[from Hall Caine The Deemster]
AND now a strange accident befell himstrange enough in itself, mysterious in its significance, and marvellous as one of God's own miracles in its results. He was going to give himself up to the Deemster at Ballamona, but he did not any longer take the highroad through the village, for he shrank from every human face. Almost without consciousness he followed the fenceless carttrack that went by the old lead-mine known as the Cross Vein. The disused shaft had never been filled up, and never even enclosed by a rail. It had been for years a cause of anxiety, which nothing but its remoteness on the lone waste of the headland bad served to modify. And now Dan, who knew every foot of the waste, and was the last man to whom danger from such an occasion might have been feared, plodding along with absent mind in the darkness, fell down the open shaft.
The shaft was forty-five fathoms deep, yet Dan was not so much as hurt. At the bottom were nearly twenty-five fathoms of water, the constant drainage of the old workings; which rose almost to the surface, or dropped to a great depth, according to weather. This had broken his fall. On coming to the surface, one stroke in the first instant of dazed consciousness had landed him on a narrow ledge of rock that raked downward from the seam. But what was his position when he realised it? It seemed to be worse than death itself; it was a living death: it was burial in an open grave.
Hardly had he recovered his senses when he heard something stirring overhead. Were they footsteps, those thuds on the ear, like the first rumble of a distant thunder-cloud? In the agony of fear he tried to call, but his tongue clave to his mouth. Then there was some talking near the mouth of the shaft. It came down to him like words shouted through a black, hollow, upright pillar.
"No use, men," said one speaker, "not a foot farther after the ' best man alive. It's every man for himself, now, and I'll go bail it's after ourselves they'll be going next."
And then another voice, laden with the note of pain, cried, 'But they'll take him, Uncle Billy, they'll take him, and him known' no thin'."
"Drove it, drove it ! Come along, man alive. Lave the lad to this d-d blather-you'd better. Let's make a slant for it. The fat's ' is agen us."
Dan shuddered at the sound of human voices. Buried, as he was, twenty fathoms beneath the surface, the voices came to him like the voice that the wind might make on a tempestuous night if, as it reaches your ear, it whispered words and fled away.
The men had gone. Who were they? What bad happened? Dan asked himself if he had not remembered one of the voices, or both. His mind was stunned and he could not think. He could hardly be sure that in very truth he was conscious of what occurred.
Time passed-he knew not how long or short -and again he heard voices overhead,' but they were not the voices that he had heard before.
"I apprehend that they have escaped us. But they were our men nevertheless. I have bad advices from Peel that the boat put into the harbour two hours ago."
" Mind the old lead shaft, sir."
Dan was conscious that a footstep approached the mouth of the shaft.
"What a gulf ! Lucky we didn't tumble down."
There was a short laugh-as of one who was panting after a sharp run-at the mouth of Dan's open grave.
"This was the way they took, sir ; over the head towards the Curraghs. They were nothalf wise, or they would have taken the mountains for it."
"They do not know that we are in pursuit of them. Depend upon it they are following him up to warn him. After all, it may have been his voice that the Deemster heard in the churchyard. He is somewhere within arm's reach. Let us push on."
The voices ceased, the footsteps died off. Forty feet of dull, dead rock and earth bad carried the sounds away in an instant. "Stop 1 " cried Dan, in the hurry of fear. Despair made him brave; fear made him fearless. There was no response. He was alone once more, but death was with him. Then in the first moment of recovered consciousness he knew whose voice it was that he had heard last, and he thanked God that his call had not been answered. It was the voice of Jarvis Kerruish. In agony of despair Dan perceived that the first company of men had been Quilleash and! the fisher-fellows. What fatality had prevented him from crying aloud to the only persons on earth who could have rescued and saved him? Dan realised that his crime was known, and that he was now a hunted man.
It was then that he knew how hopeless was his plight. He must not cry for help; he must stand still as death in his deep tomb. To be lifted out of this pit by the men who were in search of him would be, as it would seem, to be dragged from his hiding-place, ' and captured in a feeble effort to escape. What then of his brave atonement? Who would believe that he meant to make it ? It would ! be a mockery at which the veriest poltroon might laugh.
