Story 2 | Chapter X | A Peculiar Position | The Golden Incubus

Story 2—Chapter X.

The prisoner had been sitting upon the sawdust about an hour, when the door opened again, and the two men entered, one bearing a bundle of blankets and a couple of pillows, the other a tray with a large cup of hot coffee and a plate of bread and butter.

“There, you see we shan’t starve you,” said the first man; “and you can make yourself a bed with these when you’ve done.”

“Will you leave me a light?”

“No,” says the man with a laugh. “Wild sort of lads like you are not fit to trust with lights. Good-night.”

The door of the inner cellar was closed and bolted, for it was not like ours, a simple arch; and then the outer cellar door was shut as well; and Mr Barclay sat for hours reproaching himself for his infatuation, before, wearied out, he lay down and fell asleep. How the time had gone, he could not tell, but he woke up suddenly, to find that there was a light in the cellar, and the two men were looking down at him.

“That’s right—wake up,” says the principal speaker, “and put on those.”

“But,” began Mr Barclay, as the man pointed to some rough clothes.

“Put on those togs, confound you!” cried the fellow fiercely, “or—”

He tapped the butt of a pistol; and there was that in the man’s manner which showed that he was ready to use it.

There was nothing for it but to obey; and in a few minutes the prisoner stood up unbound and in regular workman’s dress.

“That’s right,” said his jailer. “Now, come along; and I warn you once for all, that if you break faith and attempt to call out, you die, as sure as your name’s Barclay Drinkwater!”

Mr Barclay felt as if he was stunned; and, half-led, half pushed, he was taken into what had once been the pantry, but was now a curious-looking place, with a bricked round well in the middle, while on one side was fixed a large pair of blacksmith’s forge bellows, connected with a zinc pipe which went right down into the well.

“What does all this mean?” he said. “What are you going to do?”

“Wait, and you’ll see,” was all the reply he could get; and he stared round in amazement at the heaps of new clay that had been dug out, the piles of old bricks which had evidently been obtained by pulling down partition walls somewhere in the house, the lower part of which seemed, as it were, being transformed by workmen. Lastly, there were oil-lamps and a pile of cement, the material for which was obtained from a barrel marked “Flour.”

The man called Ned was better, and joined them there, the three being evidently prepared for work, in which Mr Barclay soon found that he was to participate, and at this point he made a stand.

“Look here,” he said; “I demand an explanation. What does all this mean?”

“Are you ready for work?” cried the leader of the little gang, seizing him by the collar menacingly.

“You people have obtained possession of this house under false pretences, and you have made the place an utter wreck. I insist on knowing what it means.”

“You do—do you?” said the man, thrusting him back, and holding him with his shoulders against a pile of bricks. “Then, once for all, I tell you this: you’ve got to work here along with us in silence, and hard too, or else be shut up in that cellar in darkness, and half-starved till we set you free.”

“The police shall—”

“Oh yes—all right. Tell the police. How are you going to do it?”

“Easily enough. I’ll call for help, and—”

“Do,” said the man, taking a small revolver from his breast. “Now, look here, Mr Drinkwater; men like us don’t enter upon such an enterprise as this without being prepared for consequences. They would be very serious for us if they were found out. Nobody saw you come in where you were not asked, and when you came to insult my friend’s wife.”

“Wife?” exclaimed Mr Barclay, for the word almost took his breath away.

“Yes, sir, wife; and it might happen that the gallant husband had an accident with you. We can dig holes, you see. Perhaps we might put somebody in one and cover him up.—Now, you understand. Behave yourself and you shall come to no harm; but play any tricks, and— Look here, my lads; show our new labourer what you have in your pockets.”

“Not now,” they said, tapping their breasts. “He’s going to work.”

Mr Barclay, as he used to say afterwards, felt as if he was in a dream, and without another word went down the ladder into the well, which was about ten feet deep, and found himself facing the opening of a regular egg-shaped drain, carefully bricked round, and seemingly securely though roughly made.

