Read CHAPTER TWELVE of Deep Down‚ a Tale of the Cornish Mines , free online book, by R.M. Ballantyne, on ReadCentral.com.

IN WHICH OLIVER GETS “A FALL,” AND SEES SOME OF THE SHADOWS OF THE MINER’S LIFE

In crossing a hayfield, Oliver Trembath encountered the tall, bluff figure, and the grave, sedate smile of Mr Cornish, the manager.

“Good-morning, doctor,” said the old gentleman, extending his hand and giving the youth a grasp worthy of one of the old Cornish giants; “do you know I was thinking, as I saw you leap over the stile, that you would make a pretty fair miner?”

“Thanks, sir, for your good opinion of me,” said Oliver, with a smile, “but I would rather work above than below ground.  Living the half of one’s life beyond the reach of sunlight is not conducive to health.”

“Nevertheless, the miners keep their health pretty well, considering the nature of their work,” replied Mr Cornish; “and you must admit that many of them are stout fellows.  You would find them so if you got one of their Cornish hugs.”

“Perhaps,” said Oliver, with a modest look, for he had been a noted wrestler at school, “I might give them a pretty fair hug in return, for Cornish blood flows in my veins.”

“A fig for blood, doctor; it is of no avail without knowledge and practice, as well as muscle. With these, however, I do acknowledge that it makes weight ­if by `blood’ you mean high spirit.”

“By the way, how comes it, sir,” said Oliver, “that Cornishmen are so much more addicted to wrestling than other Englishmen?”

“It were hard to tell, doctor, unless it be that they feel themselves stronger than other Englishmen, and being accustomed to violent exertion more than others, they take greater pleasure in it.  Undoubtedly the Greeks introduced it among us, but whether they practised it as we now do cannot be certainly ascertained.”

Here Mr Cornish entered into an enthusiastic account of the art of wrestling; related many anecdotes of his own prowess in days gone by, and explained the peculiar method of performing the throw by the heel, the toe, and the hip; the heave forward, the back-heave, and the Cornish hug, to all of which the youth listened with deep interest.

“I should like much to witness one of your wrestling-matches,” he said, when the old gentleman concluded; “for I cannot imagine that any of your peculiar Cornish hugs or twists can be so potent as to overturn a stout fellow who is accustomed to wrestle in another fashion.  Can you show me one of the particular grips or twists that are said to be so effective?”

“I think I can,” replied the old gentleman, with a smile, and a twinkle in his eye; “of course the style of grip and throw will vary according to the size of the man one has to deal with.  Give me hold of your wrist, and plant yourself firmly on your legs.  Now, you see, you must turn the arm ­so, and use your toe ­thus, so as to lift your man, and with a sudden twist ­there!  That’s the way to do it!” said the old gentleman, with a chuckle, as he threw Oliver head foremost into the middle of a haycock that lay opportunely near.

It is hard to say whether Mr Cornish or Oliver was most surprised at the result of the effort ­the one, that so much of his ancient prowess should remain, and the other, that he should have been so easily overthrown by one who, although fully as large a man as himself, had his joints and muscles somewhat stiffened by age.

Oliver burst into a fit of laughter on rising, and exclaimed, “Well done, sir!  You have effectually convinced me that there is something worth knowing in the Cornish mode of wrestling; although, had I known what you were about to do, it might not perhaps have been done so easily.”

“I doubt it not,” said Mr Cornish with a laugh; “but that shows the value of `science’ in such matters.  Good-morning, doctor.  Hope you’ll find your patients getting on well.”

He waved his hand as he turned off, while Oliver pursued his way to the miners’ cottages.

The first he entered belonged to a man whose chest was slightly affected for the first time.  He was a stout man, about thirty-five years of age, and of temperate habits ­took a little beer occasionally, but never exceeded; had a good appetite, but had caught cold frequently in consequence of having to go a considerable distance from the shaft’s mouth to the changing-house while exhausted with hard work underground and covered with profuse perspiration.  Often he had to do this in wet weather and when bitterly cold winds were blowing ­of late he had begun to spit blood.

It is necessary here to remind the reader that matters in this respect ­ and in reference to the condition of the miner generally ­are now much improved.  The changing-houses, besides being placed as near to the several shafts as is convenient, are now warmed with fires, and supplied with water-troughs, so that the men have a comfortable place in which to wash themselves on coming “to grass,” and find their clothes thoroughly dried when they return in the morning to put them on before going underground.  This renders them less liable to catch cold, but of course does not protect them from the evil influences of climbing the ladders, and of bad air.  Few men have to undergo such severe toil as the Cornish miner, because of the extreme hardness of the rock with which he has to deal.  To be bathed in perspiration, and engaged in almost unremitting and violent muscular exertion during at least eight hours of each day, may be said to be his normal condition.