Dan saw now that death encircled him on every side. To remain in the pit was death ; to be lifted out of it was death no less surely; to escape was hopeless. But not so soon is hope conquered when it is hope of life. Cry for help he must; be dragged out of this grave he should, let the issue be what it could or would. To lie there and die was not human. To live was the first duty, the first necessity, be the price of life no less than future death.
Dan looked up at the sky; it was a small square patch of leaden grey against the impenetrable blackness of his prison walls. Standing on the ledge of the rock, and steadying himself with one hand, he lifted the other cautiously upward' to feel the sides of the shaft. They were of rock, and were quite precipitous, but had rugged projecting pieces on which it was possible to lay hold. As he grasped one of these, a sickening pang of hope shot through him, and wounded him worse than despair. But it was gone in an instant. The piece of rock gave way in his hand, and tumbled into the water below him with a hollow splash. The sides of the shaft were of crumbling stone
It was then, in that blind labouring of despair, that he asked himself why he should struggle with this last of the misfortunes that had befallen him. Was life so dear to him? Not so, or, being dear, he was willing to lay it down. Was he not about to deliver himself to the death that must be the first punishment of his crime? And what, after all, was there to choose between two forms of death ? Nay, if he must die, who was n longer worthy of life, better to die there, none knowing his way of death, than to die on the gallows.
At that thought his hair rose from its roots He had never rightly put it to himself until now that if he had to die for the death of Ewan, he must die the death of hanging. That horror of hanging which all men have was stronger in Dan than in most. With the grim vision before him of a shameful and damning death it came to him to tell himself that better, a thousand times better, was death in that living tomb than the death that awaited him outside it. Then he thought of his father, and of the abasement of that good man if so great a shame overtook his son, and thereupon, at the same breath with a prayer to God that he might die where he was, a horrible blasphemy bolted from his lips. He was in higher hands than his own. God had saved him from himself. At least he was not to die on the gallows. He had but one prayer now, and it cried in its barrenness of hope, "Let me never leave this place ! " His soul was crushed as the moth that will never lift wing again.
But at that his agony took another turn. He reflected that, if God's hand was keeping him from the just punishment of his crime, God was holding him back from the atonement that was to wash his crime away. At this thought he was struck with a great trembling. He wrestled with it, but it would not be overcome. Had he not parted with Mona with the firm purpose of giving himself up to the law? Yet at every hour since that parting some impediment had arisen. First, there were the men in the shed at the creek, their resolve to bury the body, and his own weak acquiescence ; then came the dead calm out at sea when he stood at the tiller, and the long weary drifting on the wide waters; and now there was this last strange accident. It was as if a higher will had willed it that he should die before his atonement could be made. His spirit sank yet lower, and he was for giving up all as lost. In the anguish of despair he thought that in very deed it must be that he had committed the unpardonable sin. This terrible idea clung to him like a leech at a vein. And then it came to him to think what a mockery his dream of atonement had been. What atonement could a bad man make for spilling the blood of a good one? He could but send his own wasted life after a life well spent. Would a righteous God take that for a just balance? Mockery of mockeries ! No, no; let him die where be now was, and let his memory be blotted out, and his sill be remembered no more.
He tried to compose himself, and pressed one hand hard at his breast to quiet the labouring of his heart. He began to reckon the moments. In this he had no object, or none save only that mysterious longing of a dying man to know how the hour drags on. s With the one band that was free he took out his watch, intending to listen for the beat of its seconds; but his watch had stopped; no doubt it was full of water. His heart beat loud enough. Then he went on to count one, two, three. But his mind was in a whirl, and he lost his reckoning. He found that he had stopped counting, and forgotten the number. Whether five minutes or fifty had passed he could not be sure.
But time was passing. The wind began to rise. At first Dan felt nothing of it as he stood in his deep tomb. He could bear its thin hiss over the mouth of the shaft, and that was all. But presently the hiss deepened to a sough. Dan had often heard of the wind's sob. It was a reality, and no metaphor, as he listened to the wind now. The wind began to descend. With a great swoop it came down the shaft, licked the walls, gathered voice from the echoing water at the bottom, struggled for escape, roared like a caged lion, and was once more sucked up to the surface, with a noise like the breaking of a huge wave over a reef. The tumult of the wind in the shaft was hard to bear, but when it was gone it was the silence that seemed to be deafening. Then the rain began to fall. Dan knew this by the quick monotonous patter overhead. But no rain touched him. It was driven aslant by the wind, and fell only against the uppermost part of the walls of the shaft. Sometimes a soft thin shower fell over him. It was like a spray from a cataract, except that the volume of water from which it came was above and not beneath him.
