“Well, the hour is late.”
The warder rose to his feet and resumed his official gruffness.
“Come, rise; it is time I locked your fetters; and, in good sooth, mine is no golden key.”
He chuckled as he watched the prisoners file one by one into the shed. Following them, he quickly locked each in turn to his staple in the wall and went out, bolting and double-locking the door behind him.
“You did well, my friend,” whispered Desmond in English to the Babu.
“My heart flutters like the wing of a bulbul,” answered the Babu; “but I am content, sahib.”
“But say, Surendra Nath,” remarked one of the Maratha captives, “last time you told us that story you said nothing of the golden key.”
“Ah!” replied the Babu, “you are thinking of the story told by the second graven image in King Vikramaditya’s throne. I will tell you that tomorrow.”
Next morning, when Desmond left the shed with his fellow prisoners, he took with him, secreted in a fold of his dhoti, a small piece of clay. It had been given him overnight by the Babu. An hour or two later, happening to be for a moment alone in the tool shop, he took out the clay and examined it carefully. It was a moment for which he had waited and longed with feverish impatience. The clay was a thin strip, oval in shape, and slightly curved. In the middle of it was the impression, faint but clear, of a key. A footstep approaching, he concealed the clay again in his garment, and, when a workman entered, was busily plying a chisel upon a deal plank.
Before he left the tool shop, he secreted with the clay a scrap of steel and a small file. That day, and for several days after, whenever chance gave him a minute or two apart from his fellow workmen, he employed the precious moments in diligently filing the steel to the pattern on the clay. It was slow work: all too tedious for his eager thought. But he worked at his secret task with unfailing patience, and at the week’s end had filed the steel to the likeness of the wards of a key.
That night, when his “co-mates in exile” were asleep, he gently inserted the steel in the lock of his ankle band. He tried to turn it. It stuck fast; the wards did not fit. He was not surprised. Before he made the experiment he had felt that it would fail; the key was indeed a clumsy, ill-shapen instrument. But next day he began to work on another piece of steel, and on this he spent every spare minute he could snatch. This time he found himself able to work faster. Night and morning he looked searchingly at the key on the warder’s bunch, and afterward tried to cut the steel to the pattern that was now, as it were, stamped upon his brain.