Chapter 15 | A Desperate Attempt | The Adventures of Don Lavington

Chapter Fifteen.

Just as the prisoners reached the trap-door a voice came from below.

“Hold hard there, my lads. Bosun Jones has been down to the others, and he says these here may stop where they are.”

“What for?”

“Oh, one o’ the four chaps we brought in last night’s half wild, and been running amuck. Come on down.”

“Yah!” growled the sinister sailor, scowling at Jem, as if there were some old enmity between them.

“I say, don’t,” said Jem mockingly. “You’ll spoil your good looks. Say, does he always look as handsome as that?”

The man doubled his fist, and made a sharp blow at Jem, and seemed surprised at the result; for Jem dodged, and retorted, planting his fist in the fellow’s chest, and sending him staggering back.

The man’s eyes blazed as he recovered himself, and rushed at Jem like a bull-dog.

Obeying his first impulse, Don, who had never struck a blow in anger since he left school, forgot fair play for the moment, and doubled his fists to help Jem.

“No, no, Mas’ Don; I can tackle him,” cried Jem; “and I feel as if I should like to now.”

But there was to be no encounter, for a couple of the other sailors seized their messmate, and forced him to the trap-door, growling and threatening all manner of evil to the sturdy little prisoner, who was standing on his defence.

“No, no, mate,” said the biggest and strongest of the party; “it’s like hitting a man as is down. Come on.”

There was another struggle, but the brute was half thrust to the ladder, and directly after the trap was closed again, and the bolt shot.

“Well, I never felt so much like fighting before—leastwise not since I thrashed old Mike behind the barrel stack in the yard,” said Jem, resuming his coat, which he had thrown off.

“Did you fight Mike in the yard one day?” said Don wonderingly. “Why, Jem, I remember; that’s when you had such a dreadful black eye.”

“That’s right, my lad.”

“And pretended you fell down the ladder out of floor number six.”

“That’s right again, Mas’ Don,” said Jem, grinning.

“Then that was a lie?”

“Well, I don’t know ’bout it’s being a lie, my lad. P’r’aps you might call it a kind of a sort of a fib.”

“Fib? It was an untruth.”

“Well, but don’t you see, it would have looked so bad to say, ‘I got that eye a-fighting?’ and it was only a little while ’fore I was married. What would my Sally ha’ said if she know’d I fought our Mike?”

“Why, of course; I remember now, Mike was ill in bed for a week at the same time.”

“That’s so, Mas’ Don,” said Jem, chuckling; “and he was werry ill. You see, he come to the yard to work, after you’d begged him on, and he was drunk as a fiddler—not as ever I see a fiddler that way. And then, i’stead o’ doing his work, he was nasty, and began cussing. He cussed everything, from the barrow and truck right up to your uncle, whose money he took, and then he began cussing o’ you, Mas’ Don; and I told him he ought to be ashamed of hisself for cussing the young gent as got him work; and no sooner had I said that than I found myself sitting in a puddle, with my nose bleeding.”

“Well?” said Don, who was deeply interested.

“Well, Mas’ Don, that’s all.”

“No, it isn’t, Jem; you say you fought Mike.”

“Well, I s’pose I did, Mas’ Don.”

“‘Suppose you did’?”

“Yes; I only recklect feeling wild because my clean shirt and necktie was all in a mess. I don’t recklect any more—only washing my sore knuckles at the pump, and holding a half hun’erd weight up again my eye.”

“But Mike stopped away from work for a week.”

“Yes, Mas’ Don. He got hisself a good deal hurt somehow.”

“You mean you hurt him?”

“Dunno, Mas’ Don. S’pose I did, but I don’t ’member nothing about it. And now look here, sir; seems to me that in half-hour’s time it’ll be quite dark enough to start; and if I’d got five guineas, I’d give ’em for five big screws, and the use of a gimlet and driver.”

“What for?”

“To fasten down that there trap.”

“It would be no good, Jem; because if they found the trap fast, they’d be on the watch for us outside.”

“Dessay you’re right, sir. Well, what do you say? Shall we begin now, or wait?”

Don looked up at the fast darkening skylight, and then, after a moment’s hesitation,—

“Let’s begin now, Jem. It will take some time.”

“That’s right, Mas’ Don; so here goes, and good luck to us. It means home, and your mother, and my Sally; or going to fight the French.”

“And we don’t want to be obliged to fight without we like, Jem.”

“That’s true,” said Jem; and going quickly to the trap, he laid his ear to the crack and listened.

“All right, my lad. Have it out,” he said; and the sacks were cast aside, and the rope withdrawn. “Will it bear us, Jem?”

“I’m going to try first, and if it’ll bear me it’ll bear you.”

“But you can’t get up there.”

“No, but you can, my lad; and when you’re there you can fasten the rope to that cross-bar, and then I can soon be with you. Ready?”

“Wait till I’ve got off my shoes.”

“That’s right; stick ’em in your pockets, my lad. Now then, ready?”

Don signified his readiness. Jem laid him a back up at the end wall. Don mounted, and then jumped down again.

“What’s the matter?”

“I haven’t got the rope.”

“My: what a head I have!” cried Jem, as Don tightly knotted the rope about his waist; and then, mounting on his companion’s back once more, was borne very slowly, steadying himself by the sloping roof, till the window was reached.

“Hold fast, Jem.”

“Right it is, my lad.”

There was a clicking of the iron fastening, the window was thrust up higher and higher, till it was to the full extent of the ratchet support, and then by passing one arm over the light cross-beam, which divided the opening in two, Don was able to raise himself, and throw his leg over the front of the opening, so that the next minute he was sitting on the edge with one leg down the sloping roof, and the other hanging inside, but in a very awkward position, on account of the broad skylight.

