Chapter 9 | Portcullis and Bridge | The Young Castellan

Chapter Nine.

As Roy appeared, there was a low buzz of voices, and directly after the butler cried, “Three cheers for the young master!” with a hearty result.

Just then Ben came close up to say, confidentially—

“I made it all comfortable with poor old Jenk, sir.”

“That’s right; and Sam Rogers?”

“Proud’s a dog with two tails, sir. Now, sir, if you’ll give the orders, we’ll go up and see what can be done about making the place safe, and I’m afraid we’re going to have a job.”

Roy felt a slight sensation of shrinking, but he mastered it, and calling to the men to follow him, he turned in by the low arched door-way, and ascended to the first chamber of the gate tower, to pause where the great iron grating hung before him in its stone grooves formed in the wall, and with its spikes descending through the slit on the floor, below which the stone paving of the entrance could be seen.

To make sure of its not descending by any accident of the chains giving, three massive pieces of squared oak had been thrust through as many of the openings at the bottom, so that the portcullis rested upon them as these crossed the long narrow slit through which it descended, and a little examination showed that if the chains were tightened by turning the two capstans by means of the bars, and the chains drawn a little over the great wheels fixed in the ceiling, it would be easy enough to withdraw the three supports and let the grating down.

“Chains look terribly rusty,” said Roy. “Think they’ll bear it, Ben?”

“They’re rusty, sir, and a good deal eaten away; but they used to put good work into these sort o’ things, because if they hadn’t, they’d have come down and killed some one. Shall we try?”

“Yes; no one can be hurt if a watch is kept below. Go down, one of you, and see that no one passes under.”

One of the men ran down, the old capstan-bars were taken from the corners, and two men on each side inserted them into the holes, and waited for the order to tighten the chains round the rollers.

“Ready? All together!” cried Roy; and the men pulled the bars towards them with a will, the chains tightened, the pulleys creaked and groaned, and the grating rose an inch or two, sufficient for the pieces of oak crossing the narrow slit to have been drawn out, when crackcrack—two of the bars the men handled snapped short off, and their holders fell, while the portcullis sank back to its old place with a heavy jar.

“Hundred years, perhaps, since they’ve been used,” said Roy. “Any one hurt?”

“No, sir,” said the men, laughing in spite of a bruise or two; and the bars being examined, it was found that the tough oak of which they were composed was completely honeycombed by worms, and powdered away to dust.

“First job, then, sir, to make new bars,” said Ben, promptly.

“Yes; we’ll have the carpenters in from the village directly, Ben. With these pulleys well greased, I suppose this will work.”

“Ay, sir, no doubt about that; it’s the drawbridge I’m afraid of,” said Ben.

“Let’s go up and see, then.”

Roy led the way again, and the men followed into the dark chamber above, where the old furnace stood, and in the corners on either side of the narrow window, with its hollowed-out notches for firing or using cross-bows from, were two great round chimney-like constructions built in the stone, up and down which huge weights, which depended from massive chains and passed over great rollers, had formerly been used to glide.

Ben shook his head as he put his hand upon one of the weights, which were formed of so many discs of cast lead, through the centre of which the great chain passed, a solid bar of iron being driven through a link below to keep them from sliding off.

The weights hung about breast-high; and at the slight pressure of the man’s hand began to swing to and fro in the stone place open to the chamber, but closed below where they ran down in the wall at the sides of the gate-way.

“Well, these must have been worked by hand, Ben,” said Roy. “Men must have stood here and run them down. Two of you go to the other side, and all press down together, but stand ready to jump back in case anything breaks. I don’t see how you can be hurt if you do.”

“No, sir; no one can’t be hurt, for the weights will only go down these holes with a bang.”

“Try, then. Now, all together—pull!”

The men tugged and strained, but there was no sign of yielding, and Ben shook his head.

“Rollers must be rusted, sir, and stick.”

But upon his climbing up to examine them, it proved that these had not been made to turn, only for the chains to slide over them, as the grooves worn in the iron showed.

“Nothing to stop ’em here, sir,” said the man.

“Then it must be set fast at the end of the bridge,” said Roy; and, descending with the men, they crossed the moat and found the bridge completely wedged and fixed in the opening of stone which embraced the end.

Picks and crowbars were fetched, the stones and sand scraped out, and when the place was cleared they reascended to the furnace-chamber, when, upon another trial being made, it was found that the weights so accurately balanced the bridge that with very little exertion the chains came screeching and groaning over the iron rollers, and the men gave a cheer as the end rose up and up till it was drawn very nearly up to the face of the tower.

Ben rubbed his ear and grinned with satisfaction.

“Come, sir,” he said, “we can make ourselves pretty safe that way; but I’m afraid the moat’s so filled up that a man can wade across.”

