Part 2 out of 3
"Besides, we ought to be thinking of returning to the cottage."
"Our lamp will give light for another ten hours, sir," said Harry.
"Well, let us make a halt," replied Starr; "I confess my legs
have need of a rest. And you, Madge, don't you feel tired
after so long a walk?"
"Not over much, Mr. Starr," replied the sturdy Scotchwoman;
"we have been accustomed to explore the old Aberfoyle mine
for whole days together."
"Tired? nonsense!" interrupted Simon Ford; "Madge could go
ten times as far, if necessary. But once more, Mr. Starr,
wasn't my communication worth your trouble in coming to hear it?
Just dare to say no, Mr. Starr, dare to say no!"
"Well, my old friend, I haven't felt so happy for a long while!"
replied the engineer; "the small part of this marvelous mine that we
have explored seems to show that its extent is very considerable,
at least in length."
"In width and in depth, too, Mr. Starr!" returned Simon Ford.
"That we shall know later."
"And I can answer for it! Trust to the instinct of an old miner!
It has never deceived me!"
"I wish to believe you, Simon," replied the engineer, smiling.
"As far as I can judge from this short exploration, we possess
the elements of a working which will last for centuries!"
"Centuries!" exclaimed Simon Ford; "I believe you, sir!
A thousand years and more will pass before the last bit of coal
is taken out of our new mine!"
"Heaven grant it!" returned Starr. "As to the quality of the coal
which crops out of these walls?"
"Superb! Mr. Starr, superb!" answered Ford; "just look at it yourself!"
And so saying, with his pick he struck off a fragment of the black rock.
"Look! look!" he repeated, holding it close to his lamp;
"the surface of this piece of coal is shining! We have here fat coal,
rich in bituminous matter; and see how it comes in pieces,
almost without dust! Ah, Mr. Starr! twenty years ago this
seam would have entered into a strong competition with Swansea
and Cardiff! Well, stokers will quarrel for it still, and if it
costs little to extract it from the mine, it will not sell
at a less price outside."
"Indeed," said Madge, who had taken the fragment of coal and was
examining it with the air of a connoisseur; "that's good quality
of coal. Carry it home, Simon, carry it back to the cottage!
I want this first piece of coal to burn under our kettle."
"Well said, wife!" answered the old overman, "and you shall see
that I am not mistaken."
"Mr. Starr," asked Harry, "have you any idea of the probable direction
of this long passage which we have been following since our entrance
into the new mine?"
"No, my lad," replied the engineer; "with a compass I could
perhaps find out its general bearing; but without a compass
I am here like a sailor in open sea, in the midst of fogs,
when there is no sun by which to calculate his position."
"No doubt, Mr. Starr," replied Ford; "but pray don't compare
our position with that of the sailor, who has everywhere and
always an abyss under his feet! We are on firm ground here,
and need never be afraid of foundering."
"I won't tease you, then, old Simon," answered James Starr. "Far be
it from me even in jest to depreciate the New Aberfoyle mine
by an unjust comparison! I only meant to say one thing,
and that is that we don't know where we are."
"We are in the subsoil of the county of Stirling, Mr. Starr,"
replied Simon Ford; "and that I assert as if--"
"Listen!" said Harry, interrupting the old man.
All listened, as the young miner was doing. His ears, which were
very sharp, had caught a dull sound, like a distant murmur.
His companions were not long in hearing it themselves.
It was above their heads, a sort of rolling sound, in which though
it was so feeble, the successive CRESCENDO and DIMINUENDO could
be distinctly heard.
All four stood for some minutes, their ears on the stretch,
without uttering a word. All at once Simon Ford exclaimed,
"Well, I declare! Are trucks already running on the rails
of New Aberfoyle?"
"Father," replied Harry, "it sounds to me just like the noise
made by waves rolling on the sea shore."
"We can't be under the sea though!" cried the old overman.
"No," said the engineer, "but it is not impossible that we
should be under Loch Katrine."
"The roof cannot have much thickness just here, if the noise
of the water is perceptible."
"Very little indeed," answered James Starr, "and that is the reason
this cavern is so huge."
"You must be right, Mr. Starr," said Harry.
"Besides, the weather is so bad outside," resumed Starr, "that the waters
of the loch must be as rough as those of the Firth of Forth."
"Well! what does it matter after all?" returned Simon Ford;
"the seam won't be any the worse because it is under a loch.
It would not be the first time that coal has been looked for under
the very bed of the ocean! When we have to work under the bottom
of the Caledonian Canal, where will be the harm?"
"Well said, Simon," cried the engineer, who could not restrain a smile
at the overman's enthusiasm; "let us cut our trenches under the waters
of the sea! Let us bore the bed of the Atlantic like a strainer;
let us with our picks join
our brethren of the United States through the subsoil of the
ocean! let us dig into the center of the globe if necessary,
to tear out the last scrap of coal."
"Are you joking, Mr. Starr?" asked Ford, with a pleased but
slightly suspicious look.
"I joking, old man? no! but you are so enthusiastic that you
carry me away into the regions of impossibility! Come, let us
return to the reality, which is sufficiently beautiful;
leave our picks here, where we may find them another day,
and let's take the road back to the cottage."
Nothing more could be done for the time. Later, the engineer,
accompanied by a brigade of miners, supplied with lamps
and all necessary tools, would r�sum� the exploration of
New Aberfoyle. It was now time to return to the Dochart pit.
The road was easy, the gallery running nearly straight
through the rock up to the orifice opened by the dynamite,
so there was no fear of their losing themselves.
But as James Starr was proceeding towards the gallery
Simon Ford stopped him.
"Mr. Starr," said he, "you see this immense cavern,
this subterranean lake, whose waters bathe this strand at our feet?
Well! it is to this place I mean to change my dwelling,
here I will build a new cottage, and if some brave fellows will
follow my example, before a year is over there will be one town
more inside old England."
James Starr, smiling approval of Ford's plans, pressed his hand,
and all three, preceding Madge, re-entered the gallery, on their way
back to the Dochart pit. For the first mile no incident occurred.
Harry walked first, holding his lamp above his head.
He carefully followed the principal gallery, without ever turning
aside into the narrow tunnels which radiated to the right and left.
It seemed as if the returning was to be accomplished as easily
as the going, when an unexpected accident occurred which rendered
the situation of the explorers very serious.
Just at a moment when Harry was raising his lamp there came
a rush of air, as if caused by the flapping of invisible wings.
The lamp escaped from his hands, fell on the rocky ground,
and was broken to pieces.
James Starr and his companions were suddenly plunged
in absolute darkness. All the oil of the lamp was spilt,
and it was of no further use. "Well, Harry," cried his father,
"do you want us all to break our necks on the way back to the cottage?"
Harry did not answer. He wondered if he ought to suspect
the hand of a mysterious being in this last accident?
Could there possibly exist in these depths an enemy whose
unaccountable antagonism would one day create serious difficulties?
Had someone an interest in defending the new coal field against
any attempt at working it? In truth that seemed absurd,
yet the facts spoke for themselves, and they accumulated in such
a way as to change simple presumptions into certainties.
In the meantime the explorers' situation was bad enough.
They had now, in the midst of black darkness, to follow
the passage leading to the Dochart pit for nearly five miles.
There they would still have an hour's walk before reaching the cottage.
"Come along," said Simon Ford. "We have no time to lose.
We must grope our way along, like blind men. There's no fear
of losing our way. The tunnels which open off our road are
only just like those in a molehill, and by following the chief
gallery we shall of course reach the opening we got in at.
After that, it is the old mine. We know that, and it won't
be the first time that Harry and I have found ourselves there
in the dark. Besides, there we shall find the lamps that we left.
Forward then! Harry, go first. Mr. Starr, follow him.
Madge, you go next, and I will bring up the rear.
Above everything, don't let us get separated."
All complied with the old overman's instructions.
As he said, by groping carefully, they could not mistake the way.
It was only necessary to make the hands take the place of the eyes,
and to trust to their instinct, which had with Simon Ford
and his son become a second nature.
James Starr and his companions walked on in the order agreed.
They did not speak, but it was not for want of thinking. It became
evident that they had an adversary. But what was he, and how were they
to defend themselves against these mysteriously-prepared attacks?
These disquieting ideas crowded into their brains. However, this was
not the moment to get discouraged.
Harry, his arms extended, advanced with a firm step, touching first
one and then the other side of the passage.
If a cleft or side opening presented itself, he felt with his hand
that it was not the main way; either the cleft was too shallow,
or the opening too narrow, and he thus kept in the right road.
In darkness through which the eye could not in the slightest
degree pierce, this difficult return lasted two hours.
By reckoning the time since they started, taking into
consideration that the walking had not been rapid,
Starr calculated that he and his companions were near the opening.
In fact, almost immediately, Harry stopped.
"Have we got to the end of the gallery?" asked Simon Ford.
"Yes," answered the young miner.
"Well! have you not found the hole which connects New Aberfoyle
with the Dochart pit?"
"No," replied Harry, whose impatient hands met with nothing
but a solid wall.
The old overman stepped forward, and himself felt the schistous rock.
A cry escaped him.
Either the explorers had strayed from the right path on their return,
or the narrow orifice, broken in the rock by the dynamite, had been
recently stopped up. James Starr and his companions were prisoners
in New Aberfoyle.
CHAPTER IX THE FIRE-MAIDENS
A WEEK after the events just related had taken place, James Starr's
friends had become very anxious. The engineer had disappeared,
and no reason could be brought forward to explain his absence.
