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Chapter 13

 

EARLY next morning Dundas returned to the absorbing mystery. The extra precaution taken to guard the sixth gallery assured him that it contained something that would compensate him for the trouble he expected in gaining access to it. His first visit was to the doorway he had discovered on the previous evening. In spite of an heroic resolution that he would make his way to the spot with his eyes closed to the allurements of the galleries he had already investigated, the attraction of the various wonders he had to pass proved irresistible, and the journey, which should have taken no longer than two minutes from the vestibule to the corridor, occupied two full hours instead.

Arrived at his destination, Alan made a cautious and exhaustive examination of the door and its surroundings. An hour spent in a minute scrutiny of every inch of its surface left him without the slightest inkling to its secret. There was nothing in its appearance to indicate which way it opened or to suggest that it was only a blind to induce the unwary to waste time and temper over. He sounded the surrounding wall with painstaking care, in the hope of finding a device similar to that which had first given him entrance from the surface, but without success. Whatever mechanism existed for gaining the mysterious beyond, it was a mechanism that so far he had not encountered.

Another hour went by, and leaning against the wall of the corridor, Alan told the fierce-eyed image on the door just exactly what he thought of the methods used by him and his friends to keep the gallery inviolate. The outburst of temper relieved him somewhat, and was received with perfect equanimity by the image. The futility of his anger made Dundas smile in spite of his irritation He told himself that, brave as he was in the face of the graven image before him, such a demonstration before its original in the flesh would have been quite another matter. "I'm quite prepared to bet that even his most intimate friends, if he ever had an intimate friend, wouldn't have cared to take a liberty with him." After a pause, he went on, still regarding the figure with a frown, "Yes, your Majesty, you have exhausted my resources at this end for the present, at any rate. The only thing to be done is to return to the vestibule and try the main doorway, and I doubt if I'll get much satisfaction out of that."

Since the day of his narrow escape in the vestibule, he had trodden only a carefully marked course from the foot of the stairway to the entrance of the art gallery. He felt there was no use in taking any unnecessary risks with that beautiful but treacherous pavement. Now, however, he determined to examine it thoroughly. Working his way from the centre, he carefully approached the door of the sixth gallery, which was the one next to the art gallery on the right. He was not long in finding he had need for all his care. As in the previous attempt to find a path for himself, a noiseless chasm opened at his feet under pressure from the stick he carried with him. Alan stepped back alarmed.

After considering the situation, he again sounded the floor before him, with a view to ascertaining the extent of the trap. The device, he found, consisted simply of a nicely balanced section of the pavement that occupied the whole front of the doorway, with a margin of about three feet on either side. By working round one end of it he found that it tipped either way, and that it came so close to the doorway as to leave only a bare three inches of firm footing. Even if by a lucky jump he could reach this doubtful coign of vantage, he would be able to do very little in the way of testing the door, and, further, would find it almost impossible to reach firm footing again. There was one hope—a bridge. In spite of his dislike to face the weary climb to the surface he came to the conclusion that he must make the journey to get material to span the gulf. It cost him over an hour, and no little perspiration, before he arrived in the vestibule again with a plank about twelve feet long, and some ten inches wide, with which to make the experiment. It was an experiment that occupied at most some sixty seconds, but they were full of unpleasant incident. Standing close to the edge of the trap, he lowered the end of his plank so that it would fall nicely on the firm edge against the door. The instant the weight of the plank reached its goal a mighty metal curtain crashed down from above, closing the doorway completely, and jarred the arms that held the plank so unmercifully that Alan, perforce, let go. The trap in the pavement completed the wreck of his hopes and his bridge by swallowing every vestige of them. Only a few jagged pieces of timber protruding from under the metal curtain remained to mark the event. The net result of the attempt was to increase the difficulty of obtaining entrance, and to leave Dundas with both arms plentifully garnished with splinters as souvenirs.

He regarded the scene of his labours with angry eyes. His only consolation was that it was better for the plank to have been under the falling curtain than his body. "I can take a hint," he muttered, "as well as the next man. I presume that beastly shutter was meant to warn me to confine my attentions to the back door. Well—we'll see." He turned to the art gallery, in order to get a better light, and spent ten minutes picking splinters from his tingling arms. Then he made his way to the corridor to recommence his investigations on the closed door. For the rest of the day he tried every imaginable means of finding the key to the problem, but in this instance he found himself faced by a riddle that could not be solved by chance. Somewhere he knew, probably within reach of his hand, was the mechanism that would give ingress, but so cunningly hidden that the closest search failed to disclose it. At the day's end he confessed himself beaten, and returned to the surface an angry and baffled man. In the days that followed he was to learn patience, and learn it thoroughly. Day after day went past in never-ceasing search. All the wonders around him were as nothing compared with the one absorbing idea that now beset him. For a while the temptation came to him to publish the news of his discovery, and obtain aid in pursuing his search, but he put the thought away. To him alone belonged the honour of solving the mystery, and until he had done so he determined to keep his secret. In his ardour for his self-imposed task he almost forgot the lapse of time, and how long it was since he had last been to Glen Cairn. So deeply had the mystery eaten into his soul that he came to regard that part of his life as something too distant to worry about. The only thing that did trouble him was the approaching necessity for harvesting his crop, and this he put off as long as possible.

