The Hole in The Vault

by Charles GD Roberts

(first printed in THE YOUTH'S COMPANION, Vol. 65, No. 39, p 482, Sept 29 1892.)
(thanks to Terry Deveau for finding the original magazine in the Dalhousie library and scanning it)

Through North Mountain, from Melvern Square in the Annapolis Valley to the village of Margaretsville on the Bay of Fundy coast, runs a deep pass known as 'The Vault'. On a bleak summit of the mountain, a little to the right of the pass, is the opening which goes by the name of 'The Hole In The Vault'

It is probable that the name of the 'Vault' was once applied to the 'Hole' to which it seems entirely applicable. But the country-folk have twisted the titles to their present state of confusion. [1]

The mountain pass in question bears no resemblance to a vault of any kind. Deep and secluded it is indeed, but its depths are lovely with rich foliage, and into them the sunlight streams cheerily. The mountain top, about four hundred feet above the sea, is for the most part naked rock. In the hollows of the rock once grew pines and firs, but the fire went over the height, and all that remains is a desolate fringe of winter-bleached and ghostly trunks, on whose tops the fish-eagle finds a perch, and screams across the Valley and the Bay.

The mouth of the cave is a round hole about six feet in diameter, cut smoothly, as if by the hand of man, out of the solid rock. Tradition, of course, ascribes it to the omnipresent pirate, Captain Kidd, who is responsible for many freaks of nature on the north American coast.

At first sight, the hole resembles nothing so much as a well. It descends perpendicularly for almost twenty feet. then it runs in a sort of gallery, almost at a level, for a distance of perhaps twelve feet farther.

At the end of this tunnel there is another abrupt descent; and the passage plunges into the bowels of the mountain. As to its depth there are conflicting conjectures -- nothing really definite.

Standing at the inner end of the lateral tunnel, which we may call, for convenience, the gallery, one may throw stones down the shaft and hear them rebounding from side to side till the last faint echo dies away. Certain keen listeners have believed that they caught, ultimately, the sound of the stone falling into water, and have assumed that the shaft ends in a subterranean pool, or in a chamber to which the tides of the Bay find access.

There is a tradition that an experimenter once took several blocks of dry wood, painted them in bright colours, marked them with the date and place, and dropped them down th shaft; and it is said that one of these blocks was picked up, a few days later, floating in the Bay near Margaretsville.

But the evidence on this head seems to me inconclusive.

A few years ago. Two students of King's College, at Windsor, who were spending the summer vacation in the Annapolis Valley, resolved to attempt a solution of whatever mysteries the 'Hole in the Vault' might contain. The farmers of the neighbourhood endeavored to dissuade them, saying that the Hole was full of bad gases that would stifle them, but their imaginations were aflame and they would not be turned from their purpose.

They found a young fellow in Melvern Square who knew the place and could enter into the spirit of their enterprise.

Their preparations were made with the utmost forethought. They took several miner's lamps, and an abundance of rope and cord, an axe, a light pick, and other apparatus. The leader of the expedition, a young man now in business at Halifax, has described the whole adventure to me minutely; and I cannot do better than repeat his words as accurately as I can recall them:

Joe Gillespie was the name of the young fellow we got to go with us. He was a good man, and full of the scheme. He came for us, with his team, bout six o'clock in the morning, and would hardly give us time to eat our breakfast.

We drove to the 'Vault' and took off into a desperately rough wood road which took us nearly half-way up the mountain. When the road became impassible, we unhitched the horses and tethered them, shouldered the ropes and the rest of the stuff, and set out for a climb.

It was about half-past nine o'clock when we got to the top, and looked into the 'Hole'.

Close to the edge of the cavity stood an old pine trunk, hard and solid as a rock. To this we fastened one end of the rope, and also one end of a light cord which we had with us. We dropped the ropes, pick and so forth to the bottom of the first part of the 'Hole'. Stuck the lamps in our hats, and climbed down hand over hand.

I forgot to say we also dropped in a stout spruce pole, the use of which you will see presently.

We found the gallery dry and smooth. We tossed a few stones down the shaft, and listened until they vanished out of hearing.

'Guess they must have gone clean under the Square!' remarked Gillespie; while Dick, who favored the tradition of a passageway to the Bay, declared that the reason we heard no splash was that the tide was out. I maintained a judicial silence.

Across the mouth on the inner shaft we set a length of the spruce pole, wedging the ends firmly in the rock. In the middle of this bit of timber we cut a shallow groove, smoothing it nicely; and round it we took a half-turn of the rope.

