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   Chapter 41 THE SECRET PASSAGE.

Jack Haydon's Quest By John Finnemore Characters: 12425

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


Within that confined space, the heat became that of a fiery furnace, the pungent smoke became overpowering.

"We must get back or we shall be overcome," gasped Mr. Haydon, and they climbed the steep steps of stone.

"Who's here?" snapped Mr. Haydon, as they turned the last bend. Jack looked under his father's arm.

"It's the woman," he gasped, for the pungent smoke had almost stopped his breath. "She's come back. Where has she been?"

Now the woman's voice came to them calling earnestly, "Sahib, sahib, sahib!" she cried.

Jack and his father leapt into the room, where the wider space, though dim with smoke, made the air taste wonderfully fresh and sweet after the choking passage.

The woman at once sprang at Mr. Haydon and seized his arm, talking earnestly. As she spoke, the elder man's face lighted up with a great hope.

"Jack! Jack!" he cried. "Come on! come on! Here's a wonderful chance turned up."

Jack asked no questions. He only followed as the other two hurried for the hole which led to the secret chamber. The woman went swiftly down the teak ladder, and the other two followed. At the foot of the ladder a torch, freshly lighted, was thrust into a wide crack between two stones, and stood there burning steadily. The woman caught it up and led the way. They passed the heap of skeletons, and went to the far corner, where a very low, small door stood open. It had been closed when Jack looked into the chamber, and so he had been able to gain no idea of the fashion in which the woman had left the place.

The woman shot through the opening, and the light of her torch showed that she had entered a low tunnel not more than four feet in height and about the same in width.

"Duck your head down and come on," said Mr. Haydon, and Jack brought up the rear in the march along this tiny passage, where he had almost to scramble on hands and knees.

"What is this?" he called to his father, as the latter scrambled ahead of him.

"This," said Mr. Haydon, "explains the secret chamber. It is a passage by which the priests could enter or leave the pagoda without the knowledge of worshippers. The secret chamber was merely its ante-room, as one may say."

"How did the woman hit on it?" asked Jack.

"Looked round the place and saw the door and found it would open easily. She crept along the passage till she saw daylight, then she returned to give us the word."

"Good for her!" said Jack. "She's a first-rate sort. But I wonder how long it will be before those little ferrets behind are after us. They'll come along here in double-quick time."

"We've got a fair start," replied his father. "They'll come up the steps very slowly, having to push the fire before them."

They had gone fifty or sixty yards along the tunnel, when the woman looked over her shoulder and spoke to Mr. Haydon.

"We've got to be careful here," said the latter to Jack. "The roof is sagging and hangs very low. We must go through one at a time."

At this moment the woman threw herself on the floor and began to wind her way along like a snake. By the light of her torch Jack saw that the roof threatened at every second to fall in and block the passage. One great stone hung half-released from the grip of its fellows, as if about to topple headlong. The woman went through the tiny space in safety, and then crouched down on the other side and threw the light into the gap to show her companions the road.

"For heaven's sake, be careful how you come through, Jack!" breathed his father. "Don't touch this huge stone for your life. It trembles now, and there isn't thirty inches fairway."

Very slowly and cautiously Mr. Haydon and then Jack wriggled along flat to the ground until the dangerous spot was cleared.

At last all were on the other side, and the woman began once more to hurry forward. Mr. Haydon began to follow her, but Jack sang out, "Half a moment!"

"What for?" cried his father.

"Can't we put a stopper on the pursuit here?" said Jack. "Seems to me we can tumble these wobblers down, and block the route." He pointed to the over-hanging stones.

"Right, right!" called his father. "Where's my sense? I never thought of it."

Mr. Haydon took the torch from the native woman and looked at the roof above his head. "Mustn't fetch too much down," he remarked, "and pin ourselves under the ruin."

"There's no fear of that," replied his son. "Look at the roof over us. It's as sound as a bell. The loose stones come from a flaw in the masonry, not from general decay of the roof."

"I believe you're right, my boy," said Mr. Haydon. "You hold the torch and I'll have a try at it."

Jack took the torch, and Mr. Haydon raised the spear which he had brought with him. He thrust the head into a long crack above the great stone, and bore with all his weight and strength on the extremity of the long shaft. Luckily the latter was very stout and of a tough wood, enabling him to bring a great stress on the big stone.

"Look out!" cried Jack, "it's going, it's going!"

Both of them moved back, as the huge stone toppled swiftly to the ground. It was followed in its fall by a dozen more, and in an instant the path through the tunnel was blocked by a heap of ruins which rose from floor to roof.

"That's all right," said Jack, in a tone of deep satisfaction. "It will take an hour or two to shift those whacking big stones. This tunnel's a case of no thoroughfare at present."

The torch was handed once more to the native woman, and on they went. The next time she paused was to dash the head of the torch against the wall of the tunnel and put out the light. As soon as the red flare had been extinguished, they saw that the beams of day were pouring faintly through branches and brushwood a little before them.

"Ah," said Mr. Haydon, "that's why the air was fairly sweet in the tunnel. There has been a draught through, more or less."

Jack sprang forward, dah in hand, and began to slash at the network of creepers and saplings which blocked the mouth of the tunnel. In a few minutes he had cut a path out, and they crept cautiously forth and looked round to see what place they had gained.

