“Any luck t’day, Tink’?”
The old man grunted without looking up from his tub, and Dickie edged off a bit. He had little faith in Tinker Smith, a little old pipeclayed man with a ferrety face and ferrety hair and thin dry whiskers. He was full of surprises, and had a way of falling upon a victim when least expected, and taking summary vengeance in the most convenient manner that offered itself, preserving all the time an expressionless face and a calmness quite contrary to nature. He had clipped Dick with a pick handle, tipped him head over heels into the dam, and had bitten his ear till it bled, and the boy had learned the value of eternal vigilance.
“Sim’s Idiot was here again lars night,” ventured Dickie, after a strained silence.
Tinker was indifferent.
“Say, Tinker, them Finny kids come here yes’dee. Teddy broke your shovel, diggin’ out a bunny, an’ I licked him.”
The fossicker turned his dull little eyes doubtingly on the boy, but continued puddling.
Dickie tried another tack.
“I can lay you onter a bit o’ pay dirt if you want it.”
Tinker knew the boy sometimes hit upon decent patches of dirt, and had profited by several of his discoveries. This interested him.
“Where to?” he asked.
“Where to’s tellin’s,” responded Dick.
Tinker churned in his tub with an air of utter obliviousness to anything beyond, and Dick, suspicious of the symptoms, edged away a few paces.
“See here,” he said presently, “you tell me about Sim—her husban’, you know—an’ I’ll show you the stuff. Got ten grains in two han’fuls Satterdee.”
“S’welp yer bob?”
Tinker was convinced. He ceased puddling, leaned on his shovel, and commenced awkwardly, and with great labour—conversation was difficult to him, coherent narrative impossible:
“Well, this here Simon Brett, he was the feller what fought Hoppy Hoffman up on the pound, eighteen rounds, and licked him, got killed in a fall in Number 3—him, an’ Ryan, an’ Bowden, an’ Kit Stevens—Collard’s shift. I was platman. Strappin’ chap, Sim; alwiz smilin’; he’d work smilin’, an’ fight smilin’. Happy sorter man. She was his missus, this idjit.”
Dickie wanted further particulars, and, as Tinker had evidently agreed to an armistice, he abandoned his defences and approached the fossicker.
“But you knew him an’ his wife; you went ter their house sometimes, didn’t you? What ’id he call her? How’d he talk when he was bein’ lovin’ like? Was they sweethearts long, an’ did they walk in the wattle paddocks, an’ sit on the rocks on Bullock Hill?”
Dick had a riotous fancy, and Tinker was as unimaginative as a wombat, but by dint of close questioning he managed to get out of the old man much of the information he needed, and after that he waited his opportunity.
Agnes did not visit the mine for nearly two weeks, and when Dick saw her again it was too late to effect his purpose; she was already crouched at the mouth of the shaft. Her face was pressed to one of the narrow openings, and she wept with a low moaning sound. Dick touched her thin, pale hand, and spoke to her.
“Who’s there, please?” His heartbeat heavily and erratically, and he trembled, although he did not fear the mad woman in the least.
She arose, and stood regarding him for a moment. The boy pointed to the shaft.
“Won’t he come?” he asked eagerly, but she moved away without appearing to have heard him, and he followed her slowly, and from the top of the big gates watched her dark figure across the moonlit flat.
After that he waited for her, and when she came again he was ready. He hastened to the shaft and pulled away one end of the side slab, having found some days previously that the spike was loose. Then he squeezed his body through the opening, and stood in the pump shaft on the topmost rung of the ladder that ran straight down the wall of the shaft. Grasping the ladder with his left hand, with the other he dragged the slab—still secured with one spike—into its place again, and, clinging to the rungs in the tomb-like silence, he waited.
The mighty black depths seemed to drag at the boy as he stood, drawing and drawing him down into the abyss at his feet, and, as if irritated at his bold intrusion, the mysteries muttered and moaned and eddied impatiently, and an ominous threatening seemed to murmur in the hollow workings. But the boy was too full of his purpose to give any heed to these when Agnes came, and he saw the light of her eyes as she bent her face to the crevice just above his head. He felt her breath upon his cheek as she called the name of her dead lover, repeating the word again and again in the mournful chant so familiar to him. There was no coherency in the words that followed. They sounded like an inarticulate prayer, instinct with intensest emotion, but softly spoken.
Dick listened for a time, absorbed, and presently, when she seemed awaiting a reply, he brought his lips close to her face, and whispered a few words:
“Aggie, dear wife!”
