A Safety Match/Chapter 23
THE LAST TO LEAVE.
It was night once more, and the great arc lights snapped and sizzled above the waste-heaps and truck-lines surrounding the head of Belton Pit. But the scene was deserted. The centre of interest had shifted to Shawcliffe, a mile away. Here a vast silent throng of human beings stood expectantly in groups, their faces illuminated by the naphtha flares which had been erected here and there about the long-abandoned pit-head.
There was news—tense, thrilling news—and the prospect of more. The ancient shaft had been opened and a bucket and tackle rigged—there was no time to ship a cage—and a search party had gone down at dusk. Word had shortly been sent up that the road to the south was still open, though the air was foul and the props rickety. Then came a frantic tug at the rope, and a messenger was hauled to the surface, crying aloud that men were alive in Belton Pit. It was hoped, he added, that the search party would reach them by midnight, for the dividing wall was surprisingly thin. Sir John Carr's order was that blankets and stretchers should be prepared; also food and medical comforts, for the prisoners had fasted for something like sixty hours. With that the messenger had dived below once more, and the game of patience was resumed.
It was past midnight now, and everything was in readiness. On the outskirts of the throng, at the side of the rough and lumpy road, stood a motor-car with two occupants—women. One of them was her ladyship; the other the spectators failed to recognise. But there were rumours about to the effect that she was a visitor to Belton recently arrived from London. Lady Carr had been seen meeting her at the station that afternoon.
The stranger's name, had it been told, would not have conveyed much information to the watchers. It was Nina Tallentyre.
There was a sudden swirl and heave in the crowd. The hand-turned windlass was at work again, and some one was being hauled slowly up the shaft. It was Mr Walker, the manager.
They made a lane for him, until he reached a convenient rostrum formed by an inverted and rusty truck. This he mounted and very briefly told them the news—news which made them laugh foolishly and sob by turns. There was no cheering: they were past that.
In the excitement the next man who followed him up the shaft passed unnoticed. It was Sir John Carr. He saw the hooded motor standing apart, Mr Vick sitting motionless at the wheel. Next moment he was in beside the two women, overalls and all, holding Daphne's hands in a single grimy fist and telling them what we know already.
"Is he perfectly safe?" asked Nina for the tenth time. She did not possess Daphne's aristocratic composure under critical circumstances.
"Yes—but very weak. I am sending him up second. The first is a pit-boy. When Carthew arrives you had better put him in the motor and take him straight home."
"Jack!" said Daphne.
She slipped out of the car and accompanied her husband into the darkness outside the radius of flaring lights.
"Are you going down again?" she asked.
"And when are you coming up?" The unflinching courage which upholds so many women in the face of danger had never failed Daphne during those long days and nights. But now the courage was receding with the danger.
"When would you have me come up?" he asked.
"Last," said Daphne, suddenly proud. "It is the only place for you. I will wait here. Nina can take her Jim home, and the car can come back later for you and me. . . Jack!"
Her husband turned and regarded her curiously. Their eyes met.
"Well?" he said.
"Jack," continued Daphne in a low voice, "is there much risk down there—for you, I mean?"
"There is always risk, of a sort, down a coal-pit," replied her husband pontifically. "A little explosive marsh-gas, or a handful of finely divided coal-dust lying in a cranny, might suddenly assert itself. Still, there are risks everywhere. One might be struck down by apoplexy at a vestry meeting."
Daphne gave his arm a squeeze, an ingratiating childish squeeze, suggestive of the Daphne of old negotiating for extension of dress allowance.
"Jack, stay up here! You have done enough."
"Post me, Satanella!" smiled her husband. Then, more seriously: "Daphne, if I came to you and asked for orders now, where would you send me, I being what I am—the proprietor of the pit—and you being what you are—the proprietress of my good name?"
Daphne's fit had passed.
"I should send you," she answered bravely, "down the shaft, with orders to stay there until every one else was safely out."
"I obey," said Juggernaut. "Au revoir!"
"Jack!" said Daphne faintly. Her face was uplifted.
"It will be a coaly one!" said her husband, complying.
Then came an accusation.
"Daphne, you are trembling! This is not up to your usual standard."
"I can't help it," said Daphne miserably. "I am a coward. But I don't mind," she added more cheerfully, "so long as no one else knows. You won't give me away!"
At that Juggernaut held her to him a moment longer.
