Page images
PDF
EPUB

and he became gradually a little more composed. "Who are they!" he said hoarsely; "they're cursed wretches like you and me: and there are as many bands of them as there are mines on the road: and you'd better turn back and stay where you are. You are

safe here."

"I will not turn back," I said. "I know well enough: you can't. You've got to go the round like the rest," he said, with a laugh which was like a sound uttered by a wild animal rather than a human voice. The man was in my power, and I struck him, miserable as he was. It seemed a relief thus to get rid of some of the fury in my mind. "It's a lie," I said; "I go because I please. Why shouldn't I gather a band of my own if I please, and fight those brutes, not fly from them like you?"

He chuckled and laughed below his breath, struggling and cursing and crying out, as I struck him again," You gather a band! What could you offer them?-where would you find them? Are you better than the rest of us? Are you not a man like the rest? Strike me you can, for I'm down. But make yourself a master and a chief -you!"

[ocr errors]

Why not I?" I shouted again, wild with rage and the sense that I had no power over him, save to hurt him. That passion made my hands tremble: he slipped from me in a moment, bounded from the ground like a ball, and with a yell of derision escaped, and plunged into the streets and the clamour of the city from which I had just flown. I felt myself rage after him, shaking my fists with a consciousness of the ridiculous passion of impotence that was in me, but no power of restraining it; and there was not one of the fugitives who passed, however desperate he might be, who

did not make a mock at me as he darted by. The laughing-stock of all those miserable objects, the sport of fate, afraid to go forward, unable to go back, with a fire in my veins urging me on ! But presently I grew a little calmer out of mere exhaustion, which was all the relief that was possible to me. And by-and-by, collecting all my faculties, and impelled by this impulse, which I seemed unable to resist, I got up and went cautiously on.

Fear can act in two ways: it paralyses and it renders cunning. At this moment I found it inspire me. I made my plans before I started, how to steal along under the cover of the blighted brushwood which broke the line of the valley here and there. I set out only after long thought, seizing the moment when the vaguely perceived band were scouring in the other direction intercepting the travellers. Thus, with many pauses, I got near to the pit's mouth in safety. But my curiosity was as great as, almost greater than, my terror. I had kept far from the road, dragging myself sometimes on hands and feet over broken ground, tearing my clothes and my flesh upon the thorns; and on that further side all seemed so silent and so dark in the shadow cast by some disused machinery, behind which the glare of the fire from below blazed upon the other side of the opening, that I could not crawl along in the darkness, and pass, which would have been the safe way; but with a breathless hot desire to see and know, dragged myself to the very edge to look down. Though I was in the shadow, my eyes were nearly put out by the glare on which I gazed. It was not fire; it was the lurid glow of the gold, glowing like flame, at which countless miners were working. They

were all about like flies, some on their knees, some bent double as they stooped over their work, some lying cramped upon shelves and ledges. The sight was wonderful, and terrible beyond description. The workmen seemed to consume away with the heat and the glow, even in the few minutes I gazed. Their eyes shrank into their heads, their faces blackened. I could see some trying to secrete morsels of the glowing metal, which burned whatever it touched, and some who were being searched by the superiors of the mines, and some who were punishing the offenders, fixing them up against the blazing wall of gold. The fear went out of my mind, so much absorbed was I in this sight. I gazed, seeing further and further every moment, into crevices and seams of the glowing metal, always with more and more slaves at work, and the entire pantomime of labour and theft, and search and punishment, going on and on-the baked faces dark against the golden glare, the hot eyes taking a yellow reflection, the monotonous clamour of pick and shovel, and cries and curses, and all the indistinguishable sound of a multitude of human creatures. And the floor below, and the low roof which overhung whole myriads within a few inches of their faces, and the irregular walls all breached and shelved, were every one the same, a pandemonium of gold, gold everywhere. I had loved many foolish things in my life, but never this which was perhaps why I gazed and kept my sight, though there rose out of it a blast of heat which scorched the brain.

