Without Prejudice by Ethel M. Dell
Chapter IX. The Mine
The Fortescue Gold Mine was five miles away from Trelevan, in the heart of wild, barren country, through which the sound of its great crushing machines whirred perpetually like the droning of an immense beehive.
The place was strewn with scattered huts belonging to such of the workers as did not live at Trelevan, and a yellow stream ran foaming through the valley, crossed here and there by primitive wooden bridges.
The desolation of the whole scene, save for that running stream, produced the effect of a world burnt out. The hills of shale might have been vast heaps of ashes. It was a waste place of terrible unfruitfulness. And yet, not very far below the surface, the precious metal lay buried in the rock--the secret of the centuries which man at last had wrenched from its hiding-place.
The story went that Fortescue, the owner of the mine, had made his discovery by a mere accident in this place known as the Barren Valley, and had kept it to himself for years thereafter because he lacked the means to exploit it. But later he had returned with the necessary capital at his back, had staked his claim, and turned the place of desolation into an abode of roaring activity. The men he employed were for the most part drawn from the dregs--sheep-stealers, cattle-thieves, smugglers, many of them ex-convicts--a fierce, unruly lot, hating all law and order, yet submitting for the sake of that same precious yellow dust that they ground from the foundation stones of the world.
Personally, Fortescue was known but to the very few, but his methods were known to all. He paid them generously, but he ruled them with a rigid discipline that knew no relaxation. It was murmured that Fletcher Hill--the hated police-magistrate--was at his back, for he never failed to visit the mine when his duty took him in that direction, and there was something of military precision in its management which was strongly reminiscent of his forbidding personality. It was Fletcher Hill who meted out punishment to the transgressors who were brought before him at the police-court at Trelevan, and his treatment was usually swift and unsparing. No prisoner ever expected mercy from him.
He was hated at the mine with a fierce hatred, in which Fortescue had but a very minor share. It was recognized that Fortescue's methods were of a decent order, though his lack of personal interest was resented, and also his friendship with Fletcher Hill, which some even declared to be a partnership. The only point in his favour was the fact that Bill Warden knew the man and never failed to stand up for him. For some reason Warden possessed an enormous influence over the men. His elevation to the sub-managership had been highly popular, and his projected promotion to the post of manager, now filled by Harley, gave them immense satisfaction. He had the instincts of a sportsman and knew how to handle them, and a personality, that was certainly magnetic, did the rest.
Harley had a certain following, but the general feeling towards him was one of contempt. Most men recognized that he was nothing but a self-seeker, and there were few who trusted him. He did his best to achieve popularity, but his efforts were too obvious. Bill Warden's breezy indifference held an infinitely greater appeal in the eyes of the crowd.
Harley's resignation was of his own choosing. He declared himself in need of a rest, and no one attempted to persuade him otherwise. His day was over, and Warden's succession to the post seemed an inevitable sequence. As Hill sardonically remarked, there was no other competitor for the chieftainship of that band of cutthroats.
For some reason he had postponed his departure till after Hill's official visit to Trelevan. He and Warden shared the largest house in the miners' colony in Barren Valley. It was close to the mine at the end of the valley, and part of it was used as the manager's office. It overlooked the yellow torrent and the black wall of mountain beyond--a savage prospect that might have been hewn from the crater of a dead volcano.
A rough track led to it, winding some twenty feet above the stream, and up this track Fletcher Hill drove the two visitors on the evening of the day succeeding their arrival at Trelevan.
There was a deadness of atmosphere between those rocky walls that struck chill even to Adela's inconsequent soul. "What a ghastly place!" she commented. "I should think Ezekiel's valley of dry bones must have been something like this."
Harley met them at the door of his office with a smile in his crafty eyes. "Warden is waiting for you in the mine," he said to Fletcher. "His lambs have been a bit restless this afternoon. He has set his heart on a full-dress parade, but I don't know if it will come off."
Fletcher's black brows drew together. "What do you mean by that?" he demanded.
Harley shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. "You wait and see!"
The entrance to the mine yawned like an immense cavern in the rock. The roaring screech of the machines issuing from it made an inferno of sound from which, involuntarily, Dot shrank.
She looked at Hill appealingly as they drew near. He turned instantly to Harley.
"Go ahead, will you, and tell them to stop work? We can't hear ourselves speak in this."
"I'll come with you, Mr. Harley," said Adela, promptly. "I want to see the machines going."
Harley paused for a moment. "You know your way, Mr. Hill?" he said.
Hill nodded with a hint of impatience. "Yes, yes. I was here only the other day."
"Very good," said Harley. "But don't forget to turn to the right when you get down the steps. The other way is too steep for ladies."
He was gone with the words and Adela with him, openly delighted to have escaped from her solemn escort, and ready for any adventure that might present itself.
