A Perilous Secret by Charles Reade
Chapter XXIII. Buried Alive.--The Three Deadly Perils.
Seven miners were buried under the ruins of the shaft; but although masses of coal and clay fell into the hall from the side nearest to the explosions, and blocked up some of the passages, nobody was crushed to death there; only the smoke was so stifling that it seemed impossible to live.
That smoke was lighter than the air; its thick pall lifted by degrees and revealed three figures.
Grace Hope, by happy instinct, had sunk upon the ground to breathe in that stifling smoke. Hope, who had collared Ben Burnley, had sunk to the ground with him, but still clutched the assassin. These were the three left alive in the hall, and this was their first struggle for life.
As soon as it was possible to speak Hope took up his lamp, which had fallen, and holding it up high, he cried, "Grace, my child, where are you?" She came to him directly; he took her in his arms and thanked God for this great preservation.
Then he gave Burnley a kick, and ordered him to the right hand of the hall. "You'll keep to that side," he said, "and think of what you have done; your victims will keep this side, and comfort each other till honest men undo your work, you villain."
Burnley crouched, and wriggled away like a whipped hound, and flung himself down in bitter despair.
"Oh, papa," said Grace, "we have escaped a great danger, but shall we ever see the light of day?"
"Of course we shall, child; be sure that great efforts will be made to save us. Miners have their faults, but leaving other men to perish is not one of them; there are no greater heroes in the world than those rough fellows, with all their faults. What you and I must do at once is to search for provisions and lamps and tools; if there are no poisonous gases set free, it is a mere question of time. My poor child has a hard life before her; but only live, and we shall be rescued."
These brave words comforted Grace, as they were intended to do, and she accompanied her father down the one passage which was left open after the explosion. Fortunately this led to a new working, and before he had gone many yards Hope found a lamp that had been dropped by some miner who had rushed into the hall as the first warning came. Hope extinguished the light, and gave it to Grace.
"That will be twenty-four hours' light to us," said he; "but, oh, what I want to find is food. There must be some left behind."
"Papa," said Grace, "I think I saw a miner throw a bag into an empty truck when the first alarm was given."
"Back! back! my child!" cried Hope, "before that villain finds it!"
He did not wait for her but ran back, and he found Ben Burnley in the neighborhood of that very truck: but Burnley sneaked off at his approach. Hope, looking into the truck, found treasures--a dozen new sacks, a heavy hammer, a small bag of nails, a can of tea, and a bag with a loaf in it, and several broken pieces of bread. He put his lamp out directly, for he had lucifer-matches in his pocket, and he hid the bag of bread; then he lighted his lamp again and fastened it up by a nail in the centre of the hall.
"There," said he to Burnley, "that's to light us both equally; when it goes out you must hang up yours in its place."
"That's fair," said Burnley, humbly.
There were two trucks on Hope's side of the hall--the empty one in question, and one that was full of coal. Both stood about two yards from Hope's side of the hall. Hope turned the empty truck and brought it parallel to the other; then he nailed two sacks together, and fastened them to the coal truck and the debris; then he laid sacks upon the ground for Grace to lie on, and he kept two sacks for himself, and two in reserve, and he took two and threw them to Ben Burnley.
"I give you two, and I keep two myself," said he. "But my daughter shall have a room to herself even here; and if you molest her I'll brain you with this hammer."
"I don't want to molest her," said Burnley. "It ain't my fault she's here."
Then there was a gloomy silence, and well there might be. The one lamp, twinkling faintly against the wall, did but make darkness visible, and revealed the horror of this dismal scene. The weary hours began to crawl away, marked only by Hope's watch, for in this living tomb summer was winter, and day was night.
