or slow I cannot fairly pronounce, for how six sextons would have fared, had they been set such a task, I cannot say. But what we lacked in experience, I think we made up in zeal: and, after all, digging is a simple, downright business, which one man, if he will, can soon do as well as another. Be that as it may, I do not think any men could have laboured more heartily than we had, since our brush with the tanner upon the ninth night of June. But now, since our life was to be less easy, we determined to cut our confinement as short as ever we could and to that end to redouble our efforts to reach our goal. We had not much hope of so doing before the thieves discovered the trap: but there was a chance that we might, and, faint though it was, this certainly spurred us on, for, although we were ready enough to show our teeth, once such a battle was joined, no one could possibly tell what the outcome would be.

And there, of course, the thieves had a valuable advantage: for, if one of them was wounded, the others would let him lie or die for want of attention, rather than care for him to the cost of their enterprise: but, if one of us was hurt and needed a doctor’s aid, everything else, of course, would go by the board.

In this sense the dice were loaded: and, though hitherto we had been most fortunate, this spectre always haunted each passage of arms that we had.

Full of these thoughts, we worked as hard as we could, and by the end of that day had actually advanced five yards, so that but eighteen remained between us and the live ground.

At one o’clock the next morning I left for the culvert, charged by Mansel to swim down the middle of the river and not to attempt to land for a quarter of a mile. I was then to strike across country and by no means to use the road, until I had left the junction two miles behind. Directly I had found Carson I was to send him back, for else it would be broad daylight before he could reach the shoot. “Indeed,” said Mansel, “I’m banking on your meeting by half past two, for Carson is sure to be early and so, I think, are you, for the culvert is less than four miles as the crow flies. Tell him on no account to let Tester off the lead and to hold the end in his mouth as he swims to the shoot.”

I was at the culvert at half past two and had just found the note which Carson had lodged in the brickwork under the arch, when I heard a step above me, and there he was.

Two minutes later he and Tester were gone, and I was turning the Rolls.

There was little to do at St. Martin, except to collect my belongings and pay my bill. But I had to explain how it was that I came a day late and alone and without the basket which my hostess had so often put up. I might have found this hard; but, between their relief to see me and their distress to learn that I should return no more, the good people seemed to have no room left for surprise. Indeed, I might have been a fugitive monarch, resting at the house of a loyal before resuming his flight, for they could not do enough to show their esteem and goodwill. And, when at last I left them, I had to give them my word that I would one day come back, and, even so, enough honest tears were shed to make me feel ashamed that I had imposed so much on their simplicity.

Hanbury met me at the culvert, but had nothing at all to report, save that another five yards had been added to the length of the shaft. And, by the time he was back on the following day, we were within eight yards of the live ground.

We were all glad of Tester: and Tester was glad of us. He soon understood that, when there was no one to spare, he was expected to guard the oubliette, and I think he enjoyed wandering about in the darkness---for now we burned no lights, except in the gallery and at the nose of the shaft---and conducting an endless scrutiny of the great banks of earth. The shoot seemed to fascinate him, and he always contrived to be present, when its flap was withdrawn. I fancy he thought that it must have been made by some beast and was continually hoping that its creator would emerge.

When Carson took his leave, I could not help wondering when we should see him again: for, with Mansel’s return, the last of our reliefs would be over, and, if all went well, the next time we crossed the river would be the last. He was very loth to leave us and constantly lamented that he had not killed ‘Rose’ Noble on the night when we visited the well. “One minute more,” he would say, “and I should have had him cold. And that would have saved us a peck of trouble, sir; for, if ever I saw one, there goes a dangerous man.”

Be sure I agreed with him. And yet I must honestly confess that, if we had suddenly learned that the thieves had withdrawn, the game would have lost a curiously attractive savour, which even the lifting of the treasure would not have wholly restored. For danger, once you have tasted it, is a superlative spice.

If Carson was loth to go, we were sorry enough to lose him, for he was a fine workman and a first-class shot. What was more, he had the brain of a fighter and, though there might be no one to lead him, could be trusted to think for himself and to hold his own.

