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After the Accident

Edward Dyson

ONE MAN sat upon a heap of broken reef near the face, with his broad palms supporting his chin. His thin, hollow cheeks showed, between the out-spread fingers, a sickly yellow in the candle-light. One candle in a spiked holder burned against the side of the drive. Two billies and two full crib-bags hung near on dog-hooks driven in an upright leg, and at the man’s feet lay a couple of picks and a shovel. Kyley sat with his back to the face, staring with glowing, vindictive eyes into the gathered gloom down the drive, where the passage to the shaft was choked to the roof with splintered timber and fallen mullock, and where the head of a second man was dimly visible. Only the head and shoulders of this other were free; the rest of his body was hidden under the débris . The second man was thrown face downwards; across his back, pinning his arms, lay the great cap-piece, which alone seemed heavy enough to have crushed the life out of him. Beyond this the tumbled reef and splintered slabs were piled to the roof.

But the buried miner was not dead. The tough red-gum log, forced down by the mighty pressure, had ploughed its way diagonally down the side of the drive, and pinched him to the floor, stopping when the pressure of another inch must have been followed by certain and speedy death. A stout iron truck was jammed under the log beside him, torn and doubled like a cardboard box. The young man could lift his chin a few inches from the floor of the drive, and turn his face from one side to the other, but was incapable of any other movement.

Presently he spoke. His voice came with an effort, and sounded feebly shrill, like that of a very old man.

“Dick, Dick! in the name o’ God, speak, man! D’ye think there’s a chance fer us?”

Dick Kyley dropped his hands, and there was an expression of grim satisfaction in his gaunt face as he replied deliberately—“There’s a chance for me, William. ”

The buried man lifted his clay-smirched face, startled by the other’s tone, and gazed eagerly at his mate, and continued gazing for fully a minute, puzzled and frightened by the incongruous levity in the face that confronted him. Then, the position becoming painful, he dropped his cheek in the wet clay again.

“What d’ye mean?” he asked anxiously. “Why only fer you?”

“Because, William, I don’t think you’ve got a dog’s Show.”

The reply was without a trace of sympathy; there was, in fact, a touch of malicious banter in the mincing tone of the “William.” William Hether had never been anything but “Hether” or “Bill” to his shift-mate before.

Again Hether looked anxiously into Kyley’s face. Its cadaverous hollows were filled with dark shadows, and the high-lights brought out the salient features in a grotesque caricature that struck Hether as simply fiendish. He turned from the sight, with a new horror in his heart.

“This ain’t no time to fool a man, Dick,” he said humbly. “How can there be any chance fer you if I ain’t in it?”

Kyley arose, plucked the candle from the wall, and advancing close to his mate held the flame low down and showed him a small pool of water gathered upon the floor within 18 inches of his face.

“That’s why,” he said.

Hether understood, and a cry broke from his lips.

“Keep it back, Dick!” he gasped.

“William,” said Kyley, calmly replacing the candle and resuming his former position on the reef, “you’re a fool. That water’s coming in from the face, as usual. The fall has dammed the gutters, and it can’t get away; consequently, in less’n five hours the pool will be above your ears. And you know what that means.”

“But you can build a dam around me. Get the shovel-quick! Make a dam with that loose reef an’ the clay off the floor. Dick, Dick! give us a chance, for God’s sake, man!”

Hether stopped short, staring at the other, who sat calmly regarding him. Presently he spoke again in a quavering whisper:

“You won’t see a man drown without lendin’ a hand t’ help him?”

“No, I won’t see it,” replied Kyley, “because I’m goin’ to douse this light. A candle burns up the air, an’ I’ll want all there is here, I reckon, before the boys reach me.”

Driven almost wild with terror, a terror occasioned no less by the grim significance of Kyley’s leering countenance and the brutality of the words than by the horrors of his position, Hether began to plead piteously, with tears and moanings. The pain of broken bones and the sickness of exhaustion had quite unmanned “Big Bill Hether;” but his agony did not touch the heart of Kyley, who seemed to have forgotten that death also threatened him in the delight that the young man’s sufferings awakened within his breast.

“Why’ve you rounded ’on me, Dick? What’ve I done—what ‘ve I ever done?” moaned the helpless man.

“I’m not goin’ to lift a finger to keep you out of hell,” answered the other, “because of her, William—because of Hannah.”

Bill turned his face to the light again, and once more he stared at Kyley, sharply, inquiringly, reading ever line of his fateful countenance. Then a groan of despair broke from him.

