There was a laborer up in one of these chambers with whom Ralph had formed quite a friendship. His name was Michael Conway. He was young and strong-limbed, with huge hairy arms, a kind face, and a warm heart.
He had promised to teach Ralph the art of breaking and loading coal. He expected, he said, to have a chamber himself after a while, and then he would take the boy on as a laborer. Indeed, Ralph had already learned many things from him about the use of tools and the handling of coal and the setting of props. But he did not often have an opportunity to see Conway at work. The chamber in which the young man was laboring was the longest one in the tier, and the loaded car was usually at the foot of it when Ralph arrived with his trip of lights; so that he had only to run the empty car up into the air-way a few feet, take on the loaded one, and start back toward the plane.
But one afternoon, when he came up with his last trip for the day, he found no load at the foot of Conway's chamber, and, after waiting a few minutes, he went up to the face to investigate. He found Conway there alone. The miner for whom the young man worked had fallen sick and had gone out earlier than usual, so his laborer had finished the blast at which the employer had been at work. It was a blast of top-coal, and therefore it took longer to get it down and break it up. This accounted for the delay.
"Come up here with ye," said Conway to the boy; "I want to show ye something."
Ralph climbed up on to the shelf of coal at the breast of the chamber, and the man, tearing away a few pieces of slate and a few handfuls of dirt from a spot in the upper face, disclosed an opening in the wall scarcely larger than one's head. A strong current of air coursed through it, and when Conway put his lamp against it the flame was extinguished in a moment.
"Where does it go to?" asked Ralph.
"I don't just know, but I think it must go somewhere into the workin's from old No. 1 slope. The boss, he was in this mornin', and he said he thought we must be a-gettin' perty close to them old chambers."
"Does anybody work in there?"
"Oh, bless ye, no! They robbed the pillars tin years ago an' more; I doubt an ye could get through it at all now. It's one o' the oldest places in the valley, I'm thinkin'. D'ye mind the old openin' ye can see in the side-hill when ye're goin' up by Tom Ballard's to the Dunmore road?"
"Yes, that's where Uncle Billy worked when he was a miner."
"Did he, thin! Well, that's where they wint in. It's a long way from here though, I'm thinkin'."
"Awful strong wind goin' in there, ain't they?"
"Yes, I must block it up again, or it'll take all our air away."
"What'll your miner do to-morrow when he finds this place?"
"Oh, he'll have to get another chamber, I guess."
The man was fastening up the opening again with pieces of slate and coal, and plastering it over with loose wet dirt.
"Well," said Ralph, "I'll have to go now. Jasper's gettin' in a hurry. Don't you hear 'im?"
Conway helped the boy to push the loaded car down the chamber and fasten it to his trip.
"I'll not be here long," said the man as he turned back into the air-way, "I'll take this light in, an' pick things up a bit, an' quit. Maybe I'll catch ye before ye get to the plane."
"All right! I'll go slow. Hurry up; everybody else has gone out, you know."
After a moment Ralph heard Conway pushing the empty car up the chamber, then he climbed up on his trip, took the reins, said, "giddep" to Jasper, and they started on the long journey out. For some reason it seemed longer than usual this night. But Ralph did not urge his beast. He went slowly, hoping that Conway would overtake him before he reached the plane.
He looked back frequently, but Mike, as every one called him, was not yet in sight.
The last curve was reached, and, as the little trip rounded it, Ralph's attention was attracted by a light which was being waved rapidly in the distance ahead of him. Some one was shouting, too. He stopped the mule, and held the cars back to listen, but the sound was so broken by intervening pillars and openings that all he could catch was: "Hurry! hurry—up!" He laid the whip on Jasper's back energetically, and they went swiftly to the head of the plane. There was no one there when he reached it, but half-way down the incline he saw the light again, and up the broad, straight gallery came the cry of danger distinctly to his ears.
"Hurry! hurry! The breaker's afire! The shaft's a-burnin'!—run!"
Instinctively Ralph unhitched the mule, dropped the trace-chains, and ran down the long incline of the plane. He reached the foot, rounded the curve, and came into sight of the bottom of the shaft. A half-dozen or more of men and boys were there, crowding in toward the carriage-way, with fear stamped on their soiled faces, looking anxiously up for the descending carriage.
"Ralph, ye're lucky!" shouted some one to the boy as he stepped breathless and excited into the group. "Ye're just in time for the last carriage. It'll not come down but this once, again. It's a-gettin' too hot up there to run it Ye're the last one from the end chambers, too. Here, step closer!"
Then Ralph thought of Conway.
"Did Mike come out?" he asked. "Mike Conway?"
As he spoke a huge fire-brand fell from the shaft at their feet, scattering sparks and throwing out smoke. The men drew back a little, and no one answered Ralph's question.
"Has Mike Conway come out yet?" he repeated.
"Yes, long ago; didn't he, Jimmy?" replied some one, turning to the footman.
"Mike Conway? no it was Mike Corcoran that went out. Is Conway back yet?"
"He is!" exclaimed Ralph, "he is just a-comin'. I'll tell 'im to hurry."
Another blazing stick fell as the lad darted out from among the men and ran toward the foot of the plane.
"Come back, Ralph!" shouted some one, "come back; ye've no time; the carriage is here!"
"Hold it a minute!" answered the boy, "just a minute; I'll see 'im on the plane."
The carriage struck the floor of the mine heavily and threw a shower of blazing fragments from its iron roof. At the same moment a man appeared from a lower entrance and hurried toward the group.
"It's Conway!" cried some one; "he's come across by the sump. Ralph! ho, Ralph!"
"Why, where's Ralph?" asked Conway, as he crowded on to the carriage.
"Gone to the plane to warn ye," was the answer."
"Wait the hoisting bell, then, till I get 'im."
But the carriage was already moving slowly upward.
"You can't do it!" shouted some one.
"Then I'll stay with 'im!" cried Conway, trying to push his way off. "Ralph, oh, Ralph!"
But the man was held to his place by strong arms, and the next moment the smoking, burning carriage was speeding up the shaft for the last time.
Ralph reached the foot of the plane and looked up it, but he saw no light in the darkness there. Before he had time to think what he should do next, he heard a shout from the direction of the shaft:—
"Ralph! oh, Ralph!"
It was Conway's voice. He recognized it. He had often heard that voice coming from the breast of Mike's chamber, in kindly greeting.
Quick as thought he turned on his heel and started back. He flew around the curve like a shadow.
"Wait!" he cried, "wait a minute; I'm a-comin'!"
At the foot of the shaft there was a pile of blazing sticks, but there was no carriage there, nor were there any men. He stumbled into the very flames in his eagerness, and called wildly up the dark opening:
"Wait! come back! oh, wait!"
But the whirring, thumping noise of a falling body was the only answer that came to him, and he darted back in time to escape destruction from a huge flaming piece of timber that struck the floor of the mine with a great noise, and sent out a perfect shower of sparks.
But they might send the carriage down again if he rang for it.
He ran across and seized the handle of the bell wire and pulled it with all his might. The wire gave way somewhere above him and came coiling down upon his head. He threw it from him and turned again toward the opening of the shaft. Then the carriage did descend. It came down the shaft for the last time in its brief existence, came like a thunderbolt, struck the floor of the mine with a great shock and—collapsed. It was just a mass of fragments covered by an iron roof—that was all. On top of it fell a storm of blazing sticks and timbers, filling up the space at the foot, piling a mass of wreckage high into the narrow confines of the shaft.
Ralph retreated to the footman's bench, and sat there looking vaguely at the burning heap and listening to the crash of falling bodies, and the deep roar of the flames that coursed upward out of sight. He could hardly realize the danger of his situation, it had all come upon him so suddenly. He knew, however, that he was probably the only human being in the mine, that the only way of escape was by the shaft, and that that was blocked.
But he did not doubt for a moment that he would be rescued in time. They would come down and get him, he knew, as soon as the shaft could be cleared out. The crashing still continued, but it was not so loud now, indicating, probably, that the burning wreckage had reached to a great height in the shaft.
The rubbish at the foot had become so tightly wedged to the floor of the mine that it had no chance to burn, and by and by the glow from the burning wood was entirely extinguished, the sparks sputtered and went out, and darkness settled slowly down again upon the place.
Ralph still sat there, because that was the spot nearest to where human beings were, and that was the way of approach when they should come to rescue him.
At last there was only the faint glimmer from his own little lamp to light up the gloom, and the noises in the shaft had died almost entirely away.
Then came a sense of loneliness and desolation to be added to his fear. Silence and darkness are great promoters of despondency. But he still hoped for the best.
After a time he became aware that he was sitting in an atmosphere growing dense with smoke. The air current had become reversed, at intervals, and had sent the smoke pouring out from among the charred timbers in dense volumes. It choked the boy, and he was obliged to move. Instinctively he made his way along the passage to which he was most accustomed toward the foot of the plane.
Here he stopped and seated himself again, but he did not stay long. The smoke soon reached him, surrounded him, and choked him again. He walked slowly up the plane. When he reached the head he was tired and his limbs were trembling. He went across to the bench by the wheel and sat down on it. He thought to wait here until help should come.
He felt sure that he would be rescued; miners never did these things by halves, and he knew that, sooner or later, he should leave the mine alive. The most that he dreaded now was the waiting, the loneliness, the darkness, the hunger perhaps, the suffering it might be, from smoke and foul air.
In the darkness back of him he heard a noise. It sounded like heavy irregular stepping. He was startled at first, but it soon occurred to him that the sounds were made by the mule which he had left there untied.
He was right. In another moment Jasper appeared with his head stretched forward, sniffing the air curiously, and looking in a frightened way at Ralph.