However, neither Rowley nor Bell could manage a car as could he; besides which, it was good to know that our line of retreat was held by such capable hands.

His instructions were clear.

So soon as he reached Salzburg he was to lay up the Rolls and, taking the second car, drive her to Villach. There he was to bestow her at the inn which Hanbury had used, and then to return by train in search of the Rolls. After that he was to go no more to Salzburg, but to take up his quarters at Villach, holding both cars in condition to leave at an instant’s notice by day or night. Each night at eleven o’clock he was to be at the culvert and, having concealed the Rolls, to wait there till twelve. He was then to walk to a point a mile and a half away, where seven trees grew together on the top of a hill. From here could be seen the castle and a slice of the river below. If he saw nothing unusual, he was to go his way: if he saw one window lighted, he was to return to the culvert and wait till we came: if he saw two illumined, he was to leave the Rolls and come to the shoot: but, if all three were aglow, he was to get the Rolls and drive down, past the junction and on to the Lerai road.

We had little to report to Mansel, beyond that our progress had been slow. For, since he had left, we had only advanced three yards, because we had encountered a boulder as big as a sheep, the dislodgment and disposal of which had taken the best part of five hours. But, if, instead of progressing, we had actually retired, I do not think Mansel would have cared, because he was so much relieved to find that the secret of the trap was still inviolate and that we had not, in his absence, been called upon to fight for our lives.

That day we made a great effort; and by eight o’clock that evening we had reached the coveted region and had broken the live ground.

Our excitement now began to run high, and I was for bolting my supper, in order to get back to work: but Mansel said he should like to visit the combe, and me to go with him.

“It may seem idle,” he said: “but those who don’t look don’t see. To visit the well or the castle would take more time than I think we can fairly spare: but to go to the combe and back will take us less than an hour. I hope and believe it will be our last reconnaissance, but I think we ought to make it before we take off our coats for the final push.”

And so we went out together, when it was dark.

Hanbury told me later that, when we returned, Mansel was rather pale, but I looked an older man. I have no doubt I did: for, though we had seen no one and heard no sound, what we had found was enough to age any man who thinks the fruits of his labour worth taking up.

At the foot of the gutter we had found a miniature lake.

---

Now, whilst we were drawing water, we had never gone down to see the pool we had made, and, though we all remembered the sodden condition of the ground on the day I was taken by Ellis, that was nothing to go by, for then no water had been drawn for eighteen or twenty hours. We had, therefore, the bare fact before us that the enemy was making for the first time a truly formidable effort to empty the well---a feat which we had accomplished in less than three days. How long they had been at work, how much water they had drawn, how the results of their labour were comparing with those of ours we could not so much as guess: but what six men had done eight men could do; and this indisputable verity, sternly illustrated by the lake at the foot of the combe, bade fair to sap the resolution from which our endeavours sprang.

I can only speak for myself, but I know that, when I was back in the gallery, I felt tired and was glad to sit down and that, when Bell brought me dry shoes, the business of changing seemed a burden and I told him to put them down and let me be.

Then I heard Mansel laugh.

“ ‘Rose’ Noble leads,” he said lightly. “And yet I’ll back the old firm. There’s the straight to be covered yet, and I fancy they’re full of running. Besides, I don’t know how you fellows feel, but I haven’t shovelled dirt for six weeks for the pleasure of watching ‘Rose’ Noble pick my peach. Then again, the game’s the thing.

“And now let’s see where we stand.

“As yet they’ve not got to the shaft. That is clear, for that water was drawn to-day, but the gutter was dry: which means they’ve stopped work for the night. If it was over, and they’d found, there wouldn’t be so much water at the foot of the combe, for once they’ve uncovered the shaft, they’ve only to bale to keep the water down: and five hours’ baling wouldn’t make all that mess.

