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   Chapter 15 THE WELL

Moonfleet By John Meade Falkner Characters: 21139

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The grave doth gape and doting death is near-Shakespeare

The bucket was large, for all that the turnkey had tried to frighten me into think it small, and I could crouch in it low enough to feel safe of not falling out. Moreover, such a venture was not entirely new to me, for I had once been over Gad Cliff in a basket, to get two peregrines' eggs; yet none the less I felt ill at ease and fearful, when the bucket began to sink into that dreadful depth, and the air to grow chilly as I went down. They lowered me gently enough, so that I was able to take stock of the way the wall was made, and found that for the most part it was cut through solid chalk; but here and there, where the chalk failed or was broken away, they had lined the walls with brick, patching them now on this side, now on that, and now all round. By degrees the light, which was dim even overground that rainy day, died out in the well, till all was black as night but for my candle, and far overhead I could see the well-mouth, white and round like a lustreless full-moon.

I kept an eye all the time on Elzevir's cord that hung down the well-side, and when I saw it was coming to a finish, shouted to them to stop, and they brought the bucket up near level with the end of it, so I knew I was about eighty feet deep. Then I raised myself, standing up in the bucket and holding by the rope, and began to look round, knowing not all the while what I looked for, but thinking to see a hole in the wall, or perhaps the diamond itself shining out of a cranny. But I could perceive nothing; and what made it more difficult was, that the walls here were lined completely with small flat bricks, and looked much the same all round. I examined these bricks as closely as I might, and took course by course, looking first at the north side where the plumb-line hung, and afterwards turning round in the bucket till I was afraid of getting giddy; but to little purpose. They could see my candle moving round and round from the well-top, and knew no doubt what I was at, but Master Turnkey grew impatient, and shouted down, 'What are you doing? have you found nothing? can you see no treasure?'

'No,' I called back, 'I can see nothing,' and then, 'Are you sure, Master

Block, that you have measured the plummet true to eighty feet?'

I heard them talking together, but could not make out what they said, for the bim-bom and echo in the well, till Elzevir shouted again, 'They say this floor has been raised; you must try lower.'

Then the bucket began to move lower, slowly, and I crouched down in it again, not wishing to look too much into the unfathomable, dark abyss below. And all the while there rose groanings and moanings from eddies in the bottom of the well, as if the spirits that kept watch over the jewel were yammering together that one should be so near it; and clear above them all I heard Grace's voice, sweet and grave, 'Have a care, have a care how you touch the treasure; it was evilly come by, and will bring a curse with it.'

But I had set foot on this way now, and must go through with it, so when the bucket stopped some six feet lower down, I fell again to diligently examining the walls. They were still built of the shallow bricks, and scanning them course by course as before, I could at first see nothing, but as I moved my eyes downward they were brought up by a mark scratched on a brick, close to the hanging plummet-line.

Now, however lightly a man may glance through a book, yet if his own name, or even only one nice it, should be printed on the page, his eyes will instantly be stopped by it; so too, if his name be mentioned by others in their speech, though it should be whispered never so low, his ears will catch it. Thus it was with this mark, for though it was very slight, so that I think not one in a thousand would ever have noticed it at all, yet it stopped my eyes and brought up my thoughts suddenly, because I knew by instinct that it had something to do with me and what I sought.

The sides of this well are not moist, green, or clammy, like the sides of some others where damp and noxious exhalations abound, but dry and clean; for it is said that there are below hidden entrances and exits for the water, which keep it always moving. So these bricks were also dry and clean, and this mark as sharp as if made yesterday, though the issue showed that 'twas put there a very long time ago. Now the mark was not deeply or regularly graven, but roughly scratched, as I have known boys score their names, or alphabet letters, or a date, on the alabaster figures that lie in Moonfleet Church. And here, too, was scored a letter of the alphabet, a plain 'Y', and would have passed for nothing more perhaps to any not born in Moonfleet; but to me it was the cross-pall, or black 'Y' of the Mohunes, under whose shadow we were all brought up. So as soon as I saw that, I knew I was near what I sought, and that Colonel John Mohune had put this sign there a century ago, either by his own hands or by those of a servant; and then I thought of Mr. Glennie's story, that the Colonel's conscience was always unquiet, because of a servant whom he had put away, and now I seemed to understand something more of it.