The boy spoke cheerily, because he was relieved from sudden fright, and because he was glad to see in the mine a living being whom he knew, even though it was only a mule.
The beast came forward and pushed his nose against Ralph's breast as if seeking sympathy, and the boy put up his hand and rubbed the animal's face.
"We're shut in, Jasper," he said, "the breaker's burned, an' things afire have tumbled down the shaft an' we can't get out till they clean it up an' come for us."
The mule raised his head and looked around him, then he rested his nose against Ralph's shoulder again.
"We'll stay together, won't we, old fellow? We'll keep each other company till they come for us. I'm glad I found you, Jasper; I'm very glad."
He patted the beast's neck affectionately; then he removed the bridle from his head, unbuckled the harness and slipped it down to the ground, and tried to get the collar off; but it would not come. He turned it and twisted it and pulled it, but he could not get it over the animal's ears. He gave up trying at last, and after laying the remainder of the harness up against the wheel-frame, he sat down on the bench again.
Except the occasional quick stamping of Jasper's feet, there was no sound, and Ralph sat for a long time immersed in thought.
The mule had been gazing contemplatively down the plane into the darkness; finally he turned and faced toward the interior of the mine. It was evident that he did not like the contaminated air that was creeping up the slope. Ralph, too, soon felt the effect of it; it made his head light and dizzy, and the smoke with which it was laden brought back the choking sensation into his throat. He knew that he must go farther in. He rose and went slowly along the heading, over his accustomed route, until he reached a bench by a door that opened into the air-way. Here he sat down again. He was tired and was breathing heavily. A little exertion seemed to exhaust him so. He could not quite understand it. He remembered when he had run all the way from the plane to the north chambers with only a quickening of the breath as the result. He was not familiar with the action of vitiated air upon the system.
Jasper had followed him; so closely indeed that the beast's nose had often touched the boy's shoulder as they walked.
Ralph's lamp seemed to weigh heavily on his head, and he unfastened it from his cap and placed it on the bench beside him.
Then he fell to thinking again. He thought how anxious Bachelor Billy would be about him, and how he would make every effort to accomplish his rescue. He hoped that his Uncle Billy would be the first one to reach him when the way was opened; that would be very pleasant for them both.
Mrs. Burnham would be anxious about him too. He knew that she would; she had been very kind to him of late, very kind indeed, and she came often to see him.
Then the memory of Robert Burnham came back to him. He thought of the way he looked and talked, of his kind manner and his gentle words. He remembered how, long ago, he had resolved to strive toward the perfect manhood exemplified in this man's life. He wondered if he had done the best he could. The scenes and incidents of the day on which this good man died recurred to him.
Why, it was at this very door that the little rescuing party had turned off to go up into the easterly tier of chambers. Ralph had not been up there since. He had often thought to go over again the route taken on that day, but he had never found the time to do so. He had time enough at his disposal now, however; why not make the trip up there? it would be better than sitting here in idleness to wait for some sign of rescue.
He arose and opened the door.
The mule made as if to follow him.
"You stay here, Jasper," he said, "I won't be gone long."
He shut the door in the animal's face and started off up the side-heading. There had not been much travel on this road during the last year. Most of the chambers in this part of the mine had been worked out and abandoned.
As the boy passed on he recalled the incidents of the former journey. He came to a place where the explosion at that time had blown out the props and shaken down the roof until the passage was entirely blocked.
He remembered that they had turned there and had gone up into a chamber to try to get in through the entrances. But they had found the entrances all blocked, and the men had set to work to make an opening through one of them. Ralph recalled the scene very distinctly. With what desperate energy those men worked, tearing away the stones and dirt with their hands in order to get in the sooner to their unfortunate comrades.
He remembered that while they were doing this Robert Burnham had seated himself on a fallen prop, had torn a leaf from his memorandum book and had asked Ralph to hold his lamp near by, so that he could see to write. He filled one side of the leaf, half of the other side, folded it, addressed it, and placed it in the pocket of his vest. Then he went up and directed the enlargement of the opening and crawled through with the rest. Here was the entrance, and here was the opening, just as it had been left. Ralph clambered through it and went down to the fall. The piled-up rocks were before him, as he had seen them that day. Nothing had been disturbed.
On the floor of the mine was something that attracted his attention. He stooped and picked it up. It was a piece of paper.
There was writing on it in pencil, much faded now, but still distinct enough to be read. He held his lamp to it and examined it more closely. He could read writing very well, and this was written plainly. He began to read it aloud:—
"My DEAR WIFE,—I desire to supplement the letter sent to you from the office with this note written in the mine during a minute of waiting. I want to tell you that our Ralph is living; that he is here with me, standing this moment at my side."
The paper dropped from the boy's trembling fingers, and he stood for a minute awe-struck and breathless. Then he picked up the note and examined it again. It was the very one that Robert Burnham had written on the day of his death. Ralph recognized it by the crossed lines of red and blue marking the page into squares.
Without thinking that there might be any impropriety in doing so, he continued to read the letter as fast as his wildly beating heart and his eyes clouded with mist would let him.
"I have not time to tell you why and how I know, but, believe me, Margaret, there is no mistake. He is Ralph, the slate-picker, of whom I told you, who lives with Bachelor Billy. If he should survive this trying journey, take him immediately and bring him up as our son; if he should die, give him proper burial. We have set out on a perilous undertaking and some of us may not live through it. I write this note in case I should not see you again. It will be found on my person. Do not allow any one to persuade you that this boy is not our son. I know he is. I send love and greeting to you. I pray for God's mercy and blessing on you and on our children.
A PERILOUS PASSAGE.
For many minutes Ralph stood, like one in a dream, holding the slip of paper tightly in his grasp. Then there came upon him, not suddenly, but very gently and sweetly, as the morning sunlight breaks into a western valley, the broad assurance that he was Robert Burnham's son. Here was the declaration of that fact over the man's own signature. That was enough; there was no need for him to question the writer's sources of knowledge. Robert Burnham had been his ideal of truth and honor; he would have believed his lightest word against the solemn asseveration of thousands.
The flimsy lie coined by Rhyming Joe no longer had place in his mind. He cared nothing now for the weakness of Sharpman, for the cunning of Craft, for the verdict of the jury, for the judgment of the court; he knew, at last, that he was Robert Burnham's son, and no power on earth could have shaken that belief by the breadth of a single hair.
The scene on the descending carriage the day his father died came back into his mind. He thought how the man had grasped his hands, crying, in a voice deep and earnest with conviction:—
"Ralph! Ralph! I have found you!"
He had not understood it then; he knew now what it meant.
He raised the paper to the level of his eyes, and read, again and again, the convincing words:—
"Do not allow any one to persuade you that this boy is not our son. I know he is."
Then Ralph felt again that honest pride in his blood and in his name, and that high ambition to be worthy of his parentage, that had inspired him in the days gone by. Again he looked forward into the bright future, to the large fulfilment of all his hopes and desires, to learning, culture, influence, the power to do good; above all, to the sweetness of a life with his own mother, in the home where he had spent one beautiful day.
He had drawn himself to his full height; every muscle was tense, his head was erect with proud knowledge, high hope flashed from his eyes, gladness dwelt in every feature of his face.
Then, suddenly, the light went out from his countenance, and the old look of pain came back there.
His face had changed with his changing thought as it did that day in the court-room at Wilkesbarre. The fact of his imprisonment had returned into his mind, and for the moment it overcame him. He sat down on a jutting rock to consider it. Of what use was it to be Robert Burnham's son, with two hundred feet of solid rock between him and the outside world, and the only passage through it blocked with burned and broken timbers?
For a time despondency darkened his mind and despair sat heavily upon him. He even wished that the joy of this new knowledge had not come to him. It made the depth of his present misfortune seem so much greater.
But, after a while, he took heart again; courage came back to him; the belief that he would be finally saved grew stronger in his mind; hope burned up brightly in his breast, and the pride of parentage within him filled him with ambition to do what lay in his power to accomplish his own deliverance. It was little he could do, indeed, save to wait with patience and in hope until outside help should come, but this little, he resolved, should be done with a will, as befitted his birth and position.
He folded the precious bit of paper he had found and fastened it in his waistcoat pocket so that he should not lose it as Robert Burnham had lost it; then he took up his lamp and went back through the half-walled entrance, down the chamber and along the side-heading to the air-way door where Jasper had been left.
There was a small can of oil sitting just inside the door-way. It was the joint property of Ralph and the door-boy. It was fortunate, he thought, that he had selected that place for it, as he was now in great need of it. He filled his lamp, from which the oil had become nearly exhausted, and then passed out through the door.
The mule was still there and uttered a hoarse sound of welcome when he saw the boy.
"I found somethin' up there, Jasper," said Ralph, as he sat down on the bench and began to pat the beast's neck again, "somethin' wonderful; I wish I could tell you so you could understand it; it's too bad you can't, Jasper; I know you'd be glad."
The mule seemed to recognize the pleasantness of the lad's voice and to enjoy it, and for a long time Ralph sat there petting him and talking to him.
Finally, he became aware that the air about him was growing to be very bad. It made him feel sick and dizzy, and caused his heart to beat rapidly.
He knew that he must go farther in. He thought, however, to make an attempt to get out toward the shaft first. It might be that it had grown clearer out there, it might be that the rescuers were already working down toward him. He started rapidly down the heading, but before he had gone half-way to the head of the plane, the smoke and the foul air were so dense and deadly that he had to stop and to crawl away from it on his hands and knees. He was greatly exhausted when he reached the air-way door again, and he sat on the bench for a long time to rest and to recover.
But he knew that it was dangerous to remain there now, and, taking the can of oil with him, he started slowly up the heading. He did not know how soon he should get back here, and when the oil in his lamp should give out again he desired to be able to renew it.