They found themselves in the b

road courtyard of a large, ruined house.

"May have been a monastery," said Mr. Haydon. "Now for U Saw and his men. Are we clear of them or not?"

He moved cautiously forward to reconnoitre, Jack following him.

"Where's the pagoda?" murmured Mr. Haydon. "That will give us our bearings."

"I see it through this doorway," said Jack, and pointed to a gap in the wall. Mr. Haydon looked at the pagoda, and noted how it stood with regard to the sun and their present position.

"This is capital," he said. "We've come out on a side opposite to the open space where U Saw is waiting for reports from his men. We can go ahead in safety. He will have men on the watch all round the pagoda, of course. But we've come clean under their feet, and risen to earth amid the ruins behind them."

"I should say our best plan now would be to try to get clear of the city before they push a way through the tunnel," said Jack. "We've certainly got a couple of hours before they find where we came out. Then, very likely, they'll start a fresh search for us among the ruined houses. That would give us a bit more pull in making a flit of it."

"We can't do better," said his father, and the latter spoke a few words to the native woman, who would be by far the best guide to set them on the line they wished to follow. Led by her, they threaded once more the narrow by-ways and lanes tangled with creepers, and sometimes so choked with growth that they had to turn back and choose another way. At last they came to a broken gap in what had once been the city wall, and from it they looked across the bare, bright, open plain.

"There's no one to be seen," murmured Jack, "and if we can once get over the rim of the hill, we shall be out of sight. What is it? Not more than four hundred yards."

They stayed for a few moments longer in shelter of the ruined wall, and looked warily on either hand again and again. But there was not the slightest token of danger to be seen or heard. The sun, now sloping to the west, shone brilliantly upon the open space of stones and sand, stones too small to hide a spy, and sand too bare of brushwood to afford him an ambush.

"There's a risk, of course, in venturing into the open," murmured Jack. "But there's risk whichever way you take it. We may as well make a dash for it as hang about in the ruins till someone drops on us or on our tracks."

"That's true," agreed his father.

"Come on, then," said Jack in a low voice, and he led the rush across the open.

For the first hundred yards they ran breathlessly. How naked and bare the land seemed around them after the friendly shelter of the narrow lanes and alleys they had just left! Then, as they forged steadily ahead, and the rim of the cup-shaped hollow came nearer at every stride, hope awoke in their hearts and they strained forward, counting on the moment when they would slip over the sky-line, and be lost to sight of the broken walls and towers amid which their enemies sought them.

"See that big white stone," said Jack, who had to draw himself in to an easy trot lest he should outrun his companions, "we have only got to make that, and we're clean out of sight."

Thirty yards from the white stone the woman tripped, stumbled, and fell. Before they left the ruins Jack had wished to carry the child, but she had refused.

"Push ahead, father," called Jack. "I'll pick her up and bring her on."

THE INTERCEPTED FLIGHT.

He sprang to the woman's side, and swung her to her feet by main strength. He glanced back as he did so-he had looked back every few yards as he ran. He gave a mutter of deep satisfaction, "All quiet!" But the words on his lips came to a sudden end in a gasp of dismay and horror. Round a far angle of the ruined wall four horsemen swept into sight at a gentle trot.

For a second Jack stared at them aghast He knew at once what it was. Their enemies had foreseen the possibility of such a bolt from cover as they were now making, and a patrol was on guard about the deserted city.

Jack hurried the woman forward, hoping against hope that no eye would be raised to catch sight of the knot of fugitives on the hill-side. A wild yell raised from four savage throats told him a moment later that his hopes were vain. He glanced back, and saw that the riders had lashed their speedy ponies to a furious gallop and were climbing the slope towards them at terrific speed.

The fugitives exchanged not a word. They ran now in silence, looking on every hand for some way of escape from the horsemen who followed. Jack burned to gain the ridge and see what was beyond. "If it's broken and rocky ground," he thought, "it may prove too rough for their ponies to face."

He looked eagerly out as they gained the ridge, and a bitter exclamation broke from his lips. The ground was more open and easy than that they had just crossed. They still ran on, but now without hope of escape, merely running forward with the instinct of flight which possesses every hunted creature. They heard the ponies' hoofs rattle over the ridge, they heard the thud of the galloping feet close at their backs, they heard the mocking laughs and yells of the triumphant riders.

"I can run no farther, Jack," gasped Mr. Haydon, and pulled up.

Jack whirled round, dah in hand, and stood at bay, his blood on fire to have a stroke at those who hunted them.

The riders were now not more than a score of yards away, and coming on at the same furious speed. Scarce had Jack turned, when the leading horseman was upon him. Jack looked up and saw the tossing mane and fiery eyes of the pony straining to its utmost speed, and above the tossing mane leaned forward the half-caste, his dark eyes shining with savage fire, his mouth widened in a cruel grin. Jack sprang aside and launched a sweeping blow at Saya Chone. The latter, with hand and knee, swung his pony round and hurled the animal full on Jack. The knees of the powerful beast, just rising to the first movement of the gallop, caught the English lad square in the body and dashed him headlong to the ground. Stunned and unconscious, Jack was left in a heap on the sand, while the horsemen encircled the other fugitives.

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