The Underground City
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"Nell," replied the girl.
"Do you feel anything the matter with you, Nell?"
"I am hungry. I have eaten nothing since--since--"
Nell uttered these few words like one unused to speak much. They were
in the Gaelic language, which was often spoken by Simon and his family.
Madge immediately brought her some food; she was evidently famished.
It was impossible to say how long she might have been in that pit.
"How many days had you been down there, dearie?" inquired Madge.
Nell made no answer; she seemed not to understand the question.
"How many days, do you think?"
"Days?" repeated Nell, as though the word had no meaning for her,
and she shook her head to signify entire want of comprehension.
Madge took her hand, and stroked it caressingly. "How old are you,
my lassie?" she asked, smiling kindly at her.
Nell shook her head again.
"Yes, yes," continued Madge, "how many years old?"
"Years?" replied Nell. She seemed to understand that word
no better than days! Simon, Harry, Jack, and the rest,
looked on with an air of mingled compassion, wonder, and sympathy.
The state of this poor thing, clothed in a miserable garment
of coarse woolen stuff, seemed to impress them painfully.
Harry, more than all the rest, seemed attracted by the very peculiarity
of this poor stranger. He drew near, took Nell's hand from his mother,
and looked directly at her, while something like a smile curved her lip.
"Nell," he said, "Nell, away down there--in the mine--were you all alone?"
"Alone! alone!" cried the girl, raising herself hastily.
Her features expressed terror; her eyes, which had appeared
to soften as Harry looked at her, became quite wild again.
"Alone!" repeated she, "alone!"--and she fell back on the bed,
as though deprived of all strength.
"The poor bairn is too weak to speak to us," said Madge,
when she had adjusted the pillows. "After a good rest,
and a little more food, she will be stronger. Come away,
Simon and Harry, and all the rest of you, and let her go to sleep."
So Nell was left alone, and in a very few minutes slept profoundly.
This event caused a great sensation, not only in the coal
mines, but in Stirlingshire, and ultimately throughout the kingdom.
The strangeness of the story was exaggerated; the affair could not have
made more commotion had they found the girl enclosed in the solid rock,
like one of those antediluvian creatures who have occasionally
been released by a stroke of the pickax from their stony prison.
Nell became a fashionable wonder without knowing it.
Superstitious folks made her story a new subject for legendary marvels,
and were inclined to think, as Jack Ryan told Harry, that Nell
was the spirit of the mines.
"Be it so, Jack," said the young man; "but at any rate she
is the good spirit. It can have been none but she who
brought us bread and water when we were shut up down there;
and as to the bad spirit, who must still be in the mine,
we'll catch him some day."
Of course James Starr had been at once informed of all this, and came,
as soon as the young girl had sufficiently recovered her strength,
to see her, and endeavor to question her carefully.
She appeared ignorant of nearly everything relating to life, and,
although evidently intelligent, was wanting in many elementary ideas,
such as time, for instance. She had never been used to its division,
and the words signifying hours, days, months, and years were
unknown to her.
Her eyes, accustomed to the night, were pained by the glare of
the electric discs; but in the dark her sight was wonderfully keen,
the pupil dilated in a remarkable manner, and she could
see where to others there appeared profound obscurity.
It was certain that her brain had never received any impression
of the outer world, that her eyes had never looked beyond the mine,
and that these somber depths had been all the world to her.
The poor girl probably knew not that there were a sun and stars,
towns and counties, a mighty universe composed of myriads of worlds.
But until she comprehended the significance of words at present
conveying no precise meaning to her, it was impossible to ascertain
what she knew.
As to whether or not Nell had lived alone in the recesses
of New Aberfoyle, James Starr was obliged to remain uncertain;
indeed, any allusion to the subject excited evident alarm in
the mind of this strange girl. Either Nell could not or would
not reply to questions, but that some secret
existed in connection with the place, which she could
have explained, was manifest.
"Should you like to stay with us? Should you like to go back
to where we found you?" asked James Starr.
"Oh, yes!" exclaimed the maiden, in answer to his first question;
but a cry of terror was all she seemed able to say to the second.
