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Chapter 13

In the morning, Slipper was disturbed from a thoughtful inspection of the hastily improvised dungeons by a perturbed Harold Fullerton. “Mr Slipper,” he shouted down the stairs, “I think you’d better come and take a look at this. It’s this big Irishman. He always was heavy with the hammer, but he’s really gone and excelled himself this time.”

Slipper left his lamp burning on the centre table and hurried up the stairs to join Fullerton. “I’d have built the wall up again without mentioning it normally,” Fullerton explained, “but you’d better come and see what’s behind it before I do. I wouldn’t want to do anything that his Lordship might not approve of. God forbid!” and he rolled his eyes.

Picking his way carefully across slabs of masonry and piles of sand and gravel, Slipper followed Fullerton across the courtyard to the stables, where the builder’s crew were carrying out works that would eventually transform the building into Melsham’s Pie factory. Slipper turned up his nose at the transformation that had already taken place.

Fullerton stopped in front of a hulking brute of a man peering through a huge hole in the wall of the stables where it backed onto the older part of the Hall. “Come on then, Paddy, let Mr Slipper see for himself.”

Paddy shuffled aside, a huge hammer dwarfed in his immense fist, and Slipper peered through into the void beyond the wall. Clouds of dust still hung thick, made opaque by the sunlight shafting in through the high gable windows in the stables, and Slipper found it difficult to make out anything at all. What he could see suggested no more than a bricked-up opening, full now of dust and rubble from Paddy’s heavy-handed hammer, but gradually, as his eyes accustomed to the gloom, it was apparent that the void extended further. Calling for a torch, Slipper stepped through.

The air inside smelt of age and dust, and the torch’s beam picked out walls on each side, constructed of blocks of rough-hewn masonry. The stone-vaulted ceiling was low, permitting Slipper to stand erect only within the centre point of the vaulted ribs and, with outstretched arms, he could just about touch the walls on each side with his fingertips. It was no more than a corridor. But an evidently ancient one, of whose existence even he had been unaware. He shone the beam further down the expanse until it lost itself in the distance.

The historian in Slipper was intrigued and he edged his way down, shining the torch in slow, swinging, arcs.

“Are you all right in there?” Fullerton called, his voice bouncing back from the farther wall. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Slipper turned back to face Fullerton, peering in through the opening. “No. I am perfectly capable, thank you. I suggest you get your men back to work, Mr Fullerton. I shall return presently when I have investigated the extent of this chamber.” He turned away again, edging further down the corridor. “This is a very exciting discovery, you know. Very exciting.”

Fullerton shrugged and sent his men about their business. Frankly, the possibility of anything appearing the remotest bit exciting to Mr Slipper’s dour character struck him as faintly ridiculous, but the man obviously thought he knew what he was about, so good luck to him. He lit a cigarette and absently lodged it behind his ear whilst examining the plans for the possibility of any other hidden surprises.

Slipper, meanwhile, was examining his surroundings with almost unconcealable delight. The corridor had joined another at right angles to it, descending by long, uneven steps, into the gloom beyond. At intervals, small, triangular, niches were cut into the walls. Soot marks on the masonry surrounding them revealed their original purpose, although they now contained nothing but dust and pieces of rubble. There was an eerie silence as Slipper turned the bend and slowly felt his way down the steps, but by now the torch was growing dimmer by the minute until it cast only a small pool of reddish light on the ground in front of him.

He was about to turn back when any further forward progress was halted by what appeared to be a pile of rubble. He flashed his fading torch around. It appeared that the corridor had, at some stage in the past, collapsed at this point and had consequently been blocked off. The wall now preventing further progress was of a markedly different nature to the surrounding walls, reinforcing the supposition. There was, however, a deeper darkness to the left of the wall and a hint of the shape of ascending steps which indicated yet further discoveries to be made.

He flicked his torch off for a moment or two to give some respite to the batteries and was surprised to find that absolute darkness did not follow. The piles of rubble and upper parts of the corridor were still dimly outlined by a flickering light. He followed it back to its source: a small hole high in the blocking wall. Standing precariously on a small rock, he tried to raise his eye to it, but it was just too far away. But …if the light was what he thought it might be … He stood for some moments as the glimmerings of an idea crossed his mind, then retraced his steps in even more excitement than before.

Fullerton and his men were on another of their interminable tea breaks at the far end of the stable block when Slipper poked his head out of the hole.

Fullerton sauntered over, mug in hand. “That’s a turn-up, eh, Mr Slipper? That’s not on the plans. What do I do about that, now?”

With the configuration of the hidden corridor burning in his mind, Slipper was absolutely bursting to look at the plans. If the layout was what he suspected, then Melsham’s goose, if not exactly cooked, was fattening up nicely. He gave Fullerton’s question some consideration. “For now, Mr Fullerton, I think leave it. Just block it off temporarily. Lord Melsham should be consulted, I believe. It could just be that this ancient passage could be incorporated usefully into the plans. I wonder, could I borrow them for a few hours?”

Fullerton shrugged and the burning cigarette wobbled dangerously near his ear. He took the plans from his clipboard and handed them over. “May as well, Mr Slipper. There’s not much else I can do here until we get some sort of decision. I’ll get Paddy to knock up some sort of barrier for the time being.” He turned back to his gang. “Right, lads, that’s it for today.”

Slipper walked quickly from the stable block, returning swiftly to the cellar and its flickering lamp, where he spread out the plans on the table with eager anticipation. It was just as he had thought! The cellar-cum-dungeon gave onto the hidden corridor. The far wall must, at some time, have had a connecting door before the roof collapsed. And the unknown staircase? Unless he missed his guess, it must lead to the Great Hall, just above the cellar.

Slipper paused a moment to gloat, and reflected on a number of things: the dungeon and Helgas’s presence; the hidden corridors; and the planned Opening Banquet in the Great Hall above. He permitted himself a wondering and evil grin. The goose was ready for plucking.

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