Long before anybody else was astir he arose and stole softly downstairs. The sunlight was stealing in at every crevice, and flashing in long streaks across the darkened rooms. The dining-room into which he looked struck chill and cheerless in the dark yellow light which came through the lowered blinds. He remembered that it had the same appearance when his father lay dead in the house; now, as then, everything seemed ghastly and unreal; the very chairs standing as their occupants had left them the night before seemed to be indulging in some dark communication of ideas.
Slowly and noiselessly he opened the hall door and passed into the fragrant air beyond. The sun was shining on the drenched grass and trees, and a slowly vanishing white mist rolled like smoke about the grounds. For a moment he stood, breathing deeply the sweet air of the morning, and then walked slowly in the direction of the stables.
The rusty creaking of a pump-handle and a spatter of water upon the red-tiled courtyard showed that somebody else was astir, and a few steps farther he beheld a brawny, sandy-haired man gasping wildly under severe self-infliction at the pump.
“Everything ready, George?” he asked quietly.
“Yes, sir,” said the man, straightening up suddenly and touching his forehead. “Bob’s just finishing the arrangements inside. It’s a lovely morning for a dip. The water in that well must be just icy.”
“Be as quick as you can,” said Benson, impatiently.
“Very good, sir,” said George, burnishing his face harshly with a very small towel which had been hanging over the top of the pump. “Hurry up, Bob.”
In answer to his summons a man appeared at the door of the stable with a coil of stout rope over his arm and a large metal candlestick in his hand.
“Just to try the air, sir,” said George, following his master’s glance, “a well gets rather foul sometimes, but if a candle can live down it, a man can.”
His master nodded, and the man, hastily pulling up the neck of his shirt and thrusting his arms into his coat, followed him as he led the way slowly to the well.
“Beg pardon, sir,” said George, drawing up to his side, “but you are not looking over and above well this morning. If you’ll let me go down I’d enjoy the bath.”
“No, no,” said Benson, peremptorily.
“You ain’t fit to go down, sir,” persisted his follower. “I’ve never seen you look so before. Now if–”
“Mind your business,” said his master curtly.
George became silent and the three walked with swinging strides through the long wet grass to the well. Bob flung the rope on the ground and at a sign from his master handed him the candlestick.
“Here’s the line for it, sir,” said Bob, fumbling in his pockets.
Benson took it from him and slowly tied it to the candlestick. Then he placed it on the edge of the well, and striking a match, lit the candle and began slowly to lower it.
“Hold hard, sir,” said George, quickly, laying his hand on his arm, “you must tilt it or the string’ll burn through.”
Even as he spoke the string parted and the candlestick fell into the water below.
Benson swore quietly.
“I’ll soon get another,” said George, starting up.
“Never mind, the well’s all right,” said Benson.
“It won’t take a moment, sir,” said the other over his shoulder.
“Are you master here, or am I?” said Benson hoarsely.
George came back slowly, a glance at his master’s face stopping the protest upon his tongue, and he stood by watching him sulkily as he sat on the well and removed his outer garments. Both men watched him curiously, as having completed his preparations he stood grim and silent with his hands by his sides.
“I wish you’d let me go, sir,” said George, plucking up courage to address him. “You ain’t fit to go, you’ve got a chill or something. I shouldn’t wonder it’s the typhoid. They’ve got it in the village bad.”
For a moment Benson looked at him angrily, then his gaze softened. “Not this time, George,” he said, quietly. He took the looped end of the rope and placed it under his arms, and sitting down threw one leg over the side of the well.
“How are you going about it, sir?” queried George, laying hold of the rope and signing to Bob to do the same.
“I’ll call out when I reach the water,” said Benson; “then pay out three yards more quickly so that I can get to the bottom.”
“Very good, sir,” answered both.
Their master threw the other leg over the coping and sat motionless. His back was turned toward the men as he sat with head bent, looking down the shaft. He sat for so long that George became uneasy.
“All right, sir?” he inquired.
“Yes,” said Benson, slowly. “If I tug at the rope, George, pull up at once. Lower away.”
The rope passed steadily through their hands until a hollow cry from the darkness below and a faint splashing warned them that he had reached the water. They gave him three yards more and stood with relaxed grasp and strained ears, waiting.
“He’s gone under,” said Bob in a low voice.
The other nodded, and moistening his huge palms took a firmer grip of the rope.
Fully a minute passed, and the men began to exchange uneasy glances. Then a sudden tremendous jerk followed by a series of feebler ones nearly tore the rope from their grasp.
“Pull!” shouted George, placing one foot on the side and hauling desperately. “Pull! pull! He’s stuck fast; he’s not coming; PULL!”
In response to their terrific exertions the rope came slowly in, inch by inch, until at length a violent splashing was heard, and at the same moment a scream of unutterable horror came echoing up the shaft.
“What a weight he is !” panted Bob. “He’s stuck fast or something. Keep still, sir; for heaven’s sake, keep still.”
For the taut rope was being jerked violently by the struggles of the weight at the end of it. Both men with grunts and sighs hauled it in foot by foot.
“All right, sir,” cried George, cheerfully.
He had one foot against the well, and was pulling manfully; the burden was nearing the top. A long pull and a strong pull, and the face of a dead man with mud in the eyes and nostrils came peering over the edge. Behind it was the ghastly face of his master; but this he saw too late, for with a great cry he let go his hold of the rope and stepped back. The suddenness overthrew his assistant, and the rope tore through his hands. There was a frightful splash.
“You fool!” stammered Bob, and ran to the well helplessly.
“Run!” cried George. “Run for another line.”
He bent over the coping and called eagerly down as his assistant sped back to the stables shouting wildly. His voice re-echoed down the shaft, but all else was silence.