Dot looked after her for a moment, and then back at Hill. "She'll be all right, won't she?" she asked.
"Of course she will!" said Hill.
"Then shall we wait a minute till the noise stops?" she suggested.
Hill paused, though not very willingly. "There is nothing to be nervous about," he said.
She glanced at the cavernous opening with a little shudder. "I think it is a dreadful place," she said.
She saw him faintly smile. "I thought it didn't appeal much to you," he said.
She shivered. "Do you like it? But of course you do. You are interested in it. Isn't that grinding noise terrible? It makes me want to run away and hide."
Hill drew her to a large flat rock on the edge of the path. "Sit down," he said.
She did so, and he took up his stand beside her, one foot lodged upon the stone. In the silence that followed she was aware of his eyes upon her, intently watching her face. She gripped her hands hard around her knees, enduring his scrutiny with a fast-throbbing heart. She expected some curt, soul-searching question at the end of it. But none came. Instead, the noise that reverberated through the valley suddenly ceased, and there fell an intense stillness.
That racked her beyond bearing. She looked up at him at last with a desperate courage and met his eyes. "What is it?" she questioned. "Why do you--why do you look at me--like that?"
He made a brief gesture, as if refusing a challenge, and stood up. "Shall we go?" he said.
She got up also, but her knees were trembling, and in a moment his hand came out and closed with that official grip upon her elbow. He led her to the mine entrance guiding her over the rough ground in utter silence.
They left the daylight behind them, passing almost immediately into semi-darkness. Some rough steps hewn in the rock led down into a black void before them.
"Are there no lights anywhere?" said Dot.
"Yes. There'll be a lamp round the corner. Straight on down!" said Fletcher.
But for his presence she would hardly have dared it, so great was the horror that this place had inspired within her. But to wait alone with him in that terrible empty valley was even less endurable. She went down the long, steep stair without further protest.
They reached the foot at length, and a dim light shone ahead of them. The atmosphere was vault-like and penetratingly damp. The passage divided almost immediately, and a narrow track led off between black walls of stone to the right, where in the distance another lamp shone.
Fletcher turned towards this, but very suddenly Dot clasped his arm. "Oh, don't let us go that way!" she begged. "Please don't let us go that way!"
Hill paused in response to her urgent insistence. "What's the matter with you, Dot?" he said.
She clung to him desperately, still holding him back. "I don't know--I don't know! But don't go that way! I have a horrible feeling--Ah!" The deafening report of a revolver-shot rang out suddenly close to them.
Hill turned with a sound in his throat like the growl of an angry animal, and in a moment he had thrust Dot back against the protecting corner of the wall.
"You are not hurt?" she gasped.
"No; I am not." His words fell clipped and stern, though spoken scarcely above a whisper. "Don't speak! Get back up the steps--as quickly as you can!"
The command was so definite, so peremptory, that she had no thought of disobeying. But as she moved there came to her the sound of running feet. Hill stayed her with a gesture. She saw something gleam in his hand as he did so, and realized that he was not defenceless.
Her heart seemed to spring into her throat. She stood tense.
Nearer came the feet and nearer. The suspense of waiting was torture. She thought it would never end. Then suddenly, just as she looked to see a man spring from the opening of that narrow passage, they stopped.
A voice spoke. "All right! Don't shoot!" it said, and a great throb of amazement went through her. That voice--careless, debonair, half-laughing--awoke deep echoes in her heart.
A moment later Warden came calmly round the corner, his great figure looming gigantic in that confined space.
He held out his hand. "I'm sorry you've had a fright. I fired that shot. It was a signal to the men to line up for inspection."
He spoke with the utmost frankness, yet it came to Dot with an intuition she could not doubt that Hill did not believe him. He returned the revolver to his pocket, but he kept a hold upon it, and he made no movement to take the hand Warden offered.
"We came to inspect the mine, not the men," he said, shortly. "Go back and tell them to clear out!"
Dot, mutely watching, saw Warden's brows go up. He had barely glanced at her. "Oh, all right, sir," he said, easily. "They've hardly left off work yet. I'll let 'em know in good time. But first I've got something to show you. Come this way!"
He turned towards the main passage, but in a second, sharp and short, Fletcher's voice arrested him.
He swung on his heel. "Well, sir?"
"You will do as I said--immediately!" The words might have been uttered by a machine, so precise, so cold, so metallic were they.
Warden stood quite motionless, facing him, and it seemed to Dot that his eyes had become two blue flames, giving out light. The pause that followed was so instinct with conflict that she thought it must end in some terrible outburst of violence.
Then, to her amazement, Warden smiled--his candid, pleasant smile. "Certainly, if you make a point of it," he said. "Perhaps you will walk up with me. The strong-room is on our way, and while you are looking at the latest specimens I will carry out your orders."
