“‘Drame,’ d’ye call it?” muttered Brown from his bunk. “I thouoht you had the buckin’ fantods; you howled like a madman.”
“Be Hiven, I don’t wonder thin. I thought I was pumpin’ away in the place below there, whin thim two sets at the bottom av the incline came away, an’ I saw Lane crushed under thim. His dead face was starin’ out av the heap at me, all battered an’ bloody, an’ ghost-like in the candle-light. Faith, an’ I ain’t much amused wid these lone shifts!”
The boys grinned at O’Brien’s fears, but Gleeson muttered something about the manager being “d—d well hanged” for not giving an eye to that timber, and Gleeson was considered an authority.
Bartholomew O’Brien was a Bungaree native. In Bungaree the natives are more Milesian than the Irish. Bart had for Father Cassidy a great, childlike veneration that the ribald stories told of His Reverence by Bart’s sceptical hut-mates could not shake; and his belief in the wonders and mysteries of his religion and the folklore of his mother’s country was profound. Bartholomew had also ruddy cheeks, and an unreliable heart.
It was Sunday evening at Waddy, hot and thirst-provoking. His mates were lounging about in their trousers on the tumbled bunks, but O’Brien was due on the plat at nine o’clock, and was dressed in his working clothes. He was a trucker at the Hand-in-Hand, and it was his turn to go below into the mine and pump the water over the incline at the head of the main drive on the lower level. Every Sunday night, after the long shift off, this work had to be done by one of the truckers, so that the face might be dry for the first night-shift, coming on at one a.m. None of the boys liked the job—O’Brien hated it. In the presence of a tangible danger he was as game a fellow as any in the district, but his superstition—an ineradicable inheritance intensified by early influences that bring the emotional side of the unlettered believer to an unhealthy development, and leave to the man the reasoning faculties of the child—made him little more than an irresponsible idiot when his imagination ran riot amongst the spooks and wraiths. He had an extraordinary stock of mottoes, religious and legendary, for warding off the spirits, and possessed all the portable charms obtainable; but his faith was not as powerful as his fears, and, in spite of these spiritual arms and armour, he dreaded to be alone in the murderous old mine with the ghosts of its many dead.
On going to the bottom level that night, and threading the course of the long, tortuous main drive, the trucker found the water below the incline higher than usual. The heavy iron pump stood over a slab-covered well in a small chamber about ten feet by six, dug in the side of the drive. It was worked with a back-racking up-and-down stroke, and lifted the water into pipes, which carried it to the higher ground, whence it drained to the shaft. The face was quite a thousand yards from the plat; and the sound from the air-pipe, like the laborious breathing of some gigantic animal afar off, offered no relief from the oppressive stillness and the deathly atmosphere of the drive.
It is a trying thing to a man afflicted with the accumulated superstitions of a hundred generations to be left alone for any time in the deep, extensive workings of an old mine, every drive, and winze, and shoot in which has its tale of blood and suffering. Bart O’Brien stuck his candle to the side of the chamber, and paused to listen. The terror was already strong upon him: his mouth was dry, and his heart beat like a plunger, catching his breath at every pulsation. The chamber was deep enough down and hot enough to suggest its proximity to the flaming home of all the damned devils in whose existence Bartholomew implicitly believed. He had done solitary duty several times at the pump, but never before had his horror of it been so great as to-night. His dream recurred to him, and he glanced uneasily towards the suspicious sets. He was a believer in the portents of dreams—he expected something to come of this one.
Catching at the long handle, Bart began to pump, almost in desperation. Up and down, up and down there was relief in action, and he worked fiercely. The pump had been oiled recently, and ran smoothly and noiselessly. This irritated him—he wanted hard work, something material to fight with. And then the “click, clack,” would have gone well to the rhythm of an ancient Irish rhyme which his old mother held to be infallible in keeping the elves from cows, and which he was wont to mutter all the time when beset by supernatural enemies.
So hard was the mental battle O’Brien was fighting that bodily pain or weariness never obtruded. With bent head and tightly-closed eyes he toiled at the big pump, whilst the perspiration streamed from him and ran through the folds of his scant clothing. Sometimes the face of Geordie Lane, corpse-white and bloodstained, as he had seen it in his dream, thrust itself upon him; then his brows met in cords, his hands gripped the iron with a force that split his callous fingers, the handle took a quicker, longer sweep, and the water boiled and foamed into the wooden gutter in the drive.