"Daphne, my wife," he whispered suddenly—"thank God for you—at last!"
Then they fell apart, and she ran lightly back to the motor and Nina.
Once she turned and looked over her shoulder, waving her hand prettily. Her face, framed in a motor bonnet and lit by the glare of a naphtha light, looked absurdly round and childish, just as it had done upon a dim and distant morning in Snayling Church.
It was the last time in his life that her man was ever to behold it.
Master Hopper, partially restored by brandy and meat-juice, and feeling, on the whole, something of a hero, arrived at the pit-head an hour later, there to be claimed by his mother and hustled off, by more willing hands than he could comfortably accommodate, home to bed. The bucket, which provided standing-room for two passengers, then went down again.
This time it brought up Mr Walker, holding a supporting arm round Carthew—a sick man indeed. He was less hardened to subterranean existence than the rest. Sympathetic murmurs arose. The bucket was swung out from beneath the pulley and landed gently on the edge of the shaft. Carthew stepped out and stood swaying uncertainly.
A tall girl came suddenly forward.
"Jim, dear!" was all she said.
Carthew surveyed her, and smiled weakly.
"Hallo, Nina! That you?"
Miss Tallentyre took his arm.
"The car is waiting for you," she said. "Lean on me hard, old boy!"
And certainly no more desirable prop than this girl, with her splendid youth and glorious vitality, was ever offered to a weary mortal. Carthew, dazed but utterly content, put a feeble arm round the slim shoulders of the woman whose mere hand he had hitherto counted it heaven to touch, and the pair passed away together out of the crowd—and out of this narrative. Happiness has no history.
Others were coming up the shaft now. First Mr Wilkie, in a very fair state of preservation: then Denton, the reprobate, insensible—his hands were in tatters, so fiercely had he worked,—then Atkinson, still sheer drunk with the success of his own hymnology: then Amos Entwistle.
Denton's huge inanimate form was laid on a stretcher, to be carried home under the direction of his wife. (The wives of Renwick and Davis, poor souls, had gone home long ago.) But, the Belton Hall motor returning on that instant, Lady Carr insisted on carrying husband and wife home together. The rush through the night air brought Denton round, and he was able to walk into his own house, leaning undeservedly upon the most uplifted little woman in the north of England.
Daphne returned to the pit-head for the last time. The rescue work was completed. Surely she might claim him now!
No, the block and tackle were not working. No one else was coming up at present. Only round the shaft a knot of men conferred eagerly. She would wait in the car.
She lay back, wrapped in a rug—a cold dawn was breaking—and closed her eyes. The rush and excitement of the three days had told upon her. She had no clear recollection of having slept for any length of time or eaten at any definite period. She had done work among stricken wives and mothers that Belton village would never forget, but she had not realised this. All her head and heart were filled by the mighty knowledge that after five years of married life she and her husband had found one another.
Meanwhile there was silence round the pit-head.
"Vick," said Daphne, suddenly fearful, "go and find Mr Walker, or some one, and ask when Sir John will be up."
Mr Vick, who had been dozing comfortably at his wheel, clambered down into the muddy road and departed as bidden. Ten minutes later he returned falteringly.
"Mr Walker has just gone down the pit again, my lady," he said. "There has been a slight explosion of coal-dust, I was to tell you. Nothing serious—just a flash and a spit in a holler place in the roof, the message said."
"Is Sir John down there?" Cold fear gripped Daphne's heart.
"Yes, my lady."
"Is he safe, do you know?"
"I couldn't say, my lady," replied Vick doggedly. "I'll inquire." He turned away, glad to escape, with the brisk demeanour of one anxious to investigate matters. But before he reached the pit-head the answer to all possible inquiries came to meet him, in the form of a slow-moving procession carrying something in its midst.
Very gently the bearers laid the stretcher on the grass by the roadside. Daphne, white, silent, but composed, stooped down and turned back the blanket which covered her husband's face. He lay very still. His head and eyes were roughly bandaged. Daphne whispered, so low that none other could hear.
His voice answered hers, from amid the bandages—faint, but imperturbable as ever.
"I'm all right, dear. Afraid it has got me in the eyes a bit, though. Take me home, wife of mine! You will have to lead me about with a string now!"
Daphne's head sank lower still, and she whispered, almost contentedly:—
"At last I can really be of some use to you!"