A Safety Match/Chapter 19

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Six men sat upon six heaps of small coal in a long rectangular cavern five feet high and six feet broad. The roof was supported by props placed at distances specified by the Board of Trade. One side of the cavern was pierced at regular intervals by narrow openings which were in reality passages; the other was a blank wall of gleaming coal.

This was the "face"—that point in the seam of coal which marked the limits of progress of the ever-advancing line of picks and shovels.

The men were well over two hundred fathoms—roughly a quarter of a mile—below the surface of the earth, and they had been prisoners in Number Three Working ever since an explosion of fire-damp and coal-dust had cut them off from communication with the rest of Belton Pit six hours before.

The prisoners were Jim Carthew, Amos Entwistle, and Adam Wilkie, together with a hewer, a drawer, and a pit-boy, named Atkinson, Denton, and Hopper respectively. There had been two others, but they lay dead and buried beneath a tombstone twelve hundred feet high.

What had happened was this:—

About four o'clock on that disastrous afternoon, Amos Entwistle was sitting despondently in his own kitchen. He was the oldest and most influential overman in Belton Pit, but his counsels of moderation had been swept aside by the floods of Mr Winch's oratory; and like the practical creature that he was he had returned home, to await the issue of the insurrection and establish an alibi in the event of police-court proceedings.

To him entered Mr Adam Wilkie, with the news that some of the more ardent iconoclasts of the day-shift had remained below in the pit, in order to break down the roofs of some of the galleries leading to the workings—an amiable and short-sighted enterprise which, though pleasantly irritating to their employer, must inevitably throw its promoters and most of their friends out of work for an indefinite period.

Here at least was an opportunity to act. Entwistle hastily repaired to the pit-offices, where he knew that Mr Carthew had been spending the afternoon; and the three, united for the moment by the bond of common-sense, if nothing else, dropped down the shaft with all speed. Fortunately the man in charge of the winding-engine was still at his post, and of an amenable disposition.

Arrived at the pit-bottom, they hurried along the main road. The atmosphere was foul and close, for the ventilating machinery had ceased to work. There was a high percentage of fire-damp, too, as constant little explosions in their Davy lamps informed them.

Presently they overtook the enemy, who had done a good deal of mischief already; for they had set to work in the long tunnel known as the intake, down which fresh air was accustomed to flow to the distant workings; and at every blow of their picks, a pit-prop fell from its position and an overhead beam followed, bringing down with it a mingled shower of stone and rubbish.

There was no time to be lost, for the whole roof might fall at any moment. It was three against five; but authority is a great asset and conscience a great liability. By adopting a "hustling" policy of the most thorough description, Carthew, Entwistle, and Wilkie hounded their slightly demoralised opponents along the intake towards the face, intending to round up the gang in one of the passages leading back to the main road, and, having pursued the policy of peaceful dissuasion to its utmost limits, conduct their converts back to the shaft.

The tide of battle rolled out of the intake into the cavern formed by the face and its approaches. Master Hopper was the first to arrive, the toe of Mr Entwistle's boot making a good second.

"Now, you men," said Carthew, addressing the sullen, panting figures which crouched before him—the roof here was barely five feet above the floor—"we have had enough of this. Get out into the main road and back to the shaft. You are coming up topside of this pit with us—that's flat!"

But his opponents were greater strategists than he supposed.

"Keep them there, chaps!" cried a voice already far down one of the passages.

"Catch that man!" cried Carthew. "Let me go!"

Shaking off Atkinson, who in obedience to orders had made a half-hearted grab at him, he darted down the nearest passage. It led to the main road, but across the mouth hung a wet brattice-cloth. Delayed a moment, he hurried on towards the junction with the main road, just in time to descry two twinkling Davy lamps disappearing round the distant corner. They belonged to Davies and Renwick, the ringleaders of the gang. What their object might be he could not for the moment divine, but he could hear their voices re-echoing down the silent tunnel. Evidently they were making for the main road, perhaps to raid the engine-room or call up reserves. He must keep them in sight. Laboriously he hastened along the rough and narrow track.

