The Judgment House by Gilbert Parker
Chapter XIV. The Baas
There had been an explosion in the Glencader Mine, and twenty men had been imprisoned in the stark solitude of the underground world. Or was it that they lay dead in that vast womb of mother-earth which takes all men of all time as they go, and absorbs them into her fruitful body, to produce other men who will in due days return to the same great mother to rest and be still? It mattered little whether malevolence had planned the outrage in the mine, or whether accident alone had been responsible; the results were the same. Wailing, woebegone women wrung their hands, and haggard, determined men stood by with bowed heads, ready to offer their lives to save those other lives far down below, if so be it were possible.
The night was serene and quiet, clear and cold, with glimmering stars and no moon, and the wide circle of the hills was drowsy with night and darkness. All was at peace in the outer circle, but at the centre was travail and storm and outrage and death. What nature had made beautiful, man had made ugly by energy and all the harsh necessities of progress. In the very heart of this exquisite and picturesque country-side the ugly, grim life of the miner had established itself, and had then turned an unlovely field of industrial activity into a cock-pit of struggle between capital and labour. First, discontent, fed by paid agitators and scarcely steadied by responsible and level-headed labour agents and leaders; then active disturbance and threatening; then partial strike, then minor outrages, then some foolishness on the part of manager or man, and now tragedy darkening the field, adding bitterness profound to the discontent and strife.
Rudyard Byng had arrived on the scene in the later stages of the struggle, when a general strike with all its attendant miseries, its dangers and provocations, was hovering. Many men in his own mine in South Africa had come from this very district, and he was known to be the most popular of all the capitalists on the Rand. His generosity to the sick and poor of the Glencader Mine had been great, and he had given them a hospital and a club with adequate endowment. Also, he had been known to take part in the rough sports of the miners, and had afterwards sat and drunk beer with them--as much as any, and carying it better than any.
If there was any one who could stay the strike and bring about a settlement it was he; and it is probable he would have stayed it, had it not been for a collision between a government official and a miners' leader. Things had grown worse, until the day of catastrophe, when Byng had been sent for by the leaders of both parties to the quarrel. He had laboured hours after hour in the midst of grave unrest and threats of violence, for some of the men had taken to drinking heavily--but without success. Still he had stayed on, going here and there, mostly among the men themselves, talking to them in little groups, arguing simply with them, patiently dealing with facts and figures, quietly showing them the economic injustice which lay behind their full demands, and suggesting compromises.
He was received with good feeling, but in the workers' view it was "class against class--labour against capital, the man against the master." In their view Byng represented class, capital and master, not man; his interests were not identical with theirs; and though some were disposed to cheer him, the majority said he was "as good a sort as that sort can be," but shrugged their shoulders and remained obstinate. The most that he did during the long afternoon and evening was to prevent the worst; until, as he sat eating a slice of ham in a miner's kitchen, there came the explosion: the accident or crime--which, like the lances in an angry tumour, let out the fury, enmity, and rebellion, and gave human nature its chance again. The shock of the explosion had been heard at Glencader, but nothing was thought of it, as there had been much blasting in the district for days.
"There's twenty men below," said the grimy manager who had brought the news to Byng. Together they sped towards the mine, little groups running beside them, muttering those dark sayings which, either as curses or laments, are painful comments on the relations of life on the lower levels with life on the higher plateaux.
Among the volunteers to go below, Byng was of the first, and against the appeal of the mine-manager, and of others who tried to dissuade him, he took his place with two miners with the words:
"I know this pit better than most; and I'd rather be down there knowing the worst, than waiting to learn it up here. I'm going; so lower away, lads."
