Then came the news of the approaching marriage of Peter Kiley and Agnes Brett, and that revived the boy’s keenest regrets. His goddess had parted with her last shred of divinity; and was become the commonest of clay, and now she betrayed a callousness that was hardly human. It had come to this: Sim had no one who cared to think of him now but Richard Haddon; his wife had deserted him, his friends had forgotten him, and amongst all the ghosts below and on top there was not one so wretched as the ghost of Agnes’s faithful and devoted lover and husband, poor Brett.
One night about a week after the announcement of the betrothal of Pete and Agnes, Dick and his mate, Dolf Belman, were sitting on the slabs over the pump shaft at the Peep-o’-Day. Dolf had been artfully inveigled to the mine under the pretence of assisting Dick to spread traps for the exceedingly circumspect rabbits that infested the tips, but Dickie had an ulterior motive, and had cunningly shaped the conversation with that motive in view. He had talked of the old mine and its murders, and Dolf was worked up; he crept very close to his mate, and his face glowed palely in the shadow of the cage.
“Say, Dickie,” he murmured, “d’you believe in—you know?” He pointed down into the shaft.
“Ghosts?”said Dick. “No—o—o! D’you?”
Dolf compressed his lips, and nodded his head slowly.
“Yah, that’s rot!” said Dick.
“But don’t they say that some of the men what was killed moves about down there sometimes? An’ what’s that we hear when we listen very quiet?”
“Dunno, but it ain’t no ghosts. Think I ought to know?”
“Oh,” said Dick in a careless tone, “bin down, that’s all.”
Dolf regarded him with wide-open, wondering eyes.
“What,” he murmured, “right down inter the dark?”
“All by yerself?”
Again Dick nodded his head. It will be seen that Richard Haddon was not absolutely truthful. The decalogue was not made for diplomatists.
“Gum!” said Dolf admiringly, “I wouldn’t ’ve.”
“Course you wouldn’t”—this very casually—“you ain’t game.”
This was an unfriendly aspersion; Dolf reddened under it.
“Game’s you any day!”
“Talk’s easy stuff.”
“Climbed the smoke stack ez high ez you, Ginger, see!”
“Ginger” was an epithet that usually provoked battle, but just now Dick was too busy to think of his private honour.
“Pooh! what’s climbin’ a lightnin’ rod. Y’ain’t game t’ go down the ladders t’ the second level.”
“Neither ’r you; don’ b’lieve you went down far.”
“Don’t you? Well if you’re so plucky come down with me. I’m on; an’ I’ll get the candles an’ I’ll go first. Now who’s game?”
“I am!” said Dolf defiantly.
So it was all arranged for the following night, and Dolf was sworn to secrecy with the magical rite of the wet and dry finger and the usual dread incantation, and Dick had secured his object. He wished to go down into the mine, but although he had not Dolfs fear of the ghosts, a strange awe, not altogether painful, possessed him at the thought of meeting Sim alone below in the long drive. With human companionship he felt that he could dare all, and the longing to investigate was strong upon him. Even if Sim was not to be seen, the adventure had attractions apart from his interest in the forlorn ghost. For one thing, boys were forbidden to go near an open shaft, and to the youthful mind, inquisitive and acquisitive, what is forbidden is never wholly forbidding. The weakness of Mother Eve is visited upon her sons, even unto the present generation.
“What’s it like below?” asked Dolf, when the arrangements had been agreed upon.
“Spiffen!” said Dick with enthusiasm. “It ain’t dark, y’know, when the candles is burnin’, an’ the drives is just like a pirate’s lair.”
“My word!” murmured Dick. “An’ no spirits ner nothin’!”
“No—o—o! D’yer think spirits ’d be sich fools ez t’ stay down there. Look here, Dolf, we might find some nuggets. We’ll be miners, an’ I’ll be underground boss, an’ this is our mine. That’ll be all right.”
“My word!” said the other, brightening up, “an’ if we get a pound’s wo’th we can join the lib’ry.”
Dickie nodded cheerfully, and the boys left the mine, forgetting rabbits and everything else in the new venture.
On the following evening at about eight o’clock Dick and Dolf crossed the common together to the mine, and Dick, who was determined that his companion should have no time for repentance, hastily removed the loose slab, and let himself down on to the ladder.
“I’ll go down a bit, an’ then light my candle. Then you come down an’ light yours. We mus’n’t let no one see us.”
Each boy had half a candle fixed to the front of his hat with a lump of clay, and Dick had other pieces in his pocket in case of accident. Both were dressed as nearly like grown miners as they could contrive, and Dick assumed the authoritative tone and manner of the boss of the shift.
“Now,” he said, when Dolf had followed him, and the two stood upon the iron-runged ladder running perpendicularly down the side of the shaft, “cling tight to the ladder whatever you do, an’ keep yer body close to it. Come on.”