They learnt, by questioning his servant, that he had embarked
at Granton Pier. But from that time there were no traces
of James Starr. Simon Ford's letter had requested secrecy,
and he had said nothing of his departure for the Aberfoyle mines.
Therefore in Edinburgh nothing was talked of but the unaccountable
absence of the engineer. Sir W. Elphiston, the President
of the Royal Institution, communicated to his colleagues
a letter which James Starr had sent him, excusing himself
from being present at the next meeting of the society.
Two or three others produced similar letters. But
though these documents proved that Starr had left Edinburgh--
which was known before--they threw no light on what had become
of him. Now, on the part of such a man, this prolonged absence,
so contrary to his usual habits, naturally first caused surprise,
and then anxiety.
A notice was inserted in the principal newspapers of the United Kingdom
relative to the engineer James Starr, giving a description
of him and the date on which he left Edinburgh; nothing more
could be done but to wait. The time passed in great anxiety.
The scientific world of England was inclined to believe that one
of its most distinguished members had positively disappeared.
At the same time, when so many people were thinking about
James Starr, Harry Ford was the subject of no less anxiety.
Only, instead of occupying public attention, the son of the old
overman was the cause of trouble alone to the generally cheerful
mind of Jack Ryan.
It may be remembered that, in their encounter in the Yarrow shaft,
Jack Ryan had invited Harry to come a week afterwards to the festivities
at Irvine. Harry had accepted and promised expressly to be there.
Jack Ryan knew, having had it proved by many circumstances,
that his friend was a man of his word. With him, a thing promised was
a thing done. Now, at the Irvine merry-making, nothing was wanting;
neither song, nor dance, nor fun of any sort--nothing but Harry Ford.
The notice relative to James Starr, published in the papers,
had not yet been seen by Ryan. The honest fellow was therefore
only worried by Harry's absence, telling himself that something
serious could alone have prevented him from keeping his promise.
So, the day after the Irvine games, Jack Ryan intended to take the railway
from Glasgow and go to the Dochart pit; and this he would have done
had he not been detained by an accident which nearly cost him his life.
Something which occurred on the night of the 12th of December was of a
nature to support the opinions of all partisans of the supernatural,
and there were many at Melrose Farm.
Irvine, a little seaport of Renfrew, containing nearly seven
thousand inhabitants, lies in a sharp bend made by the Scottish coast,
near the mouth of the Firth of Clyde. The most ancient and the most
famed ruins on this part
of the coast were those of this castle of Robert Stuart,
which bore the name of Dundonald Castle.
At this period Dundonald Castle, a refuge for all the stray goblins
of the country, was completely deserted. It stood on the top
of a high rock, two miles from the town, and was seldom visited.
Sometimes a few strangers took it into their heads to explore
these old historical remains, but then they always went alone.
The inhabitants of Irvine would not have taken them there
at any price. Indeed, several legends were based on the story
of certain "fire-maidens," who haunted the old castle.
The most superstitious declared they had seen these fantastic
creatures with their own eyes. Jack Ryan was naturally one of them.
It was a fact that from time to time long flames appeared,
sometimes on a broken piece of wall, sometimes on the summit
of the tower which was the highest point of Dundonald Castle.
Did these flames really assume a human shape, as was asserted?
Did they merit the name of fire-maidens, given them by the people
of the coast? It was evidently just an optical delusion,
aided by a good deal of credulity, and science could easily
have explained the phenomenon.
However that might be, these fire-maidens had the reputation
of frequenting the ruins of the old castle and there
performing wild strathspeys, especially on dark nights.
Jack Ryan, bold fellow though he was, would never have dared
to accompany those dances with the music of his bagpipes.
"Old Nick is enough for them!" said he. "He doesn't need me
to complete his infernal orchestra."
We may well believe that these strange apparitions
frequently furnished a text for the evening stories.
Jack Ryan was ending the evening with one of these.
His auditors, transported into the phantom world, were worked
up into a state of mind which would believe anything.
All at once shouts were heard outside. Jack Ryan stopped short
in the middle of his story, and all rushed out of the barn.
The night was pitchy dark. Squalls of wind and rain swept along
the beach. Two or three fishermen, their backs against a rock,
the better to resist the wind, were shouting at the top
of their voices.
Jack Ryan and his companions ran up to them. The
shouts were, however, not for the inhabitants of the farm, but to warn
men who, without being aware of it, were going to destruction.
A dark, confused mass appeared some way out at sea. It was a vessel whose
position could be seen by her lights, for she carried a white one on
her foremast, a green on the starboard side, and a red on the outside.
She was evidently running straight on the rocks.
"A ship in distress?" said Ryan.
"Ay," answered one of the fishermen, "and now they want to tack,
but it's too late!"
"Do they want to run ashore?" said another.
"It seems so," responded one of the fishermen, "unless he has
been misled by some--"
The man was interrupted by a yell from Jack. Could the crew
have heard it? At any rate, it was too late for them to beat back
from the line of breakers which gleamed white in the darkness.
But it was not, as might be supposed, a last effort of Ryan's to warn
the doomed ship. He now had his back to the sea. His companions
turned also, and gazed at a spot situated about half a mile inland.
It was Dundonald Castle. A long flame twisted and bent under the gale,
on the summit of the old tower.
"The Fire-Maiden!" cried the superstitious men in terror.
Clearly, it needed a good strong imagination to find any human
likeness in that flame. Waving in the wind like a luminous flag,
it seemed sometimes to fly round the tower, as if it was just going out,
and a moment after it was seen again dancing on its blue point.
"The Fire-Maiden! the Fire-Maiden!" cried the terrified
fishermen and peasants.
All was then explained. The ship, having lost her reckoning in the fog,
had taken this flame on the top of Dundonald Castle for the Irvine light.
She thought herself at the entrance of the Firth, ten miles to the north,
when she was really running on a shore which offered no refuge.
What could be done to save her, if there was still time? It was
too late. A frightful crash was heard above the tumult of the elements.
The vessel had struck. The white line of surf was broken for an instant;
she heeled over on her side and lay among the rocks.
At the same time, by a strange coincidence, the long flame disappeared,
as if it had been swept away by a violent gust. Earth, sea, and sky
were plunged in complete darkness.
"The Fire-Maiden!" shouted Ryan, for the last time, as the apparition,
which he and his companions believed supernatural, disappeared.
But then the courage of these superstitious Scotchmen,
which had failed before a fancied danger, returned in face
of a real one, which they were ready to brave in order to save
their fellow-creatures. The tempest did not deter them.
As heroic as they had before been credulous, fastening ropes
round their waists, they rushed into the waves to the aid
of those on the wreck.
Happily, they succeeded in their endeavors, although some--and bold
Jack Ryan was among the number--were severely wounded on the rocks.
But the captain of the vessel and the eight sailors who composed
his crew were hauled up, safe and sound, on the beach.
The ship was the Norwegian brig MOTALA, laden with timber, and bound
for Glasgow. Of the MOTALA herself nothing remained but a few spars,
washed up by the waves, and dashed among the rocks on the beach.
Jack Ryan and three of his companions, wounded like himself,
were carried into a room of Melrose Farm, where every care
was lavished on them. Ryan was the most hurt, for when with
the rope round his waist he had rushed into the sea, the waves
had almost immediately dashed him back against the rocks.
He was brought, indeed, very nearly lifeless on to the beach.
The brave fellow was therefore confined to bed for several days,
to his great disgust. However, as soon as he was given permission
to sing as much as he liked, he bore his trouble patiently,
and the farm echoed all day with his jovial voice.
But from this adventure he imbibed a more lively sentiment
of fear with regard to brownies and other goblins who amuse
themselves by plaguing mankind, and he made them responsible
for the catastrophe of the Motala. It would have been vain
to try and convince him that the Fire-Maidens did not exist,
and that the flame, so suddenly appearing among the ruins, was but
a natural phenomenon. No reasoning could make him believe it.
His companions were, if possible, more obstinate than he in
their credulity. According to them, one of the Fire-Maidens
had maliciously attracted the MOTALA to the coast. As to wishing
to punish her, as well try to bring the tempest to justice!
The magistrates might order what arrests they pleased, but a flame
cannot be imprisoned, an impalpable being can't be handcuffed.
It must be acknowledged that the researches which were ultimately
made gave ground, at least in appearance, to this superstitious
way of explaining the facts.
The inquiry was made with great care. Officials came to Dundonald Castle,
and they proceeded to conduct a most vigorous search.
The magistrate wished first to ascertain if the ground bore
any footprints, which could be attributed to other than goblins' feet.
It was impossible to find the least trace, whether old or new.
Moreover, the earth, still damp from the rain of the day before,
would have preserved the least vestige.
The result of all this was, that the magistrates only got for their
trouble a new legend added to so many others--a legend which would
be perpetuated by the remembrance of the catastrophe of the MOTALA,
and indisputably confirm the truth of the apparition of the Fire-Maidens.
A hearty fellow like Jack Ryan, with so strong a constitution,
could not be long confined to his bed. A few sprains and bruises
were not quite enough to keep him on his back longer than he liked.
He had not time to be ill.
Jack, therefore, soon got well. As soon as he was on his legs again,
before resuming his work on the farm, he wished to go and visit
his friend Harry, and learn why he had not come to the Irvine
merry-making. He could not understand his absence, for Harry
was not a man who would willingly promise and not perform.
It was unlikely, too, that the son of the old overman had not
heard of the wreck of the MOTALA, as it was in all the papers.