My heart throbbed fiercely, as many another's heart has throbbed when he has come near the fulfilment of a great desire, whether lawful or guilty, and I tried to get at the brick. But though by holding on to the rope with my left hand, I could reach over far enough to touch the brick with my right 'twas as much as I could do, and so I shouted up the well that they must bring me nearer in to the side. They understood what I would be at, and slipped a noose over the well-rope and so drew it in to the side, and made it fast till I should give the word to loose again. Thus I was brought close to the well-wall, and the marked brick near about the level of my face when I stood up in the bucket. There was nothing to show that this brick had been tampered with, nor did it sound hollow when tapped, though when I came to look closely at the joints, it seemed as though there was more cement than usual about the edges. But I never doubted that what we sought was to be found behind it, and so got to work at once, fixing the wooden frame of the candle in the fastening of the chain, and chipping out the mortar setting with the plasterer's hammer.

When they saw above that first I was to be pulled in to the side, and afterwards fell to work on the wall of the well, they guessed, no doubt, how matters were, and I had scarce begun chipping when I heard the turnkey's voice again, sharp and greedy, 'What are you doing? have you found nothing?' It chafed me that this grasping fellow should be always shouting to me while Elzevir was content to stay quiet, so I cried back that I had found nothing, and that he should know what I was doing in good time.

Soon I had the mortar out of the joints, and the brick loose enough to prise it forward, by putting the edge of the hammer in the crack. I lifted it clean out and put it in the bucket, to see later on, in case of need, if there was a hollow for anything to be hidden in; but never had occasion to look at it again, for there, behind the brick, was a little hole in the wall, and in the hole what I sought. I had my fingers in the wall too quick for words, and brought out a little parchment bag, for all the world like those dried fish-eggs cast up on the beach that children call shepherds' purses. Now, shepherds' purses are crisp, and crackle to the touch, and sometimes I have known a pebble get inside one and rattle like a pea in a drum; and this little bag that I pulled out was dry too, and crackling, and had something of the size of a small pebble that rattled in the inside of it. Only I knew well that this was no pebble, and set to work to get it out. But though the little bag was parched and dry, 'twas not so easily torn, and at last I struck off the corner of it with the sharp edge of my hammer against the bucket. Then I shook it carefully, and out into my hand there dropped a pure crystal as big as a walnut. I had never in my life seen a diamond, either large or small-yet even if I had not known that Blackbeard had buried a diamond, and if we had not come hither of set purpose to find it, I should not have doubted that what I had in my hand was a diamond, and this of matchless size and brilliance. It was cut into many facets, and though there was little or no light in the well save my candle, there seemed to be in this stone the light of a thousand fires that flashed out, sparkling red and blue and green, as I turned it between my fingers. At first I could think of nothing else, neither how it got there, nor how I had come to find it, but only of it, the diamond, and that with such a prize Elzevir and I could live happily ever afterwards, and that I should be a rich man and able to go back to Moonfleet. So I crouched down in the bottom of the bucket, being filled entirely with such thoughts, and turned it over and over again, wondering continually more and more to see the fiery light fly out of it. I was, as it were, dazed by its brilliance, and by the possibilities of wealth that it contained, and had, perhaps, a desire to keep it to myself as long as might be; so that I thought nothing of the two who were waiting for me at the well-mouth, till I was suddenly called back by the harsh voice of the turnkey, crying as before-

'What are you doing? have you found nothing?'

'Yes,' I shouted back, 'I have found the treasure; you can pull me up.' The words were scarcely out of my mouth before the bucket began to move, and I went up a great deal faster than I had gone down. Yet in that short journey other thoughts came to my mind, and I heard Grace's voice again, sweet and grave, 'Have a care, have a care how you touch the treasure; it was evilly come by, and will bring a curse with it.' At the same time I remembered how I had been led to the discovery of this jewel-first, by Mr. Glennie's stories, second, by my finding the locket, and third, by Ratsey giving me the hint that the writing was a cipher, and so had come to the hiding-place without a swerve or stumble; and it seemed to me that I could not have reached it so straight without a leading hand, but whether good or evil, who should say?

As I neared the top I heard the turnkey urging the donkey to trot faster in the wheel, so that the bucket might rise the quicker, but just before my head was level with the ground he set the break on and fi

xed me where I was. I was glad to see the light again, and Elzevir's face looking kindly on me, but vexed to be brought up thus suddenly just when I was expecting to set foot on terra firma.

