THE UNDERGROUND GHOST
"BEG pardon, sir; perhaps you'd like to go underground this morning, Missis thought. Large party, sir, in the Dolphin room, going down at eleven; and our Cheshire mines are thought very curious, particularly Setton Bassett, sir. Supply half Europe, they do, sir; and uncommon pretty the galleries look by torch-light. Very celebrated mine, ours, sir, and worth notice; and only half-a-crown charge for each person, when many go at one time with the guides. Shall I say you'll go, sir?"
I should have had some curiosity, in any case, to explore one of those noted Cheshire salt-mines, which, if dwarfish in their proportions when compared with those of Poland, are still worth visiting; but in the present case, though the waiter did not know it, since he did not know me, there was an especial attraction for me to accept his invitation. The mine was the property of my mother's uncle, and might one day be my own; might, that is, if three healthy cousins should die off before my delicate and ailing self. Still there was enough of contingent ownership in the thing, to give it an interest in my eyes. I was what is called a rising junior at the bar; but over-work and late hours had combined to sap what was a weakly constitution from the first. My health had given way, after a struggle, and symptoms of consumption, which fell disease was hereditary in my family, had at last begun to manifest themselves. The doctors were peremptory in ordering me to a warm climate, for at least a couple of years, and I had chosen Malta as the place of my reluctant exile. My passage was taken on board the Astarte, a fine steamer plying between Liverpool and the principal Mediterranean ports. When I reached Liverpool, however, on the eve of the day of sailing, I found, to my annoyance, that a vexatious delay must intervene. Some accident had happened, while in the Mersey, to the Astarte's machinery, and it would take five, or more probably six days, to repair the damage. There was nothing for it but to wait; my berth was taken, and my fare paid; and thus it fell out that, after killing time by a short tour through the more accessible parts of North Wales, I thought I would visit Setton Bassett, and behold with my own eyes that famous salt-mine, of which as much had been talked in our own family, as though it had been one of the seven Wonders of the world. I was not on the best of terms with my uncle, so I had put up at the little inn incog.
I stood at the sitting-room window, after the waiter left me, looking out at the dull gray of the November sky and the yellowing pastures of the dairy county. There was no rain, but also no gleam of sunshine; and the still waters of the mere within rifle-shot of the hotel — the pike-fishing in which attracted many an angler to the district—looked as dark as lead. The canal, with the green and red barges sleeping on its weedy surface; the marshy meadows; the ugly factory chimneys, peeping out among the bare tree-tops afar off—these things made up anything but an enlivening prospect. My mind wandered off to the orange-groves and cloudless skies of Malta, to the pleasant voyage up the storied Mediterranean—I was a good sailor, and had no dread of sea-sickness to dash the enjoyment of the trip—and then my thoughts strayed back to my abandoned chambers in Hare Court, Temple. It had not been without a pang that I had wrenched myself away from law and equity, musty black-letter commentaries and brand new reports; and I sighed involuntarily as I thought how I had been forced to drop behind in the race of life, and to yield the palm to others. But life itself was in the balance, and I had no choice in the matter.
"Only waiting for you, sir," said the napkin-bearing attendant, jerking the door open, and poking the fire as waiters will, when no other exercise for their restless activity presents itself. I declare that I had forgotten the salt-mine, the proposed excursion, and my own consent to make one among the pilgrims. But I could not be always reading yesterday's newspaper; and I had seen Llangollen and Valle Crucis and the Rows of Chester, and the castles of Chirk and Bran; and however little attractive the dive might prove, it would be as well to have seen the family salt-mine, while a couple of hours at least would thus be got rid of. It was Saturday; and on Monday at noon, the splendid screw steam-ship Astarte, with her freight and passengers, was to drop down to the Mersey, and carry me along with her. I had but two days, therefore, to kill, and this underground exploring would answer as well as anything else. I put on my great-coat, therefore, and followed William the waiter.
