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   Chapter 14 THE WELL-HOUSE

Moonfleet By John Meade Falkner Characters: 16602

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03

For those thou mayest not look upon

Are gathering fast round the yawning stone-Scott

It wanted yet half an hour of midnight when I found myself at the shaft of the marble quarry, and before I had well set foot on the steps to descend, heard Elzevir's voice challenging out of the darkness below. I gave back 'Prosper the Bonaventure', and so came home again to sleep the last time in our cave.

The next night was well suited to flight. There was a spring-tide with full moon, and a light breeze setting off the land which left the water smooth under the cliff. We saw the Bonaventure cruising in the Channel before sundown, and after the darkness fell she lay close in and took us off in her boat. There were several men on board of her that I knew, and they greeted us kindly, and made much of us. I was indeed glad to be among them again, and yet felt a pang at leaving our dear Dorset coast, and the old cave that had been hospital and home to me for two months.

The wind set us up-Channel, and by daybreak they put us ashore at Cowes, so we walked to Newport and came there before many were stirring. Such as we saw in the street paid no heed to us but took us doubtless for some carter and his boy who had brought corn in from the country for the Southampton packet, and were about early to lead the team home again. 'Tis a little place enough this Newport, and we soon found the Bugle; but Elzevir made so good a carter that the landlord did not know him, though he had his acquaintance before. So they fenced a little with one another.

'Have you bed and victuals for a plain country man and his boy?' says Elzevir.

'Nay, that I have not,' says the landlord, looking him up and down, and not liking to take in strangers who might use their eyes inside, and perhaps get on the trail of the Contraband. ''Tis near the Summer Statute and the place over full already. I cannot move my gentlemen, and would bid you try the Wheatsheaf, which is a good house, and not so full as this.'

'Ay, 'tis a busy time, and 'tis these fairs that make things prosper,' and Elzevir marked the last word a little as he said it.

The man looked harder at him, and asked, 'Prosper what?' as if he were hard of hearing.

'Prosper the Bonaventure,' was the answer, and then the landlord caught Elzevir by the hand, shaking it hard and saying, 'Why, you are Master Block, and I expecting you this morn, and never knew you.' He laughed as he stared at us again, and Elzevir smiled too. Then the landlord led us in. 'And this is?' he said, looking at me.

'This is a well-licked whelp,' replied Elzevir, 'who got a bullet in the leg two months ago in that touch under Hoar Head; and is worth more than he looks, for they have put twenty golden guineas on his head-so have a care of such a precious top-knot.'

So long as we stopped at the Bugle we had the best of lodging and the choicest meat and drink, and all the while the landlord treated Elzevir as though he were a prince. And so he was indeed a prince among the contrabandiers, and held, as I found out long afterwards, for captain of all landers between Start and Solent. At first the landlord would take no money of us, saying that he was in our debt, and had received many a good turn from Master Block in the past, but Elzevir had got gold from Dorchester before we left the cave and forced him to take payment. I was glad enough to lie between clean sweet sheets at night instead of on a heap of sand, and sit once more knife and fork in hand before a well-filled trencher. 'Twas thought best I should show myself as little as possible, so I was content to pass my time in a room at the back of the house whilst Elzevir went abroad to make inquiries how we could find entrance to the Castle at Carisbrooke. Nor did the time hang heavy on my hands, for I found some old books in the Bugle, and among them several to my taste, especially a History of Corfe Castle, which set forth how there was a secret passage from the ruins to some of the old marble quarries, and perhaps to that very one that sheltered us.

Elzevir was out most of the day, so that I saw him only at breakfast and supper. He had been several times to Carisbrooke, and told me that the Castle was used as a jail for persons taken in the wars, and was now full of French prisoners. He had met several of the turnkeys or jailers, drinking with them in the inns there, and making out that he was himself a carter, who waited at Newport till a wind-bound ship should bring grindstones from Lyme Regis. Thus he was able at last to enter the Castle and to see well-house and well, and spent some days in trying to devise a plan whereby we might get at the well without making the man who had charge of it privy to our full design; but in this did not succeed.

There is a slip of garden at the back of the Bugle, which runs down to a little stream, and one evening when I was taking the air there after dark, Elzevir returned and said the time was come for us to put Blackbeard's cipher to the proof.