One evening he had a visit from Bryce. It was a visit that left Hector a much puzzled man. Alan had never been a frequenter of the township, but still his absence of over three weeks had been noticed and commented upon. At last Bryce, urged by Doris, who scented a hitch in her plans decided to hunt him up. He found Alan seated at his table studying a plan that looked like the section of an orange. Alan greeted his old friend warmly, but Bryce was not slow to notice a reserve that was foreign to his friend's nature. Alan looked a little run down, and there were some lines in his forehead that Hector had not seen there before.

When the first general talk was over, Bryce, who was really concerned, told Dundas flatly that he was not looking up to the mark. "Fact of the matter is, old chap," he went on, "you're overworking yourself; and not only that, I suppose your baching means tinned meat, and no cooking. It's enough to kill a horse. You'd better get a housekeeper. Let Doris pick one for you. I know she will be only too glad to help."

Alan met the charges with a slow, friendly smile, "Hec, I'll plead guilty to the tinned food. But, believe me, that has nothing to do with my not being up to concert pitch. I'll admit that. As for overwork would you be surprised to hear that for nearly a fortnight I've not done a stroke about the place? I'll start picking on Monday, as I want to get it over. To be as honest with you as I can be, I'm worried." Bryce looked at him keenly, and hesitated a moment. "So far as I can help, Alan, call on me. I won't ask any questions, but I'll admit you have aroused my curiosity." There was a long silence, while the younger man sat with his chin on his hands, staring blankly in front of him. Bryce could see that there was a mental conflict going on, and forebore to speak. At length Dundas broke the silence. "Bryce, you are the only man I could or would discuss the matter with. I know you will believe me when I tell you it's a problem that I must work out for myself, and until I have solved it I must keep my own counsel. I've been on the point half-a-dozen times of going to you. Perhaps I may before it's over."

"Tell me one thing," put in Bryce. "Is it anything financial?"

Alan laughed lightly. "I could almost wish it were. In that case I'd simply turn the matter over to you, and sit with my hands in my pockets until you had untangled the knot. No; I can tell you this much. It has nothing to do with my private affairs—or—" and he emphasised the words with meaning—"with anyone we know of."

Bryce felt an inward relief at the latter part of Alan's speech. For a while he had begun to think that his wife's match-making plans were at the bottom of the trouble. "Well, old man, we'll leave it at that. Only let me help, if I can or when I can."

"There's one thing you can do for me, and no one better, Hec—though I'm afraid you find me dashed mysterious."

"Hang the mystery—every man has a right to his own secrets. What do you want me to do?"

"This. Until I have fixed this matter up to my own satisfaction, I am chained to the vineyard. I want you to choke off any inquiry about my movements—at the club, for instance. And if you hear of anyone contemplating looking me up, choke him off, too. One thing I'll promise you, Bryce. So soon as I'm able to talk to anyone about it, and, believe me, it's the biggest thing you've ever heard of, you'll be the first man I'll come to."

Hector willingly promised to aid as far as he could, and, seeing Alan was not disposed to discuss his troubles further, tactfully let the matter drop. For an hour the two yarned with their old freedom. Dundas declined an invitation to the bank, pleading his problem, and asked Hector to make his peace with Mistress Doris, a task he was warned, which would be no light one.

After a final whisky, Bryce drove off. He knew enough of Alan to feel sure that whatever he was up against, it was nothing he need be ashamed of. But, after being for many years a kind of father-confessor to his friend, he was sorely puzzled as to the nature of the mystery that had come, so to speak, from a blue sky.

However, if Hector was puzzled, Doris was more so. She had seen and talked with Marian Seymour, and had learned enough without asking any questions to satisfy her as to the result of her plans. But Alan's behaviour entirely upset her calculations. Two and two in this instance made anything but four. In her own mind she considered that Dundas deserved to be shaken, and otherwise treated to feminine marks of exasperation.