He must know the part Jack had taken in it, and what had happened
to him, and it was unlike Harry not to hasten to the farm and see
how his old chum was going on.
As Harry had not come, there must have been something to prevent him.
Jack Ryan would as soon deny the existence of the Fire-Maidens as believe
in Harry's indifference.
Two days after the catastrophe Jack left the farm merily,
feeling nothing of his wounds. Singing in the fullness
of his heart, he awoke the echoes of the cliff, as he walked
to the station of the railway, which VIA Glasgow would take
him to Stirling and Callander.
As he was waiting for his train, his attention was attracted by a bill
posted up on the walls, containing the following notice:
"On the 4th of December, the engineer, James Starr,
of Edinburgh, embarked from Granton Pier, on board the Prince
of Wales. He disembarked the same day at Stirling. From that
time nothing further has been heard of him.
"Any information concerning him is requested to be sent to the President
of the Royal Institution, Edinburgh."
Jack Ryan, stopping before one of these advertisements,
read it twice over, with extreme surprise.
"Mr. Starr!" he exclaimed. "Why, on the 4th of December I
met him with Harry on the ladder of the Dochart pit!
That was ten days ago! And he has not been seen from that time!
That explains why my chum didn't come to Irvine."
And without taking time to inform the President of the Royal Institution
by letter, what he knew relative to James Starr, Jack jumped into
the train, determining to go first of all to the Yarrow shaft.
There he would descend to the depths of the pit, if necessary,
to find Harry, and with him was sure to be the engineer James Starr.
"They haven't turned up again," said he to himself. "Why? Has anything
prevented them? Could any work of importance keep them still at
the bottom of the mine? I must find out!" and Ryan, hastening his steps,
arrived in less than an hour at the Yarrow shaft.
Externally nothing was changed. The same silence around.
Not a living creature was moving in that desert region.
Jack entered the ruined shed which covered the opening of the shaft.
He gazed down into the dark abyss--nothing was to be seen.
He listened--nothing was to be heard.
"And my lamp!" he exclaimed; "suppose it isn't in its place!"
The lamp which Ryan used when he visited the pit was usually
deposited in a corner, near the landing of the topmost ladder.
It had disappeared.
"Here is a nuisance!" said Jack, beginning to feel rather
uneasy. Then, without hesitating, superstitious though he was,
"I will go," said he, "though it's as dark down there as in the lowest
depths of the infernal regions!"
And he began to descend the long flight of ladders, which led
down the gloomy shaft. Jack Ryan had not forgotten his old
mining habits, and he was well acquainted with the Dochart pit,
or he would scarcely have dared to venture thus.
He went very carefully, however. His foot tried each round,
as some of them were worm-eaten. A false step would entail
a deadly fall, through this space of fifteen hundred feet.
He counted each landing as he passed it, knowing that he could
not reach the bottom of the shaft until he had left the thirtieth.
Once there, he would have no trouble, so he thought,
in finding the cottage, built, as we have said, at the extremity
of the principal passage.
Jack Ryan went on thus until he got to the twenty-sixth landing,
and consequently had two hundred feet between him and the bottom.
Here he put down his leg to feel for the first rung of the twenty-seventh
ladder. But his foot swinging in space found nothing to rest on.
He knelt down and felt about with his hand for the top of the ladder.
It was in vain.
"Old Nick himself must have been down this way!" said Jack,
not without a slight feeling of terror.
He stood considering for some time, with folded arms,
and longing to be able to pierce the impenetrable darkness.
Then it occurred to him that if he could not get down,
neither could the inhabitants of the mine get up. There was now no
communication between the depths of the pit and the upper regions.
If the removal of the lower ladders of the Yarrow shaft had been
effected since his last visit to the cottage, what had become
of Simon Ford, his wife, his son, and the engineer?
The prolonged absence of James Starr proved that he had not
left the pit since the day Ryan met with him in the shaft.
How had the cottage been provisioned since then?
The food of these unfortunate people, imprisoned fifteen hundred
feet below the surface of the ground, must have been exhausted
by this time.
All this passed through Jack's mind, as he saw that by himself
he could do nothing to get to the cottage. He had no doubt
but that communication had been interrupted
with a malevolent intention. At any rate, the authorities must
be informed, and that as soon as possible.
Jack Ryan bent forward from the landing.
"Harry! Harry!" he shouted with his powerful voice.
Harry's name echoed and re-echoed among the rocks, and finally died
away in the depths of the shaft.
Ryan rapidly ascended the upper ladders and returned to the light of day.
Without losing a moment he reached the Callander station, just caught the
express to Edinburgh, and by three o'clock was before the Lord Provost.
There his declaration was received. His account was given so clearly
that it could not be doubted. Sir William Elphiston, President of
the Royal Institution, and not only colleague, but a personal
friend of Starr's, was also informed, and asked to direct
the search which was to be made without delay in the mine.
Several men were placed at his disposal, supplied with lamps,
picks, long rope ladders, not forgetting provisions and cordials.
Then guided by Jack Ryan, the party set out for the Aberfoyle mines.
The same evening the expedition arrived at the opening of
the Yarrow shaft, and descended to the twenty-seventh landing,
at which Jack Ryan had been stopped a few hours previously.
The lamps, fastened to long ropes, were lowered down the shaft,
and it was thus ascertained that the four last ladders were wanting.
As soon as the lamps had been brought up, the men fixed to
the landing a rope ladder, which unrolled itself down the shaft,
and all descended one after the other. Jack Ryan's descent was
the most difficult, for he went first down the swinging ladders,
and fastened them for the others.
The space at the bottom of the shaft was completely deserted;
but Sir William was much surprised at hearing Jack Ryan exclaim,
"Here are bits of the ladders, and some of them half burnt!"
"Burnt?" repeated Sir William. "Indeed, here sure enough are cinders
which have evidently been cold a long time!"
"Do you think, sir," asked Ryan, "that Mr. Starr could have had any
reason for burning the ladders, and thus breaking of communication
with the world?"
"Certainly not," answered Sir William Elphiston, who
had become very thoughtful. "Come, my lad, lead us to the cottage.
There we shall ascertain the truth."
Jack Ryan shook his head, as if not at all convinced.
Then, taking a lamp from the hands of one of the men, he proceeded
with a rapid step along the principal passage of the Dochart pit.
The others all followed him.
In a quarter of an hour the party arrived at the excavation
in which stood Simon Ford's cottage. There was no light
in the window. Ryan darted to the door, and threw it open.
The house was empty.
They examined all the rooms in the somber habitation.
No trace of violence was to be found. All was in order, as if old
Madge had been still there. There was even an ample supply
of provisions, enough to last the Ford family for several days.
The absence of the tenants of the cottage was quite unaccountable.
But was it not possible to find out the exact time they had quitted it?
Yes, for in this region, where there was no difference of day or night,
Madge was accustomed to mark with a cross each day in her almanac.
The almanac was pinned up on the wall, and there the last cross
had been made at the 6th of December; that is to say, a day after
the arrival of James Starr, to which Ryan could positively swear.
It was clear that on the 6th of December, ten days ago,
Simon Ford, his wife, son, and guest, had quitted the cottage.
Could a fresh exploration of the mine, undertaken by the engineer,
account for such a long absence? Certainly not.
It was intensely dark all round. The lamps held by the men gave light
only just where they were standing. Suddenly Jack Ryan uttered a cry.
"Look there, there!"
His finger was pointing to a tolerably bright light, which was
moving about in the distance. "After that light, my men!"
exclaimed Sir William.
"It's a goblin light!" said Ryan. "So what's the use?
We shall never catch it."
The president and his men, little given to superstition,
darted off in the direction of the moving light. Jack Ryan,
bravely following their example, quickly overtook the head-most
of the party.
It was a long and fatiguing chase. The lantern seemed to be carried
by a being of small size, but singular agility.
Every now and then it disappeared behind some pillar, then was seen
again at the end of a cross gallery. A sharp turn would place
it out of sight, and it seemed to have completely disappeared,
when all at once there would be the light as bright as ever.
However, they gained very little on it, and Ryan's belief that they
could never catch it seemed far from groundless.
After an hour of this vain pursuit Sir William Elphiston and his
companions had gone a long way in the southwest direction of the pit,
and began to think they really had to do with an impalpable being.
Just then it seemed as if the distance between the goblin and those who
were pursuing it was becoming less. Could it be fatigued, or did this
invisible being wish to entice Sir William and his companions to the place
where the inhabitants of the cottage had perhaps themselves been enticed.
It was hard to say.
The men, seeing that the distance lessened, redoubled their efforts.
The light which had before burnt at a distance of more than
two hundred feet before them was now seen at less than fifty.
The space continued to diminish. The bearer of the lamp
became partially visible. Sometimes, when it turned its head,
the indistinct profile of a human face could be made out,
and unless a sprite could assume bodily shape, Jack Ryan
was obliged to confess that here was no supernatural being.
Then, springing forward,--
"Courage, comrades!" he exclaimed; "it is getting tired!
We shall soon catch it up now, and if it can talk as well as it
can run we shall hear a fine story."
But the pursuit had suddenly become more difficult.
They were in unknown regions of the mine; narrow passages
crossed each other like the windings of a labyrinth.
The bearer of the lamp might escape them as easily as possible,
by just extinguishing the light and retreating into some dark refuge.
"And indeed," thought Sir William, "if it wishes to avoid us,
why does it not do so?"