“Again, I know they’re eight: but only four will draw water as fast as we: and one of those---‘Rose’ Noble---has something better to do, for you can’t command such a rabble and bear a hand as well. Besides, I’ll stake my oath that, water to draw or no, ‘Rose’ Noble’s still trying to find the way to the oubliette. And I think it more than likely that they’re keeping an eye on the shoot.

“And last of all, they none of them know of the bars. And that’s a fruit of a thought, for I’ll lay my soul to a cesspool that, apart from anything else, they’re short of a file.”

With that, he ordered Rowley to open a case of champagne, “for, though,” said he, “I meant us to drink it when the treasure had been won, now that I come to think, we might not have time: and it seems a pity to leave it for Ellis and ‘Rose’.”

I can relate his words, but I cannot describe the way in which he spoke them, or the quiet, confident manner with which he seemed to be putting Misfortune to shame.

Enough that he lifted us up and carried us all away.

And, since neither Hanbury nor I would wait for the wine, Mansel himself brought a bottle to the nose of the shaft and made us drink.

We worked straight through that night, and it was eight the next morning before Mansel called a halt. By then we had tunnelled four yards into the live ground. This had meant working at a tremendous pace, for we faithfully maintained its dimensions and propped the shaft as we went. The heat was awful, and the want of air most vile: but we had grown used to these conditions, from which we had begun to suffer as soon as we turned the shaft. Still, we came down into the gallery, swaying like drunken men, and Hanbury and Bell fell asleep over their food.

Then Mansel told Rowley and me to take our rest and said that he should take Tester and sleep in the oubliette. I believe he said something else, for I remember laughing, but before my laughter was over I was asleep.

Now how long Mansel slept I do not know, but he woke us at noon, to say that he had sunk a crow-bar at the nose of the shaft and had encountered water four feet below its floor.

Except that he had found the chamber, he could not have brought us more encouraging news, for it showed that we had, at least, no vertical error to fear and that, roughly, our floor was level with that of the chamber itself.

In a moment, therefore, we were wide awake and afoot and all agog to return to the nose of the shaft. But of this Mansel would not hear, until we had all of us bathed and broken our fast.

“Method in all things,” he said. “Disorder never won yet and never will. We went off the deep end last night, but we’re not going to do it again. From now on we’ll labour by shifts: there’ll always be four at work and one at rest. I don’t know how much we can stand; but it won’t be for long, and four hours on to one off seems the most convenient rule.”

And, whilst we were eating, he outlined what must be done to cope with a sudden attack.

“The one who is off duty must sleep in the oubliette. Tester will wake him all right, in the event of attack. The moment he’s waked, he will withdraw to the ramp---of course, taking Tester with him---and close the postern gate. And he will hold the ramp, while the others will hold the shaft. In this way we shall have them between two fires, and, if we don’t loose off too soon, it ought to be a walkover.”

Then he told us to mind how we went at the head of the ramp, as well as at the mouth of the shaft, because he had built two breastworks out of some sacks of earth.

“Why, you can’t have rested at all,” cried Hanbury.

“I had two full hours,” said Mansel, “and now I’m to have one more. Chandos, what time do you make it?”

I told him twenty past twelve.

“I shall be your relief,” said he. “I count upon you to wake me at half past one.” I suppose I hesitated, for he continued at once. “Unless you give me your word, I shall not sleep.”

“I promise,” said I.

“Very good,” said Mansel. “But if, before then, you strike oil---well, I don’t mind being called early to hear the news.”

Five minutes later we were at the nose of the shaft.

We had still five yards to go, before we should come to the end of the belt of live ground: but, though we went steadily forward, we now took to searching right and left, by dint of driving a crow-bar, as though it were a great nail, into the wall. Again and again, by this means, we thought we had found the chamber, but when we had laid bare the obstruction, each time it proved to be some boulder or two or three smaller stones. In this way the tunnel began to lose its symmetry, and, though this could not be helped, the propping of the roof with timber became a less downright business and wasted a lot of time.

We worked frantically, speaking very little, but doing the best we could to maintain the system of labour which should turn to the best account such joint strength as we had.

