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- The Splendid Spur - 19/44 -
"For you--oh, dear, dear! How shall I tell it? They are going to-- to---" She sat down on the chair, and sobb'd in her apron.
"What is't they are going to do?"
"The devil! When?"
I went suddenly very cold all over. There was silence for a moment, and then I heard the noise of some one dropping a plank in the courtyard below.
"You are but a weak girl," said I, meditating.
"Aye: but there's a dozen troopers on the landing below."
"Then, my dear, you must lock me up," I decided gloomily, and fell to whistling----
"Vivre en tout cas, C'est le grand soulas--"
A workman's hammer in the court below chim'd in, beating out the tune, and driving the moral home. I heard a low sob behind me. The jailer's daughter was going.
"Lend me your bodkin, my dear, for a memento."
She pull'd it out and gave it to me.
"Thank you, and now good-bye! Stop: here's a kiss to take to my dear mistress. They shan't hang me, my dear."
The girl went out, sobbing, and lock'd the door after her.
I sat down for a while, feeling doleful. For I found myself extremely young to be hang'd. But soon the _whang--whang!_ of the hammer below rous'd me. "Come," I thought, "I'll see what that rascal is doing, at any rate," and pulling the file from my pocket, began to attack the window bar with a will. I had no need for silence, at this great height above the ground: and besides, the hammering continued lustily.
Daylight was closing as I finish'd my task and, pulling the two pieces of the bar aside, thrust my head out at the window.
Directly under me, and about twenty feet from the ground, I saw a beam projecting, about six feet long, over a sort of doorway in the wall. Under this beam, on a ladder, was a carpenter fellow at work, fortifying it with two supporting timbers that rested on the sill of the doorway. He was merry enough over the job, and paused every now and again to fling a remark to a little group of soldiers that stood idling below, where the fellow's workbag and a great coil of rope rested by the ladder's foot.
"Reckon, Sammy," said one, pulling a long tobacco pipe from his mouth and spitting, "'tis a long while since thy last job o' the sort."
"Aye, lad: terrible disrepair this place has fall'n into. But send us a cheerful heart, say I! Instead o' the viper an' owl, shall henceforward be hangings of men an' all manner o' diversion."
I kept my head out of sight and listen'd.
"What time doth 'a swing?" ask'd another of the soldiers.
"I heard the Colonel give orders for nine o'clock to-morrow," answer'd the first soldier, spitting again.
The clock over the barbican struck four: and in a minute was being answer'd from tower after tower, down in the city.
"Four o'clock!" cried the man on the ladder: "time to stop work, and here goes for the last nail!" He drove it in and prepar'd to descend.
"Hi!" shouted a soldier, "you've forgot the rope."
"That'll wait till to-morrow. There's a staple to drive in, too. I tell you I'm dry, and want my beer."
He whipp'd his apron round his waist, and gathering up his nails, went down the ladder. At the foot he pick'd up his bag, shoulder'd the ladder, and loung'd away, leaving the coil of rope lying there. Presently the soldiers saunter'd off also, and the court was empty.
Now up to this moment I had but one idea of avoiding my fate, and that was to kill myself. 'Twas to this end I had borrow'd the bodkin of the maid. Afterward I had a notion of flinging myself from the window as they came for me. But now, as I look'd down on that coil of rope lying directly below, a prettier scheme struck me. I sat down on the floor of my cell and pull'd off my boots and stockings.
'Twas such a pretty plan that I got into a fever of impatience. Drawing off a stocking and picking out the end of the yarn, I began to unravel the knitting for dear life, until the whole lay, a heap of thread, on the floor. I then serv'd the other in the same way: and at the end had two lines, each pretty near four hundred yards in length: which now I divided into eight lines of about a hundred yards each.
With these I set to work, and by the end of twenty minutes had plaited a rope--if rope, indeed, it could be called--weak to be sure, but long enough to reach the ground with plenty to spare. Then, having bent my bodkin to the form of a hook, I tied it to the end of my cord, weighted it with a crown from my pocket, and clamber'd up to the window. I was going to angle for the hangman's rope.
'Twas near dark by this; but I could just distinguish it on the paving stones below, and looking about the court, saw that no one was astir. I wriggled first my head, then a shoulder, through the opening, and let the line run gently through my hand. There was still many yards left, that could be paid out, when I heard my coin tinkle softly on the pavement.
Then began my difficulty. A dozen times I pull'd my hook across the coil before it hitch'd; and then a full three score of times the rope slipped away before I had rais'd it a dozen yards. My elbow was raw, almost, with leaning on the sill, and I began to lose heart and head, when, to my delight, the bodkin caught and held. It had fasten'd on a kink in the rope, not far from the end. I began to pull up, hand over hand, trembling all the while like a leaf.
For I had two very reasonable fears. First, the rope might slip away and tumble before it reach'd my grasp. Secondly, it might, after all, prove a deal too short. It had look'd to me a new rope of many fathoms, not yet cut for to-morrow's purpose; but eyesight might well deceive at that distance, and surely enough I saw that the whole was dangling off the ground long before it came to my hand.
But at last I caught it, and slipping back into the room, pull'd it after me, yard upon yard. My heart went loud and fast. There was nothing to fasten it to but an iron staple in the door, that meant losing the width of my cell, some six feet. This, however, must be risk'd, and I made the end fast, lower'd the other out of window again, and climbing to a sitting posture on the window sill, thrust out my legs over the gulf.
Thankful was I that darkness had fallen before this, and hidden the giddy depths below me. I gripp'd the rope and push'd myself inch by inch through the window, and out over the ledge. For a moment I dangled, without courage to move a hand. Then, wreathing my legs round the rope, I loosed my left hand, and caught with it again some six inches lower. And so, down I went.
Minute follow'd minute, and left me still descending, six inches at a time, and looking neither above nor below, but always at the grey wall that seem'd sliding up in front of me. The first dizziness was over, but a horrible aching of the arms had taken the place of it. 'Twas growing intolerable, when suddenly my legs, that sought to close round the rope, found space only. I had come to the end.
I look'd down. A yard below my feet the beam of the gallows gleam'd palely out of the darkness. Here was my chance. I let my hands slip down the last foot or so of rope, hung for a moment, then dropp'd for the beam.
My feet miss'd it, as I intended they should; but I flung both arms out and caught it, bringing myself up with a jerk. While yet I hung clawing, I heard a footstep coming through the gateway between the two wards.
Here was a fix. With all speed and silence I drew myself up to the beam, found a hold with one knee upon it, got astride, and lay down at length, flattening my body down against the timber. Yet all the while I felt sure I must have been heard.
The footsteps drew nearer, and pass'd almost under the gallows. 'Twas an officer, for, as he pass'd, he called out---
"Sergeant Downs! Sergeant Downs!"
A voice from the guardroom in the barbican answer'd him through the darkness.
"Why is not the watch set?"
"In a minute, sir: it wants a minute to six."
"I thought the Colonel order'd it at half past five?"
In the silence that follow'd, the barbican clock began to strike, and half a dozen troopers tumbled out from the guardroom, some laughing, some grumbling at the coldness of the night. The officer return'd to the inner ward as they dispersed to their posts: and soon there was silence again, save for the _tramp-tramp_ of a sentry crossing and recrossing the pavement below me.
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