So they started the perilous journey down into the bowels of the earth. To go up or down three hundred feet of ladders is a wearisome task for a grown man. To a strong boy, accustomed to climbing, and trusting much to his sturdy limbs, it is not a matter of great difficulty, and the lads made good progress. Below them was densest darkness, about them the faint glow of the candles, above, a pale streak of moonlight, shone the opening they had made. At occasional intervals there were scanty stagings fixed across the shaft to facilitate work in connection with the “lifts”—the pipes up through which water is pumped from a mine—and on these Dickie and his mate rested. Dick talked to keep his mate’s spirits from ebbing, and his words rang strangely and lingered in the walled shaft.
At length the boys came upon a wide staging filling half the shaft, and here several of the centres and strong timbers dividing the pump shaft from the working shaft had been knocked away, and the staging was continued through to where the mouth of the drive loomed in the feeble light.
“That’s the drive,” said Dick. “I don’ know what level we’re at, but we mus’ be a awful way down. What yer doin?”
Dolf was clinging to his arm, and pointing downwards, too horrified to speak. Dick peered over the edge of the staging, and saw two white, ghostly faces glaring up at them out of the blackness, and above the foreheads of these two faces burned yellow stars. For an instant Dick was stricken with pulseless fear, then he remembered.
“Water!” he said.
They were looking at their own reflections in the black waters that filled the rest of the shaft and flooded the lower levels. Dick dropped some bits of reef and the faces were drawn into gruesome distortions and bobbed about fantastically in the ripples.
“I say, y’ ain’t frightened, Dolf, are you?” murmured Dick.
Dolf shook his head, but his face was white, and his teeth chattered painfully as Dick led the way through the opening in the centres and into the great drive.
“There ain’t no sense in being scared by a feller’s own face in the water, is there, Dolf?” said Dickie.
“N-n—no,” said Dolf.
The two small boys stood on the plat peering into the main drive, but their candles illumined only a few yards before them, and beyond that was black night.
“Heaps of gold along there, I bet,” said Dick.
“My oath!” said Dolf, falteringly.
Dickie took the other’s hand.
“Come on,” he said, “let’s go ‘n see. Ain’t this grand? Wouldn’t the other fellows be mad if they knew they was out of this?”
Holding hands, the boys pushed forward. The drive was high and wide, and almost dry, and in a little while Dolf recovered sufficiently to feel quite an interest in Dickie’s exuberant fiction. Their feet made no sound upon the soft floor of the drive, and gradually Dickie drifted into silence. He was thinking of Sim, and a great excitement possessed him as they advanced along the apparently interminable tunnel.
Then, as they turned a curve, with the suddenness of a lime-light picture flashed upon a screen the two boys saw the apparition of a man start out of the darkness. The figure stood by the left-hand side of the drive, in a pale light, the origin of which Dick could not discover. It was dressed like a miner, and was tall and thin, and the pallid face was thrust forward in a listening attitude, the mouth open, the eyes staring.
Dolf uttered a choking cry, and fell upon his knees, clinging wildly to his companion, watching the vision with round, unblinking eyes. Dick had expected something like this. He was disappointed in details; his idea of a ghost was quite conventional, and he particularly admired white flowing draperies; but he was prepared for a spectre of some kind, and as he had never for a moment thought of the disembodied inhabitants of the old mine as evil spirits, or anything but sorrowing, suffering victims, the emotion that now thrilled him had nothing in common with the sickening terror that prostrated his mate. Besides, the ghost was evidently very much more afraid of him than he of it; its whole attitude and expression indicated fear, and it was partly with the hope of reassuring the poor spirit that Dickie spoke:
“Please, ’re you Sim’s ghost?”
The ghost did not answer, but maintained its terrified, listening attitude. Dickie’s mouth was parched, but he made another effort, and adopted a more respectful manner of address.
“Please, are you the ghost of Simon Brett?”
The ghost thought for a moment, and then nodded a slow affirmative; thought again, and nodded twice.
“Oh, please! oh, please!” whispered Dolf in piteous appeal.
“Who’re you, an’ what d’ yer want?” The ghost seemed to be disguising its voice.
“I’m Dickie—Richard Haddon.” Dick approached a step, but the ghost threw out its hand with a commanding gesture.
“Don’t come no nearer,” it said.
Richard Haddon’s idea of a ghost was undergoing a process of rapid reconstruction. He knew that “Don’t come no nearer” was a most ungrammatical expression, and he understood that whatever latitude might be given mere mortals, ghosts were always expected to be absolutely correct in speech.
“Are there any more of you?” asked the ghost.
“On’y me an’ Alfred Belman,” said Dick.
“Oh! ghost, let us go, won’t you?” moaned Dolf. “Let us go, an’ we’ll never come again—never, never, never!”
“I ain’t goin’ t’ hurt you.” said the ghost. “Why d’ yer come here?”
“Jist to see,” answered Dick.
The ghost seemed very much astonished, and looked at them for some time as if confronted with a difficult problem. Meanwhile, Dick was thirsting for information.
“Why d’ you stay down here alwiz?” he asked.