The boy had not anticipated the full effect of his action. A wild cry of joy rang out upon the night and awakened eddying echoes in the deep shaft, and the woman flung herself upon the slabs, beating them with her thin hands, plucking at their edges with long, white fingers, sobbing, laughing, and calling upon the dead in an ecstasy of madness that appalled him, and he clung to the ladder, trembling in every limb.
Dick had never before succeeded in winning a reply from the woman. When he met her at the mine or wandering in the bush, and spoke to her, feeling that she pleaded for something in that strange language of hers, and hoping that he might be able to help her, since none of the men and women of Waddy gave heed to her sorrow, she regarded him with great unmeaning eyes that did not see; in their gaze he seemed to have no existence; and if she spoke it was only in the tangled speech of madness. He expected she would hear and understand the voice in the shaft, and believe her husband had answered her at last.
It was long ere Dick found courage to speak again, but when Agnes was silent, save for the faint sobbing that escaped her, he leant back his head and whispered close to her face, and her hot tears fell upon his cheek. She did not shriek this time, but babbled a few words, and finished laughing softly.
Dickie addressed her with expressions of endearment and pet names learned from the old fossicker, and finding her calm and rapt, he wove quaint fancies from fairy tales into his talk, as he had planned it, and at times his words were almost as mad as her own, but he remembered always to dwell upon visions of joy and beauty. He had escaped from the desolation of the old mine, and was going up out of the darkness to light and beatitude, to dwell with the angels in a boyish paradise. The talk was jumbled; it was spoken in the quaint diction peculiar to bush boys; but there was a flavour of inspiration in it, and the mad woman clinging to the slabs above was awakened to some understanding, and laughed a soft, low laugh, and murmured like a happy child.
At length Dickie was recalled to himself by the numbness of his extended arms, and the pain throbbing in his neck.
“I’m goin’ now,” he whispered. “Good-bye, dear wife.”
Pressing his face to the slabs where her white face shone faintly, he kissed her mouth.
She cried out again at the contact—a cry of exultation.
Dick, standing on the ladder, waited till she should leave before climbing out of the shaft. She remained prone upon the slabs, silent, for a long time, but at length she talked, talked almost inaudibly, but with no trace of the anguish that was wont to make her voice like the moaning of a dumb beast in pain. The boy’s limbs ached, and fear began to creep into his heart. Still he was true to his purpose, and after twenty minutes, that seemed half a night to him, Agnes arose and moved slowly away. Dick waited for a few minutes, and then with a great effort, painful to his stiffened limbs, he shifted the slab aside and drew himself out of the shaft. He was replacing the long spike, when, looking up, he saw the mad woman standing erect within a few yards of the shaft, regarding him fixedly. When he faced her she took a step forward, threw out her hands, and with a cry that seemed to the boy to echo among the clouds overhead and in every hollow of the earth, she fell forward upon the stones and lay still. Dick ran to her, and turned her face to the moonlight; it was rigid, the half-closed eyes were glazed. He believed her dead, and fled like’a hunted hare.
Houten and Winter returned with Dick to the mine, and found Agnes as he had left her. They took her up and carried her to her father’s home, the boy going after, with a quaking heart. Then followed a long illness for Agnes and a troublous time for little Mrs. Haddon, who became more and more precautious in the matter of flannel, and doubled the doses of camomile tea, without effecting any visible improvement in Dick’s condition. The boy had become strangely morbid; he grew pale and thin, and whilst his mother fretted, imagining him to be the victim of some wasting disease, he was beset with a fear that Agnes Brett was going to die, and that he would be her murderer. He kept his secret religiously within his own breast, and in his spare time he haunted her father’s farm, sometimes venturing to ask after the sick woman, but usually skulking about as if dreading observation.
At length, to Dick’s immeasurable relief, Agnes was reported out of danger, and Waddy was electrified by the news that Sim’s Idiot had recovered her reason. With the restoration of her health her mind had been restored, and she was now as she had been before the news of her husband’s death struck her down. Happiness returned to the breast of Dickie Haddon, but he still kept to himself the story of his escapade at the mine, waiting for a chance to see Agnes, wondering if she remembered. When at length he saw her face to face he was sadly disillusioned. She sat in an easy chair under the verandah at the farmhouse; the beautiful white hair was done up in a hard, ungainly knot. She looked ordinary—not at all the gentle, spiritual creature he had known. Dick was vaguely troubled. He felt that the responsibility of this deplorable [P.17] change rested upon his shoulders, and was surprised that no-body seemed to regret the alteration in Mrs. Brett.