“Spiffin!” responded the junior partner, with gloomy enthusiasm.
“Got a fine eye,” continued the senior member, envious and meditative.
“Rippin’ golden hair!”
“An’ teeth. Say, Glover’s luck’s in.”
The senior partner got up, stretched his ridiculously long limbs, sighed heavily, and incontinently slid below, using the paid-out rope as a medium. The junior partner sighed with greater intensity as he caught the last dove-like flutter between the trees, and stationed himself at the windlass for an hour’s pulling combined with grave meditation.
Lucy Davis was nobody in particular to the firm of Slack and Samson. The emotions excited in the honest souls of the partners when that charming young creature smiled up at them in passing, from out the grateful shade under the wide brim of her sun-hat, were felt in a like manner by the majority of the single men on the lead every time Miss Lucy’s natty summer dresses came flitting through the bushes, and might be defined as a momentary discontent with their own loneliness, and a vague hope that fate might some day bestow upon them just such another little mate as Lucy Davis. These emotions were, however, combined with a sense of personal ill-treatment, for it was felt that the prize was not bestowed with discrimination in this instance.
Fate, however, has few like Miss Lucy in stock; the supply is small and the demand unlimited. She was nineteen, below the average height, fair, with a glorious burden of bright chestnut hair, which, despite her impatient efforts to brush it down smooth, in accordance with the prevailing style, would persist in running up in soft, regular ripples again almost immediately, to the great satisfaction of all beholders. She had large, shy blue eyes, with long lashes, and arched brows two shades darker than her hair. It is, perhaps, after all, a waste of effort to attempt to describe a face—we may say this feature is thus, and that is so and so, and every reader will picture a different countenance—but Miss Lucy’s was perfection glorified. It had that light that seems to invite protection, and which proud, arrogant man so appreciates in the woman he loves. Her figure was slight but well rounded, there was a touch of native dignity in her walk, and her natural gaiety was demurely restrained by a due appreciation of the enormous responsibilities of a young lady of nineteen who had to keep house—no, tent—for father.
Miss Lucy wended her way along the brow of the hill towards the head of the lead until she reached the claim of Messrs. Davis and Glover. Here she seated herself on the reef, under the shade of the “win’sa’l” that hung limply in the shaft, and, producing materials from her basket, proceeded to knit a stocking to a merry tune, sung very softly, whilst the strokes of picks drummed faintly in the bowels of the earth below, and the rosellas, swinging, head downwards from the boughs of an adjacent white gum and burying their heads in the abundant blossom, murmured an occasional twitter of gluttonous satisfaction. The belle of Mount Moliagul had not been knitting many minutes before a spasmodic jerking of the windlass rope caused her to drive her needles at express speed and assume a deceitful air of pre-occupation. The oscillations of the rope became shorter and quicker, and presently a hairy arm came into view; it was followed by a hairy face, and a small, bright man of about 45, with splashes of clay on his face and in his whiskers, and alternate patches of clay and candle-grease pretty well all over him, drew himself up quietly and seated himself on the edge of the shaft; he watched the young lady for a few moments, and marked with apparent satisfaction the delicate briar-rose pink of her cheek, and the little moist curls upon her brow and about her small ears. Miss Lucy’s preoccupation was now very intense indeed.
“’Ello, ugly!” said the small, bright man. “You here?”
“’Ello, dad! that you?” Lucy was surprised.
“That’s me; s’pose you expected someone better, eh?”
“Someone better, dad! There’s no one better on this lead. Goin’ t’ pull dirt?”
“No; goin’ over to Buckley’s forge t’ point these picks.” Davis had now landed several used-up tools.
“There ain’t much haulin’ t’ do, Loo. Th’ durned reef’s ez hard ez iron; if she don’t make fresh we’ll have t’ do some shootin’. When I come back I’ll send George up t’ get th’ water out, though; I suspect that’ll do you.”
