The Underground City
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He threatens to destroy the whole of New Aberfoyle. His is
a soul incapable of mercy or forgiveness, and no mortal can
say to what horrid deed the spirit of revenge will lead him.
My duty is clear; I should be the most despicable creature on earth
did I hesitate to perform it. Farewell! I thank you all heartily.
You only have taught me what happiness is. Whatever may befall,
believe that my whole heart remains with you."
At these words, Simon, Madge, and Harry started up in an agony of grief,
exclaiming in tones of despair, "What, Nell! is it possible you
would leave us?"
James Starr put them all aside with an air of authority, and,
going straight up to Nell, he took both her hands in his,
saying quietly, "Very right, my child; you have said exactly what you
ought to say; and now listen to what we have to say in reply.
We shall not let you go away; if necessary, we shall keep you by force.
Do you think we could be so base as to accept of your generous proposal?
These threats of Silfax are formidable--no doubt about it!
But, after all, a man is but a man, and we can take precautions.
You will tell us, will you not, even for his own sake, all you can
about his habits and his lurking-places? All we want to do is to put
it out of his power to do harm, and perhaps bring him to reason."
"You want to do what is quite impossible," said Nell. "My grandfather
is everywhere and nowhere. I have never seen his retreats.
I have never seen him sleep. If he meant to conceal himself,
he used to leave me alone, and vanish. When I took my resolution,
Mr. Starr, I was aware of everything you could say against it.
Believe me, there is but one way to render Silfax powerless,
and that will be by my return to him. Invisible himself,
he sees everything that goes on. Just think whether it is
likely he could discover your very thoughts and intentions,
from that time when the letter was written to Mr. Starr,
up to now that my marriage with Harry has been arranged, if he did
not possess the extraordinary faculty of knowing everything.
As far as I
am able to judge, my grandfather, in his very insanity,
is a man of most powerful mind. He formerly used to talk to me
on very lofty subjects. He taught me the existence of God,
and never deceived me but on one point, which was--that he made me
believe that all men were base and perfidious, because he wished
to inspire me with his own hatred of all the human race.
When Harry brought me to the cottage, you thought I was simply
ignorant of mankind, but, far beyond that, I was in mortal fear
of you all. Ah, forgive me! I assure you, for many days I
believed myself in the power of wicked wretches, and I longed
to escape. You, Madge, first led me to perceive the truth,
not by anything you said, but by the sight of your daily life,
for I saw that your husband and son loved and respected you!
Then all these good and happy workmen, who so revere
and trust Mr. Starr, I used to think they were slaves;
and when, for the first time, I saw the whole population
of Aberfoyle come to church and kneel down to pray to God,
and praise Him for His infinite goodness, I said to myself,
'My grandfather has deceived me.' But now, enlightened by all you
have taught me, I am inclined to think he himself is deceived.
I mean to return to the secret passages I formerly frequented
with him. He is certain to be on the watch. I will call to him;
he will hear me, and who knows but that, by returning to him,
I may be able to bring him to the knowledge of the truth?"
The maiden spoke without interruption, for all felt that it
was good for her to open her whole heart to her friends.
But when, exhausted by emotion, and with eyes full of tears,
she ceased speaking, Harry turned to old Madge and said,
"Mother, what should you think of the man who could forsake
the noble girl whose words you have been listening to?"
"I should think he was a base coward," said Madge, "and, were he my son,
I should renounce and curse him."
"Nell, do you hear what our mother says?" resumed Harry. "Wherever you
go I will follow you. If you persist in leaving us, we will
go away together."
"Harry! Harry!" cried Nell.
Overcome by her feelings, the girl's lips blanched, and she sank
into the arms of Madge, who begged she might be left alone with her.
CHAPTER XVIII NELL'S WEDDING
IT was agreed that the inhabitants of the cottage must keep more on
their guard than ever. The threats of old Silfax were too serious
to be disregarded. It was only too possible that he possessed some
terrible means by which the whole of Aberfoyle might be annihilated.
Armed sentinels were posted at the various entrances to
the mine, with orders to keep strict watch day and night.
Any stranger entering the mine was brought before James Starr,
that he might give an account of himself. There being no fear
of treason among the inhabitants of Coal Town, the threatened
danger to the subterranean colony was made known to them.