The horrors of entombment in a mine have, we think, been described better than any other calamity which befalls living men. Inspired by this subject novelists have gone beyond themselves, journalists have gone beyond themselves; and, without any affectation, we say we do not think we could go through the dismal scene before us in its general details without falling below many gifted contemporaries, and adding bulk without value to their descriptions. The true characteristic feature of this sad scene was not, we think, the alternations of hope and despair, nor the gradual sinking of frames exhausted by hunger and thirst, but the circumstance that here an assassin and his victims were involved in one terrible calamity; and as one day succeeded to another, and the hoped for rescue came not, the hatred of the assassin and his victims was sometimes at odds with the fellowship that sprang out of a joint calamity. About twelve hours after the explosion Burnley detected Hope and his daughter eating, and moistening their lips with the tea and a spoonful of brandy that Hope had poured into it out of his flask to keep it from turning sour.
"What, haven't you a morsel for me?" said the ruffian, in a piteous voice.
Hope gave a sort of snarl of contempt, but still he flung a crust to him as he would to a dog.
Then, after some slight hesitation, Grace rose quietly and took the smaller can, and tilled it with tea, and took it across to him.
"There," said she, "and may God forgive you."
He took it and stared at her.
"It ain't my fault that you are here," said he; but she put up her hand as much as to say, "No idle words."
* * * * *
Two whole days had now elapsed. The food, though economized, was all gone. Burnley's lamp was flickering, and utter darkness was about to be added to the horrors which were now beginning to chill the hopes with which these poor souls had entered on their dire probation. Hope took the alarm, seized the expiring lamp, trimmed it, and carried it down the one passage that was open. This time he did not confine his researches to the part where he could stand upright, but went on his hands and knees down the newest working. At the end of it he gave a shout of triumph, and in a few minutes returned to his daughter exhausted, and blackened all over with coal; but the lamp was now burning brightly in his hand, and round his neck was tied a can of oil.
"Oh, my poor father," said Grace, "is that all you have discovered?"
"Thank God for it," said Hope. "You little know what it would be to pass two more days here without light, as well as without food."
* * * * *
The next day was terrible. The violent pangs of hunger began to gnaw like vultures, and the thirst was still more intolerable; the pangs of hunger intermitted for hours at a time, and then returned to intermit again: they exhausted but did not infuriate; but the rage of thirst became incessant and maddening. Ben Burnley suffered the most from this, and the wretch came to Hope for consolation.
"Where's the sense of biding here," said he, "to be burned to deeth wi' drought? Let's flood the mine, and drink or be drooned."
"How can I flood the mine?" said Hope.
"Yow know best, maister," said the man. "Why, how many tons of water did ye draw from yon tank every day?"
"We conduct about five tons into a pit, and we send about five tons up to the surface daily."
"Then how much water will there be in the tank now?"
Hope looked at his watch and said, "There was a good deal of water in the tank when you blew up the mine; there must be about thirty tons in it now."
"Well, then," said Burnley, "you that knows everything, help me brust the wall o' tank; it's thin enow."
"If we let in the whole body of water," said he, "it would shatter us to pieces, and crush us against the wall of our prison and drown us before it ran away through the obstructed passages into the new workings. Fortunately, we have no pickaxe, and can not be tempted to self-slaughter."
This silenced Burnley for the day, and he remained sullenly apart; still the idea never left his mind. The next day, toward evening, he asked Hope to light his own lamp, and come and look at the wall of the tank.
"Not without me," whispered Grace. "I see him cast looks of hatred at you."
They went together, and Burnley bade Hope observe that the water was trickling through in places, a drop at a time; it could not penetrate the coaly veins, nor the streaks of clay, but it oozed through the porous strata, certain strips of blackish earth in particular, and it trickled down, a drop at a time. Hope looked at this feature with anxiety, for he was a man of science, and knew by the fate of banked reservoirs, great and small, the strange explosive power of a little water driven through strata by a great body pressing behind it.
"You'll see, it will brust itsen," said Burnley, exultantly, "and the sooner the better for me; for I'll never get alive out on t' mine; yow blowed me to the men, and they'll break every bone in my skin."
Hope did not answer this directly.
"There, don't go to meet trouble, my man," said he. "Give me the can, Grace. Now, Burnley, hold this can, and catch every drop till it is full."