'I have tried every way,' he said, 'to see if we could work this secretly; but 'tis not to be done without the privity of the man who keeps the well, and even with his help it is not easy. He is a man I do not trust, but have been forced to tell him there is treasure hidden in the well, yet without saying where it lies or how to get it. He promises to let us search the well, taking one-third the value of all we find, for his share; for I said not that thou and I were one at heart, but only that there was a boy who had the key, and claimed an equal third with both of us. Tomorrow we must be up betimes, and at the Castle gates by six o'clock for him to let us in. And thou shalt not be carter any more, but mason's boy, and I a mason, for I have got coats in the house, brushes and trowels and lime-bucket, and we are going to Carisbrooke to plaster up a weak patch in this same well-side.'

Elzevir had thought carefully over this plan, and when we left the Bugle next morning we were better masons in our splashed clothes than ever we had been farm servants. I carried a bucket and a brush, and Elzevir a plasterer's hammer and a coil of stout twine over his arm. It was a wet morning, and had been raining all night. The sky was stagnant, and one-coloured without wind, and the heavy drops fell straight down out of a grey veil that covered everything. The air struck cold when we first came out, but trudging over the heavy road soon made us remember that it was July, and we were very hot and soaking wet when we stood at the gateway of Carisbrooke Castle. Here are two flanking towers and a stout gate-house reached by a stone bridge crossing the moat; and when I saw it I remembered that 'twas here Colonel Mohune had earned the wages of his unrighteousness, and thought how many times he must have passed these gates. Elzevir knocked as one that had a right, and we were evidently expected, for a wicket in the heavy door was opened at once. The man who let us in was tall and stout, but had a puffy face, and too much flesh on him to be very strong, though he was not, I think, more than thirty years of age. He gave Elzevir a smile, and passed the time of day civilly enough, nodding also to me; but I did not like his oily black hair, and a shifty eye that turned away uneasily when one met it.

'Good-morning, Master Well-wright,' he said to Elzevir. 'You have brought ugly weather with you, and are drowning wet; will you take a sup of ale before you get to work?'

Elzevir thanked him kindly but would not drink, so the man led on and we followed him. We crossed a bailey or outer court where the rain had made the gravel very miry, and came on the other side to a door which led by steps into a large hall. This building had once been a banquet-room, I think, for there was an inscription over it very plain in lead: He led me into his banquet hall, and his banner over me was love.

I had time to read this while the turnkey unlocked the door with one of a heavy bunch of keys that he carried at his girdle. But when we entered, what a disappointment!-for there were no banquets now, no banners, no love, but the whole place gutted and turned into a barrack for French prisoners. The air was very close, as where men had slept all

night, and a thick steam on the windows. Most of the prisoners were still asleep, and lay stretched out on straw palliasses round the walls, but some were sitting up and making models of ships out of fish-bones, or building up crucifixes inside bottles, as sailors love to do in their spare time. They paid little heed to us as we passed, though the sleepy guards, who were lounging on their matchlocks, nodded to our conductor, and thus we went right through that evil-smelling white-washed room. We left it at the other end, went down three steps into the open air again, crossed another small court, and so came to a square building of stone with a high roof like the large dovecots that you may see in old stackyards.

Here our guide took another key, and, while the door was being opened, Elzevir whispered to me, 'It is the well-house,' and my pulse beat quick to think we were so near our goal.

The building was open to the roof, and the first thing to be seen in it was that tread-wheel of which Elzevir had spoken. It was a great open wheel of wood, ten or twelve feet across, and very like a mill-wheel, only the space between the rims was boarded flat, but had treads nailed on it to give foothold to a donkey. The patient beast was lying loose stabled on some straw in a corner of the room, and, as soon as we came in, stood up and stretched himself, knowing that the day's work was to begin. 'He was here long before my time,' the turnkey said, 'and knows the place so well that he goes into the wheel and sets to work by himself.' At the side of the wheel was the well-mouth, a dark, round opening with a low parapet round it, rising two feet from the floor.

We were so near our goal. Yet, were we near it at all? How did we know Mohune had meant to tell the place of hiding for the diamond in those words. They might have meant a dozen things beside. And if it was of the diamond they spoke, then how did we know the well was this one? there were a hundred wells beside. These thoughts came to me, making hope less sure; and perhaps it was the steamy overcast morning and the rain, or a scant breakfast, that beat my spirit down-for I have known men's mood change much with weather and with food; but sure it was that now we stood so near to put it to the touch, I liked our business less and less.

As soon as we were entered the turnkey locked the door from the inside, and when he let the key drop to its place, and it jangled with the others on his belt, it seemed to me he had us as his prisoners in a trap. I tried to catch his eye to see if it looked bad or good, but could not, for he kept his shifty face turned always somewhere else; and then it came to my mind that if the treasure was really fraught with evil, this coarse dark-haired man, who could not look one straight, was to become a minister of ruin to bring the curse home to us.