Dundas had for a while at least to leave the great mystery to itself. He was obliged to engage his pickers, and get his grapes off the vineyard, and for nearly a fortnight, from sunrise to sunset, he tramped about with his men, indulging in amateur slave-driving to ease his irritation at the delay. As the free and independent grape-picker does not, as a rule, take kindly to a slave-driving process, he gilded the pill by offering a bonus that made the free and independent ones submit philosophically to his constant spurring. One man, who was an exponent of the popular system of "slowing-down," and who preached it to his fellow-workers, received the surprise of his lifetime. Alan detected the move in the hour of its birth, and promptly "fired" the mutineer. The mutineer, having received his money, challenged the "boss" to put him off the place. Whereupon his fellow-labourers in the vineyard were treated to an exhibition that gave them a topic of conversation in many a camp thereafter. The astonished picker was turned into a lightning-conductor for days of pent-up wrath. After five lively and bewildering minutes, he lay where he had fallen, with a vague idea in his head that the "boss" had four arms instead of two, and knew how to use them all with devilish effect.

"Get up," snapped Alan. The man rose slowly, and prepared to take up his swag. "Wait—now you can stay on if you like." He was loth to lose a man, and could not afford the time to procure another. "But if you stay I promise you a hiding you will remember for a lifetime if I have any more of your damned nonsense." The mutineer recognised two things promptly. One was that here was a man whose leg it was not safe to pull, and the other that the pay was better than was offering elsewhere. So, putting the best face he could on the matter (and it was not much of a face, even after it had been bathed copiously), he accepted the offer. After that episode the work went with a swing.

At last the final dray left, and Alan paid off his unwelcome help. Never was a vine-grower more disgusted with such a bounteous crop. It was the reward of a year's hard work, and at another time would have been the source of unbounded satisfaction. Now he anathematised it as a bar to his one absorbing interest. Alan wrote a note to Bryce, asking him to collect his cheque from the winery, and enclosing an order. Then with the vineyard finally off his mind, he felt himself free for the great work at last.

A week of exasperating and futile search for the missing key followed the return of Dundas to the task. As day followed day without result, his despair of success changed into a grim determination to continue until he had mastered the riddle. However, as it eventually happened, his victory came from the least expected quarter, and at a time when he had temporarily relaxed his efforts. Until the day in question, he had been in the habit of returning to the homestead for his lunch, but his dislike for that one-hundred-and-sixty feet of treadmill gave him a brain-wave. He reflected that it would be a good plan to take some food with him, in order to save himself the climb. About midday, therefore, he looked about for a comfortable seat on which to rest while eating his meal. He found the fragments of cement that had been detached by the explosion from the machinery-room too "nubbly" for his liking, and he wandered into the great library.

He seated himself at the table nearest the door and ate his food. When he had finished, instead of immediately returning to the corridor to continue his search, he filled his pipe, and leaning back, looked idly round him as he smoked. Since the day he had at first discovered the library, he had scarcely entered it, although it had really a greater fascination for him than any of the galleries. Now, however, the thought came to him that he might at least glance at a few of the books. It was whilst considering which of the shelves he would first give his attention that his eye was taken by a variation in colour of one single book-cover in all the rows within range of his vision. While every other shelf in sight showed dull, metallic covers uniformly, one the nearest to the door, was broken by one single volume cased in bright white metal.

The distinction was so great as to invite attention, and Alan knew well that there was some special object in the alteration. Without hesitation he rose from his seat, and having obtained the volume, he returned to the table. He slipped the book from its casing, and spread it open before him. The first glance at its contents galvanised him into quivering excitement. The page he had opened showed what was undoubtedly a sectional plan of the whole of the subterranean building. With trembling fingers he turned to the beginning, and went from page to page with burning interest. As his eye scanned each plan in turn, he found each section, from the entrance door at the surface onwards, marked, with its means of entrance set out in detail. Finally, he turned to the page showing the closed door in the corridor. It was pictured in minute detail so as to be quite unmistakable. On the opposite page was a picture showing part of the interior of the library. It was the rear wall containing the small entrance. Each of the great bookcases against the wall was clearly shown in detail, even to the white-cased book he was holding in his hand. There was this difference, however; in the far left-hand corner in the diagram was a small square of books blocked out with a red blot.

Carrying the book with him, Alan went to the corner but could see nothing unusual in the spot indicated by the red mark. Comparing the diagram carefully with the shelves before him, he attempted to draw from its place one of the marked volumes. For a moment it resisted his efforts, until with a stronger tug he pulled not the book, as he intended, but a small door about two feet square, which had been made to imitate the surrounding books. Even the closest examination failed to indicate its existence until it was actually opened, so carefully had the imitation been carried out. With a cry of pleasure. Dundas looked into the secret cavity. "At last! At last!" he said to himself, again and again; for let into the wall at the back of the recess was a short, heavy lever. Without waiting to consider results, he grasped the handle before him, and drew the lever down in the slot that held it. As he did so there came a deep metallic boom from the corridor outside, and Alan scarcely waited to push the book he held back into the open cupboard before running out to see the effect of his act. When he had arrived at the passage, and gained the scene of his weeks of tormenting search, his delight found vent in a loud hurrah. The metal door had disappeared into the pavement beneath, and the path was open before him.