To the loose end of the slender cord we attached a lighted lamp. This we lowered away for some distance, and finding that it burned clearly, we knew that the air in the shaft was pure.

'I told you so,' said Dick. 'Fundy air is always pure!'

fig1.jpg Now came the question as to who should venture down the 'Hole'. Gillespie was anxious to go, but Dick said be had a prior claim. Finally I announced that, as I had planned and worked up the whole thing, I was going to do the exploring myself.

This was just what the boys expected, so there was no more discussion, and I don't believe they were desperately anxious, anyway to take my place, for the shaft was a discouraging thing to look at.

I knotted the rope securely and comfortably about my body, took the cord in one hand and the pick In the other, and told the boys to lower away, very gently.

The cord served a double purpose. At the end of it, some six or seven feet below me, hung a lamp, as a safeguard against descending into 'choke damp.' As long as the lamp was burning clearly I could tell that there was no bad gas immediately beneath me.

fig2.jpg The cord also served as a means of communication with the surface. It was agreed that one sharp jerk should mean 'Stop'; that two jerks should mean 'lower away' ; and three jerks 'pull up' . Four jerks were to mean 'pull up in a hurry', and five jerks 'not so fast',

This was the code , and each carried a written copy to avoid possibility of mistakes.

In another minute I was slowly descending the shaft, using the pick against the walls to steady myself and to stop the rotary motion of the rope, which threatened to make me dizzy. The pick was a light, handy affair, half-way between an ordinary pickaxe and a geologist's hammer. It was attached to my belt by a slender piece of cord, in case I should wish to have both hands free.

For thirty or forty feet the descent was practically perpendicular, and the sides of the shaft, smooth and dry, presented no points calling for comment. Then the passage began to slope a little, away from the mouth of the pit, and the walls changed their character. Here and there a tiny thread of water oozed from a crevice and spread over the rock, glistening in the light of my lamp.

Sometimes I found the rock so soft that I could break off specimens with my fingers. These I put into the leather bag which I carried. Sometimes I passed thin veins of a milky stone which I recognized as quartz. At these I would give the signal to stop, while I hammered off lumps in which I thought might perhaps be found traces of gold.

Once or twice i was startled by the drip of water upon me from above, or by the fall of some little scraps of rocks, loosened by my pick or by the friction of the rope. Of such occurrences, however, I took but little heed, for the quartz veins looked very promising, and I had procured several nice amethysts, such as used to be found occasionally at Blomidon.

Moreover, the passage remained easy and the air pure.

When I must have been at least ninety feet from the surface I came to a steep incline where I might almost have dispensed with the support of the rope. I kept my weight upon it steadily, however, so as not confuse my assistants.

At this spot the sides of the shaft were much broken. The rock seemed loose and shelvy, and numerous tiny springs forced their way through its crevices. The slope of the shaft brought the rope hard against this treacherous surface, and presently a shower of fragments rattling down on my head and shoulders awoke me to a possible peril.

I glanced up with sudden dread; and just as I did so a slice of rock, weighing many pounds, pitched downward not a foot from my right shoulder, dashed its wet side noiselessly in the lamplight struck and carried away the lamp that was swaying beneath me at the end of the cord, and thundered heavily into the unknown depths.

The sudden jerk on the cord was taken as a signal by Dick and Gillespie, and my descent came to a stop.

For a moment my heart almost ceased to beat. I can never describe the horrible nightmare of that noiseless fall through the dim light. The sound of the crashing far below, startling as it was, came as a positive relief.

For a moment I was undecided. Then I considered that what had just happened would probably be repeated. The sides of the cavern were rotten. I could not tell what movement my pick might have started; and there was the rope, continually aggravating the mischief by pressing hard against the treacherous wall. There was but one thing to do. I gave three sharp tugs at the cord -- the signal to pull up.

It seemed as if the answer would never come. Then I began slowly to ascend. A small stone dropped on my hat-brim, and my impatience increased. The gulf below became suddenly horrible, hideous, loathsome to me, and I would not look downwards.

I gave four jerks at the cord, and began ascending with a speed that threatened to knock my brains out on the walls of the shaft. The rope spun round, and hands and feet were kept busy in the effort to steady myself.

Some bits of rock pattered down, and convinced me that such a speed was too dangerous. Very reluctantly I signalled, 'Not so fast'.

