Below and On Top

Below and On Top

Chapter III

Edward Dyson

DICK was as mischievous an imp as the township was afflicted with—and the boys of Waddy were even more prone than boys of other places to the evil that is dear to the young heart everywhere; but the other boys did not take their pranks seriously, as he did. His exuberant fancy invested his absurdest escapades with a high purpose and a most tremendous dignity. If he led a moonlight raid upon Jock Summer’s pear trees it was in the character of a mediaeval knight of spotless honour and god-like beauty, and the purpose was to rescue from an ungainly, gross, and remorseless baron some fair, distressful damsel. He stole the pears all the same, and was careful to secure his share of the loot, but for the time being imagination held sway. To his mates it was all entertaining make-believe—to Dick Haddon it was all actual, and, as the knight of old, Thunderbolt the bushranger, or Jacky Jacky, the chief of a bloodthirsty band of blacks, the boy’s romanticism helped largely to keep the lives of the housewives and housefathers of Waddy from sinking into an enervating monotony of peaceful dulness.

But Dick had not enlisted the co-operation of the mates who usually shared in his boyish pranks in this, his most wonderful adventure. For some time now he had deserted the haunts of his youthful companions, and there was comparative calm in Waddy. The boys were very well as subordinate blacks or inferior banditti, but in a matter of pure sentiment Dick felt instinctively that he could expect no sympathy from them—they would not understand. The radiant unearthliness of the mad woman had never appealed to them; they were indifferent to her white beauty, like that of the shining angels pictured in the Haddon family bible. They were just plain boys, and the plain boy is perilously near to the brute at times in the entire absence of motive and thought that characterizes his cruelties. Dick’s fiercest battle was fought with Fod Carroll, who led an attack with sods on Agnes Brett on the Back Flat, and Fod, bewildered by the impetuosity of his small enemy, collapsed miserably in the third round. That fight was long remembered in Waddy; it created a new respect for Dickie among the boys, and fixed his status as the natural leader in any matter of common interest in which he chose to interfere.

There was one boy, indeed, in whom he might have confided—Dolf Belman, a youngster of about his own age, who provided most of his books and was his lieutenant in many adventures; but Dick, in his sick unrest, wanted no companionship. The more he saw of Mrs. Brett—and she rapidly grew plump and ruddy—the more bitterly he lamented the act of his that had so altered her. He who had been most anxious to serve her had been the one to bring about this deplorable change, this transformation of an ethereal creature into a giggling dairymaid.

One evening Dick Haddon saw Agnes Brett walking with Peter Kiley in the wattle paddock, and Peter—the long, ungainly son of a long, ungainly dairyman up the creek—was making awkward and bashful love to Mrs. Brett, whilst the buxom widow made a great pretence of resisting his elephantine blandishments, with shrill laughter and coy protestations.

Dickie fled from the sight, filled with bitterness and, seeking the seclusion of the Peep-o’-Day, blubbered miserably on the slabs over the pump shaft for twenty minutes.

How would Sim bear it? was a question that now presented itself to his active mind. Agnes had not been seen near the mine since her recovery—she never seemed to think of it or of her dead husband now. Did the spirit imprisoned in the old mine miss her? Was it waiting to hear her calling again in the early evening hours? The boy’s faith was absolute; he knew that the drives were peopled with the spirits of the mine’s victims, and that his father’s ghost, and the chosts of Brett, and Bowden, and Ryan, and the rest walked the drives, and talked in strange, low, monotonous voices. He had heard them talking, had distinguished words, he thought, when all was still. How could he doubt? But he thought only of Brett, the forsaken husband, the neglected lover, the poor spirit whom his act had deprived of its only companionship and consolation, and he spent much time peering down through the cracks and harassing his young soul with most extravagant conjecture.

The morbid condition induced by these truly preposterous problems was the occasion of many more doses of camomile tea, extra strong, and Mrs. Haddon, in her perplexity, called in elderly female experts, who, having reared large families in spite of all the ills that are the heritage of youth, believed themselves to be, and were generally believed to be, capable of diagnosing every ailment and prescribing innumerable infallible cures. These old women gravely considered Dickie’s symptoms, and suggested many remedies, with most of which he was duly afflicted at one time or another; but the boy refused to brighten up and resume his old, healthy, careless, impish courses under the influence of either pill, potion, plaster, or unction, or the lot together.

Meanwhile, however, Dick had resolved to speak to Mrs. Brett at the first opportunity. He was curious to know her thoughts on the matter uppermost in his mind. He had the idea that her present condition of mind and body was abnormal, and that she might be brought back to her former romantic state if she were made to understand that the spirit of her dead husband wandered in the Peep-o’-Day workings and yearned to hear her voice again.