There were a good many sight-seers going down, besides the large and rather noisy family party occupying the Dolphin room, and which included three or four young ladies. Besides these, there were three or four recruits from the commercial, and as many from the coffee-room—all of whom had been impressed into the service by the eloquence of the glib waiter, who, I rather think, must have received some fee from the head-guide for each visitor to the mine. This guide, like his two subordinates, was a plain, shrewd-faced miner, in a rough suit of unbleached flannel, well provided with torches, lanterns, and other requisites for such an expedition. He assured us, with gruff civility, that there was no sort of danger, if we only kept together, took care of the lights, and minded what he told us; and after this exordium, he led the way to the pit, which was half a mile off. A gin, turned by an old wall-eyed white horse, sufficed to lower the cage which held us, in detachment, and we were soon underground.
A pretty sight was that mine, though I suspect it was not by any means so superior a specimen of its class as the waiter's interested panegyrics would have led us to believe. But it was pretty and curious withal, to see the stretch of long galleries running away to the dim distance, to see the "halls" and "chambers " into which we suddenly emerged, and whose roofs were propped on columns of salt, and decked with frieze and cornice never carved by earthly chisel. Part of the mine was in full yield; the picks and shovels of the work-men rang against the rocky walls and floor, awakening a thousand sullen echoes from the excavations; and shaggy ponies came clattering and stumbling past, dragging trucks laden with corves of salt, some in block, and some in splinters, along the tram-ways. There were a good many men and boys busy in the regular routine of the mine, and the sight of this industry seemed the main attraction in the eyes of my fellow-pilgrims. They were all hearty, hale, north-country folks, except myself; the Dolphin party in especial being from Yorkshire, as they told everybody, and who had previously seen no mines but coal-pits. My own experience was still more restricted; but I did not take the same interest in the details of the labour of extracting salt as my temporary companions, most of whom so loudly evinced their interest in "clay-stones" or "jewels."
Besides, somehow, I felt the loud blithe mirth of the rest, who seemed as frolicsome as school children on a holiday, jar a little with my own highly-wrought and irritable nerves. I was sickly and peevish, I dare say; but at any rate, I shrank instinctively away from the laughter and conversation of the rest of the party, and turned off into one of the lateral galleries of the mine. I had a lantern—we all carried lanterns or torches—and it was wonderful how the light which it gave was reflected back from the pellucid walls, which might have been hewn in rock crystal, so bright and pure was the salt through which the passage had been cut. The rough facets of the great crystalline lumps sparkled like monstrous gems, and the floor was rough with glittering fragments. This passage was intersected by others of varying width, some of which were broad corridors, with grooved floors, where trams had once been laid; while others were mere fissures, in the forming of which spade and pick could have played but a secondary part. I wandered on, and on, and still on, musing as I went, and taking little heed to my course.
Suddenly I stumbled, tripped over some loose masses of salt, and fell on my hands and knees, managing—and only just managing—to save the lantern which I carried from being extinguished in the fall. The floor of the cavern was very uneven in that part, and I had inadvertently walked into a sort of pit or basin of no great depth, and half filled with sand and moist salt, more or less pulverised. I rose and looked about me. Evidently, I had strayed from the direct track, thanks to my old habit of indulging in reverie, and had mechanically taken a wrong turning among some of the many passages. The place where I now found myself was by no means similar to the part of the mine that was in full yield, and from which I had wandered. Instead of being dry, airy, and full of life and bustle, the passage where I stood was damp, and quite silent, not a sound being audible except the drip, drip of the water that oozed through the roof in fifty places, and fell sullenly splashing into the little pools of dark green brine that lay among the stones. The floor was of stones, not of salt; and what salt was left in heaps was mixed with sand and loam, so as to be worthless for marketable purposes. It was plain that I was in some neglected corner of the mine; it was plain, too, that I had lost my way.