He had disappeared, and for a long time there was no sign; but at last there came to the surface three of the imprisoned miners and two dead bodies, and these were followed by others still alive; but Byng did not come up. He remained below, leading the search, the first in the places of danger and exploration, the last to retreat from any peril of falling timbers or from fresh explosion. Twelve of the twenty men were rescued. Six were dead, and their bodies were brought to the surface and to the arms of women whose breadwinners were gone; whose husbands or sons or brothers had been struck out into darkness without time to strip themselves of the impedimenta of the soul. Two were left below, and these were brothers who had married but three months before. They were strong, buoyant men of twenty-five, with life just begun, and home still welcome and alluring--warm-faced, bonny women to meet them at the door, and lay the cloth, and comfort their beds, and cheer them away to work in the morning. These four lovers had been the target for the good-natured and half-affectionate scoffing of the whole field; for the twins, Jabez and Jacob, were as alike as two peas, and their wives were cousins, and were of a type in mind, body, and estate. These twin toilers were left below, with Rudyard Byng forcing his way to the place where they had worked. With him was one other miner of great courage and knowledge, who had gone with other rescue parties in other catastrophes.
It was this man who was carried to the surface when another small explosion occurred. He brought the terrible news that Byng, the rescuer of so many, was himself caught by falling timbers and imprisoned near a spot where Jabez and Jacob Holyhoke were entombed.
Word had gone to Glencader, and within an hour and a half Jasmine, Al'mah, Stafford, Lord Tynemouth, the Slavonian Ambassador, Adrian Fellowes, Mr. Tudor Tempest and others were at the pit's mouth, stricken by the same tragedy which had made so many widows and orphans that night. Already two attempts had been made to descend, but they had not been successful. Now came forward a burly and dour-looking miner, called Brengyn, who had been down before, and had been in command. His look was forbidding, but his face was that of a man on whom you could rely; and his eyes had a dogged, indomitable expression. Behind him were a dozen men, sullen and haggard, their faces showing nothing of that pity in their hearts which drove them to risk all to save the lives of their fellow-workers. Was it all pity and humanity? Was there also something of that perdurable cohesion of class against class; the powerful if often unlovely unity of faction, the shoulder-to-shoulder combination of war; the tribal fanaticism which makes brave men out of unpromising material? Maybe something of this element entered into the heroism which had been displayed; but whatever the impulse or the motive, the act and the end were the same--men's lives were in peril, and they were risking their own to rescue them.
When Jasmine and her friends arrived, Ian Stafford addressed himself to the groups of men at the pit's mouth, asking for news. Seeing Brengyn approach Jasmine, he hurried over, recognizing in the stalwart miner a leader of men.
"It's a chance in a thousand," he heard Brengyn say to Jasmine, whose white face showed no trace of tears, and who held herself with courage. There was something akin in the expression of her face and that of other groups of women, silent, rigid and bitter, who stood apart, some with children's hands clasped in theirs, facing the worst with regnant resolution. All had that horrible quietness of despair so much more poignant than tears and wailing. Their faces showed the weariness of labour and an ill-nourished daily life, but there was the same look in them as in Jasmine's. There was no class in this communion of suffering and danger.
"Not one chance in a thousand," Brengyn added, heavily. "I know where they are, but--"
"You think they are--dead?" Jasmine asked in a hollow voice.
"I think, alive or dead, it's all against them as goes down to bring them out. It's more lives to be wasted."
Stafford heard, and he stepped forward. "If there's a chance in a thousand, it's good enough for a try," he said. "If you were there, Mr. Byng would take the chance in the thousand for you."
Brengyn looked Stafford up and down slowly. "What is it you've got to say?" he asked, gloomily.
"I am going down, if there's anybody will lead," Stafford replied. "I was brought up in a mining country. I know as much as most of you about mines, and I'll make one to follow you, if you'll lead--you've been down, I know."
Brengyn's face changed. "Mr. Byng isn't our class, he's with capital," he said, "but he's a man. He went down to help save men of my class, and to any of us he's worth the risk. But how many of his own class is taking it on?"
"I, for one," said Lord Tynemouth, stepping forward.
"I--I," answered three other men of the house-party.
Al'mah, who was standing just below Jasmine, had her eyes fixed on Adrian Fellowes, and when Brengyn called for volunteers, her heart almost stood still in suspense. Would Adrian volunteer?
Brengyn's look rested on Adrian for an instant, but Adrian's eyes dropped. Brengyn had said one chance in a thousand, and Adrian said to himself that he had never been lucky--never in all his life. At games of chance he had always lost. Adrian was for the sure thing always.
