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首页 » 经典英文小说 » The Mercer Boys on a Treasure Hunt » CHAPTER X THE ROPE IN THE DUNGEON
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The light was gone at last and with it the professor’s hope. He was totally alone in the inky darkness, a prisoner in a cell whose size he was not certain of, down under the ruins of a castle in the woods. Far above him he could hear the slam of another door and the faint footsteps of the two men. Then there was complete silence and the teacher turned away from the barred door.

“A truly ancient castle,” grumbled the professor. “The dungeon completed before the rest of the house!”

He wondered, as he moved cautiously around if anyone had ever been a prisoner in this cold and wet-smelling cell. He found his way around without difficulty, running his hands along the wall and extending his feet carefully. There was not a single object in the place, and he felt that they had not expected to have him there, for there was no bed or chair in the place.

“Unless,” thought the savant, as he continued to feel his way around. “They wouldn’t be decent enough to give me a chair or bed, anyway. No use in expecting mercy from villains like these, I suppose.”

The walls were perfectly smooth, composed of sandstone, as was the entire castle. Ned had told his father that the opposite slope of the mountain was almost wholly composed of this particular type of stone, and the original owner and builder had no doubt had it quarried and dragged to the spot, using Indians who had been taken captive by the Spaniards. Such was the professor’s belief and it was reasonable. Even in his anxiety to escape from these men he found himself taking an interest in the place and resolved that if these men were ever cleaned out of it he would explore it thoroughly.

The floor was also of stone, wet and slippery, and for all the professor knew, the dwelling place of spiders and other crawling things. He hated to sit down on it, but there was no other place and he was very tired from his long ride and the excitement of it all, so he felt around the floor with shrinking hand and finally found a spot near the door which seemed to be drier than the rest of the floor. Pretty much exhausted the history professor sank to the floor and rested his back against the cold wall.

He was in some doubt as to what to do. He felt that Ned would catch on to his meaning when he read the word “duress” and the boys would surely make a vigorous effort to find him, but how long that would be or what would happen in the meantime he had no idea. The men upstairs were convinced that he knew something about the treasure, that he possessed some information which he was withholding, and they would do their best to get it out of him. They would try to starve him first, and in that fact he found a ray of hope, for it would take them several days to find out that he did not intend to say anything, and then they would adopt a more severe program. In that time Ned and the boys from Maine would have time to find him, and they would naturally look near the mountains. It was possible that they might think he had been carried off to sea, but surely the cook or Yappi would tell them the true facts of the case, provided they hadn’t been so frightened that they hadn’t even seen in which direction the cavalcade had gone.

But if the men decided to change their plans and try to pump information from him he would have a bigger problem on his hands. These men were by no means gentle, they were men who were willing and able to sweat hard to earn money and especially dishonest money, and they would not be likely to stop at anything cruel or inhuman. They were miles away from any source of help and the woods would effectually hide any story which might shock the outside world if it were known. Sackett and the mate must know that the boys would soon be on the trail, and he was inclined to think that they would resort before very long to methods other than peaceful.

“If that is the case,” thought Professor Scott, jumping to his feet, “I’m just wasting time by sitting here. There seems to be no way of getting out of the place, but it may be that there is some flaw that will ultimately prove my biggest help.”

So once more he began to feel his way along the wall and then stopped as a new thought came to him. A few days before Ned had given him a cigar lighter, a somewhat unreliable engine that lighted once in a great while, but which always gave off a bright flash when the little wheel was turned by the thumb. It was in his vest pocket and he reached for it. He had not had any matches with him and had secretly lamented the fact, but now his main difficulty was in a fair way to be overcome.

He took the little case from his pocket and spun the wheel. A sputtering little flash was the answer, which lighted up the cell for a split second and gave him his bearings. It was evident that the cigar lighter had no intentions whatsoever of lighting for any length of time, but it at least gave forth a flash that threw the heavy stones into a sort of bluish picture for an instant. Working it constantly the old gentleman moved around the dungeon, exploring the walls and floor, until something in one corner arrested his attention.