I am not, I think, more timid at heart than other Englishmen of my age and habits, but I must own that the first sensation I experienced was one of actual alarm. I remembered the words of the guide, when he told us that there was no danger so long as we kept together and near him. I had smiled when I heard this gruff caution, regarding it as a mere common-place speech, or perhaps a phrase designed to enhance the value of our conductor's services; but now the warning came back to me with unwelcome emphasis, and as I breathed with difficulty the clammy and heavy air of the vault, a shudder ran through my whole frame. In the next instant, I rallied my courage, laughed contemptuously at my own fears, and stepped out manfully along the passage. The abandoned salt pit, the moist and sticky brine of which adhered to my clothes, showed me at least what to avoid, and I knew that I must have entered the passage from the right. But, alas! on emerging from the passage into a sort of square chamber, in which some rude benches, carved out of the rock-salt for the miners' use in bygone times, were cut in the gleaming walls, I found that no less than six openings gave access to different parts of the mine, and I was fairly at fault.
How I had strayed so far without paying any attention to the bearings of my heedless course, is what, perhaps, none but an absent man can understand; and I, unluckily, was an absent man. It was not the first time, by many, that I had lost my way; but my former escapades had all occurred under the free sky, in the blessed summer sunlight, and the worst that had ever come of them was the temporary inconvenience of losing my dinner. But it is one thing to range about a mazy wood, or to roam in circles among the great purple moors, and another to be lost underground, in the dank air and darkness of a living tomb. I remarked, too, that the candle in my lantern would not last very long—from one to two hours perhaps, but certainly not longer. It was annoying, very annoying, to be left thus alone. I did not like to own to myself that it was dangerous.
How strange it was, I thought, that I did not hear the very faintest sound from the scene of all those busy labours in the mine. I listened—listened intently. Not a sound; not so much as the faint clink of a distant pickaxe, or the crash of a falling block of salt; not the welcome sound of a human voice; not the tramp of one of those shaggy ponies that drew the corves. I had never before realised what the weight of solitude—enforced solitude—could be. I listened; I waited. Not the faintest indication that any other mortal but myself was below ground, reached my ears. Angry with my own fears, vexed with my own carelessness, that had brought me to this pass, I selected at hazard one of the passages opening into the chamber, and entered it, walking fast, but holding the lantern well in front, to avoid any fresh pit-falls which might lie in wait for the unwary foot. The passage was but some ten yards long, and then it branched off into two narrower corridors, the widest of which led me to a wide but low-browed cave of mixed salt and stone. I entered it stooping, but soon found that I should be obliged to proceed on hands and knees, if at all, so I retraced my steps: and, tracing the other corridor to its extremity, found myself once more in the square chamber which I had left a few minutes before.
And now I began to own to myself that I felt anything but hopeful of a speedy deliverance. My best chance was, that I might be missed, and sought for, since it was evident that I might wander aimlessly, as in a labyrinth, until my candle was spent, and then I should be indeed in sorry case. But should I be missed? I had no friend among the party of blithe sight-seers. If they remembered the existence of the pale, taciturn stranger who had seemed to shrink from their companionship, no doubt they would think that he had made his way back to the shaft, and got some of the miners to draw him up "to bank;" and the guides were only too likely to think so too. I should be inquired for at the inn, of course, but not till dinner-time, and my absence might very probably be misinterpreted. The people knew nothing of me; my luggage was of the lightest; I might be thought of merely as a bilking scamp, who had levanted without paying his bill. And even a night spent in that cheerless place would, to one in my failing health, be no trifling misfortune. Already my feet were cold and wet with the tenacious brine; the cold moist air had brought back my cough, and I shivered in the chill atmosphere of the vault where I stood. Yet perhaps there were people near me, within earshot all the time, for I could not believe that the mine had been suddenly deserted. I shouted, and shouted again, the many crevices and passages giving back the sound of my voice with strange and sullen dissonance.