The turnkey had stopped me through his covetous eagerness, so that he might get sooner at the jewel, and now he craned over the low parapet and reached out his hand to me, crying-'Where is the treasure? where is the treasure? give me the treasure!'

I held the diamond between finger and thumb of my right hand, and waved it for Elzevir to see. By stretching out my arm I could have placed it in the turnkey's hand, and was just going to do so, when I caught his eyes for the second time that day, and something in them made me stop. There was a look in his face that brought back to me the memory of an autumn evening, when I sat in my aunt's parlour reading the book called the Arabian Nights; and how, in the story of the Wonderful Lamp, Aladdin's wicked uncle stands at the top of the stairs when the boy is coming up out of the underground cavern, and will not let him out, unless he first gives up the treasure. But Aladdin refused to give up his lamp until he should stand safe on the ground again, because he guessed that if he did, his uncle would shut him up in the cavern and leave him to die there; and the look in the turnkey's eyes made me refuse to hand him the jewel till I was safe out of the well, for a horrible fear seized me that, as soon as he had taken it from me, he meant to let me fall down and drown below.

So when he reached down his hand and said, 'Give me the treasure,' I answered, 'Pull me up then; I cannot show it you in the bucket.'

'Nay, lad,' he said, cozening me, 'tis safer to give it me now, and have both hands free to help you getting out; these stones are wet and greasy, and you may chance to slip, and having no hand to save you, fall back in the well.'

But I was not to be cheated, and said again sturdily, 'No, you must pull me up first.'

Then he took to scowling, and cried in an angry tone, 'Give me the treasure, I say, or it will be the worse for you'; but Elzevir would not let him speak to me that way, and broke in roughly, 'Let the boy up, he is sure-footed and will not slip. 'Tis his treasure, and he shall do with it as he likes: only that thou shalt have a third of it when we have sold it.'

Then he: ''Tis not his treasure-no, nor yours either, but mine, for it is in my well, and I have let you get it. Yet I will give you a half-share in it; but as for this boy, what has he to do with it? We will give him a golden guinea, and he will be richly paid for his pains.'

'Tush,' cries Elzevir, 'let us have no more fooling; this boy shall have his share, or I will know the reason why.'

'Ay, you shall know the reason, fair enough,' answers the turnkey, 'and 'tis because your name is Block, and there is a price of 50 upon your head, and 20 upon this boy's. You thought to outwit me, and are yourself outwitted; and here I have you in a trap, and neither leaves this room, except with hands tied, and bound for the gallows, unless I first have the jewel safe in my purse.'

On that I whipped the diamond back quick into the little parchment bag, and thrust both down snug into my breeches-pocket, meaning to have a fight for it, anyway, before I let it go. And looking up again, I saw the turnkey's hand on the butt of his pistol, and cried, 'Beware, beware! he draws on you.' But before the words were out of my mouth, the turn-key had his weapon up and levelled full at Elzevir. 'Surrender,' he cries, 'or I shoot you dead, and the 50 is mine,' and never giving time for answer, fires. Elzevir stood on the other side of the well-mouth, and it seemed the other could not miss him at such a distance; but as I blinked my eyes at the flash, I felt the bullet strike the iron chain to which I was holding, and saw that Elzevir was safe.

The turnkey saw it too, and flinging away his pistol, sprang round the well and was at Elzevir's throat before he knew whether he was hit or not. I have said that the turnkey was a tall, strong man, and twenty years the younger of the two; so doubtless when he made for Elzevir, he thought he would easily have him broken down and handcuffed, and then turn to me. But he reckoned without his host, for though Elzevir was the shorter and older man, he was wonderfully strong, and seasoned as a salted thong. Then they hugged one another and began a terrible struggle: for Elzevir knew that he was wrestling for life, and I daresay the turnkey guessed that the stakes were much the same for him too.

As soon as I saw what they were at, and that the bucket was safe fixed, I laid hold of the well-chain, and climbing up by it swung myself on to the top of the parapet, being eager to help Elzevir, and get the turnkey gagged and bound while we made our escape. But before I was well on the firm ground again, I saw that little help of mine was needed, for the turnkey was flagging, and there was a look of anguish and desperate surprise upon his face, to find that the man he had thought to master so lightly was strong as a giant. They were swaying to and fro, and the jailer's grip was slackening, for his muscles were overwrought and tired; but Elzevir held him firm as a vice, and I saw from his eyes and the bearing of his body that he was gathering himself up to give his enemy a fall.