There was a crevice there, running from the floor to the ceiling and in that crack was a moulded rope. The rope ended near the floor, and hung straight down from a round hole in the ceiling above him. He took hold of the rope, to find it wet and slippery but fairly strong. The men had evidently not seen it and he knew why. Anyone who stood in the room and threw the beams of a lantern around would cast the light in a confused way into the corners and so miss seeing the rope, which was deep in the cranny, and indeed the professor would not have seen it himself if he had not been standing right at the crevice. Probably the men had never gone over the walls inch by inch, and unless one did that the hidden rope would surely escape their eye. But now that he had the rope, what was he to do with it?

He pulled on the rope and his answering came with a suddenness that startled him into stepping back hastily. Far above his head a bell pealed out sharply, shattering the silence of the mountain fastness with disconcerting vigor. Nervously he dropped the lighter and then picked it up, his brow wet with a nervous perspiration.

“Great heavens!” murmured the professor. “I must stop that, or I’ll have them down on me.”

Upstairs there was a moment of silence and then a sudden commotion. A chair fell over and he heard running footsteps. Apparently the upper door was opened, for he could hear the words of the men.

“What is ringing that bell?” he heard Sackett roar.

“You got me, captain,” replied Abel, while rapid chattering in Mexican reached the ears of the professor. “That bell is just up there in the tower and nobody can ring it. There must be ghosts in this place, I tell you!”

“Keep shut about your ghosts!” snarled the leader. “What’s that Mexican saying?”

“He’s howling prayers because he’s scared,” the mate said.

Understanding came over the professor all at once. One tall tower had struck his attention as they had approached the ruined castle and it was evident that this tower had in it a large bell, placed there when the castle was first built. The rope which the professor had pulled led directly to this bell, a circumstance of which the men upstairs knew nothing, and he found that fate had provided him with a weapon to work against them with telling force. Realizing in the long run what this would mean the teacher once more took hold of the rope.

“Somebody is ringing that bell,” said Sackett, his tone ugly and uncertain. “Ain’t there no way to get up in that tower and stop it?”

“No,” answered Abel. “The tower has no steps and it’s no use anyway. I tell you a spirit is ringing that bell! I knew I hadn’t ought to have come in on a game like this.”

“Oh, shut up,” growled Sackett. “It isn’t ringing anymore.”

But at that moment the bell rang out, and this time the professor used it effectively. With long sweeping strokes he tolled it, so that the melancholy sounds sounded out and over the country for miles. It was a solemn and fearful sound, and the men above were thoroughly awed and frightened by it.

“Go see if that professor has escaped from his cell,” ordered Sackett, as the professor paused in his labors. “He may be out and doing this somehow.”

The professor thanked his lucky stars that he had overheard this bit of conversation and gave the bell a final toll. Then he quickly resumed his place near the door, holding onto the bars and peering anxiously out as the mate came down the stairs with the lantern.

The man flashed the light full in the face of the professor, who blinked and threw up his hand to cover his eyes. At the same time he eagerly questioned the mate.

“Why is that bell ringing? What does it mean? Why is there a bell here?” he cried.

The mate looked troubled but attempted to pass it off. “You mind your own business,” he said, in a surly tone. At the same time he pressed close to the door and flashed the light into the dungeon, looking intently at the corners. Without another word he went back up the winding stairs, and before he closed the door the professor heard him say: “The old man is all right. He hasn’t been out of the cell and he couldn’t ring the bell. I tell you——”

That was as much as Professor Scott heard but it was enough to satisfy him. His best plan was now to mystify the men in the hope of terrifying them so that they would leave the place and take him somewhere else. Whether that would in the end be a better move or not he did not know, but it was at least better than waiting and wasting time, and it would serve to bring Ned and the boys to the spot. There was no doubt that the sound could be heard far from the mountain, and he had no doubt that it would be of great value to him.

Feeling that it would do him no good to keep on tolling the bell he gave up the task for the time being, planning to ring it wildly in the very middle of the night. The men would no doubt be asleep and he could ring it out in such a way as to bring them to their feet with fast beating hearts, convinced that the place was haunted by a spirit that rang the bell. If they persisted in staying even after that he would keep ringing the bell at intervals, taking care not to break the rope, which, fortunately for him had originally been tarred and so was preserved.

With that thought in mind the professor pulled his coat more closely around him, curled himself up on the hard floor and went to sleep. His sleep was fitful and restless, and after two hours of it he had the impression that something nearby was scratching. Awakening at last he sat up, wide awake in an instant, to find that the steady scratching sound was no dream, but an actual fact, and seemed to come from the wall beside him.


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