“Can’t you open it more?” said Jem.

“No; that’s as far as the fastening will hold it up.”

“Push it right over, Mas’ Don, so as it may lie back against the roof. Mind what you’re doing, so as you don’t slip. But you’ll be all right. I’ve got the rope, and won’t let it go.”

Don did as he was told, taking tightly hold of the long cross central bar, and placing his knees, and then his feet, against the front of the opening, so that he was in the position of a four-footed animal. Then his back raised up the hinged skylight higher and higher, till, holding on to the cross-bar with one hand, and the ratchet fastening with the other, he thrust up and up, till the skylight was perpendicular, and he paused, panting with the exertion.

“All right, Mas’ Don; I’ve got the rope. Now lower it down gently, till it lies flat on the slope. That’s the way; steady! Steady!”

Bang! crash! jingle!

“Oh, Mas’ Don!”

“I couldn’t help it, Jem; the iron fastening came out. The wood’s rotten.”

For the skylight had fallen back with a crash, and some of the broken glass came musically jingling down, some of it sliding along the tiles, and dropping into the alley below.

There was a dead silence, neither of the would-be evaders of the enforced king’s service moving, but listening intently for the slightest sound.

“Think they heared it, Mas’ Don?” said Jem, at last, in a hoarse whisper.

“I can’t hear anything,” replied Don, softly.

They listened again, but all was wonderfully quiet. A distant murmur came from the busy streets, and a clock struck nine.

“Why, that’s Old Church,” said Jem in a whisper. “We must be close down to the water side, Mas’ Don.”

“Yes, Jem. Shall we give it up, or risk it?”

“I’ll show you d’reckly,” said Jem. “You make that there end fast round the bar. It isn’t rotten, is it?”

“No,” said Don, after an examination; “it seems very solid.” And untying the rope from his waist, he knotted it to the little beam.

The next minute Jem gave a heavy drag at the rope, then a jerk, and next swung to it, going to and fro for a few seconds.

“Hold a ton,” whispered Jem; and reaching up as high as he could, he gripped the rope between his legs and over his ankle and foot, and apparently with the greatest ease drew himself up to the bar, threw a leg over and sat astride with his face beaming.

“They sha’n’t have us this time, Mas’ Don,” he said, running the rope rapidly through his hands until he had reached the end, when he gathered it up in rings, till he had enough to throw beyond the sloping roof.

“Here goes!” he whispered; and he tossed it from him into the gathering gloom.

The falling rope made a dull sound, and then there was a sharp gliding noise.

One of the broken fragments of glass had been started from where it had lodged, and slid rapidly down the tiles.

They held their breath as they waited to hear it fall tinkling beyond on the pavement; but they listened in vain, for the simple reason that it had fallen into the gutter.

“All right, Mas’ Don! Here goes!” said Jem, and he lowered the rope to its full extent.

“Hadn’t I better go first, and try the rope, Jem?”

“What’s the good o’ your going first? It might break, and then what would your mother say to me? I’ll go; and, as I said afore, if it bears me, it’ll bear you.”

“But, if it breaks, what shall I say to little Sally?”

“Well, I wouldn’t go near her if I was you, Mas’ Don. She might take on, and then it wouldn’t be nice; or she mightn’t take on, and that wouldn’t be nice. Hist! What’s that?”

“Can’t hear anything, Jem.”

“More can I. Here, shake hands, lad, case I has a tumble.”

“Don’t, don’t risk it, Jem,” whispered Don, clinging to his hand.

“What! After making the rope! Oh, come, Mas’ Don, where’s your pluck? Now then, I’m off; and when I’m down safe, I’ll give three jerks at the line, and then hold it steady. Here goes—once to be ready, twice to be steady, three times to be—off!”

Don’s heart felt in his mouth as his companion grasped the rope tightly, and let himself glide down the steep tiled slope, till he reached the edge over the gutter; and then, as he disappeared, dissolving—so it seemed—into the gloom, Don’s breath was held, and he felt a singular pain at the chest.

He grasped the rope, though, as he sat astride at the lower edge of the opening; and the loosely twisted hemp seemed to palpitate and quiver as if it were one of Jem’s muscles reaching to his hands.

Then all at once the rope became slack, as if the tension had been removed, and Don turned faint with horror.

“It’s broken!” he panted; and he strained over as far as he could without falling to hear the dull thud of his companion’s fall.

Thoughts fly fast, and in a moment of time Don had seen poor Jem lying crushed below, picked up, and had borne the news to his little wife. But before he had gone any further, the rope was drawn tight once more, and as he held it, there came to thrill his nerves three distinct jerks.

“It’s all right!” he panted; and grasped the rope with both hands. “Now then,” he thought, “it only wants a little courage, and I can slide down and join him, and then we’re free.”

Yes; but it required a good deal of resolution to make the venture. “Suppose Jem’s weight had unwound the rope; suppose it should break; suppose—”

“Oh, what a coward I am!” he muttered; and swinging his leg free, he lay upon his face for a moment, right upon the sloping tiles and then let the rope glide through his hands.

It was very easy work down that slope, only that elbows and hands suffered, and sundry sounds suggested that waistcoat buttons were being torn off. But that was no moment for studying trifles; and what were waistcoat buttons to liberty?

Another moment, and his legs were over the edge, and he was about to attempt the most difficult part of the descent, grasping beforehand, that as soon as he hung clear of the eaves, he should begin to turn slowly round.

“Now for it,” he said; and he was about to descend perpendicularly, when the rope was suddenly jerked violently.

There was a loud ejaculation, and Jem’s voice rose to where he hung.

“No, no, Mas’ Don. Back! Back! Don’t come down.” Then, as he hung, there came the panting and noise of a terrible struggle far below.