A Bid for Fortune/Chapter 8
OUR IMPRISONMENT AND ATTEMPT AT ESCAPE.
For what length of time I lay unconscious after hearing Beckenham's cry, and feeling the cord tighten round my throat, as narrated in the preceding chapter, I have not the remotest idea; I only know that when my senses returned to me again I found myself in complete darkness. The cord was gone from my neck, it is true, but something was still encircling it in a highly unpleasant fashion. On putting my hand up to it, to my intense astonishment, I discovered it to be a collar of iron, padlocked at the side, and communicating with a wall at the back by means of a stout chain fixed in a ring, which again was attached to a swivel.
This ominous discovery set me hunting about to find out where I was and for a clue as to what these things might mean. That I was in a room was evident from the fact that, by putting my hands behind me, I could touch two walls forming a corner. But in what part of the town such room might be was beyond my telling. One thing was evident, however, the walls were of brick, unplastered and quite innocent of paper.
As not a ray of light relieved the darkness I put my hand into my ticket pocket, where I was accustomed to carry matches, and finding that my captors had not deprived me of them, lit one and looked about me. It was a dismal scene that little gleam illumined. The room in which I was confined was a small one, being only about ten feet long by eight wide, while, if I had been able to stand upright, I might have raised my hand within two or three inches of the ceiling. In the furthest left-hand corner was a door, while in the wall on the right, but hopelessly beyond my reach, was a low window almost completely boarded up. I had no opportunity of seeing more, for by the time I had realised these facts the match had burnt down to my fingers. I blew it out and hastened to light another.
Just as I did so a low moan reached my ear. It came from the further end of the room. Again I held the match aloft; this time to discover a huddled-up figure in the corner opposite the door. One glance at it told me that it was none other than my young friend the Marquis of Beckenham. He was evidently still unconscious, for though I called him twice by name, he did not answer, but continued in the same position, moaning softly as before. I had only time for a hurried glance at him before my last match burned down to my fingers, and had to be extinguished. With the departure of the light a return of faintness seized me, and I fell back into my corner, if not thoroughly insensible, certainly unconscious of the immediate awkwardness of our position.
It was daylight when my power of thinking returned to me, and long shafts of sunshine were percolating into us through the chinks in the boards upon the window. To my dismay the room looked even smaller and dingier than when I had examined it by the light of my match some hours before. The young Marquis lay unconscious in his corner just as I had last seen him, but with the widening light I discovered that his curious posture was due more to extraneous circumstances than to his own weakness, for I could see that he was fastened to the wall by a similar collar to my own.
I took out my watch, which had not been taken from me as I might have expected, and examined the dial. It wanted five minutes of six o'clock. So putting it back into my pocket, I set myself for the second time to try and discover where we were. By reason of my position and the chain that bound me, this could only be done by listening, so I shut my eyes and put all my being into my ears. For some moments no sound rewarded my attention. Then a cock in a neighbouring yard on my right crowed lustily, a dog on my left barked, and a moment later I heard the faint sound of someone coming along the street. The pedestrian, whoever he might be, was approaching from the right hand, and, what was still more important, my trained ear informed me that he was lame of one leg, and walked with crutches. Closer and closer he came. But to my surprise he did not pass the window; indeed, I noticed that when he came level with it the sound was completely lost to me. This told me two things: one, that the window, which, as I have already said, was boarded up, did not look into the main thoroughfare; the other, that the street itself ran along on the far side of the very wall to which my chain was attached.
As I arrived at the knowledge of this fact, Beckenham opened his eyes; he sat up as well as his chain would permit and gazed about him in a dazed fashion. Then his right hand went up to the iron collar fastened round his neck, and when he had realised what it meant he appeared more mystified even than before. He seemed to doze again for a minute or so, then his eyes opened, and as they did so they fell upon me and his perplexity found relief in words.
"Mr. Hatteras," he said, in a voice like that of a man talking in his sleep, "where are we and what on earth does this chain mean?"
