A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXI. Buried Alive.
The explosions so tremendously loud below were but muffled sounds at the pit's mouth; but, alas! these muffled sounds, and one flash of lurid flame that shot up into the air, told the tale of horror to every experienced pitman and his wife, and the cry of a whole village went up to heaven.
The calamity spread like wildfire. It soon found its way to Clifford Hall, and the deputy ran himself with the news to Mr. Bartley. Bartley received it at first with a stony glare, and trembled all over; then the deputy, lowering his voice, said, "Sir, the worst of it is, there is foul play in it. There is good authority to say that Ben Burnley fired the mine to destroy his betters, and he has done it; for Mr. Hope and Miss Hope that is, Miss Bartley that was, are both there." He added, in a broken voice, "And if they are not buried or stifled, it will be hard work to save them. The mine is a ruin."
Bartley delivered a wild scream, and dashed out of the house at once; he did not even take his hat, but the deputy, more self-possessed, took one out of the hall and followed him.
Bartley hurried to the mine, and found that several stout fellows had gone down with their pickaxes and other tools to clear the shaft, but that it must be terribly slow work, so few men could work at a time in that narrow space. Bartley telegraphed to Derby for a more powerful steam-engine and experienced engineers, and set another gang to open the new shaft to the bottom, and see if any sufferers could be saved that way. Whatever he did was wise, but his manner was frenzied. None of his people thought he had so much feeling, and more than one of the quaking women gave him a kind word; he made no reply, he did not even seem to hear. He wandered about the mine all night wringing his hands, and at last he was taken home almost by force.
Humanity overpowered prejudice, and Colonel Clifford came to the mine to see if he could be of any use to the sufferers. He got hold of the deputy and learned from him what Bartley was doing. He said he thought that was the best course, as there would be division of labor; but, said he, "I am an old campaigner, and I know that men can not fight without food, and this work will be a fight. How will you house the new-comers?"
"There are forty-seven men missing, and the new men can sleep in their cottages."
"That's so," said the Colonel, "but there are the wives and the children. I shall send sleeping tents and eating tents, and provisions enough to feed a battalion. Forty-seven lives," said he, pityingly.
"Ay, sir," said the deputy, "and such lives, some of them; for Mr. Hope and Miss Mary Bartley--leastways that is not her name now, she's Mr. Hope's daughter."
"Why, what has she to do with it?"
"I am sorry to say, sir, she is down the mine."
"God forbid!" said the Colonel; "that noble girl dead, or in mortal danger."
"She is, sir," and, lowering his voice, "by foul play;" then seeing the Colonel greatly shocked and moved, he said, "and I ought not to keep it from you. You are our nearest magistrate; the young lady told me at the pit mouth she is Mr. Hope's daughter."
"And so she is."
"And she said there was a plot to destroy her father in the mine by exploding the old workings he was going to visit. One Ben Burnley was to do it; a blackguard that has a spite against Mr. Hope for discharging him. But there was money behind him and a villain that she described to us--black eyebrows, a face like a corpse, and dressed in a suit of tweed one color. We hoped that she might have been mistaken, or she might have warned Mr. Hope in time; but now it is to be seen that there was no mistake, and she had not time to warn him. The deed is done; and a darker deed was never done, even in the dark."
Colonel Clifford groaned: after a while he said, "Seize that Ben Burnley at once, or he will soon leave this place behind him."
"No, he won't," said the deputy. "He is in the mine, that is one comfort; and if he comes out alive his life won't be worth much, with the law on one side of the blackguard and Judge Lynch on t'other."
"The first thing," said the Colonel, "is to save these precious lives. God help us and them."
He then went to the Railway, and wired certain leading tradesmen in Derby for provisions, salt and fresh, on a large scale, and for new tents. He had some old ones stored away in his own house. He also secured abundance of knives, forks, plates, buckets, pitchers, and jugs, and, in short, he opened a commissariat. He inquired for his son Walter, and why he was so late. He could learn nothing but that Walter had mounted a hunter and left word with Baker that he should not be home till eight o'clock. "John," said the Colonel, solemnly, "I am in great trouble, and Walter is in worse, I fear. Let nobody speak to him about this accident at the mine till he has seen me."
* * * * *
Walter Clifford rode to the Lake Hotel to inquire after the bracelet. The landlady told him she had sent her husband over with it that day.
"Confound it," said Walter; "why, he won't know who to take it to."
"Oh, it's all right, sir," said she. "My Sam won't give it to the wrong person, you may be sure."
"How do I know that?" said Walter; "and, pray, who did you tell him to give it to?"
"Why, to the lady as was here with you."
"And how the deuce is he to find her? He does not know her name. It's a great pity you could not keep it till I came."
"Well, sir, you was so long a-coming."
"That's true," said Walter; "let us make the best of it. I shall feed my horse, and get home as quickly as I can."
However, he knew he would be late, and thought he had better go straight home. He sent a telegram to Mary Bartley: "Landlord gone to you with bracelet;" and this he signed with the name of the landlady, but no address. He was afraid to say more, though he would have liked to put his wife upon her guard; but he trusted to her natural shrewdness. He mounted his horse and went straight home, but he was late for dinner, and that vexed him a little, for it was a matter Colonel Clifford was particular about. He dashed up to his bedroom and began to dress all in a hurry.
John Baker came to him wearing a very extraordinary look, and after some hesitation said, "I would not change my clothes if I were you, Mr. Walter."
