Chapters 23 and 24

THE EXPLOSION AT THE VAUGHAN.

At twelve o’clock on a bright summer day Mr. Brook drove up in his dog-cart, with two gentlemen, to the Vaughan mine. One was the government inspector of the district; the other, a newly-appointed deputy inspector, whom he was taking his rounds with him, to instruct in his duties.

“I am very sorry that Thompson, my manager, is away to-day,” Mr. Brook said as they alighted. “Had I known you were coming I would of course have had him in readiness to go round with you. Is Williams, the underground manager, in the pit?” he asked the bankman, whose duty it was to look after the ascending and descending cage.

“No, sir; he came up about half an hour ago. Watkins, the viewer, is below.”

“He must do, then,” Mr. Brook said, “but I wish Mr. Thompson had been here. Perhaps you would like to look at the plan of the pit before you go down? Is Williams’s office open?”

“Yes, sir,” the bankman answered.

Mr. Brook led the way into the office.

“Hullo!” he said, seeing a young man at work making a copy of a mining plan; “who are you?”

The young man rose—

“Jack Simpson, sir. I work below, but when it’s my night-shift Mr. Williams allows me to help him here by day.”

“Ah! I remember you now,” Mr. Brook said. “Let me see what you are doing. That’s a creditable piece of work for a working collier, is it not?” he said, holding up a beautifully executed plan.

Mr. Hardinge looked with surprise at the draughtsman, a young man of some one or two-and-twenty, with a frank, open, pleasant face.

“Why, you don’t look or talk like a miner,” he said.

“Mr. Merton, the schoolmaster here, was kind enough to take a great deal of pains with me, sir.”

“Have you been doing this sort of work long?” Mr. Hardinge asked, pointing to the plan.

“About three or four years,” Mr. Brook said promptly.

Jack looked immensely surprised.

Mr. Brook smiled.

“I noticed an extraordinary change in Williams’s reports, both in the handwriting and expression. Now I understand it. You work the same stall as Haden, do you not?”

“Yes, sir, but not the same shift; he had a mate he has worked with ever since my father was killed, so I work the other shift with Harvey.”

“Now let us look at the plans of the pit,” Mr. Hardinge said.

The two inspectors bent over the table and examined the plans, asking a question of Mr. Brook now and then. Jack had turned to leave when his employer ceased to speak to him, but Mr. Brook made a motion to him to stay. “What is the size of your furnace, Mr. Brook?” asked Mr. Hardinge.

“It’s an eight-foot furnace,” Mr. Brook replied.

“Do you know how many thousand cubic feet of air a minute you pass?”

Mr. Brook shook his head: he left the management of the mine entirely in the hands of his manager.

Mr. Hardinge had happened to look at Jack as he spoke; and the latter, thinking the question was addressed to him, answered:

“About eight thousand feet a minute, sir.”

“How do you know?” Mr. Hardinge asked.

“By taking the velocity of the air, sir, and the area of the downcast shaft.”

“How would you measure the velocity, theoretically?” Mr. Hardinge asked, curious to see how much the young collier knew.

“I should require to know the temperature of the shafts respectively, and the height of the upcast shaft.”

“How could you do it then?”

“The formula, sir, is M =
1
, h being the height of the upcast, t‘ its temperature, t the temperature of the exterior air, and x = t‘-32 degrees.”

“You are a strange young fellow,” Mr. Hardinge said. “May I ask you a question or two?”

“Certainly, sir.”

“Could you work out the cube-root of say 999,888,777?”

Jack closed his eyes for a minute and then gave the correct answer to five places of decimals.

The three gentlemen gave an exclamation of surprise.

“How on earth did you do that?” Mr. Hardinge exclaimed. “It would take me ten minutes to work it out on paper.”

“I accustomed myself to calculate while I was in the dark, or working,” Jack said quietly.

“Why, you would rival Bidder himself,” Mr. Hardinge said; “and how far have you worked up in figures?”

“I did the differential calculus, sir, and then Mr. Merton said that I had better stick to the mechanical application of mathematics instead of going on any farther; that was two years ago.”

The surprise of the three gentlemen at this simple avowal from a young pitman was unbounded.

Then Mr. Hardinge said:

“We must talk of this again later on. Now let us go down the pit; this young man will do excellently well for a guide. But I am afraid, Mr. Brook, that I shall have to trouble you a good deal. As far as I can see from the plan the mine is very badly laid out, and the ventilation altogether defective. What is your opinion?” he asked, turning abruptly to Jack, and wishing to see whether his practical knowledge at all corresponded with his theoretical acquirements.

“I would rather not say, sir,” Jack said. “It is not for me to express an opinion as to Mr. Thompson’s plan.”