The hewer stood on a sheet on to which his winnings must fall. As soon as these began to encumber him he would stand back and away: at once his assistant would draw back the sheet from the face and lay in its place another to catch the next fall of earth. The assistant then disposed of the soil he had drawn away, and by the time he was back the second sheet would be full. The carpenter followed the hewer as close as he could, pitching his uprights and cross-bars and wedging them into place: and the fourth was man of all work, now shovelling loose earth that had fallen clear of the sheet or had not fallen, now helping the carpenter, and now bringing up fresh wood.

An hour before his relief, each man had a pint of champagne, and, when he was waked, was given a quarter of an hour in which to bathe and eat. Mansel fed Tester himself twice in the day, and that was all the attention the poor dog had: yet he was as good as gold, never obtruding himself as so many dogs would have done, but seeming to know that we were fighting with Time and faithfully keeping to his post in the oubliette.

By eleven o’clock that night we had advanced five yards and were clear of the live ground.

It was impossible not to be disappointed and very hard not to be dismayed. And, when I had called for a crow-bar and, with three mighty blows, slammed this up to its head into the nose of the shaft, and touched not so much as a pebble, I think we all avoided each other’s eyes.

But Hanbury---for Mansel was resting---wasted no time. By his direction we immediately withdrew five yards and began to drive a new tunnel out of the left-hand wall.

For no reason that I can offer, the half hour that followed seems for me to stand out of that period of toil and trouble; and I remember most vividly the sob of the hewer each time that he launched his pickaxe and the smell of sweat and the blinding glare of the search-light and even a mark on a timber retaining the left-hand wall. To our right, the five yards we had won to no purpose continually mocked us, like the Psalmist’s bulls of Bashan, gaping upon us with its mouth: to our left, our long, clean-cut gallery seemed to be leading fantastically into another world. I can see Hanbury poising the compass and hear him curse as his sweat fell on to its dial: and, when Bell who was hewing, missed his stroke, I remember snatching the pickaxe and missing mine.

So the work went on; and the niche in the left-hand wall had grown to an entrance, when Hanbury looked at his wrist-watch and cried that my time was up.

I stumbled back to wake Mansel and fall asleep in his stead, for the champagne had done its business and my knees were beginning to sag.

Almost at once Hanbury woke me, and I started up with a cry.

“Have you found?”

“Found be damned,” says George. “You’ve had five minutes over your time.”

So it was with us all: and we battled rather than laboured, fighting with nature, like madmen, in our effort to find the chamber before she could wear us down. For the pace was too hot to last: we all knew that: and unless we could win very soon, we were playing a losing game. Yet we went steadily on, like men in a dream, losing all count of Time and confusing Night with Day. Indeed, the demands of the battle so wholly possessed our senses that, used in some other direction, these were beginning to fail. We shouted, one to another, when a whisper could have been heard: the hand that could still ply a hammer, could not be trusted to raise a glass to the lips: and, if ever I glanced at my wrist-watch, this seemed a great way off.

At a quarter past nine the next morning, our new shaft was eight yards deep. And this alone shows that we were beside ourselves, for, though we had cut down the width, relying upon the crow-bar to make this good, such progress was superhuman. Yet, to advance this shaft further seemed little worth, and we started another tunnel out of its right-hand wall. This by Hanbury’s direction; for Mansel was resting, and we others knew no more where to turn than the man in the moon.

“Are you certain,” said I, “that we’re not too far to the left?”

“Certain,” said Hanbury. “Mansel will bear me out. The shaft from the well to the chamber is not so steep as we thought, so we’ve aimed too much to the right. You mark my words: if we don’t strike the chamber this time, we shall hit the shaft.”

Such confidence did us good: but, when I roused Mansel, I saw him tighten his lips, and I knew that he had been hoping to be sent for before his time.

I now know that I must have slept for nearly my hour, when I dreamed I was listening to Mansel broadcasting news and that a storm somewhere was blotting out what he said. I must have dreamed for some moments, for I was heavy with sleep, but at last I awoke, to find Tester barking like fury three feet away.

