A Safety Match/Chapter 22

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The safety-lamps had burned themselves out hours ago, and the imprisoned party sat on in the dark. There was nothing else to do. Food they had none: their water was exhausted. They slept fitfully, but in the black darkness sleep seemed little removed from death, and time from eternity.

Jim Carthew lay with his head upon a friendly lump of coal, pondering with his accustomed detachment upon the sundry and manifold changes of this world. He thought of Death. Plainly he and his companions were about to solve the mystery of what lay hidden round that corner which our omniscience is pleased to consider the end of all things. What would they find there? Another life—a vista more glorious and sublime than man in his present state could conceive? Or just another long lane—just another highway of labour and love, of service and reward? Or—a cul-de-sac—an abyss—a jumping-off place? He wondered. Not the last alternative, he thought: more likely one of the other two. Anyhow, he would know soon, and it would be interesting. His one regret was that he would not be able to come back, even for five minutes, to tell his friends about it.

Friends! . . .

This brought a new train of reflection. He thought of Jack Carr and Jack Carr's wife. Would the latter keep her promise, and come back to her husband, he wondered. She should be in Belton this week, all being well—that is, if this was the week he thought it was. But time seemed rather a jumbled affair at present. Besides, he was so infernally hungry that he could not reason things out. Never mind! . . .

He thought of Nina Tallentyre. That difficulty had solved itself, anyhow. No need for further hopings or strivings: that was a relief! When their rupture occurred he had prayed to be excused from living further. He had even petitioned that the earth might open and swallow him up for ever. Well, the earth had done so, so he ought to be satisfied. He was gone down into silence, and Nina was rid of him—well rid of him! He was well rid of her, too. She had led him a dog's life the last few months. A dog's life. He repeated the fact to himself pertinaciously, but without any great feeling either of conviction or resentment.

He felt strangely contented and cheerful. His mind dwelt with persistence on the bright side of things. He thought of the day when she and he had first met, and Nina, in her superb, imperious manner, had desired him to take her out of "this rabble," and come and amuse her in a corner. He remembered subsequent meetings; various gracious acts of condescension on Nina's part; and finally one special evening on board a yacht in regatta-time, when they had sat together in a corner of the upper deck in the lee of the chart-house, with a perfectly preposterous moon egging them on, and the faint strains of Caressante pulsing across the silent water from the Commodore's yacht hard by; and Nina had nearly—almost—all-but—and then actually—capitulated.

She had gone back on her word three weeks later, it was true; but he drew consolation even now from the memory of something which had slipped through her long lashes and rolled down her cheek even as she dismissed him, a memory which had carried through many a black hour.

It was over episodes like this that his mind lingered. Other and less satisfactory items declined to come up for review. Perhaps, he reflected, dying men, provided they had lived clean and run straight, were always accorded this privilege. Only the credit side of the ledger accompanied them on their journey into the unknown. It was a comforting thought.

. . . He wondered what she would think when she heard about it. In a blue envelope at the bottom of his private strong-box they would find his will, a primitive document composed in secrecy, and endorsed: "To be opened when I have gone out for good." In this he had bequeathed all he possessed to "my friend Miss Nina Tallentyre," be she maid, wife, or widow at the moment. Carthew was not a man who loved by halves. All that he had was hers, whether she needed it or not. Of course she must not be made conspicuous in the matter; he had seen to that. The bequest was to be quite quiet and unostentatious. No probate, or notices in the papers, or rot of that kind. In the blue envelope was enclosed a private letter to his lawyers, dwelling on the importance of this point. They were decent old buffers, that firm, and would understand. They would square up any death-duties and other legal fakements that were necessary, and then pass on the balance to little Nina, to buy herself pretty things with. But no publicity! No embarrassment!

. . . He fell asleep, and dreamed, from the natural perversity of things, of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

When he awoke, low voices were conversing near him. Farther away he could hear the regular breathing of Master Hopper, who, with youth's ready amenability to Nature's own anodynes, was slumbering peacefully.

