IT was Assistant-Warder Scott who was the first to notice that small flakes of mortar were dropping from the upper part of the wall. They came dribbling down, just two or three at a time, then in dozens thick as rain.
He glanced up quickly, and could hardly believe his eyes. For the wall, which was two feet thick, built of solid granite, and had stood for over a hundred years, was threatening to fall.
A crack had opened diagonally, running from the top, where the rafters had recently been removed, and was rapidly extending downwards. Even as he looked it widened so that he could see daylight through it.
"Back! Back, all of you!" he shouted. "The wall is falling."
There were nearly thirteen convicts at work on the job of pulling down the old "hall." They bolted in every direction.
All but one. Hampered by the slightly twisted leg which had given him his nickname of Crooked Charley, he stumbled over a stone and fell at full length on the hard gravel.
Scott saw the accident, and instinctively rushed to the man's help. Seizing him round the body, with a great effort he lifted him to his feet.
"Come on, Kenny!" he cried, urgently.
But Kenny was dazed by his fall. Hastily Scott stooped and hoisted the man on to his back. At that moment there was a dull roar, and the whole wall swayed slowly outwards, curled over like a breaking wave, and came crashing downwards, smashing to pieces in its fall.
"Look out, Scott—look out!" shrieked another warder, Warren by name.
There was no need for the warning. Scott had heard the roar behind him, and was running for all he was worth.
Unfortunately, it is out of the question to run very fast with a weight of eleven stone odd upon your back. Scott suddenly felt himself driven forward exactly as though someone had punched him hard in the back with a boxing-glove, and as he sprawled on his face there was a crash like thunder, and the solid earth shook under the tremendous impact of tons of failing masonry.
For a few seconds the young warder lay dazed, then realising that he was not seriously hurt, only shaken and winded, he scrambled to his feet.
He could hardly breathe. The air was full of choking, blinding lime dust, which hung like a thick fog over everything, and hid all objects at more than a few feet distance.
His first thought was for the convict, and he bent over the man who was lying on his face on the ground and turned him over.
The first thing he saw was that Charley's head was bleeding badly. A flying fragment of stone had scored his scalp. But this wound was only skin deep. He could not tell what other hurt he had received.
'"How is it, Kenny? Are you much hurt?" he asked anxiously.
Charley opened his eyes and looked up dully at the other. "I'm done in," he muttered. "One of the stones got me across the back. My legs is all dead. I can't feel 'em. No, don't you go for to move me," he went on. "You let me lie where I be. The doctor can't do nothing for me. My spine's broke."
He paused and drew a painful breath. "If I'd only been a bit quicker," said Scott, sadly.
"Don't you worry, Mr Scott," replied Charley, quickly. "You did all you could, and more'n most screws would ha' done for a lag. But then you always was decent to us chaps. I wish there'd be more like you."
"I must fetch the doctor," put in Scott, quickly.
"You jest wait a minute," said Charley. "I got something to say, first. See here, you knows what I'm in for?"
"Yes," answered Scott, wondering what the man was after. "The Manor Court burglary, wasn't it?"
"Aye, that's what they copped me for. But there was another job afore that, one as they never brought home to me. It was I as got them Renwick rubies."
Scott started. The theft of the famous Renwick rubies had been the most sensational burglary of its time. And they had never been recovered..
"It's true," said Charley, with a slight smile. "I got 'em, and I'm the only chap as knows where they are. Now, I ain't got no kith and kin, and I'd like to do you a good turn afore my glim's dowsed. Ever heard of a place called Shepton Magna in Dorset?"
Scott nodded. "I've heard of it," he said.
"That's all right. Listen now. Half a mile down the road, from the church, there's a old deserted cottage. In the yard's a well. It's dry. The walls is bricked, and about eight feet down there's big oak beams let into the brick. Just above the beams you'll find a hole big enough to get your two hands in. The stones is in there."
Scott quivered with excitement. There was still a reward of ₤500 for the recovery of the rubies. Five hundred pounds! It was a small fortune. It would be enough, and more than enough, to enable him to realise his most cherished ambition—namely, to marry Becky Cleave.