"Oh," said Walter, "I am too late, you know; in for a penny, in for a pound."
"But, sir," said old John, "the Colonel wants to speak to you in the drawing-room."
Now Walter was excited with the events of the day, irritated by the affront his father had put upon him and Mary, strung up by hard riding, etc. He burst out, "Well, I shall not go to him; I have had enough of this--badgered and bullied, and my sweetheart affronted--and now I suppose I am to be lectured again; you say I am not well, and bring my dinner up here."
"No, Mr. Walter," said the old man, gravely, "I must not do that. Sir, don't you think as you are to be scolded, or the angel you love affronted; all that is over forever. There has been many a strange thing happened since you rode out of our stable last, but I wish you would go to the Colonel and let him tell you all; however, I suppose I may tell you so much as this, that your sweetheart is not Mary Bartley at all; she is Mr. Hope's daughter."
"What!" cried Walter, in utter amazement.
"There is no doubt about it, sir," said the old man, "and I believe it is all out about you and her, but that would not matter, for the Colonel he takes it quite different from what you might think. He swears by her now. I don't know really how that came about, sir, for I was not there, but when I was dressing the Colonel he said to me, 'John, she's the grandest girl in England, and an honor to her sex, and there is not a drop of Bartley's blood in her.'"
"Oh, he has found that out," said Walter. "Then I'll go to him like a bird, dear old fellow. So that is what he wanted to tell me."
"No," said John Baker, gravely.
"No," said Walter; "what then?"
"Trouble," said Walter, puzzled.
"Ay, my poor young master," said Baker, tenderly--"sore trouble, such trouble as a father's heart won't let me, or any man break to you, while he lives to do it. I know my master. Ever since that fellow Bartley came here we have seen the worst of him; now we shall see the best of him. Go to him, dear Master Walter. Don't waste time in talking to old John Baker. Go to your father and your friend."
Walter Clifford cast a look of wonder and alarm on the old man, and went down at once to the drawing-room. His father was standing by the fire. He came forward to him with both hands, and said,
"Father," said Walter, in a whisper, "what is it?"
"Have you heard nothing?"
"Nothing but good news, father--that you approve my choice."
"Ah, John told you that!"
"And did he tell you anything else?"
"No sir, only that some great misfortune is upon me, and that I have my father's sympathy."
"You have," said the Colonel, "and would to God I had known the truth before. She is not Bartley's daughter at all; she is Hope's daughter. Her virtue shines in her face; she is noble, she is self-denying, she is just, she is brave; and no doubt she can account for her being at the Lake Hotel in company with some man or other. Whatever that lady says will be the truth. That's not the trouble, Walter; all that has become small by comparison. But shall we ever see her sweet face again or hear her voice?"
"Father," said Walter, trembling, "you terrify me. This sudden change in your voice that I never heard falter before; some great calamity must have happened. Tell me the worst at once."
"Walter," said the old man, "stand firm; do not despair, for there is hope."
"Thank God for that, father! now tell me all."
"Walter, there has been an explosion in the mine--a fearful explosion; the shaft has fallen in; there is no getting access to the mine, and all the poor souls confined there are in mortal peril. Those who are best acquainted with the mine do not think that many of them have been destroyed by the ruin, but they tell me these explosions let loose poisonous gases, and so now those poor souls are all exposed to three deadly perils--choke-damp, fire-damp, and starvation."
"It's pitiable," said Walter, "but surely this is a calamity to Bartley, and to the poor miners, but not to any one that I love, and that you have learnt to respect."
"My son," said the Colonel, solemnly, "the mine was fired by foul play."
"Is it possible?"
"It is believed that some rival owner, or else some personal enemy of William Hope, bribed a villain to fire some part of the mine that Hope was inspecting."
"Great heavens!" said Walter, "can such villains exist? Poor, poor Mr. Hope: who would think he had an enemy in the world?"
"Alas!" said the Colonel, "that is not all. His daughter, it seems, over-heard the villain bribing the ruffian to commit this foul and terrible act, and she flew to the mine directly. She dispatched some miners to seize that hellish villain, and she went down the mine to save her father."
"Ah!" said Walter, trembling all over.
"She has never been seen since."
The Colonel's head sank for a moment on his breast.
Walter groaned and turned pale.
"She came too late to save him; she came in time to share his fate."
Walter sank into a chair, and a deadly pallor overspread his face, his forehead, and his very lips.
The Colonel rushed to the door and called for help, and in a moment John Baker and Mrs. Milton and Julia Clifford were round poor Walter's chair with brandy and ether and salts, and every stimulant. He did not faint away; strong men very seldom do at any mere mental shock.
The color came slowly back to his cheeks and his pale lips, and his eyes began to fill with horror. The weeping women, and even the stout Colonel, viewed with anxiety his return to the full consciousness of his calamity. "Be brave," cried Colonel Clifford; "be a soldier's son; don't despair; fight: nothing has been neglected. Even Bartley is playing the man; he has got another engine coming up, and another body of workmen to open the new shaft as well as the old one."
"God bless him!" said Walter.
"And I have an experienced engineer on the road, and the things civilians always forget--tents and provisions of all sorts. We will set an army to work sooner than your sweetheart, poor girl, shall lose her life by any fault of ours."
"My sweetheart," cried Walter, starting suddenly from his chair. "There, don't cling to me, women. No man shall head that army but I. My sweetheart! God help me--SHE'S MY WIFE."