James Starr, as well as Simon and Harry Ford, could not help feeling
a certain amount of uneasiness with regard to this persistent silence.
They found it impossible to forget all that had appeared so inexplicable
at the time they made the discovery of the coal mine; and although
that was three years ago, and nothing new had happened, they always
expected some fresh attack on the part of the invisible enemy.
They resolved to explore the mysterious well, and did so, well armed
and in considerable numbers. But nothing suspicious was to be seen;
the shaft communicated with lower stages of the crypt, hollowed out
in the carboniferous bed.
Many a time did James Starr, Simon, and Harry talk over these things.
If one or more malevolent beings were concealed in the coal-pit,
and there concocted mischief, Nell surely could have warned
them of it, yet she said nothing. The slightest allusion
to her past life brought on such fits of violent emotion,
that it was judged best to avoid the subject for the present.
Her secret would certainly escape her by-and-by.
By the time Nell had been a fortnight in the cottage, she had become
a most intelligent and zealous assistant to old Madge. It was clear
that she instinctively felt she should remain in the dwelling where she
had been so charitably received, and perhaps never dreamt of quitting it.
This family was all in all to her, and to the good folks themselves
Nell had seemed an adopted child from the moment when she first came
beneath their roof. Nell was in truth a charming creature; her new mode
of existence added to her beauty, for these were no doubt the first
happy days of her life, and her heart was full of gratitude towards
those to whom she owed them. Madge felt towards her as a mother would;
the old woman doted upon her; in short, she was beloved by everybody.
Jack Ryan only regretted one thing, which was that he had not saved
her himself. Friend
Jack often came to the cottage. He sang, and Nell, who had never
heard singing before, admired it greatly; but anyone might see
that she preferred to Jack's songs the graver conversation of Harry,
from whom by degrees she learnt truths concerning the outer world,
of which hitherto she had known nothing.
It must be said that, since Nell had appeared in her own person,
Jack Ryan had been obliged to admit that his belief in hobgoblins
was in a measure weakened. A couple of months later his credulity
experienced a further shock. About that time Harry unexpectedly made
a discovery which, in part at least, accounted for the apparition
of the fire-maidens among the ruins of Dundonald Castle at Irvine.
During several days he had been engaged in exploring the remote galleries
of the prodigious excavation towards the south. At last he scrambled with
difficulty up a narrow passage which branched off through the upper rock.
To his great astonishment, he suddenly found himself in the open air.
The passage, after ascending obliquely to the surface of the ground,
led out directly among the ruins of Dundonald Castle.
There was, therefore, a communication between New Aberfoyle and the hills
crowned by this ancient castle. The upper entrance to this gallery,
being completely concealed by stones and brushwood, was invisible
from without; at the time of their search, therefore, the magistrates
had been able to discover nothing.
A few days afterwards, James Starr, guided by Harry, came himself to
inspect this curious natural opening into the coal mine. "Well," said he,
"here is enough to convince the most superstitious among us.
Farewell to all their brownies, goblins, and fire-maidens now!"
"I hardly think, Mr. Starr, we ought to congratulate ourselves,"
replied Harry. "Whatever it is we have instead of these things,
it can't be better, and may be worse than they are."
"That's true, Harry," said the engineer; "but what's to be done?
It is plain that, whatever the beings are who hide in the mine,
they reach the surface of the earth by this passage.
No doubt it was the light of torches waved by them during
that dark and stormy night which attracted the MOTALA towards
the rocky coast, and like the wreckers
of former days, they would have plundered the unfortunate vessel, had it
not been for Jack Ryan and his friends. Anyhow, so far it is evident,
and here is the mouth of the den. As to its occupants, the question is--
Are they here still?"
"I say yes; because Nell trembles when we mention them--
yes, because Nell will not, or dare not, speak about them,"
answered Harry in a tone of decision.
Harry was surely in the right. Had these mysterious denizens
of the pit abandoned it, or ceased to visit the spot, what reason
could the girl have had for keeping silence?
James Starr could not rest till he had penetrated this mystery.
He foresaw that the whole future of the new excavations must depend