Below and On Top

Below and On Top

Chapter I

Edward Dyson

THE PEEP-O’-DAY had been shut down for a long time now. The grand machinery rusted in the imposing brick engine-house, deserted by all saving the swallows and Dick, who could just squeeze in through the slit in the wall where the beam rode, and who did not share the superstitious fear inspired in his schoolmates by its dim light and silence and loneliness. The rabbits burrowed and bred under the black boilers and about the foundations of the towering stack, and a subduing influence hung around the old mine and touched with reverence the stranger loitering curiously about its many buildings and piled-up tips.

Over young Dick Haddon the mine exerted a peculiar fascination. Most of his spare time after school hours and on Saturday afternoons he spent running at large about the place, washing innumerable prospects in his old fryingpan at the big dam. He found his way into the locked offices, and rummaged the blacksmith’s shop, the engine-room and boiler-houses; climbed the lightning-rod on the dizzy, rocking smoke-stack, to the imminent risk of his precious neck; scrambled over every part of poppet-legs, brace, and puddling plat, doing monkey on the tie-beams, with sheer falls of a hundred or two hundred feet inviting him to the scattered, clean white boulders below; or taking the air up on the poppet-heads, to the scandal of Brother Bear or Brother Petric or any other pious brother of the little Waddytown Wesleyan chapel, for all believed such devilment to be a certain evidence of evil possession.

The mine had always filled the greater part of the boy’s life. He remembered since memory began with him a mighty, smoking, whistling entity, vomiting unending water, and clattering truck-loads of gravel and slate, and curious streams of white mullock, fed with big four-horse waggon-loads of wood that came up the muddy Springs road to the accompaniment of volleying whip-cracks and gorgeous profanity that seemed grand and inspiring and filled him with the same large emotions as a tale of “Arabian Nights” read aloud by his mother before the winter evening fires.

He remembered, too, that night when he was five years old—ages ago it seemed to him now—when he crawled from his bed and found his mother, her white nightdress all dabbled with blood, wailing over his father, lying silent and motionless upon the kitchen floor, whilst in the grey shadowy background stood three or four miners, ashen-faced and still, hiding their mouths behind their smirched felt hats. He knew that the mine had killed his father, and thought of it as a living thing taking vengeance. Even now, when he was eleven and almost a man, the illusion was not dispelled, and sometimes took complete possession of him, especially when none other was near and the wind played upon the many vast props and legs of the mine as if they were the strings of a gigantic harp, and crooned mournful songs amongst the timbers, or when he called through the openings between the slabs over the pump shaft, and started the voices whispering in the black, bottomless depths, and the moans and sobs vibrating faintly in the miles of dripping, dark drives, far below there in the centre of the world.

Other children came over the common occasionally during the dinner hour, or on bright afternoons, from the weatherbeaten wooden school in the lazy town-ship, to slide down the tips or ride on the long arms of the capstans, breaking their limbs and their heads indiscriminately, and Dickie resented it as an intrusion. Tinker Smith he didn’t mind; the little dry old fossicker was silent and pipeclayed, and seemed to be part of the mine and imbued with its spirit. He had always been there, Dick thought, pottering about amongst the tips, sluicing, puddling, and cradling, or crooning over his pan at the water’s edge.

The mine had another familiar whom Dickie respected—one, indeed, whom he regarded with a profound reverence as a creature superior to the ordinary run of mortals, gentler and more angelic than mere, women were, and one having some wondrous affinity with those sorrowful souls lost in the long drives, in whose existence he so implicitly believed. This was Sim’s Idiot, the mad woman who came from the bush beyond the township, and visited the mine by night only—a tall woman, with long, silver-white hair and a pale young face in which her dark eyes shone with lustre that lived in no other eyes the boy had ever seen or dreamed of. Knowing no other form of madness than this, which was ineffably beautiful and mournful and tender, Dick’s mind assimilated the term with his highest ideas of beauty, purity, and love, and Agnes Brett became an ideal of his boyish fancy.

Agnes’s father, a fairly well-to-do farmer, owned the paddocks where the youngsters of Waddy went to gather sticks and bark, and where they ran wild half their time—nesting or hunting meek ’possums or malicious native cats. She was a widow. Three years ago, twelve months after their marriage, her husband Simon Brett, was killed with three others in a drive of the Peep-o’-Day, almost under the house where his wife lay peacefully sleeping. A blundering, screaming fool took the news to her, and came near to killing her on the instant. A baby was born, and for long days the mother was despaired of; but she lived—lived bereft of reason and possessed with many quaint beliefs about the old mine and the spirit of her murdered lover; and this girl, who was handsome and ruddy and commonplace in health and happiness, went home to her parents again a slim, eerie creature wondrously transformed, with a face superhuman in its spirituality. Her hair whitened rapidly, and she was silent save when she spoke of Sim and of the mine that had killed him.

