― 206 ―

In Dark Waters.

The whistle had gone, the day shift had knocked off, and the cage was bringing the men from the black depths of the colliery as fast as wheels could turn.

The men were in good humour with themselves, for their agitation had been successful in extracting from the management a promise that a portion of the colliery, long considered unsafe, should be sealed up. So their spirits rose as the good news spread, till they joked like a lot of schoolboys.

The most light-hearted of the crowd was Hugh Laing, a fine, strapping young fellow, who had passed all his theoretical examinations, and was just finishing the three years it was necessary for him to serve below before he could get his manager's certificate. He was working in the affected area, and had never felt comfortable. His anxiety arose not so much from the thought of his own danger as from the knowledge that it was worrying his mother. She was a widow, whose energies and affections centred in her only son, so it was not to be wondered at that the son placed her welfare before his won.

But he had another cause for satisfaction that day, for he had just heard that Sam Thompson was again working in the mine, and as he contemplated the prospect of wiping off an old score his face lit up with a grim smile that boded ill for Thompson.

He entered the little cottage with a buoyant step, and greeted his mother with more than his usual fervour, before telling her his two items of news.

“I'm real glad to hear about the closing, lad,” she said, “and in regard to Sam Thompson, I'll only ask you to promise one thing.”

She stopped, and Hugh, knowing what was expected of him, asked: “What is that, mother?”

She waited a moment, and then said impressively: “Never forget that he, too, has a mother depending on him.”

Some time elapsed before Hugh answered. He was looking back and thinking of the way Sam Thompson had lied in order to separate him from the girl he loved. As he thought of the success that had attended those efforts, and of his own failure to undo the damage, his mouth set tight, and his eyes shone with a look there was no mistaking.

His mother wisely let him fight his battle alone.

“There are other things I'll remember as well as that, mother,” was all the reply he made. But the mother knew her son, and was satisfied.

  ― 207 ―

As Hugh lay awake that night listening to the moaning of the breakers, he little guessed that they were at that moment breaking down the last barriers that separated them from the workings beneath. He little guessed that the moments as they flew were ticking off the closing scenes in the drama of many a life. For no one knew that the morrow was to usher in one of the greatest calamities that ever interrupted the ordered flow of Australian national life.

The calamity occurred just as the men were having dinner. The comparative quiet was broken by a low rumbling that gradually swelled and swelled till it seemed to fill the pit. Hugh and his mate, an old miner named Morgan, looked at each other, and no words were necessary to give utterance to the fear that blanched their faces. Both knew that the sea had broken in, and nothing could stop its inrush till the whole mine was flooded up to sea-level. They dropped their picks and ran like mad for the main road.

Before they reached the road, a fierce blast of wind swept through the workings. With a weird shriek it proclaimed itself the harbinger of the coming flood, sent forward to announce the triumph of chaos over the puny works of man. The intensity of the blast told the men that one flood that followed was coming with appalling swiftness, so they raced along like demons, recognising that their only chance of safety lay in their ability to get beyond the lowlying parts before the flood came upon them.

During that wild race with the waters Hugh's mind was busy. He saw plainly that if the flood caught them that side of the hollow their only hope was to reach one of the headings above sea-level, and take their chance of cutting their way out. The noise of the flood was growing louder and louder each moment, and it rolled and echoed through the mine like the booming of a thousand breakers.

What a rush it was! They stumbled and fell, but still struggled on in the darkness, with never a groan. Many a man stopped to help a fallen comrade, though all the time the flood roared louder and louder, like some monster gloating over its prey. It only lasted a moment or two, but the memory of it remained with Hugh for ever.

When the waters overtook them many of the men were in the hollow. Poor wretches! They are gone for ever “till the sea gives up its dead.” Hugh and some others were just on the edge of the depression. Few survived the first shock of the torrent, and these few could do little more, for some moments, than cling tenaciously to their supports. After a time the current abated some-what, and it was possible to struggle against it.

Old Morgan's voice was heard above the babel of the waters. “Boys!” he yelled. A few “ayes” answered him. “Let's make for Jimmy Duncan's bord. The top end of that is above sea-level, and we might cut our way out into the old B—— workings.”

The uselessness of staying where they were was apparent to all, and so without more ado the pitiful remnant set out. Then a providential thought struck Hugh. If he could only get a message to the pit top they might stand a chance. He remembered that there was a telephone just along a cross-road

  ― 208 ―
that might not have been reached yet, and he started out in that direction. He soon reached it, and rang. The “burr” of the current in his ear told him that it was still “live,” and with his head nigh bursting with excitement he stood and waited for the answering call. He knew his time was short. He knew the water was rapidly filling the lowlying areas, and as soon as they were full it must rise on his side, till the main road—yes, and even this cross-road where he stood, was flooded to the roof. The water was at his knees now, and gently rising. He knew it would be chest high in the main road, and before he could reach Duncan's bord it would probably be up to the roof, and then——! Would there be an answer?

