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9a: Out of the Eater (a)

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Author Topic: 9a: Out of the Eater (a)  (Read 27 times)
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« on: March 03, 2023, 01:57:00 am »

Had our doom been set forth upon paper and submitted to ‘Rose’ Noble himself, for his approval, I cannot believe that he would have altered one particular.

We were entombed alive: this, by our own act, with the treasure under our hand, in the knowledge of an attack upon one man and a dog, who would count in vain upon our succour.

Had we had the tools, we had no longer the strength to hew our way back: indeed, to judge from the sound, it seemed likely that ten or more yards of our tunnel had fallen in. Yet, could we have performed this unthinkable task, it would only have been to fall into the enemy’s hands.

And the other way out was barred: and beyond the bars was the shaft, the mouth of which would be sealed in less than an hour: and beyond the shaft was the well, some ninety feet deep.


Mansel was speaking.

“The first thing to do is to keep calm: the second is to break these bars. And now please don’t move for a moment, or we shall collide.”

We heard him make his way to the entrance: when he was there, he spoke again.

“Chandos, come here and lift Ellis. If I can find it, we may as well have his torch.”

At once I moved to the entrance and, thrusting my hands between the bars, seized the corpse under its arms and endeavoured to lift it up. But it was too heavy for me: so Mansel and Hanbury raised me, whilst I held it against the bars.

The torch was alight in a pocket, into which the dead man must have thrust it, so soon as he heard our chisel enter the wall; and, when Mansel had taken it out and had felt in the other pockets, he told me to throw back the body away from the bars. This I was thankful to do.

The entrance was a frame of hewn stone, eight inches thick. In this the bars were set upright, four inches apart: and, close to its foot, one was filed almost through.

We cut this in two with the chisel without delay: but, if we then expected that our release was at hand we were grievously disappointed.

God knows what smith it was that wrought that bar: but he was a craftsman that knew his mystery: and I do not believe that such art is practised to-day. Severed though it was, we could neither break nor bend it: and, when we attempted to lever it up with the crow-bar, we bent this into a hoop.

There lay the file within reach: but we could not bear the thought of a labour so lengthy and cudgelled our weary brains to find out some other way.

Now the bars were all sunk, top and bottom, into holes cut in the stone, and, though our treatment had not displaced it, the upper portion of the bar we had cut could now be turned round in its socket and even moved up and down, and, but for the lower portion, which opposed it, it would have come down and away. Perceiving this, we determined to loosen the lower piece, in the hope that we could then raise this up, until it was clear of its bed, and thus remove the whole bar, by simply reversing the procedure by which it was undoubtedly set up.

It did not take long to loosen the lower portion, but, either because the stonework itself had settled or because, when the bars were planted, some trick of masonry was used, we could not make enough play to free this piece from its bed.

The knowledge that the water below was rising fast and that the mouth of the shaft would soon be sealed made it hard to give our minds to the problem as freely as we would have wished and easy to return to methods which we had already discarded as forlorn. And this, I suppose, was the beginning of panic. Be that as it may, I remember Mansel sitting down with his head in his hands, whilst I leaned against the wall, holding the torch and watching Rowley filing like a madman and Hanbury, with the hammer and chisel, trying to cut a channel out of the stone.

Suddenly----

“Look here,” said Mansel rising. “Why don’t we try the wall? It let us in, and why shouldn’t it let us out? And, once we’re out, we can break our way into the shaft.”

We should, of course, have attempted this long before: but I suppose it was natural that the entrance, so nearly open, should have attracted and held the whole of our attention. But now we saw that, provided the void we had found ran right round the chamber, we should be without in a moment and very probably able to make our way past the entrance without having to displace any earth. For the entrance was two feet wide: but the shaft was three.

And so it fell out.

In less than five minutes, six more stones were out of the chamber’s wall, and, when I stepped through the new opening, there was the wall of the shaft twenty inches away. To breach this was very simple, yet took longer, I think, than even Mansel had expected; for we had ruined the crow-bar and dared not work too fiercely for fear of spoiling the chisel or snapping the helve of the only hammer we had. But at last we had made an opening through which a man might pass.

While Mansel and I had been working, Hanbury and Rowley had put what remained of the treasure into the bags and had fastened their mouths. This by Mansel’s direction, “for,” said he, “I know that a man can take nothing out of this world, but, so long as he’s in it, he may as well keep what he’s got.”

And there we were all with him, for, when you have staked your life on some adventure, it is a bitter business only to save your stake.