The mule was following closely behind him. It was a great comfort, too, to have a living being with him for company. He might have been shut up here alone, and that would have been infinitely worse.
At the point where the branch leading to the new chambers left the main heading, Ralph turned in, following his accustomed route. It seemed to him that he ought to go to places with which he was familiar.
He trudged along through the half-mile of gang-way that he had always found so lonely when he was at work, stopping now and then to rest. For, although he walked very slowly, he grew tired very easily. He felt that he was not getting into a purer atmosphere either. The air around him seemed to lack strength and vitality; and when, at last, he reached the tier of chambers that it had been his duty to supply with cars, he was suffering from dizziness, from shortness of breath, and from rapid beating of the heart.
At the foot of Conway's chamber Ralph found a seat. He was very weak and tired and his whole frame was in a tremor.
He began to recall all that he had heard and read about people being suffocated in the mines; all the stories that had ever been told to him about miners being shut in by accident and poisoned with foul air, or rescued at the point of death. He knew that his own situation was a critical one. He knew that, with the shaft crowded full of wreckage and giving no passage to the air, the entire mine would eventually become filled with poisonous gases. He knew that his present physical condition was due to the foulness of the atmosphere he was breathing. He felt that the situation was becoming rapidly more alarming. The only question now was as to how long this vitiated air would support life. Still, his courage did not give way. He had strong hope that he would yet be rescued, and he struggled to hold fast to his hope.
The flame of his lamp burned round and dim, so dim that he could scarcely see across the heading.
The mule came up to him and put out his nose to touch the boy's hand.
"I guess we may as well stay here. Jasper," he said. "This is the furthest place away from the shaft, an' if we can't stan' it here we can't stan' it nowhere."
The beast seemed to understand him, for he lay down then, with his head resting on Ralph's knee. They remained for a long time in that position, and Ralph listened anxiously for some sound from the direction of the shaft. He began to think finally that it was foolish to expect help as yet. No human being could get through the gas and smoke to him. The mine would first need to be ventilated. But he felt that the air was growing constantly more foul and heavy. His head was aching, he labored greatly in breathing, and he seemed to be confused and sleepy. He arose and tried to walk a little to keep awake. He knew that sleep was dangerous. But he was too tired to walk and he soon came back and sat down again by the mule.
"I'm a-tryin', Jasper," he said, "I'm a-tryin' my best to hold out; but I'm afraid it ain't a-goin' to do much good; I can't see much chance"—
He stopped suddenly. A thought had struck him. He seized his lamp and oil-can and pushed ahead across the air-way and up into Conway's chamber.
The mule arose with much difficulty and staggered weakly after him. A new hope had arisen in the boy's heart, an inspiration toward life had put strength into his limbs.
At the breast of the chamber he set down his lamp and can, climbed up on to the shelf of coal, and began tearing out the slate and rubbish from the little opening in the wall that Conway had that day shown to him. If he could once get through into the old mine he knew that he should find pure air and—life.
The opening was too small to admit his body, but that was nothing; there were tools here, and he still had strength enough to work. He dragged the drill up to the face but it was too heavy for him to handle, and the stroke he was able to make with it was wholly without effect. His work with the clumsy sledge was still less useful, and before he had struck the third blow the instrument fell from his nerveless hands.
He was exhausted by the effort and lay down on the bed of coal to rest, gasping for breath.
He thought if only the air current would come from the other mine into this what a blessing it would be; but, alas! the draft was the other way. The poisoned air was being drawn swiftly into the old mine, making a whistling noise as it crossed the sharp edges of the aperture.
Ralph knew that very soon the strong current would bring in smoke and fouler air, and he rose to make still another effort. He went down and brought up the pick. It was worn and light and he could handle it more easily. He began picking away at the edges of coal to enlarge the opening. But the labor soon exhausted him, and he sat down with his back against the aperture to intercept the passage of air while he recovered his breath.
He was soon at work again. The hope of escape put energy into his weak muscles.
Once, a block as large as his two hands broke away and fell down on the other side. That was a great help. But he had to stop and rest again. Indeed, after that he had very frequently to stop and rest.
The space was widening steadily, but very, very slowly.
After a time he threw down the pick and passed his head through the opening, but it was not yet large enough to receive his body.
The air that was now coming up the chamber was very bad, and it was blue with smoke, besides.
The boy bent to his task with renewed energy; but every blow exhausted him, and he had to wait before striking another. He was chipping the coal away, though, piece by piece, inch by inch.
By and by, by a stroke of rare good-fortune, a blow that drew the pick from the lad's weak hands and sent it rattling down upon the other side, loosened a large block at the top of the opening, and it fell with a crash.
Now he could get through, and it would be none too soon either. He dropped his oil-can down on the other side, then his lamp, and then, after a single moment's rest, he crawled into the aperture, and tumbled heavily to the floor of the old mine.
It was not a great fall; he fell from a height of only a few feet, but in his exhausted condition it stunned him, and he lay for some minutes in a state of unconsciousness.
The air was better in here, he was below the line of the poisoned current, and he soon revived, sat up, picked up his lamp, and looked around him.
He was evidently in a worked-out chamber. Over his head in the side-wall was the opening through which he had fallen, and he knew that the first thing to be done was to close it up and prevent the entrance of any more foul air.
There was plenty of slate and of coal and of dirt near by, but he could not reach up so high and work easily, and he had first to build a platform against the wall, on which to stand.
It took a long time to do this, but when it was completed he stood up on it to put the first stone in place.
On the other side of the opening he heard a hoarse sound of distress, then a scrambling noise, and then Jasper's nose was pushed through against his hand. The mule had stood patiently and watched Ralph while he was at work, but when the boy disappeared he had become frightened, and had clambered up on the shelf of coal at the face to try to follow him. He was down on his knees now, with his head wedged into the aperture, drawing in his breath with long, forced gasps, looking piteously into the boy's face.
"Poor Jasper!" said Ralph, "poor fellow! I didn't think of you. I'd get you in here too if I could."
He looked around him, as if contemplating the possibility of such a scheme; but he knew that it could not be accomplished.
"I can't do it, Jasper," he said, rubbing the animal's face as he spoke. "I can't do it. Don't you see the hole ain't big enough? an' I couldn't never make it big enough for you, never."
But the look in Jasper's eyes was very beseeching, and he tried to push his head in so that he might lay his nose against Ralph's breast.
The boy put his arms about the beast's neck.
"I can't do it, Jasper," he repeated, sobbing. "Don't you see I can't? I wisht I could, oh, I wisht I could!"
The animal drew his head back. His position was uncomfortable, and it choked him to stretch his neck out that way.
Ralph knew that he must proceed with the building of his wall. One after another he laid up the pieces of slate and coal, chinking in the crevices with dirt, keeping his head as much as possible out of the foul current, stopping often to rest, talking affectionately to Jasper, and trying, in a childish way, to console him.
At last his work was nearly completed, but the gruff sounds of distress from the frightened mule had ceased. Ralph held his lamp up out of the current, so that the light would fall through the little opening, and looked in.
Jasper lay there on his side, his head resting on the coal bottom, a long, convulsive respiration at intervals the only movement of his body. He was unconscious, and dying. The boy drew back with tears in his eyes and with sorrow at his heart. The beast had been his friend and companion, not only in his daily toil, but here also, in the loneliness and peril of the poisoned mine. For the time being, he forgot his own misfortunes in his sympathy for Jasper. He put his face once more to the opening.
"Good-by, Jasper!" he said, "good-by, old fellow! I couldn't help it, you know, an'—an' it won't hurt you any more—good-by!"
He drew back his head, put the few remaining stones in place, chinked the crevices with dirt and culm, and then, trembling and faint, he fell to the floor of the old mine, and lay there, panting and exhausted, for a long time in silent thought.
But it was not of himself he was thinking; it was of poor old Jasper, dying on the other side of the black wall, deserted, barred out, alone.
Finally it occurred to him that he should go to some other place in the mine. The poisonous gases must still be entering through the crevices of his imperfectly built and rudely plastered wall, and it would be wise for him to get farther away. His oil had nearly burned out again, and he refilled his lamp from the can. Then he arose and went down the chamber.
It was a very long chamber. When he reached the foot of it he found the entrances into the heading walled up, and he turned and went along the air-way for a little distance, and then sat down to rest.
For the first time he noticed that he had cut his hands badly, on the sharp pieces of coal he had been handling, and he felt that there was a bruise on his side, doubtless made when he fell through the opening.
Hitherto he had not had a clear idea as to the course he should pursue when he should have obtained entrance into the old mine. His principal object had been to get into pure air.
Now, however, he began to consider the matter of his escape. It was obvious that two methods were open to him. He could either try to make his way out alone to the old slope near the Dunmore road, or he could remain in the vicinity of Conway's chamber till help should reach him from the Burnham mine.
But it might be many hours before assistance would come. The shaft would have first to be cleared out, and that he knew would be no easy matter. After that the mine would need to be ventilated before men could make their way through it. All this could not be done in a day, indeed it might take many days, and when they should finally come in to search for him, they would not find him in the Burnham mine; he would not be there.
If he could discover the way to the old slope, and the path should be unobstructed, he would be in the open air within half an hour. In the open air! The very thought of such a possibility decided the question for him. And when he should reach the surface he would go straight to Mrs. Burnham, straight to his mother, and place in her hands the letter he had found. She would be glad to read it; she would be very, very glad to know that Ralph was her son. Sitting there in the darkness and the desolation he could almost see her look of great delight, he could almost feel her kisses on his lips as she gave him tender greeting. Oh! it would be beautiful, so beautiful!