But if I was weak and timid Elzevir had no misgivings. He had taken the coil of twine off his arm and was undoing it. 'We will let an end of this down the well,' he said, 'and I have made a knot in it at eighty feet. This lad thinks the treasure is in the well wall, eighty feet below us, so when the knot is on well lip we shall know we have the right depth.' I tried again to see what look the turnkey wore when he heard where the treasure was, but could not, and so fell to examining the well.

A spindle ran from the axle of the wheel across the well, and on the spindle was a drum to take the rope. There was some clutch or fastening which could be fixed or loosed at will to make the drum turn with the tread-wheel, or let it run free, and a footbreak to lower the bucket fast or slow, or stop it altogether.

'I will get into the bucket,' Elzevir said, turning to me, 'and this good man will lower me gently by the break until I reach the string-end down below. Then I will shout, and so fix you the wheel and give me time to search.'

This was not what I looked for, having thought that it was I should go; and though I liked going down the well little enough, yet somehow now I felt I would rather do that than have Master Elzevir down the hole, and me left locked alone with this villainous fellow up above.

So I said, 'No, master, that cannot be; 'tis my place to go, being smaller and a lighter weight than thou; and thou shalt stop here and help this gentleman to lower me down.'

Elzevir spoke a few words to try to change my purpose, but soon gave in, knowing it was certainly the better plan, and having only thought to go himself because he doubted if I had the heart to do it. But the turnkey showed much ill-humour at the change, and strove to let the plan stand as it was, and for Elzevir to go down the well. Things that were settled, he said, should remain settled; he was not one for changes; it was a man's task this and no child's play; a boy would not have his senses about him, and might overlook the place. I fixed my eyes on Elzevir to let him know what I thought, and Master Turnkey's words fell lightly on his ears as water on a duck's back. Then this ill-eyed man tried to work upon my fears; saying that the well is deep and the bucket small, I shall get giddy and be overbalanced. I do not say that these forebodings were without effect on me, but I had made up my mind that, bad as it might be to go down, it was yet worse to have Master Elzevir prisoned in the well, and I remain above. Thus the turnkey perceived at last that he was speaking to deaf ears, and turned to the business.

Yet there was one fear that still held me, for thinking of what I had heard of the quarry shafts in Purbeck, how men had gone down to explore, and there been taken with a sudden giddiness, and never lived to tell what they had seen; and so I said to Master Elzevir, 'Art sure the well is clean, and that no deadly gases lurk below?'

'Thou mayst be sure I knew the well was sweet before I let thee talk of going down,' he answered. 'For yesterday we lowered a candle to the water, and the flame burned bright and steady; and where the candle lives, there man lives too. But thou art right: these gases change from day to day, and we will try the thing again. So bring the candle, Master Jailer.'

The jailer brought a candle fixed on a wooden triangle, which he was wont to show strangers who came to see the well, and lowered it on a string. It was not till then I knew what a task I had before me, for looking over the parapet, and taking care not to lose my balance, because the parapet was low, and the floor round it green and slippery with water-splashings, I watched the candle sink into that cavernous depth, and from a bright flame turn into a little twinkling star, and then to a mere point of light. At last it rested on the water, and there was a shimmer where the wood frame had set ripples moving. We watched it twinkle for a little while, and the jailer raised the candle from the water, and dropped down a stone from some he kept there for that purpose. This stone struck the wall half-way down, and went from side to side, crashing and whirring till it met the water with a booming plunge; and there rose a groan and moan from the eddies, like those dreadful sounds of the surge that I heard on lonely nights in the sea-caverns underneath our hiding-place in Purbeck. The jailer looked at me then for the first time, and his eyes had an ugly meaning, as if he said, 'There-that is how you will sound when you fall from your perch.' But it was no use to frighten, for I had made up my mind.

They pulled the candle up forthwith and put it in my hand, and I flung the plasterer's hammer into the bucket, where it hung above the well, and then got in myself. The turnkey stood at the break-wheel, and Elzevir leant over the parapet to steady the rope. 'Art sure that thou canst do it, lad?' he said, speaking low, and put his hand kindly on my shoulder. 'Are head and heart sure? Thou art my diamond, and I would rather lose all other diamonds in the world than aught should come to thee. So, if thou doubtest, let me go, or let not any go at all.'

'Never doubt, master,' I said, touched by tenderness, and wrung his hand. 'My head is sure; I have no broken leg to turn it silly now'-for I guessed he was thinking of Hoar Head and how I had gone giddy on the Zigzag.

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