A Safety Match/Chapter 21

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VIEILLESSE SAIT.


Lady Carr was at the pit-head early on Monday morning. She had arrived in the Belton motor, just in time to provide for the conveyance of the two injured men to the county hospital, eleven miles away. She herself passed quietly in and out amid the anxious groups of men and women. She said little: it was not a time for words; but it was noted that she lingered for more than a few minutes in the company of Master Hopper's mother, and that her grave, slow smile appeared to hearten that broken widow mightily.

Presently she encountered her husband, whom she had not seen for two nights and a day.

"You here?" he said.

"Yes. I have sent those two poor men away to Kilchester in the car, and I am waiting for it to come back." Then a note of maternal severity intervened. "Have you been to bed at all since I last saw you?"

"Not much," admitted Juggernaut. "But I have a vague recollection of lying down somewhere for a few hours last night. It may have been on the office sofa or it may have been in the sump. What I am more certain of is that I have not washed for days. I feel like Othello. But what has brought you down to the pit?"

"I thought you would like to know," said Daphne, "that this affair is in the morning papers."

Othello looked, if possible, blacker than before.

"Have they got the names?"

"Yes, Jim Carthew's too. And what do you think the result has been, Jack? I have had a wire from—from"—for a moment Daphne's concern for the tragedy around her was swallowed up in the joy of the match-making sex over one sinner that repenteth—"whom do you think?"

"I don't know."

Daphne told him. "It was the first thing she heard when she landed in England. She is frantic about him, and is coming down here to-day. She has offered to sleep anywhere, do anything, if only she may come. Jack, isn't it too heavenly?" Daphne positively crowed.

Juggernaut's teeth flashed across his grimy countenance in a sympathetic smile.

"You women!" he said softly. "We must fish him out for her after this, Daphne. Well, Mrs Entwistle?"

A middle-aged woman with hungry eyes was at his elbow. She was Amos Entwistle's wife.

"Would you come and speak to old Mr Entwistle, sir?" she said—"my man's father. He is too rheumatic to move about easy, but he seems to have something on his mind about another way of getting at them."

Sir John Carr turned and followed her promptly.

"Shall I come too, dear?" said Daphne.

"Better not. Go and send Walker to me if you can find him."

Mrs Entwistle conducted Juggernaut to a sunny nook, sheltered from the keen breeze, against the brickwork of the power-house. Here sat Entwistle senior, stone-deaf, almost blind, but with his eighty-year-old wits still bright and birdlike.

He was no respecter of titles or employers, this old gentleman, and in high-pitched, senile tones he criticised the arrangements for rescue. The excavatory operations were a mistake. Time was being wasted. The poor lads inside had nobbut a little water to drink and nowt to eat. The air would be getting foul, too.

"You must get there quick, Sir John," he said, rising painfully from his seat. "See now."

He began to hobble laboriously away from the vicinity of the pit-head towards the rather grimy fields which lay to the north of the colliery. By this time Walker had arrived, bringing with him a burly, bearded pit-inspector, sent down by the Board of Trade.

Twenty minutes' laborious walking ended in a halt in the middle of a bleak pasture-field, from which a few unconcerned sheep were extracting some exceedingly dubious-looking nourishment. Mr Entwistle called a halt.

"Been thinking things over," said he, breathing stertorously. "Known this country-side, above and below, nigh seventy year. The lads, they go buzzing round the pit-head, but the old man"—as a matter of fact he said "t'owd mon," but it will be simpler to paraphrase his utterance—"sits at home and thinks things over. They has to come to him in the end!"

All this was highly irrelevant and proportionately exasperating; but old age has its privileges. Doubtless Agamemnon, Menelaus, and other eager stalwarts longed with all their hearts to tear Nestor limb from limb, what time that venerable bore delivered himself of fifty lines of autobiographical hexameters as a preliminary to coming to the point; yet they never did. Presently Mr Entwistle concluded his exordium and tapped upon the ground with his staff.

"We are standing," he announced, "right over the road to Number Three. Two hundred fathom down," he added, in case they should have overlooked this point.

This, at any rate, was a statement of fact. Walker produced and consulted the pit-plan. "You are about right," he said. "Well?"

"How far along this road is the face?" inquired the old gentleman. "It's a tidy number of years since I—"

Walker told him, with the result that the excursion was resumed. Presently Mr Entwistle came to a halt again.

"We're over Number Three now," he said.

Walker again confirmed him, with the aid of a compass-bearing and the pit-plan.

"Well?" he said.

The old man pointed with his stick to some dismantled and abandoned pit buildings farther down the valley, a full mile away.

"The old Shawcliffe Pit," he croaked. "Worked out this forty year. But I knowed it well when I were a lad."

Juggernaut, suddenly seeing light, caught the old man by the arm.

"You mean," said he rapidly, "that the Shawcliffe workings run up this way—"

"No, no," said Walker, interrupting. "You are wrong, Mr Entwistle. The Shawcliffe workings all run down the other way, to the north."

"Nay," persisted the old gentleman—"not all. They thowt there were a seam this way, and they drove one road out here, if so be they might pick it up. They had got signs of it, boring. But it were a faulty seam. It weren't until Belton Pit were opened, thirty years later, that they struck it fair."

"And that road runs out this way, from Shawcliffe shaft?" asked the Inspector.

"Aye, and it must come very nigh to the Belton Workings now—nigh to Number Three. I reckon—"

"He is right!" said Walker excitedly. "It's a chance! I have heard of this road, now I think of it." He turned to Entwistle again. "How far out do you think it runs? Quick, man—tell us!"

For answer the veteran, much inflated, stumped off again in a northerly direction, with all the assurance of a water-diviner in full cry. After fifty yards or so he stopped.

"I should say it ended about here," he said. "You can trust the old man's memory. The youngsters—"

Another lengthy deliverance was plainly threatened, but this time our Nestor observed, not without justifiable chagrin, that the majority of his audience had disappeared. The symposium was suddenly reduced to himself and his daughter-in-law. Testily curtailing his peroration, to the exclusion of several valuable aphorisms upon the advantages of age over youth, the old gentleman resignedly took the arm of Mrs Amos, and permitted himself to be conducted back to his fireside.

But he had served his turn for all that.

The other three were hurrying back to Belton Pit talking eagerly, Juggernaut leading by half a pace.

"It's madness, of course," said Walker cheerfully. "This pit has been closed for forty years. The props will be down—"

"The air will be foul," said the Inspector thoughtfully.

"Or explosive," added Walker.

"And there will probably be water," continued both together.

"Is the shaft still open?" asked Juggernaut brusquely.

"I believe so," said Walker.

"I suppose it would be possible to rig a derrick and tackle over it?"

"Yes."

They strode on a dozen paces.

"I am going down," said Juggernaut.

"I am going with you," said Walker.

"And I," said the Inspector, "am coming too."

They broke into a trot.