But, then, there was Uncle Billy. He had come near to forgetting him. He would go first to Uncle Billy, that would be better, and then they would go together to his mother's house and would both enjoy her words of welcome.
But if he was going he must be about it. It would not do to sit there all night. All night? Ralph wondered what time it had come to be. Whether hours or days had passed since his imprisonment he could hardly tell.
He picked up his lamp and can and started on. At no great distance he found an old door-way opening into the heading. He passed through it and began to trudge along the narrow, winding passage. He had often to stop and rest, he felt so very weak. A long time he walked, slowly, unsteadily, but without much pain. Then, suddenly, he came to the end of the heading. The black, solid wall faced him before he was hardly aware of it. He had taken the wrong direction when he entered the gallery, that was all. He had followed the heading in instead of out. His journey had not been without its use, however, for it settled definitely the course he ought to take to reach the slope, and that, he thought, was a matter of no little importance.
He sat down for a few minutes to rest, and then started on his return. It seemed to be taking so much more time to get back that he feared he had passed the door-way by which he had entered the heading. But he came to it at last and stopped there.
He began to feel hungry. He wondered why he had not thought to look for some one's dinner pail, before he came over into the old mine. He knew that his own still had fragments of food in it; he wished that he had them now. But wishing was of no use, the only thing for him to do was to push ahead toward the surface. When he should reach his mother's house his craving would be satisfied with all that could tempt the palate.
He started on again. The course of the heading was far from straight, and his progress was very slow.
At last he came to a place where there had been a fall. They had robbed the pillars till they had become too weak to support the roof, and it had tumbled in.
Ralph turned back a little, crossed the air-way and went up into the chambers, thinking to get around the area of the fall. He went a long way up before he found an unblocked opening. Then, striking across through the entrances, he came out again, suddenly, to a heading. He thought it must have curved very rapidly to the right that he should find it so soon, if it were the one he had been on before. But he followed it as best he could, stopping very often to catch a few moments of rest, finding even his light oil-can a heavy burden in his hands, trying constantly to give strength to his heart and his limbs by thoughts of the fond greeting that awaited him when once he should escape from the gloomy passages of the mine.
The heading grew to be very devious. It wound here and there, with entrances on both sides, it crossed chambers and turned corners till the boy became so bewildered that he gave up trying to trace it. He pushed on, however, through the openings that seemed most likely to lead outward, looking for pathways and trackways, hungering, thirsting, faint in both body and spirit, till he reached a solid wall at the side of a long, broad chamber, and there he stopped to consider which way to turn. He struck some object at his feet. It was a pick. He looked up at the wall in front of him, and he saw in it the filled-up entrance through which he had made his way from the Burnham mine.
It came upon him like a blow, and he sank to the floor in sudden despair.
This was worse than anything that had happened to him since the time when he ran back to the shaft to find the carriage gone and its place filled with firebrands. His journey had been such a mournful waste of time, of energy, and of hopeful anticipation.
But, after a little, he began to think that it was not quite so bad as it might have been after all. He had his lamp and his oil-can, and he was in a place where the air was fit to breathe. That was better, certainly, than to be lying on the other side of the wall with poor old Jasper. He forced new courage into his heart, he whipped his flagging spirits into fresh activity, and resolved to try once more to find a passage to the outside world.
But he needed rest; that was apparent. He thought that if he could lie down and be quiet and contented for fifteen or twenty minutes he would gain strength and vigor enough to sustain him through a long journey. He arose and moved up the chamber a little way, out of the current of poisoned air that still sifted in through the crevices of his rudely built wall.
Here he lay down on a place soft with culm, to take his contemplated rest, and, before he was aware of it, sleep had descended on him, overpowered him, and bound him fast. But it was a gracious victor. It put away his sufferings from him; it allayed his hunger and assuaged his thirst, it hid his loneliness and dispelled his fear, and it brought sweet peace for a little time to his troubled mind. He was alone and in peril, and far from the pure air and the bright sunlight of the upper world; but the angel of sleep touched his eyelids just as gently in the darkness of this dreadful place as though he had been lying on beds of fragrant flowers, with white clouds or peaceful stars above him to look upon his slumber.
IN THE POWER OF DARKNESS.
Ralph slept, hour after hour. He dreamed, and moved his hands uneasily at intervals, but still he slept. There were no noises there to disturb him, and he had been very tired.
When he finally awoke the waking was as gentle as though he had been lying on his own bed at home. He thought, at first, that he was at home; and he wondered why it was so very dark. Then he remembered that he was shut up in the mines. It was a cruel remembrance, but it was a fact and he must make the best of it. While he slept his oil had burned out, and he was in total darkness. He felt for his oil-can and found it. Then he found his lamp, filled it by the sense of touch, and lighted it. He always carried matches; they had done him good service in the mines before this. He was very thankful too, that he had thought to bring the oil-can. Without it he would have been long ago in the power of darkness. He was still hungry, and thirsty too, very thirsty now, indeed.
He arose and tried to walk, but he was so dizzy that he had to sit down again. He felt better after a little, though, very much better than before he had taken his rest. He wondered how long he had slept, and what progress was being made, if any, toward his rescue. He went down to the opening in the wall, and held his lamp up to it. Threads of smoke were still curling in through the slate and culm, and the air that crept in was very bad. Then, for a little time, Ralph sat there and listened. He thought that possibly he might hear some distant sound of rescue. But there was no noise; the silence was burdensome.
His thirst increased and he was hot and feverish.
At last he rose with the determination to carry out his plan of searching for the old slope.
He knew that it would be worse than useless to stay here.
Besides, he hoped that he might find a stream of water on the way at which to quench his thirst.
He thought of the letter in his pocket, and the desire grew strong within him to read it again. He took it out, unfolded it, and held it close to the light, but there seemed to be a mist before his eyes and he could not distinguish the words. He knew what it contained, though, and that was sufficient for him. He was Robert Burnham's son. His father had been brave and manly; so would he be. His father would have kept up heart and courage to the end, no matter what fate faced him. He determined that the son should do no less. He would be worthy of his parentage, he would do all that lay in his power to accomplish his own safety; if he failed, the fault should not be his.
He folded and replaced the letter, picked up his oil-can, fastened his lamp to his cap and started down the chamber. He felt that he was strong with the strength of inspiration. It seemed to him, too, that he was very light in body. It seemed almost as though he were treading on air, and he thought that he was moving very fast.
In reality his steps were heavy and halting, and his way down the long chamber was devious and erratic. His fancied strength and elasticity were born of the fever in his blood.
He came to the heading. He knew, now, which way to turn, and he passed down it in what he thought was rapid flight.
But here was the fall again. What was to be done now? His last attempt to get around it had been disastrous. He would not try that plan again. He would work his way through it this time and keep to the heading.
He climbed slowly up over the fallen rock and coal and let himself down upon the other side. But it took his breath away, this climbing, and he had to wait there a little while to recover it. There was a clear space before him, though, and he made good progress through it till he came again to the fall.
In this place the rock was piled higher and it was more difficult of ascent. But he clambered bravely up, dragging his oil-can with him; then he moved out along the smooth, sloping surfaces of fallen slate, keeping as close as possible to the wall of the heading, climbing higher and higher, very slowly now, and with much labor, stopping often to rest.
He came, at last, to a place where the space between the fallen rock and the roof above it was so narrow that he could scarcely squeeze his slender body through it. When he had done so he found himself on the edge of a precipice, a place where a solid mass had fallen like a wall, and had made a shelf so high that the feeble rays of Ralph's lamp would not reach to the bottom of it. The boy crawled, trembling, along the edge of this cliff, trying to find some place for descent.
The oil-can that he carried made his movements cumbersome; the surface of the rock was smooth and hard to cling to; his limbs were weak and his fingers nerveless.
He slipped, the can fell from his hand, he tried to recover it, slipped further, made a desperate effort to save himself, failed, and went toppling over into the darkness.
The height was not very great, and he was not seriously injured by the fall; but it stunned him, and he lay for some time in a state of unconsciousness.
When he came to himself, he knew what had happened and where he was. He tried to rise, but the effort pained him and he lay back again. He was in total darkness. His lamp had fallen from his cap and become extinguished. He reached out to try and find it and his hand came in contact with a little stream of water. The very touch of it refreshed him. He rolled over, put his mouth to it and drank. It was running water, cool and delicious, and he was very, very thankful for it.
In the stream he found his lamp. The lid had flown open, the oil was spilled out, and the water had entered. The can was not within reach of him as he lay. He raised himself to his hands and knees and groped around for it. He began to despair of ever finding it. It would be terrible, he thought, to lose it now, and be left alone in the dark.
But at last he came upon it and picked it up. It was very light; he felt for the plug, it was gone; he turned the can upside down, it was empty.
For the moment his heart stopped beating; he could almost feel the pallor in his face, he could almost see the look of horror in his own eyes. From this time forth he would be in darkness. It was not enough that he was weak, sick, lost and alone in the mysterious depths of this old mine, but now darkness had come, thick darkness to crown his suffering and bar his path to freedom. His self-imposed courage had almost given way. It required matchless bravery to face a peril such as this without a murmur, and still find room for hope.
But he did his best. He fought valiantly against despair.
It occurred to him that he still had matches. He drew them from his pocket and counted them. There were seven.
He poured the water from the chamber of his lamp and pulled out the wick and pressed it. He thought that possibly he might make it burn a little longer without oil. He selected one of the matches and struck it against the rock at his side. It did not light. The rock was wet and the match was spoiled.
The next one he lighted by drawing it swiftly across the sleeve of his jacket. But the light was wasted; the cotton wick was still too wet to ignite.
There was nothing left to him, then, save the matches, and they would not light him far. But it was better to go even a little way than to remain here.