Presently, though no answering call was returned, I saw a light, far off and dim, but rapidly advancing towards me along the gallery that lay on my left, and which was one of the six I have mentioned. Nearer and nearer it came; no flare of torches, but the steady gleam of a small lamp; and then, to my surprise, I saw that the human figure that soon became visible was not that of a miner. The light of the lantern fell faintly on the pale face, colourless as marble, but delicate and pretty enough, of a young and slender girl——a lady, evidently, by her dress, and whom I instantly conjectured to have been one of the party of explorers. But how came she there, and alone? Was she lost, like me? or——— " Did you not call a minute ago? I can show you the way, if you like."
Common-place words these; but they were spoken with a peculiar quiet intonation, that impressed me in spite of myself. The voice was sweet and low, but almost solemn in its calm. There was something strange, too, in the composure and the unsmiling gravity of one so young, while her very presence in that out-of-the-way part of the mine perplexed me. My first idea was, that the young lady, like myself, had lost her way in the intricacies of the pit; but this supposition her confidence of bearing seemed to contradict. No doubt she knew the mine well, or she would scarcely have offered to guide me to safety. This was an additional proof that she could not have been one of the merry, rosy-cheeked Yorkshire girls who had made part of the explorers that morning. Most likely, some fresh party had descended to see the mine, and this young lady—some resident in the neighbourhood—had accompanied her friends to a place which she knew well. And yet, why alone?
Then I snapped the thread of my thoughts rather abruptly, as I remembered that I had not uttered a single syllable of thanks or explanation to my fair rescuer, who had, no doubt, been the only member of the party to which she belonged who had happened to hear the cries for aid, of which I was beginning to be heartily ashamed. A man's self-love is easily piqued, and I felt a hot flush of shame rise to my cheek as I thought in how pitiful a light I probably appeared to the sole spectator of what must seem my poltroonery in shouting for help. I therefore put on a bold front, and made a few remarks in as sprightly a tone as I could adopt upon the absurdity of my position, and went so far as to express my regret for any trouble or inconvenience I might have occasioned the fair damsel on behalf of so insignificant a person as myself. At the same time, I thanked her for her kindness, and admitted that I should not be sorry to regain the upper air.
She bowed her head slightly, and in the same grave, unsmiling manner as before, and turned towards the passage whence she had come, merely replying in answer to my speech: "This is the way we must take."
I followed her as she swiftly and steadily glided forward, traversing the long and narrow passage lamp in hand. At the end of the passage was a sort of hexagonal vault, full of openings in its dull, white walls, where the salt was much corroded by the moisture that dripped from the roof. The floor was covered with white incrustations, and several of the entrances were more or less choked with earth and rocks. My guide selected one of the narrowest of the galleries, without a moment's hesitation, and entered it with the same quick but light step. It was a mere fissure of irregular width, so very narrow in parts that it seemed as if the rocks were closing their stony jaws to bar our egress, while the height was considerable. Once I fancied, as I looked up, that I could see a faint glimmer of daylight filtered down through the overlying rocks, but it may have been more fancy. For some moments, not a word was spoken. I was the first to break the silence.
"I had no idea," said I, in a lively tone that cost me an effort, for I could scarcely keep my teeth from chattering as I spoke, so chilly and moist was the atmosphere of the unsunned caves—"I had no idea that I had wandered so far, or indeed that the mine was no large. I can recognise none of these objects by which we are passing, and yet some of them are worth looking at. How pretty is this, for instance!" And I came to a stop, glancing about me with involuntary admiration, as I found myself in a large natural grotto into which the fissure led. The lofty but broken roof was of rock-salt, but stained of many hues, green and crimson, orange, brown, scarlet, by the infiltration of water, which dripped abundantly from the cracks in the rough ceiling, and which probably contained metallic oxides in greater or less amount. The floor was of stone, wet and furrowed by the trickling of fifty tiny rivulets, which meandered over the honey-combed surface, till they were lost over the smooth lip of a long and narrow chasm that intersected the grotto. But the beauty of the place was in the infinite variety of fantastic columns, some of pure white salt, some of the same salt discoloured and crumbling, that composed the walls. As the feeble light of the lanterns flashed on the pellucid surfaces of these fairy pillars, some simple and rude as the Doric, some slender and frail, some more elaborate in the intricacies of their mouldings than the Corinthian or Byzantine, I could not restrain my exclamations of surprise and delight. For a moment I forgot the cold, the damp, the discomfort, and said, half to myself: "What a wonderful sight! If a human artist had carved those delicate capitals and rich decorations, what a rush would there be to see his handiwork! But I dare say even the county Handbook does not condescend to describe this place, which is worthy to be the palace of the king of the gnomes."