Later the boy saw Mrs. Brett at the Sunday-school anniversary picnic. She was now ruddy-cheeked and full-breasted. Clad in a tight town-made dress, and with her wonderful hair dyed a common brown, she was romping with a shrieking crowd playing kiss-in-the-ring, and a sense of hopelessness took possession of Dickie as he watched; but presently, when she had taken a seat on a log apart from the rest, and was fanning herself after her exertions, he approached her, and straddling the same butt, commenced, with a boy’s abruptness:

“Ain’t you never goin’ ter the Peep-o’-Day no more?”

Agnes Brett turned upon him, astonished and indignant. Her father had told her of her doings during the time of her affliction, and she hated any allusion to that time from the lips of others.

“If you’re cheeky, little boy, I’ll box your ears for you,” she said, with a threatening gesture.

Dicky did not wince, but sat looking up at her, like a small, red-headed cherub in rather indifferent health, and Agnes, who was as soft of heart as any breathing creature, was touched by the wan expression of the ailing imp.

“Ain’t meanin’ it fer cheek,” said Dick, picking nervously at the bark; “I jes wanter know.”

“Well, I am not going—I am well now—an’ you mus’ never talk about it.”

“Why?” Dick moved nearer. “I say, d’ you know me?”

“The boy Haddon.”

“Yes, but d’ you remember me before you was like this”—he suggested everything in a gesture—“when you was tall, an’ white, an’ beautiful?”

“No,” she said, “I do not, an’you mus’n’t talk about it, don’t I tell you?”

“Say, it was me what did this!”—again he indicated the change with a motion of the hands, as if it were a deplorable thing.

“Whatever is the boy meanin’?”

“’Twas me what did it. You useter go to the shaft of nights, an’ once I frightened you, an’—an’ then it happened.”

“What happened?” There was none other within earshot, and Agnes was curious.

“Everythin’ happened. You wanted him to come up outer the mine, an’ went callin’, callin’ fer him. So once I got into the shaft, and when you called I spoke like him, and kissed you, an’ you cried out. An’ then, when I climbed up again, you saw me, and fell down on the stones. An’ when you was well you was like this, an’ it was all my fault.”

Dick looked utterly woebegone. It had occurred to him that his confession might provoke trouble, but he was quite unprepared for the demonstration that followed. Agnes Brett took him unawares, and he found himself caught up in her strong arms and half smothered in a long, pillowy embrace, whilst rapturous kisses were rained upon the top of his head. When at length he escaped, and stood off regarding Agnes resentfully, he was quite bedewed with her grateful tears.

“Oh! Dickie Haddon!” she gasped. “Oh! Dickie Haddon!” and she could gasp nothing else but “Oh! Dickie Haddon!” for quite a minute, during which time her ample bosom was disturbed by most strenuous emotions, and Dickie stood at a distance ready for flight should she betray any desire to repeat that overwhelming hug.

“You—you—you dear boy!” stammered Mrs. Brett, when she gained a little control over her feelings.

“It was you who saved me, an’ I’ll love you all my life.”

Dick fled to the other side of the log to escape a threatened advance.

“Ain’t you comin’ t’ the mine again some o’ these nights?” he asked, doggedly. He could not appreciate her raptures—they were quite uncalled for, it seemed to him.

“No,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare. Don’t you see I am quite well now. I only went because I didn’t know what I was doin’.”

“But Sim! He is down in the drive where he died. He will want you sometimes. Come an’ talk to him, won’t you?” he went on, eagerly. “Come to-night—Just for a little while. I don’t think he hears me, an’ it mus’ be dreadful lonely below, don’t you think, with no one t’ talk to ever?”

Agnes regarded the boy curiously for a few moments.

“Come here, an’ sit near me,” she said. “I want to talk to you about him. Do you think he is down in the mine—always there?”

“Not himself, jest his ghost.”

“You think so because you heard me talkin’ to him. Well, that was all wrong; I went because somethin’ was the matter with my head, an’ I fancied strange things. There is no ghost in the mine, an, you must never say so any more, or you will make me very wretched, an’ remind people of the time when I was”—she dropped her voice to an impressive whisper—“when I was mad.”

“But he is there, I’ve heard him myself,” said Dick, to whom Mrs. Brett’s confessions were only further proof of the completeness of her pitiful fall from grace, and sweetness, and truth.

A terrified light crept into the woman’s eyes, and her cheek paled. She was intensely superstitious, and the boy’s earnestness impressed her; but at this stage Peter Kiley shambled up and captured Mrs. Brett for his partner in one of the osculatory games always popular at Waddy picnics, and Dickie retired into the sapling scrub to indulge in rueful cogitation and contemplate his great hatred for long Pete Kiley.

“It was a rotten picnic!” was Dick’s opinion, as imparted to Dolf next day.

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