Al'mah's face flushed with anger and shame at the thing she saw, and a weakness came over her, as though the springs of life had been suddenly emptied.
Brengyn once again fastened the group from Glencader with his eyes. "There's a gentleman in danger," he said, grimly, again. "How many gentlemen volunteer to go down--ay, there's five!" he added, as Stafford and Tynemouth and the others once again responded.
Jasmine saw, but at first did not fully realize what was happening. But presently she understood that there was one near, owing everything to her husband, who had not volunteered to help to save him--on the thousandth chance. She was stunned and stricken.
"Oh, for God's sake, go!" she said, brokenly, but not looking at Adrian Fellowes, and with a heart torn by misery and shame.
Brengyn turned to the men behind him, the dark, determined toilers who sustained the immortal spirit of courage and humanity on thirty shillings a week and nine hours' work a day. "Who's for it, mates?" he asked, roughly. "Who's going wi' me?"
Every man answered hoarsely, "Ay," and every hand went up. Brengyn's back was on Fellowes, Al'mah, and Jasmine now. There was that which filled the cup of trembling for Al'mah in the way he nodded to the men.
"Right, lads," he said with a stern joy in his voice. "But there's only one of you can go, and I'll pick him. Here, Jim," he added to a small, wiry fellow not more than five feet four in height--"here, Jim Gawley, you're comin' wi' me, an' that's all o' you as can come. No, no," he added, as there was loud muttering and dissent. "Jim's got no missis, nor mother, and he's tough as leather and can squeeze in small places, and he's all right, too, in tight corners." Now he turned to Stafford and Tynemouth and the others. "You'll come wi' me," he said to Stafford--" if you want. It's a bad look-out, but we'll have a try. You'll do what I say?" he sharply asked Stafford, whose face was set.
"You know the place," Stafford answered. "I'll do what you say."
"My word goes?"
"Right. Your word goes. Let's get on."
Jasmine took a step forward with a smothered cry, but Alice Tynemouth laid a hand on her arm.
"He'll bring Rudyard back, if it can be done," she whispered.
Stafford did not turn round. He said something in an undertone to Tynemouth, and then, without a glance behind, strode away beside Brengyn and Jim Gawley to the pit's mouth.
Adrian Fellowes stepped up to Tynemouth. "What do you think the chances are?" he asked in a low tone.
"Go to--bed!" was the gruff reply of the irate peer, to whom cowardice was the worst crime on earth, and who was enraged at being left behind. Also he was furious because so many working-men had responded to Brengyn's call for volunteers and Adrian Fellowes had shown the white feather. In the obvious appeal to the comparative courage of class his own class had suffered.
"Or go and talk to the women," he added to Fellowes. "Make 'em comfortable. You've got a gift that way."
Turning on his heel, Lord Tynemouth hastened to the mouth of the pit and watched the preparations for the descent.
Never was night so still; never was a sky so deeply blue, nor stars so bright and serene. It was as though Peace had made its habitation on the wooded hills, and a second summer had come upon the land, though wintertime was near. Nature seemed brooding, and the generous odour of ripened harvests came over the uplands to the watchers in the valley. All was dark and quiet in the sky and on the hills; but in the valley were twinkling lights and the stir and murmur of troubled life--that sinister muttering of angry and sullen men which has struck terror to the hearts of so many helpless victims of revolution, when it has been the mutterings of thousands and not of a few rough, discontented toilers. As Al'mah sat near to the entrance of the mine, wrapped in a warm cloak, and apart from the others who watched and waited also, she seemed to realize the agony of the problem which was being worked out in these labour-centres where, between capital and the work of men's hands, there was so apparent a gulf of disproportionate return.
The stillness of the night was broken now by the hoarse calls of the men, now by the wailing of women, and Al'mah's eyes kept turning to those places where lights were shining, which, as she knew, were houses of death or pain. For hours she and Jasmine and Lady Tynemouth had gone from cottage to cottage where the dead and wounded were, and had left everywhere gifts, and the promises of gifts, in the attempt to soften the cruelty of the blow to those whose whole life depended on the weekly wage. Help and the pledge of help had lightened many a dark corner that night; and an unexplainable antipathy which had suddenly grown up in Al'mah's mind against Jasmine after her arrival at Glencader was dissipated as the hours wore on.
