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FOR a long time I sat thinking : the chance to effect a reconciliation with Landry was not to be despised. I began to see that I might do well out of the opportunity. As I sat there half dozing, I dreamed one or two brilliant dreams, in which Landry and I were the principal figures, while Mirzarbeau and Dornton became but a couple of puppets that worked as I pulled the strings. Exceedingly ambitious were these fancies of mine, so clear and easy, too— one sees so much better how to avoid the obstacles in a dream.
I was just placing the coping-stone to my castle in Spain when a violent shake of the shoulder upset the continuity of my idea. I sprang up, rubbing my eyelids, as I peered at an indistinct figure before me : burglars, I remember, was my first thought.
"Sorry to intrude in this fashion, old chap," said the stranger, "but it can't be helped."
"Bentham!" I exclaimed, turning on the electric light as I recognized the voice. "What the deuce are you after? And in that get-up?" The latter question was inspired by his costume — a cross between that of a railway-porter and a navvy.
"Duty," he returned. "The fact is I've got to take you in tow for a few days. And, as there's devilish little time, I must ask you to be smart."
"See any green in my eye?" I laughed. "Sit down and have a drink. Did you expect me to take it in?"
"I'm not joking," he answered seriously. "Devil a bit of joke in it. You recently made a suggestion to the Government about your friend Mirzarbeau, and . . ."
"I did. But they rejected it."
"May be. Anyhow it's being carried out; and I'm on guard duty over the show. There's an idea that if you're secluded down in the hole, there'll be less risk of the annihilation machine being turned on. So I'm under orders to take you down and keep you there. I . . ."
"I'll see you to hell first," I snarled. "Besides, Mirzarbeau is quite defenceless; he's used up all his power, and . . ."
"Oh, it's like that, is it?" he broke in. . . . " Mr. Trunnion, carry on."
A "Very good, sir," came from somewhere, and before I realized what was happening, I was gagged and tied up with ropes by three or four men who had rushed into the room.
"I'm awfully sorry," said Bentham, half apologetically, as they thrust me into a sack. "You won't be hurt if you keep quiet; and 'tisn't for long."
He gave an order; I felt myself being carried off down the stairs, along the street, down more stairs, then along a place that echoed the footsteps of my captors.
They stopped presently, and removed the sack— none too soon, for I was pretty nearly choked.
"I'll set you loose, Lester," came the voice of Bentham out of the pitchy darkness, "if you'll give your word not to holloa or try and bolt."
There being no help for it, I gave the required assurance; whereupon he struck a match, shading it carefully with his hand, while one of the men cut my bonds. I saw the light glisten once or twice on what looked to be rails, and gathered that I was in a railway-tunnel, but that was the only clue I had to my whereabouts.
Through this black tunnel we tramped for some distance, feeling our way along a wet, slimy wall, the air growing fouler and fouler as we advanced. Then suddenly the party came to a standstill, a lantern flashed across the permanent way, and there came the challenge of a sentinel. I had an unpleasant idea that the dark smudge which I saw against a foggy light was a sailor with a rifle pointing at me.
Then I was admitted through what appeared to be a man-hole, and my captors began bricking it up again.
"I've quarters, of a sort, further forrud," said Bentham, " you're welcome to share 'em, and be as comfortable as you can manage. . . . Find the air fuggy? 'Tis a bit, but you'll get used to it; after all, 'tisn't a patch on a bug-trap gun-boat in the tropics."
Coughing and gasping, I followed him along a damp, circular tunnel in which one could barely walk upright. He had a lantern with him, and by the light of this I saw, every here and there, little side galleries containing lead cases marked with broad arrows.
"Dynamite," he said, tapping one. "Waiting till all's ready to send old Mirzarbeau to Kingdom Come!"
I shivered, and hastened on; I did not like remaining near those cases.
At last we reached what Bentham called his cabin, a small side-gallery, much like those in which the dynamite was stored, save that some tarpaulins on the floor and its scrupulously clean appearance gave it a less dismal air.
"You must forgive my treatment of you," he explained, "but it's a case of needs must, etc.' This is too risky a business to leave anything to chance, this is the second try. Everybody concerned in the first lost the number of his mess. Dug into a sewer and got poisoned, according to the official report. If correct, that's all in the day's job; but it may be a yarn, and that infernal machine may have been at work."
I told him again that Mirzarbeau had exhausted all his power; but he shook his head, refusing to credit me.
"Besides," said he, "the man who could invent that awful machine, isn't likely to be tied down to one invention. We've got to remember that you can't tap about under the house of a man who has reason to suspect attempts to do away with him without risking suspicion. And now that we're nearing the Forbidden Radius, our diggers are panicky, I can tell you. Hark, what's that?"
I heard a dull sort of sound somewhere in the tunnel, a scuffle it sounded like. Bentham sprang to his feet, snatched up a sword, and rushed out of the cabin.
He was back again presently. As he flung his sword down upon the floor I noted that it was no longer white and clean— red spots stained the point.
"'Tis a damnable job," he exclaimed. " I didn't know what I was letting myself in for, when I took it on. It's these poor devils of navvies."
"Mutiny?" I asked, with a glance at the sword that he was now wiping. "Had to kill one?"
"Not quite so bad as that; a little progging. They will try and jump down the sewer. Come and see for yourself; if you were an artist 'twould give you a good idea for a picture of hell."
I followed him up the dimly-lit boring till we met a line of dejected-looking men, half-a-dozen or so, wheeling barrows full of rubbish up a gallery that seemed to penetrate some considerable distance. Accompanying them, we presently came to a larger space lit by electric lamps, where two or three armed sailors stood guard over something that was covered with boards. They lifted these boards as the barrow-drivers approached, disclosing a black, evil-looking hole. The navvies came up one by one and upset their burdens down this, each with a bayonet held against his breast as he did so.