"Few know of this place," said my conductress, in the same measured, passionless voice as before. She had stopped when I stopped, and she stood motionless as a statue, and as pale as if she had been a figure hewn out of alabaster, rather than a creature of flesh and blood. It was the first word of the nature of a remark which had fallen from her, and I tried to draw her into conversation by descanting on the beauty of the singular grotto, and the spaciousness of the mine. She said very llttle, but her reticence did not seem to be caused by any poverty of intellect. There was, however, a peculiar want of warmth or enthusiasm, whether the subject were Art or Nature, in what little my fair guide could be induced to say. Nor was she by any means communicative as to herself. My attempts to discover whether she really lived in the neighbourhood, were quietly baffled, and when I said that "doubtless her friends would begin to be alarmed at her long absence for which I feared that my own stupid blundering was to blame," she merely bowed, and led the way as before. On we went, through a net work of passages, that only seemed to grow more Dædalian every moment, but through which my companion glided along as unswervingly as if she held in her hand an unfailing clue. Many of these galleries were evidently the work of man, bearing traces of pick and spade; while others, heaped with rubbish, and obstructed by rude columns of salt, were as plainly natural caves. In all, however, the air was heavy, chill, and moist, and water dripped from the walls, and fell gurgling down hidden fissures into some unseen depths below. I was confident that I had passed none of these places that day, and began to suspect that my guide was leading me a long round, so as to show me all the lions of the mine, instead of taking a short-cut to the workings. At another time, this desire to impress a stranger with a full notion of local marvels would have amused me; but my cough got worse; I shivered, and longed for the excursion to come to a close. Yet there was an awkwardness in suggesting this. I ventured on a safe remark.
"It is bitterly cold," said I, with a shudder, for the damps seemed to be piercing to the very marrow of my bones. "Do you not find it so?"
"Very cold!" She said no more; but those two common-place words were spoken in a voice that awed me, somehow, in spite of myself, and seemed to freeze me into silence. On we went, and I trusted that we must be approaching the working-part of the mine, for the candle in my lantern was reduced to a mere morsel, and must soon be burned out. But ill as I felt, and hard as it was for my weak lungs to endure the unwholesome air, I almost forgot this in my perplexity as to my conductress. I could not make her out at all. I had met with romantic young ladies, silly young ladies, sensible young ladies, even haughty and vain young ladies, but never with any one like my guide. Why was she leading me thus, what I felt must be a circuitous course through the mine? Why—
She came to a dead stop, slowly-turned, and confronted me. The hood of her gray cloak, an old-fashioned article of attire, such as I had not seen for many years, was drawn over her head, and it threw her face partly into shadow; but her eyes were bright and clear, though there was something in their cold steady look that made me shiver afresh, as if the air of the mine had grown even more icy and oppressive than before.
"Tell me about yourself. Tell me what you are going to do. What are your plans, I mean," she said in the same manner as before, like a sleep-walker unconsciously uttering words that volition does not prompt.