Pale of face, but courageous and solicitous, Jasmine, accompanied by Al'mah, moved among the dead and dying and the bitter and bereaved living, with a gentle smile and a soft word or touch of the hand. Men near to death, or suffering torture, looked gratefully at her or tried to smile; and more than once Mr. Mappin, whose hands were kept busy and whose skill saved more than a handful of lives that night, looked at her in wonder.
Jasmine already had a reputation in the great social world for being of a vain lightness, having nothing of that devotion to good works which Mr. Mappin had seen so often on those high levels where the rich and the aristocratic lived. There was, then, more than beauty and wit and great social gift, gaiety and charm, in this delicate personality? Yes, there was something good and sound in her, after all. Her husband's life was in infinite danger,--had not Brengyn said that his chances were only one in a thousand?--death stared her savagely in the face; yet she bore herself as calmly as those women who could not afford the luxury of tears or the self-indulgence of a despairing indolence; to whom tragedy was but a whip of scorpions to drive them into action. How well they all behaved, these society butterflies-- Jasmine, Lady Tynemouth, and the others! But what a wonderful motherliness and impulsive sympathy steadied by common sense did Al'mah the singing-woman show!
Her instinct was infallible, her knowledge of how these poor people felt was intuitive, and her great-heartedness was to be seen in every motion, heard in every tone of her voice. If she had not had this work of charity to do, she felt she would have gone shrieking through the valley, as, this very midnight, she had seen a girl with streaming hair and bare breast go crying through the streets, and on up the hills to the deep woods, insane with grief and woe.
Her head throbbed. She felt as though she also could tear the coverings from her own bosom to let out the fever which was there; for in her life she had loved two men who had trampled on her self-respect, had shattered all her pride of life, had made her ashamed to look the world in the face. Blantyre, her husband, had been despicable and cruel, a liar and a deserter; and to-night she had seen the man to whom she had given all that was left of her heart and faith disgrace himself and his class before the world by a cowardice which no woman could forgive.
Adrian Fellowes had gone back to Glencader to do necessary things, to prepare the household for any emergency; and she was grateful for the respite. If she had been thrown with him in the desperate mood of the moment, she would have lost her self-control. Happily, fate had taken him away for a few hours; and who could tell what might not happen in a few hours? Meanwhile, there was humanity's work to be done.
About four o'clock in the morning, when she came out from a cottage where she had assisted Mr. Mappin in a painful and dangerous operation, she stood for a moment in reverie, looking up at the hills, whose peace had been shrilly broken a few hours before by that distracted waif of the world, fleeing from the pain of life.
An ample star of rare brilliancy came stealing up over the trees against the sky-line, twinkling and brimming with light.
"No," she said, as though in reply to an inner voice, "there's nothing for me--nothing. I have missed it all." Her hands clasped her breast in pain, and she threw her face upwards. But the light of the star caught her eyes, and her hands ceased to tremble. A strange quietness stole over her.
"My child, my lost beloved child," she whispered.
Her eyes swam with tears now, the lines of pain at her mouth relaxed, the dark look in her eyes stole away. She watched the star with sorrowful eyes. "How much misery does it see!" she said. Suddenly, she thought of Rudyard Byng. "He saved my life," she murmured. "I owe him--ah, Adrian might have paid the debt!" she cried, in pain. "If he had only been a man to-night--"
At that moment there came a loud noise up the valley from the pit's mouth--a great shouting. An instant later two figures ran past her. One was Jasmine, the other was a heavy-footed miner. Gathering her cloak around her Al'mah sped after them.
A huddled group at the pit's mouth, and men and women running toward it; a sharp voice of command, and the crowd falling back, making way for men who carried limp bodies past; then suddenly, out of wild murmurs and calls, a cry of victory like the call of a muezzin from the tower of a mosque--a resonant monotony, in which a dominant principle cries.