Now I guessed that the fall he would use would be the Compton Toss, for though I had never seen him give it, yet he was well known for a wrestler in his younger days, and the Compton Toss for his most certain fall. I shall not explain the method of it, but those who have seen it used will know that 'tis a deadly fall, and he who lets himself get thrown that way even upon grass, is seldom fit to wrestle another bout the same day. Still 'tis a difficult fall to use, and perhaps Elzevir would never have been able to give it, had not the other at that moment taken one hand off the waist, and tried to make a clutch with it at the throat. But the only way of avoiding that fall, and indeed most others, is to keep both hands firm between hip and shoulder-blade, and the moment Elzevir felt one hand off his back, he had the jailer off his feet and gave him Compton's Toss. I do not know whether Elzevir had been so taxed by the fierce struggle that he could not put his fullest force into the throw, or whether the other, being a very strong and heavy man, needed more to fling him; but so it was, that instead of the turnkey going down straight as he should, with the back of his head on the floor (for that is the real damage of the toss), he must needs stagger backwards a pace or two, trying to regain his footing before he went over.

It was those few staggering paces that ruined him, for with the last he came upon the stones close to the well-mouth, that had been made wet and slippery by continual spilling there of water. Then up flew his heels, and he fell backwards with all his weight.

As soon as I saw how near the well-mouth he was got, I shouted out and ran to save him; but Elzevir saw it quicker than I, and springing forward seized him by the belt just when he turned over. The parapet wall was very low, and caught the turnkey behind the knee as he staggered, tripping him over into the well-mouth. He gave a bitter cry, and there was a wrench on his face when he knew where he was come, and 'twas then Elzevir caught him by the belt. For a moment I thought he was saved, seeing Elzevir setting his body low back with heels pressed firm against the parapet wall to stand the strain. Then the belt gave way at the fastening, and Elzevir fell sprawling on the floor. But the other went backwards down the well.

I got to the parapet just as he fell head first into that black abyss. There was a second of silence, then a dreadful noise like a coconut being broken on a pavement-for we once had coconuts in plenty at Moonfleet, when the Bataviaman came on the beach, then a deep echoing blow, where he rebounded and struck the wall again, and last of all, the thud and thundering splash, when he reached the water at the bottom. I held my breath for sheer horror, and listened to see if he would cry, though I knew at heart he would never cry again, after that first sickening smash; but there was no sound or voice, except the moaning voices of the water eddies that I had heard before.

Elzevir slung himself into the bucket. 'You can handle the break,' he said to me; 'let me down quick into the well.' I took the break-lever, lowering him as quickly as I durst, till I heard the bucket touch water at the bottom, and then stood by and listened. All was still, and yet I started once, and could not help looking round over my shoulder, for it seemed as if I was not alone in the well-house; and though I could see no one, yet I had a fancy of a tall black-bearded man, with coppery face, chasing another round and round the well-mouth. Both vanished from my fancy just as the pursuer had his hand on the pursued; but Mr. Glennie's story came back again to my mind, how that Colonel Mohune's conscience was always unquiet because of a servant he had put away, and I guessed now that the turnkey was not the first man these walls had seen go headlong down the well.

Elzevir had been in the well so long that I began to fear something had happened to him, when he shouted to me to bring him up. So I fixed the clutch, and set the donkey going in the tread-wheel; and the patient drudge started on his round, recking nothing whether it was a bucket of water he brought up, or a live man, or a dead man, while I looked over the parapet, and waited with a cramping suspense to see whether Elzevir would be alone, or have something with him. But when the bucket came in sight there was only Elzevir in it, so I knew the turnkey had never come to the top of the water again, and, indeed, there was but little chance he should after that first knock. Elzevir said nothing to me, till I spoke: 'Let us fling the jewel down the well after him, Master Block; it was evilly come by, and will bring a curse with it.'

He hesitated for a moment while I half-hoped yet half-feared he was going to do as I asked, but then said:

'No, no; thou art not fit to keep so precious a thing. Give it me. It is thy treasure, and I will never touch penny of it; but fling it down the well thou shalt not; for this man has lost his life for it, and we have risked ours for it-ay, and may lose them for it too, perhaps.'

So I gave him the jewel.

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