He rose to his feet and struck a match on his sleeve, but it broke short off at the head, and the sputtering sulphur dropped into the stream and was quenched. He struck another, this time with success. He saw the heading; the way was clear; and he started on, holding one hand out before him, touching at frequent intervals the lower wall of the passage with the other.
But his side pained him when he tried to walk: he had struck it heavily in his last fall; and he had to stop in order to relieve it. After a time he arose again, but in the intense darkness and with that strange confusion in his brain, he could not tell in which direction to go.
He lighted another match; it sputtered and went out.
He had two matches left. To what better use could he put them than to make them light him as far as possible on his way? He struck one of them, it blazed up, and with it he lighted the stick of the imperfect one which he had not thrown away. He held them up before him, and, shielding the blaze with his hand, he moved rapidly down the narrow passage.
He knew that he was still in the heading and that if he could but follow it he would, in time, reach the slope.
His light soon gave out; darkness surrounded him again, but he kept on.
He moved from side to side of the passage, feeling his way.
His journey was slow, very slow and painful, but it was better to keep going, he knew that.
He had one match left but he dared not light it. He wanted to reserve that for a case of greater need.
The emergency that called for its use soon arose.
The heading seemed to have grown suddenly wider. He went back and forth across it and touched all the pillars carefully. The way was divided. One branch of the gallery bore to the right and another to the left.
Straight ahead was a solid wall. Ralph did not know which passage to enter. To go into one would be to go still farther and deeper into the recesses of the old mine; to go into the other would be to go toward the slope, toward the outer world, toward his mother and his home.
If he could only see he could choose more wisely.
Had the necessity arisen for the use of his last match?
He hesitated. He sat down to rest and to consider the question. It was hard to think, though, with all that whirling and buzzing in his fever-stricken brain.
Then a scheme entered his mind, a brilliant scheme by which he should get more light. He resolved to act upon it without delay. He transferred everything from the pockets of his jacket to those of his waistcoat. Then he removed this outer garment, tore a portion of it into strips, and held it in one hand while he made ready to light his last match. He held his breath while he struck it.
It did not light.
He waited a minute to think. Then he struck it again, this time with success. He touched it to the rags of his coat, and the oil-soaked cloth flashed brightly into flame. He held the blazing jacket in his hand, looked around him for one moment to choose his way, and then began to run.
It was a travesty on running, to be sure, but it was the best he could do. He staggered and stumbled; he lurched rapidly ahead for a little space and then moved with halting steps. His limbs grew weak, his breath came in gasps, and the pain in his side was cutting him like a knife.
But he thought he was going very rapidly. He could see so nicely too. The flames, fanned by the motion, curled up and licked his hand and wrist, but he scarcely knew it.
Then his foot struck some obstacle in the way and he fell. For a moment he lay there panting and helpless, while the burning cloth, thrown from him in his fall, lighted up the narrow space around him till it grew as clear as day. But all this splendid glow should not be wasted; it would never do; he must make it light him on his journey till the last ray was gone.
He staggered to his feet again and ran on into the ever growing darkness. Behind him the flames flared, flickered, and died slowly out, and when the last vestige of light was wholly gone he sank, utterly exhausted, to the floor of the mine, and thick darkness settled on him like a pall.
A long time he lay there wondering vaguely at his strange misfortunes. The fever in his blood was running high, and, instead of harboring sober thought, his mind was filled with fleeting fancies.
It was very still here, so still that he thought he heard the throbbing in his head. He wondered if it could be heard by others who might thus find where he lay.
Then fear came on him, fear like an icy hand clutching at his breast, fear that would not let him rest, but that brought him to his feet again and urged him onward.
To die, that was nothing; he could die if need be; but to be shut up here alone, with strange and unseen things hovering about him in the blackness, that was quite beyond endurance. He was striving to get away from them. He had not much thought, now, which way he went, he cared little for direction, he wished only to keep in motion.
He had to stop at times to get breath and to rest his limbs, they ached so. But, whenever he stood still or sat down to rest, the darkness seemed to close in upon him and around him so tightly as to give him pain. He would not have cared so much for that, though, if it had not been filled with strange creatures who crept close to him to hear the throbbing in his head. He could not bear that; it compelled him to move on.
He went a long way like this, with his hands before him, stumbling, falling, rising again, stopping for a moment's rest, moaning as he walked, crying softly to himself at times like the sick child that he was.
Once he felt that he was going down an inclined way, like a long chamber; there had been no prop or pillar on either side of him for many minutes. Finally, his feet touched water. It grew to be ankle deep. He pushed on, and it reached half-way to his knees. This would never do. He turned in his tracks to retreat, just saved himself from falling, and then climbed slowly back up the long slope of the chamber.
When he had reached the top of it he thought he would lie down and try not to move again, he was so very tired and sick.
In the midst of all his fancies he realized his danger. He knew that death had ceased to be a possibility for him, and had come to be more than probable.
He felt that it would be very sad indeed to die in this way, alone, in the dark, in the galleries of this old mine; it was not the way Robert Burnham's son should have died. It was not that he minded death so much; he would not have greatly cared for that, if he could only have died in his mother's arms, with the sweet sunlight and the fresh air and the perfume of flowers in the room. That, he thought, would have been beautiful, very beautiful indeed. But this, this was so different.
"It is very sad," he said; "poor Ralph, poor boy."
He was talking to himself. It seemed to him that he was some one else, some one who stood by trying to pity and console this child who was dying here alone in the awful darkness.
"It's hard on you," he said, "I know it's hard on you, an' you've just got to where life'd be worth a good deal to you too. You had your bitter an' the sweet was just a-comin'; but never mind, my boy, never mind; your Uncle Billy says 'at heaven's a great sight better place 'an any you could ever find on earth. An', then, you're Robert Burnham's son, you know, an' that's a good deal to think of; you're—Robert Burnham's—son."
For a long time after this there was silence, and the boy did not move. Then fear came back to him. He thought that the darkness was closing in again upon him, that it pressed him from above, from right and left, that it crowded back his breath and crushed his body. He felt that he must escape from it.
He was too weak now to rise and walk, so he lifted himself to his hands and knees and began to move away like a creeping child.
There were many obstacles in his path, some of them imaginary, most of them real. There were old mine caps, piles of dirt, pieces of slate, and great lumps of coal on' which he cut his hands and bruised his knees. But he met and passed them all. He was intent only on getting away from these dreadful powers of darkness, they tortured him so.
And he did get away from them. He came to a place where the space about him seemed large, where the floor was smooth, and the air so clear and pure that he could breathe it freely.
Utter darkness, indeed, surrounded him, but it was a darkness not peopled with evil beings; it was more like the sweet darkness of a summer night, with the fragrance of dew-wet flowers in the air.
He leaned against a pillar to rest. He thought to stay here until the end should come.
He was not suffering from any pain now; he was glad of that. And he should die peacefully, leaving no wrong behind him, with no guilt upon his conscience, no sin upon his soul. He was glad of that too. He wondered if they would know, when they found his body, that he was Robert Burnham's son. Suppose they should never find it out. Suppose the days and months and years should pass away, and no one ever know what high honor came to him while yet he lived on earth. That would be sad, very, very sad; worse even than death itself. But there was a way for him to make it known. He thought that some sweet voice was telling him what to do.
He took from his waistcoat pocket the paper that declared his birth, unfolded it once, pressed it to his lips once, took pins from the edge of the collar of his vest, and pinned the letter fast upon the bosom of his flannel shirt.
It took him a long time to do this in the darkness, his hands were so very weak and tremulous, but, when it was done, he smoothed the paper over carefully and was content.
"They'll know it now," he said gently to himself, "they'll surely know it now. They'll no sooner find me here than they'll know who I am, an' who my mother is, an' where to take me. It's just the same, just the same as though I was alive myself to tell 'em."
He leaned back then, and closed his eyes and lay quite still. He felt no pain from his cut and bleeding hands and knees, nor from his burned wrist, nor from his bruised body. He was not hungry any more, nor thirsty, nor suffering for breath. He was thinking, but he thought only of pleasant things. He remembered no evil, neither any person who had done him evil.
Off somewhere in the distance he could see blue sky, and the tips of waves glancing in the sunlight, and green fields, and long stretches of yellow grain. It seemed very real to him, so real that he wondered if he was still lying there in the darkness. He opened his eyes to see. Yes, it was dark, very dark.
The faint noise of dripping water came to his ears from somewhere in the mine below him. It reminded him of a tiny waterfall he had once seen under the shadow of a great rock on the bank of Roaring Brook. It was where a little stream, like a silver thread, ran down across the mossy covering of the edge and went drip, dripping into the stone-walled basin far below. He wondered if the stream was running there this day, if the tall rock-oak was bending yet above it, if the birds sang there as gayly as they sang that happy day when first he saw it.
For a little time he thought that he was indeed there. He found it hard to make himself believe that he was still in the mine, alone. But he was not alone; he knew that he was not alone. He felt that friends were somewhere near him. They were staying back in the shadow so that they should not disturb him. They would come to him soon, when—when he should waken.
He did not move any more, his eyes were closed and he seemed to be sleeping. His breath came gently, in long respirations. The precious letter rose and fell with the slow heaving of his breast.
Down in the darkness the water dripped as placidly as pulses beat. For the rest there was no sound, no motion.
Once the boy stirred a little and opened his eyes.
"Is that you, Uncle Billy?" he said. "Come an' sit down an' rest a little, an' then we'll go out. I think I got lost or—or somethin'."
His Uncle Billy was not there. The darkness about him held no human being save himself, but the vision was just as real to him, and the coming was just as welcome as though it had all been true.
