Read CHAPTER NINE - DROWNING AN ENEMY. of Patience Wins War in the Works , free online book, by George Manville Fenn, on ReadCentral.com.

I did not sleep that morning, but kept watch with Uncle Jack, and as soon as the men came to work I hurried off to Mrs Stephenson’s to tell the others of the night’s adventures.

Half an hour later they were with me at the works, where a quiet examination was made, everything being done so as not to take the attention of the work-people, who were now busy.

We had first of all a good look round outside, and found that beneath the window of the furnace-house there were some half dozen great nails or spikes carefully driven into the wall, between the stones, so as to make quite a flight of steps for an active man, and across the window lay a tangled-together length of thin wire.

We did not stop to draw out the nails for fear of exciting attention, but strolled back at once into the works.

And now once for all, when I say we, please to understand that it is not out of conceit, for my share in our adventures was always very small, but to avoid uncling you all too much, and making so many repetitions of the names of Uncle Dick, Uncle Jack, and Uncle Bob.

I saw several of the men look up from their work as we went through the grinding-shop, but they went on again with their task, making the blades they ground shriek as they pressed them against the swiftly revolving stones.

“They must know all about it, Uncle Bob,” I whispered, and he gave me a meaning look.

“Yes,” he said softly; “that’s the worst of it, my lad.  Master and man ought to shake hands and determine to fight one for the other; but, as you see, they take opposite sides, and it is war.”

We went next into the wheel-pit and had a look round, after which Uncle Jack spoke aloud to the man who acted as general engineer, and said he thought that the great axle wanted seeing to and fresh cleaning.

The man nodded, and said gruffly that he would see to it, and then, as he turned away, I saw him wink at one of the men grinding at a stone and thrust his tongue into his cheek.

Just then he caught my eye, his countenance changed, and he looked as foolish as a boy found out in some peccadillo, but the next instant he scowled at me, and his fierce dark eyes said as plainly as if they spoke: 

“Say a word about that and I’ll half kill you.”

I read the threat aright, as will be seen; and, turning to follow my uncles, I saw that the man was coming on close behind me, with a look in his countenance wonderfully like that with which he was being followed by Piter, who, unobserved, was close at his heels, sniffing quietly at his legs and looking as if he would like to fix his teeth in one or the other.

Seeing this I stopped back, half expecting that Piter, if left behind, might be kicked by the man’s heavy clogs.  The others did not notice my absence, but went on out of the grinding-shop, and the engineer came close up to me, stooping down as I waited, and putting his face close to mine.

“Look here, mester,” he began in a low threatening tone, “do you know what’s meant by keeping thy tongue atween thy teeth?”

“Yes,” I cried; and in the same breath, “Mind the dog!  Down, Piter!  Down!”

The man made a convulsive leap as he caught sight of the dog, and his intention was to alight upon the frame-work of one of the large grindstones close by his side ­one that had just been set in motion, but though he jumped high enough he did not allow for the lowness of the ceiling, against which he struck his head, came down in a sitting position on the grindstone, and was instantly hurled off to the floor.

This was Piter’s opportunity, and with a low growl and a bound he was upon the man’s chest.  Another moment and he would have had him by the throat, but I caught him by the collar and dragged him off, amidst the murmur of some, and the laughter of others of the men.

I did not want to look as if I was afraid, but this seemed to be a good excuse for leaving the grinding-shop, and, holding on by Piter’s collar, I led him out.

Just before I reached the door, though, I heard one of the men say to his neighbour ­heard it plainly over the whirr and churring of the stones: 

“I’ve know’d dawgs poisoned for less than that.”

“What shall I do?” I asked myself as soon as I was outside; but the answer did not come.  I could only think that my uncles had trouble enough on their hands, and that though it was very evident that the men at work for them were not very well affected, it was not likely that we had any one who would wilfully do us an injury.

After all, too, nobody had threatened to poison the dog; it was only a remark about what had been known to happen.

All this had taken but a very short time, and by the time I had joined my uncles they were just entering the office on the upper floor that looked over the dam.

There were several men at work here at lathes and benches, and their tools made so much noise that they did not notice my entrance, closely followed by the dog; and so it was that I found out that they, too, must have known all about the cowardly attempt of the night, for one said to another: 

“Didn’t expect to be at work here this morning; did you, mate?”

“No,” growled the man addressed; “but why can’t they leave un aloan.  They pay reg’lar, and they’re civil.”

“What do you mean?” said the first speaker sharply.  “You going to side wi’ un!  What do we want wi’ a set o’ inventing corckneys here!”