"I can weel understand, Mr Entwistle," observed Mr Wilkie in measured tones, "that no decent body would like to be seen entering yin o' they Episcopalian Kirks—"

Amos Entwistle's heavy voice agreed. He commented with heat upon indulgence in vain repetitions and other heathen practices favoured by the Anglican community; and related with grim relish an anecdote of how his own daughter, lured from the Wesleyan fold by the external fascinations of the new curate, had once privily attended morning service at the parish church—to return, shocked to the foundations of her being, with horrific tales of candles burning on the altar in broad daylight and the Lord's Prayer repeated four times in the course of a single service.

"But what I couldna thole," continued Mr Wilkie, who had been characteristically pursuing his own line of thought in the meantime, "would be no tae belong tae the kirk of the land. A Chapel body! I could never endure the disgrace of it."

Entwistle demurred vigorously. It was no disgrace to be Chapel folks. Sturdy Independents were proud to be able to dispense with State-aided, spoon-fed religion. Disgrace, indeed! Were not Mr Wilkie's qualms on the subject of Dissent due rather to a hankering after the flesh-pots—the loaves and fishes—the——

"Well, perhaps no exactly a disgrace," continued Mr Wilkie, disregarding the latter innuendo, "but a kin' o' stigma, like. Man, it's an awful thing tae walk doon the street and meet the minister o' the pairish, and him pass by and tak' no more notice of ye than if ye were a Plymouth Brother or an Original Secessionist. I mind yince when I was in a Tynside pit, I sat under Mr Maconochie—him that gave up a grand kirk in Paisley tae tak a call tae oor wee bit Presbyterian contraption, Jarrow way. Now, although Mr Maconochie's kirk was my kirk and him oor minister, I used tae feel far more uplifted if I got a good-day frae the minister o' the English Kirk—Golightly, or some sic' name—an Episcopalian! I canna imagine why, but there it was. I doot it was just orthodoxy. He was the minister o' the kirk o' the land, and Mr Maconochie, being, for him, on the wrong side of the Border, was not. Gin I had met yon felly Golightly trapesing doon the High Street o' Jedburgh, things would hae been gey different; for then—"

The point at issue, Entwistle's deep patient voice asseverated, was this. Should a man who was an Independent allow himself or his bairns to have aught to do with Church folk on any pretence whatever?

He was answered in the darkness by a third voice. Denton, the hewer—Atkinson, the retired Salvationist, shovelled and wheeled away in a tub what Denton hewed—had awoken from an uneasy sleep, and was listening to the conversation. Of all that little band, probably he was the least prepared to die. He was a drunkard, a blasphemer, and an evil liver. But like the rest of us, he had his redeeming features. He had inspired and kept alive for a period of ten years the love of his wife—a feat which many an ex-sidesman, buried beneath a mountain of expensive masonry adorned by an epitaph beginning, "Well done, good and faithful servant!"—has signally failed to accomplish. He sat up now.

"Ah niver 'ad nowt to do wi' churches or chapels," he began defiantly. "But ah knaws this. When my Maggie were lyin' badly four years agone, and us thought she was goin' to die, she asked me to go and fetch her pastor—that's what she called him. Ah ran along to his house and begged him to come. He said"—the man's voice grew thick, and one could almost see his sombre eyes glow in the gross darkness—"he said he were busy! There was a swarry that neet that 'twas his duty to attend, and next day he was goin' off to a political meeting to protest against t' Education Bill, or summat. He said, too, that he had enough to do ministerin' to the wants o' them that deserved ministerin' to, wi'out comin' to the house o' the likes o' me. When had he last seen me in t' chapel, he would like to knaw? Yes, that was what he wanted to knaw! He wanted to stand and ask me questions like that when my Maggie—! . . . Ah cursed him, and his chapel, and his fat-bellied deacons till Ah were out o' puff with it: then Ah went off down the street half-crazed. There Ah runs straight into a young feller wi' a soft black hat and long legs. He was standing outside t' door of his lodgings, smoking a pipe in the dark. He was t' curate at t' parish church, and when he saw I wasn't in liquor, he asked me what was my trouble. I telled him. 'Is that all?' says he. 'Will I do? I've just come off my day's work, and I ain't got nothing to do but amuse myself now.' It were nigh ten o'clock. Well, he comes with me, and he sat by my Maggie all the neet through, and sent me with a note to a doctor that were a friend of his, and only went away himsel' at seven o'clock next morning, because he had to get shaved and take early service or summat. That's all your chapel folk ever done for me, Amos Entwistle."