"Why, how strange you look, Uncle Billy; an' you're a-laughin' at me—what! does she? Well, I'll go to her just as soon as I get out, just as soon. How did she find it out? I was goin' to be the first to tell her. I'm glad she knows it, though."
After a moment he continued:—
"Oh, no, Uncle Billy; I shouldn't ever do that, I couldn't. You've been too good to me. You've been awful good to me, Uncle Billy—awful good."
Again silence fell. Thick darkness, like a veil, wrapped the unconscious child in its folds. Black walls and winding galleries surrounded him, the "valley of the shadow" lay beyond him, but on his breast he bore the declaration of his birth, and in his heart he felt that "peace of God which passeth understanding."
Down in the darkness the water dripped; up in the earth's sky the stars were out and the moon was shining.
A STROKE OF LIGHTNING.
It was a hot day at Burnham Breaker. The sun of midsummer beat fiercely upon the long and sloping roofs and against the coal-black sides of the giant building.
Down in the engine-room, where there was no air stirring, and the vapor of steam hung heavily in the atmosphere, the heat was almost insupportable.
The engineer, clothed lightly as he was, fairly dripped with perspiration. The fireman, with face and neck like a lobster, went out, at intervals, and plunged his hands and his head too into the stream of cool water sent out from the mine by the laboring pumps.
Up in the screen-room, the boys were sweltering above their chutes, choking with the thick dust, wondering if the afternoon would never be at an end.
Bachelor Billy, pushing the cars out from the head, said to himself that he was glad Ralph was no longer picking slate. It was better that he should work in the mines. It was cool there in summer and warm in winter, and it was altogether more comfortable for the boy than it could be in the breaker; neither was it any more dangerous, in his opinion, than it was among the wheels and rollers of the screen-room. He had labored in the mines himself, until the rheumatism came and put a stop to his under-ground toil. He mourned greatly the necessity that compelled him to give up this kind of work. It is hard for a miner to leave his pillars and his chambers, his drill and powder-can and fuse, and to seek other occupation on the surface of the earth. The very darkness and danger that surround him at his task hold him to it with an unaccountable fascination.
But Bachelor Billy had a good place here at the breaker. It was not hard work that he was doing. Robert Burnham had given him the position ten years and more ago.
Even on this hot mid-summer day, the heat was less where he was than in any other part of the building. A cool current came up the shaft and kept the air stirring about the head, and the loaded mine-cars rose to the platform, dripping cold water from their sides, and that was very refreshing to the eye as well as to the touch.
It was well along in the afternoon that Billy, looking out to the north-west, saw a dark cloud rising slowly above the horizon, and said to Andy Gilgallon, his assistant, that he hoped it would not go away without leaving some rain behind it.
Looking at it again, a few minutes later, he told Andy that he felt sure there would be water enough to lay the dust, at any rate.
The cloud increased rapidly in size, rolling up the sky in dark volumes, and emitting flashes of forked lightning in quick succession.
By and by the face of the sun was covered, and the deep rumbling of the thunder was almost continuous.
There was a dead calm. Not even at the head of the shaft could a particle of moving air be felt.
"Faith! I don't like the looks o' it, Billy," said Andy Gilgallon, as a sharp flash cut the cloud surface from zenith to horizon, and a burst of thunder followed that made the breaker tremble.
"No more do I," replied Bachelor Billy; "but we'll no' git scart afoor we're hurt. It's no' likely the buildin' 'll be washit awa'."
"Thrue for ye! but this bit o' a steeple ud be a foine risting-place for the lightnin's fut, an' a moighty hot fut it has, too—bad 'cess to it!"
The man had been interrupted by another vivid flash and a sharp crack of thunder.
The mountains to the north and west were now entirely hidden, and the near hills were disappearing rapidly behind the on-coming storm of rain. Already the first drops were rattling sharply on the breaker's roof, and warning puffs of wind were beating gently against the side of the shaft-tower.
"I'm glad Ralph's no' workin' i' the screen-room," said Bachelor Billy, as he put up his hand to shield his eyes from the blinding glare. "It'd be a fearfu' thing to ha' the breaker hit."
The fury of the storm was on them at last. It was as though the heavens were shattered.
Billy looked out upon the dreadful onslaught of the elements with awe and wonder on his face. His companion crouched against the timbers of the shaft in terror.
Then—lightning struck the breaker.
People who sat in their houses a mile away started up in sudden fright at the fierce flash and terrible report.
A man who was running toward the engine-room for shelter was blinded and stunned by the glare and crash, and fell to his knees.
When he rose again and could use his eyes, he saw men and boys crowding from the building out into the pouring rain. But the breaker was on fire. Already the shaft-tower was wrapped in smoke and lighted with flame. Some one in authority stood in the door of the engine-room giving orders.
The carriage was descending the shaft. When it came up it was loaded with men. It went down again, almost with the rapidity of lightning itself.
The engineer was crowding his servant of iron and steel to the utmost. The men of the next load that came up had hardly time to push each other from the carriage before it darted down again into the blackness.
The flames were creeping lower on the shaft timbers, and were rioting among the screens.
The engine-room was hot and stifling. The engineer said he was hoisting the last load that could be brought out.
When it reached the surface Conway leaped from among the men and stood in the door of the engine-room.
"Let it down again!" he shouted. "Ralph is below yet, the boy. I'll go down myself an' git 'im."
He heard a crash behind him, and he turned in time to see the iron roof of the carriage disappear into the mouth of the shaft.
The burning frame-work at the head had ceased to support it, and it had fallen down, dragging a mass of flaming timbers with it.
Conway went out into the rain and sat down and cried like a child.
Afterward, when the storm had partially subsided, a wagon was stopped at the door of the office near the burning breaker, the limp body of Bachelor Billy was brought out and placed in it, and it was driven rapidly away. They had found him lying on the track at the head with the flames creeping dangerously near. He was unconscious when they came to him, he was unconscious still. They took him to his room at Mrs. Maloney's cottage, and put him in his bed. The doctor came soon, and under his vigorous treatment the man lost that deathly pallor about his face, but he did not yet recover consciousness. The doctor said he would come out of it in time, and went away to see to the others who had been injured.
The men who had brought the invalid were gone, and Mrs. Maloney was sitting by him alone.
The storm had passed, the sun had come out just long enough to bid a reassuring "good-night" to the lately frightened dwellers on the earth, and was now dropping down behind the western hills.
A carriage stopped at Bachelor Billy's door and a moment later Mrs. Burnham knocked and entered.
"I heard that he had suffered from the stroke," she said, looking at the still form on the bed, "and I came to see him. Is he better?"
"He ain't come out of it yet, ma'am," responded Mrs. Maloney, "but the doctor's been a-rubbin' of im' an' a-givin' 'im stimmylants, an' he says it's all right he'll be in the course of a few hours. Will ye have a chair, ma'am?"
"Thank you. I'll sit here by him a while with the fan and relieve you. Where is Ralph?"
"He's not come yet, ma'am."
"Why, Mrs. Maloney, are you sure? Is it possible that anything has happened to him?"
"To shpake the trut', ma'am, I'm a bit worried about 'im meself. But they said to me partic'ler, as how ivery man o' thim got out o' the mine befoor the carriage fell. Most like he's a-watchin' the fire an' doesn't know his Uncle Billy's hurted. Ye'll see 'im comin' quick enough when he hears that, I'm thinkin'."
Mrs. Burnham had seated herself at the bedside with the fan in her hand.
"I'll wait for him," she said; "perhaps he'll be here soon."
"I'll be lookin' afther the supper, thin," said Mrs. Maloney, "the lad'll be hungry whin he comes," and she left the room.
Bachelor Billy lay very quiet, as if asleep, breathing regularly, his face somewhat pale and his lips blue, but he had not the appearance of one who is in danger.
A few minutes later there came a gentle knock at the street door. Mrs. Burnham arose and opened it. Lawyer Goodlaw stood on the step. She gave him as courteous greeting as though she had been under the roof of her own mansion.
"I called at your home," he said, as he entered, "and, learning that you had come here, I concluded to follow you."
He went up to the bed and looked at Bachelor Billy, bending over him with kind scrutiny.
"I heard that the shock had affected him seriously," he said, "but he does not appear to be greatly the worse for it; I think he'll come through all right. He's an honest, warm-hearted man. I learned the other day of a proposition that Sharpman made to him before the trial; a tempting one to offer to a poor man, but he rejected it with scorn. I'll tell you of it sometime; it shows forth the nobility of the man's character."
Goodlaw had crossed the room and had taken a seat by the window.
"But I came to bring you news," he continued. "Our detective returned this morning and presented a full report of his investigation and its result. You will be pleased with it."
"Oh, Mr. Goodlaw! is Ralph—is Ralph—"
She was leaning toward him with clasped hands.
"Ralph is your son," he said.
She bowed her head, and her lips moved in silence. When she looked up, there were tears in her eyes, but her face was radiant with happiness.
"Is there any, any doubt about it now?" she asked.
"None whatever," he replied.
"And what of Rhyming Joe's story?"
"It was a pure falsehood. He does not tire of telling how he swindled the sharpest lawyer in Scranton out of a hundred and fifty dollars, by a plausible lie. He takes much credit to himself for the successful execution of so bold a scheme. But the money got him into trouble. He had too much, he spent it too freely, and, as a consequence, he is serving a short term of imprisonment in the Alleghany county jail for some petty offence."
The tears would keep coming into the lady's eyes; but they were tears of joy, not of sorrow.