"You can have 'em and do as you likes with 'em," Charley was saying. "I knows a fence up in Shoreditch. Ezra Klemmer his name is. He'd give you the best price for 'em."
Scott hardly listened. The dust was clearing. He rose to his feet.
"I'm very much obliged to you, Kenny," he said gratefully. "You've done me a better turn than you know. Now I must fetch the doctor. It's my duty to do so."
He turned, and there, within a yard or two, stood another warder. It was Stephen Mallock, his pet aversion, and his rival for the affections of the daughter of Principal Warder Cleave.
"Taking it easy, ain't you?" sneered Mallock. "Perhaps you think as you're doctor or chaplain or something. If you don't hurry and fetch the doctor you'll be getting a half-sheet next thing you knows."
"I was just going for Dr Percevale," answered Scott. He spoke very quietly, but his heart was thumping. He realised that in all probability Mallock had been listening to the whole of his conversation with Charley. He could not, of course, be certain of this; but the chances were that the other warder had overheard every word. And there was no officer in the whole prison whom he would not have preferred to see in Mallock's place.
As he hurried away to fetch the doctor, his brain was busy with plans. At all costs he must forestall the other.
The accident had taken place about ten o'clock. Duty kept him busy until half-past eleven. Then he went straight to Colonel Peyton, the Governor, and asked for twenty-four hours' leave of absence on urgent private affairs.
There were very few officers of his standing in the prison who would have received a favorable answer to such a request. But the Colonel knew Scott for a straightforward, hard-working young fellow, and, without even asking any questions, at once granted his request.
From the governor's office Scott hurried off to Cleave's house. There was plenty of time. The next train did not leave till twenty minutes past three.
To his great disappointment Becky was not at home. She had gone for the day to her aunt's in Taviton. As he came back into the prison to fetch his bag he almost ran into Mallock.
"Going for a holiday, I hear?" said the latter, with a sneer. And before Scott could answer he had hurried on.
Scott felt very uneasy. How did Mallock know that he had got leave? He must have been watching him. That meant that he certainly had heard what Crooked Charley had said. It meant, too, that he also would make a dash for the rubies.
A sudden inspiration came to Scott, and he hurried off to Gregory's little cycle shop down the street. There was a train for Exeter on the main line from Tarnmouth at four. If he could catch that he would gain a matter of two hours, for Moorlands was on a branch line, and going by the three-twenty, the best he could do would be to get the five-fifty from Tarnmouth.
Ten minutes later he was spinning along the hilly moorland road with his bag on the carrier behind him.
He had a nineteen-mile run before him, and the first six a series of steep hills. But once he got to Sheepscombe, it was all downhill for the rest of the way. The machine was almost new, he was lucky in getting no punctures; and at ten minutes to four he arrived at Tarnmouth Station, put the bicycle in the cloak-room, and took his ticket.
He heaved a sigh of relief as he found himself safe in a third-class carriage; but he watched carefully until the clock was on the stroke of four. Then the train pulled out, leaving Scott with the comfortable certainty that Mallock was not aboard it.
The journey was all across country. He had to change three times, and it was half-past eight and quite dusk before he reached Maulport, the nearest station to Shepton Magna.
He found there was a three-mile walk before him, and he regretted that he had not brought his bicycle. He did not like to hire a trap for fear of raising suspicion.
He walked out of the station carrying his bag which, besides a few odds and ends for the night, contained a coil of stout rope and a bull's-eye lantern. He dropped into a tea shop, and had a mouthful of food, then after inquiring his way, struck off across the downs.
It was a lonely road, and not an easy one to find. Once he missed his way, and went half a mile astray before a passer by set him right again. At last he saw the lights of the tiny village in a valley beneath him, and ten struck by the church clock as he passed that building, and began anxiously to look out for the deserted cottage mentioned by the convict.
The night was fine, and although there was no moon, it was not very dark. He passed several houses with lights in the windows, then came to a place where the road ran through a wood. There was not a soul about, not a sound except the faint rustle of the breeze in the tree tops and the distant hooting of a brown owl.