He thought of his mother, and a hard lump came into his throat. God help and pity his mother, and all other mothers who had sons below that fateful day! He wondered how Thompson had fared, and he felt a flendish desire to laugh as he thought of him coming back to the old mine just to die.

What could be wrong in the office? He was just about to ring again when he heard the click of the receiver being removed, and then his heart gave a mighty thump as he recognised the manager's “Hullo!” at the other end. In a few brief words he gave his message, and then, knowing by the horrified cry of the manager that it was understood, he just waited to repeat the name of the spot they were going to try to make, and dashed off.

When he reached the main road the water was up to his armpits, and running strongly. It was all he could do to keep his feet. He thanked heaven that miners wore heavy boots, for without them his case would have been hopeless.

No words can describe the terror of that walk through the darkness. Dragging himself along by the skips, or anything else he could lay hands on, he came nearer and nearer the haven he sought. Sometimes he could hardly breathe, the water was so high, and the roof so low. Sometimes he lost precious seconds through some obstruction holding him fast. Sometimes he thought he was off the track, and then the horror of it all nearly drove him mad. Sometimes the last piteous wall of some drowning comrade reached his ear, and had it not been that his own case was nearly as bad, those cries would have frozen the blood in his veins. Before he reached the bord the water was at his neck, but he got safely through, and as he struggled up the rising ground it fell away from him until he felt safe, for the water was now no higher than his waist.

He gave a shout to see if the others had arrived safely, and the answering cheer assured him that it was so. But high above the cheer rose a cry there could be no mistaking. It was the despairing scream of a doomed man that came from the watery hell he had just left, and the voice was that of Sam Thompson.

Hugh only hesitated a second before he plunged back into the water. Although he knew he was taking a great risk, and although he knew Thompson would see him drown before his eyes without raising a finger to assist him, he could not forget his mother's words: “Don't forget he has a mother depending on him.”

  ― 209 ―

He plunged on, till he guessed that he was near the spot from which the cry came.

“Where are you, Sam?” he asked. A choking sob came from somewhere on his left hand. He felt blindly till he caught hold of Sam's shirt. The water was up to his neck now, and over Sam's mouth, but he never flinched. Taking a deep breath, he dived into the water, and felt down the other's body till he found the trouble.

A loaded skip had canted over and pinned him to the wall. With feverish haste Hugh strove to unfasten the couplings that connected to its fellows, and every time he rose for breath the water was appreciably higher. At last he succeeded, and not a moment too soon, for as he pulled the insensible Thompson out of the trap he found that his strength was just about gone. How he struggled out he never knew, but he learned afterwards that he had been found just on the edge of the advancing waters with the limp body of the other on top of him.

The history of that long, weary waiting in the darkness, with dumb fear gnawing at their hearts, and grim famine always before their eyes, has never been told. Colliers are built in an heroic mould, but they are modest withal, and seldom given to talking. How they revived Thompson, and nursed him back to life with the last remnants of their food and drink, how they cheered each other to deeds of self-sacrifice such as only heroes do, how they swore Hugh was the gamest lad that ever gladdened a mother's heart; how Thompson, hearing the tale of his rescue, told the whole story of his infamy towards Hugh, and how Hugh, thinking that no place for anger, shook hands with him on the spot—all this is the groundwork of a great story; but it has yet to be told.

And then there is the tale of the gallant rescuers and of the triumphant fight they made against foul air, noxious gases, crumbling walls, tottering roofs, and the other fell dangers that beset their lot. How they entered the old workings of the B—— mine, and, taking their lives in their hands, searched round till they found the spot they sought, never heeding the fact that every moment an explosion might hurl them into eternity.

How they worked for days with never a glimmer of hope, till men fell from exhaustion and lack of air, but their places were filled from the ever-ready crowd of waiting volunteers, who were eager to brave the greatest dangers for the sake of their imprisoned comrades.

It was a perilous time, but the difficulties were all overcome, and the prisoners were snatched from the rising waters after seven days of entombment.

Great was the relief of the crowd at the pit top as the word was passed along that at last they were rescued, and many the tears of joy shed as women embraced those whom they had given up for dead.

  ― 210 ―

Hugh Laing looks back on his experiences with mingled feelings, because he owes his life's happiness to the disaster. Had there been no accident, he might never have demonstrated the possession of those faculties that put him on the first rung of the ladder of fame; and he might never have been reconciled to his sweetheart, for that joyous event was the result of Thompson's efforts, and it is only right to state that the whole of Sam's subsequent career was a complete vindication of the power of a wholesome application of the Golden Rule.