Hitherto there had evidently been no intention to avoid them,
but just as the thought crossed Sir William's mind the light
suddenly disappeared, and the party, continuing the pursuit,
found themselves before an extremely narrow natural opening
in the schistous rocks.
To trim their lamps, spring forward, and dart through the opening,
was for Sir William and his party but the work of an instant.
But before they had gone a hundred paces along this new gallery,
much wider and loftier than the former, they all stopped short.
There, near the wall, lay four bodies, stretched on the ground--
four corpses, perhaps!
"James Starr!" exclaimed Sir William Elphiston.
"Harry! Harry!" cried Ryan, throwing himself down beside his friend.
It was indeed the engineer, Madge, Simon, and Harry Ford who were
lying there motionless. But one of the bodies moved slightly,
and Madge's voice was heard faintly murmuring, "See to the others!
help them first!"
Sir William, Jack, and their companions endeavored to reanimate
the engineer and his friends by getting them to swallow a few drops
of brandy. They very soon succeeded. The unfortunate people,
shut up in that dark cavern for ten days, were dying of starvation.
They must have perished had they not on three occasions
found a loaf of bread and a jug of water set near them.
No doubt the charitable being to whom they owed their lives
was unable to do more for them.
Sir William wondered whether this might not have been the work
of the strange sprite who had allured them to the very spot
where James Starr and his companions lay.
However that might be, the engineer, Madge, Simon, and Harry Ford
were saved. They were assisted to the cottage, passing through
the narrow opening which the bearer of the strange light had apparently
wished to point out to Sir William. This was a natural opening.
The passage which James Starr and his companions had made for
themselves with dynamite had been completely blocked up with rocks
laid one upon another.
So, then, whilst they had been exploring the vast cavern, the way
back had been purposely closed against them by a hostile hand.
CHAPTER X COAL TOWN
THREE years after the events which have just been related,
the guide-books recommended as a "great attraction,"
to the numerous tourists who roam over the county of Stirling,
a visit of a few hours to the mines of New Aberfoyle.
No mine in any country, either in the Old or New World,
could present a more curious aspect.
To begin with, the visitor was transported without danger
or fatigue to a level with the workings, at fifteen
hundred feet below the surface of the ground. Seven miles
to the southwest of Callander opened a slanting tunnel,
adorned with a castellated entrance, turrets and battlements.
This lofty tunnel gently sloped straight to the stupendous crypt,
hollowed out so strangely in the bowels of the earth.
A double line of railway, the wagons being moved by hydraulic power,
plied from hour to hour to and from the village thus buried in the subsoil
of the county, and which bore the rather ambitious title of Coal Town.
Arrived in Coal Town, the visitor found himself in a place where
electricity played a principal part as an agent of heat and light.
Although the ventilation shafts were numerous, they were not
sufficient to admit much daylight into New Aberfoyle, yet it had
abundance of light. This was shed from numbers of electric discs;
some suspended from the vaulted roofs, others hanging on
the natural pillars--all, whether suns or stars in size, were fed
by continuous currents produced from electro-magnetic machines.
When the hour of rest arrived, an artificial night was easily
produced all over the mine by disconnecting the wires.
Below the dome lay a lake of an extent to be compared to the Dead Sea
of the Mammoth caves--a deep lake whose transparent waters swarmed with
eyeless fish, and to which the engineer gave the name of Loch Malcolm.
There, in this immense natural excavation, Simon Ford built his
new cottage, which he would not have exchanged for the finest house
in Prince's Street, Edinburgh. This dwelling was situated on the shores
of the loch, and its five windows looked out on the dark waters,
which extended further than the eye could see. Two months later a second
habitation was erected in the neighborhood of Simon Ford's cottage:
this was for James Starr. The engineer had given
himself body and soul to New Aberfoyle, and nothing but the most
imperative necessity ever caused him to leave the pit.
There, then, he lived in the midst of his mining world.
On the discovery of the new field, all the old colliers had hastened
to leave the plow and harrow, and r�sum� the pick and mattock.
Attracted by the certainty that work would never fail, allured by
the high wages which the prosperity of the mine enabled the company
to offer for labor, they deserted the open air for an underground life,
and took up their abode in the mines.
The miners' houses, built of brick, soon grew up in a picturesque fashion;
some on the banks of Loch Malcolm, others under the arches which seemed
made to resist the weight that pressed upon them, like the piers
of a bridge. So was founded Coal Town, situated under the eastern
point of Loch Katrine, to the north of the county of Stirling. It was
a regular settlement on the banks of Loch Malcolm. A chapel,
dedicated to St. Giles, overlooked it from the top of a huge rock,
whose foot was laved by the waters of the subterranean sea.
When this underground town was lighted up by the bright rays
thrown from the discs, hung from the pillars and arches,
its aspect was so strange, so fantastic, that it justified
the praise of the guide-books, and visitors flocked to see it.
It is needless to say that the inhabitants of Coal Town were
proud of their place. They rarely left their laboring village--
in that imitating Simon Ford, who never wished to go out again.
The old overman maintained that it always rained "up there,"
and, considering the climate of the United Kingdom,
it must be acknowledged that he was not far wrong.
All the families in New Aberfoyle prospered well, having in
three years obtained a certain com-petency which they could
never have hoped to attain on the surface of the county.
Dozens of babies, who were born at the time when the works
were resumed, had never yet breathed the outer air.
This made Jack Ryan remark, "It's eighteen months since they were weaned,
and they have not yet seen daylight!"
It may be mentioned here, that one of the first to run at the engineer's
call was Jack Ryan. The merry fellow had
thought it his duty to return to his old trade.
But though Melrose farm had lost singer and piper it must
not be thought that Jack Ryan sung no more. On the contrary,
the sonorous echoes of New Aberfoyle exerted their strong lungs
to answer him.
Jack Ryan took up his abode in Simon Ford's new cottage. They offered him
a room, which he accepted without ceremony, in his frank and hearty way.
Old Madge loved him for his fine character and good nature.
She in some degree shared his ideas on the subject of the fantastic
beings who were supposed to haunt the mine, and the two, when alone,
told each other stories wild enough to make one shudder--stories well
worthy of enriching the hyperborean mythology.
Jack thus became the life of the cottage. He was, besides being
a jovial companion, a good workman. Six months after the works
had begun, he was made head of a gang of hewers.
"That was a good work done, Mr. Ford," said he, a few days
after his appointment. "You discovered a new field, and though
you narrowly escaped paying for the discovery with your life--
well, it was not too dearly bought."
"No, Jack, it was a good bargain we made that time!"
answered the old overman. "But neither Mr. Starr nor I have
forgotten that to you we owe our lives."
"Not at all," returned Jack. "You owe them to your son Harry,
when he had the good sense to accept my invitation to Irvine."
"And not to go, isn't that it?" interrupted Harry, grasping his
comrade's hand. "No, Jack, it is to you, scarcely healed of your wounds--
to you, who did not delay a day, no, nor an hour, that we owe our being
found still alive in the mine!"
"Rubbish, no!" broke in the obstinate fellow.
"I won't have that said, when it's no such thing.
I hurried to find out what had become of you, Harry, that's all.
But to give everyone his due, I will add that without
that unapproachable goblin--"
"Ah, there we are!" cried Ford. "A goblin!"
"A goblin, a brownie, a fairy's child," repeated Jack Ryan,
"a cousin of the Fire-Maidens, an Urisk, whatever you like!
It's not the less certain that without it we should
never have found our way into the gallery, from which you could
not get out."
"No doubt, Jack," answered Harry. "It remains to be seen whether
this being was as supernatural as you choose to believe."
"Supernatural!" exclaimed Ryan. "But it was as supernatural
as a Will-o'-the-Wisp, who may be seen skipping along
with his lantern in his hand; you may try to catch him,
but he escapes like a fairy, and vanishes like a shadow!
Don't be uneasy, Harry, we shall see it again some day or other!"
"Well, Jack," said Simon Ford, "Will-o'-the-Wisp or not,
we shall try to find it, and you must help us."
"You'll get into a scrap if you don't take care, Mr. Ford!"
responded Jack Ryan.
"We'll see about that, Jack!"
We may easily imagine how soon this domain of New Aberfoyle became
familiar to all the members of the Ford family, but more particularly
to Harry. He learnt to know all its most secret ins and outs.
He could even say what point of the surface corresponded with what point
of the mine. He knew that above this seam lay the Firth of Clyde,
that there extended Loch Lomond and Loch Katrine. Those columns supported
a spur of the Grampian mountains. This vault served as a basement
to Dumbarton. Above this large pond passed the Balloch railway.
Here ended the Scottish coast. There began the sea, the tumult
of which could be distinctly heard during the equinoctial gales.
Harry would have been a first-rate guide to these natural catacombs,
and all that Alpine guides do on their snowy peaks in daylight he could
have done in the dark mine by the wonderful power of instinct.
He loved New Aberfoyle. Many times, with his lamp stuck
in his hat, did he penetrate its furthest depths.
He explored its ponds in a skillfully-managed canoe.
He even went shooting, for numerous birds had been introduced
into the crypt--pintails, snipes, ducks, who fed on the fish
which swarmed in the deep waters. Harry's eyes seemed made
for the dark, just as a sailor's are made for distances.
But all this while Harry felt irresistibly animated by
the hope of finding the mysterious being whose intervention,
strictly speaking, had saved himself and his friends. Would
he succeed? He certainly would, if presentiments were to be trusted;
but certainly not, if he judged by the success which had as yet
attended his researches.