"You ask me something that I want to know myself," I answered. "I cannot tell you where we are, except that we are in Port Said. But if you want to know what I think it means; well, I think it means treachery. How do you feel now?"
"Very sick indeed, and my head aches horribly. But I can't understand it at all. What do you mean by saying that it's treachery?"
This was the one question of all others I had been dreading, for I could not help feeling that when all was said and done I was bitterly to blame. However, unpleasant or not, the explanation had to be got through, and that without delay.
"Lord Beckenham," I began, sitting upright and clasping my hands round my knees, "this is a pretty bad business for me. I haven't the reputation of being a coward, but I'll own I feel pretty rocky and mean when I see you sitting there on the floor with that iron collar round your neck and that chain holding you to the wall, and know that it's, in a measure, all my stupid blundering folly that has brought it about."
"Oh, don't say that, Mr. Hatteras!" was the young man's generous reply. "For whatever or whoever may be to blame for it, I'm sure you're not."
"That's because you don't know everything, my lord. Wait till you have heard what I have to tell you before you give me such complete absolution."
"I'm not going to blame you whatever you may tell me; but please go on!"
There and then I set to work and told him all that had happened to me since my arrival in London; informed him of my meeting with Nikola, of Wetherell's hasty departure for Australia, of my distrust for Baxter, described the telegram incident and Baxter's curious behaviour afterwards, narrated my subsequent meeting with him and Nikola in the Green Sailor Hotel, described my journey to Plymouth, and finished with the catastrophe that had happened to me there.
"Now you see," I said in conclusion, "why I regard myself as being so much to blame."
"Excuse me," he answered, "but I cannot say that I see it in the same light at all."
"I'm afraid I must be more explicit then. In the first place you must understand that, without a shadow of a doubt, Baxter was chosen for your tutor by Nikola, whose agent he undoubtedly is, for a specific purpose. Now what do you think that purpose was? You don't know? To induce your father to let you travel, to be sure. You ask why they should want you to travel? We'll come to that directly. Their plan is succeeding admirably, when I come upon the scene and, like the great blundering idiot I am, must needs set to work to assist them in their nefarious designs. Your father eventually consents, and it is arranged that you should set off for Australia at once. Then it is discovered that I am going to leave in the same boat. This does not suit Nikola's plans at all, so he determines to prevent my sailing with you. By a happy chance he is unsuccessful, and I follow and join the boat in Naples. Good gracious! I see something else now."
"What is that?"
"Simply this. I could not help thinking at the time that your bout of sea sickness between Naples and this infernal place was extraordinary. "Well, if I'm not very much mistaken, you were physicked, and it was Baxter's doing."
"Ah! That's yet to be discovered. But you may bet your bottom dollar it was some part of their devilish conspiracy. I'm as certain of that as that we are here now. Now here's another point. Do you remember my running out of the Casino last night? Well, that was because I saw Nikola standing in the roadway watching us."
"Are you certain! How could he have got here? And what could his reasons be for watching us?"
"Why, can't you see? To find out how his plot is succeeding, to be sure."
"And that brings us back to our original question—what is that plot?"
"That's rather more difficult to answer! But if you ask my candid opinion I should say nothing more nor less than to make you prisoner and blackmail your father for a ransom."
For some minutes neither of us spoke. The outlook seemed too hopeless for words, and the Marquis was still too weak to keep up an animated conversation for any length of time. He sat leaning his head on his hand. But presently he looked up again.
"My poor father!" he said. "What a state he will be in!"
"And what frets me more," I returned, "how he will regret ever having listened to my advice. What a dolt I was not to have told him of my suspicions."
"You must not blame yourself for that. I am sure my father would hold you as innocent as I do. Now let us consider our position. In the first place, where are we, do you think? In the second, is there any possible chance of escape?"
"To the first my answer is, 'don't know;' to the second, 'can't say.' I have discovered one thing, however, and that is that the street does not lie outside that window, but runs along on the other side of this wall behind me. The window, I suspect, looks out on to some sort of a courtyard. But unfortunately that information is not much good to us, as we can neither of us move away from where we are placed."