Miss Loo insisted that she was not particularly anxious to have George on the surface, but her loving parent was incredulous, and retreated, grinning in an old-fashioned way. It would have been difficult for the young lady to explain exactly how she felt towards Mr. George Glover. She was going to marry him, she believed, and had never entertained any serious objection to the arrangement. He was a fine big fellow, good-looking enough, young enough, steady enough, and suitable enough for a miner’s daughter; he had been her father’s mate for two years, and she liked him. They had associated a good deal during their acquaintance, had taken long walks together, and there was a tacit understanding that they were to be husband and wife “some day.” George had never taken her in his arms, and said—“I love you—be my wife;” he was not that kind of young man. He was a heavy sort of fellow, physically and intellectually; he thought that when a man visited a girl frequently and they strolled together and were civil to each other for a certain length of time they naturally meant matrimony, and there was no necessity for any excitement about the matter. He was immensely pleased with the state of affairs, but he was unworthy of his luck—it is ridiculous to waste champagne on a man who would be as well pleased with beer. Mr. Glover could not appreciate the pretty, piquant damsel whom fortune was about to lavish on him as she deserved.
“Halloa! on top there!”
“Er yer goin’ t’ send down that blessed pick, or must I stick here an’ freeze?”
This was Mr. Glover; he was in a bad temper evidently. Her father had forgotten the pick, but she could send it down easily enough. It was a simple matter to fasten the pick on the rope; she had seen it done times out of mind, and knew how perfectly well.
“Hi, hi” she responded in her father’s voice.
There was a sharp pick by the windlass-stand—that must be the one; in a few seconds it was on the rope.
“Look up, below!”
She gave the rope a pull and the windlass revolved rapidly, but, to the great horror of the girl, the pick had no sooner swung into the shaft than it keeled right over and slipped out of the hitch. There was a whiz, followed by a cry and a splash, and then silence. In that second of time every vestige of colour had fled from Lucy’s face. She fell on her knees and peered wildly down into the darkness below.
“George!” Something in her throat choked the cry, and it was only a harsh whisper.
“George! George!” Her voice had broken its bonds now and was shrill and agonized.
“Speak, George! dear George, why don’t you answer me?”
Not a whisper came back, and the girl arose to her feet again and gazed towards the other claims along the load with desperate eyes. Her face was strangely transformed by the agony of fear that possessed her—it looked old and drawn. The thought that flashed upon her was that the pick had struck her lover as he waited to receive it at the mouth of the drive; the well-boards were off, and he would assuredly be driven into the water by the blow, so that if he were not already dead, he would drown before assistance came. Her mind was made up in an instant; there were no men on the surface at the other mines, and there was no time to call them up. She had a horror of the dark, echoing shafts, but that was forgotten now. She paid out the rope with desperate energy, and when that was done seized it with her small hands and started down as she had often seen the men do. Her feet slipped mechanically into the toe-holes on either side of the narrow shaft, and no touch of fear, no thought of her danger, entered her soul. There were rough sets of timber at various distances upon which she might have rested, but she did not pause for an instant. Down, down, with a numbed body and a mind so confused that she scarcely realized what she was doing, and at length her feet struck upon a slab that had been thrown across the well, and she stood upright, her eyes yet blinded by the sudden transition from the bright sunlight.
She could now dimly discern a dark figure moving in the drive before her. The exclamation of amazement was followed by a roar of laughter that lasted nearly a minute and shocked the girl terribly. She was leaning against the side of the shaft, trembling in every limb, and from the tips of her lacerated fingers large drops of blood fell into the water.
“You—you were not hurt, then?” she contrived to whisper.
“Hurt, no! I thought I’d scare you. But who’d a-thought you’d have the pluck to come down! By thunder, it’s rich!” And again he laughed immoderately.
She could comprehend at last. He was safe, he had played a brutal joke upon her, and that coarse merriment was the reward of her action. She despised him for it. The revulsion of feeling left her weak and sick.
“Be quick,” she said; “you must pull me up. I can’t breathe here!”
“I didn’t reckon on you comin’ down, you know,” he said apologetically, struck by the peculiar tone of her voice.
“I must go on top!”
He hooked the hide bag on the rope, showed her how to ride by placing one foot in the bag and steadying herself with the other, and then hastened up the shaft.
“Look up, below!”
She felt the rope tighten, and was drawn up again towards the surface. Her father returned whilst Glover was at the windlass, and he was now kneeling at the mouth of the hole, peering anxiously down at the set white face slowly rising out of the subterranean gloom.
“Quicker, man!” gasped the father, something in that face striking a thrill of horror through his frame.
“Quicker, for the love of heaven! Almighty God!” Davis clutched madly at the bleeding hands, but they slipped down the rope from under his fingers, the girl sank back, the windlass whizzed, and she was gone.
She was still breathing when they brought her broken form to the surface, but on the following afternoon she died.