Scott counted the telegraph posts in order to get some idea of the distance. He had just passed the tenth, counting from the church, when to the left he saw that the trees broke away, and on a little bit of rising ground stood a building of some sort.
As he came nearer he could see that the thatch was gone and that the bare roof timbers stood out stark against the night sky.
His heart fairly leaped. All this time he had had a sort of vague idea at the back of his mind that Crooked Charley might possibly have been romancing. But here, without a doubt, was the very house that he had spoken of. And, if so much of his tale had been true, why not the rest also?
His breath came quick and short as he slipped through the broken wicket-gate and passed between flower-beds smothered with tall nettles, and so to the yard behind.
The well was there. The remains of a windless spanned its mouth. He picked up a pebble and dropped it down. Back came a little click—no splash. The well was dry, and one more link of the lag's tale was proved to be true.
Scott set his bag down, opened it, took out the rope, and, after testing the cross-bar of the windless, fastened the rope firmly to it. Then he went inside the ruined building and lit his lantern, turning the slide before coming out again.
Although his heart was beating furiously, yet his hands were steady enough as he fastened the lantern to his belt, and, taking hold of the rope, swung himself down. "Eight feet down," Charley had said. It was easy enough to measure that distance. He himself was just under six feet, so he dropped till the rim of the well was two feet above his head. Then, and not till then, he opened the slide of his lantern.
The light fell upon the circle of old bricks, and almost exactly level with his feet there was the oak beam of which Charley had spoken. This beam projected several inches from the wall, and he got both feet upon it without difficulty. Then, holding by the rope, he began searching for the hiding-place.
Numbers of the old bricks had fallen out, leaving shallow cavities in the wall. He tried two without result, then noticed one deeper than the rest, and thrust an arm into it.
A thrill shot through him as his groping fingers came in contact with something softer than brick—something which felt like leather.
He drew it out. It was an old leather glove, a big gauntleted affair such as hedge-cutters use, and inside was something weighty. Twisting the rope round one leg to balance himself, he was able to use both hands, and pulled out from the inside of the glove a jewel-case. It had once been red morocco, but now was green with mould. His fingers shook as he wrenched it open.
The rays of his lantern were reflected from a crimson glory of glowing stones—stones of such size and splendor that they fairly took his breath away.
"Got 'em!" he grasped. "Got 'em! Charley was right, after all."
At that instant his rope suddenly gave way. He made a wild grasp at the opposite wall to save himself, but could not reach it.
He was conscious of a rush through the air, a heavy shock. Then he knew no more.
WHEN Scott's senses returned he was conscious of two things only—pitch darkness and a musty, sour smell. It took minutes before recollection came back to his dulled brain.
But when it did come it came suddenly, and he started up with a cry on his lips.
He was stiff and sore, and his head ached abominably. Also he had a cut or wound on his left cheek which bled a good deal. But, at any rate, no bones were broken.
With an effort he struggled to his feet, and felt in his pocket for matches. His box was safe, and he struck a light and looked for his lantern. He could not find it.
The light of the match showed that he was at the bottom of the well, about twenty feet below the surface. The place was muddy earth, covered with dead leaves and all kinds of decaying rubbish. Soft enough, but abominably malodorous.
At first he thought that the lantern had sunk in the rubbish, and he struck match after match, searching feverishly.
It was no use. There was no sign either of the lantern or of the rubies. Both were gone.
It was not until he was left with two matches only that he first suspected foul play. Then all of a sudden it struck him that the rope, too, was gone.
If the windlass had given way, as at first he had supposed, why, then, of course, the rope would be lying beside him. But it was not there. Proof positive that someone had taken it away.
At once his thoughts flew to Mallock. Yes, there could be no doubt about it. Mallock had followed him, had somehow managed to gain on him, and had cut the rope.
Then, thinking his victim dead, he must have followed him to the bottom, taken the lantern, the rubies, and the rope, and made his escape.