Suddenly, far ahead in the darkness, he heard a crash, followed by a frightened shriek. Next moment there was a roar, which almost broke the drums of his ears, and the whole pit seemed to plunge and stagger. His lamp went out, and he lay upon the floor in the darkness—darkness that could be felt—waiting for the roof to fall in.

Renwick and Davies, it was discovered long afterwards, had reached the main road, running rapidly. Here one of them must have tripped over the slack-lying wire cable which drew the little tubs of coal up the incline from the lyes to the foot of the shaft. Two seconds later a tiny puddle of flaming oil from a broken lamp (which for once in a way had not been extinguished by its fall) had supplied the necessary ignition to the accumulated fire-damp and coal-dust of the unventilated pit. There was one tremendous explosion. Down came the roof of the main road for a distance of over half a mile, burying the authors of the catastrophe, Samson-like, in their own handiwork.

The survivors were sitting in the cul-de-sac formed by the face of the coal and its approaches, three-quarters of a mile from the shaft. No one had been injured by the explosion, though Carthew, being nearest, had lain half-stunned for a few minutes; Possibly the brattice-cloths, hung at intervals across, blanketing its force.

The party had just returned from an investigation of the possibilities of escape.

"Will you report, Mr Entwistle?" said Carthew, who found that the surviving mutineers appeared to regard him as the supreme head of the present enterprise and Entwistle as his chief adviser.

Amos Entwistle complied.

There were two ways, he explained in his broad north-country dialect, by which Number Three could be reached from the shaft. One was the intake, along which fresh air was conducted to the workings, and the other was the main road, which could be reached through any of the passages leading away from the face. The explosion in the main road had brought down the roof for a distance which might be almost anything. The intake was blocked too. It was some way from the scene of the explosion, but the props were gone, and the roof had come down from end to end, for all he knew.

"Is there no other way out?" said Carthew.

"None, sir."

Carthew indicated the row of openings beside them.

"Don't any of these lead anywhere?"

"They all lead to the main road, except that one at the end, which leads to the intake. We have plenty of room to move about, and plenty of air; but we are shut in, and that's a fact, sir."

"Is that your opinion too, Mr Wilkie?"

"We canna get gettin' oot o' this, sir," replied the oracle with complacent finality.

There was a deathlike silence. Then Master Hopper began to cry softly. He was going to die, he reflected between his sobs, and he was very young to do so. It was hard luck his being there at all. He had only joined the riot from youthful exuberance and a desire to be "in the hearse," as an old Scottish lady once bitterly observed of a too pushful mourner at her husband's funeral. He entertained no personal animosity against the owner of the pit: in fact he had never set eyes on him. His desire had merely been to see the fun. Well, he was seeing it. He wept afresh.

Atkinson and Denton sat and gazed helplessly at Carthew. The part they had played in sealing up six souls in the bowels of the earth had faded from their minds: to be just, it had faded from the minds of their companions as well. The past lay buried with Renwick and Davies. The future occupied their entire attention.

There was another danger to be considered—the suffocating after-damp of the explosion. Carthew inquired about this. Entwistle considered that the risk was comparatively slight.

"The cloths hung across the approaches to the main road should keep it away," he said. "It's a heavy gas, and don't move about much, like. We shall be able to tell by the lamps, anyway."

"Then what had we better do?" said Carthew briskly. "Dig?"

One of the men—Atkinson—lifted his head from his hands.

"Ah were saaved by t' Salvationists once," he said hoarsely. "Ah could put up a prayer."

"I think we will try the effect of a little spade-work first," said Carthew. "Laborare est orare, just now!" he added to himself.

A few hours later they reassembled. They had tapped, sounded, hewed, and shovelled at every potential avenue of escape, but to no purpose. The intake and main road appeared to be blocked from end to end. Six men were mewed up with no food, a very little water, twenty-four hours' light, and a limited quantity of oxygen; and they had no means of knowing how near or how far away help might be.

All they were certain of was that on the other side of the barrier which shut them in men were working furiously to reach them in time, and that up above women were praying to God that He would deliver them.