It was then, in the deadly sickness of fear, that there came to Dan the dread of miscarrying for ever if he should die now. He seemed to see what it was to die the unredeemed. Not to be forgiven, but to be for ever accursed, to be cut off from the living that live in God's peace-the dead darkness of that doom stood up before him. Life had looked very dear to him before, but what now of everlasting death? He was as one who was dead before his death came. Live he could not, die he dared not. His past life rose up in front of him, and he drank of memory's very dregs. It was all so fearsome and strange that, as he recalled its lost hours one by one, it was as if he were a stranger to himself. He saw himself like Esau, who for a morsel of meat bad sold his birthright, and could thereafter find no acceptance, though he sought it with tears. The Scripture leapt to his mind which says, "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God."
And then from the past to the future his mind went on in a rapid and ceaseless whirl. He saw himself fleeing as from the face of a dreadful judge, Tossed with the terror of a dreadful doom, he saw his place in the world, cold, empty, forsaken. He saw his old father too, the saintly Bishop, living under the burden of a thousand sorrows, while he who was the life of the good man's life, but his no longer, was a restless, wandering soul, coming as a cold blast of wind between him and his heaven. That thought was the worst terror of all, and Dan heard a cry burst from his throat that roused echoes of horror in the dark pit.
Then, as if his instinct acted without help from his mind, Dan began to contemplate measures for escape. That unexpected softness of the rock which had at first appalled him began now to give him some painful glimmerings of hope. If the sides of the shaft had been of the slate rock of the island, the ledge he had laid hold of would not have crumbled in his hand. That it was soft showed that there must be a vein of sandstone running across the shaft. Dan's bewildered mind recalled the fact that Orris Head was a rift of red sand and soft sandstone. If this vein were but deep enough his safety was assured. He could cut niches into it with a knife, and so, perhaps, after infinite pain and labour, reach the surface.
Steadying himself with one hand, Dan felt in his pockets for his knife. It was not there 1 Now indeed his death seemed certain. He was icy cold and feverishly hot at intervals. His clothes were wet ; the water still dripped from them, and fell into the hidden tarn beneath in hollow drops. But not to hope now would have been not to fear. Dan remembered that he had a pair of small scissors which he had used three days ago in scratching his name on the silver buckle of his militia belt. When searching for his knife he had felt it in his pocket, and spurned it for resembling the knife to the touch of his nervous fingers. Now it was to be his sole instrument. He found it again, and with this paltry help he set himself to his work of escape from the dark, deep tunnel that stood upright.
The night was wearing on; hour after hour went by. The wind dropped; the rain ceased to patter overhead. Dan toiled on step over step. Resting sometimes on the largest and firmest of the projecting ledges, he looked up at the sky. The leaden grey had changed to a dark blue, studded with stars. The moon arose very late, being in its last quarter, and much beset by rain-clouds. It shone a little way down the shaft, lighting all the rest. Dan knew it must be early morning. One star, a large, fall globe of light, twinkled directly above him. He sat long and watched it, and turned again and again in his toilsome journey to look at it. At one moment it crept into his heart that the star was a symbol of hope to him. Then he twisted back to his work, and when he looked again the star was gone-it had moved beyond his ken, it had passed out of the range of his narrow spot of heaven. Somehow it had been a mute companion.
Dan's spirit sank in his vlieerless solitude, but he toiled on. His strength was far spent. The moon died off, and the stars went out one after one. Then a deep cloud of darkness overspread the little sky above. Dan knew it must be the darkness that precedes the dawn. He had reached a ledge of rock that was wider than any of the ledges that were beneath it. Clearly enough a wooden rafter had lain along it. Dan rested and looked up. At that moment he heard the light patter of little feet overhead. It was a stray sheep, a lamb of last year's flock, wandering and lost. Though he could not see it, he knew it was there, and it bleated down the shaft. The melancholy cry of the lost creature in that dismal place touched a seared place on Dan's heart, and made the tears which he had not shed until now to start from his eyes. What old memory did it awaken ? He could not recall it at first, but then he remembered the beautiful story which he had heard many times of the lost lamb that came to the church porch at the christening of Ewan. Was it strange that there and then his thoughts turned to Ewan's child, the babe that was innocent of its great sorrows to come ? He began to wish himself a little child again, walking by his father's hand, with all the years rolled back, and all the transgressions of the years blotted out as a cloud, and with a new spirit sweet and fresh, where now was a spirit seared and old, and one great aching wound. In a moment the outcast lamb went off, sending up, as it went, its pitiful cry into the night. Dan was alone once more, but that visitation had sweetly refreshed his spirit.
