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


Soon after this accident to James Penrose, the current of events at the mines was diverted from its course by several incidents, which, like the obstructing rocks in a rapid, created some eddies and whirlpools in the lives of those personages with whom this chronicle has to do.

As the beginning of a mighty inundation is oft-times an insignificant-looking leak, and as the cause of a series of great events is not unfrequently a trifling incident, so the noteworthy circumstances which we have still to lay before our readers were brought about by a very small matter ­by a baby ­the baby Maggot!

One morning that cherubical creature opened its eyes at a much earlier hour than usual, and stared at the ceiling of its father’s cottage.  The sun was rising, and sent its unobstructed rays through the window of Maggot’s cottage, where it danced on the ceiling as if its sole purpose in rising had been to amuse the Maggot baby.  If so, it was pre-eminently successful in its attempts, for the baby lay and smiled for a long time in silent ecstasy.

Of course, we do not mean to say that the sun itself, or its direct rays, actually danced.  No, it was too dignified a luminary for that, but its rays went straight at a small looking-glass which was suspended on the wall opposite to the window, and this being hung so as to slope forward, projected the rays obliquely into a tub of water which was destined for family washing purposes; and from its gently moving surface they were transmitted to the ceiling, where, as aforesaid, they danced, to the immense delight of Maggot junior.

The door of the cottage had been carelessly closed the previous night when the family retired to rest, and a chink of it was open, through which a light draught of summer air came in.  This will account for the ripple on the water, which (as every observant reader will note) ought, according to the laws of gravitation, to have lain perfectly still.

The inconstancy of baby Maggot’s nature was presently exhibited in his becoming tired of the sun, and the restlessness of his disposition displayed itself in his frantic efforts to get out of bed.  Being boxed in with a board, this was not an easy matter, but the urchin’s limbs were powerful, and he finally got over the obstruction, sufficiently far to lose his balance, and fall with a sounding flop on the floor.

It is interesting to notice how soon deceit creeps into the hearts of some children!  Of course the urchin fell sitting-wise ­babies always do so, as surely as cats fall on their feet.  In ordinary circumstances he would have intimated the painful mishap with a dreadful yell; but on this particular occasion young Maggot was bent on mischief.  Of what sort, he probably had no idea, but there must have been a latent feeling of an intention to be “bad” in some way or other, because, on reaching the ground, he pursed his mouth, opened his eyes very wide, and looked cautiously round to make sure that the noise had awakened no one.

His father, he observed, with a feeling of relief, was absent from home ­not a matter of uncommon occurrence, for that worthy man’s avocations often called him out at untimeous hours.  Mrs Maggot was in bed snoring, and wrinkling up her nose in consequence of a fly having perched itself obstinately on the point thereof.  Zackey, with the red earth of the mine still streaking his manly countenance, was rolled-up like a ball in his own bed in a dark recess of the room, and little Grace Maggot could be seen in the dim perspective of a closet, also sound asleep, in her own neat little bed, with her hair streaming over the pillow, and the “chet” reposing happily on her neck.

But that easily satisfied chet had long ago had more than enough of rest.  Its repose was light, and the sound of baby Maggot falling out of bed caused it to rise, yawn, arch its back and tail, and prepare itself for the mingled joys and torments of the opening day.  Observing that the urchin rose and staggered with a gleeful expression towards the door, the volatile chet made a dash at him sidewise, and gave him such a fright that he fell over the door step into the road.

Again was that tender babe’s deceitfulness of character displayed, for, instead of howling, as he would have done on other occasions, he exercised severe self-restraint, made light of a bruised shin, and, gathering himself up, made off as fast as his fat legs could carry him.