So we escaped from the chamber into the shaft, taking the bags with us.

There was a rope fastened to one of the bars. I suppose it had been bound there by the tanner, to enable Ellis to make the ascent of the shaft: but it stood us in very good stead, for the steps were very irregular and covered with slime.

It was at once arranged that we should descend one by one: for, rope or no, it was not a place to play tricks in, and, if two used the rope together, one, by slipping, might bring the other down.

I went first, dragging a bag behind me, and, when I had reached the water, Hanbury followed me down.

The water was roughly one foot from the top of the mouth of the shaft, and I could see a pale radiance which I knew for that of the moon. The air, too, was fresh, and, chill and dank as it was, because of the depth of the well, I can never describe the relief I found in breathing it, and I think it did more to refresh me body and soul, than anything that had happened since Mansel and I had found the water at the foot of the combe.

So it was, I think, with us all. And of such, I suppose, is the way of Providence; for, if ever four weary men had need of comfort, we needed it then.

Except for a plank, floating upon the water, the well was as empty of gear as a blown egg.

I do not think we had counted on anything else: we had, rather, deliberately refrained from leaping, so to speak, until we were come to the ditch. But we had hoped desperately to find something---some rope or scaffolding which would have given us a chance, if not of scaling the walls, at least of rising with the water and so avoiding the most miserable of deaths. But there was nothing at all: and, though I went out with the torch and, getting astride of the plank, recklessly raked the walls for as far as the torch would light them---and that was some thirty feet up---I might have spared my labour, for they were as bare as my hand.

“Nothing?” said Mansel, as I came back to the shaft.

I shook my head: and, as they helped me ashore Hanbury and I, between us, let fall the torch, and there was an end of that.

For perhaps two minutes we stood, with our eyes on the water, already full four inches higher than when I had seen it first ten minutes before.

Then I heard Mansel catch his breath.

“By thunder!” he cried. “We must be losing our minds. What was the use of this plank without two beams? They’re not afloat, because they’re locked in the niches, but I’ll lay a monkey we find them two feet down.”

With that, he dived and, after what seemed a long time, came up with one of the rafters which Carson and I had cut from the outhouse roof. In a moment I had the other, and together we set them in the niches which were now two inches above the water line. Then we laid the plank across them, and, five minutes later, the four of us were standing upon the stage.

We had had a struggle to bring the bags out of the shaft, for they were immensely heavy: indeed, we had almost lost one: and this made us so uneasy that Hanbury went back to the shaft and cut a length from the rope and, with this, lashed them loosely together, so that they could hang from a beam, as a pair of saddle-bags slung on the back of a horse.

We did not sit down, for the plank was nearly awash and very soon we should be able to raise the stage: but, as I have said before, all the way up the well the niches lay two feet apart, and, the beams being heavy and we having nothing to stand on, but only the water itself to buoy us up, we could not raise the rafters as much as two feet at a time, but must wait till the water had risen and made this distance less.

So we stood in a row on the plank: and, when the water was half way to the calf of my leg, we raised the stage.

Again we had a battle to save the bags, for to keep afloat ourselves during the transfer was almost as much as we could do, and swapping horses in mid-stream must be child’s play compared with the struggle we had to raise ourselves and our baggage twenty inches above the flood.

But at last it was over, and we were again on the plank, with nearly an hour before us before we must move again.

Enforced inaction, I suppose, never helped anyone. But, sitting there in the darkness, we had nothing to do but think. And, when I set down my thoughts, I think I am revealing more or less what was in each of our minds.

Our state was melancholy.

We were as cold now as, a short time before, we had been hot. We had to chafe our fingers, to prevent them from growing numb. Mansel was stripped to the waist, and we were all drenched and dripping and utterly worn out.

Of succour from without there was no hope at all. Carson was miles away, and Bell, if indeed he was not dead or captive, was holding the postern gate.

The water was rising at the rate of thirty inches an hour: but this pace would not last for long, and twenty-seven hours must elapse before we could climb above the high-water mark.

And, if by some miracle we could endure so long, if, before then, the thieves had not returned to the well, to find us waiting with the treasure, what then?

Then we should still be thirty-four feet from the top . . . thirty-four feet . . .

We had been confronted with three apparently insuperable steps. First, we had been locked in the chamber: yet we had escaped. Then we had been trapped in the shaft: yet we had emerged. And now we were down in the well. That is to say, we had taken two of the steps, only to find that the third was insuperable indeed.

