HELBECK OF BANNISDALE - VOL. II
HELBECK OF BANNISDALE - VOL. II
MRS. HUMPHRY WARD
... metus ille ... Acheruntis ...
Funditus humanam qui vitam turbat ab imo
In two volumes
BOOK III (_continued_)
BOOK III _Continued_
HELBECK OF BANNISDALE
"Look out there! For God's sake go to your places!"
The cry of the foreman reached the ears of the clinging women. They fell
apart--each peering into the crowd and the tumult.
Mounted on a block of wood about a dozen yards from them--waving his arm
and shouting to the stream of panic-stricken workmen--they saw the man
who had been their guide through the works. Four white-hot ingots just
uncovered blazed deserted on their truck close to him and a multitude
of men and boys were pushing past them tumbling over each other in their
eagerness to reach the neighbourhood of the furnace. The space between
the ingots and some machinery near them was perilously narrow. At any
moment those rushing past might have been pushed against the
death-bearing truck. Ah! another cry. A man's coat-sleeve has caught
fire. He is pulled back--another coat is flung about him--the line of
white faces turns towards him an instant--wavers--then the crowd flows on
Another man in authority comes up also shouting. The man on the block
dismounts and the two hold rapid colloquy. "Have they sent for Mr.
Martin?" "Aye." "Where's Mr. Barlow?" "He's no good!" "Have they stopped
the mills?" "Aye--there's not a man'll touch a thing--you'd think they'd
gone clean out of their minds. There'll be accidents all over the place
if somebody can't quiet 'em."
Suddenly the buzzing groups behind the foreman parted and a young
broad-shouldered workman grimed from head to foot his blue eyes rolling
in his black face came staggering through.
"Gie ma a drink" he said clutching at the old woman; "an let ma sit
He almost fell upon an iron barrow that lay face downwards on the path.
Laura sitting crouched and sick upon the ground raised her head to look
at him. Another man evidently a comrade followed him took the mug of
cold tea from the old woman's shaking hand lifted his head and helped
him drink it.
"Blast yer!--why ain't it spirits?" said the youth throwing himself back
against his companion. His eyes closed on his smeared cheeks; his jaw
fell; his whole frame seemed to sink into collapse; those gazing at him
saw as it were the dislocation and undoing of a man.
"Cheer up Ned--cheer up" said the older man kneeling down behind
him--"you'll get over it my boy--it worn't none o' your fault. Stand
back there you fellows and gie im air."
"Oh damn yer! let ma be" gasped the young fellow stretching himself
against the other's support like one who feels the whole inner being of
him sick to death and cannot be still for an instant under the anguish.
The woman with the tea began to cry loudly and ask questions. Laura rose
to her feet and touched her.
"Don't cry--can't you get some brandy?" Then in her turn she felt herself
caught by the arm.
"Miss Fountain--Miss Laura--I can get you out of this!--there's a way out
here by the back."
Mason's white countenance showed over her shoulder as she turned.
"Not yet--can't anyone find some brandy? Ah!"
For their guide came up at the moment with a bottle in his hand. It was
Laura who handed him the mug and it was she who stooping down put the
spirit to the lips of the fainting workman. Her mind seemed to float in a
mist of horror but her will asserted itself; she recovered her power of
action sooner than the men around her. They stared at the young lady for
a moment; but no more. The one hideous fact that possessed them robbed
all else of meaning.
"Did he see it?" said Laura to the man's friend. Her voice reached no ear
but his. For they were surrounded by two uproars--the noise of the crowd
of workmen a couple of thousand men aimlessly surging and shouting to
each other and the distant thunder of the furnace.
"Aye Miss. He wor drivin the tub an he saw Overton in front--it wor the
wheel of his barrer slipped an soomthin must ha took him--if he'd ha let
goa straight theer ud bin noa harm doon--bit he mut ha tried to draw it
back--an the barrer pulled him right in."
"He didn't suffer?" said Laura eagerly her face close under his.