“Let us have your ideas,” Mr. Brook said. “Just tell us frankly what you would do if you were manager of the Vaughan?”

Jack turned to the plan.

“I should widen the airways, and split the current; that would raise the number of cubic feet of air to about twelve thousand a minute. It is too far for a single current to travel, especially as the airways are not wide; the friction is altogether too great. I should put a split in here, take a current round through the old workings to keep them clear, widen these passages, split the current again here, and then make a cut through this new ground so as to take a strong current to sweep the face of the main workings, and carry it off straight to the upcast. But that current ought not to pass through the furnace, but be let in above, for the gas comes off very thick sometimes, and might not be diluted enough with air, going straight to the furnaces.”

“Your ideas are very good,” Mr. Hardinge said quietly. “Now we will get into our clothes and go below.”

So saying, he opened a bag and took out two mining suits of clothes, which, first taking off their coats, he and his companion proceeded to put on over their other garments. Mr. Brook went into his office, and similarly prepared himself; while Jack, who was not dressed for mining, went to the closet where a few suits were hung up for the use of visitors and others, and prepared to go down. Then he went to the lamp-room and fetched four Davy-lamps. While he was away Mr. Brook joined the inspectors.

“That young pitman is as steady as he is clever,” he said; “he has come several times under my attention. In the first place, the schoolmaster has spoken to me of the lad’s efforts to educate himself. Then he saved another boy’s life at the risk of his own, and of late years his steadiness and good conduct have given him a great influence over his comrades of the same age, and have effected great things for the place. The vicar and schoolmaster now are never tired of praising him.”

“He is clearly an extraordinary young fellow,” Mr Hardinge said. “Do you know his suggestions are exactly what I had intended to offer to you myself? You will have some terrible explosion here unless you make some radical changes.”

That evening the inspectors stayed for the night at Mr. Brook’s, and the next day that gentleman went over with them to Birmingham, where he had some business. His principal object, however, was to take them to see Mr. Merton, to question him farther with regard to Jack Simpson.

Mr. Merton related to his visitors the history of Jack’s efforts to educate himself, and gave them the opinion he had given the lad himself, that he might, had he chosen, have taken a scholarship and then the highest mathematical honours. “He has been working lately at engineering, and calculating the strains and stresses of iron bridges,” he said. “And now, Mr. Brook, I will tell you—and I am sure that you and these gentlemen will give me your promise of secrecy upon the subject—what I have never yet told to a soul. It was that lad who brought me word of the intended attack on the engines, and got me to write the letter to Sir John Butler. But that is not all, sir. It was that boy—for he was but seventeen then—who defended your engine-house against the mob of five hundred men!”

“Bless my heart, Merton, why did you not tell me before? Why, I’ve puzzled over that ever since. And to think that it was one of my own pit-boys who did that gallant action, and I have done nothing for him!”

“He would not have it told, sir. He wanted to go on as a working miner, and learn his business from the bottom. Besides, his life wouldn’t have been safe in this district for a day if it had been known. But I think you ought to be told of it now. The lad is as modest as he is brave and clever, and would go to his grave without ever letting out that he saved the Vaughan, and indeed all the pits in the district. But now that he is a man, it is right you should know; but pray do not let him imagine that you are aware of it. He is very young yet, and will rise on his own merits, and would dislike nothing so much as thinking that he owed anything to what he did that night. I may tell you too that he is able to mix as a gentleman with gentlemen. Ever since I have been over here he has come over once a month to stay with me from Saturday to Monday, he has mixed with what I may call the best society in the town here, and has won the liking and esteem of all my friends, not one of whom has so much as a suspicion that he is not of the same rank of life as themselves.”

“What am I to do, Mr. Hardinge?” Mr. Brook asked in perplexity. “What would you advise?”

“I should give him his first lift at once,” Mr. Hardinge said decidedly. “It will be many months before you have carried out the new scheme for the ventilation of the mine; and, believe me, it will not be safe, if there come a sudden influx of gas, till the alterations are made. Make this young fellow deputy viewer, with special charge to look after the ventilation. In that way he will not have to give instruction to the men as to their work, but will confine his attention to the ventilation, the state of the air, the doors, and so on. Even then his position will for a time be difficult; but the lad has plenty of self-control, and will be able to tide over it, and the men will get to see that he really understands his business. You will of course order the underground manager and viewers to give him every support. The underground manager, at any rate, must be perfectly aware of his capabilities, as he seems to have done all his paper work for some time.”

Never were a body of men more astonished than were the pitmen of the Vaughan when they heard that young Jack Simpson was appointed a deputy viewer, with the special charge of the ventilation of the mine.

