THERE’S a sudden, fierce clang of the knocker, then the sound of a voice in the shaft,
Shrieking words that drum hard on the centres, and the braceman goes suddenly daft:
‘Set the whistle a-blowing like blazes! Billy, run, give old Mackie a call—
Run, you fool! Number Two’s gone to pieces, and Fred Baker is caught in the fall!
Say, hello! there below—any hope, boys, any chances of saving his life?
‘Heave away!’ says the knocker. ‘They’ve started. God be praised, he’s no youngsters or wife!’
Screams the whistle in fearful entreaty, and the wild echo raves on the spur,
And the night, that was still as a sleeper in soft, charmed sleep, is astir
With the fluttering of wings in the wattles, and the vague frightened murmur of birds,
With far cooeys that carry the warning, running feet, inarticulate words.
From the black belt of bush come the miners, and they gather by Mack on the brace,
Out of breath, barely clad, and half-wakened, with a question in every face.
‘Who’s below?’ ‘Where’s the fall?’ Didn’t I tell you?—Didn’t I say that them sets wasn’t sound?’
‘Is it Fred? He was reckless was Baker; now he’s seen his last shift underground.’
‘And his mate? Where is Sandy M‘Fadyn?’ ’Sandy’s snoring at home on his bunk.’
‘Not at work! Name o’ God! a foreboding?’ ‘A foreboding be hanged! He is drunk!’
Take it steady there, lads!’ the boss orders. He is white to the roots of his hair.
We may get him alive before daybreak if he’s close to the face and has air.’
In the dim drive with ardour heroic two facemen are pegging away.
Long and Coots in the rise heard her thunder, and they fled without word or delay
Down the drive, and they rushed for the ladders, and they went up the shaft with a run,
For they knew the weak spot in the workings, and they guessed there was graft to be done.
Number Two was pitch dark, and they scrambled to the plat and they made for the face,
But the roof bad come down fifty yards in, and the reef was all over the place.
Fresher men from the surface replace them, and they’re hauled up on top for a blow;
When a life and death job is in doing there’s room only for workers below.
Bare-armed, and bare-chested, and brawny, with a grim, meaning set of the jaw,
The relay hurries in to the rescue, caring not for the danger a straw;
’Tis not toil, but a battle, they’re called to, and like Trojans the miners respond,
For a dead man lies crushed ’neath the timbers, or a live man is choking beyond.
By the faint, yellow glow of the candles, where the dank drive is hot with their breath,
On the verge of the Land of the Shadow, waging war breast to bosom with Death,
How they struggle, these giants! and slowly, as the trucks rattle into the gloom,
Inch by inch they advance to the conquest of a prison—or is it a tomb?
And the working’s re-echo a volley as the timbers are driven in place;
Then a whisper is borne to the toilers ‘Boys, his mother is there on the brace!’
Like veterans late into action, fierce with longing to hew and to hack,
Riordan’s shift rushes in to relieve them, and the toil-stricken men stagger back.
‘Stow the stuff, mates, wherever there’s stowage! Run the man on the brace till he drops!
There’s no time to think on this billet! Bark the heels of the trucker who stops!
Keep the props well in front, and be careful. He’s in there, and alive, never fret.’
But the grey dawn is softening the ridges, and the word has not come to us yet.
Still the knocker rings out, and the engine shrieks and strains like a creature in pain
As the cage rushes up to the surface and drops back into darkness again.
By the capstan a woman is crouching. In her eyes neither hope nor despair;
But a yearning that glowers like frenzy bids those who’d speak pity forbear.
Like a figure in stone she is seated till the labour of rescue be done.
For the father was killed in the Phoenix, and the son—Lord of pity! the son?
‘Hello! there on top!’ they are calling. ‘They are through! He is seen in the drive!’
‘They have got him—thank Heaven! they’ve got him, and oh, blessed be God, he’s alive!’
‘Man on! heave away!’ ‘Step aside, lads; let his mother be first when he lands.’
She was silent and strong in her anguish; now she babbles and weeps where she stands,
And the stern men, grown gentle, support her at the mouth of the shaft, till at last
With a rush the cage springs to the landing, and her son’s arms encircle her fast.
She has cursed the old mine for its murders, for the victims its drives have ensnared,
Now she cries a great blessing upon it for the one precious life it has spared.