He turned back with the words, and led the way towards the distant lamp that glimmered in the wall.
Stiffly Hill turned to the girl beside him. "Would you rather go back and wait for me?" he said.
"Oh, no!" she said, instantly. "No; I am coming too."
He said no more, but grimly stalked in the wake of Warden.
The latter moved quickly till he reached the place where the lamp was lodged in a niche in the wall. Here he stopped, stooped, and fitted a key into a narrow door that had been let into the stone. It opened outwards, and he drew aside, waiting for Hill.
"I will go and dismiss the men," he said. "May I leave you in charge till I come back? They will not come this way."
Hill paused on the threshold. The lamp cast a dim light into the place, which was close and gloomy as a prison.
"There are two steps down," said Warden. "One of them is badly broken, but it's worth your while to go in and have a look at our latest finds. You had better go first, sir. Be careful!"
He turned to depart with the words, still ignoring Dot. She was close to Hill, and something impelled her to lay a restraining hand on his shoulder as he took the first step down.
What followed happened with such stunning swiftness that her memory of it ever afterwards was a confused jumble of impressions, like the wild course of a nightmare.
She heard Warden swing round again in his tracks, but before she could turn he had caught her and flung her backwards over his arm. With his other hand simultaneously he dealt Hill a blow in the back that sent him blundering down into the darkness, and then, with lightning rapidity, he banged the door upon his captive. The lock sprang with the impact, but he was not content with this. Still holding her, he dragged at a rough handle above his head and by main strength forced down an iron shutter over the locked door.
Then, breathing hard and speaking no word, he lifted her till she hung across his shoulder, and started to run. She had not uttered a sound, so stunned with amazement was she, so bereft of even the power to think. Her position was one of utter helplessness. He held her with one arm as easily as if she had been a baby. And she knew that in his free hand he carried his revolver.
In her bewilderment she had not the faintest idea as to the direction he took. She only knew that he ran like a hunted rat down many passages, turning now this way, now that, till at last he plunged down an unseen stairway and the sound of gurgling water reached her ears.
He slackened his pace then, and at last stood still. He did not alter his hold upon her, however, but stood listening intently for many seconds. She hung impotent across his shoulder, feeling still too paralyzed to move.
He turned his head at last and spoke to her. "Have I terrified the senses out of you, little new chum?" he whispered, softly.
That awoke her from her passivity. She made her first effort for freedom.
He drew her down into his arms and held her close.
"Right down," she said, insistently.
But he held her still. "If I let you go, you'll wander maybe, and get lost," he said.
His action surprised her, but yet that instinctive trust with which he had inspired her long ago remained, refusing to be shaken.
"Put me right down!" she said again. "And tell me why you did it!"
He set her on her feet, but he still held her. "Can't you guess?" he said.
"No!" she said. "No!"
She spoke a little wildly. Was it the first doubt that ran shadow--like across her brain, leaving her so strangely cold? She wished it had not been so dark, that she might see his face. "Tell me!" she said again.
But he did not tell her. "Don't be afraid!" was all he said in answer. "You are--safe enough."
"But--but--Fletcher?" she questioned, desperately. "What of him?"
"He's safe too--for the present." There was something of grimness in his reply. "He doesn't matter so much. He's been asking for trouble all along--but he had no right--no right whatever--to bring you into it. It's you that matters."
A curious, vibrant quality had crept into his voice, and an answering tremor went through her; but she controlled it swiftly.
"And Adela," she said. "She was with Mr. Harley. What has become of her?"
"He will take care of her for his own sake. Leave her to him!" Warden spoke with a hint of disdain. "She'll get nothing worse than a fright," he said, "possibly not even that--if he gets her to the manager's house in time."
"In time!" she echoed. "In time for what? What is going to happen? What do you mean?"
His hold tightened upon her. "Well," he said, "there's going to be a row. But I'm boss of this show, and I reckon I can deal with it. Only--I'll have you safe first, little new chum. I'm not taking any chances where you are concerned."
She gasped a little. The steady assurance of his voice stirred her strangely.
She tried to release herself from his hold. "I don't like this place," she said. "Let me go back to Mr. Hill."
"That's just what I can't do." He bent suddenly down to her. "Won't you trust me?" he said. "I didn't fail you last time, did I?"
She thrilled in answer to those words. It was as if thereby he had flung down all barriers between them. She stood for a moment in indecision, then impulsively she turned and grasped his arms.
"I trust you--absolutely," she told him, tremulously. "But--but--though I know you don't like him--promise me--you won't let--Fletcher be hurt!"
He, too, was silent for a moment before responding. She fancied that he flinched a little at her words. Then: "All right, I promise," he said.
"Then I will go--wherever you like," she said, bravely, and put her hand into his.
He took it into a strong grasp. "That's like you," he said, with simplicity.