I laughed, and blundered out some would-be witty rejoinder on my own good-fortune in having inspired so charming a person with sufficient interest in my fate to suggest the question; but the flippant words died away on my lips half spoken, as she waved her hand, not impatiently, not coquettishly, but with a calm dignity of bearing that matched well her bloodless cheek and the carriage of her proud head. "You are to sail in the Astarte—is it not so?" said this singular girl, without a smile or a falter in her low but very distinct voice. I owned the fact, in no slight surprise. I had mentioned to no one at Setton Bassett the name of the ship in which my passage was taken. The idea of a mystification, of a trick, dawned upon me, but I was at a loss to guess how my strange guide could have obtained the information she evidently possessed. Did she know more of me than this? my name, for instance, my profession, and my reason for quitting England? If so, at any rate she made no parade of her knowledge. She merely raised her hand for a moment—it was ungloved, and there were rings of price sparkling on the thin white fingers—and her eyes seemed to gather a new expression of sadness and warning as she said: "Beware of the Astarte if you love your life—and oh, it is bitter to die young—do not sail in that ship."
Slowly the hand she had lifted in warning fell to her side, and holding up the lamp as before, she turned away, and preceded me along the galleries. I followed her, perplexed, half angry, half alarmed. I began to fear that I was the sport of a mad woman. And then a new fancy seized me. Perhaps I myself might be delirious, and the mine, the endless galleries, and my strange guide, were visions of a disordered brain, a frightful dream, from which I vainly strove to awake. Presently, it occurred to me for the first time that my new-found friend's feet made no sound as they trod the broken and rugged pavement, slippery and heaped with rubbish. Certain it was that she moved firmly and swiftly on, without any sign of difficulty or fatigue, while I stumbled and splashed, splashed and stumbled, and at times found it hard to keep up with her. But as regarded the noislessness of her tread, I could not solve the doubt. If I stopped, she stopped too, not after a pause, but instantly. And I heard nothing but my own labouring breath and hacking cough, and the sound of my own weary feet crunching the splinters of salt.
A little while, and even this was forgotten in a new source of apprehension. I had for some time vaguely conceived the idea that, as in a labyrinth, we were walking in a circle; and gradually I began to fancy that I had seen this or that block of salt or darkling arch before, and that I had passed through some of the corridors at least once before. But suspicion was changed to certainty when I suddenly espied, lying on the ground in one of the galleries, one of my own gloves. I had dropped this glove some time before, for I had missed it soon after the arrival of the unknown. As I picked it up, I glanced keenly around me, and thought I recognised the opening that led into the square chamber. I was right; in another moment I had followed my mysterious guide into the square chamber itself. More than an hour's weary toil, for my candle was all but spent, had brought us back to the point from which we had started. I was angry at last; all my involuntary awe for my strange conductress was lost, and I stamped my foot hard upon the floor as I asked if she had been amusing herself at my expense, or whether she, too, were ignorant of the topography of the mine, and had misled me by accident. I spoke in wrath, and almost in menace; but there was no reply, save one long moan, as from a child in pain, that rang sadly through the vault. I turned my head, but I could see nothing ; and when I again confronted what I now deemed my treacherous guide, a sort of mist seemed to dim my eyes, and I saw, or thought I saw, her form grow faint and indistinct, fading and fading like breath upon a mirror, but with still the same calm face, the same grave look of sorrow and warning, until that too faded, and nothing was left opposite to me——nothing but the rocky wall. I sprang forward, incredulous, and touched the wall with my hand. As I did so, a repetition of the moaning cry made me start, and far down the passage where I had seen her first, I saw her again—the pure, pale outline of the young face, the tall, slender form in the gray mantle, with the hood drawn over the head, the lamp shining in the outstretched hand. How came she there?
"This is too much!" cried I passionately, and convinced that I was the victim of a trick, though how such a trick could have been effected, I did not care to consider. I will not bear this juggling. I will not—"
As I spoke, I darted forward to overtake the receding figure, and my foot tripping among the loose stones of the floor, as I ran, I fell heavily, crushing the lantern beneath me, and being instantly involved in Egyptian darkness. Bruised and hurt, I gave no heed to the pain of the fall, but sprang up, and strained my eyes in the direction where the lamp had been last seen. There was not a spark——not a sound. No light, no rustle of her dress, no faint sound of a distant footfall, nothing but darkness and silence. Eagerly I listened, eagerly I watched, but in vain. I tried to call aloud, but my tongue refused its office; and when I did raise a weak shout, I felt my natural repugnance to the darkness deepen as no answer came.