While I stooped over, intent on the sight, some one who had come up by my side to gaze too was caught by the fumes (as I suppose); for suddenly I was aware of a dark object falling

prone into the glowing interior with a cry and crash which brought back my first wild panic. He fell in a heap, from which his arms shot forth wildly as he reached the bottom, and his cry was half anguish yet half desire. I saw him seized by half-a-dozen eager watchers, and pitched upon a ledge just under the roof, and tools thrust into his hands. I held on by an old shaft, trembling, unable to move. Perhaps I cried too in my horror-for one of the overseers who stood in the centre of the glare looked up. He had the air of ordering all that was going on, and stood unaffected by the blaze, commanding the other wretched officials, who obeyed him like dogs. He seemed to me, in my terror, like a figure of gold, the image, perhaps, of wealth or Pluto, or I know not what: for I suppose my brain began to grow confused, and my hold on the shaft to relax. I had strength enough, however, for I cared not for the gold, to fling myself back the other way upon the ground, where I rolled backward, downward, I knew not how, turning over and over, upon sharp ashes and metallic edges, which tore my hair and beard,-and for a moment I knew no more.

This fall saved me. I came to myself after a time, and heard the pressgang searching about. I had sense to lie still among the ashes thrown up out of the pit, while I heard their voices. Once I gave myself up for lost. The glitter of a lantern flashed in my eyes, a foot passed, crashing among the ashes so close to my cheek that the shoe grazed it. I found the mark after, burned upon my flesh: but I escaped notice by a miracle. And presently I was able to drag myself up and crawl away. But how I reached the end of the valley I cannot tell. I pushed my way along mechanically on the

dark side. I had no further desire to see what was going on in the openings of the mines. I went on, stumbling and stupid, scarcely capable even of fear, conscious only of wretchedness and weariness, till at last I felt myself drop across the road within the gateway of the other town and lay there, with no thought of anything but the relief of being at rest.

When I came to myself, it seemed to me that there was a change in the atmosphere and the light. It was less lurid, paler, grey, more like twilight than the stormy afternoon of the other city. A certain dead serenity was in the sky a black paleness, whiteness, everything faint in it. This town was walled, but the gates stood open, and I saw no defences of troops or other guardians. I found myself lying across the threshold, but pushed to one side, so that the carriages which went and came should not be stopped or I injured by their passage. It seemed to me that there was some thoughtfulness and kindness in this action, and my heart sprang up in a reaction of hope. I looked back as if upon a nightmare on the dreadful city which I had left, on its tumults and noise, the wild racket of the streets, the wounded wretches who sought refuge in the corners, the strife and misery that were abroad, and, climax of all, the horrible entertainment which had been going on in the square, the unhappy being strapped upon the table. How, I said to myself, could such things be? Was it a dream? was it a nightmare? was it something presented to me in a vision a strong delusion to make me think that the old fables which had been told concerning the end of mortal life were true! When I looked back it appeared like an allegory,

My

so that I might have seen it in a dream; and still more like an allegory were the gold-mines in the valley, and the myriads who laboured. there. Was it all true? or only a reflection from the old life, mingling with the strange novelties which would most likely elude understanding, on the entrance into this new? I sat within the shelter of the gateway, on my awakening, and thought over all this. heart was quite calm—almost, in the revulsion from the terrors I had been through, happy. I persuaded myself that I was but now beginning; that there had been no reality in these latter experiences, only a curious succession of nightmares, such as might so well be supposed to follow a wonderful transformation like that which must take place between our mortal life and-the world to come. The world to come! I paused and thought of it all, until the heart began to beat loud in my breast. What was this, where I lay? Another world; a world which was not happiness, not bliss? Oh no— perhaps there was no world of bliss save in dreams. This, on the other hand, I said to myself, was not misery: for was not I seated here, with a certain tremulousness about me it was true, after all the experiences which, supposing them even to have been but dreams, I had come through,—a tremulousness very comprehensible, and not at all without hope?

I will not say that I believed even what I tried to think. Something in me lay like a dark shadow in the midst of all my theories; but yet I succeeded to a great degree in convincing myself that the hope in me was real, and that I was but now beginning— beginning with at least a possibility that all might be well. In this half conviction, and after all

me

the troubles that were over (even by a sweep of magnetic influence though they might only have been I thought, that prevented me imaginary troubles), I felt a cer- from staying behind. He made tain sweetness in resting there, an within the gateway, with my back against it. I was unwilling to get up again, and bring myself in contact with reality. I felt that there was pleasure in being left alone. Carriages rolled past me occasionally, and now and then some people on foot; but they did not kick me out of the way or interfere with my repose.