"Is there no other way?"
"Not one, as far as I can see. Can you see anything on your side?"
"Nothing at all, unless we could get at the door. But what's that sticking out of the wall near your feet?"
I stooped as much as I was able to get a better view of it.
"It looks like a pipe."
The end of a pipe it certainly was, and sticking out into the room, but where it led to and why it had been cut off in this peculiar fashion were two questions I could no more answer than I could fly.
"Does it run out into the street, do you think?" was Beckenham's immediate query. "If so, you might manage to call through it to some passer-by, and ask him to obtain assistance for us!"
"A splendid notion if I could get my mouth anywhere within a foot of it, but as this chain will not permit me to do that, it might as well be a hundred miles off. It's as much as I can do to touch it with my fingers."
"Do you think if you had a stick you could push a piece of paper through? We might write a message on it."
"Possibly, but there's another drawback to that. I haven't the necessary piece of stick."
"Here is a stiff piece of straw; try that."
He harpooned a piece of straw about eight inches long, across the room towards me, and, when I had received it, I thrust it carefully into the pipe. A disappointment, however, was in store for us.
"It's no use," I reported sorrowfully, as I threw the straw away. "It has an elbow halfway down, and that would prevent any message from being pushed through."
"Then we must try to discover some other plan. Don't lose heart!"
"Hush! I hear somebody coming."
True enough a heavy footfall was approaching down the passage. It stopped at the door of the room in which we were confined, and a key was inserted in the lock. Next moment the door swung open and a tall man entered the room. A ray of sunlight, penetrating between the boards that covered the window, fell upon him and showed me that his hair was white and that his face was deeply pitted with small-pox marks. Now where had I met or heard of a man with those peculiarities before! Ah! I remembered!
He stood for a moment in the doorway looking about him, and then strolled into the centre of the room.
"Good morning, gentlemen," he said, with an airy condescension that stung like an insult, "I trust you have no fault to find with the lodging our poor hospitality is able to afford you."
"Mr. Prendergast," I answered, determining to try him with the name of the man mentioned by my sweetheart in her letter. "What does this mean? Why have we been made prisoners like this? I demand to be released at once. You will have to answer severely to our consul for this detention."
For a brief space he appeared to be dumbfounded by my knowledge of his name. But he soon recovered himself and leaned his back against the wall, looking us both carefully over before he answered.
"I shall be only too pleased," he said sneeringly, "but if you'll allow me to say so, I don't think we need trouble about explanations yet awhile."
"Pray, what do you mean by that?"
"Exactly what I say; as you are likely to be our guests for some considerable time to come, there will be no need for explanation."
"You mean to keep us prisoners, then, do you? Very well, Mr. Prendergast, be assured of this, when I do get loose I'll make you feel the weight of my arm."
"I think it's very probable there will be a fight if ever we do meet," he answered, coolly taking a cigarette from his pocket and lighting it. "And it's my impression you'd be a man worth fighting, Mr. Hatteras."
All this time the young Marquis had not said a word. Now he interrogated Prendergast in his turn.
"If you think my father will let me remain here very long, you're much mistaken," he said. "And as for the ransom you expect him to pay, I don't somehow fancy you'll get a halfpenny."
At the mention of the word "ransom" I noticed that a new and queer expression came into our captor's face. He did not reply, however, except to utter his usual irritating laugh. Having done so he went to the door and called something in Arabic. In answer a gigantic negro made his appearance, bearing in his hands a tray on which were set two basins of food and two large mugs of water. These were placed before us and Prendergast bade us, if we were hungry, fall to.
"You must not imagine that we wish to starve you," he said. "Food will be served to you twice a day. And if you want it, you can even be supplied with spirits and tobacco. Now, before I go, one word of advice. Don't indulge in any idea of escape. Communication with the outside world is absolutely impossible, and you will find that those collars and chains will stand a good strain before they give way. If you behave yourselves you will be well looked after; but if you attempt any larks you will be confined in different rooms, and there will be a radical change in our behaviour towards you."
