Read CHAPTER VI. - I STUMBLE INTO HORRORS. of The Adventures of Harry Revel , free online book, by Arthur Quiller-Couch, on ReadCentral.com.

It was exactly seven weeks later ­that is to say, on the evening of June 18th, 1811 ­that as I stood in the doorway whistling Come, cheer up, my lads, to Mrs. Trapp’s tame blackbird, the old Jew slop-dealer came shuffling up the alley and demanded word with my master.

His name was Rodriguez ­“I.  Rodriguez, Marine Stores” ­and his shop stood at the corner of the Barbican as you turn into Southside Street.  He had an extraordinarily fine face, narrow, emaciated, with a noble hook to his nose (which was neither pendulous nor fleshy) and a black pointed beard divided by a line of grey.  We boys feared him, one and all:  but in a furred cloak and skull-cap he would have made a brave picture.  The dirt of his person, however, was a scandal.  I told him that Mr. Trapp had walked over and taken the ferry to Cremyll, where his boat was fitting out for the summer.  “But Mrs. Trapp is washing-up at the back.  Shall I call her?”

“God forbid!” said he.  “I am not come to listen, but to speak.”

I asked him then if I could take a message.

“As wine in a leaky vessel, so is a message committed to a child.  Two of my chimneys need to be swept.”

“I can remember that, sir,” said I.

He eyed me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable.  “Yes; you will remember,” he said, as if somehow he had satisfied himself.  Yet his eyes continued to search me.  “You have not swept my chimneys before?”

“I have been working for Mr. Trapp almost three years,” said I demurely.

“Yes, I have seen your face.  But I do not often have my chimneys swept:  it is dreadful waste of money.  The soot, now ­your master and I cannot agree about it.  I say that the soot is mine, that I made it, in my own chimney, with my own fuel; therefore it should be my property, but your master claims it.  Five years ago I left my chimneys un-swept while I argued this; but one of them took fire, and so I lost my soot, and the Corporation fined me five shillings.  It was terrible.”  He fell back a pace and studied me again.  “If my brother Aaron could see your face, boy, he would want to paint it and you might make money.”

“Where does he live, sir?” I asked.

“Eh?  Good boy ­good boy!  He lives in Lisbon, in the Ghetto off the Street of the Four Evangelists.”  He laughed, high up in his nose, at my discomfiture.  “If you ever meet him, mention my name:  but first of all tell your master I shall expect him at five o’clock to-morrow morning.”  He wished me good night and shuffled away down the alley, still laughing at his joke.

At five o’clock next morning, or a little before, Mr. Trapp and I started for the house.  The Barbican had not yet awaked to business.  Its frowzy blinds were down, and out on the Pool nothing moved but a fishing-boat sweeping in upon the first of the flood.

At the entrance of Southside Street, however, we almost overtook a soldier walking towards the town.  He walked slowly and with a very slight limp, but seemed to quicken his pace a little, and kept ahead of us.  The barracks being full just then, many soldiers had their billets about the town, and that one should be abroad at such an hour was nothing suspicious:  yet my eyes were still following him when Mr. Trapp halted and knocked at the Jew’s door.  At the sound, I saw the man start and hesitate for an instant in his stride:  and in that instant, though he held on his pace and was lost to sight around the street-corner, I recognised him and understood the limp.  He was the man of the bull-chase ­Sergeant Letcher (as the sentry had named him) of the North Wilts.

Nobody answered Mr. Trapp’s knock, though he repeated it four or five times.  He stepped back into the roadway and scanned the unshuttered upper windows.  They were uncurtained, too, every one, and grimed with dust:  and through this dust we could see rows of cast-off suits dangling within like limp suicides.

“Very odd,” commented Mr. Trapp.  “You’re sure he said five o’clock?”

“Sure,” said I.

“Besides ­five o’clock or six ­why can’t the old skin-flint answer?”

He knocked again vigorously.  A blind-cord creaked, a window went up over a ship-chandler’s shop next door, and a man thrust out his head.

“What’s wrong?” he demanded.

“Sorry to disturb ye, Clemow; but old Rodriguez, here, bespoke us to sweep his chimneys at five, and we can’t get admittance.”

“Why, I heard him unbolt for ye an hour ago!” said the ship-chandler.  “He woke me up with his noise, letting down the chain.”

The door had a latch-handle and Mr. Trapp grasped it.  “Drat me, but you’re right!” he exclaimed, as he pressed his thumb and the door at once yielded.  “Huh!” He stared into the empty passage, out of which a room opened on either hand, each hung with cast-off suits which seemed to sway slightly in the scanty light filtered through the shutter-holes.  “I don’t stomach moving among these.  Even in broad daylight I’m never too sure there ain’t a man hidden in one of ’em.  He might be dead, too ­by the smell.”