The attacks directed against the family of the old overman,
before the discovery of New Aberfoyle, had not been renewed.
CHAPTER XI HANGING BY A THREAD
ALTHOUGH in this way the Ford family led a happy and contented life,
yet it was easy to see that Harry, naturally of a grave disposition,
became more and more quiet and reserved. Even Jack Ryan, with all
his good humor and usually infectious merriment, failed to rouse him
to gayety of manner.
One Sunday--it was in the month of June--the two friends were
walking together on the shores of Loch Malcolm. Coal Town rested
from labor. In the world above, stormy weather prevailed.
Violent rains fell, and dull sultry vapors brooded over the earth;
the atmosphere was most oppressive.
Down in Coal Town there was perfect calm; no wind, no rain.
A soft and pleasant temperature existed instead of the strife
of the elements which raged without. What wonder then,
that excursionists from Stirling came in considerable numbers
to enjoy the calm fresh air in the recesses of the mine?
The electric discs shed a brilliancy of light which the British sun,
oftener obscured by fogs than it ought to be, might well envy.
Jack Ryan kept talking of these visitors, who passed them in noisy crowds,
but Harry paid very little attention to what he said.
"I say, do look, Harry!" cried Jack. "See what numbers of people
come to visit us! Cheer up, old fellow! Do the honors of the place
a little better. If you look so glum, you'll make all these outside
folks think you envy their life above-ground."
"Never mind me, Jack," answered Harry. "You are jolly enough for two,
I'm sure; that's enough."
"I'll be hanged if I don't feel your melancholy creeping over me though!"
exclaimed Jack. "I declare my eyes
are getting quite dull, my lips are drawn together,
my laugh sticks in my throat; I'm forgetting all my songs.
Come, man, what's the matter with you?"
"You know well enough, Jack."
"What? the old story?"
"Yes, the same thoughts haunt me."
"Ah, poor fellow!" said Jack, shrugging his shoulders.
"If you would only do like me, and set all the queer things
down to the account of the goblins of the mine, you would
be easier in your mind."
"But, Jack, you know very well that these goblins exist only in
your imagination, and that, since the works here have been reopened,
not a single one has been seen."
"That's true, Harry; but if no spirits have been seen, neither has
anyone else to whom you could attribute the extraordinary doings we
want to account for."
"I shall discover them."
"Ah, Harry! Harry! it's not so easy to catch the spirits
of New Aberfoyle!"
"I shall find out the spirits as you call them," said Harry,
in a tone of firm conviction.
"Do you expect to be able to punish them?"
"Both punish and reward. Remember, if one hand shut us up
in that passage, another hand delivered us! I shall not
soon forget that."
"But, Harry, how can we be sure that these two hands do not belong
to the same body?"
"What can put such a notion in your head, Jack?" asked Harry.
"Well, I don't know. Creatures that live in these holes, Harry, don't you
see? they can't be made like us, eh?"
"But they ARE just like us, Jack."
"Oh, no! don't say that, Harry! Perhaps some madman managed to get
in for a time."
"A madman! No madman would have formed such connected plans,
or done such continued mischief as befell us after the breaking
of the ladders."
"Well, but anyhow he has done no harm for the last three years,
either to you, Harry, or any of your people."
"No matter, Jack," replied Harry; "I am persuaded that this malignant
being, whoever he is, has by no means given up his evil intentions.
I can hardly say on what I
found my convictions. But at any rate, for the sake of the new works,
I must and will know who he is and whence he comes."
"For the sake of the new works did you say?" asked Jack,
"I said so, Jack," returned Harry. "I may be mistaken,
but, to me, all that has happened proves the existence
of an interest in this mine in strong opposition to ours.
Many a time have I considered the matter; I feel almost sure of it.
Just consider the whole series of inexplicable circumstances,
so singularly linked together. To begin with, the anonymous letter,
contradictory to that of my father, at once proves that some
man had become aware of our projects, and wished to prevent
their accomplishment. Mr. Starr comes to see us at the Dochart pit.
No sooner does he enter it with me than an immense stone is
cast upon us, and communication is interrupted by the breaking
of the ladders in the Yarrow shaft. We commence exploring.
An experiment, by which the existence of a new vein would
be proved, is rendered impossible by stoppage of fissures.
Notwithstanding this, the examination is carried out,
the vein discovered. We return as we came, a prodigious
gust of air meets us, our lamp is broken, utter darkness
surrounds us. Nevertheless, we make our way along the gloomy
passage until, on reaching the entrance, we find it blocked up.
There we were--imprisoned. Now, Jack, don't you see in all
these things a malicious intention? Ah, yes, believe me,
some being hitherto invisible, but not supernatural, as you will
persist in thinking, was concealed in the mine. For some reason,
known only to himself, he strove to keep us out of it.
WAS there, did I say? I feel an inward conviction that he IS
there still, and probably prepares some terrible disaster for us.
Even at the risk of my life, Jack, I am resolved to discover him."
Harry spoke with an earnestness which strongly impressed his companion.
"Well, Harry," said he, "if I am forced to agree with you in
certain points, won't you admit that some kind fairy or brownie,
by bringing bread and water to you, was the means of--"
"Jack, my friend," interrupted Harry, "it is my belief that
the friendly person, whom you will persist in calling a spirit,
exists in the mine as certainly as the criminal we
speak of, and I mean to seek them both in the most distant recesses
of the mine."
"But," inquired Jack, "have you any possible clew to guide your search?"
"Perhaps I have. Listen to me! Five miles west of New Aberfoyle,
under the solid rock which supports Ben Lomond, there exists a
natural shaft which descends perpendicularly into the vein beneath.
A week ago I went to ascertain the depth of this shaft.
While sounding it, and bending over the opening as my plumb-line
went down, it seemed to me that the air within was agitated,
as though beaten by huge wings."
"Some bird must have got lost among the lower galleries," replied Jack.
"But that is not all, Jack. This very morning I went back
to the place, and, listening attentively, I thought I could
detect a sound like a sort of groaning."
"Groaning!" cried Jack, "that must be nonsense; it was a current of air--
unless indeed some ghost--"
"I shall know to-morrow what it was," said Harry.
"To-morrow?" answered Jack, looking at his friend.
"Yes; to-morrow I am going down into that abyss."
"Harry! that will be a tempting of Providence."
"No, Jack, Providence will aid me in the attempt. Tomorrow, you
and some of our comrades will go with me to that shaft.
I will fasten myself to a long rope, by which you can let me down,
and draw me up at a given signal. I may depend upon you, Jack?"
"Well, Harry," said Jack, shaking his head, "I will do as you wish me;
but I tell you all the same, you are very wrong."
"Nothing venture nothing win," said Harry, in a tone of decision.
"To-morrow morning, then, at six o'clock. Be silent, and farewell!"
It must be admitted that Jack Ryan's fears were far from groundless.
Harry would expose himself to very great danger, supposing the enemy
he sought for lay concealed at the bottom of the pit into which he was
going to descend. It did not seem likely that such was the case, however.
"Why in the world," repeated Jack Ryan, "should he take all this
trouble to account for a set of facts so very
easily and simply explained by the supernatural intervention
of the spirits of the mine?"
But, notwithstanding his objections to the scheme, Jack Ryan and
three miners of his gang arrived next morning with Harry at the mouth
of the opening of the suspicious shaft. Harry had not mentioned
his intentions either to James Starr or to the old overman.
Jack had been discreet enough to say nothing.
Harry had provided himself with a rope about 200 feet long.
It was not particularly thick, but very strong--sufficiently so to
sustain his weight. His friends were to let him down into the gulf,
and his pulling the cord was to be the signal to withdraw him.
The opening into this shaft or well was twelve feet wide.
A beam was thrown across like a bridge, so that the cord
passing over it should hang down the center of the opening,
and save Harry from striking against the sides in his descent.
He was ready.
"Are you still determined to explore this abyss?" whispered Jack Ryan.
"Yes, I am, Jack."
The cord was fastened round Harry's thighs and under his arms,
to keep him from rocking. Thus supported, he was free to use
both his hands. A safety-lamp hung at his belt, also a large,
strong knife in a leather sheath.
Harry advanced to the middle of the beam, around which the cord
was passed. Then his friends began to let him down, and he slowly
sank into the pit. As the rope caused him to swing gently round
and round, the light of his lamp fell in turns on all points
of the side walls, so that he was able to examine them carefully.
These walls consisted of pit coal, and so smooth that it would
be impossible to ascend them.
Harry calculated that he was going down at the rate of about
a foot per second, so that he had time to look about him,
and be ready for any event.
During two minutes--that is to say, to the depth of about 120 feet,
the descent continued without any incident.
No lateral gallery opened from the side walls of the pit,
which was gradually narrowing into the shape of a funnel.
But Harry began to feel a fresher air rising from beneath,
whence he concluded that the bottom of the pit communicated with a gallery
of some description in the lowest part of the mine.
The cord continued to unwind. Darkness and silence were complete.
If any living being whatever had sought refuge in the deep
and mysterious abyss, he had either left it, or, if there,
by no movement did he in the slightest way betray his presence.
Harry, becoming more suspicious the lower he got, now drew his
knife and held it in his right hand. At a depth of 180 feet,
his feet touched the lower point and the cord slackened and
unwound no further.
Harry breathed more freely for a moment. One of the fears he entertained
had been that, during his descent, the cord might be cut above him,
but he had seen no projection from the walls behind which anyone could
have been concealed.
The bottom of the abyss was quite dry. Harry, taking the lamp
from his belt, walked round the place, and perceived he had been
right in his conjectures.