"Why, it will take hauf a day to fill it," objected Burnley, "and it will be hauf mud when all is done."
"I'll filter it," said Hope. "You do as you are bid."
He darted to a part of the mine where he had seen a piece of charred timber; he dragged it in with him, and asked Grace for a pocket-handkerchief; she gave him a clean cambric one. He took his pocket-knife and soon scraped off a little heap of charcoal; and then he sewed the handkerchief into a bag--for the handy man always carried a needle and thread.
Slowly, slowly the muddy water trickled into the little can, and then the bag being placed over the larger can, slowly, slowly the muddy water trickled through Hope's filter, and dropped clear and drinkable into the larger can. In that dead life of theirs, with no incidents but torments and terrors, the hours passed swiftly in this experiment. Hope sat upon a great lump of coal, his daughter kneeled in front of him, gazing at him with love, confidence, reverence; and Burnley kneeled in front of him too, but at a greater distance, with wolfish eyes full of thirst and nothing else.
At last the little can was two-thirds full of clear water. Hope took the large iron spoon which he had found along with the tea, and gave a full spoonful to his daughter. "My child," said he, "let it trickle very slowly over your tongue and down your throat; it is the throat and the adjacent organs which suffer most from thirst." He then took a spoonful himself, not to drink after an assassin. He then gave a spoonful to Burnley with the same instructions, and rose from his seat and gave the can to Grace, and said, "The rest of this pittance must not be touched for six hours at least."
Burnley, instead of complying with the wise advice given him, tossed the liquid down his throat with a gesture, and then dashing down the spoon, said, "I'll have the rest on't if I die for it," and made a furious rush at Grace Hope.
She screamed faintly, and Hope met him full in that incautious rush, and felled him like a log with a single blow. Burnley lay there with his heels tapping the ground for a little while, then he got on his hands and knees, and crawled away to the farthest corner of his own place, and sat brooding.
That night when Grace retired to rest Hope lay down at her feet, with his hammer in his hand, and when one slept the other watched, for they feared an attack. Toward the morning of the next day Grace's quick senses heard a mysterious noise in Burnley's quarter; she woke her father. Directly he went to the place, and he found Burnley at work on his knees tearing away with his hands and nails at the ruins of the shaft. Apparently fury supplied the place of strength, for he had raised quite a large heap behind him, and he had laid bare the feet up to the knees of a dead miner. Hope reported this in a hushed voice to Grace, and said, solemnly, "Poor wretch, he's going mad, I fear."
"Oh no," said Grace, "that would be too horrible. Whatever should we do?"
"Keep him to his own side, that is all," said Hope.
"But," objected Grace in dismay, "if he is mad, he won't listen, and he will come here and attack me."
"If he does," said Hope, simply, "I must kill him, that's all."
Burnley, however, in point of fact, kept more and more aloof for many hours; he never left his work till he laid bare the whole body of that miner, and found a pickaxe in his dead hand. This he hid, and reserved it for deadly uses; he was not clear in his mind whether to brain Hope with it, and so be revenged on him for having shut him up in that mine, or whether to peck a hole in the tank and destroy all three by a quicker death than thirst or starvation. The savage had another and more horrible reason for keeping out of sight; maddened by thirst he had recourse to that last extremity better men have been driven to; he made a cut with his clasp-knife in the breast of the dead miner, and tried to swallow jellied blood.
This horrible relief never lasts long, and the penalty follows in a few hours; but in the meantime the savage obtained relief, and even vigor, from this ghastly source, and seeing Hope and his daughter lying comparatively weak and exhausted, he came and sat down at a little distance in front of them: that was partly done to divert Hope from examining his shambles and his unnatural work.
"Maister," said he, "how long have we been here?"
"Six days and more," said Hope.
"Six days," said Grace, faintly, for her powers were now quite exhausted--"and no signs of help, no hope of rescue."
"Do not say so, Grace. Rescue in time is certain, and, therefore, while we live there is hope."