So saying he left the room, taking the precaution to lock the door carefully behind him.
When we were once more alone, a long silence fell upon us. It would be idle for me to say that the generous behaviour of the young Marquis with regard to my share in this wretched business had set my mind at rest. But if it had not done that it had at least served to intensify another resolution. Come what might, I told myself, I would find a way of escape, and he should be returned to his father safe and sound, if it cost me my life to do it. But how were we to escape? We could not move from our places on account of the chains that secured us to the walls, and, though I put all my whole strength into it, I found I could not dislodge the staple a hundredth part of an inch from its holding-place.
The morning wore slowly on, midday came and went, the afternoon dragged its dismal length, and still there was no change in our position. Towards sundown the same gigantic negro entered the room again, bringing us our evening meal. When he left we were locked up for the night, with only the contemplation of our woes, and the companionship of the multitudes of mice that scampered about the floor, to enliven us.
The events of the next seven days are hardly worth chronicling, unless it is to state that every morning at daylight the same cock crew and the same dog barked, while at six o'clock the same cripple invariably made his way down the street behind me. At eight o'clock, almost to the minute, breakfast was served to us, and just as punctually the evening meal made its appearance as the sun was declining behind the opposite housetop. Not again did we see any sign of Mr. Prendergast, and though times out of number I tugged at my chain I was never a whit nearer loosening it than I had been on the first occasion. One after another plans of escape were proposed, discussed, and invariably rejected as impracticable. So another week passed and another, until we had been imprisoned in that loathsome place not less than twenty days. By the end of that time, as may be supposed, we were as desperate as men could well be. I must, however, admit here that anything like the patience and pluck of my companion under such trying circumstances I have never in my life met with before. Not once did he reproach me in the least degree for my share in the wretched business, but took everything just as it came, without unnecessary comment and certainly without complaint.
One fact had repeatedly struck me as significant, and that was the circumstance that every morning between six and half-past, as already narrated, the same cripple went down the street; and in connection with this, within the last few days of the time, a curious coincidence had revealed itself to me. From the tapping of his crutches on the stones I discovered that while one was shod with iron, the other was not. Now where and when had I noticed that peculiarity in a cripple before? That I had observed it somewhere I was certain. For nearly half the day I turned this over and over in my mind, and then, in the middle of my evening meal, enlightenment came to me. I remembered the man whose piteous tale had so much affected Beckenham on the day of our arrival, and the sound his crutches made upon the pavement as he left us. If my surmise proved correct, and we could only manage to communicate with him, here was a golden opportunity. But how were we to do this? We discussed it and discussed it times out of number, but in vain. That he must be stopped on his way down the street need not be argued at all. In what way, however, could this be done? The window was out of the question, the door was not to be thought of; in that case the only communicating place would be the small pipe by my side. But as I have already pointed out, by reason of the elbow it would be clearly impossible to force a message through it. All day we devoted ourselves to attempts to solve what seemed a hopeless difficulty. Then like a flash another brilliant inspiration burst upon me.
"By Jove, I have it!" I said, taking care to whisper lest anyone might be listening at the door. "We must manage by hook or crook to catch a mouse and let him carry our appeal for help to the outside world."
" A magnificent idea. I do believe you've saved us!"
But to catch a mouse was easier said than done. Though the room was alive with them they were so nimble and so cunning that, try how we would, we could not lay hold of one. But at length my efforts were rewarded, and after a little struggle I held my precious captive in my hand. By this time another idea had come to me. If we wanted to bring Nikola and his gang to justice and to discover their reason for hatching this plot against us, it would not do to ask the public at large for help and I must own, in spite of our long imprisonment, I was weak enough to feel a curiosity as to their motive. No! It must be to the beggar who passed the house every morning that we must appeal.
"This letter concerns you more than me," I said to my companion. "Have you a lead pencil in your pocket?"