In an instant I had caught him up and had blundered through the postern to fall headlong over the breastwork with the dog in my arms. However I was up in a moment and made haste to close the gate: but I dared not fasten it closely, for fear of a bomb.

I had much ado to quiet Tester, who was seething with wrath; but, when I had done so and could listen, I heard no sound.

So we lay still for five minutes: then I heard Mansel’s voice.

“Are you at your post, Chandos?”

“I am,” said I.

“What happened?”

“I’ve no idea,” said I. “I woke up to find Tester barking, and that’s as much as I know.”

“Stay where you are,” said he.

Then he unmasked the search-light and turned the beam on to the trap. Presently he raked the dungeon, letting the beam discover the timber and piles of earth.

At length----

“Let Tester go,” he said. “And you come in.”

The dog ran to him at once and jumped up to lick his face. Then he turned away and began to growl and bristle, with his eyes on the trap.

“Not much doubt about that,” said Mansel, stooping to make much of the dog. “Our friends have found the front door. I suppose they’re not quite ready, and that that’s why they shut it again. Well, we’re quite ready when they are, and, till then, we may as well work.”

Then he sent me to bathe and eat, and, when I came back, Hanbury was asleep in the dungeon, with Tester in the crook of his arm.

We gave no more time to the riddle, for in truth we had none to give. The business smacked of a nightmare: yet, our present life was a dream: and so, if we thought, we did not speak of it, but tacitly took it for granted that Mansel’s interpretation was good.

At six o’clock that evening we started another shaft.

The last we had driven five yards, and had sunk a three-feet crow-bar into its nose. And found nothing. And so at six o’clock we started another shaft. This was driven from the nose of our second, so that our original tunnel would soon be a left-handed fork with three five-yard prongs.

And here I am bound to record that we were beginning to fail. I will swear that the spirit was willing: but the flesh was beginning to flag. It was nearly forty-five hours since Mansel and I had returned from our reconnaissance, and, though in that time we had each had ten hours’ sleep, the reconnaissance had come at the end of a full day’s toil. We had, therefore, been jaded when we began to spurt: and our spurt was losing its sting, because it did not end.

We were beginning to fail.

I knew that my strength was failing, and tried to conceal the fact. I fancy the others did the same, for the collapse of one must mean the end of our effort. The camel’s back would have broken: not even Mansel could have carried another straw.

When I roused him at half past seven, he held up two canvas kit-bags for me to see.

“The Burglar’s Delight,” said he, with half a laugh.

I tried to laugh back, and lay down---but not to sleep. And there was the surest sign that the end was at hand, for it showed that the flesh was rebelling against its chastisement.

When Mansel returned from the gallery, he stopped to peer at me. I pretended slumber: but his action showed me that he, too, had not slept.

I think the hour that followed was the worst I have ever spent. I was so sick and weary that I would have sold a kingdom for unconsciousness: but this was steadfastly withheld: and, though at times I fell into a kind of doze, this state was more dreadful than my first, for then my brain was unruly and flitted and gambolled, as a gnat on a summer’s eve.

I was, indeed, thankful when Hanbury limped into the dungeon and I could go back in his place.

The gallery we were now driving was completing the uppermost prong of the letter E, the upright of which was formed by our second shaft and the base, or bottom prong, by the last five yards of our first. But, because of all our soundings, the works had a shapeless look and seemed to reflect the frenzy with which they had been done. The roof and walls were eccentric, and the timbers were all awry: indeed the carpenter’s task was now fit work for a wizard, and faithfully to prop and retain such irregular excavation was almost impossible.

At half past ten that night our new shaft was two yards deep. Mansel, Hanbury and I were working alone, for Bell had just left to rouse Rowley and take his place. And all was quiet; for Mansel had stopped for a moment to drink his wine, Hanbury was pencilling a timber, which he was going to saw, and I, who was hewing, was extracting a morsel of dirt, which had made its way into my eye.