"Ay," said Burnley, "for you tew but not for me. Yow telt the men that I fired t' mine, and if one of those men gets free they'll all tear me limb from jacket. Why should I leave one grave to walk into another? But for yow I should have been away six days agone."
"Man," said Hope, "can not you see that my hand was but the instrument? it was the hand of Heaven that kept you back. Cease to blame your victims, and begin to see things as they are and to repent. Even if you escape, could the white faces ever fade from your sight, or the dying shrieks ever leave your ear, of the brave men you so foully murdered? Repent, monster, repent!"
Burnley was not touched, but he was scared by Hope's solemnity, and went to his own corner muttering, and as he crouched there there came over his dull brain what in due course follows the horrible meal he had made--a feverish frenzy.
In the meantime Grace, who had been lying half insensible, raised her head slowly and said, in a low voice, "Water, water!"
"Oh, my girl," said Hope, in despair, "I'll go and get enough to moisten your lips; but the last scrap of food has gone, the last drop of oil is burning away, and in an hour we shall be in darkness and despair."
"No, no, father," said Grace, "not while there is water there, beautiful water."
"But you can not drink that unfiltered; it is foul, it is poisonous."
"Not that, papa," said Grace, "far beyond that--look! See that clear river sparkling in the sunlight; how bright and beautiful it shines! Look at the waving trees upon the other side, the green meadows and the bright blue sky, and there--there--there--are the great white swans. No, no. I forgot, they are not swans, they are ships sailing to the bright land you told me of, where there is no suffering and no sorrow."
Then Hope, to his horror, began to see that this must be the very hallucination of which he had read, a sweet illusion of green fields and crystal water, which often precedes actual death by thirst and starvation. He trembled, he prayed secretly to God to spare her, and not to kill his new-found child, his darling, in his arms.
By-and-by Grace spoke again, but this time her senses were clear; "How dark it's grown!" she said. "Ah, we are back again in that awful mine." Then, with the patient fortitude of a woman when once she thinks the will of the Almighty is declared, she laid her hand upon his shoulder, and she said, soothingly, "Dear father, bow to Heaven's will;" then she held up both her feeble arms to him--"kiss me, father--FOR WE ARE TO DIE!"
With these firm and patient words, she laid her sweet head upon the ground, and hoped and feared no more.
But the man could not bow like the woman. He kissed her as she bade him, and laid her gently down; but after that he sprang wildly to his feet in a frenzy, and raged aloud, as his daughter could no longer hear him. "No, no," he cried, "this thing can not be, they have had seven days to get to us.
"Ah, but there are mountains and rocks of earth and coal piled up between us. We are buried alive in the bowels of the earth.
"Well, and shouldn't I have blasted a hundred rocks, and picked through mountains, to save a hundred lives, or to save one such life as this, no matter whose child she was?
"Ah! you poor scum, you came to me whenever you wanted me, and you never came in vain. But now that I want you, you smoke your pipes, and walk calmly over this living tomb I lie in.
"Well, call yourselves men, and let your friends perish; I am a man, and I can die."
Then he threw himself wildly on his knees over his insensible daughter.
"But my child! Oh God! look down upon my child! Do, pray, see the horror of it. The horror and the hellish injustice! She has but just found her father. She is just beginning life; it's not her time to die! Why, you know, she only came here to save her father. Heaven's blessing is the right of pious children; it's promised in God's Word. They are to live long upon earth, not to be cut off like criminals."
Then he rose wildly, and raged about the place, flinging his arms on high, so that even Burnley, though his own reason was shaken, cowered away from the fury of a stronger mind.
"Men and angels cry out against it!" he screamed, in madness and despair. "Can this thing be? Can Heaven and earth look calmly on and see this horror? Are men all ingratitude? IS GOD ALL APATHY?"
A blow like a hammer striking a church bell tinkled outside the wall, and seemed to come from a great distance.
To him who, like the rugged Elijah, had expostulated so boldly with his Maker, and his Maker, who is not to be irritated, forgave him, that blow seemed at first to ring from heaven. He stood still, and trembled like a leaf; he listened; the sound was not repeated.