Then it came back to him to think that of a surety it was not all one whether he died where he was, never coming alive from his open tomb, or died for his crime before the faces of all men. He must live, he must live, though not for life's sake, but to rob death of its worst terrors. And as for the impediments that had arisen to prevent the atonement on which his mind was set, they were not from God to lay his soul outside the reach of mercy, but from the devil to beset him and keep him back from the washing away of his sin. This thought revived him, and he turned to his task with a new resolve.
His fingers were chilled to the bone, and his clothes clung like damp cerements to his body. The meagre blades of the scissors were worn short; they could not last long. He rose to his feet on the ledge of rock, and plunged the scissors into the blank wall above him, and at that a fresh disaster seemed to overwhelm him. His hand went into soft earth; the vein of rock had finished, and above it must be loose, uncertain mould
He gasped at the discovery. A minute since life had looked very dear. Must he abandon his hopes after all ? He might have been longer vexed with this new fear, but that be recalled at that moment the words spoken by Jarvis Kerruish as he went by on the road that ran near the mouth of the shaft. Was it not clear that Quilleash and the fisher-fellows were being pursued as his assopiato ? Without his evidence to clear them, would they not surely suffei, innocent though they might be, and even though he himself lay dead in this place ? Now, indeed, he saw that he must of a certainty escape from this death in life, no difficulties conquering him.
Dan paused and reflected. As nearly as he' could remember, he had made thirty niches in the rock. Hence he must be fully thirty feet from the water and ten from the surface. Only ten feet, and then freedom. Yet these ten seemed to represent an impossibility. To ascend by holes dug deep in the soft earth was a perilous enterprise. A great clot of soil might at any moment give way, above or beneath him, and then he would be plunged once more into the pit. If he fell from the side of the shaft he would be more likely than at first, when he fell from the top, to strike on one of the projecting ledges and be killed before reaching the water.
There was nothing left but to wait for the dawn. Perhaps the daylight would reveal some less hazardous method of escape. Slowly the dull, dead, impenetrable blackness was lifted off. It was as though a spirit had breathed on the night, and it fled away. When the woolly hue of morning dappled his larger sky, Dan could hear the slow beat of the waves on the shore. The coast rose up before his vision then, silent, solemn, alone with the dawn. The light crept into his prison-house, and he looked down at the deep black tarn beneath him.
And now hope rose in his heart again. Overhead he saw timbers iunning around and across the shaft. These had been used to bank up the earth, and to make two grooves in which the ascending and descending cages had once worked. Dan lifted up his soul in thankfulness. The world was once more full of grace even for him. He could climb from stay to stay, and so reach the surface. Catching one of the stays in his uplifted hands, he swung his knee on to another. One stage he accomplished, and then how stiff were his joints, and how sinewless his fingers ! Another and another stage he reached, and then four feet and no more were between him and the gorse that waved in the light of the risen sun across the mouth of his night-long tomb.
But the rain of years had eaten into these timbers. In some places they crumbled, and were rotten. God 1 how the one on which he rested creaked under him at that instant I Another minute, and then his toilsome journey would be over. Another minute, and his dead self would be left behind him, buried for ever in this grave. Then there would be a resurrection in very truth. Yes, truly, God helping him.
Half-an-hour later, Dan Mylrea, with swimming eyes and a big heart, was walking towards the Deemster at Ballamona. The flush of the sun newly risen, and the brighter glory of a great hope newly born, was on his worn and pallid cheek. What terrors had life for him now? It had none. And very soon death also would lose its sting. Atonement ! atonement! It was even as he had thought; a wasted life for a life well spent, the life of a bad man for the life of a good one, but all he had to give-all, all !
And when he came to lay his offering at the merciful Father's feet it would not be spurned.