At first I thought Hanbury’s pencil was making a scraping noise: then I saw he had stopped and was listening and that Mansel was doing the same.

For a moment no one of us moved.

Then Hanbury stepped to my side and set his ear to a hole which the crow-bar had made a foot back in the left-hand wall.

“That’s right,” said he, after a moment. “It’s coming from here.”

Then he stood away, and I made play with the pickaxe about the hole.

I had soon made a hollow, in which by sinking the crow-bar we should gain another foot: but, before we did this, Mansel tore off his zephyr and folded it into a pad which should muffle the sound of the blows.

Gently I drove the bar home, and could almost have pressed it for the last foot of its way: and I drew it out with my hands without any effort at all.

The noise was distinct now---a thin, regular murmur, as if someone was whetting a chisel upon a hone.

What it was I could not imagine, and was just beginning to think that our calculations had led us to the top of the well, when Mansel let out a sob and caught us each by an arm.

My God, I’ve got it.” he cried. “That’s the chamber ahead. AND THEY'RE FILING THE BARS.”

---

There is, I believe, a height at which a man’s heart will break: and so, I suppose, there is a pitch of excitement at which a man’s brain will balk. And I think we had come to this: for Mansel was trembling as a man smitten with an ague; if I had tried to speak, I should have broken down; and, while we were standing thus silent, Hanbury’s knees sagged and he fell down in a swoon.

The faint was nothing, and, before I had brought the bucket which was standing ten paces away, George was again on his feet: but we made him dip his head in the water, and then Mansel and I did the same.

Then we fell to, like madmen, to deepen the breach I had made.

We worked in what silence we could and let the carpentry go: each of us hewed for two minutes, while the others withdrew his winnings and strewed them about the shafts: now and again we had to employ the shovel, but mostly we used our hands, so as to make less noise.

All the time the noise of the filing went steadily on, only ceasing from time to time to instantly recommence. Each time that it stopped our hearts went into our mouths: for, close as we were, if once the bars were severed, we might have been five miles off for all the good we could do.

When Rowley came back, we told him and sent him back to tell Bell.

“And say,” said Mansel, “that I may not arrive when I should, but that, whatever happens, he must remain where he is: for now the case is altered, and he and Tester are holding our line of retreat.”

Rowley was back in two minutes and wild to take his turn: and, once he had got it, he would not surrender the pickaxe, and I had fairly to wrest it out of his hands.

Now what the time was when it happened I do not know---for I cannot tell to an hour how long we took to cut through that last three feet---but I know that I launched the pickaxe and its head went out of my sight and that there I was, looking through a hole into an empty space, beyond which, when they gave me the light, I could see a stone wall.

It was the chamber indeed.

At once I saw that the well-diggers’ excavation had been bigger than the chamber itself and that they had not lined the cavity which they had dug, but had built the chamber within it, like a box within a box.

There was now no mistaking the whine of iron biting iron, and it sounded to our frantic ears as though whosoever was filing was nearing the end of his task.

We, therefore, fell to, like fury, and soon had a ragged window, I suppose, some three feet square, opening into the cavern in which the chamber stood.

A moment’s inspection now showed that the chamber was round, like the well, and was plainly constructed of stones which had been cut by the masons to build the walls of the well. To break out of the chamber, therefore, would have been ten times as simple as to break in; for the stones were undoubtedly wedge-shaped, and, that being so, if they were truly laid, a battering-ram itself would not avail us. The joints moreover, were as fine as those of the walls of the well, and to cut out one stone with a chisel would have taken an hour or more.

“What of the roof?” whispered Mansel.

At once I stretched up an arm, to find the roof just out of sight; but two minutes’ work with the pickaxe had laid the edge of it bare.

Now how the roof was constructed I do not know; but between the slab we could see and the stones upon which it was resting, there was a layer of mortar as thick as a Camembert cheese. And this was so loose that I picked out a piece with my thumb.

