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4-383 (Raw)

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author,male,Dyson, Edward,33 addressee
Narrative Discourse
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Dyson, 1898
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Below And On Top Chapter I.
The Peep-o'-Day had been shut down for a long time now. The grand machinery rusted in the imposing brick engine-house, deserted by all saving the swallows and Dick, who could just squeeze in through the slit in the wall where the beam rode, and who did not share the superstitious fear inspired in his schoolmates by its dim light and silence and loneliness. The rabbits burrowed and bred under the black boilers and about the foundations of the towering stack, and a subduing influence hung around the old mine and touched with reverence the stranger loitering curiously about its many buildings and piled-up tips. 
Over young Dick Haddon the mine exerted a peculiar fascination. Most of his spare time after school hours and on Saturday afternoons he spent running at large about the place, washing innumerable prospects in his old fryingpan at the big dam. He found his way into the locked offices, and rummaged the blacksmith's shop, the engine-room and boiler-houses; climbed the lightning-rod on the dizzy, rocking smoke-stack, to the imminent risk of his precious neck; scrambled over every part of poppet-legs, brace, and puddling plat, doing monkey on the tie-beams, with sheer falls of a hundred or two hundred feet inviting him to the scattered, clean white boulders below; or taking the air up on the poppet-heads, to the scandal of Brother Bear or Brother Petric or any other pious brother of the little Waddytown Wesleyan chapel, for all believed such devilment to be a certain evidence of evil possession. [2]
The mine had always filled the greater part of the boy's life. He remembered since memory began with him a mighty, smoking, whistling entity, vomiting unending water, and clattering truck-loads of gravel and slate, and curious streams of white mullock, fed with big four-horse waggon-loads of wood that came up the muddy Springs road to the accompaniment of volleying whip-cracks and gorgeous profanity that seemed grand and inspiring and filled him with the same large emotions as a tale of "Arabian Nights" read aloud by his mother before the winter evening fires. 
He remembered, too, that night when he was five years old - ages ago it seemed to him now - when he crawled from his bed and found his mother, her white nightdress all dabbled with blood, wailing over his father, lying silent and motionless upon the kitchen floor, whilst in the grey shadowy background stood three or four miners, ashen-faced and still, hiding their mouths behind their smirched felt hats. He knew that the mine had killed his father, and thought of it as a living thing taking vengeance. Even now, when he was eleven and almost a man, the illusion was not dispelled, and sometimes took complete possession of him, especially when none other was near and the wind played upon the many vast props and legs of the mine as if they were the strings of a gigantic harp, and crooned mournful songs amongst the timbers, or when he called through the openings between the slabs over the pump shaft, and started the voices whispering in the black, bottomless depths, and the moans and sobs vibrating faintly in the miles of dripping, dark drives, far below there in the centre of the world. [3]
Other children came over the common occasionally during the dinner hour, or on bright afternoons, from the weatherbeaten wooden school in the lazy town-ship, to slide down the tips or ride on the long arms of the capstans, breaking their limbs and their heads indiscriminately, and Dickie resented it as an intrusion. Tinker Smith he didn't mind; the little dry old fossicker was silent and pipeclayed, and seemed to be part of the mine and imbued with its spirit. He had always been there, Dick thought, pottering about amongst the tips, sluicing, puddling, and cradling, or crooning over his pan at the water's edge. [4]
The mine had another familiar whom Dickie respected - one, indeed, whom he regarded with a profound reverence as a creature superior to the ordinary run of mortals, gentler and more angelic than mere, women were, and one having some wondrous affinity with those sorrowful souls lost in the long drives, in whose existence he so implicitly believed. This was Sim's Idiot, the mad woman who came from the bush beyond the township, and visited the mine by night only - a tall woman, with long, silver-white hair and a pale young face in which her dark eyes shone with lustre that lived in no other eyes the boy had ever seen or dreamed of. Knowing no other form of madness than this, which was ineffably beautiful and mournful and tender, Dick's mind assimilated the term with his highest ideas of beauty, purity, and love, and Agnes Brett became an ideal of his boyish fancy. 