Bart worked in this manner till about half-past eleven; then he was startled by a gurgling, choking sound in the well beneath his feet, and fell back into one corner of the chamber with an exclamation, his eyes staring, full of fear.
The pump was drawing air! He had done four hours’ hard work in little over half the time. The drive was dry.
The young man’s left arm was rubbed raw from the elbow to the wrist, and his indurated hands were bleeding profusely from several deep cracks. Bart gazed at the blood stupidly, and presently found himself listening again—listening in the profound silence, out of which he heard at length the distinct patter of footsteps. Small flakes of clay were falling from the roof of the drive on to the muddy floor, but what little reasoning power Bart had was lost by this time in a passion of superstitious fear. He clutched the pump-handle once more, but it rose and fell loosely, with a clatter, and drew no water.
With nothing for his hands to do, O’Brien was no longer able to control his thoughts; they ran over the history of the mine—its list of killed. He recalled the story of Martin’s ghost haunting the old balance-shaft, whilst the spirit of his wife, who died of grief, sought for him after every shift in the next level. He remembered with startling vividness Rooke, the braceman, as he looked spread upon the plat-sheets after falling down five hundred feet of shaft-battered into a horrible mass, out of which the face stood forth, ghastly white, and unmarked, though the brain was laid bare as cleanly as by surgeon’s saw. Then passed before his eyes in grisly procession, showing their fearful wounds—Bill the trucker, killed at No. 5 by a fall; Carter, brained in the shaft; Praer and Hopkins, smashed in the runaway cage; Moore and German Harry, blown up in the well when sinking; and Lane, pinched under the shattered timber right before his eyes there in the drive.
O’Brien was crouching in the corner. No longer understanding that it was only in a dream he had seen Lane killed, he expected a ghost to start up before his eyes—a ghost with mangled limbs and a pale, blood-stained face. He remained thus for some time, fighting the dread as it grew upon him. At length he started up, and his fear found vent in a yell that echoed shrilly through the workings. He meant to rush into the drive and make his way to the shaft, but struck his head against the pump-handle at the first stride, and was hurled back into the water, which had risen again to the height of several inches.
The blow and the drenching steadied Bart a little, and he started pumping once more, with nervous energy. Whilst he worked, the candle fell from the wall and hissed out in the wet clay. He had no matches. In a few minutes the pump was drawing wind again, and now O’Brien’s greatest trial began.
The darkness was solid, substantial—the young man felt it weighing upon him with a pressure as of deep water, and his sense of solitude and awe was such as might be known by the last, lone man in a waste, sunless world. At times he crushed his ears with his hands to shut out the dreadful silence, and then he heard the passing of spirit feet, the muffled beat of wings, sobbing sounds, and long moans dying away beyond the distant curves. His treacherous eyes saw fleeting forms and tense, inhuman faces traced in faint, phosphorescent lines on the dense, black wall that stood up before him. His agonized fears had now obtained complete mastery of him, his mind ran in a frenzy from horror to horror, and an intolerable dread filled his soul with hellish expectations.
He stood transfixed at the back of the chamber, his arms outspread, his fingers dug knuckle-deep in the sodden reef. His eyes stared as in death, and his mouth was open wide, the fallen lower jaw jerking spasmodically. His greatest terror was of the thing he had seen at the chamber-door—the corpse-face under the splintered timbers. He saw it now, white as quartz, with clots of blood hiding the eyes; he felt its presence—it mouthed at him—threatened him.
Out of the darkness and the silence of death came a faint rumbling sound, like far-off thunder. It swelled and drew nearer. It roared in the drive, and from the inky blackness, in a pale yellow light, Lane rose up with a bloody face, and caught at O’Brien.
A minute or two later the men of the night-shift were shocked to meet Lane rushing back from the face like a maniac, with a dead man in his truck.
“Yes,” he answered, “I slipped into that crab-hole at the second curve going up, and knocked my forehead on the truck.”