A Welsh preaching hillman, carried away by the triumph of the moment, gave the great tragedy the bugle-note of human joy and pride.
Ian Stafford and Brengyn and Jim Gawley had conquered. The limp bodies carried past Al'mah were not dead. They were living, breathing men whom fresh air and a surgeon's aid would soon restore. Two of them were the young men with the bonny wives who now with murmured endearments grasped their cold hands. Behind these two was carried Rudyard Byng, who could command the less certain concentration of a heart. The men whom Rudyard had gone to save could control a greater wealth, a more precious thing than anything he had. The boundaries of the interests of these workers were limited, but their souls were commingled with other souls bound to them by the formalities; and every minute of their days, every atom of their forces, were moving round one light, the light upon the hearthstone. These men were carried ahead of Byng now, as though by the ritual of nature taking their rightful place in life's procession before him.
Something of what the working-women felt possessed Jasmine, but it was an impulse born of the moment, a flood of feeling begotten by the tragedy. It had in it more of remorse than aught else; it was, in part, the agitation of a soul surprised into revelation. Yet there was, too, a strange, deep, undefined pity welling up in her heart,--pity for Rudyard, and because of what she did not say directly even to her own soul. But pity was there, with also a sense of inevitableness, of the continuance of things which she was too weak to alter.
Like the two women of the people ahead, she held Rudyard's hand, as she walked beside him, till he was carried into the manager's office near by. She was conscious that on the other side of Rudyard was a tall figure that staggered and swayed as it moved on, and that two dark eyes were turned towards her ever and anon.
Into those eyes she had looked but once since the rescue, but all that was necessary of gratitude was said in that one glance: "You have saved Rudyard--you, Ian," it said.
With Al'mah it was different. In the light of the open door of the manager's office, she looked into Ian Stafford's face. "He saved my life, you remember," she said; "and you have saved his. I love you."
"I love you!" Greatness of heart was speaking, not a woman's emotions. The love she meant was of the sort which brings no darkness in its train. Men and women can speak of it without casting down their eyes or feeling a flush in their cheeks.
To him came also the two women whose husbands, Jacob and Jabez, were restored to them.
"Man, we luv ye," one said, and the other laid a hand on his breast and nodded assent, adding, "Ay, we luv ye."
That was all; but greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend--and for his enemies, maybe. Enemies these two rescued men were in one sense--young socialists--enemies to the present social order, with faces set against the capitalist and the aristocrat and the landlord; yet in the crisis of life dipping their hands in the same dish, drinking from the same cup, moved by the same sense of elementary justice, pity, courage, and love.
"Man, we luv ye!" And the women turned away to their own--to their capital, which in the slump of Fate had suffered no loss. It was theirs, complete and paying large dividends.
To the crowd, Brengyn, with gruff sincerity, said, loudly: "Jim Gawley, he done as I knowed he'd do. He done his best, and he done it prime. We couldn't ha' got on wi'out him. But first there was Mr. Byng as had sense and knowledge more than any; an' he couldn't be denied; an' there was Mr. Stafford--him--" pointing to Ian, who, with misty eyes, was watching the women go back to their men. "He done his bit better nor any of us. And Mr. Byng and Jacob and Jabez, they can thank their stars that Mr. Stafford done his bit. Jim's all right an' I done my duty, I hope, but these two that ain't of us, they done more--Mr. Byng and Mr. Stafford. Here's three cheers, lads--no, this ain't a time for cheerin'; but ye all ha' got hands."
His hand caught Ian's with the grip of that brotherhood which is as old as Adam, and the hand of miner after miner did the same.
The strike was over--at a price too big for human calculation; but it might have been bigger still.
Outside the open door of the manager's office Stafford watched and waited till he saw Rudyard, with a little laugh, get slowly to his feet and stretch his limbs heavily. Then he turned away gloomily to the darkness of the hills. In his soul there was a depression as deep as in that of the singing-woman.
"Al'mah had her debt to pay, and I shall have mine," he said, wearily.