Nell was informed of all the precautions taken, and became
more tranquil, although she was not free from uneasiness.
Harry's determination to follow her wherever she went compelled
her to promise not to escape from her friends.
During the week preceding the wedding, no accident whatever
occurred in Aberfoyle. The system of watching was carefully
maintained, but the miners began to recover from the panic,
which had seriously interrupted the work of excavation.
James Starr continued to look out for Silfax. The old man having
vindictively declared that Nell should never marry Simon's son,
it was natural to suppose that he would not hesitate to commit
any violent deed which would hinder their union.
The examination of the mine was carried on minutely.
Every passage and gallery was searched, up to those higher ranges
which opened out among the ruins of Dundonald Castle. It was rightly
supposed that through this old building Silfax passed out to obtain
what was needful for the support of his miserable existence
(which he must have done, either by purchasing or thieving).
As to the "fire-maidens," James Starr began to think that appearance
must have been produced by some jet of fire-damp gas which,
issuing from that part of the pit, could be lighted by Silfax. He was
not far wrong; but all search for proof of this was fruitless,
and the continued strain of anxiety in this perpetual effort
to detect a malignant and invisible being rendered the engineer--
outwardly calm--an unhappy man.
As the wedding-day approached, his dread of some catastrophe increased,
and he could not but speak of it to the old overman, whose uneasiness
soon more than equaled his own. At length the day came.
Silfax had given no token of existence.
By daybreak the entire population of Coal Town was astir.
Work was suspended; overseers and workmen alike desired to do
honor to Simon Ford and his son. They all felt they owed a large
debt of gratitude to these bold and persevering men, by whose
means the mine had been restored to its former prosperity.
The ceremony was to take place at eleven o'clock, in St. Giles's chapel,
which stood on the shores of Loch Malcolm.
At the appointed time, Harry left the cottage,
supporting his mother on his arm, while Simon led the bride.
Following them came Starr, the engineer, composed in manner,
but in reality nerved to expect the worst, and Jack Ryan,
stepping superb in full Highland piper's costume.
Then came the other mining engineers, the principal people
of Coal Town, the friends and comrades of the old overman--
every member of this great family of miners forming the population
of New Aberfoyle.
In the outer world, the day was one of the hottest of the month
of August, peculiarly oppressive in northern countries. The sultry air
penetrated the depths of the coal mine, and elevated the temperature.
The air which entered through the ventilating shafts, and the great
tunnel of Loch Malcolm, was charged with electricity, and the barometer,
it was afterwards remarked, had fallen in a remarkable manner.
There was, indeed, every indication that a storm might burst forth
beneath the rocky vault which formed the roof of the enormous crypt
of the very mine itself.
But the inhabitants were not at that moment troubling themselves
about the chances of atmospheric disturbance above ground.
Everybody, as a matter of course, had put on his best clothes
for the occasion. Madge was dressed in the fashion of days
gone by, wearing the "toy" and the "rokelay," or Tartan plaid,
of matrons of the olden time, old Simon wore a coat of which
Bailie Nicol Jarvie himself would have approved.
Nell had resolved to show nothing of her mental agitation;
she forbade her heart to beat, or her inward terrors to
betray themselves, and the brave girl appeared before all with a calm
and collected aspect. She had declined every ornament of dress,
and the very simplicity of her attire added to the charming elegance
of her appearance. Her hair was bound with the "snood," the usual
head-dress of Scottish maidens.
All proceeded towards St. Giles's chapel, which had been handsomely
decorated for the occasion.
The electric discs of light which illuminated Coal Town
blazed like so many suns. A luminous atmosphere pervaded
New Aberfoyle. In the chapel, electric lamps shed a glow over
the stained-glass windows, which shone like fiery kaleidoscopes.
At the porch of the chapel the minister awaited the arrival
of the wedding party.
It approached, after having passed in stately procession along
the shore of Loch Malcolm. Then the tones of the organ were heard,
and, preceded by the minister, the group advanced into the chapel.
The Divine blessing was first invoked on all present.
Then Harry and Nell remained alone before the minister,
who, holding the sacred book in his hand, proceeded to say,
"Harry, will you take Nell to be your wife, and will you promise
to love her always?"
"I promise," answered the young man in a firm and steady voice.