An extremely narrow passage led aside out of the pit.
He had to stoop to look into it, and only by creeping could it
be followed; but as he wanted to see in which direction it led,
and whether another abyss opened from it, he lay down on the ground
and began to enter it on hands and knees.
An obstacle speedily arrested his progress. He fancied he could
perceive by touching it, that a human body lay across the passage.
A sudden thrill of horror and surprise made him hastily draw back,
but he again advanced and felt more carefully.
His senses had not deceived him; a body did indeed lie there;
and he soon ascertained that, although icy cold at
the extremities, there was some vital heat remaining.
In less time than it takes to tell it, Harry had drawn the body
from the recess to the bottom of the shaft, and, seizing his lamp,
he cast its lights on what he had found, exclaiming immediately,
"Why, it is a child!"
The child still breathed, but so very feebly that Harry expected
it to cease every instant. Not a moment was to be lost;
he must carry this poor little creature out of the pit,
and take it home to his mother as quickly as he could. He
eagerly fastened the cord round his waist, stuck on his lamp,
clasped the child to his breast with his left arm, and, keeping his
right hand free to hold the knife, he gave the signal agreed on,
to have the rope pulled up.
It tightened at once; he began the ascent. Harry looked around him
with redoubled care, for more than his own life was now in danger.
For a few minutes all went well, no accident seemed to threaten him,
when suddenly he heard the sound of a great rush of air from beneath;
and, looking down, he could dimly perceive through the gloom a broad
mass arising until it passed him, striking him as it went by.
It was an enormous bird--of what sort he could not see; it flew
upwards on mighty wings, then paused, hovered, and dashed fiercely
down upon Harry, who could only wield his knife in one hand.
He defended himself and the child as well as he could,
but the ferocious bird seemed to aim all its blows at him alone.
Afraid of cutting the cord, he could not strike it as he wished,
and the struggle was prolonged, while Harry shouted with all his
might in hopes of making his comrades hear.
He soon knew they did, for they pulled the rope up faster;
a distance of about eighty feet remained to be got over.
The bird ceased its direct attack, but increased the horror
and danger of his situation by rushing at the cord, clinging to it
just out of his reach, and endeavoring, by pecking furiously,
to cut it.
Harry felt overcome with terrible dread. One strand of the rope gave way,
and it made them sink a little.
A shriek of despair escaped his lips.
A second strand was divided, and the double burden now hung suspended
by only half the cord.
Harry dropped his knife, and by a superhuman effort succeeded,
at the moment the rope was giving way, in catching hold of it
with his right hand above the cut made by the beak of the bird.
But, powerfully as he held it in his iron grasp, he could feel
it gradually slipping through his fingers.
He might have caught it, and held on with both hands by
sacrificing the life of the child he supported in his left arm.
The idea crossed him, but was banished in an instant,
although he believed himself quite unable to hold out until
drawn to the surface. For a second he closed his eyes,
believing they were about to plunge back into the abyss.
He looked up once more; the huge bird had disappeared; his hand
was at the very extremity of the broken rope--when, just as
his convulsive grasp was failing, he was seized by the men,
and with the child was placed on the level ground.
The fearful strain of anxiety removed, a reaction took place,
and Harry fell fainting into the arms of his friends.
CHAPTER XII NELL ADOPTED
A COUPLE of hours later, Harry still unconscious, and the child
in a very feeble state, were brought to the cottage by Jack Ryan
and his companions. The old overman listened to the account
of their adventures, while Madge attended with the utmost care
to the wants of her son, and of the poor creature whom he had
rescued from the pit.
Harry imagined her a mere child, but she was a maiden of the age
of fifteen or sixteen years.
She gazed at them with vague and wondering eyes; and the thin face,
drawn by suffering, the pallid complexion, which light
could never have tinged, and the fragile, slender figure,
gave her an appearance at once singular and attractive.
Jack Ryan declared that she seemed to him to be an uncommonly
interesting kind of ghost.
It must have been due to the strange and peculiar
circumstances under which her life hitherto had been led,
that she scarcely seemed to belong to the human race.
Her countenance was of a very uncommon cast, and her eyes,
hardly able to bear the lamp-light in the cottage, glanced around
in a confused and puzzled way, as if all were new to them.
As this singular being reclined on Madge's bed and awoke to consciousness,
as from a long sleep, the old Scotchwoman began to question her a little.
"What do they call you, my dear?" said she.
"Nell," replied the girl.
"Do you feel anything the matter with you, Nell?"
"I am hungry. I have eaten nothing since--since--"
Nell uttered these few words like one unused to speak much. They were
in the Gaelic language, which was often spoken by Simon and his family.
Madge immediately brought her some food; she was evidently famished.
It was impossible to say how long she might have been in that pit.
"How many days had you been down there, dearie?" inquired Madge.
Nell made no answer; she seemed not to understand the question.
"How many days, do you think?"
"Days?" repeated Nell, as though the word had no meaning for her,
and she shook her head to signify entire want of comprehension.
Madge took her hand, and stroked it caressingly. "How old are you,
my lassie?" she asked, smiling kindly at her.
Nell shook her head again.
"Yes, yes," continued Madge, "how many years old?"
"Years?" replied Nell. She seemed to understand that word
no better than days! Simon, Harry, Jack, and the rest,
looked on with an air of mingled compassion, wonder, and sympathy.
The state of this poor thing, clothed in a miserable garment
of coarse woolen stuff, seemed to impress them painfully.
Harry, more than all the rest, seemed attracted by the very peculiarity
of this poor stranger. He drew near, took Nell's hand from his mother,
and looked directly at her, while something like a smile curved her lip.
"Nell," he said, "Nell, away down there--in the mine--were you all alone?"
"Alone! alone!" cried the girl, raising herself hastily.
Her features expressed terror; her eyes, which had appeared
to soften as Harry looked at her, became quite wild again.
"Alone!" repeated she, "alone!"--and she fell back on the bed,
as though deprived of all strength.
"The poor bairn is too weak to speak to us," said Madge,
when she had adjusted the pillows. "After a good rest,
and a little more food, she will be stronger. Come away,
Simon and Harry, and all the rest of you, and let her go to sleep."
So Nell was left alone, and in a very few minutes slept profoundly.
This event caused a great sensation, not only in the coal
mines, but in Stirlingshire, and ultimately throughout the kingdom.
The strangeness of the story was exaggerated; the affair could not have
made more commotion had they found the girl enclosed in the solid rock,
like one of those antediluvian creatures who have occasionally
been released by a stroke of the pickax from their stony prison.
Nell became a fashionable wonder without knowing it.
Superstitious folks made her story a new subject for legendary marvels,
and were inclined to think, as Jack Ryan told Harry, that Nell
was the spirit of the mines.
"Be it so, Jack," said the young man; "but at any rate she
is the good spirit. It can have been none but she who
brought us bread and water when we were shut up down there;
and as to the bad spirit, who must still be in the mine,
we'll catch him some day."
Of course James Starr had been at once informed of all this, and came,
as soon as the young girl had sufficiently recovered her strength,
to see her, and endeavor to question her carefully.
She appeared ignorant of nearly everything relating to life, and,
although evidently intelligent, was wanting in many elementary ideas,
such as time, for instance. She had never been used to its division,
and the words signifying hours, days, months, and years were
unknown to her.
Her eyes, accustomed to the night, were pained by the glare of
the electric discs; but in the dark her sight was wonderfully keen,
the pupil dilated in a remarkable manner, and she could
see where to others there appeared profound obscurity.
It was certain that her brain had never received any impression
of the outer world, that her eyes had never looked beyond the mine,
and that these somber depths had been all the world to her.
The poor girl probably knew not that there were a sun and stars,
towns and counties, a mighty universe composed of myriads of worlds.
But until she comprehended the significance of words at present
conveying no precise meaning to her, it was impossible to ascertain
what she knew.
As to whether or not Nell had lived alone in the recesses
of New Aberfoyle, James Starr was obliged to remain uncertain;
indeed, any allusion to the subject excited evident alarm in
the mind of this strange girl. Either Nell could not or would
not reply to questions, but that some secret
existed in connection with the place, which she could
have explained, was manifest.
"Should you like to stay with us? Should you like to go back
to where we found you?" asked James Starr.
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed the maiden, in answer to his first question;
but a cry of terror was all she seemed able to say to the second.
James Starr, as well as Simon and Harry Ford, could not help feeling
a certain amount of uneasiness with regard to this persistent silence.
They found it impossible to forget all that had appeared so inexplicable
at the time they made the discovery of the coal mine; and although
that was three years ago, and nothing new had happened, they always
expected some fresh attack on the part of the invisible enemy.
They resolved to explore the mysterious well, and did so, well armed
and in considerable numbers. But nothing suspicious was to be seen;
the shaft communicated with lower stages of the crypt, hollowed out
in the carboniferous bed.
Many a time did James Starr, Simon, and Harry talk over these things.
If one or more malevolent beings were concealed in the coal-pit,
and there concocted mischief, Nell surely could have warned
them of it, yet she said nothing. The slightest allusion
to her past life brought on such fits of violent emotion,
that it was judged best to avoid the subject for the present.
Her secret would certainly escape her by-and-by.
By the time Nell had been a fortnight in the cottage, she had become
a most intelligent and zealous assistant to old Madge. It was clear
that she instinctively felt she should remain in the dwelling where she
had been so charitably received, and perhaps never dreamt of quitting it.