"To keep them from jumping down," explained Bentham; "they always try it on when they go mad,"
"Yes, mad. They can't stand the idea of Mirzarbeau's engines for more than a limited period; they have no way of escape but this, so they try it. This is a main sewer that we tapped— our rubbish must go somewhere— and it can't be sent out by the entrance for the simple reason that, except for the guard on rare occasions, like our capture of you, no man who enters this place leaves it, unless as a corpse down the sewer. Our orders are to shoot down any man trying to escape, so that Mirzarbeau shan't have a chance to get wind of the little surprise we're preparing for him."
I wondered whether this was intended as a hint for me, very probably it was. I let it slide, however, and remarked instead that the sailors seemed cool enough whatever the navvies might be.
"For the best of reasons," he returned. "They're all picked men who came knowing what they had to face, whereas the navvies weren't informed. True, they're convicts who'd have been at Portland or Princetown in the ordinary course of events, but that's a detail.
But there's another reason, too : my chaps have had years of discipline and fiddling about with torpedoes and high explosives, while these beastly navvies are independent British workmen of the lesser sort who've never been under discipline before. Consequently they get the jumps now and again. . . . Come and see hell, however.
We retraced our steps to the main boring, and followed that till we reached a place insufferably hot and stifling, where an engine was scooping away the soil. About this engine were some nine or ten men who, stripped to the waist and bathed in perspiration, were putting up props and clearing back the rubble. In the strong light that was here, I could see their faces, and a horrible sight it was; never had I seen such abject fear. They worked full of a lively terror, under strong compulsion, for behind them were standing marines with bayonets that they employed upon any laggarts.
"Per mare, per terram, is the marine's motto," said Bentham with a forced laugh, "but it ought to be sub-terram here."
At this moment one of the navvies suddenly dived and made a dash for the side gallery, moving so unexpectedly that he was well past us before anything could be done to stop him. But as he passed out of the zone of light a dark form sprang from a nook in the wall and tripped him up; a moment later he was dragged back howling.
"Take him up tunnel and flog him— well within earshot of the others," I heard Bentham say to the warrant-officer in command.
Then he turned away, saying to me as he did so, "My God, I'll be glad when it's over."
Back in his "cabin" he brightened up again, and began to tell me how much he hoped for out of this thing. "It ought to get me promotion, if I pull it off all right," he said.
Promotion? For the chances of that he had, as I afterwards found, volunteered for a service that, so great was the dread of Mirzarbeau, the Government did not care to order any man upon. They must have thought it a forlorn hope indeed, if they acted like that. I expressed some of my surprise to Bentham.
"Promotion's slow now-a-days, and hard to get," said he. " And it means a deal to me if I get it; I'm a married man, you know."
"And a fool also," I thought, but I did not say it.
Then, having listened to some talk about the perfections of his wife and children with all the show of interest that I could muster, and having assured him that no man could hate Mirzarbeau more than I, I sought to persuade him to set me free, or at least to let me send some warning to Landry. It had just come to me with a thrill of horror that she might chance to be in Mirzarbeau's laboratory when the fatal moment for the explosion arrived. I begged, demanded, pleaded, and implored; but it was all in vain, he was adamantine.
"I'll be sorry, old chap, deuced sorry," said he, "but I can't help it. I hope with all my heart that she won't be there when the mine goes off, but I can do nothing. If my own wife were there, 'twould have to be just the same."
And this is all that I could get out of him.
In that filthy underground hole, cut off from the world, I lived for weeks, while the fateful boring went slowly on. At the first I was now and again mad with anger at my forced detention, but gradually this feeling passed away.
I became listless and dejected, indifferent as to what might befall.
Of what went on in the outer world we knew but little. There was, I found, a house directly over the boring, from which our electric light was supplied, as well as water and a few small luxuries. These last were sent down a tube, and occasionally, though not very often, a newspaper came with them. By this means we learnt of one stupendous event, of how the Chinese, who, ever since the Western adoption of bimetallism, had immigrated into Europe in vast numbers, were now on a warlike move as well. The report was that ever since the mysterious annihilation of 140 kilometres of China they had been in a ferment, saying that the country was no longer safe. Before them thousands of terrified people fled, the Chinese already in Europe rose upon their defenceless neighbours, war, and a plague imported from China had begun to ravage Europe from one end to the other. Only England remained untouched; and she was guarded by the fleets which patrolled the coasts and sank every vessel coming from the Continent.
And day by day the progress of the boring grew slower and yet more slow, as we neared Mirzarbeau's laboratory. I was glad to see it slow. I was in a terror now, as to what would happen when it was complete. We had had a fresh batch of navvies, and coming face to face with one of these I noted how extraordinarily like to Dornton he was. No one was in earshot, and I taxed him there and then with being the man. He denied it with many a full-flavoured oath, nor could my threat of telling Bentham and so ensuring his speedy exit as a corpse by way of the sewer make him confess otherwise. At last, still unwillingly, I let myself be convinced that perhaps a chance resemblance had deceived me. So I said nothing to Bentham about it, but I watched fairly attentively for some while, till I grew too lethargic.
At last there came a day when we reached, so near as we could calculate, the spot above which the laboratory stood. And here boring ended. Whichever way the engine was turned it came to a grey stone wall, upon which it failed to make the slightest impression, and all the labour and agony of weeks was wasted.
Mirzarbeau had protected himself.
For seven days Bentham strove to pierce the grey armour, then, at last, even he had to acknowledge defeat, and the work came to a standstill.
"Just my damned luck," he growled. " I hoped to get promotion, and ten to one I've let myself in for a court-martial because I can't accomplish the impossible. Well, 'tis an ill wind that blows nobody any good. Lester, to-morrow you'll be free."
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