"Thank the Lord he can ha known nowt aboot it!--nowt at aw. The gas ud
throttle him Miss afore he felt the fire."
"Is there a wife?"
"Noa--he coom here a widower three weeks sen--there's a little gell----"
"Aye! they be gone for her an t' passon boath" said another voice;
"what's passon to do whan he cooms?"
"Salve the masters' consciences!" cried a third in fury. "They'll burn us
to hell first and then quieten us with praying."
Many faces turned to the speaker a thin wiry man one of the "agitators"
of the town and a dull groan went round.
* * * * *
"Make way there!" cried an imperious voice and the crowd between them
and the entrance side of the shed began to part. A gentleman came
through leading a clergyman who walked hurriedly with eyes downcast
holding his book against his breast.
There was a flutter of caps through the vast shed. Every head stood
bared and bent. On went the parson towards the little platform with the
railway. The furnace had sunk somewhat--its roar was less acute---- Laura
looking at it thought of the gorged beast that falls to rest.
But another parting of the throng--one sob!--the common sob of hundreds.
"It's t' little gell Ned! t' little gell!" said the elder workman to the
youth he was supporting.
And there in the midst of the blackened crowd of men was a child
frightened and weeping led tenderly forward by a grey-haired workman
who looked down upon her quite unconscious of the tears that furrowed
his own cheeks.
"Oh let me--let me go!" cried Laura. The men about her fell back. They
made a way for her to the child. The old woman had disappeared. In an
instant Laura as of right took the place of her sex. Half an hour
before she had been the merest passing stranger in that vast company; now
she was part of them organically necessary to the act passing in their
midst. The men yielded her the child instinctively at once; she caught
the little one in her sheltering arm.
"Ought she to be here?" she asked sharply of the grey-haired man.
"They're goin to read the Burial Service Miss" he said as he dashed
away the mist from his eyes. "An we thowt that the little un would like
soom day to think she'd been here. So I found her--she wor in school."
The child looked round her in terror. The platform in front of the
furnace had been hurriedly cleared. It was now crowded with men--masters
and managers in black coats mingled with workmen to the front the parson
in his white. He turned to the throng below and opened his book.
"_I am the Resurrection and the Life._"
A great pulsation passed through the mob of workmen. On all sides strong
men broke down and wept.
The child stared at the platform then at these faces round her that were
turned upon her.
"Daddy--where's Daddy?" she said trembling her piteous eyes travelling
up and down the pretty lady beside her.
Laura sat down on the edge of a truck and drew the little shaking
creature to her breast. Such a power of tenderness went out from her so
soft was the breast so lulling the scent of the roses pinned into the
lady's belt that the child was stilled. Every now and then as she
looked at the men pressing round her a passion of fear seemed to run
through her; she shuddered and struggled in Laura's hold. Otherwise she
made not a sound. And the great words swept on.
* * * * *
How the scene penetrated!--leaving great stabbing lines never to be
effaced in the quivering tissues of the girl's nature. Once before she
had heard the English Burial Service. Her father--groaning and fretting
under the penalties of friendship--had taken her when she was fifteen
to the funeral of an old Cambridge colleague. She remembered still the
cold cemetery chapel the gowned mourners the academic decorum or the
mild regret amid which the function passed. Then her father's sharp
impatience as they walked home--that reasonable men in a reasonable age
should be asked to sit and listen to Paul's logic and the absurdities of
Paul's cosmical speculations!
And now--from what movements what obscurities of change within herself
had come this new sense half loathing half attraction that could not
withdraw itself from the stroke from the attack of this Christian
poetry--these cries of the soul now from the Psalms now from Paul now
from the unknown voices of the Church?
Was it merely the setting that made the difference--the horror of what
had passed the infinite relief to eye and heart of this sudden calm that
had fallen on the terror and distraction of the workmen--the strangeness
of this vast shed for church with its fierce perpetual drama of
assaulting flame and flying shadow and the gaunt tangled forms of its
machinery--the dull glare of that distant furnace that had made so
little--hardly an added throb hardly a leaping flame! of the living man
thrown to it half an hour before and seemed to be still murmuring and
growling there behind this great act of human pity in a dying
Whence was it--this stilling pacifying power?