Oliver advised this man to give up underground work for some time, and, having prescribed for him and spoken encouragingly to his wife, left the cottage to continue his rounds.

Several cases, more or less similar to the above, followed each other in succession; also one or two cases of slight illness among the children, which caused more alarm to the anxious mothers than there was any occasion for.  These latter were quickly but good-naturedly disposed of, and the young doctor generally left a good impression behind him, for he had a hearty, though prompt, manner and a sympathetic spirit.

At one cottage he found a young man in the last stage of consumption.  He lay on his lowly bed pale and restless ­almost wishing for death to relieve him of his pains.  His young wife sat by his bedside wiping the perspiration from his brow, while a ruddy-cheeked little boy romped about the room unnoticed ­ignorant that the hour was drawing near which would render him fatherless, and his young mother a widow.

This young man had been a daring, high-spirited fellow, whose animal spirits led him into many a reckless deed.  His complaint had been brought on by racing up the ladders ­a blood-vessel had given way, and he had never rallied after.  Just as Oliver was leaving him a Wesleyan minister entered the dwelling.

“He won’t be long with us, doctor, I fear,” he said in passing.

“Not long, sir,” replied Oliver.

“His release will be a happy one,” said the minister, “for his soul rests on Jesus; but, alas! for his young wife and child.”

He passed into the sickroom, and the doctor went on.

The next case was also a bad one, though different from the preceding.  The patient was between forty and fifty years of age, and had been unable to go underground for several years.  He was a staid, sober man, and an abstemious liver, but it was evident that his life on earth was drawing to a close.  He had been employed chiefly in driving levels, and had worked a great deal in very bad air, where the candles could not be made to burn unless placed nine or ten feet behind the spot where he was at work.  Indeed, he often got no fresh air except what was blown to him, and only a puff now and then.  When he first went to work in the morning the candle would not keep alight, so that he had to take his coat and beat the air about before going into the level, and, after a time, went in when the candles could be got to burn by holding them on one side, and teasing out the wick very much.  This used to create a great deal of smoke, which tended still further to vitiate the air.  When he returned “to grass” his saliva used to be as black as ink.  About five years before giving up underground work he had had inflammation of the lungs, followed by blood-spitting, which used to come on when he was at work in what he called “poor air,” or in “cold-damp,” and he had never been well since.

Oliver’s last visit that day was to the man John Batten; who had exploded a blast-hole in his face the day before.  This man dwelt in a cottage in the small hamlet of Botallack, close to the mine of the same name.  The room in which the miner lay was very small, and its furniture scanty; nevertheless it was clean and neatly arranged.  Everything in and about the place bore evidence of the presence of a thrifty hand.  The cotton curtain on the window was thin and worn, but it was well darned, and pure as the driven snow.  The two chairs were old, as was also the table, but they were not rickety; it was obvious that they owed their stability to a hand skilled in mending and in patching pieces of things together.  Even the squat little stool in the side of the chimney corner displayed a leg, the whiteness of which, compared with the other two, told of attention to small things.  There was a peg for everything, and everything seemed to be on its peg.  Nothing littered the well-scrubbed floor or defiled the well-brushed hearthstone, and it did not require a second thought on the part of the beholder to ascribe all this to the tidy little middle-aged woman, who, with an expression of deep anxiety on her good-looking countenance, attended to the wants of her injured husband.

As Oliver approached the door of this cottage two stout youths, of about sixteen and seventeen respectively, opened it and issued forth.

“Good-morning, lads!  Going to work, I suppose?” said Oliver.

“Iss, sur,” replied the elder, a fair-haired ruddy youth, who, like his brother, had not yet sacrificed his colour to the evil influence of the mines; “we do work in the night corps, brother and me.  Father is worse to-day, sur.”

“Sorry to hear that,” said the doctor, as he passed them and entered the cottage, while the lads shouldered their tools and walked smartly down the lane that led to Botallack mine.

“Your husband is not quite so well to-day, I hear,” said the doctor, going to the side of the bed on which the stalwart form of the miner lay.