"She is doing this to frighten me," I murmured; "she is hiding behind some pillar. Whoever she is, she never could be cruel enough to leave me here in the dark alone, to perish."
Silence, still silence. Any sound, even that moan, at which my very heartstrings had quivered, would have been better than that. Darkness, blank, black darkness. I tried to shout, tried to grope my way out, but the sides of the rocky vault were slippery to the touch, and when I found an opening, I stumbled and fell again, and had not strength to rise. Oh, it was very cold, cold and dark. This must be death.
"A drop more brandy, Jem; the last did him good, I can't feel any pulse yet, though. Don't crowd so about him, lads. Give him air! That's enough of the brandy, but don't leave off chaffng the hands. He'll come round!"
With my dulled ear, I heard these words, but scarcely understood them, and from between the half-closed lids my weak eyes could feebly distinguish a glare of torches, and several rough men in miners' garb, and one in black with a kind, shrewd face——the doctor, no doubt. I saw all this, in a stupid sort of indifferent way, as if it had been a pageant, and then I seemed to sink down into a black sea of roaring water, and fainted for the second time.
I was in bed at last. I had been in bed some days, very ill, and with a brain too deadened, and a frame too exhausted, to take note of time. When my senses returned, I asked what was the date, and hearing it, knew that the Astarte had sailed without me, and that my passage-money was lost. It was not for weeks, and until my slow convalescence had ripened into recovery from the illness brought on by cold and the wetting I had experienced, that the doctor asked me how I came to separate myself from the rest, of the company, and to get lost in the mine.
"It so happened," said he, " that work was suspended unusually early on that day, as there was a wake at Swivelsby, and the miners had a sort of half-holiday by annual custom. The mine was therefore abandoned, and but for the lucky chance, that when you were missed at the inn, and inquiries were made, an intelligent boy, the son of a miner, declared that you had never come up to bank at all, it is probable that no search would have taken place. As it was, long hours passed before a party started in quest of you ; and it is fortunate that they were in time. Setton Bassett mine has witnessed more than one tragic incident, even in my day."
"To what do you allude, doctor?" asked I eagerly.
"Eighteen years ago, a young lady, a Miss Walcott, became separated from her friends, as you did, in that mine," answered the doctor, "I had not as yet settled in the district, and only know the details from report, and very imperfectly. I believe, however, that the poor girl, who had made one of a large family party, was bound on a visit to an aunt who lived a few miles off; her own parents then residing at Hallings Court, near here. The day was a stormy one; the carriages drove off in a heavy fall of rain; and I believe the missing one was understood by her mother to be staying at her aunt's, and vice versa, for there was no alarm till help was impossible. The poor girl's body was found—for she perished of cold and hunger in that maze of galleries—in the very spot where we found you, and—Bless me, how pale you look, my dear sir. Take some cordial, and lie down, and no more talking—not a word more, I insist."
I have no explanation of the above facts to offer. I have endeavoured, far from England, to set down every detail of the occurrence as simply and succinctly as possible. I should be thankful if I could disabuse my mind of the ghastly doubt and horror that cling to it, and which haunt me when I recall the events of that day in the Cheshire salt-mine. The good doctor, when he heard my statement, did his best to convince me that what I saw was a mere hallucination, due to my disordered health and excited nerves. I wish I could think so; but further inquiries, made before I left England, served to assure me that I was not the only person who was supposed to have seen the Presence that I had beheld in the disused portion of the mine.
One word more. The warning was no idle one, though I doubt whether I should not have been ashamed to have heeded it, had not illness chained me to my sick-bed. Before I was able to quit Setton Bassett, news came that the fine steam-ship Astarte had been cast away on the rocks of Cape Spartel, and that most of the crew and passengers had perished miserably in the surf.
The Underground Ghost by John Berwick Harwood. From Major Peter (1866)