All around her men were sobbing and groaning but as the wave dies after
the storm. They seemed to feel themselves in some grasp that sustained
some hold that made life tolerable again. "Amens" came thick and fast.
The convulsion of the faces was abating; a natural human courage was
flowing back into contracted hearts.
"_Blessed are the dead--for they rest from their labours_--" "_as our
hope is this our brother doth._"
Laura shivered. The constant agony of the world in its constant search
for all that consoles all that eases laid its compelling hand upon her.
By a natural instinct she wrapped her arms closer more passionately
round the child upon her knee.
* * * * *
"Won't she come?" said Mason.
He and Seaton were standing in the downstairs parlour of a small house in
a row of workmen's cottages about half a mile from the steel works.
Mason still showed traces in look and bearing of the horror he had
witnessed. But he had sufficiently recovered from it to be conscious into
the bargain of his own personal grievance of their spoilt day and his
lost chances. Seaton too showed annoyance and impatience; and as Polly
entered the room he echoed Mason's question.
Polly shook her head.
"She says she won't leave the child till the last moment. We must go and
have our tea and come back for her."
"Come along then!" said Mason gloomily as he led the way to the door.
The little garden outside as they passed through it was crowded with
women discussing the accident and every now and then a crowd would
gather on the pavement and disperse again. To each and all the speakers
the one intolerable thing was the total disappearance of the poor lost
one. No body--no clothes--no tangible relic of the dead: it was a sore
trial to customary beliefs. Heaven and hell seemed alike inconceivable
when there was no phantom grave-body to make trial of them. One woman
after another declared that it would send her mad if it ever happened to
any belonging of hers. "But it's a mercy there's no one to fret--nobbut
t' little gell--an she's too sma'." There was much talk about the young
lady that had come home with her--"a nesh pretty-lukin yoong creetur"--to
whom little Nelly clung strangely--no doubt because she and her father
had been so few weeks in Froswick that there had been scarcely time for
them to make friends of their own. The child held the lady's gown in her
clutch perpetually Mr. Dixon reported--would not lose sight of her for a
moment. But the lady herself was only a visitor to Froswick was being
just taken through the works when the accident happened and was to
leave the town by an evening train--so it was said. However there would
be those left behind who would look after the poor lamb--Mrs. Starr who
had taken the tea to the works and Mrs. Dixon the Overtons' landlady.
They were in the house now; but the lady had begged everyone else to keep
The summer evening crept on.
At half-past six Polly with Hubert behind her climbed the stairs of the
little house. Polly pushed open the door of the back room and Hubert
peered over her shoulder.
Inside was a small workman's room with a fire burning and the window
wide open. There were tea-things on the table; a canary bird singing
loudly in a cage beside the window; and a suit of man's clothes with a
clean shirt hanging over a chair near the fire.
In a rocking-chair by the window lay the little girl--a child of about
nine years old. She was quite colourless but she was not crying. Her
eyes still had the look of terror that the sight of the works had called
up in them and she started at every sound. Laura was kneeling beside
her trying to make her drink some tea. The child kept pushing the tea
away but her other hand held fast to Laura's arm. On the further side of
the table sat two elderly women.
"Laura there's only just time!" said Polly softly putting her head
through the door.
The child started painfully and the cup Laura held was with difficulty
saved from falling.
Laura stooped and kissed the little one's cheek.
"Dear will you let me go now? Mrs. Dixon will take care of you--and I'll
come and see you again soon."
Nelly began to breathe fast. She caught Laura's sleeve with both hands.
"Don't you go Miss--I'll not stay with her." She nodded towards her
"Now Nelly you must be a good girl" said Mrs. Dixon rising and coming
forward--she was a strange ugly woman with an almost bald head--"you
must do what your poor papa wud ha wished you to do. Let the lady go an
I'll take care on you same as one o' my own till they can come and take
you to the House."