A deputy viewer is not a position of great honour; the pay is scarcely more than that which a getter will earn, and the rank is scarcely higher. This kind of post, indeed, is generally given to a miner of experience, getting past his work—as care, attention, and knowledge are required, rather than hard work. That a young man should be appointed was an anomaly which simply astonished the colliers of the Vaughan. The affair was first known on the surface, and as the men came up in the cages the news was told them, and the majority, instead of at once hurrying home, stopped to talk it over.

“It be the rummest start I ever heard on,” one said. “Ah! here comes Bill Haden. Hast heard t’ news, Bill?”

“What news?”

“Why, your Jack’s made a deputy. What dost think o’ that, right over heads o’ us all? Did’st e’er hear tell o’ such a thing?”

“No, I didn’t,” Bill Haden said emphatically. “It’s t’ first time as e’er I heard o’ t’ right man being picked out wi’out a question o’ age. I know him, and I tell ‘ee, he mayn’t know t’ best place for putting in a prop, or of timbering in loose ground, as well as us as is old enough to be his fathers; but he knows as much about t’ book learning of a mine as one of the government inspector chaps. You mightn’t think it pleasant for me, as has stood in t’ place o’ his father, to see him put over my head, but I know how t’ boy has worked, and I know what he is, and I tell ‘ee I’ll work under him willing. Jack Simpson will go far; you as live will see it.”

Bill Haden was an authority in the Vaughan pit, and his dictum reconciled many who might otherwise have resented the appointment of such a lad. The enthusiastic approval of Harry Shepherd and of the rest of the other young hands in the mine who had grown up with Jack Simpson, and knew something of how hard he had worked, and who had acknowledged his leadership in all things, also had its effect; and the new deputy entered upon his duties without anything like the discontent which might have been looked for, being excited.

The most important part of Jack’s duties consisted in going round the pit before the men went down in the morning, to see that there was no accumulation of gas in the night, and that the ventilation was going on properly. The deputy usually takes a helper with him, and Jack had chosen his friend Harry for the post—as in the event of finding gas, it has to be dispersed by beating it with an empty sack, so as to cause a disturbance of the air, or, if the accumulation be important, by putting up a temporary bratticing, or partition, formed of cotton cloth stretched on a framework, in such a way as to turn a strong current of air across the spot where the gas is accumulating, or from which it is issuing. The gas is visible to the eye as a sort of dull fog or smoke. If the accumulation is serious, the main body of miners are not allowed to descend into the mine until the viewer has, with assistance, succeeded in completely dispersing it.

“It’s a lonesome feeling,” Harry said the first morning that he entered upon his duties with Jack Simpson, “to think that we be the only two down here.”

“It’s no more lonesome than sitting in the dark waiting for the tubs to come along, Harry, and it’s far safer. There is not the slightest risk of an explosion now, for there are only our safety-lamps down here, while in the day the men will open their lamps to light their pipes; make what regulations the master may, the men will break them to get a smoke.”

Upon the receipt of Mr. Hardinge’s official report, strongly condemning the arrangements in the Vaughan, Mr. Brook at once appointed a new manager in the place of Mr. Thompson, and upon his arrival he made him acquainted with the extent of Jack’s knowledge and ability, and requested him to keep his eye specially upon him, and to employ him, as far as possible, as his right-hand man in carrying out his orders.

“I wish that main wind drift were through,” Jack said one day, six months after his appointment, as he was sitting over his tea with Bill Haden. “The gas is coming in very bad in the new workings.”

“Wuss nor I ever knew’t, Jack. It’s a main good job that the furnace was made bigger, and some o’ th’ airways widened, for it does come out sharp surely. In th’ old part where I be, a’ don’t notice it; but when I went down yesterday where Peter Jones be working, the gas were just whistling out of a blower close by.”

“Another fortnight, and the airway will be through, dad; and that will make a great change. I shall be very glad, for the pit’s in a bad state now.”

“Ah! thou think’st a good deal of it, Jack, because thou’st got part of the ‘sponsibility of it. It don’t fret me.”

“I wish the men wouldn’t smoke, dad; I don’t want to get a bad name for reporting them, but it’s just playing with their lives.”

Bill Haden was silent; he was given to indulge in a quiet smoke himself, as Jack, working with him for five years, well knew.

“Well, Jack, thou know’st there’s a craving for a draw or two of bacca.”

