Story 2 | Chapter VIII | The Signet Ring | The Golden Incubus

Story 2—Chapter VIII.

It was exactly twelve o’clock by the chiming timepiece in the hall. Just the hour for such a task, I felt with a sort of shiver, as Sir John came down to the pantry, where I had candles ready, and a small crowbar used for opening packing-cases, and a screw-driver.

“Everybody seems quiet up-stairs, Burdon,” says Sir John, “so let’s get to work at once.—But, hillo! just put out a lamp?”

“No, Sir John,” I said. “I often smell that now; but I’ve never been able to make out what it is.”

“Humph! Strange,” he says; and then we went straight to the cellar, the great baize door at the top of the kitchen steps being shut; and directly after we were standing on the damp sawdust with the bins of wine all round.

“It hasn’t been touched, apparently, and there seems to be no need; but I should like to see if it is all right. But we shall never get through there, Burdon,” he says, looking at the bricked-up wall, across the way to the inner cellar.

“I don’t know,” I said, taking off my coat and rolling up my sleeves, to find that though the highest price had been paid for that bricklaying, the cheat of a fellow who had the job had used hardly a bit of sand and bad lime, so that, after I had loosened one brick and levered it out, all the others came away one at a time quite clear of the mortar.

“Never mind,” says Sir John. “Out of evil comes good. I’ll try that sherry too, Burdon, and we’ll put some fresh in its place. But if that’s left twenty years, we shall never live to taste it, eh?”

I shook my head sadly as I worked away in that arch, easily reaching the top bricks, which were only six feet from the sawdust; and, as is often the case, what had seemed a terrible job proved to be easy.

“There,” he says; “the place will be sweeter now. We’ll just have a glance at the old chests, and then we must build up the empty bottles again. To-morrow, I’ll order in some more wine—for my son.”

He said that last so solemnly that I looked up at him as he stood there with the light shining in his eyes.

“As’ll come back some day, sorry for the past, Sir John,” I said, “and ready to do what you wish.”

“Please God, Burdon!” he says, bowing his head for a bit. Then he looked up quite sharply, and took a candle, and I the other. “Come along,” he says in his old, quiet, stern way; and I was half afraid I had offended him, as he stepped in at the opening and stood at the mouth of the inner cellar. Then I heard him give a sharp sniff; and I smelt it too—that same odour of burnt oil. We neither of us spoke as we walked over the damp black sawdust, both thinking of the likelihood of foul air being in the place; but we found we could breathe all right; and as we held up the candles, the light shone on the black-looking old chests, every one with its padlocks and seals all right, just as we had left them all those years before.

I looked up at Sir John, and he gave me a satisfied nod as he tried one of the seals, and then we both stood as if turned to stone, for from just at my feet there came a dull knocking sound, and as I looked down, I could see the black sawdust shake.

What I wanted to do was to run, for I felt that the place was haunted; but I couldn’t move, and when I looked at Sir John, he was holding up his right hand, as if to order me to be silent. Then he held his candle down, for there was another sound, but this time more of a grinding cracking in a dull sort of way, just as if some one was forcing an iron chisel in between the joints of the stones. Then there was a long pause, and I half thought it had been fancy; but soon after, as I stood there hardly able to breathe, the sawdust just in one place was heaved up about an inch.

I was terribly alarmed, not knowing what to think; but Sir John was brave as brave, and he signed to me not to speak, and stood watching till there was a dull cracking sound, the sawdust was heaved up again, and all at once I seemed to get a hot puff of that burnt oily smell right in my nose. Then I began to understand, and felt afraid in a different fashion, as I knew that we had only got there just in time.

The next minute Sir John made a movement toward me, took my candle and turned it upside down, so that it went out, and then pointed back toward the outer cellar, as he put his lips to my ear:

“Iron bar!”

I stepped back softly, and got the iron bar from where it lay on the edge of a bin, and I was about to pick up the screw-driver, when I remembered where the wooden mallet lay, and I picked up that before stepping softly back to where Sir John was watching the floor; and now I could see that the sawdust was higher in one place, as if a flagstone had been heaved up a little at one end.

There was no doubt about it, for, as I handed the crowbar, the end of the stone was wrenched up a little higher and then stuck; for it was tightly held by those on either side; but it was up far enough to let a thin ray of dull light come up through the floor and shine on the side of one of the old chests.

It was a curious scene there, in that gloomy cellar: Sir John standing on one side, candle in his left, the iron bar in his right hand, and me on the other bending down ready with the mallet to hit over the head the first that should come up through the floor. For, though horribly alarmed, I could understand now what it all meant—an attempt to steal the gold in the chests, though how those who were working below had managed to get there was more than I could have said.

As we watched, the smell of the burnt oil came through, and I knew that it must have been going on for a long time.

All at once we could hear a low whispering, and then there was a grinding noise of iron against stone; the flag gritted and gave a little, but it held fast all along; and I could understand that the man who was trying to wrench it up had no room to work, and therefore no power to wrench up the stone. Then came the faint whispering again, and it seemed to sound hollow. Then another grinding noise, and the end of the flag was moved a trifle higher, so that the line of light on the old chest looked two or three inches broad.

I stepped softly to Sir John and put my lips to his ear as the whispering could be heard again, and I said softly: “Shall I fetch the police?”

Sir John for answer set his candle down upon the top of one of the chests and put it out with the bar as he whispered to me in turn: “Wait a few moments.” And then—“Look!” He pointed with the iron bar; and as I stared hard at the faint light shining up from below the edge of the stone, I could see just the tips of some one’s fingers come through and sweep the sawdust away to right and left. Then they came through a little more, and were drawn back, while directly after came the low whispering again, and the hand now was thrust right through as far as the wrist.

“Yes,” said Sir John then, as he grasped my arm—“the police!” Just then he uttered a gasp, and I turned to look at him; but we were in the dark, and I could not see his face, but he gripped my arm more tightly, and I looked once more toward the broad ray, to see the hand resting now full in the light, and I turned cold with horror, for there was something shining quite brightly, and I could see that it was a signet ring, and what was more, the old ring Mr Barclay used to wear—the one he had worn since he was quite a stripling, and beyond which the joint had grown so big that he could never get the jewel off.

I should have bent down there, staring at that ring for long enough, fascinated, as you may say, only all at once I felt my arm dragged, and I was pushed softly into the outer cellar, and from there into the passage beyond, Sir John closing and locking the door softly, before tottering into the pantry and sinking into a chair, uttering a low moan.

“Oh, don’t take on, sir,” I whispered; but he turned upon me roughly.

“Silence, man!” he panted, “and give me time to think;” and then I heard him breathe softly, in a voice so full of agony that it was terrible to hear: “Oh, my son!—my son!”

“No, no, sir,” I said—for I couldn’t bear it. “He wouldn’t; there’s some mistake.”

“Mistake? Then you saw it too, Burdon? No; there is no mistake.”

I couldn’t speak, for I remembered about the keys, and something seemed to come up in my throat and choke me, for it seemed so terrible for my young master to have done this thing.

“What are you going to do, sir?” I said at last, and it was me now who gripped his arm.

“Do?” he said bitterly. “All that is a heritage: mine to hold in trust for my son—his after my death to hold in trust for the generations to come. Burdon, it is an incubus—a curse; but I have my duty to do: that old gold shall not be wasted on a—”