"Oh! don't say that!" cried Laura.
But it was too late. The child had heard the word--had understood it.
She looked wildly from one to the other then she threw herself against
the side of the chair in a very madness of crying. Now she pushed even
Laura away. It seemed as though at the sound of that one word she had
felt herself indeed forsaken she had become acquainted with her grief.
Laura's eyes filled with tears.
Polly standing at the door spoke to her in vain.
* * * * *
"There's another train--Mr. Seaton said so!" Laura threw the words over
her shoulder as though in anger. Hubert Mason stood behind her. In her
excitement it seemed to her that he was dragging her by force from this
sobbing and shrieking misery before her.
"I don't believe he's right. I never heard of any train later than the
7.10" said Mason in perplexity.
"Go and ask him."
Mason went away and returned.
"Of course he swears there is. You won't get Seaton to say he's mistaken
in a hurry. All I know is I never heard of it."
"He must be right" said Laura obstinately. "Don't trouble about me--send
a cab. Oh!"
She put her hands to her ears for an instant as they stood by the door
as though to shut out the child's cries. Hubert looked down upon her
hesitating his face flushed his eyes drawn and sombre.
"Now--you'll let me take you home Miss Laura? It'll be very late for
you. I can get back to-morrow."
She looked up suddenly.
"No _no_!" she said almost stamping. "I can get home alone quite well.
I want no one."
Then she caught the lad's expression--and put her hand to her brow a
"Come back for me now at any rate--in an hour" she said in another
voice. "Please take me to the train--of course. I must go then."
"Oh Laura I _can't_ wait!" cried Polly from the stairs--"I wish I
could. But mother's sending Daffady with the cart--and she'd be that
Laura came out to the stairway.
"Don't wait. Just tell the carriage--mind"--she hung over the banisters
enforcing the words--"tell them that I'm coming by the later train.
They're not to send down for me again--I can get a cab at the inn. Mind
Polly--did you hear?"
She bent forward caught Polly's assent and ran back to the child.
* * * * *
An hour later Mason found Laura with little Nelly lying heavily asleep in
her arms. At sight of him she put finger on lip and rising carried the
child to her bed. Tenderly she put her down--tenderly kissed the little
hand. The child's utter sleep seemed to soothe her for she turned away
with a smile on her blanched lips. She gave money to Mrs. Starr who was
to nurse the little one for a week and then it seemed to Mason she was
all alacrity all eagerness to go.
"Oh! but we're late!" she said looking at her watch in the street. And
she hastily put her head out of the window and implored the cabman to
Mason said nothing.
The station when they reached it was in a Saturday night ferment.
Trains were starting and arriving the platforms were packed with
Mason said a word to a porter as they rushed in. The porter answered;
then while they fled on the man stopped a moment and looked back as
though about to run after them. But a dozen passengers with luggage laid
hands upon him at once and he was left with no time for more than the
"Marsland? Why there's no train beyond Braeside to-night."
"No. 4 platform" said Hubert to his companion. "Train just going." Laura
threw off her exhaustion and ran.
The guard was just putting his whistle to his lips. Hubert lifted her
into her carriage.
"Good-bye" she said waving to him and disappeared at once into a crowd
"Right for Marsland?" cried Hubert to the guard.
The guard who had already whistled waved his flag as he replied:
"Marsland? No train beyond the junction to-night."
Hubert paused for a moment then as the train was moving briskly out
sprang upon the foot-board. A porter rushed up the door was opened and
he was shoved in amid remonstrances from front and rear.
The heavily laden train stopped at every station--was already nearly an
hour late. Holiday crowds got in and out; the platforms were gay with
talk and laughter.
Mason saw nothing and heard nothing. He sat leaning forward his hat
slouched over his eyes. The man opposite thought he had fallen asleep.
Whose fault was it? Not his! He might have made sure? Why wasn't
Seaton's word good enough? _She_ thought so.