This family was all in all to her, and to the good folks themselves
Nell had seemed an adopted child from the moment when she first came
beneath their roof. Nell was in truth a charming creature; her new mode
of existence added to her beauty, for these were no doubt the first
happy days of her life, and her heart was full of gratitude towards
those to whom she owed them. Madge felt towards her as a mother would;
the old woman doted upon her; in short, she was beloved by everybody.
Jack Ryan only regretted one thing, which was that he had not saved
her himself. Friend
Jack often came to the cottage. He sang, and Nell, who had never
heard singing before, admired it greatly; but anyone might see
that she preferred to Jack's songs the graver conversation of Harry,
from whom by degrees she learnt truths concerning the outer world,
of which hitherto she had known nothing.
It must be said that, since Nell had appeared in her own person,
Jack Ryan had been obliged to admit that his belief in hobgoblins
was in a measure weakened. A couple of months later his credulity
experienced a further shock. About that time Harry unexpectedly made
a discovery which, in part at least, accounted for the apparition
of the fire-maidens among the ruins of Dundonald Castle at Irvine.
During several days he had been engaged in exploring the remote galleries
of the prodigious excavation towards the south. At last he scrambled with
difficulty up a narrow passage which branched off through the upper rock.
To his great astonishment, he suddenly found himself in the open air.
The passage, after ascending obliquely to the surface of the ground,
led out directly among the ruins of Dundonald Castle.
There was, therefore, a communication between New Aberfoyle and the hills
crowned by this ancient castle. The upper entrance to this gallery,
being completely concealed by stones and brushwood, was invisible
from without; at the time of their search, therefore, the magistrates
had been able to discover nothing.
A few days afterwards, James Starr, guided by Harry, came himself to
inspect this curious natural opening into the coal mine. "Well," said he,
"here is enough to convince the most superstitious among us.
Farewell to all their brownies, goblins, and fire-maidens now!"
"I hardly think, Mr. Starr, we ought to congratulate ourselves,"
replied Harry. "Whatever it is we have instead of these things,
it can't be better, and may be worse than they are."
"That's true, Harry," said the engineer; "but what's to be done?
It is plain that, whatever the beings are who hide in the mine,
they reach the surface of the earth by this passage.
No doubt it was the light of torches waved by them during
that dark and stormy night which attracted the MOTALA towards
the rocky coast, and like the wreckers
of former days, they would have plundered the unfortunate vessel, had it
not been for Jack Ryan and his friends. Anyhow, so far it is evident,
and here is the mouth of the den. As to its occupants, the question is--
Are they here still?"
"I say yes; because Nell trembles when we mention them--
yes, because Nell will not, or dare not, speak about them,"
answered Harry in a tone of decision.
Harry was surely in the right. Had these mysterious denizens
of the pit abandoned it, or ceased to visit the spot, what reason
could the girl have had for keeping silence?
James Starr could not rest till he had penetrated this mystery.
He foresaw that the whole future of the new excavations must depend
upon it. Renewed and strict precautions were therefore taken.
The authorities were informed of the discovery of the entrance.
Watchers were placed among the ruins of the castle.
Harry himself lay hid for several nights in the thickets
of brushwood which clothed the hill-side.
Nothing was discovered--no human being emerged from the opening.
So most people came to the conclusion that the villains had
been finally dislodged from the mine, and that, as to Nell,
they must suppose her to be dead at the bottom of the shaft
where they had left her.
While it remained unworked, the mine had been a safe enough
place of refuge, secure from all search or pursuit. But now,
circumstances being altered, it became difficult to conceal this
lurking-place, and it might reasonably be hoped they were gone,
and that nothing for the future was to be dreaded from them.
James Starr, however, could not feel sure about it;
neither could Harry be satisfied on the subject, often repeating,
"Nell has clearly been mixed up with all this secret business.
If she had nothing more to fear, why should she keep silence?
It cannot be doubted that she is happy with us. She likes us all--
she adores my mother. Her absolute silence as to her former life,
when by speaking out she might benefit us, proves to me that some
awful secret, which she dares not reveal, weighs on her mind.
It may also be that she believes it better for us, as well as for herself,
that she should remain mute in a way otherwise so unaccountable."
In consequence of these opinions, it was agreed by common consent
to avoid all allusion to the maiden's former mode of life.
One day, however, Harry was led to make known to Nell what
James Starr, his father, mother, and himself believed they owed
to her interference.
It was a fete-day. The miners made holiday on the surface of
the county of Stirling as well as in its subterraneous domains.
Parties of holiday-makers were moving about in all directions.
Songs resounded in many places beneath the sonorous vaults
of New Aberfoyle. Harry and Nell left the cottage, and slowly
walked along the left bank of Loch Malcolm.
Then the electric brilliance darted less vividly, and the rays were
interrupted with fantastic effect by the sharp angles of the picturesque
rocks which supported the dome. This imperfect light suited Nell,
to whose eyes a glare was very unpleasant.
"Nell," said Harry, "your eyes are not fit for daylight yet,
and could not bear the brightness of the sun."
"Indeed they could not," replied the girl; "if the sun is such as you
describe it to me, Harry."
"I cannot by any words, Nell, give you an idea either of his splendor
or of the beauty of that universe which your eyes have never beheld.
But tell me, is it really possible that, since the day when you
were born in the depths of the coal mine, you never once have been
up to the surface of the earth?"
"Never once, Harry," said she; "I do not believe that,
even as an infant, my father or mother ever carried me thither.
I am sure I should have retained some impression of the open
air if they had."
"I believe you would," answered Harry. "Long ago, Nell, many children
used to live altogether in the mine; communication was then difficult,
and I have met with more than one young person, quite as ignorant as you
are of things above-ground. But now the railway through our great
tunnel takes us in a few minutes to the upper regions of our country.
I long, Nell, to hear you say, 'Come, Harry, my eyes can bear daylight,
and I want to see the sun! I want to look upon the works
of the Almighty.'"
"I shall soon say so, Harry, I hope," replied the girl;
"I shall soon go with you to the world above; and yet--"
"What are you going to say, Nell?" hastily cried Harry; "can you
possibly regret having quitted that gloomy abyss in which you
spent your early years, and whence we drew you half dead?"
"No, Harry," answered Nell; "I was only thinking that darkness is
beautiful as well as light. If you but knew what eyes accustomed
to its depth can see! Shades flit by, which one longs to follow;
circles mingle and intertwine, and one could gaze on them forever;
black hollows, full of indefinite gleams of radiance, lie deep
at the bottom of the mine. And then the voice-like sounds!
Ah, Harry! one must have lived down there to understand what I feel,
what I can never express."
"And were you not afraid, Nell, all alone there?"
"It was just when I was alone that I was not afraid."
Nell's voice altered slightly as she said these words; however, Harry
thought he might press the subject a little further, so he said,
"But one might be easily lost in these great galleries, Nell. Were you
not afraid of losing your way?"
"Oh, no, Harry; for a long time I had known every turn of the new mine."
"Did you never leave it?"
"Yes, now and then," answered the girl with a little hesitation;
"sometimes I have been as far as the old mine of Aberfoyle."
"So you knew our old cottage?"
"The cottage! oh, yes; but the people who lived there I only saw
at a great distance."
"They were my father and mother," said Harry; "and I was there too;
we have always lived there--we never would give up the old dwelling."
"Perhaps it would have been better for you if you had,"
murmured the maiden.
"Why so, Nell? Was it not just because we were obstinately resolved
to remain that we ended by discovering the new vein of coal?
And did not that discovery lead to the happy result of providing
work for a large population, and restoring them to ease and comfort?
and did it not enable us to find you, Nell, to save your life,
and give you the love of all our hearts?"
"Ah, yes, for me indeed it is well, whatever may happen,"
replied Nell earnestly; "for others--who can tell?"
"What do you mean?"
"Oh, nothing--nothing. But it used to be very dangerous at that time
to go into the new cutting--yes, very dangerous indeed, Harry! Once some
rash people made their way into these chasms. They got a long, long way;
they were lost!"
"They were lost?" said Harry, looking at her.
"Yes, lost!" repeated Nell in a trembling voice.
"They could not find their way out."
"And there," cried Harry, "they were imprisoned during eight long days!
They were at the point of death, Nell; and, but for a kind
and charitable being--an angel perhaps--sent by God to help them,
who secretly brought them a little food; but for a mysterious guide,
who afterwards led to them their deliverers, they never would
have escaped from that living tomb!"
"And how do you know about that?" demanded the girl.
"Because those men were James Starr, my father, and myself, Nell!"
Nell looked up hastily, seized the young man's hand, and gazed so
fixedly into his eyes that his feelings were stirred to their depths.
"You were there?" at last she uttered.
"I was indeed," said Harry, after a pause, "and she to whom we
owe our lives can have been none other than yourself, Nell!"
Nell hid her face in her hands without speaking.
Harry had never seen her so much affected.
"Those who saved your life, Nell," added he in a voice tremulous
with emotion, "already owed theirs to you; do you think they
will ever forget it?"
CHAPTER XIII ON THE REVOLVING LADDER
THE mining operations at New Aberfoyle continued to be carried on
very successfully. As a matter of course, the engineer, James Starr,
as well as Simon Ford, the discoverers of this rich carboniferous region,
shared largely in the profits.
In time Harry became a partner. But he never thought
of quitting the cottage. He took his father's place as overman,
and diligently superintended the works of this colony of miners.
Jack Ryan was proud and delighted at the good fortune which had
befallen his comrade. He himself was getting on very well also.