Agnes's father, a fairly well-to-do farmer, owned the paddocks where the youngsters of Waddy went to gather sticks and bark, and where they ran wild half their time - nesting or hunting meek 'possums or malicious native cats. She was a widow. Three years ago, twelve months after their marriage, her husband Simon Brett, was killed with three others in a drive of the Peep-o'-Day, almost under the house where his wife lay peacefully sleeping. A blundering, screaming fool took the news to her, and came near to killing her on the instant. A baby was born, and for long days the mother was despaired of; but she lived - lived bereft of reason and possessed with many quaint beliefs about the old mine and the spirit of her murdered lover; and this girl, who was handsome and ruddy and commonplace in health and happiness, went home to her parents again a slim, eerie creature wondrously transformed, with a face superhuman in its spirituality. Her hair whitened rapidly, and she was silent save when she spoke of Sim and of the mine that had killed him. [5]
They called her Sim's Idiot, and in the minds of those who had known her from her infancy and had grown up with her Sim's Idiot soon ceased to be connected with Agnes Brett; it seemed as if the latter had died, and a stranger had come amongst them between whom and the woman they had known there was not a passing resemblance or anything in common. 
The name was absurdly inappropriate; but Waddy lacked imagination; in common with most bush town-ships it had a lamentable poverty of ideas. Nothing in Agnes's affliction suggested idiocy - indeed, a celestial intellectuality seemed to sit upon her serene countenance. But Waddy did not draw fine distinctions, and the name stuck. 
One night, shortly after her return to her father's house, Agnes was missed, and was found an hour or so later standing in the moonlight by the post and rail fence surrounding the Peep-o'-Day, gazing upon the mine and calling her husband's name. They led her away, but she came again on other nights, a statuesque figure, waiting and calling in a penetrating voice that carried above the clangour of the engines and the churning roar of the puddlers. [6]
Sometimes she addressed the mine in sweet, plaintive unintelligible speech, and it was a pathetic yet a thrilling sight to see her thus, when the furnace yawned and the rolling steam-clouds caught the ruddy glow and lept like flame, and the radiance fell upon her for a moment, glorifying her tall figure, picking it out of the darkness. 
At first she was a wonder in Waddytown, and people, when they heard that Sim's Idiot was out, would walk across from the township, about a quarter of a mile off, and, gathered in small, nervous groups amongst the scattered trees, would watch her curiously as long as she remained, offering abject opinions with the gravity of sages, the women frequently discerning Sim's spirit beckoning amongst the fleeing steam rack, to their delicious terror. Waddy presently lost interest, seeing that nothing happened, and the comings and goings of Sim's Idiot were not considered worthy of remark. Even her father, who was devoted to her, ceased to follow her, knowing that no harm would befall, and the brace- [7] men, hearing her voice, were not thrilled, as at first, with irritating fears, or induced to take unworkman-like precautions when moving about the shaft, for the sake of their own wives, who might, some day, be brought to this. 
Whilst the Peep-o'-Day continued working the mad woman ventured no nearer than the rail fence, but at length, long after the mine was shut down, and when rust and decay had taken full advantage of the law's delay, Dickie saw her, one bright night, sitting alone by the pump shaft. Over the mouth of each of the two winding shafts stood a heavy cage, and the pump shaft was covered with slabs securely spiked, so that she was in no danger of falling into either. 
The old mine in its most mysterious humours had no terrors for young Dick. His superstitious beliefs were many, but without terror. Of late he came often at night, with his horsehair nooses, trapping the rabbits that bred miraculously about the top workings and fattened on the profuse milk thistles and the wild corn, and so the sight of Agnes Brett was no unusual thing to him. But to him she never lost interest; a wonderful pity for her grew in his heart, and touched his life with a melancholy utterly at variance with his healthy boyhood and his natural heartiness - a melancholy that for many weeks gave his brave, busy little mother much concern about his digestion and other matters, and led to his being afflicted with superfluous flannels, and plied with home-brewed medicines with a camomile basis, all equally atrocious to taste and smell. [8]
Dick would follow Agnes to the mine, and, creeping near her in the darkness, would crouch in one of the cages, watching her and listening as she called the one name down the echoing shaft, and spoke strange mad words to the mysteries that whispered and flitted below, in a voice so soft, so piteous in its pleading, that, without comprehending, he found himself sobbing aloud, and filled with a passionate longing to do something to help this poor white woman with the starlike eyes, who was always waiting and praying for the thing that never came. He tried to understand her, to know what it was she sought, and he grew to believe that it was in her poor ruined mind that her husband's spirit was imprisoned with the rest, deep, deep down in the black shaft or the blacker drives, and that some night he would answer her - perhaps escape from the powers of darkness again and come up to her and be free and happy. To Dick it was a rational belief, and he wondered that it evoked no response. 