I will not say that there was no more spirit in us, but the figures with which we were faced would have daunted any one. Twenty-seven hours of waiting: twenty-five several battles to raise the stage: and then---thirty-four feet which, unless some rope was dangling, we could not possibly scale. And when, after thirty minutes, Hanbury rose to his feet and said quietly, “I’m sorry but I can’t stand this,” I think we all understood.

“I’m going to try to climb up,” he added gravely, “by means of the niches.”

“Steady, George,” said Mansel, laying a hand on his arm. “The thing’s impossible. No one in our condition could bring it off.”

“I’m going to try,” said Hanbury. “It may be a chance in a million----”

“It isn’t that,” said I. “The niches come to end ten feet from the top.”

There was a long silence: and presently Hanbury sat down.

And how long we sat still then I cannot remember, but I know that all of a sudden Rowley, who was sitting beside me, gave a great start and then began to laugh like a man at a play.

I laid hands upon him, for I thought he had lost his wits. But as soon as he spoke I knew there was nothing to fear.

“I’m sorry, sir, but it’s like a clown in the ring. We’d sell our souls for a ladder, and we’re sitting on one all the time.

There was a moment’s silence.

Then----

“Put it more clearly,” said Mansel. “I believe I see what you mean.”

And that, I confess, was more than I could have said.

“The beams, sir,” said Rowley. “We can set them above one another, and then, when we’re all on the top one, pull out the one below and lift up that. And so on. I know there’ll be ten feet to go, sir, when we get to the top: but it’s better than waiting until---until we can’t wait no more.”

“It is, indeed,” said Mansel heartily. “Rowley, I give you best. And when we get out, as we shall, I’ll thank you for saving my life.”

Then we all spoke at once and laughed and jested and clapped Rowley on the back, as if we were souls in a tavern and full of ale, instead of upon the brink of the most hazardous endeavour that ever four wretches made.

Then Hanbury slipped off the plank into the water, and the rest of us straddled the beam over which the kit-bags hung: and when he had freed the other, he gave it to us, and we fitted it into the niches two feet above.

Happily the beams were on edge, or they would not have borne our weight: but, before ten minutes were past, we would have given a fortune to have had a third. Whether the plank would have helped us, if we could have cut it down, I do not know: but the chisel we had left by the chamber, and there was a foot of water above the mouth of the shaft. And since it could not have carried us, though it might have served as a rail, we let it go.

When George had climbed out of the water, before we went any further, we determined exactly the system by which we must go. “For,” said Mansel, “if ever an exercise required a military precision, this is the stunt. We’ve only to make one mistake, and we shan’t be in a position to make any more.”

The first thing which we decided was to preserve the order in which we sat on the beam. Mansel was sitting at one end, and Hanbury at the other, each of them facing the wall: I was next to Mansel and facing the same way as he, and Rowley was next to George: and the bags hung in the middle, between Rowley and me.

And, for the sake of convenience, I will do as Mansel did then and number us off; so that he became “Number One,” I became “Number Two,” Rowley became “Number Three,” and Hanbury “Number Four.”

Numbers One and Four were to move and take their seats on the beam we had just set up. They would then take hold of the niches two feet above, to gain what stability they could. Numbers Two and Three would then move and, between them, lift up the bags, before moving up themselves. When they were up and in place, Numbers Two and Three would lean down, keeping their balance by holding to One and Four, and, laying firm hold of the beam which was resting below, would draw it out of the niches and lift it up. They would bring it as far as their shoulders and there lay it down, when Numbers One and Four were to guide it home.

That was our method: and, though, looking back, I think we might have done better, the devil was driving, and so it had to serve.

Now at first all went like clock-work, and we must have climbed twenty-six feet, before the depth below us began to make itself felt.

I think we had all perceived that here was the serious drawback to Rowley’s plan, for the highest niches were nearly eighty feet up; but it was so important that we should not lose heart that no one had even hinted that a fear of falling might presently supervene.

Be that as it may, I know that all of a sudden the palms of my hands were dripping and I was afraid to move. Rowley and I, between us, had lifted the bags, and he had just taken his seat on the upper beam, but I dared not change my position, for I knew that, if for one instant I were to release my hold, I should not be able to regain it, but must inevitably fall.

By Mansel’s direction, I waited: and, after two or three minutes the attack seemed to pass away: but, a few minutes later came another, and everything had to wait until I recovered my nerve.

I suppose my head was the weakest, for I was the first to show fear: but presently Hanbury asked us to give him two minutes’ grace, and, when at length he moved and I turned to lift the bags, Rowley began to tremble, and five more minutes went by before he could play his part.