"Ah," said he, "it was an illusion like hers."
* * * * *
But for all that he seized his hammer, and darted to the back of the hall, and mounting on a huge fragment of coal struck the seam high above his head. He gave two blows at longish intervals, and then three blows in quick succession.
Grace heard, and began to raise herself on her hands in wonder.
Outside the wall came two leisurely blows that seemed a mile off, though they were not ten feet, and then three blows in quick succession.
"My signal echoed," yelled Hope. "Do you hear, child, my signal answered? Thank God! thank God! thank God!"
He fell on his knees and cried like a child. The next minute, burning with hope and joy, he was by Grace's side, with his arms round her.
"You can't give way now. Fight on a few minutes more. Death, I defy you; I am a father; I tear my child from your clutches." With this he raised her in his arms with surprising vigor. It was Grace's turn to shake off all weakness, under the great excitement of the brain.
"Yes, I'll live," she cried, "I'll live for you. Oh, the gallant men! Hear, hear the pickaxes at work; an army is coming to our rescue, father; the God you doubted sends them, and some hero leads them."
The words had scarcely left her lips when Hope set her down in fresh alarm. An enemy's pickaxe was at work to destroy them; Burnley was picking furiously at the weak part of the tank, shrieking, "They will tear me to pieces; there is no hope in this world nor the next for me."
"Madman," cried Hope--"he'll let the water in before they can save us." He rushed at Burnley and seized him; but his frenzy was gone, and Burnley's was upon him; after a short struggle Burnley flung him off with prodigious power. Hope flew at him again, but incautiously, and the savage lowering his head, drove it with such fury into Hope's chest that he sent him to a distance, and laid him flat on his back utterly breathless. Grace flew to him and raised him.
He was not a man to lose his wits. "To the truck," he gasped, "or we are lost."
"I'll flood the mine! I'll flood the mine!" yelled Burnley.
Hope made his daughter mount a large fragment of coal we have already mentioned, and from that she sprang to the truck, and with her excitement and with her athletic power she raised herself into the full truck, and even helped her father in after her. But just as she got him on to the truck, and while he was still only on his knees, that section of the wall we have called the tank rent and gaped under Burnley's pickaxe, and presently exploded about six feet from the ground, and a huge volume of water drove masses of earth and coal before it, and came roaring like a solid body straight at the coal truck, and drove it against the opposite wall, smashed the nearest side in, and would have thrown Grace off it like a feather, but Hope, kneeling and clinging to the side, held her like a vise.
Grace screamed violently. Immediately there was a roar of exultation outside from the hitherto silent workers; for that scream told that the woman was alive, too: the wife of the brave fellow who had won all their hearts and melted away the icy barrier of class.
Three gigantic waves struck the truck and made it quiver.
The first came half-way up; the second came full two-thirds; the third dashed the senseless body of Ben Burnley, with bleeding head and broken bones, against the very edge of the truck, then surged back with him into a whirling vortex.
Grace screamed continuously; she gave herself up now for lost; and the louder she screamed, the louder and the nearer the saving party shouted and hurrahed.
"No, do not fear," cried Hope; "you shall not die. Love is stronger than death."
The words were scarce out of his mouth when the point of a steel pick came clean through the stuff; another followed above it; then another, then another, and then another. Holes were made; then gaps, then larger gaps, then a mass of coal fell in; furious picks--a portion of the mine knocked away--and there stood in a red blaze of lamps held up, the gallant band roaring, shouting, working, led by a stalwart giant with bare arms, begrimed and bleeding, face smoked, hair and eyebrows black with coal-dust, and eyes flaming like red coals. He sprang with one fearless bound down to the coal-truck, and caught up his wife in his arms, and held her to his panting bosom. Ropes, ladder, everything--and they were saved; while the corpse of the assassin whirled round and round in the subsiding eddies of the black water, and as that water ran away into the mine, lay, coated with mud, at the feet of those who had saved his innocent victims.