One night, listening to her supplicating tones, thrilled by their magical tenderness, he conceived a bright idea. For days and nights it haunted him, and then resolution came. He would do the thing he had thought upon, and see if it were not possible to give peace to this fairy woman. 

[9] Chapter II.
After school, on the day on which Dick determined upon taking action, he sauntered into Tinker Smith's vicinity, at the Peep-o'-Day, with his hands in his pockets, his hat set on the back of his head, and whistling affectedly. Tinker was somewhat an identity of Waddy, and Dick wanted information; but there was a matter of a broken shovel to be settled between him and the old fossicker, and he had to proceed warily. He selected a strategical position that offered facilities for a hurried retreat and commenced insinuatingly: 
"Any luck t'day, Tink'?" 
The old man grunted without looking up from his tub, and Dickie edged off a bit. He had little faith in Tinker Smith, a little old pipeclayed man with a ferrety face and ferrety hair and thin dry whiskers. He was full of surprises, and had a way of falling upon a victim when least expected, and taking summary vengeance in the most convenient manner that offered itself, preserving all the time an expressionless face and a calmness quite contrary to nature. He had clipped Dick with a pick handle, tipped him head over heels into the dam, and had bitten his ear till it bled, and the boy had learned the value of eternal vigilance. 
"Sim's Idiot was here again lars night," ventured Dickie, after a strained silence. 
[10] Tinker was indifferent. 
"Say, Tinker, them Finny kids come here yes'dee. Teddy broke your shovel, diggin' out a bunny, an' I licked him." 
The fossicker turned his dull little eyes doubtingly on the boy, but continued puddling. 
Dickie tried another tack. 
"I can lay you onter a bit o' pay dirt if you want it." 
Tinker knew the boy sometimes hit upon decent patches of dirt, and had profited by several of his discoveries. This interested him. 
"Where to?" he asked. 
"Where to's tellin's," responded Dick. 
Tinker churned in his tub with an air of utter obliviousness to anything beyond, and Dick, suspicious of the symptoms, edged away a few paces. 
"See here," he said presently, "you tell me about Sim - her husban', you know - an' I'll show you the stuff. Got ten grains in two han'fuls Satterdee." 
"S'welp yer bob?" 
"True's death." 
Tinker was convinced. He ceased puddling, leaned on his shovel, and commenced awkwardly, and with great labour - conversation was difficult to him, coherent narrative impossible: 
"Well, this here Simon Brett, he was the feller what fought Hoppy Hoffman up on the pound, eighteen rounds, and licked him, got killed in a fall in Number 3 - him, an' Ryan, an' Bowden, an' Kit Stevens - Collard's shift. I was platman. Strappin' chap, Sim; alwiz smilin'; he'd work smilin', an' fight smilin'. Happy sorter man. She was his missus, this idjit." [11]
Dickie wanted further particulars, and, as Tinker had evidently agreed to an armistice, he abandoned his defences and approached the fossicker. 
"But you knew him an' his wife; you went ter their house sometimes, didn't you? What 'id he call her? How'd he talk when he was bein' lovin' like? Was they sweethearts long, an' did they walk in the wattle paddocks, an' sit on the rocks on Bullock Hill?" 
Dick had a riotous fancy, and Tinker was as unimaginative as a wombat, but by dint of close questioning he managed to get out of the old man much of the information he needed, and after that he waited his opportunity. 