A groan burst from poor Scott's lips, and he dropped in a heap in utter despair. But he was not the sort to give up for very long. Soon he was on his feet again, and trying to scramble up. But it was too dark. He must wait till light.
He dared not use another match, and the time dragged terribly as he stood there in the foul-smelling blackness. At last the patch of sky above grew paler; but it was still another hour before the sun rose and he had light enough to see.
There was no brick walling within reach. The sides of the wall were of shaly earth. He found a bit of iron, and began to dig footholds. It was a desperately slow business, and when he came to try them the loose stuff crumbled away beneath his weight.
All the morning he worked, and now and then shouted, in the hope of some passer-by hearing. Noon came, and he was no nearer to success. The only result was that he was very hungry and that his mouth and throat were parched with thirst.
Still he stuck to it until a heavy fall of earth nearly buried him. Utterly worn out, he dropped, and fell asleep on the instant. He did not wake until it was dark again.
The horrors of that second night were worse than those of the first, for now hope had left him. He had told nobody where he was going. No one knew except Mallock, for poor Charley by this time was almost certainly dead.
His thoughts turned to Becky, and it was a fresh agony to think of her terrible anxiety on his behalf.
The second morning came at last, and now he was too weak to do anything to help himself, and when he tried to shout his voice failed him. He wondered vaguely how long it would take to die.
It began to rain. A little trickle of muddy water dripped down the sides of the well, and he licked it up greedily. As there was no sun, he could no longer tell how time passed. He felt too weak to move. A dull despair settled on him, and after a while he slept again.
He dreamt that he was back in the prison, and that his friend, Warder Warren, was calling him. He woke, and the voice was still ringing in his ears.
"Warren! Warren!" he shouted hoarsely.
"He's there. I told you he was."
It was Warren's voice, and, looking up, he saw two faces peering down into the depths. They were those of Warren and Cleave.
"IT was Crooked Charley told us," Warren explained, when they had got him out and were feeding him at the village inn with hot soup.
"I thought he was dead," answered Scott, vaguely.
"Not he—nor likely to. He got a blow on his back that paralysed him for the time, but he's a lot better now. He'll come through all right.
"And what about Mallock?" asked Scott.
"Mallock?" said Warren, in a puzzled voice. "What about him?"
Scott realised that Warren and Cleave fancied that he had fallen into the well. He told them the whole story.
"The dirty tyke!" growled Warren. "So that's how 'twas. Why, Mallock was back at the prison last night, and on duty again. Wanted to know why you weren't back yourself."
"Jove! I hope he stays till I do get back again and face him," exclaimed Scott.
"He don't know that we've come to look for you," answered Warren, with a slight chuckle. "I've got a notion that the old man kind of suspected something was up, for he sent us off on the strict q.t., and told us not to say nothing to anybody."
"If he's back at the prison then he's probably got the rubies," said Scott, eagerly. "Can't we start at once?"
"No, we can't, my lad," put in Cleave, decidedly. "You'll wait till morning. Then, if you're fit, off we go."
Food and a night's sleep put Scott all right, and at dinner- time next day he walked in at the prison-gate on his way to report to Colonel Peyton.
Just as he passed the second gates who should come round the corner but Mallock.
The man gave a sort of gasp, went white as a sheet, then hurried away.
"All right, Scott," said Warren, as Scott started forward. "You go ahead to the governor. I'll watch him."
But half an hour later, when Scott had told his story to the governor and the latter had sent for Mallock, Mallock was nowhere to be found.
As Warren said, he had "done a bunk."
"But he hasn't been to his quarters, for I've been watching 'em," added Warren.
Thereupon a search was made, and hidden in Mallock's box they found the Renwick rubies.
So Scott was able, after all, to claim the reward, and not long afterwards he and pretty Miss Becky were married.
As for Crooked Charley, he still limps, but in character at least he no longer merits his nickname. For when his term was up Scott used a part of his money in setting up the ex-lag in a little fruit and vegetable business, and Charley, having got a good chance to lead an honest life, had done so ever since.