“I’ll go away, Kyley,” he said—“true’s Christ, if we get out I’ll go away, an’ you’ll never hear of me again. Only make a dam. Quick, man, quick—it’s comin’! God! this is worse than murder. Dick——-”

The water, having filled the depression at the side of the drive, was now running down and forming a pool in the hollow under Hether’s chin.

Kyley turned and blew out the candle. For a long time Hether continued to supplicate in the darkness, and Kyley, leaning comfortably against the face, heard the thin voice, weakening to an almost inarticulate whisper, beseeching by all that is good on earth and holy in heaven for a little grace—another poor chance of life—and answered never a word. By a painful effort the young man continued to keep his mouth above the gathering water, but gradually the torture that afflicted his extended neck became unendurable, and now in his last extremity he railed at Kyley as a murderer, and abused him with curses in weak, childish tones that were nevertheless pregnant with passion, and sounded distinctly and with terrifying emphasis in that black chamber of death.

Suddenly there was silence. Dick Kyley listened, and presently heard a bubbling sound in the water. That ceased, and all was still. He felt now that his vengeance was complete—that Hether was dead, and at that moment the fierce emotions of resentment and revenge—hunger that had possessed and upheld him departed in a breath, and left him weak and cowed. His limbs trembled, and beads of perspiration gathered about the roots of his hair and rolled coldly upon his brow and cheeks. He was thinking, too, of his own wretched case. He heard, fitfully, a distant drumming, the sound of timber being driven home, and knew that the rescue parties were working as hard as men may work, but whether theirs would be a job of hours or days he could not tell, and already he fancied he detected some taint of vitiation in the air.

Dick Kyley, sitting alone in the blackness of his prison, waiting for salvation or death, was soon the victim of an ungovernable fear, a supernatural terror entirely new to him, and the more awful for its novelty. From the moment he believed Hether dead he began to fear him. He strove with all the energy of his strong sense to drive him from his thoughts, but do what he might his mind would revert to the dread subject, and his eyes turn, staring intently into the darkness, where at times they seemed to detect a yet blacker form in the pitch-black night that filled the drive—the shape of the dead man’s head. The horror grew, and with it an agonizing conviction that Hether’s dead face was staring at him with dead but seeing eyes. Imagination had pictured the pallid cheeks stained with blood and clay, and the wide, accusing eyes, till the vision became a reality to him. Tortured beyond endurance, Kyley fumbled in his pocket and found a match, which he struck upon the shovel blade. As the light filled the chamber a groan of relief broke from the miner’s labouring breast. Only the back of Hether’s head was visible; his face was sunk to the temple in the water. Dick extinguished the match—his last—and sat down again, only to struggle with another relay of horrors that presently arose against him.

William Hether still lived. He had discovered that by taking a deep breath and sinking his face till the forehead rested upon the clay he was enabled to allay the pain in his neck and to continue the struggle. He persisted in this course, noiselessly, for the sound of the rescuers at work had filled him with a glorious hope, and with that hope had come a fear that Kyley might be moved to murder him if he thought his rescue possible.

So another hour fled. The water in the drive, which had now found a broad level, continued to rise slowly. Kyley had lost the power of appreciating time, and sat huddled against the wall, distraught with fear and despair. Hether’s face was haunting him again, standing forth visibly, threatening and awful in the tomb-like darkness. His mad fancy stretched every hour of his imprisonment into a long day, and he believed that it was his fate to be stifled by the foul gases from his mate’s decomposing corpse. Even now the taint was in his nostrils. Although he was listening all the time with agonized intensity, he no longer heard the hammering of the miners beyond; his mind was too full of its unspeakable fear—he awaited the attack of the inhuman thing that his irresponsible faculties had fashioned out of the impenetrable gloom at the end of his narrow prison. At this crisis Hether called again, in a piercing voice, full of the supreme terror:—

“Help! help! Kyley, you murderer! fiend devil——”

At the first sound of the voice, Kyley sprang back against the end of the drive, and shrieked, with all the power of his lungs, again and again; and there he remained, crouched down, pressing his face into the gravel, clutching his ears, shivering and moaning.

Three hours later the rescuers broke through, and found Hether under the fall, with his head in a pool of water, dead, and Kyley squatting at the face, babbling of spectres and devils.

It is still Mr. Richard Kyley’s quaint belief that he is a conspicuous figure in hell.

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