Just then he caught sight of me, and swung round and continued his work, while I walked straight to the office door and went in, where Uncle Jack was just opening a window that looked out upon the dam.

“Yes,” he said, “here we are.”

He pointed to a sort of raft formed of a couple of planks placed about five feet apart and across which a dozen short pieces of wood had been nailed, forming a buoyant platform, on which no doubt our enemies had floated themselves down from the head of the dam, where there was a timber yard.

“All plain enough now,” said Uncle Jack, grinding his teeth.  “Oh, if I could have had hold of those two fellows by the collar when they fell in!”

“Well,” said Uncle Bob, “what would you have done ­drowned them?”

“Not quite,” said Uncle Jack; “but they would have swallowed a great deal more water than would have been good for them.”

“Never mind about impossible threats,” said Uncle Dick.  “Let’s examine the powder canister now.”

This was taken from its resting-place during the time the men were at breakfast and carried into the office, where the dangerous weapon of our enemies was laid upon the desk and examined.

It was a strong tin canister about ten inches high and six across, and bound round and round, first with strong string and afterwards loosely with some soft black-looking cord, which Uncle Dick said was fuse; and he pointed out where one end was passed through a little hole punched through the bottom of the canister, while the loosely-twisted fuse was held on by thin wire, which allowed the soft connection with the powder to hang out in loops.

“Yes,” said Uncle Dick; “if that is good fuse, the very fact of any part touching a spark or smouldering patch of ash would be enough to set it alight, and there is enough, I should say, to burn for a quarter of an hour before it reaches the powder.  Yes, a good ten pounds of it,” he added, balancing the canister in his hands.

“But it may be a scare,” said Uncle Bob:  “done to frighten us.  We don’t know yet that it is powder.”

“Oh, we’ll soon prove that,” cried Uncle Jack, taking out his knife.

“Uncle!  Take care!” I cried in agony, for I seemed to see sparks flying from his knife, and the powder exploding and blowing us to atoms.

“If you are afraid, Cob, you had better go back home,” he said rather gruffly, as he cut the fuse through and tore it off, to lie in a little heap as soon as he had freed it from the wire.

Then the string followed, and the canister stood upright before us on the desk.

“Looks as harmless as if it were full of arrow-root or mustard,” said Uncle Bob coolly.  “Perhaps, after all, it is a scare.”

I stood there with my teeth closed tightly, determined not to show fear, even if the horrible stuff did blow up.  For though there was no light in the room, and the matches were in a cupboard, I could not get out of my head the idea that the stuff might explode, and it seemed terrible to me for such a dangerous machine to be handled in what appeared to be so reckless a way.

“Lid fits pretty tight,” said Uncle Jack, trying to screw it off.

“Don’t do that, old fellow,” said Uncle Dick.  “It would be grinding some of the dust round, and the friction might fire it.”

“Well, yes, it might,” replied Uncle Jack.  “Not likely though, and I want to examine the powder.”

“That’s easily done, my boy.  Pull that bit of fuse out of the hole, and let some of the powder trickle out.”

“Bravo!  Man of genius,” said Uncle Jack; and he drew out the plug of fuse that went through the bottom of the canister.

As he did this over a sheet of paper a quantity of black grains like very coarse dry sand began to trickle out and run on to the paper, forming quite a heap, and as the powder ran Uncle Jack looked round at his brother and smiled sadly.

“Not done to frighten us, eh, Bob!” he said.  “If that stuff had been fired the furnace-house and chimney would have been levelled.”

“Why, Cob,” said Uncle Dick, laying his hand affectionately upon my shoulder.  “You must be a brave fellow to have hauled that away from the furnace.”

“I did not feel very brave just now,” I said bitterly.  “When Uncle Jack began to handle that tin I felt as if I must run away.”

“But you didn’t,” said Uncle Bob, smiling at me.

“Is that gunpowder?” I said hastily, so as to change the conversation.

“No doubt of it, my lad,” said Uncle Jack, scooping it up in his hand, so that it might trickle through his fingers.  “Strong blasting powder.  Shall I fire some and try?”

“If you like,” I said sulkily, for it was, I knew, said to tease me.

“Well, what’s to be done, boys?” said Uncle Jack.  “Are we going to lay this before the police?  It is a desperate business!”

“Desperate enough, but we shall do no good, and only give ourselves a great deal of trouble if we go to the law.  The police might trace out one of the offenders; but if they did, what then?  It would not stop the attempts to harm us.  No:  I’m of opinion that our safety lies in our own watchfulness.  A more terrible attempt than this could not be made.”

