The Underground City
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"Well, Harry," said Jack, shaking his head, "I will do as you wish me;
but I tell you all the same, you are very wrong."
"Nothing venture nothing win," said Harry, in a tone of decision.
"To-morrow morning, then, at six o'clock. Be silent, and farewell!"
It must be admitted that Jack Ryan's fears were far from groundless.
Harry would expose himself to very great danger, supposing the enemy
he sought for lay concealed at the bottom of the pit into which he was
going to descend. It did not seem likely that such was the case, however.
"Why in the world," repeated Jack Ryan, "should he take all this
trouble to account for a set of facts so very
easily and simply explained by the supernatural intervention
of the spirits of the mine?"
But, notwithstanding his objections to the scheme, Jack Ryan and
three miners of his gang arrived next morning with Harry at the mouth
of the opening of the suspicious shaft. Harry had not mentioned
his intentions either to James Starr or to the old overman.
Jack had been discreet enough to say nothing.
Harry had provided himself with a rope about 200 feet long.
It was not particularly thick, but very strong--sufficiently so to
sustain his weight. His friends were to let him down into the gulf,
and his pulling the cord was to be the signal to withdraw him.
The opening into this shaft or well was twelve feet wide.
A beam was thrown across like a bridge, so that the cord
passing over it should hang down the center of the opening,
and save Harry from striking against the sides in his descent.
He was ready.
"Are you still determined to explore this abyss?" whispered Jack Ryan.
"Yes, I am, Jack."
The cord was fastened round Harry's thighs and under his arms,
to keep him from rocking. Thus supported, he was free to use
both his hands. A safety-lamp hung at his belt, also a large,
strong knife in a leather sheath.
Harry advanced to the middle of the beam, around which the cord
was passed. Then his friends began to let him down, and he slowly
sank into the pit. As the rope caused him to swing gently round
and round, the light of his lamp fell in turns on all points
of the side walls, so that he was able to examine them carefully.
These walls consisted of pit coal, and so smooth that it would
be impossible to ascend them.
Harry calculated that he was going down at the rate of about
a foot per second, so that he had time to look about him,
and be ready for any event.
During two minutes--that is to say, to the depth of about 120 feet,
the descent continued without any incident.
No lateral gallery opened from the side walls of the pit,
which was gradually narrowing into the shape of a funnel.
But Harry began to feel a fresher air rising from beneath,
whence he concluded that the bottom of the pit communicated with a gallery
of some description in the lowest part of the mine.
The cord continued to unwind. Darkness and silence were complete.
If any living being whatever had sought refuge in the deep
and mysterious abyss, he had either left it, or, if there,
by no movement did he in the slightest way betray his presence.
Harry, becoming more suspicious the lower he got, now drew his
knife and held it in his right hand. At a depth of 180 feet,
his feet touched the lower point and the cord slackened and
unwound no further.
Harry breathed more freely for a moment. One of the fears he entertained
had been that, during his descent, the cord might be cut above him,
but he had seen no projection from the walls behind which anyone could
have been concealed.
The bottom of the abyss was quite dry. Harry, taking the lamp
from his belt, walked round the place, and perceived he had been
right in his conjectures.
An extremely narrow passage led aside out of the pit.
He had to stoop to look into it, and only by creeping could it
be followed; but as he wanted to see in which direction it led,
and whether another abyss opened from it, he lay down on the ground
and began to enter it on hands and knees.
An obstacle speedily arrested his progress. He fancied he could
perceive by touching it, that a human body lay across the passage.
A sudden thrill of horror and surprise made him hastily draw back,
but he again advanced and felt more carefully.
His senses had not deceived him; a body did indeed lie there;
and he soon ascertained that, although icy cold at
the extremities, there was some vital heat remaining.
In less time than it takes to tell it, Harry had drawn the body
from the recess to the bottom of the shaft, and, seizing his lamp,
he cast its lights on what he had found, exclaiming immediately,
"Why, it is a child!"
The child still breathed, but so very feebly that Harry expected
it to cease every instant. Not a moment was to be lost;
he must carry this poor little creature out of the pit,
and take it home to his mother as quickly as he could. He
eagerly fastened the cord round his waist, stuck on his lamp,
clasped the child to his breast with his left arm, and, keeping his
right hand free to hold the knife, he gave the signal agreed on,
to have the rope pulled up.
It tightened at once; he began the ascent. Harry looked around him
with redoubled care, for more than his own life was now in danger.
For a few minutes all went well, no accident seemed to threaten him,
when suddenly he heard the sound of a great rush of air from beneath;
and, looking down, he could dimly perceive through the gloom a broad
mass arising until it passed him, striking him as it went by.
It was an enormous bird--of what sort he could not see; it flew
upwards on mighty wings, then paused, hovered, and dashed fiercely
down upon Harry, who could only wield his knife in one hand.
He defended himself and the child as well as he could,
but the ferocious bird seemed to aim all its blows at him alone.
Afraid of cutting the cord, he could not strike it as he wished,
and the struggle was prolonged, while Harry shouted with all his
might in hopes of making his comrades hear.
He soon knew they did, for they pulled the rope up faster;
a distance of about eighty feet remained to be got over.
The bird ceased its direct attack, but increased the horror
and danger of his situation by rushing at the cord, clinging to it
just out of his reach, and endeavoring, by pecking furiously,
to cut it.
Harry felt overcome with terrible dread. One strand of the rope gave way,
and it made them sink a little.
A shriek of despair escaped his lips.
A second strand was divided, and the double burden now hung suspended
by only half the cord.
Harry dropped his knife, and by a superhuman effort succeeded,
at the moment the rope was giving way, in catching hold of it
with his right hand above the cut made by the beak of the bird.
But, powerfully as he held it in his iron grasp, he could feel
it gradually slipping through his fingers.
He might have caught it, and held on with both hands by
sacrificing the life of the child he supported in his left arm.
The idea crossed him, but was banished in an instant,
although he believed himself quite unable to hold out until
drawn to the surface. For a second he closed his eyes,
believing they were about to plunge back into the abyss.
He looked up once more; the huge bird had disappeared; his hand
was at the very extremity of the broken rope--when, just as
his convulsive grasp was failing, he was seized by the men,
and with the child was placed on the level ground.
The fearful strain of anxiety removed, a reaction took place,
and Harry fell fainting into the arms of his friends.
CHAPTER XII NELL ADOPTED
A COUPLE of hours later, Harry still unconscious, and the child
in a very feeble state, were brought to the cottage by Jack Ryan
and his companions. The old overman listened to the account
of their adventures, while Madge attended with the utmost care
to the wants of her son, and of the poor creature whom he had
rescued from the pit.
Harry imagined her a mere child, but she was a maiden of the age
of fifteen or sixteen years.
She gazed at them with vague and wondering eyes; and the thin face,
drawn by suffering, the pallid complexion, which light
could never have tinged, and the fragile, slender figure,
gave her an appearance at once singular and attractive.
Jack Ryan declared that she seemed to him to be an uncommonly
interesting kind of ghost.
It must have been due to the strange and peculiar
circumstances under which her life hitherto had been led,
that she scarcely seemed to belong to the human race.
Her countenance was of a very uncommon cast, and her eyes,
hardly able to bear the lamp-light in the cottage, glanced around
in a confused and puzzled way, as if all were new to them.
As this singular being reclined on Madge's bed and awoke to consciousness,
as from a long sleep, the old Scotchwoman began to question her a little.
"What do they call you, my dear?" said she.