Agnes did not visit the mine for nearly two weeks, and when Dick saw her again it was too late to effect his purpose; she was already crouched at the mouth of the shaft. Her face was pressed to one of the narrow openings, and she wept with a low moaning sound. Dick touched her thin, pale hand, and spoke to her. 
"Who's there, please?" His heartbeat heavily and erratically, and he trembled, although he did not fear the mad woman in the least. 
[12] She arose, and stood regarding him for a moment. The boy pointed to the shaft. 
"Won't he come?" he asked eagerly, but she moved away without appearing to have heard him, and he followed her slowly, and from the top of the big gates watched her dark figure across the moonlit flat. 
After that he waited for her, and when she came again he was ready. He hastened to the shaft and pulled away one end of the side slab, having found some days previously that the spike was loose. Then he squeezed his body through the opening, and stood in the pump shaft on the topmost rung of the ladder that ran straight down the wall of the shaft. Grasping the ladder with his left hand, with the other he dragged the slab - still secured with one spike - into its place again, and, clinging to the rungs in the tomb-like silence, he waited. 
The mighty black depths seemed to drag at the boy as he stood, drawing and drawing him down into the abyss at his feet, and, as if irritated at his bold intrusion, the mysteries muttered and moaned and eddied impatiently, and an ominous threatening seemed to murmur in the hollow workings. But the boy was too full of his purpose to give any heed to these when Agnes came, and he saw the light of her eyes as she bent her face to the crevice just above his head. He felt her breath upon his cheek as she called the name of her dead lover, repeating the word again and again in the mournful chant so familiar to him. [13] There was no coherency in the words that followed. They sounded like an inarticulate prayer, instinct with intensest emotion, but softly spoken. 
Dick listened for a time, absorbed, and presently, when she seemed awaiting a reply, he brought his lips close to her face, and whispered a few words: 
"Aggie, dear wife!" 
The boy had not anticipated the full effect of his action. A wild cry of joy rang out upon the night and awakened eddying echoes in the deep shaft, and the woman flung herself upon the slabs, beating them with her thin hands, plucking at their edges with long, white fingers, sobbing, laughing, and calling upon the dead in an ecstasy of madness that appalled him, and he clung to the ladder, trembling in every limb. 
Dick had never before succeeded in winning a reply from the woman. When he met her at the mine or wandering in the bush, and spoke to her, feeling that she pleaded for something in that strange language of hers, and hoping that he might be able to help her, since none of the men and women of Waddy gave heed to her sorrow, she regarded him with great unmeaning eyes that did not see; in their gaze he seemed to have no existence; and if she spoke it was only in the tangled speech of madness. He expected she would hear and understand the voice in the shaft, and believe her husband had answered her at last. 
It was long ere Dick found courage to speak again, but when Agnes was silent, save for the faint sobbing that escaped her, he leant back his head and whispered close to her face, and her hot tears fell upon his cheek. She did not shriek this time, but babbled a few words, and finished laughing softly. [14]
Dickie addressed her with expressions of endearment and pet names learned from the old fossicker, and finding her calm and rapt, he wove quaint fancies from fairy tales into his talk, as he had planned it, and at times his words were almost as mad as her own, but he remembered always to dwell upon visions of joy and beauty. He had escaped from the desolation of the old mine, and was going up out of the darkness to light and beatitude, to dwell with the angels in a boyish paradise. The talk was jumbled; it was spoken in the quaint diction peculiar to bush boys; but there was a flavour of inspiration in it, and the mad woman clinging to the slabs above was awakened to some understanding, and laughed a soft, low laugh, and murmured like a happy child. 
At length Dickie was recalled to himself by the numbness of his extended arms, and the pain throbbing in his neck. 
"I'm goin' now," he whispered. "Good-bye, dear wife." 
Pressing his face to the slabs where her white face shone faintly, he kissed her mouth. 
She cried out again at the contact - a cry of exultation. 