“What shall we do with the powder, then?” asked Uncle Bob; “save it to hoist some of the scoundrels with their own petard?”

“Oh, of course if you like,” said Uncle Jack.  “Fancy Bob trying to blow anybody up with gunpowder!”

“When he can’t even do it with his breath made into words.”

“Ah!  Joke away,” said Uncle Bob; “but I want to see you get rid of that horrible stuff.”

“We don’t want to save it then?” said Uncle Jack.

“No, no; get rid of it.”

“That’s soon done then,” said Uncle Jack, tying a piece of the cord round the canister; and, going to the open window, he lowered it down over the deep water in the dam, where it sank like a stone, and drew the cord after it out of sight.

“There,” he cried, “that will soon be so soaked with water that it will be spoiled.”

“Who’s that,” I said, “on the other side of the dam?  He’s watching us.”

“Squintum the grinder.  What’s his name ­Griggs.  Yes, I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if that scoundrel had a hand ­”

“Both hands,” put in Uncle Bob.

“Well, both hands in this ugly business.”

“But couldn’t you prove it against him?” I said.

“No, my lad,” said Uncle Jack; “and I don’t know that we want to.  Wretched misguided lumps of ignorance.  I don’t want to help to transport the villains.”

We had drawn back from the window to where there was still a little heap of powder on the desk as well as the fuse.

“Come, Bob,” said Uncle Jack; “you may not be quite convinced yet, so I’ll show you an experiment.”

He took about a teaspoonful of the powder, and placed it in a short piece of iron pipe which he laid on the window-sill, and then taking the rest of the explosive, he gave it a jerk and scattered it over the water.

Then taking about a yard of the black soft cord that he said was fuse, he tucked one end in the pipe so that it should rest upon the powder, laid the rest along the window-sill, and asked me to get the matches.

“Now,” he said, “if that’s what I think ­cleverly made fuse, and good strong powder ­we shall soon see on a small scale what it would have done on a large.  Strike a match, Cob.”

I did as I was told, feeling as if I was going to let off a very interesting firework, and as soon as the splint was well alight I was about to hold the little flame to the end of the fuse, but Uncle Jack stopped me.

“No,” he said, “I want to see if a spark would have lit it.  I mean I want to see if just drawing the canister over the remains of the furnace-fire would have started the fuse.  That’s it, now just touch the end quickly with the match.”

There was only a little spark on the wood, and no flame, as I touched the side of the fuse.

The effect was instantaneous.  The soft black-looking cord burst into scintillations, tiny sparks flew off on all sides, and a dull fire began to burn slowly along the fuse.

“Capitally made,” said Uncle Jack.  “That would have given the scoundrels plenty of warning that the work was well done, and they would have been able to get to a distance before the explosion took place.”

“And now we shall see whether the powder is good,” said Uncle Dick.

“But how slowly it burns!” said Uncle Bob.

“But how surely,” I had it on my lips to say.

I did not speak though, for I was intently watching the progress of the sparks as they ran along the fuse slowly and steadily; and as I gazed I seemed to see what would have gone on in the great dark building if I had not been awakened by the scraping sound of the canister being hauled over bench and floor.

I shuddered as I watched intently, for the fuse seemed as if it would never burn through, and even when, after what in my excitement seemed a long space of time, it did reach the iron pipe, though a few sparks came from inside, the powder did not explode.

“Uncle Bob’s right!” I cried with an intense feeling of relief; “that was not powder, and they only tried to frighten us.”

Puff!

There was a sharp flash from each end of the iron tube, and one little ball of white smoke came into the office, while another darted out into the sunny morning air.

“Wrong, Cob,” said Uncle Jack.  “Splendidly-made fuse and tremendously-strong powder.  We have had a very narrow escape.  Now, lads, what’s to be done?”

“What do you say, Jack?” said Uncle Dick.

“Do our duty ­be always on the watch ­fight it out.”

“That’s settled,” said Uncle Dick.  “Now let’s get to work again.  Cob, you can come and see us cast some steel ingots if you like.”

“Cast!” I said.

“Yes, cast.  You know what that is?”

“Yes, of course.”

“But you never saw it liquid so that it could be poured out like water.”

“No,” I said, as I followed him, wondering whether I had not better tell him that I had overheard a strange remark about poisoning a dog, and ask if he thought there was any risk about Piter, who seemed to grow much uglier every day, and yet I liked him better.

The end of it was that I saw the steel lifted out of the furnace in crucibles and poured forth like golden-silver water into charcoal moulds, but I did not speak about the dog.