He stepped to the foot of the uncarpeted stairs.  “Mister Rodriguez!” he called.  His voice echoed up past the cobwebbed landing and seemed to go wandering aloft among unclean mysteries to the very roof.  Nobody answered.

“Mister Rodriguez!” he called again, and waited.  “Let’s try the kitchen,” he suggested.  “We started with that, last time:  and, if my memory holds good, ’tis the only chimney he uses.  He beds in a small room right over us, next the roof, and keeps a fire going there through the winter:  but the flue of it leads into the same shaft ­a pretty wide shaft as I rec’llect.”

We groped our way by the foot of the staircase and along a line of cupboards to the kitchen.  The window of this looked out upon a backyard piled with refuse timber, packing-cases, and plaster statuary broken and black with soot.  Within, the hearth had been swept as if in preparation for us.  On the dirty table stood a milk-jug with a news-sheet folded and laid across its top, a half-loaf of bread, and a plate of meat ­but of what kind we did not pause to examine.  It looked nauseous enough.  A brindled cat made a dash past us and upstairs.  Its unexpected charge greatly unsettled Mr. Trapp.

“It daunts me ­I declare it do!” he confided hoarsely.  “But he’s been here, anyway; and he expects us.”  He waved a hand towards the hearth.  “Shall I call again?  Or what d’ye say to getting it over?”

“I’m ready,” said I. To tell the truth, the inside of the chimney seemed more inviting to me than the rest of the house.  I was accustomed to chimneys.

“Up we go, then!” Mr. Trapp began to spread his bags.  He always used the first person plural on these occasions ­meaning, no doubt, that I took with me his moral support.  “The shaft’s easy enough, I mind ­ two storeys above this, and all the flues leadin’ to your right.  I’ll be out in the street by the time you hail.”

I hadn’t a doubt he would.  “One week to Midsummer!” I cried, to hearten me ­for we were both counting the days now between us and the fishing.  He grinned, and up I went.

The chimney was foul, to be sure, but once past the first ten or a dozen feet I mounted quickly.  Towards the top the shaft narrowed so that for a while I had my doubts if it could be squeezed through:  but I found, on reaching it, that the brickwork shelved inwards very slightly, though furred or crusted with an extra thick coating of soot below the vent.  Through this I broke in triumph, sweating from my haste; and brushing the filth from my eyes, leaned both arms on the chimney-pot while I scanned the roofs around for a glimpse between them, down to the street and Mr. Trapp.  I did so at ease, for a flue entered the main shaft immediately below the stack, which was a decidedly dumpy one ­in fact, less than five feet tall; so that I supported myself not by the arms alone but by resting my toes on the ridge where flue and shaft met.

Now, as the reader will remember, it was the height of summer, and the day had brightened considerably since we entered the house.  The sudden sunshine set me blinking, and while I cleared my eyes it seemed to me that a man ­a dark figure ­something, at any rate, and something a great deal too large to be mistaken for a cat ­stole from under the gable above which my chimney rose, and, swiftly crossing a patch of flat leaded roof to the right, disappeared around a chimney-stack on the far side of it.

I ceased rubbing my eyes and stared at the stack.  It was a tall one, rising from a good fifteen feet below almost to a level with mine, and I could not possibly look over it. Something, I felt sure, lurked behind it, and my ears seemed to hold the sound of a soft footstep.  I forgot Mr. Trapp.  By pulling myself a little higher I could get a better view, not of the stack, but of the stretch of roof beyond it:  nobody could break cover in that direction and escape me.  I took a firm grip on the corroded bricks and heaved on them.

Next moment they had given way under my hands, falling inwards:  and I was falling with them.

I kicked out, striving to find again with my toes the ridge where the flue joined the shaft ­missed it ­and went shooting down to the right through a smother of soot.

The total fall ­or slide, rather ­was not a severe one, after all; twenty feet perhaps, though uncomfortable enough for sixty.  I pulled myself up quite suddenly, my feet resting on a ledge which, as I shook the soot off and recovered my wits, turned out to be the upper sill of a grate.  Then, growing suddenly cautious when the need for caution was over, I descended the next foot or two back foremost, as one goes down a ladder, and jumped out into the room clear of the hearthstone.

And with that, as I turned, a scream rose to my throat and died there.  I had almost jumped upon the stretched-out body of a man.