The pace slackened just as I was on the edge of a slope. Right over my head the roof of the shaft, seamed and dripping and ragged, hung ominously. There was the weak spot. If only I could get safely past this ragged projection, I should have a clear way back up to the upper air.

I watched the perilous masses breathlessly, as foot by foot I mounted, using my feet to relieve the friction of the rope.

Then I thought I saw a trembling in the rock! There was a hideous grinding noise, and the passage above me seemed to contract and close up. A shower of fragments fell thickly about me, bruising my head and hands and shoulders, and putting out the lamp in my hat.

The rope stopped rising. I hung, swaying gently, in a darkness that seemed to choke me.

I knew well enough what had happened, but for some minutes was, perhaps, semi-stupefied. Dully I said to myself, over and over again, 'This is my tomb; this is my living grave!'

But presently my energies reasserted themselves. I felt my limbs. I was unhurt and strong. Surely I could do something, -- and Dick and Gillespie would find a means to bring help.

This last thought sent a wave of fresh terror through my heart. I knew just what Dick and Gillespie would do. They would bring men and ropes and picks, and some one would descend the shaft and try to dig through to where I was, and then the mass which had closed in above me would give way under the pressure and the blows, and I would go with it -- down, down, to the heart of the hills; and perhaps, some day, my dead body would be washed out, through strange sinks and arteries of that under-world, to the open tides of the Bay.

I realized that I must help myself before my comrades should have time to attempt a rescue.

Both rope and cord were fixed immovably. With some assistance from the rope, but mainly relying on my feet and one hand, I worked my way up the incline till I came in contact with the mass that had imprisoned me. Here I shortened up the rope so that it would support me and leave both hands free.

I tried to relight the lamp, but it was too thoroughly shattered. However, I lit match after match, and took a careful survey of the task that confronted me.

I saw that a broad shelf of slaty rock had dropped from the roof of the slope and shut down across the shaft like a portcullis.

The main thickness of this mass, however, proved to be somewhat narrower than the shaft.

At the left side there seemed to be almost a passageway. The weight of the mass was evidently supported at the top and bottom, and on the right hand side.

I attacked the thin spot with my pick, and soon made a clear space to work in. It was stifling work, but the stone was brittle, and I was in desperate haste.

After perhaps a half-hour's labor I found that I made my way a good three feet past the lowermost edge of the obstruction. Descending and leaning my weight entirely on the rope, I lay on my back a few minutes and rested.

As I lay I was tormented with the thought that perhaps that mass above my head was forty feet in thickness. It might as easily be forty feet as four, I mused. Well, if so, all the more need to make haste, I said to myself.

I rose and went back to my work in a fever of impatience. I lit a match in order to get a clear idea of what I wished to do. As the match went out, and while it still glimmered, a red coal on the rock before me, I struck a vigorous blow above my head, -- and the pick went through!

In a few minutes I had cleared myself a path to the other side of the barrier. This accomplished, I felt safe.

The rope, of course, was still jammed immovably under the rock. I cut it and fastened the freed end about my waist. Then I gave the signal to pull up. It was responded to instantly.

But presently I perceived the speed slacken. I reflected that probably there was now only man hauling on it. No doubt when the boys discovered that the rope was fast, they would have inferred that the walls had caved in, even if they did not hear the crash, and Gillespie would have gone for help and left Dick to watch the rope and cord.

I gave the signal to stop, and commenced ascending hand over hand. I made forty feet in this way, then took up the loose rope, made it fast, and once more gave the signal to pull up.

In a few seconds I saw a glimmer of light, and then I was dragged over the brink, into the gallery, and Dick was almost hugging the life out of me in his delight at my safe return.

We were not so long, I can tell you, in making our way to the upper air. What an indescribable relief it was when we found ourselves clear of that deadly shaft!

When the rescue party, gathered by Gillespie, arrived upon the scene, Dick and I were eating our lunch comfortably on a stump. When my story was told, certain of the farmers, after remarking, 'I told you so', in every possible key, took their axes and cut down a large number of dead trees, which they dumped into the 'Hole'.

On top of these they rolled such loose rocks as they could find; and now it will cost a lot of labor and some money to any one who may wish to follow my example, and risk a repetition of my experience in 'The Hole in the Vault'.

Footnote-1: The word "vault" is used in the names of several ravines on the North Mountain of the Annapolis Valley. It may be a local term derived from Acadian French that Charles GD Roberts was not familiar with.
Co-ordinates (courtesy of Wikimedia) for the Vault: 45-00.7N 65-02.25W
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