They frequently met, either at the cottage or at the works in the pit.
Jack did not fail to remark the sentiments entertained by Harry
towards Nell. Harry would not confess to them; but Jack only
laughed at him when he shook his head and tried to deny any special
interest in her.
It must be noted that Jack Ryan had the greatest possible wish to be
of the party when Nell should pay her first visit to the upper surface
of the county of Stirling. He wished to see her wonder and admiration
on first beholding the yet unknown face of Nature. He very much hoped
that Harry would take him with them when the excursion was made.
As yet, however, the latter had made no proposal of the kind to him,
which caused him to feel a little uneasy as to his intentions.
One morning Jack Ryan was descending through a shaft which led from
the surface to the lower regions of the pit. He did so by means
of one of those ladders which, continually revolving by machinery,
enabled persons to ascend and descend without fatigue.
This apparatus had lowered him about a hundred and fifty feet,
when at a narrow landing-place he perceived Harry, who was coming
up to his labors for the day.
"Well met, my friend!" cried Jack, recognizing his comrade by the light
of the electric lamps.
"Ah, Jack!" replied Harry, "I am glad to see you.
I've got something to propose."
"I can listen to nothing till you tell me how Nell is,"
interrupted Jack Ryan.
"Nell is all right, Jack--so much so, in fact, that I hope in a month
or six weeks--"
"To marry her, Harry?"
"Jack, you don't know what you are talking about!"
"Ah, that's very likely; but I know quite well what I shall do."
"What will you do?"
"Marry her myself, if you don't; so look sharp,"
laughed Jack. "By Saint Mungo! I think an immense deal of
bonny Nell! A fine young creature like that, who has been
brought up in the mine, is just the very wife for a miner.
She is an orphan--so am I; and if you don't care much for her,
and if she will have me--"
Harry looked gravely at Jack, and let him talk on without trying
to stop him. "Don't you begin to feel jealous, Harry?" asked Jack
in a more serious tone.
"Not at all," answered Harry quietly.
"But if you don't marry Nell yourself, you surely can't expect
her to remain a spinster?"
"I expect nothing," said Harry.
A movement of the ladder machinery now gave the two friends
the opportunity--one to go up, the other down the shaft.
However, they remained where they were.
"Harry," quoth Jack, "do you think I spoke in earnest just
now about Nell?"
"No, that I don't, Jack."
"Well, but now I will!"
"You? speak in earnest?"
"My good fellow, I can tell you I am quite capable of giving a friend
a bit of advice."
"Let's hear, then, Jack!"
"Well, look here! You love Nell as heartily as she deserves.
Old Simon, your father, and old Madge, your mother, both love her
as if she were their daughter. Why don't you make her so in reality?
Why don't you marry her?"
"Come, Jack," said Harry, "you are running on as if you knew how Nell
felt on the subject."
"Everybody knows that," replied Jack, "and therefore it is
impossible to make you jealous of any of us. But here goes
the ladder again--I'm off!"
"Stop a minute, Jack!" cried Harry, detaining his companion,
who was stepping onto the moving staircase.
"I say! you seem to mean me to take up my quarters here altogether!"
"Do be serious and listen, Jack! I want to speak in earnest myself now."
"Well, I'll listen till the ladder moves again, not a minute longer."
"Jack," resumed Harry, "I need not pretend that I do not love Nell; I wish
above all things to make her my wife."
"That's all right!"
"But for the present I have scruples of conscience as to asking
her to make me a promise which would be irrevocable."
"What can you mean, Harry?"
"I mean just this--that, it being certain Nell has never
been outside this coal mine in the very depths of which she
was born, it stands to reason that she knows nothing,
and can comprehend nothing of what exists beyond it.
Her eyes--yes, and perhaps also her heart--have everything
yet to learn. Who can tell what her thoughts will be,
when perfectly new impressions shall be made upon her mind?
As yet she knows nothing of the world, and to me it would
seem like deceiving her, if I led her to decide in ignorance,
upon choosing to remain all her life in the coal mine.
Do you understand me, Jack?"
"Hem!--yes--pretty well. What I understand best is that you
are going to make me miss another turn of the ladder."
"Jack," replied Harry gravely, "if this machinery were to stop altogether,
if this landing-place were to fall beneath our feet, you must and shall
hear what I have to say."
"Well done, Harry! that's how I like to be spoken to!
Let's settle, then, that, before you marry Nell, she shall go
to school in Auld Reekie."
"No indeed, Jack; I am perfectly able myself to educate the person
who is to be my wife."
"Sure that will be a great deal better, Harry!"
"But, first of all," resumed Harry, "I wish that Nell should
gain a real knowledge of the upper world. To illustrate
my meaning, Jack, suppose you were in love with a blind girl,
and someone said to you, 'In a month's time her sight will
be restored,' would you not wait till after she was cured,
to marry her?"
"Faith, to be sure I would!" exclaimed Jack.
"Well, Jack, Nell is at present blind; and before she marries me,
I wish her to see what I am, and what the life really is to which
she would bind herself. In short, she must have daylight let
in upon the subject!"
"Well said, Harry! Very well said indeed!" cried Jack. "Now I
see what you are driving at. And when may we expect the operation
to come off?"
"In a month, Jack," replied Harry. "Nell is getting used
to the light of our reflectors. That is some preparation.
In a month she will, I hope, have seen the earth and its wonders--
the sky and its splendors. She will perceive that the limits
of the universe are boundless."
But while Harry was thus giving the rein to his imagination, Jack Ryan,
quitting the platform, had leaped on the step of the moving machinery.
"Hullo, Jack! Where are you?"
"Far beneath you," laughed the merry fellow. "While you soar
to the heights, I plunge into the depths."
"Fare ye well. Jack!" returned Harry, himself laying hold
of the rising ladder; "mind you say nothing about what I have
been telling you."
"Not a word," shouted Jack, "but I make one condition."
"What is that?"
"That I may be one of the party when Nell's first excursion
to the face of the earth comes off!"
"So you shall, Jack, I promise you!"
A fresh throb of the machinery placed a yet more considerable distance
between the friends. Their voices sounded faintly to each other.
Harry, however, could still hear Jack shouting:
"I say! do you know what Nell will like better than either sun,
moon, or stars, after she's seen the whole of them?"
"Why, you yourself, old fellow! still you! always you!"
And Jack's voice died away in a prolonged "Hurrah!"
Harry, after this, applied himself diligently, during all
his spare time, to the work of Nell's education.
He taught her to read and to write, and such rapid progress did
she make, it might have been said that she learnt by instinct.
Never did keen intelligence more quickly triumph over utter ignorance.
It was the wonder of all beholders.
Simon and Madge became every day more and more attached to
their adopted child, whose former history continued to puzzle
them a good deal. They plainly saw the nature of Harry's
feelings towards her, and were far from displeased thereat.
They recollected that Simon had said to the engineer on his first
visit to the old cottage, "How can our son ever think of marrying?
Where could a wife
possibly be found suitable for a lad whose whole life must be passed
in the depths of a coal mine?"
Well! now it seemed as if the most desirable companion in the world
had been led to him by Providence. Was not this like a blessing direct
from Heaven? So the old man made up his mind that, if the wedding did
take place, the miners of New Aberfoyle should have a merry-making
at Coal Town, which they would never during their lives forget.
Simon Ford little knew what he was saying!
It must be remarked that another person wished for this union of Harry
and Nell as much as Simon did--and that was James Starr, the engineer.
Of course he was really interested in the happiness of the two
young people. But another motive, connected with wider interests,
influenced him to desire it.
It has been said that James Starr continued to entertain a certain amount
of apprehension, although for the present nothing appeared to justify it.
Yet that which had been might again be. This mystery about the
new cutting--Nell was evidently the only person acquainted with it.
Now, if fresh dangers were in store for the miners of Aberfoyle,
how were they possibly to be guarded against, without so much as knowing
the cause of them?
"Nell has persisted in keeping silence," said James Starr very often,
"but what she has concealed from others, she will not long hide from
her husband. Any danger would be danger to Harry as well as to the rest
of us. Therefore, a marriage which brings happiness to the lovers,
and safety to their friends, will be a good marriage, if ever there
is such a thing here below."
Thus, not illogically, reasoned James Starr. He communicated
his ideas to old Simon, who decidedly appreciated them.
Nothing, then, appeared to stand in the way of the match.
What, in fact, was there to prevent it? They loved each other;
the parents desired nothing better for their son.
Harry's comrades envied his good fortune, but freely acknowledged
that he deserved it. The maiden depended on no one else,
and had but to give the consent of her own heart.
Why, then, if there were none to place obstacles in the way
of this union--why, as night came on, and, the labors of the day
being over, the electric lights in the mine were
extinguished, and all the inhabitants of Coal Town at rest
within their dwellings--why did a mysterious form always emerge
from the gloomier recesses of New Aberfoyle, and silently glide
through the darkness?
What instinct guided this phantom with ease through passages
so narrow as to appear to be impracticable?
Why should the strange being, with eyes flashing through
the deepest darkness, come cautiously creeping along the shores
of Lake Malcolm? Why so directly make his way towards
Simon's cottage, yet so carefully as hitherto to avoid notice?
Why, bending towards the windows, did he strive to catch,
by listening, some fragment of the conversation within
the closed shutters?
And, on catching a few words, why did he shake his fist with a menacing
gesture towards the calm abode, while from between his set teeth issued
these words in muttered fury, "She and he? Never! never!"