There was something deeply interesting ­worthy of the study of a philosopher ­in the subsequent actions of that precocious urchin.  His powers in the way of walking were not much greater than those of a very tipsy man, and he swayed his arms about a good deal to maintain his balance, especially at the outset of the journey, when he imagined that he heard the maternal voice in anger and the maternal footsteps in pursuit in every puff of wind, grunt of pig, or bark of early-rising cur.  His entire soul was engrossed in the one grand, vital, absorbing idea of escape!  By degrees, as distance from the paternal roof increased, his fluttering spirit grew calmer and his gait more steady, and the flush of victory gathered on his brow and sparkled in his eye, as the conviction was pressed home upon him that, for the first time in his life, he was free! free as the wind of heaven to go where he pleased ­to do what he liked ­to be as bad as possible, without let or hindrance!

Not that baby Maggot had any stronger desire to be absolutely wicked than most other children of his years; but, having learnt from experience that the attempt to gratify any of his desires was usually checked and termed “bad,” he naturally felt that a state of delight so intense as that to which he had at last attained, must necessarily be the very quintessence of iniquity.  Being resolved to go through with it at all hazards, he felt proportionately wild and reckless.  Such a state of commotion was there in his heaving bosom, owing to contradictory and conflicting elements, that he felt at one moment inclined to lie down and shout for joy, and the next, to sink into the earth with terror.

Time, which proverbially works wonderful changes, at length subdued the urchin to a condition of calm goodness and felicity, that would have rejoiced his mother’s heart, had it only been brought on in ordinary circumstances at home.

There is a piece of waste ground lying between St. Just and the sea ­a sort of common, covered with heath and furze ­on which the ancient Britons have left their indelible mark, in the shape of pits and hollows and trenches, with their relative mounds and hillocks.  Here, in the days of old, our worthy but illiterate forefathers had grubbed and dug and turned up every square foot of the soil, like a colony of gigantic rabbits, in order to supply the precious metal of the country to the Phoenicians, Jews, and Greeks.

The ground on this common is so riddled with holes of all sizes and shapes, utterly unguarded by any kind of fence, that it requires care on the part of the pedestrian who traverses the place even in daylight.  Hence the mothers of St. Just are naturally anxious that the younger members of their families should not go near the common, and the younger members are as naturally anxious that they should visit it.

Thither, in the course of time ­for it was not far distant ­the baby Maggot naturally trended; proceeding on the principle of “short stages and long rests.”  Never in his life ­so he thought ­had he seen such bright and beautiful flowers, such green grass, and such lovely yellow sand, as that which appeared here and there at the mouths of the holes and old shafts, or such a delicious balmy and sweet-scented breeze as that which came off the Atlantic and swept across the common.  No wonder that his eyes drank in the beautiful sights, for they had seen little of earth hitherto, save the four walls of his father’s cottage and the dead garden wall in front of it; no wonder that his nostrils dilated to receive the sweet odours, for they had up to that date lived upon air which had to cross a noisome and stagnant pool of filth before it entered his father’s dwelling; and no wonder that his ears thrilled to hear the carol of the birds, for they had previously been accustomed chiefly to the voices of poultry and pigs, and to the caterwauling of the “chet.”

But as every joy has its alloy, so our youthful traveller’s feelings began to be modified by a gnawing sensation of hunger, as his usual hour for breakfast approached.  Still he wandered on manfully, looking into various dark and deep holes with much interest and a good deal of awe.  Some of the old shafts were so deep that no bottom could be seen; others were partially filled up, and varied from five to twenty feet in depth.  Some were nearly perpendicular, others were sloped and irregular in form; but all were more or less fringed with gorse bushes in full bloom.  In a few cases the old pits were concealed by these bushes.

It is almost unnecessary to say that baby Maggot’s progress, on that eventful morn, was ­unknown to himself ­a series of narrow escapes from beginning to end ­no not exactly to the end, for his last adventure could scarcely be deemed an escape.  He was standing on the edge of a hole, which was partially concealed by bushes.  Endeavouring to peer into it he lost his balance and fell forward.  His ready hands grasped the gorse and received innumerable punctures, which drew forth a loud cry.  Head foremost he went in, and head foremost he went down full ten feet, when a small bush caught him, and lowered him gently to the ground, but the spot on which he was landed was steep; it sloped towards the bottom of the hole, which turned inwards and became a sort of cavern.  Struggling to regain his footing, he slipped and rolled violently to the bottom, where he lay for a few minutes either stunned or too much astonished to move.  Then he recovered a little and began to whimper.  After which he felt so much better that he arose and attempted to get out of the hole, but slipped and fell back again, whereupon he set up a hideous roar which continued without intermission for a quarter of an hour, when he fell sound asleep, and remained in happy unconsciousness for several hours.