“Gotter!” answered the ghost briefly.
“But why?” persisted the mortal.
This was another problem for the ghost, and he gave it due consideration. Evidently Sim’s ghost was a spirit of very limited mental resource. The explanation was a long time coming. At length he said:
“It’s like this, yer see: I mus’ stay till someone dies what cares for me, an’ then the spirit of the one what’s dead will come an’ take me away.”
This was an inspiration. Dickie nodded approvingly; it quite coincided with his cherished convictions. He knew who the someone must be, and a thought of the impending marriage flitted across his mind.
“But there ain’t nobody t’ know, ’r else I’ll have t’ stay on here fer ever,” continued the ghost in a mournful voice. “P’raps youse two won’t count, ’cause yer sich little fellers, but yer mus’ swear solemn never t’ say a word to a livin’ soul, ’r I’ll lock yer both up in a shoot an’ keep yer fer ever an’ ever. Amen.”
“We swear! we swear!” moaned Dolf. “Never a word—never a blessed word, true ‘s death!”
“I take me oath I’ll never speak,” said Dick firmly.
“Wha’s a good oath t’ swear with?” asked the ghost.
Manifestly a satisfactory ghost should have been well up in such things, but Dick was not disposed to be hypercritical, remembering that at the best Sim’s ghost could have had few opportunities down there of acquiring experience and enlarging its mind. He readily suggested the familiar formula much venerated by the boys of Waddy, and the ghost made the two boys kneel down in the drive, and administered the oath to them very solemnly and with great deliberation.
“Now,” he said, when the ceremony was ended, “d’ yer know what’ll happen to the boy what breaks a hoath like that?”
The boys shook their heads dumbly, and Dolf, who had regained his feet, began to quake.
“Well, I’ll tell yer. He’ll be haunted. Day an’ night he’ll be haunted. Little fiends’ll stick forks in him all day, an’ a big fiend’ll chase him o’ nights. He’ll ——”
Dolf’s shaking limbs refused to support him, and Dick had to hold him up. He uttered half-stifled cries of terror, and the ghost broke off suddenly, and regarded the boy anxiously for a few moments.
“That’ll on’y happen if yer split, yer know,” he said, relenting. “’Cause if yer split I’ll be changed into a bad ghost—a reg’lar out-an’-out bad un’; an’ I’ll jest delight in scarin’ boys a’most t’ death. But you fellers ain’t goin’ t’ tell anyone,” he continued, hastily. “You don’ wanter ruin a poor ghost, I know. You’ll be true t’ me, won’t yer?”
“Fer ever an’ ever,” said Dick, solemnly.
“That’s all right. Then ye’ll alwiz have good luck. An’ now ain’t yer best be goin’?”
He had been regarding Dolf critically, anxiously, all the time, and he spoke again as if for his benefit.
“Mind, there ain’t no cause to be funky if yer don’t blab. ’S long as yer straight an’ square ye’ve got a ghost what’s yer bes’ friend, recollec’ that.”
Sim’s ghost had not moved from the spot on which he stood when they first saw him, and it seemed to Dick that the light surrounding him shone from an excavation in the side of the drive. The ghost raised his hand awkwardly as if asking a blessing, and said:
“So long! Time’s up.”
Dolf tugged at Dick’s arm, and the boys turned away, and hastened down the drive towards the shaft.
“Remember!” the ghost called after them. “No reason t’ be afraid so long ez yer don’t split. Bes’ friend!”
The ghost did more: when they had gone a little distance he started after them, walking gingerly to make no noise, fearing that the knowledge that he was following would add to the terror that afflicted young Belman. When he reached the plat the boys were already far up the shaft, and Dickie’s voice could be faintly heard advising and encouraging his mate.
Dolf went first, and he climbed with blind haste. Dick had to hold him to force him to rest upon the staging.
“Grip hard, an’ go slow an’ careful, Dolf,” was his constant warning. He had heard that advice given by old miners. “Keep close to the ladder. There’s lots o’ time, Dolf. Nothin’ t’ be afraid of, you know. He’s a jolly good sort, that ghost. Eh—don’t you think?”
But Dolf spoke never a word; his face was white and set; when they stood on the staging his eyes turned up to the light above, and he never ceased to tremble. It was now that Dick experienced real, cold terror. He feared that his mate would fall, and if he fell death was certain.
Dolf did not fall. He reached the top safely, and Dick almost lifted him through the opening, and dragged himself through after, quite exhausted, and down below the ghost mopped his cold, damp forehead with his sleeve, and murmured fervently—“Thank God! thank God!”
Dolf Belman remained for a couple of minutes prostrate on the ground, and then he scrambled to his feet, and started towards home, Dickie walking by his side, doing all he could to reassure him. At the Belmans’ gate Dickie held his mate for a moment:
“No tellin’s, Dolf,” he said, anxiously.
Dolf shook his head.
“Not even t’ yer mother!”
“No, no, not a word. So help me!—never, never, never!”