"I have the detective's report here in writing," continued Goodlaw; "I will give it to you that you may read it at your leisure. Craft's story was true enough in its material parts, but a gigantic scheme was based on it to rob both you and your son. The odium of that, however, should rest where the expense of the venture rested, on Craft's attorney. It is a matter for sincere congratulation that Ralph's identity was not established by them at that time. He has been delivered out of the hands of sharpers, and his property is wholly saved to him.
"I learn that Craft is dying miserably in his wretched lodgings in Philadelphia. With enough of ill-gotten gain to live on comfortably, his miserly instincts are causing him to suffer for the very necessities of life."
"I am sorry for him," said the lady; "very sorry."
"He is not deserving of your sympathy, madam; he treated your son with great cruelty while he had him."
"But he saved Ralph's life."
"That is no doubt true, yet he stole the jewelry from the child's person and kept him only for the sake of obtaining ransom.
"This reminds me that it is also true that he had an interview with your husband on the day of Mr. Burnham's death. What took place between them I cannot ascertain, but I have learned that afterward, while the rescuing party were descending into the mine, your husband recognized Ralph in a way that those who saw and heard him could not at the time understand. Recent events, however, prove beyond a doubt that your husband knew, on the day he died, that this boy was his son."
Mrs. Burnham had been weeping silently.
"You are bringing me too much good and comforting news," she said; "I am not quite able to bear it all, you see."
She was smiling through her tears, but a look of anxiety crossed her face as she continued:—
"I am worried about Ralph. He has not yet come from the breaker."
She glanced up at the little clock on the shelf, and then went to look out from the window.
The man on the bed moved and moaned, and she went back to him.
"Perhaps we had better send some one to look for the boy," said Goodlaw. "I will go myself—"
He was interrupted by the opening of the door. Andy Gilgallon stood on the threshold and looked in with amazement. He had not expected to find the lady and the lawyer there.
"I come to see Bachelor Billy," he said. "Me an' him work togither at the head. He got it worse nor I did. I'm over it, only I'm wake yit. The likes o' it was niver seen afoor."
He looked curiously in at the bed where his comrade was lying.
"Come in," said Mrs. Burnham, "come in and look at him. He's not conscious yet, but I think he'll soon come to himself."
The man entered the room, walking on the toes of his clumsy shoes.
"Have you seen anything of Ralph since the fire?" continued the lady.
Andy stopped and looked incredulously at his questioner.
"An' have ye not heard?" he asked.
"Heard what, Andy?" she replied, her face paling as she noted the man's strange look.
"Why, they didn't get 'im out," he said. "It's in the mine he is, sure, mum."
She stood for a moment in silence, her face as white as the wall behind her. Then she clasped her hands tightly together and all the muscles of her body grew rigid in the desperate effort to remain calm for the sake of the unconscious man on the bed, for the sake of the lost boy in the mine, for the sake of her own ability to think and to act.
Goodlaw saw the struggle and rose from his chair.
"It's a dangerous imprisonment," he said, "but not, of necessity, a fatal one."
She still stood staring silently at the messenger who had brought to her these dreadful tidings.
"They're a-thryin' to get to the mouth o' the shaft now," said Andy. "They're a-dhraggin' the timbers away; timbers wid the fire in 'em yit. Ye'd be shtartled to see 'em, mum."
Then the lady spoke.
"I will go to the shaft," she said. Her carriage was already at the door; she started toward it, throwing a light wrap across her arm as she went.
Again the man on the bed moved and moaned.
"Stay with him," she said to Andy, "until I come myself, or send some one to relieve you. See that he has everything he needs. He is my charge."
Goodlaw helped her to the carriage.
"Will you come with me?" she asked.
He seated himself beside her and they were driven away. There was little that he could say to comfort and assure her. The shock was too recent. The situation of her son was too perilous.
Darkness was coming on when they reached the scene of the disaster; one or two stars were already out, and the crescent of the new moon was hanging in the west. Great clouds of white smoke were floating away to the east, and where the breaker had that morning stood there was now only a mass of charred and glowing ruins.
There were many people there, people who talked in low tones and who looked on with solemn faces. But there were no outcries nor lamentations; there was but one person, a boy, shut up in the mine, and he was kin to no one there.
Up at the south-west corner of the pile they were throwing water on the ruins. An engine had been brought up from the city and was pouring a steady stream on the spot where the shaft was thought to be.
Many men were engaged in cutting and pulling away the burned timbers, handling them while they were yet glowing with fire, so eager were they to forward the work of rescue.
The superintendent of the mines was there, directing, encouraging, and giving a helping hand. He saw Mrs. Burnham and came up to her carriage.
"It was a very disastrous lightning stroke," he said; "the property of the company is in ruins, but as yet no lives have been lost. There is but one person in the mine, the boy Ralph; you both know him. We are clearing away the wreckage from the mouth of the shaft as rapidly as possible, in the hope that we may get down there in time to save his life. Our people have directed me to spare no effort in this matter. One life, even though it is that of an unknown boy, is not too poor a thing for us to try, by every possible means, to save."
"That boy," said Goodlaw, "is Mrs. Burnham's son."
"Is it possible! Has he been identified, then, since the trial?"
"Fully, fully! My dear sir, I beg that you will do all that lies in your power to save this life for your company's sake, then double your effort for this lady's sake. She has no such fortune as this boy is to her."
Mrs. Burnham had sat there pale-faced and eager-eyed. Now she spoke:—
"What is the prospect? What are the chances? Can you surely save him? Tell me truly, Mr. Martin?"
"We cannot say certainly," replied the superintendent; "there are too many factors in the problem of which we are yet ignorant. We do not know how badly the shaft is choked up; we do not know the condition of the air in the mine. To be frank with you, I think the chances are against rescuing the boy alive. The mine soon fills with poisonous gases when the air supply is cut off."
"Are you doing all that can be done?" she asked. "Will more men, more money, more of anything, help you in your work?"
"We are doing all that can be done," he answered her. "The men are working bravely. We need nothing."
"How soon will you be able to go down and begin the search?"
The man thought for a moment before replying.
"To-morrow," he said, uncertainly. "I think surely by to-morrow."
She sank back into the carriage-seat, appalled by the length of time named. She had hoped that an hour or two at the farthest would enable them to reach the bottom of the shaft.
"We will push the work to the utmost," said Martin, as he hurried away. "Possibly we shall be able to get in sooner."
Goodlaw and Mrs. Burnham sat for a long time in silence, watching the men at their labor. Word had been passed among the workers that the missing boy was Mrs. Burnham's son, and their energetic efforts were put forth now for her sake as well as for the lad's. For both mother and son held warm places in the hearts of these toiling men.
The mouth of the shaft had been finally uncovered, a space cleared around it, and the frame of a rude windlass erected. They were preparing to remove the debris from the opening.
Conway came to the carriage, and, in a voice broken with emotion, told the story of Ralph's heroic effort to save a human life at the risk of his own. He had little hope, he said, that Ralph could live till they should reach him; but he should be the first, he declared, to go into the mine in search of the gallant boy.
At this recital Mrs. Burnham wept; she could restrain her tears no longer.
At last Goodlaw persuaded her to leave the scene. He feared the effect that continued gazing on it might have upon her delicate nerves.
The flashing of the lanterns, the huge torches lighting up the darkness, the forms of men moving back and forth in the smoky atmosphere, the muscular and mental energy exhibited, the deep earnestness displayed,—all this made up a picture too dramatic and appalling for one whose heart was in it to look at undismayed.
Arrangements were made for a messenger service to keep Mrs. Burnham constantly informed of the progress of the work, and, with a parting appeal to those in charge to hasten the hour of rescue, the grief-stricken mother departed.
They drove first to Bachelor Billy's room. Andy was still there and said he would remain during the night. He said that Billy had spoken once or twice, apparently in his right mind, and was now sleeping quietly.
Then Mrs. Burnham went to her home. She passed the long night in sleepless anxiety, waiting for the messages from the mine, which followed each other in slow succession. They brought to her no good news. The work was going on; the opening was full with wreckage; the air was very bad, even in the shaft. These were the tidings. It was hardly possible, they wrote, that the boy could still be living.
Long before the last star had paled and faded in the western sky, or the first rays of the morning sun had shot across the hills, despair had taken in her heart the place of hope. She could only say: "Well, he died as his father died, trying to save the lives of others. I have two lost heroes now to mourn for and be proud of, instead of one."
But even yet there crossed her mind at times the thought that possibly, possibly the one chance for life as against thousands and thousands for death might fall to her boy; and the further and deeper thought that the range of God's mercy was very wide, oh, very wide!
AT THE DAWN OF DAY.
It was not until very late on the morning following the storm that Bachelor Billy came fully to his senses and realized what had happened.
He was told that the breaker had been struck by lightning and burned to the ground, and that his own illness was due to the severity of the electric shock.
He asked where Ralph was, and they told him that Ralph was up at the mine. They thought it wiser that he should not know the truth about the boy just yet.
He thought to get up and dress himself, but he felt so weak and bruised, and the strong metallic taste in his mouth nauseated him so, that he yielded to the advice of those who were with him and lay down again.
He looked up anxiously at the clock, at intervals, and seemed to be impatient for the noon hour to arrive. He thought Ralph would come then to his dinner. He wondered that the boy should go away and leave him for so long a time alone in his illness.
The noon hour came, but Ralph did not come.
Andy Gilgallon returned and tried to divert the man's mind with stories of the fire, but the attempt was in vain.
At one o'clock they made a pretence of sending Mrs. Maloney's little girl to look for Ralph, in order to quiet Bachelor Billy's growing apprehension.
But he remained very anxious and ill at ease. It struck him that there was something peculiar about the conduct of the people who were with him when Ralph's name was mentioned or his absence discussed. A growing fear had taken possession of his mind that something was wrong, and so terribly wrong that they dared not tell it to him.