From then on, the ascent was a nightmare.

If we had had a third beam, it would not have been so bad: but the rafters were very narrow and to bestride the upper, without any handhold above to help us to keep our seat, sometimes required such an effort as we could scarcely make.

Again, it would have been better, if we had not had to look down: but the dark motion of the water was constantly catching the eye and reminding us of the doom which one false movement would evoke.

My hands ran so fast with sweat that I was continually fearful of letting fall the rafter which Rowley and I were to raise: and once, when my end was free, but his would not leave its niche, I had to let go of Mansel and put down my other hand, because, if I had not done so, the beam must have slipped from my grasp.

We dared not rest, if for no other reason, because the depth below us seemed to feed upon delay; for, so often as we waited for someone to recover his nerve, the bare idea of moving seemed to become monstrous and the renewal of the struggle a hazard we could not take.

With this increasing horror came other fears: and, though we spoke hardly at all, I think we imagined vain things. Now a beam seemed to be bending and now insecurely lodged: we supposed one beam to have fallen, and saw ourselves trapped in mid-air: we wondered if one of us fell, what the others would do: behind all, the ten nicheless feet to which we must come rose like some sinister cliff where the wave of endeavour should be stayed. But, while these apprehensions were transient, the height at which we were working was always there, and, what was worse, growing more obtrusive with every move we made.

Yet we went on somehow, making our way up the well, building our ladder as we went.

I do not remember feeling weary, but only most stiff and sore: and, indeed, I find it astonishing that we managed so well as we did; for, before we had located the chamber, we were almost dead-beat, and, when we were sitting on the plank, I was so much exhausted that, if I had fallen off, I am sure I should have sunk like a stone. Yet, though we were not sprightly, we moved with a will, and I think it must have been our nerves that kept us going, for I do not believe that we had any physical energy left.

After a long time we could make out the top of the well, for the light of the moon had vanished, and it was very dark. And, with this, a new dread came to plague us, namely, that the thieves would return before we were up. And at times we made sure we had seen the flash of a torch, and at others that ‘Rose’ Noble was waiting and only letting us carry the treasure up.

We had moved, I think, thirty-six times—but I cannot be sure—and I had just taken my seat, when Mansel spoke.

“This niche is my last,” said he. “Hanbury, do you say the same?”

After a moment----

“Yes,” said Hanbury.

“Very good,” said Mansel. And then to me “Carry on.”

So for the last time Rowley and I withdrew and lifted the beam: and Mansel and Hanbury guided it into place.

Then Mansel stood up and straddled it and ran his hands over the wall: and Hanbury did the same. But neither spoke, and presently both sat down.

“William,” said Mansel, looking up, “are you sure we’re still ten feet down?”

“Certain,” said I. “I’ve marked it many a time.”

“Well,” said he, with a sigh, “I’d rather be ten feet down than thirty-four. Can anyone see the chain?”

We could make out the windlass, but no one could see the chain. “Let’s hope it’s dangling,” said Mansel, “three or four feet away.”

With that, he and Hanbury descended and sat on the lower beam: then they withdrew the upper and gave it to me, and, while they and Rowley crouched down, I turned the timber crosswise, in the hope, if it was there, of striking the chain. But I encountered nothing, and after a moment or two I was thankful to give it up and to hear it slide back into place.

Then for a while we sat silent, continually gazing upward at the rim of the well.

And then at last I perceived the only way. And, wet with sweat as I was, when I saw it, I broke out again. But it was the only way: and, after a little discussion, we made the attempt.

Mansel and Rowley bestrode the upper beam, this time facing each other, instead of towards the wall. I stood between them, in the middle of the lower beam. When they were ready, I put my hands on their shoulders and mounted the upper beam: and, when I was standing upright, I let myself fall forward against the wall. This was but three feet away. At once Hanbury mounted behind me and stepped up on to my shoulders. This brought his head to the level of the rim of the well, and an instant later he was up and within the redoubt.

In a flash he was at the windlass and had let go a length of chain. Then he locked the windlass and, pulling the chain in by hand, lowered it so that it hung between my face and the wall. I seized it easily enough, and one minute later I was out of the well.

Then we hauled up the bags and Rowley and, finally, Mansel himself. And, when he was up, with one consent we all lay down on the ground, and no one of us moved or spoke for five minutes or more. To tell the truth we were past speaking; and I cannot set down our emotions, because, even at this distance of Time, I can find no words which can tell our gratitude and relief.

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