"That was a special case, and proves no rules. Besides," said Entwistle soberly, "this is no time for religious differences. We are in God's hands now, and I doubt we shall all be in a place soon where there is neither Church nor Chapel."

"Would it no be best for us all tae keep silence for a matter o' ten minutes," suggested Wilkie, "and pit up a bit prayer each of his ain, we bein' no all of the same way of thinkin' in these matters? That gate, wi' so many prayers o' different denominations goin' up, yin at least should get gettin' through the roof of the pit. Are ye agreed, chaps?"

"Aye, aye!" said Entwistle.

The others all murmured assent, save Master Hopper, who shrieked out in sudden fear. The proximity of death had become instantly and dreadfully apparent to him on Mr Wilkie's suggestion.

Carthew reached out and pulled him to his side.

"Come over here, by me," he said.

Master Hopper, greatly soothed, crept close, and settled down contentedly enough with an arm round Carthew's shoulders. Presently Carthew heard him repeating The Lord's Prayer to himself in a low and respectful whisper.

The silence lasted longer than ten minutes. For one thing, the supplicants were exhausted in body, soul, and spirit, and their orisons came slowly. For another, there was no need to hurry. For nearly an hour no one spoke.

At length some one sat up in the darkness, and the voice of Atkinson said:—

"Mr Carthew, sir, I think a song of praise would hearten us all."

"I believe it would," said Carthew. He was not enamoured of the corybantic hymnology of the Salvation Army, but the horror of black darkness was beginning to eat into his soul, and he knew that the others were probably in a worse plight. "What shall we sing?"

"At the meeting where I were saved," said Atkinson deferentially, "we concluded worship by singing a hymn I have never forgotten since: Hold the Fort!"

"That sounds a good one," said Carthew, struggling with an unreasonable sensation of being in the chair at a smoking-concert. "Does any one else here know 'Hold the Fort'?"

Yes, Entwistle knew it. Master Hopper had heard it. Mr Wilkie had not. He did not hold with hymns: even paraphrases were not, in his opinion, altogether free from the taint of Popery. If it had been one of the Psalms of David, now! Still, he would join. Denton knew no hymns, but was willing to be instructed in this one.

Atkinson, trembling with gratification, slowly rehearsed the words, the others repeating them after him.

"We will sing it now," he said.

He raised the tune in a clear tenor. Most north-countrymen are musicians by instinct. In a few moments this grim prison was flooded by a wave of sonorous melody. The simple, vulgar, taking tune swelled up; the brave homely words rang out, putting new heart into every one. Each and all joyfully realised that there are worse ways of going to one's death than singing a battle-song composed by Moody and Sankey. With drawn white faces upturned to the heaven they could not see they sang on, flinging glorious defiance into the very teeth of Death—gentleman and pitman, Church and Chapel, zealot and infidel.

"Last verse again!" commanded Atkinson.

"Wait a moment!" cried Entwistle, starting up.

But no one heard him. The chorus was rolling out once more:—

"Hold the Fort, for I am coming—"

Tap, tap, tap! Scrape, scrape, scrape! Hammer, hammer, hammer!

The hymn paused, wavered, and stopped dead on the final shout.

"By God!" screamed a voice—it was Denton's—"here they are!"

Carthew, with Hopper's arms tightening convulsively round him, started up.

"Is it true?" he asked hoarsely.

"Aye! Listen! They have found us. They are within a few yards of us," said Entwistle.

"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow!" sang Atkinson suddenly and exultantly, and the others joined him.

Entwistle was right. They were found. Reasoned calculation, dogged persistence, and blind indifference to their own safety had brought the search party triumphantly along the mouldering rickety passages of Shawcliffe Pit to the nearest point of contact with Number Three in Belton; and "Hold the Fort!" proceeding fortissimo from a subterranean cave of harmony not many yards away, had done the rest.