“Way to Tom Tiddler’s ground,” said the man who had followed him. “Now, then, take that light and this spade. I’ll follow with a basket; and you’ve got to clear out the bricks and earth that broke loose yesterday.”

Mr Barclay looked in at the drain-like passage, which was just high enough for a man to crawl along easily, and saw that at one side a zinc pipe was carried, being evidently formed in lengths of about four feet, joined one to the other, but for what purpose, in his confused state, he could not make out.

What followed seemed like a part of a dream, in which, after crawling a long way, at first downwards, and then, with the passage sloping upwards, he found his farther progress stopped by a quantity of loose stones and crumbled down earth, upon which, by the direction of the man who followed close behind, he set down a strong-smelling oil lamp, filled the basket pushed to him, and realised for the first time in his life what must be the life of a miner toiling in the bowels of the earth.

At first it was intensely hot, and the lamp burned dimly; but soon after he could hear a low hissing noise, and a pleasant cool stream of air began to fill the place; the heat grew less, the light burned more brightly, and he understood what was the meaning of the bellows and the long zinc tube.

For a full hour he laboured on, wondering at times, but for the most part feeling completely stunned by the novelty of his position. He filled baskets with the clay and bricks, and by degrees cleared away the heap before him, after which he had to give place to the man who had been injured, but who now crept by both the occupants of the passage, a feat only to be accomplished after they had both lain down upon their faces.

Then the prisoner’s task was changed to that of passing bricks and pails of cement, sometimes being forced to hold the light while the man deftly fitted in bricks, and made up what had been a fall, and beyond which the passage seemed to continue ten or a dozen feet.

At intervals the gang broke off work to crawl backwards out of the passage to partake of meals which were spread for them in the library. These meals were good, and washed down with plenty of spirits and water, the two servant-like women and the so-called Adela waiting on the party, everything being a matter of wonder to the prisoner, who stared wildly at the well-dressed, lady-like, girlish creature who busied herself in supplying the wants of the gang of four bricklayer-like men.

At the first meal, Mr Barclay refused food. He said that he could not eat; but he drank heartily from the glass placed at his side-water which seemed to him to be flavoured with peculiar coarse brandy. But he was troubled with a devouring thirst, consequent upon his exertions, and that of which he had partaken seemed to increase the peculiar dreamy nature of the scene. Whether it was laudanum or some other drug, we could none of us ever say for certain; but Mr Barclay was convinced that, nearly all the time, he was kept under the influence of some narcotic, and that, in a confused dreamy way, he toiled on in that narrow culvert.

He could keep no account of time, for he never once saw the light of day, and though there were intervals for food and rest, they seemed to be at various times; and from the rarity with which he heard the faint rattle of some passing vehicle, he often thought that the greater part of the work must be done by night.

At first he felt a keen sense of trouble connected with what he looked upon as his disgrace and the way he had lowered himself; but at last he worked on like some machine, obedient as a slave, but hour by hour growing more stupefied, even to the extent of stopping short at times and kneeling before his half-filled basket motionless, till a rude thrust or a blow from a brickbat pitched at him roused him to continue his task.

The drug worked well for his taskmasters, and the making of the mine progressed rapidly, for every one connected therewith seemed in a state of feverish anxiety now to get it done.

And so day succeeded day, and night gave place to night. The two servant-like women went busily on with their work, and fetched provisions for the household consumption, no tradespeople save milkman and baker being allowed to call, and they remarked that they never once found the area gate unlocked. And while these two women, prim and self-contained, went on with the cooking and housework and kept the doorstep clean, the so-called Miss Adela Mimpriss went on with the woolwork flowers at the dining-room window, where she could get most light, and the world outside had no suspicion of anything being wrong in the staid, old-fashioned house opposite Sir John Drinkwater’s. Even the neighbours on either side heard no sound.

“What does it all mean?” Mr Barclay used to ask himself, and at other times, “When shall I wake?” for he often persuaded himself that this was the troubled dream of a bad attack of fever, from which he would awaken some day quite in his right mind. Meanwhile, growing every hour more machine-like, he worked on and on always as if in a dream.