They called her Sim’s Idiot, and in the minds of those who had known her from her infancy and had grown up with her Sim’s Idiot soon ceased to be connected with Agnes Brett; it seemed as if the latter had died, and a stranger had come amongst them between whom and the woman they had known there was not a passing resemblance or anything in common.

The name was absurdly inappropriate; but Waddy lacked imagination; in common with most bush town­ships it had a lamentable poverty of ideas. Nothing in Agnes’s affliction suggested idiocy—indeed, a celestial intellectuality seemed to sit upon her serene countenance. But Waddy did not draw fine distinctions, and the name stuck.

One night, shortly after her return to her father’s house, Agnes was missed, and was found an hour or so later standing in the moonlight by the post and rail fence surrounding the Peep-o’-Day, gazing upon the mine and calling her husband’s name. They led her away, but she came again on other nights, a statuesque figure, waiting and calling in a penetrating voice that carried above the clangour of the engines and the churning roar of the puddlers.

Sometimes she addressed the mine in sweet, plaintive unintelligible speech, and it was a pathetic yet a thrilling sight to see her thus, when the furnace yawned and the rolling steam-clouds caught the ruddy glow and lept like flame, and the radiance fell upon her for a moment, glorifying her tall figure, picking it out of the darkness.

At first she was a wonder in Waddytown, and people, when they heard that Sim’s Idiot was out, would walk across from the township, about a quarter of a mile off, and, gathered in small, nervous groups amongst the scattered trees, would watch her curiously as long as she remained, offering abject opinions with the gravity of sages, the women frequently discerning Sim’s spirit beckoning amongst the fleeing steam rack, to their delicious terror. Waddy presently lost interest, seeing that nothing happened, and the comings and goings of Sim’s Idiot were not considered worthy of remark. Even her father, who was devoted to her, ceased to follow her, knowing that no harm would befall, and the brace-men, hearing her voice, were not thrilled, as at first, with irritating fears, or induced to take unworkman-like precautions when moving about the shaft, for the sake of their own wives, who might, some day, be brought to this.

Whilst the Peep-o’-Day continued working the mad woman ventured no nearer than the rail fence, but at length, long after the mine was shut down, and when rust and decay had taken full advantage of the law’s delay, Dickie saw her, one bright night, sitting alone by the pump shaft. Over the mouth of each of the two winding shafts stood a heavy cage, and the pump shaft was covered with slabs securely spiked, so that she was in no danger of falling into either.

The old mine in its most mysterious humours had no terrors for young Dick. His superstitious beliefs were many, but without terror. Of late he came often at night, with his horsehair nooses, trapping the rabbits that bred miraculously about the top workings and fattened on the profuse milk thistles and the wild corn, and so the sight of Agnes Brett was no unusual thing to him. But to him she never lost interest; a wonderful pity for her grew in his heart, and touched his life with a melancholy utterly at variance with his healthy boyhood and his natural heartiness—a melancholy that for many weeks gave his brave, busy little mother much concern about his digestion and other matters, and led to his being afflicted with superfluous flannels, and plied with home-brewed medicines with a camomile basis, all equally atrocious to taste and smell.

Dick would follow Agnes to the mine, and, creeping near her in the darkness, would crouch in one of the cages, watching her and listening as she called the one name down the echoing shaft, and spoke strange mad words to the mysteries that whispered and flitted below, in a voice so soft, so piteous in its pleading, that, without comprehending, he found himself sobbing aloud, and filled with a passionate longing to do something to help this poor white woman with the starlike eyes, who was always waiting and praying for the thing that never came. He tried to understand her, to know what it was she sought, and he grew to believe that it was in her poor ruined mind that her husband’s spirit was imprisoned with the rest, deep, deep down in the black shaft or the blacker drives, and that some night he would answer her—perhaps escape from the powers of darkness again and come up to her and be free and happy. To Dick it was a rational belief, and he wondered that it evoked no response.

One night, listening to her supplicating tones, thrilled by their magical tenderness, he conceived a bright idea. For days and nights it haunted him, and then resolution came. He would do the thing he had thought upon, and see if it were not possible to give peace to this fairy woman.

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