[15] Dick, standing on the ladder, waited till she should leave before climbing out of the shaft. She remained prone upon the slabs, silent, for a long time, but at length she talked, talked almost inaudibly, but with no trace of the anguish that was wont to make her voice like the moaning of a dumb beast in pain. The boy's limbs ached, and fear began to creep into his heart. Still he was true to his purpose, and after twenty minutes, that seemed half a night to him, Agnes arose and moved slowly away. Dick waited for a few minutes, and then with a great effort, painful to his stiffened limbs, he shifted the slab aside and drew himself out of the shaft. He was replacing the long spike, when, looking up, he saw the mad woman standing erect within a few yards of the shaft, regarding him fixedly. When he faced her she took a step forward, threw out her hands, and with a cry that seemed to the boy to echo among the clouds overhead and in every hollow of the earth, she fell forward upon the stones and lay still. Dick ran to her, and turned her face to the moonlight; it was rigid, the half-closed eyes were glazed. He believed her dead, and fled like'a hunted hare. 
Houten and Winter returned with Dick to the mine, and found Agnes as he had left her. They took her up and carried her to her father's home, the boy going after, with a quaking heart. Then followed a long illness for Agnes and a troublous time for little Mrs. Haddon, who became more and more precautious in the matter of flannel, and doubled the doses of camomile tea, without effecting any visible improvement in Dick's condition. The boy had become strangely morbid; he grew pale and thin, and whilst his mother fretted, imagining him to be the victim of some wasting disease, he was beset with a fear that Agnes Brett was going to die, and that he would be her murderer. He kept his secret religiously within his own breast, and in his spare time he haunted her father's farm, sometimes venturing to ask after the sick woman, but usually skulking about as if dreading observation. [16]
At length, to Dick's immeasurable relief, Agnes was reported out of danger, and Waddy was electrified by the news that Sim's Idiot had recovered her reason. With the restoration of her health her mind had been restored, and she was now as she had been before the news of her husband's death struck her down. Happiness returned to the breast of Dickie Haddon, but he still kept to himself the story of his escapade at the mine, waiting for a chance to see Agnes, wondering if she remembered. When at length he saw her face to face he was sadly disillusioned. She sat in an easy chair under the verandah at the farmhouse; the beautiful white hair was done up in a hard, ungainly knot. She looked ordinary - not at all the gentle, spiritual creature he had known. Dick was vaguely troubled. He felt that the responsibility of this deplorable change rested upon his shoulders, and was surprised that no-body seemed to regret the alteration in Mrs. Brett. [17]

Chapter III.
Dick was as mischievous an imp as the township was afflicted with - and the boys of Waddy were even more prone than boys of other places to the evil that is dear to the young heart everywhere; but the other boys did not take their pranks seriously, as he did. His exuberant fancy invested his absurdest escapades with a high purpose and a most tremendous dignity. If he led a moonlight raid upon Jock Summer's pear trees it was in the character of a mediaeval knight of spotless honour and god-like beauty, and the purpose was to rescue from an ungainly, gross, and remorseless baron some fair, distressful damsel. He stole the pears all the same, and was careful to secure his share of the loot, but for the time being imagination held sway. To his mates it was all entertaining make-believe - to Dick Haddon it was all actual, and, as the knight of old, Thunderbolt the bushranger, or Jacky Jacky, the chief of a bloodthirsty band of blacks, the boy's romanticism helped largely to keep the lives of the housewives and housefathers of Waddy from sinking into an enervating monotony of peaceful dulness. 
[18] But Dick had not enlisted the co-operation of the mates who usually shared in his boyish pranks in this, his most wonderful adventure. For some time now he had deserted the haunts of his youthful companions, and there was comparative calm in Waddy. The boys were very well as subordinate blacks or inferior banditti, but in a matter of pure sentiment Dick felt instinctively that he could expect no sympathy from them - they would not understand. The radiant unearthliness of the mad woman had never appealed to them; they were indifferent to her white beauty, like that of the shining angels pictured in the Haddon family bible. They were just plain boys, and the plain boy is perilously near to the brute at times in the entire absence of motive and thought that characterizes his cruelties. Dick's fiercest battle was fought with Fod Carroll, who led an attack with sods on Agnes Brett on the Back Flat, and Fod, bewildered by the impetuosity of his small enemy, collapsed miserably in the third round. That fight was long remembered in Waddy; it created a new respect for Dickie among the boys, and fixed his status as the natural leader in any matter of common interest in which he chose to interfere. 