Meanwhile the Maggot family was, as may well be believed, thrown into a state of tremendous agitation.  Mrs Maggot, on making the discovery that baby had succeeded in scaling the barricade, huddled on her garments and roused her progeny to assist in the search.  At first she was not alarmed, believing that she should certainly find the self-willed urchin near the house, perhaps in the cottage of the Penroses.  But when the cottages in the immediate neighbourhood had been called at, and all the known places of danger round the house examined, without success, the poor woman became frantic with terror, and roused the whole neighbourhood.  Every place of possible and impossible concealment was searched, and at last the unhappy mother allowed the terrible thought to enter her mind that baby had actually accomplished the unheard-of feat of reaching the dreaded common, and was perhaps at that moment lying maimed or dead at the bottom of an ancient British shaft!

Immediately a body of volunteers, consisting of men, women, and children, and headed by Mrs Maggot, hastened to the common to institute a thorough search; but they searched in vain, for the holes were innumerable, and the one in which the baby lay was well concealed by bushes.  Besides, the search was somewhat wildly and hastily made, so that some spots were over-searched, while others were almost overlooked.

All that day did Mrs Maggot and her friends wander to and fro over the common, and never, since the days when Phoenician galleys were moored by St. Michael’s Mount, did the eyes of human beings pry so earnestly into these pits and holes.  Had tin been their object, they could not have been more eager.  Evening came, night drew on apace, and at last the forlorn mother sat down in the centre of a furze bush, and began to weep.  But her friends comforted her.  They urged her to go home and “‘ave a dish o’ tay” to strengthen her for the renewal of the search by torch-light.  They assured her that the child could easily exist longer than a day without food, and they reminded her that her baby was an exceptional baby, a peculiar baby ­like its father, uncommonly strong, and, like its mother, unusually obstinate.  The latter sentiment, however, was thought, not expressed.

Under the influence of these assurances and persuasions, Mrs Maggot went home, and, for a short time, the common was deserted.

Now it chanced, curiously enough, that at this identical point of time, Maggot senior was enjoying a pipe and a glass of grog in a celebrated kiddle-e-wink, with his friend Joe Tonkin.  This kiddle-e-wink, or low public-house, was known as Un (or Aunt) Jilly’s brandy-shop at Bosarne.  It was a favourite resort of smugglers, and many a gallon of spirit, free of duty, had been consumed on the premises.

Maggot and his friend were alone in the house at the time, and their conversation had taken a dolorous turn, for many things had occurred of late to disturb the equanimity of the friends.  Several ventures in the smuggling way had proved unsuccessful, and the mines did not offer a tempting prospect just then.  There had, no doubt, been one or two hopeful veins opened up, and some good “pitches” had been wrought, but these were only small successes, and the luck had not fallen to either of themselves.  The recent discovery of a good bunch by poor Penrose had not been fully appreciated, for the wounded man had as yet said nothing about it, and little Zackey had either forgotten all about it in the excitement of the accident, or was keeping his own counsel.

Maggot talked gloomily about the advisability of emigration to America, as he sent clouds of tobacco smoke up Un Jilly’s chimney, and Tonkin said he would try the mines for a short time, and if things didn’t improve he would go to sea.  He did not, however, look at things in quite the same light with his friend.  Perhaps he was of a more hopeful disposition, perhaps had met with fewer disappointments.  At all events, he so wrought on Maggot’s mind that he half induced him to deny his smuggling propensities for a time, and try legitimate work in the mines.  Not that Joe Tonkin wanted to reform him by any means, but he was himself a little out of humour with his old profession, and sought to set his friend against it also.