Presently as I sat trying to persuade myself to rise and pursue my way, two men came up to me in a sort of uniform. I recognised with another distinct sensation of pleasure that here were people who had authority, representatives of some kind of government. They came up to me and bade me come with them in tones which were peremptory enough.: but what of that?-better the most peremptory supervision than the lawlessness from which I had come. They raised me from the ground with a touch, for I could not resist them, and led me quickly along the street, into which that gateway gave access, which was a handsome strect with tall houses on either side. Groups of people were moving about along the pavement, talking now and then with considerable animation; but when my companions were seen, there was an immediate moderation of tone, a sort of respect which looked like fear. There was no brawling nor tumult of any kind in the street. The only incident which occurred was this: when we had gone some way, I saw a lame man dragging himself along with difficulty on the other side of the street. My conductors had no sooner perceived him than they gave each other a look and darted across, conveying me with them,

attempt with his crutches to get out of the way, hurrying on-and I will allow that this attempt of his seemed to very grotesque, so that I could scarcely help laughing: the other lookers-on in the street laughed too, though some put on an aspect of disgust. "Look, the tortoise !” some one said; "does he think he can go quicker than the orderlies ?" My companions came up to the man while this commentary was going on, and seized him by each arm. "Where were you going? Where have you come from? How dare you make an exhibition of yourself?" they cried. They took the crutches from him as they spoke and threw them away, and dragged him on until we reached a great grated door which one of them opened with a key, while the other. held the offender, for he seemed an offender, roughly up by one shoulder, causing him great pain. When the door was opened, I saw, a number of people within, who seemed to crowd to the door as if seeking to get out. But this was not at all what was intended. My second companion dragged the lame man forward, and pushed him in with so much violence that I could see him fall forward on his face on the floor. Then the other locked the door and we proceeded on our way. It was not till some time later that I understood why.

In the meantime I was hurried on, meeting a great many people who took no notice of me, to a central building in the middle of the town, where I was brought before

an official attended by clerks, with great books spread out before him. Here I was questioned as to my name and my antecedents, and the time of my

arrival, then dismissed with a nod here to make acquaintance once

to one of my conductors. He led me back again down the street, took me into one of the tall great houses, opened the door of a room which was numbered, and left me there without a word. I cannot convey to any one the bewildered consternation with which I felt myself deposited here; and as the steps of my conductor died away in the long corridor, I sat down, and looking myself in the face as it were, tried to make out what it was that had happened to me. The room was small and bare. There was but one thing hung upon the undecorated walls, and that was a long list of printed regulations which I had not the courage for the moment to look at. The light was indifferent, though the room was high up, and the street from the window looked far away below. I cannot tell how long I sat there thinking, and yet it could scarcely be called thought. I asked myself over and over again. Where am I? is it a prison? am I shut in, to leave this enclosure no more? what am I to do? how is the time to pass? I shut my eyes for a moment and tried to realise all that had happened to me; but nothing save a whirl through my head of disconnected thoughts seemed possible, and some force was upon me to open my eyes again, to see the blank room, the dull light the vacancy round me in which there was nothing to interest the mind, nothing to please the eye, a blank wherever I turned. Presently there came upon me a burning regret for everything I had left, for the noisy town with all its tumults and cruelties, for the dark valley with all its dangers. Everything seemed bearable, almost agreeable, in comparison with this. I seemed to have been brought

more with myself, to learn over again what manner of man I was. Needless knowledge, acquaintance, unnecessary, unhappy! for what was there in me to make me to myself a good companion? Never, I knew, could I separate myself from that eternal consciousness; but it was cruelty to force the contemplation upon me. All blank, blank, around me, a prison! And was this to last for ever?

I do not know how long I sat, rapt in this gloomy vision; but at last it occurred to me to rise and try the door, which to my astonishment was open. I went out with a throb of new hope. After all, it might not be necessary to come back; there might be other expedients: I might fall among friends. I turned down the long echoing stairs, on which I met various people, who took no notice of me, and in whom I felt no interest save a desire to avoid them, and at last reached the street. To be out of doors in the air was something, though there was no wind, but a motionless still atmosphere which nothing disturbed. The streets, indeed, were full of movement, but not of life-though this seems a paradox. The passengers passed on their way in long regulated lines those who went towards the gates keeping rigorously to one side of the pavement, those who came, to the other. They talked to each other here and there; but whenever two men in uniform, such as those who had been my conductors, appeared, silence ensued, and the wayfarers shrank even from the looks of these persons in authority. walked all about the spacious town. Everywhere there were tall houses, everywhere streams of people coming and going, but no one spoke to me, or remarked me at all. I

I

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »