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- The Splendid Spur - 20/44 -
All this while I lay flatten'd along the beam, scarce daring to breathe. But at length, when the man had pass'd below for the sixth time, I found heart to wriggle myself toward the doorway over which the gallows protruded. By slow degrees, and pausing whenever the fellow drew near, I crept close up to the wall: then, waiting the proper moment, cast my legs over, dangled for a second or two swinging myself toward the sill, flung myself off, and, touching the ledge with one toe, pitch'd forward in the room.
The effect of this was to give me a sound crack as I struck the flooring, which lay about a foot below the level of the sill. I pick'd myself up and listen'd. Outside, the regular tramp of the sentry prov'd he had not heard me; and I drew a long breath, for I knew that without a lantern he would never spy, in the darkness, the telltale rope dangling from the tower.
In the room where I stood all was right. But the flooring was uneven to the foot, and scatter'd with small pieces of masonry. 'Twas one of the many chambers in the castle that had dropp'd into disrepair. Groping my way with both hands, and barking my shins on the loose stones, I found a low vaulted passage that led me into a second chamber, empty as the first. To my delight, the door of this was ajar, with a glimmer of light slanting through the crack. I made straight toward it, and pull'd the door softly. It open'd, and show'd a lantern dimly burning, and the staircase of the keep winding past me, up into darkness.
My chance was, of course, to descend: which I did on tiptoe, hearing no sound. The stairs twisted down and down, and ended by a stout door with another lamp shining above it. After listening a moment I decided to be bold, and lifted the latch. A faint cry saluted me.
I stood face to face with the jailer's daughter.
The room was a small one, well lit, and lin'd about the walls with cups and bottles. 'Twas, as I guess'd, a taproom for the soldiers: and the girl had been scouring one of the pewter mugs when my entrance startled her. She stood up, white as if painted, and gasp'd--
"Quick--quick! Down here behind the counter for your life!"
There was scarce time to drop on my knees before a couple of troopers loung'd in, demanding mull'd beer. The girl bustled about to serve them, while the pair lean'd their elbows on the counter, and in this easy attitude began to chat.
"A shrewd night!"
"Aye, a very freezing frost! Lucky that soldiering is not all sentry work, or I for one 'ud ensue my natural trade o' plumbing. But let's be cheerful: for the voice o' the turtle is heard i' the land."
The man took a pull at his hot beer before explaining.
"The turtle signifieth the Earl o' Stamford, that is to-night visiting Colonel Essex in secret: an' this is the import--war, bloody war. Mark me."
"Stirring, striving times!"
"You may say so! 'A hath fifteen thousand men, the Earl, no farther off than Taunton--why, my dear, how pale you look, to be sure!"
"'Tis my head that aches," answer'd the girl.
The men finish'd their drink, and saunter'd out. I crept from under the counter, and look'd at her.
"Father'll kill me for this!"
"Then you shall say--Is it forward or back I must go?"
"Neither." She pull'd up a trap close beside her feet, and pointed out a ladder leading down to the darkness. "The courts are full of troopers," she added.
"Quick! There's a door at the far end. It leads to the crypt of St. John's Chapel. You'll find the key beside it, and a lantern. Here is flint and steel." She reach'd them down from a shelf beside her. "Crouch down, or they'll spy you through the window. From the crypt a passage takes you to the governor's house. How to escape then, God knows! 'Tis the best I can think on."
I thank'd her, and began to step down the ladder. She stood for a moment to watch, leaving the trap open for better light. Between the avenue of casks and bins I stumbled toward the door and lantern that were just to be discern'd at the far end of the cellar. As I struck steel on flint, I heard the trap close: and since then have never set eyes on that kind-hearted girl.
The lantern lit, I took the key and fitted it to the lock. It turned noisily, and a cold whiff of air struck my face. Gazing round this new chamber, I saw two lines of squat pillars, supporting a low arch'd roof. 'Twas the crypt beneath the chapel, and smelt vilely. A green moisture trickled down the pillars, and dripp'd on the tombs beneath them.
At the end of this dreary place was a broken door, consisting only of a plank or two, that I easily pull'd away: and beyond, a narrow passage, over which I heard the tread of troopers plainly, as they pac'd to and fro; also the muffled note of the clock, sounding seven.
The passage went fairly straight, but was block'd here and there with fallen stones, over which I scrambled as best I could. And then, suddenly I was near pitching down a short flight of steps. I held the lantern aloft and look'd.
At the steps' foot widen'd out a low room, whereof the ceiling, like that of the crypt, rested on pillars. Between these, every inch of space was pil'd with barrels, chests, and great pyramids of round shot. In each corner lay a heap of rusty pikes. Of all this the signification was clear. I stood in the munition room of the Castle.
But what chiefly took my notice was a great door, studded with iron nails, that barr'd all exit from the place. Over the barrels I crept toward it, keeping the lantern high, in dread of firing any loose powder. 'Twas fast lock'd.
I think that, for a moment or two, I could have wept. But in a while the thought struck me that with the knife in my pocket 'twas possible to cut away the wood around the lock. "Courage!" said I: and pulling it forth, knelt down to work.
Luck in life has always used me better than my deserts. At an hour's end there I was, hacking away steadily, yet had made but little progress. And then, pressing the knife deep, I broke the blade off short. The door upon the far side was cas'd with iron.
'Twas the sound of man's footfall, and to the ear appear'd to be descending a flight of steps on the other side of the door. I bent my ear to the keyhole: then stepp'd to a cask of bullets that stood handy by. I took out a dozen, felt in my pocket for Delia's kerchief that she had given me, caught up a pike from the pile stack'd in the corner, and softly blowing out my light, stood back to be conceal'd by the door, when it open'd.
The footsteps still descended. I heard an aged voice muttering--
"Shrivel my bones--ugh!--ugh! Wintry work--wintry work! Here's an hour to send a grandfatherly man a-groping for a keg o' powder!"
A wheezy cough clos'd the sentence, as a key was with difficulty fitted in the lock.
"Ugh--ugh! Sure, the lock an' I be a pair, for stiff joints."
The door creak'd back against me, and a shaft of light pierc'd the darkness.
Within the threshold, with his back to me, stood a grey-bearded servant, and totter'd so that the lantern shook in his hand. It sham'd me to lift a pike against one so weak. Instead, I dropp'd it with a clatter, and leap'd forward. The old fellow jumped like a boy, turn'd, and fac'd me with dropp'd jaw, which gave me an opportunity to thrust four or five bullets, not over roughly, into his mouth. Then, having turn'd him on his back, I strapp'd Delia's kerchief tight across his mouth, and took the lantern from his hand.
Not a word was said. Sure, the poor old man's wits were shaken, for he lay meek as a mouse, and star'd up at me, while I unstrapp'd his belt and bound his feet with it. His hands I truss'd up behind him with his own neckcloth; and catching up the lantern, left him there. I lock'd the door after me, and slip'd the key into my pocket as I sprang up the stairs beyond.
But here a light was shining, so once more I extinguish'd my lantern. The steps ended in a long passage, with a handsome lamp hanging at the uttermost end, and beneath this lamp I stepp'd into a place that fill'd me with astonishment.
'Twas, I could not doubt, the entrance hall of the governor's house. An oak door, very massive, fronted me; to left and right were two smaller doors, that plainly led into apartments of the house. Also to my left, and nigher than the door on that side, ran up a broad staircase, carpeted and brightly lit all the way, so that a very blaze fell on me as I stood. Under the first flight, close to my left shoulder, was a line of pegs with many cloaks and hats depending therefrom. Underfoot, I remember, the hall was richly tiled in squares of red and white marble.
Now clearly, this was a certain place wherein to be caught. "But," thought I, "behind one of the two doors, to left or to right, must lie the governor's room of business; and in that room--as likely as not--his keys." Which door, then, should I choose? For to stay here was madness.
While I stood pondering, the doubt was answer'd for me. From behind the right-hand door came a burst of laughter and clinking of glasses, on top of which a man's voice--the voice of Colonel Essex--call'd out for more wine.
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