At length, and after crawling for at least two hundred yards, without any warning he stood erect: and this was the worst moment of all. For as he did so the light vanished—or so nearly as to leave but the feeblest glimmer, the reason being (and I discovered it with a sob) that he stood in an ample vaulted chamber while I was yet beneath the roof of the tunnel. The first thing I saw on emerging beside him was the belly of a great wine-tun curving out above my head, its recurve hidden, lost somewhere in upper darkness: and the first thing I heard was the whip of a bat’s wing by the candle. My guide beat it off.
“Better take a candle and light it from mine. These creatures breed here in thousands—hear them now above us!”
“But what is that other sound?” I asked, and together we moved towards it.
Three enormous tuns stood in the chamber, and we halted by the base of the farthest, where, with a spilt pail beside him, lay a British sergeant of the 36th Regiment tranquilly snoring! That and no other was the sound, and a blesseder I never heard. I could have kicked the fellow awake for the mere pleasure of shaking hands with him. My guide moved on.
“But we are not going to leave him here!”
“Oh, as for that, his sleep is good for hours to come. If you choose, we can pick him up on our return.”
So we left him, and now I went forward with a heart strangely comforted, although on leaving the great cellar I knew myself hopelessly lost. Hitherto I might have turned, and, fortune aiding, have found daylight: but beyond the cellar the galleries ramified by the score, and we walked so rapidly and chose between them with such apparent lack of method that I lost count. My one consolation was the memory of a burly figure in scarlet supine beneath a wine-tun.
I was thinking of him when, at the end of a passage to me indistinguishable from any of the dozen or so we had already followed, my guide put out a hand, and, drawing aside a goatskin curtain, revealed a small chamber with a lamp hanging from the roof, and under the lamp a bed of straw, and upon the bed an emaciated man, propped and holding a book.
His eyes were on the entrance; for he had heard our footsteps. And almost we broke into one cry of joy. It was indeed my kinsman, Captain McNeill!
CAPTAIN MCNEILL’S ADVENTURES.
“But how on earth came you here?” was the unspoken question in the eyes of both of us; and, each reading the reflection of his own, we both broke out together into a laugh—though my kinsman’s was all but inaudible—and after it he lay back on his pillow (an old knapsack) and panted.