“No, sur,” replied the poor woman; “he has much pain in his eyes to-day, but his heart is braave, sur; I never do hear a complaint from he.”

This was true.  The man lay perfectly still, the compressed lip and the perspiration that moistened his face alone giving evidence of the agony he endured.

“Do you suffer much?” inquired the doctor, as he undid the bandages which covered the upper part of the man’s face.

“Iss, sur, I do,” was the reply.

No more was said, but a low groan escaped the miner when the bandage was removed, and the frightful effects of the accident were exposed to view.  With intense anxiety Mrs Batten watched the doctor’s countenance, but found no comfort there.  A very brief examination was sufficient to convince Oliver that the eyes were utterly destroyed, for the miner had been so close to the hole when it exploded that the orbs were singed by the flame, and portions of unburnt powder had been blown right into them.

“Will he see ­a little, sur?” whispered Mrs Batten.

Oliver shook his head.  “I fear not,” he said in a low tone.

“Speak out, doctor,” said the miner in firm tones, “I ain’t afeard to knaw it.”

“It would be unkind to deceive you,” replied Oliver sadly; “your eyes are destroyed.”

No word was spoken for a few minutes, but the poor woman knelt by her husband’s side, and nestled close to him.  Batten raised his large brown hand, which bore the marks and scars of many a year of manly toil, and laid it gently on his wife’s head.

“I’ll never see thee again, Annie,” he murmured in a low deep tone; “but I see thee face now, lass, as I last saw it, wi’ the smile of an angel on’t ­an’ I’ll see it so till the day I die; bless the Lord for that.”

Mrs Batten rose and went softly but quickly out of the room that she might relieve her bursting heart without distressing her husband, but he knew her too well to doubt the reason of her sudden movement, and a faint smile was on his lips for a moment as he said to Oliver, ­“She’s gone to weep a bit, sur, and pray.  It will do her good, dear lass.”

“Your loss is a heavy one ­very heavy,” said Oliver, with hesitation in his tone, for he felt some difficulty in attempting to comfort one in so hopeless a condition.

“True, sur, true,” replied the man in a tone of cheerful resignation that surprised the doctor, “but it might have been worse; `the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord!’”

Mrs Batten returned in a few minutes, and Oliver left them, after administering as much comfort as he could in the circumstances, but to say truth, although well skilled in alleviating bodily pains, he was incapable of doing much in the way of ministering to the mind diseased.  Oliver Trembath was not a medical missionary.  His mother, though a good, amiable woman, had been a weak, easy-going creature ­one of those good-tempered, listless ladies who may be regarded as human vegetables, who float through life as comfortably as they can, giving as little trouble as possible, and doing as little good as is compatible with the presence of even nominal Christianity.  She performed the duties of life in the smallest possible circle, the centre of which was herself, and the extremity of the radii extending to the walls of her garden.  She went to church at the regulation hours; “said her prayers” in the regulation tone of voice; gave her charities in the stated way, at stated periods, with a hazy perception as to the objects for which they were given, and an easy indifference as to the success of these objects ­the whole end and aim of her wishes being attained in, and her conscience satisfied by, the act of giving.  Hence her son Oliver was not much impressed in youth with the power or value of religion, and hence he found himself rather put out when his common sense told him, as it not unfrequently did, that it was his duty sometimes to administer a dose to the mind as well as to the body.

But Oliver was not like his mother in any respect.  His fire, his energy, his intellectual activity, and his impulsive generosity he inherited from his father.  Amiability alone descended to him from his mother ­an inheritance, by the way, not to be lightly esteemed, for by it all his other qualities were immeasurably enhanced in value.  His heart had beat in sympathy with the mourners he had just left, and his manly disposition made him feel ashamed that the lips which could give advice glibly enough in regard to bandages and physic, and which could speak in cheery, comforting tones when there was hope for his patient, were sealed and absolutely incapable of utterance when death approached or hopeless despair took possession of the sufferer.

Oliver had felt something of this even in his student life, when the solemnities of sickness and death were new to him; but it was pressed home upon him with peculiar power, and his manhood was often put to the blush when he was brought into contact with the Wesleyan Methodism of West Cornwall, where multitudes of men and women of all grades drew comfort from the Scriptures as readily and as earnestly as they drew water from their wells ­where religion was mingled with everyday and household duties ­and where many of the miners and fishermen preached and prayed, and comforted one another with God’s Word, as vigorously, as simply, and as naturally as they hewed a livelihood from the rocks or drew sustenance from the sea.