He had, and immediately threw it across to me. Then taking a small piece of paper from my pocket I set myself to compose the following in French and English:
"If this should meet the eye of the individual to whom a young Englishman gave half-a-sovereign in charity three weeks ago, he is implored to assist one who assisted him, and who has been imprisoned ever since that day in the room with the blank wall facing the street and the boarded-up window on the right hand side. To do this he must obtain a small file and discover a way to convey it into the room by means of the small pipe leading through the blank wall into the street; if this could be dislodged it might be pushed in through the aperture thus made. On receipt of the file an English five-pound note will be conveyed to him in the same way as this letter, and another if secrecy is observed and those imprisoned in the house escape."
This important epistle had hardly been concocted before the door was unlocked and our dusky servitor entered with the evening meal. He had long since abandoned his first habit of bringing us our food in separate basins, but conveyed it to us now in the sauce pan in which it was cooked, dividing it thence into our basins. These latter, it may be interesting to state, had not been washed since our arrival.
All the time that our jailer was in the room I held my trembling prisoner in my hand, clinging to him as to the one thing which connected us with liberty. But the door had no sooner closed upon him than I had tilted out my food upon the floor and converted my basin into a trap.
It may be guessed how long that night seemed to us, and with what trembling eagerness we awaited the first signs of breaking day. Directly it was light I took off and unravelled one of my socks. The thread thus obtained I doubled, and this done, secured one end of it to the note, which I had rolled into a small compass, attaching the other to my captive mouse's hind leg. Then we set ourselves to wait for six o'clock. The hour came; and minute after minute went by before we heard in the distance the tapping of the crutches on the stones. Little by little the sound grew louder, and then fainter, and when I judged he was nearly at my back I stooped and thrust our curious messenger into the pipe. Then we sat down to await the result.
As the mouse, only too glad to escape, ran into the aperture, the thread, on which our very lives depended, swiftly followed, dragging its message after it. Minutes went by; half-an-hour; an hour; and then the remainder of the day; and still nothing came to tell us that our appeal had been successful.
That night I caught another mouse, wrote the letter again, and at six o'clock next morning once more despatched it on its journey. Another day went by without reply. That night we caught another, and at six o'clock next morning sent it off; a third, and even a fourth, followed, but still without success. By this time the mice were almost impossible to catch, but our wits were sharpened by despair, and we managed to hit upon a method that eventually secured for us a plentiful supply. For the sixth time the letter was written and dispatched at the moment the footsteps were coming down the street. Once more the tiny animal crawled into the pipe, and once more the message disappeared upon its journey.
Another day was spent in anxious waiting, but this time we were not destined to be disappointed. About eight o'clock that night, just as we were giving up hope, I detected a faint noise near my feet; for all the world as if someone were forcing a stick through a hole in a brick wall. I informed Beckenham of the fact in a whisper, and then put my head down to listen. Yes, there was the sound again. Oh, if only I had a match! But it was no use wishing for what was impossible, so I put my hand down to the pipe. It was moving! It turned in my hand, moved to and fro for a brief space and then disappeared from my grasp entirely; next moment it had left the room. A few seconds later something cold was thrust into my hand, and from its rough edge I knew it to be a file. I drew it out as if it were made of gold and thrust it into my pocket. A piece of string was attached to it, and the reason of this I was at first at some loss to account for. But a moment's reflection told me that it was to assist in the fulfilment of our share of the bargain. So, taking a five pound note from the secret pocket in which I carried my paper money, I tied the string to it and it was instantly withdrawn.
A minute could not have elapsed before I was at work upon the staple of my collar, and in less than half an hour it was filed through and the iron was off my neck.
If I tried for a year I could not make you understand what a relief it was to me to stand upright. I stretched myself again and again, and then crossed the room on tiptoe in the dark to where the Marquis lay.
"You are free!" he whispered, clutching and shaking my hand. "Oh, thank God!"
"Hush! Put down your head and let me get to work upon your collar before you say anything more."
As I was able this time to get at my work standing up, it was not very long before Beckenham was as free as myself. He rose to his feet with a great sigh of relief and we shook hands warmly in the dark.
"Now," I said, leading him towards the door, "we will attempt our escape, and I pity the man who attempts to stop us."