Taking his stick, he stood in the doorway and surveyed the new territory with eager eyes. Beyond the wall the corridor widened out into a vestibule about forty feet square. It was empty except for an object that Alan looked at with very little satisfaction. It was another statue of the domineering figure in the outer vestibule. He had looked at it too long and too often on the door to have much admiration left for it. Bare as it was, the new chamber had a beauty that was indescribable. Walls, floor, and ceiling were composed of the most exquisite coloured marble and precious decorative stone that were ever gathered together. The great lustrous globes that blazed from the ceiling were reflected from thousands of multi-coloured surfaces, The whole effect was one of barbaric splendour, but so perfectly had the blending of the colours been carried out that in the whole wonderful decorative scheme there was not one inharmonious note. As his eyes drank in the beauty of the chamber before him, Dundas became aware of one feature that drew his attention from the gorgeous colouring around him. The left wall of the chamber was broken by an arched doorway that differed from all the others he had yet seen. In the first place it was quite double the size of those opening on to the corridor, and again it was already open. From where he stood he could see that, instead of a door, it was closed by a curtain of some beautiful scarlet shimmering fabric that cut off the view of the gallery beyond. Everything seemed to indicate that his way was now open to the solution of the final mystery, and Alan would have accepted the position as such but for the presence of the forbidding statue that stared at him from its pedestal with an intensity that was almost hypnotic.

Testing the pavement as he advanced, Dundas walked slowly towards the figure in the centre of the chamber. When he reached it and paused beneath it he was standing with the curtained archway right before him. So far so good, but he knew now from experience how little reliance could be placed on appearances, so he advanced with unabated caution. Prepared as he was for surprises, the one that overtook him was perhaps the one furthest from his thoughts. Without a sound or warning, and with overwhelming suddenness, he found himself in total darkness. It was not the misty darkness of night, but a dense impenetrable rayless blackness that could be almost felt. It was overpowering in its intensity. The shock of its coming held him motionless and petrified. On the instant he realised the peril of his position. He felt for his matches, and as he did so remembered they were lying on the table in the library where he had eaten his lunch. Holding himself well in hand, he tried to recollect his bearings from the entrance in order to try to regain the corridor. But even as he stood—and it could not have been for more than a few seconds— something else happened. Close beside him, so close that he almost cried out in amazement, was the sound of a long, deep human sigh. He swung round. Again it came, this time further away, but intensely real. Then he stood straining his senses in that horrible black stillness to catch the sound again, and, waiting, he realised that his movements had made him lose his bearings for the corridor.

How long he stood there he could not afterwards remember. It seemed ages until the crowning terror came and wiped all sense of time from his stricken mind. Suddenly the air about him seemed full of tremulous palpitating sound. It seemed as if, all about him, thronged a whispering ghostly multitude. For a little while the sound rose and fell, and seemed to die away in unmeasured distances. Then again came a little space of silence. Then the stillness was broken by a sound so awful that Dundas felt a cold sweat break out over his body. It was a shriek, inhuman and evil, that cut into the darkness again and again. The sound broke off suddenly, and was followed by a burst of horrible laughter. Then came a trampling and scuffling of feet around him, bestial snarls, shouts of laughter, and again silence. Alan stood with clenched hands fighting back the cry that rose to his lips. He dared not move. A single step in any direction might mean death, and yet he knew that his racked nerves could not stand the strain much longer. Again there came the sound of movement in the darkness, this time at a distance. Voices whispered tensely in some strange unknown tongue, and then came a sound more awful than anything yet. It was a groan of agony as though wrung by damnable tortures from some straining body. Somewhere near by a hellish work was being done. Some pain-racked creature writhed in hideous torment. There were guttural ejaculations, the clank of metal, then scream on scream pierced the paralysed listener through and through. He realised that the sounds were coming closer. The horrible darkness seemed full of bestial obscene ravings. He felt as if a legion of fiends surrounded him. Then close behind him the scream rang out again. The strain snapped, and sheer panic seized him. With a cry he rushed blindly away in the darkness, to be stopped by charging into a wall. Scarce feeling the shock of the impact, he ran forward again, heedless of where he went, for the scream had changed into a diabolic howling. Once more his wild rush was stopped. Reckless with fear, he blundered forward again. Then as he ran something soft and clinging enfolded him for a moment. With a wild shout he flung it away from him. His knees gave way beneath him, and with out-flung arms he fell to the floor.

Then came a great wonder. Even as he fell the sounds ceased, and the light burst out again, and, panting and half sobbing, he found himself lying with trembling limbs spread out on the pavement of the sixth gallery.