When the clock struck two, he sat up in the bed and looked at Andy Gilgallon with a sternness in his face that was seldom seen there.
"Andy," he said, "tha's summat ye're a-keepin' fra me. If aught's happenit to the lad I want ye s'ould tell me. Be he hurt, be he dead, I wull know it. Coom noo, oot wi' it, mon! D'ye hear me?"
Andy could not resist an appeal and a command like this. There was something in the man's eyes, he said afterwards, that drew the truth right out of him.
Bachelor Billy heard the story calmly, asked about the means being taken for the boy's rescue, and then sat for a few moments in quiet thought.
Finally he said: "Andy, gi' me ma clothes."
Andy did not dare to disobey him. He gave his clothes to him, and helped him to dress.
The man was so sick and dizzy still that he could hardly stand. He crossed the room, took his cap from its hook and put it on his head.
"An' where do yez be goin' to I donno?" inquired Andy, anxiously.
"I'm a-goin' to the breaker," replied Bachelor Billy.
"Ah, man! but ye're foolish. Ye'll be losin' your own life, I warrant, an' ye'll be doin' no good to the boy."
But Billy had already started from the door.
"I might be able to do a bit toward savin' 'im," he said. "An' if he's beyon' that, as mos' like he is, I s'ould want to get the lad's body an' care for it mysel'. I kenned 'im best."
The two men were walking up through the narrow street of the village.
"I hear now that it's Mrs. Burnham's son he is," said Andy. "Lawyer Goodlaw came yesterday wid the news."
Billy did not seem surprised.
He trudged on, saying simply:—
"Then he's worthy of his mither, the lad is, an' of his father. I'm thankfu' that he's got some one at last, besides his Uncle Billy, happen it's only to bury 'im."
The fresh, cool air seemed to have revived and strengthened the invalid, and he went on at a more rapid pace. But he was weak enough still. He wavered from side to side as he walked, and his face was very pale.
When the two men reached the site of the burned breaker, they went directly to the opening to learn the latest news concerning the search. There was not much, however, for them to hear. The shaft was entirely cleaned out and men had been down into the mine, but they had not been able to get far from the foot, the air was so very bad.
A rough partition was being built now, down the entire depth of the opening, a cover had been erected over the mouth of the shaft, and a fan had been put up temporarily, to drive fresh air into the mine and create an atmosphere there that would support life.
It was not long after the arrival of the two men before another party of miners stepped into the bucket to be lowered into the mine.
Bachelor Billy asked to be allowed to go with them, but his request was denied. They feared that, in his present condition, the foul air below would be fatal to him.
The party could not go far from the foot of the shaft, no farther, indeed, than the inside plane. But they found nothing, no sign whatever of the missing boy.
Others went down afterward, and pushed the exploration farther, and still others. It seemed probable that the lad, driven back by the smoke and gas, had taken refuge in some remote portion of the mine; and the portion that he would be apt to choose, they thought, would be the portion with which he had been most familiar. They therefore extended the search mainly in that direction.
But it was night before they reached those chambers which Ralph had been accustomed to serve with cars. They looked them over thoroughly; every entrance and every corner was scrutinized, but no trace of the imprisoned boy could be found.
Bachelor Billy had not left the place. He had been the first to hear the report of each returning squad, but his hope for the lad's safety had disappeared long before the sun went down. When night came on he went up on the bank and sat under the tree on the bench; the same bench on which he had sat that day in May to listen to the story of Ralph's temptation. His only anxiety now was that the child's body should be brought speedily from the foul air, so that the face might be kept as fair as possible for the mother's sake.
Conway, who had gone down into the mine with the first searching party, had been overcome by the foul air, and had been brought out insensible and taken to his home. But he had recovered, and was now back again at the shaft. It seemed to him, he said, as though he was compelled to return; as though there was something to be done here that only he could do. He was sitting on the bench now with Bachelor Billy, and they were discussing the lad's heroic sacrifice, and wondering to what part of the mine he could have gone that the search of half a day should fail to disclose his whereabouts.
A man who had just come out from the shaft, exhausted, was assisted up the bank by two companions, and laid down on the grass near the bench, in the moonlight, to breathe the fresh air that was stirring there.
After a little, he revived, and began to tell of the search.
"It's very strange," he said, "where the lad could have gone. We thought to find him in the north tier, and we went up one chamber and down the next, and looked into every entrance, but never a track of him could we get."
He turned to Conway, who was standing by, and continued:—
"Up at the face o' your chamber we found a dead mule with his collar on. The poor creature had gone there, no doubt, to find good air. He'd climbed up on the very shelf o' coal at the breast to get the farthest he could. Did ye ever hear the like?"
But Conway did not answer. A vague solution of the mystery of Ralph's disappearance was dawning on him. He turned suddenly to the man, and asked:—
"Did ye see the hole in the face when ye were there; a hole the size o' your head walled up with stone-coal?"
"I took no note o' such a thing. What for had ye such a hole there, an' where to?"
"Into the old mine," said Conway, earnestly, "into old No. 1. The boy saw it yisterday. I told 'im where it wint. He's broke it in, and crawled through, he has, I'll bet he has. Come on; we'll find 'im yet!" and he started rapidly down the hill toward the mouth of the shaft.
Bachelor Billy rose from the bench and stumbled slowly after him; while the man who had told them about the mule lifted himself to his elbows, and looked down on them in astonishment.
He could not quite understand what Conway meant.
The superintendent of the mine had gone. The foreman in charge of the windlass and fan stood leaning against a post, with the light of a torch flaring across his swarthy face.
"Let me down!" cried Conway, hastening to the opening. "I know where the boy is; I can find 'im."
The man smiled. "It's against orders," he responded. "Wait till Martin comes back an' the next gang goes in; then ye can go."
"But I say I know where the boy is. I can find 'im in half an hour. Five minutes delay might cost 'im his life."—
The man looked at Conway in doubt and wonder; he was hesitating between obedience and inclination.
Then Bachelor Billy spoke up, "Why, mon!" he exclaimed, "what's orders when a life's at stake? We mus' go doon, I tell ye! An ye hold us back ye'll be guilty o' the lad's daith!"
His voice had a ring of earnestness in it that the man could not resist. He moved to the windlass and told his helpers to lower the bucket. Conway entreated Bachelor Billy not to go down, and the foreman joined in the protest. They might as well have talked to the stars.
"Why, men!" said Billy, "tha's a chance as how the lad's alive. An that be so no ither body can do for 'im like me w'en he's foond. I wull go doon, I tell ye; I mus' go doon!"
He stepped carefully into the bucket, Conway leaped in after him, and they were lowered away.
At the bottom of the shaft they found no one but the footman, whose duty it was to remain steadily at his post. He listened somewhat incredulously to their hasty explanations, he gave to them another lighted lamp, and wished them good-luck as they started away into the heading.
In spite of his determination and self-will, Bachelor Billy's strength gave out before they had reached the head of the plane, and he was obliged to stop and rest. Indeed, he was compelled often to do this during the remainder of the journey, but he would not listen to any suggestion that he should turn back. The air was still very impure, although they could at times feel the fresh current from the shaft at their backs.
They met no one. The searching parties were all south of the shaft now, this part of the mine having been thoroughly examined.
By the time the two men had reached the foot of Conway's chamber, they were nearly prostrated by the foul air they had been compelled to breathe. Both were still feeble from recent illnesses and were without the power to resist successfully the effects of the poisoned atmosphere. They made their way up the chamber in silence, their limbs unsteady, their heads swimming, their hearts beating violently. At the breast Conway clambered up over the body of the mule and thrust his lighted lamp against the walled-up aperture.
"He's gone through here!" he cried. "He's opened up the hole an' gone through."
The next moment he was tearing away the blocks of slate and coal with both hands. But his fingers were stiff and numb, and the work progressed too slowly. Then he braced himself against the body of the mule, pushed with his feet against Ralph's rude wall, and the next moment it fell back into the old mine. He brushed away the bottom stones and called to his companion.
"Come!" he said, "the way's clear an' we'll find better air in there."
But Bachelor Billy did not respond. He had fallen against the lower face of coal, unconscious. Conway saw that he must do quick work.
He reached over, grasped the man by his shoulders, and with superhuman effort drew him up to the shelf and across the body of the mule. Then, creeping into the opening, he pulled the helpless man through with him into the old mine, and dragged him up the chamber out of reach of the poisoned current. He loosened his collar and chafed his wrists and the better air in there did the rest.
Bachelor Billy soon returned to consciousness, and learned where he was.
"That was fulish in me," he said, "to weaken like that; but I'm no' used to that white damp. Gi' me a minute to catch ma breath an' I'll go wi' ye."
Conway went down and walled up the opening again. When he came back Bachelor Billy was on his feet, walking slowly down the chamber, throwing the light of his lamp into the entrances on the way.
"Did he go far fra the openin,' thenk ye?" he asked. "Would he no' most like stay near whaur he cam' through?"
Then he tried to lift up his voice and call to the boy; but he was too weak, he could hardly have been heard across the chamber.
"Call 'im yoursel', Mike," he said; "I ha' no power i' my throat, some way."
Conway called, loudly and repeatedly. There was no answer; the echoes came rattling back to their ears, and that was all that they heard.
"Mayhap he's gone to the headin'," said Billy, "an" tried to get oot by the auld slope."
"That's just what he's done," replied Conway, earnestly; "I told 'im where the old openin' was; he's tried to get to it."
"Then we'll find 'im atween here an' there."
The two men had been moving slowly down the chamber. When they came to the foot of it, they turned into the air-way, and from that they went through the entrance into the heading. At this place the dirt on the floor was soft and damp, and they saw in it the print of a boy's shoe.