There was one boy, indeed, in whom he might have confided - Dolf Belman, a youngster of about his own age, who provided most of his books and was his lieutenant in many adventures; but Dick, in his sick unrest, wanted no companionship. The more he saw of Mrs. Brett - and she rapidly grew plump and ruddy - the more bitterly he lamented the act of his that had so altered her. He who had been most anxious to serve her had been the one to bring about this deplorable change, this transformation of an ethereal creature into a giggling dairymaid. [19]
One evening Dick Haddon saw Agnes Brett walking with Peter Kiley in the wattle paddock, and Peter - the long, ungainly son of a long, ungainly dairyman up the creek - was making awkward and bashful love to Mrs. Brett, whilst the buxom widow made a great pretence of resisting his elephantine blandishments, with shrill laughter and coy protestations. 
Dickie fled from the sight, filled with bitterness and, seeking the seclusion of the Peep-o'-Day, blubbered miserably on the slabs over the pump shaft for twenty minutes. 
How would Sim bear it? was a question that now presented itself to his active mind. Agnes had not been seen near the mine since her recovery - she never seemed to think of it or of her dead husband now. Did the spirit imprisoned in the old mine miss her? Was it waiting to hear her calling again in the early evening hours? The boy's faith was absolute; he knew that the drives were peopled with the spirits of the mine's victims, and that his father's ghost, and the chosts of Brett, and Bowden, and Ryan, and the rest walked the drives, and talked in strange, low, monotonous voices. He had heard them talking, had distinguished words, he thought, when all was still. How could he doubt? But he thought only of Brett, the forsaken husband, the neglected lover, the poor spirit whom his act had deprived of its only companionship and consolation, and he spent much time peering down through the cracks and harassing his young soul with most extravagant conjecture. [20]
The morbid condition induced by these truly preposterous problems was the occasion of many more doses of camomile tea, extra strong, and Mrs. Haddon, in her perplexity, called in elderly female experts, who, having reared large families in spite of all the ills that are the heritage of youth, believed themselves to be, and were generally believed to be, capable of diagnosing every ailment and prescribing innumerable infallible cures. These old women gravely considered Dickie's symptoms, and suggested many remedies, with most of which he was duly afflicted at one time or another; but the boy refused to brighten up and resume his old, healthy, careless, impish courses under the influence of either pill, potion, plaster, or unction, or the lot together. 
Meanwhile, however, Dick had resolved to speak to Mrs. Brett at the first opportunity. He was curious to know her thoughts on the matter uppermost in his mind. He had the idea that her present condition of mind and body was abnormal, and that she might be brought back to her former romantic state if she were made to understand that the spirit of her dead husband wandered in the Peep-o'-Day workings and yearned to hear her voice again. [21]
Later the boy saw Mrs. Brett at the Sunday-school anniversary picnic. She was now ruddy-cheeked and full-breasted. Clad in a tight town-made dress, and with her wonderful hair dyed a common brown, she was romping with a shrieking crowd playing kiss-in-the-ring, and a sense of hopelessness took possession of Dickie as he watched; but presently, when she had taken a seat on a log apart from the rest, and was fanning herself after her exertions, he approached her, and straddling the same butt, commenced, with a boy's abruptness: 
"Ain't you never goin' ter the Peep-o'-Day no more?" 
Agnes Brett turned upon him, astonished and indignant. Her father had told her of her doings during the time of her affliction, and she hated any allusion to that time from the lips of others. 
"If you're cheeky, little boy, I'll box your ears for you," she said, with a threatening gesture. 
Dicky did not wince, but sat looking up at her, like a small, red-headed cherub in rather indifferent health, and Agnes, who was as soft of heart as any breathing creature, was touched by the wan expression of the ailing imp. 
"Ain't meanin' it fer cheek," said Dick, picking nervously at the bark; "I jes wanter know." 
[22] "Well, I am not going - I am well now - an' you mus' never talk about it." 
"Why?" Dick moved nearer. "I say, d' you know me?" 
"The boy Haddon."