“So there is for a great many other things that we have to do without,” Jack said. “If it were only a question of a man blowing himself to pieces I should say nought about it; but it is whether he is willing to make five hundred widows and two thousand orphans rather than go for a few hours without smoking. What is the use of Davy-lamps? what is the use of all our care as to the ventilation, if at any moment the gas may be fired at a lamp opened for lighting a pipe? I like my pipe, but if I thought there was ever any chance of its becoming my master I would never touch tobacco again.”

Three days later, when Jack came up from his rounds at ten o’clock, to eat his breakfast and write up his journal of the state of the mine, he saw Mr. Brook and the manager draw up to the pit mouth. Jack shrank back from the little window of the office where he was writing, and did not look out again until he knew that they had descended the mine, as he did not wish to have any appearance of thrusting himself forward. For another hour he wrote; and then the window of the office flew in pieces, the chairs danced, and the walls rocked, while a dull heavy roar, like distant thunder, burst upon his ears.

He leaped to his feet and rushed to the door. Black smoke was pouring up from the pit’s mouth, sticks and pieces of wood and coal were falling in a shower in the yard; and Jack saw that his worst anticipation had been realized, and that a terrible explosion had taken place in the Vaughan pit.

_______________________________________________________________

IN DEADLY PERIL.

For a moment Jack stood stunned by the calamity. There were, he knew, over three hundred men and boys in the pit, and he turned faint and sick as the thought of their fate came across him. Then he ran towards the top of the shaft. The bankman lay insensible at a distance of some yards from the pit, where he had been thrown by the force of the explosion. Two or three men came running up with white scared faces. The smoke had nearly ceased already; the damage was done, and a deadly stillness seemed to reign.

Jack ran into the engine-house. The engine-man was leaning against a wall, scared and almost fainting.

“Are you hurt, John?”

“No!”

“Pull yourself round, man. The first thing is to see if the lift is all right. I see one of the cages is at bank, and the force of the explosion is in the upcast shaft. Just give a turn or two to the engine and see if the winding gear’s all right. Slowly.”

The engineman turned on the steam; there was a slight movement, and then the engine stopped.

“A little more steam,” Jack said. “The cage has caught, but it may come.”

There was a jerk, and then the engine began to work.

“That is all right,” Jack said, “whether the lower cage is on or not. Stop now, and wind it back, and get the cage up again. Does the bell act, I wonder?”

Jack pulled the wire which, when in order, struck a bell at the bottom of the shaft, and then looked at a bell hanging over his head for the answer. None came.

“I expect the wire’s broke,” Jack said, and went out to the pit’s mouth again.

The surface-men were all gathered round now, the tip-men, and the yard-men, and those from the coke-ovens, all looking wild and pale.

“I am going down,” Jack said; “we may find some poor fellows near the bottom, and can’t wait till some headman comes on the ground. Who will go with me? I don’t want any married men, for you know, lads, there may be another blow at any moment.”

“I will go with you,” one of the yard-men said, stepping forward; “there’s no one dependent on me.”

“I, too,” said another; “it’s no odds to any one but myself whether I come up again or not. Here’s with you, whatever comes of it.”

AFTER THE FIRST EXPLOSION—THE SEARCH PARTY. AFTER THE FIRST EXPLOSION—THE SEARCH PARTY.

Jack brought three safety-lamps from the lamp-room, and took his place in the cage with the two volunteers.

“Lower away,” he shouted, “but go very slow when we get near the bottom, and look out for our signal.”

It was but three minutes from the moment that the cage began to sink to that when it touched the bottom of the shaft, but it seemed an age to those in it. They knew that at any moment a second explosion might come, and that they might be driven far up into the air above the top of the shaft, mere scorched fragments of flesh. Not a word was spoken during the descent, and there was a general exclamation of “Thank God!” when they felt the cage touch the bottom.

Jack, as an official of the mine, and by virtue of superior energy, at once took the lead.

“Now,” he said, “let us push straight up the main road.”

Just as they stepped out they came across the bodies of two men, and stooped over them with their lamps.

“Both dead,” Jack said; “we can do nought for them.”

A little way on, and in a heap, were some waggons, thrown together and broken up, the body of a pony, and that of the lad, his driver. Then they came to the first door—a door no longer, not a fragment of it remaining. In the door-boy’s niche the lad lay in a heap. They bent over him.

“He is alive,” Jack said. “Will you two carry him to the cage? I will look round and see if there is any one else about here; beyond, this way, there is no hope. Make haste! Look how the gas is catching inside the lamps, the place is full of fire-damp.”

The men took up the lad, and turned to go to the bottom of the shaft. Jack looked a few yards down a cross-road, and then followed them. He was in the act of turning into the next road to glance at that also, when he felt a suck of air.

“Down on your faces!” he shouted, and, springing a couple of paces farther up the cross-road, threw himself on his face.