Here, then, was the way to break in: for we had but to drive a chisel, and, when it was fairly in, to lever against the slab, to prize a stone out of the wall: and, once one stone was out, we could make our breach.

“And, when we do,” breathed Mansel, “look out for squalls: you can bet your life they’re not going to give us this trick.”

We had to make way for the lever: so once more I handled the pickaxe, whilst the others marshalled the tools for the final assault.

All this time the filing continued, and, to judge from the ring of the metal, some bar was nearly in two. Indeed, as I threw down the pickaxe, again the noise stopped, and we heard some blows administered, as though the workman believed he could burst asunder the filament that remained.

We waited to hear no more.

I fitted the edge of the chisel into the chink; and, whilst I held it, Mansel hammered it home.

The stone below must have been loose, for, the moment we levered, it yielded, and a second later I pulled it out with my hands. The two below came away, and, as Hanbury gave me the search-light, I heard a strangled cry.

On the tiny floor was a bag, thick covered with dust, of the shape of a sack of corn. Its mouth was shut, but one of its sides was gaping and spilling the stuff it held. By its side was another: but this was all gone to ruin, and its contents lay in a heap. The dust lay so deep over all that it might have been trash, but I saw the shape of a crucifix standing up out of the ruck.

Immediately opposite was the entrance, barred by the four iron bars. Behind these I saw two faces, unshaven, like those of beasts. The one I had never seen, but the other was that of Ellis: and that I believe I shall see so long as I live, for if ever the devil possessed the soul of a man he possessed it then.

The other seemed blinded by the search-light: but Ellis glared full at the lamp, as though it were no more than a taper, with his face working with passion and his eyes starting out of his head.

Suddenly he laid hold of the bars and wrenched them this way and that, screaming, like some animal with rage; and, when they would not yield to his frenzy, he clapped his face up against them and spat like any demoniac, lending the whole force of his body to this disgusting act. Then he started, as one who recovers his presence of mind, and I saw a hand fly to his hip.

At that moment Mansel fired, and the fellow fell suddenly forward against the bars. As he did so, the other man turned, and Mansel fired again. But, when the noise had subsided, we could hear him descending the shaft.

Then Ellis’ body slipped sideways, till the head was against the wall, which held it up at an angle which was different to that of the trunk.

“God forgive me,” said Mansel, “but I’d do it again.”

With that, I climbed into the chamber, and Mansel followed me in.

With the hammer and crow-bar, we soon had three more stones out, and Hanbury made his way in.

Then Mansel told Rowley to give him the canvas bags.

“And ‘Quick’ ’s the motto,” said he. “I missed the tanner, and now he’ll give the alarm. But, once we’re beyond the postern, they can have the oubliette.”

Rowley had brought the bags and was standing without the chamber, looking in, with his hands on the wall, when I heard a rustle behind him and saw him drop suddenly forward across the breach we had made.

A mass of soil had broken away from the ‘window’ and had fallen on the back of his legs.

He was not hurt, but was pinned; and, whilst I supported his body, Mansel and Hanbury climbed back into the tunnel and shifted the fallen earth.

They worked feverishly; but two or three minutes went by before he was free and I was able to help him into the chamber.

“And that,” breathed Mansel, brushing the dirt from his hands, “is about as clear a time-signal as ever there was.”

I held one canvas bag open and Rowley the other, while Mansel and Hanbury shovelled the stuff within. There were gold and stones and jewels and all manner of lovely things, but I think we were thinking of safety and the way to the oubliette.

Then Mansel lifted his head and touched Hanbury on the arm.

For a moment we knelt there, listening.

Then, something faint, but clear, came Tester’s vigorous bark.

And that was the only time we heard him give tongue that night, for the next instant came a shuffling and then a rumbling sound; and, when we had brought the search-light up to the breach in the wall, had we not known its angle, we could not have told where the shaft we had driven had been.

“Where’s the pickaxe?” said Mansel quietly.

I told him it had lain in the shaft.

Then came another rumble and the search-light went out.

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