“That he can’t,” cried one of the gardeners. “I’ve plumbed it all over, and there aren’t a place less nor seven or eight feet deep, without counting the mud.”

“Then you’ve been fishing!” thought Roy, but he did not say so, only gave orders for the bridge to be lowered again, and sent a man for a supply of grease to well lubricate the rollers and chains.

Down went the bridge, in a most unmusical way, and as soon as it was in its place once more, a man was sent across for the village carpenter to come with his tools, there being plenty of good seasoned oak-wood stored up in the buildings.

Then a consultation ensued. They had the means of cutting themselves off from the outer world, and in a short time the portcullis would add to the strength of their defences.

“What’s next, Ben?” said Roy.

“I’m a-thinking, sir. We’ve done a lot already, but there’s so much more to do that things get a bit jumbled like in my head. We’ve got to get our garrison, and then there’s two very important things—wittles and water!”

“The well supplies that last,” said Roy; “and if we were running short, we could use the water from the moat for everything but food.”

“Yes, sir, that’s good. Cart must go to the mill, and bring all the corn and flour that can be got. Then we must have some beasts and sheep from the farm.”

“That’s bad,” said Roy, “because they’ll want feeding.”

“Have to be driven out every morning, sir, till we’re besieged. Must have some cows in too, so that if we are beset we can be independent. But first of all, sir, we ought to see to the powder and the guns. But you and me must see to the powder ourselves. We shall want some help over the guns, and I’m thinking as you’d best make that carpenter stay. The wheels are off one or two of the gun-carriages, and there’s no rammers or sponges; and I shouldn’t wonder if the carriages as I painted over and pitched are only so many worm-eaten shells.”

“Well, all these things will have to be got over by degrees, Ben. We have done the first great things towards making the castle safe, and an enemy need not know how unprepared we are.”

“I don’t know so much about being safe, sir.”

“What, not with the drawbridge up?”

“No, sir,” said Ben, in a low tone. “But suppose you sends the men to dinner now, and orders ’em to meet in a hour’s time in the court-yard—oh dear, oh dear! that’s all garden now.”

“You can make room for the men to meet without disturbing the garden,” said Roy, sharply.

“Very well, sir; you’re master. Will you give your orders?”

Roy gave them promptly, and the men walked away.

“Now, then,” said Roy, “what did you mean about the place not being safe? With the bridge up, they could only cross to us by rafts or boats, and then they couldn’t get in.”

“Well, sir, it’s like this. I’ve heard tell, though I’d forgotten all about it till just now, as there’s a sort o’ passage goes out from the dungeons under the nor’-west tower over to the little ruins on the hill over yonder.”

“Impossible! Why, it would have to be half a mile long, Ben.”

“All that, sir.”

“But it couldn’t go under the moat. It would be full of water.”

“Nay, not if it was made tight, sir.”

“But what makes you say that? You’ve never seen the passage?”

“No, sir, I’ve never been down, but your father once said something about it. It was a long time before that tower was done up and made right for Master Pawson. I don’t recollect much about it, but I suppose it must be there.”

“That’s another thing to see to, then,” said Roy. “Because, if it does exist, and the enemy heard of it, he might come in and surprise us. I know; we’ll find it, and block it up.”

“Nay, I wouldn’t do that, sir. It might be that we should have to go away, and it isn’t a bad thing to have a way out in case of danger.”

“Not likely to do that, Ben,” said Roy, haughtily. “We are going to hold the place.”

“Yes, sir, as long as we can; but we can’t do impossibilities. Now, sir, will you go and have your bit o’ dinner, while I have mine?”

“Oh, I don’t feel as if I could eat, Ben; I’m too full of excitement.”

“More reason why you should go and have your dinner, sir. Man can’t fight without he eats and drinks.”

“Nor a boy, neither—eh, Ben?”

“That’s so, sir; only I wouldn’t be talking before the men about being only a boy. You leave them to say it if they like. But they won’t; they’ll judge you by what you do, sir; and if you act like a man, they’ll look at you as being the one in command of them, and behave like it.”

“Very well, I’ll go to dinner, and in an hour meet you here.”

“Fifty minutes, sir. It’s a good ten minutes since the men went in.”

Roy joined his mother, feeling, as he said, too full of excitement to eat; but he found the meal ready, with one of the maids in attendance, and everything so calm and quiet, that, as they sat chatting, it seemed as if all this excitement were as unsubstantial as the distant rumours of war; while, when the meal was at an end, his mother’s words tended to lend some of her calm to his excited brain.

“I have been hearing of all that you have done, Roy,” she said. “It is excellent; but do not hurry. I cannot afford to have you ill.”

That was a fresh idea, and the consequences of such a trouble too horrible to be contemplated; but it made Roy determine to take things more coolly, and in this spirit he went to where the servants were assembled in the gate-way, and joined his trusty lieutenant, who had just drawn them up in line.