“Try your luck in Botallack,” said Joe Tonkin, knocking the ashes out of his pipe, preparatory to quitting the place, “that’s my advice to ’ee, booy.”

“I’ve half a mind to,” replied Maggot, rising; “if that theere cargo I run on Saturday do go the way the last did, I’ll ha’ done with it, so I will.  Good-hevenin’, Un Jilly.”

“Good-hevenin’, an’ don’t ‘ee go tumblin’ down the owld shafts,” said the worthy hostess, observing that her potent brandy had rendered the gait of the men unsteady.

They laughed as they received the caution, and walked together towards St. Just.

“Lev us go see if the toobs are all safe,” said Maggot, on reaching the common.

Tonkin agreed, and they turned aside into a narrow track, which led across the waste land, where the search for the baby had been so diligently carried on all that day.

Night had set in, as we have said, and the searchers had gone up to the town to partake of much-needed refreshment, and obtain torches, so that the place was bleak and silent, as well as dark, when the friends crossed it, but they knew every foot of the ground so thoroughly, that there was no fear of their stumbling into old holes.  Maggot led the way, and he walked straight to the old shaft where his hopeful son lay.

There were three noteworthy points of coincidence here to which we would draw attention.  It was just because this old shaft was so well concealed that Maggot had chosen it as a place in which to hide his tubs of smuggled brandy; it was owing to the same reason that the town’s-people had failed to discover it while searching for the baby; and it was ­at least we think it must have been ­just because of the same reason that baby Maggot had found it, for that amiable child had a peculiar talent, a sort of vocation, for ferreting out things and places hidden and secret, especially if forbidden.

Having succeeded in falling into the hole, the urchin naturally discovered his father’s tubs.  After crying himself to sleep as before mentioned, and again awakening, his curiosity in respect to these tubs afforded him amusement, and kept him quiet for a time; perhaps the fact that one of the tubs had leaked and filled the lower part of the old shaft with spirituous fumes, may account for the baby continuing to keep quiet, and falling into a sleep which lasted the greater part of the day; at all events, it is certain that he did not howl, as might have been expected of him in the circumstances.  Towards evening, however, he began to move about among the tubs, and to sigh and whimper in a subdued way, for his stomach, unused to such prolonged fasting, felt very uncomfortable.  When darkness came on baby Maggot became alarmed, but, just about the time of his father’s approach, the moon shone out and cast a cheering ray down the shaft, which relieved his mind a little.

“Joe,” said Maggot in a whisper, and with a serious look, “some one have bin here.”

“D’ee think so?” said Tonkin.

“Iss I do; the bushes are broken a bit.  Hush! what’s that?”

The two men paused and looked at each other with awe depicted on their faces, while they listened intently, but, in the words of the touching old song, “the beating of their own hearts was all the sound they heard.”

“It wor the wind,” said Maggot.

“Iss, that’s what it wor,” replied Tonkin; “come, lev us go down.  The wind can’t do no harm to we.”

But although he proposed to advance he did not move, and Maggot did not seem inclined to lead the way, for just then something like a sigh came from below, and a dark cloud passed over the moon.

It is no uncommon thing to find that men who are physically brave as lions become nervous as children when anything bordering on what they deem supernatural meets them.  Maggot was about the most reckless man in the parish of St. Just, and Tonkin was not far behind him in the quality of courage, yet these two stood there with palpitating hearts undecided what to do.

Ashamed of being thought afraid of anything, Maggot at last cleared his throat, and, in a husky voice, said, ­“Come, then, lev us go down.”

So saying he slid down the shaft, closely followed by Tonkin, who was nearly as much afraid to be left alone on the bleak moor as he was to enter the old mine.

Now, while the friends were consulting with palpitating hearts above, baby Maggot, wide-awake and trembling with terror, listened with bated breath below, and when the two men came scrambling down the sides of the shaft his heart seemed to fill up his breast and throat, and his blood began to creep in his veins.  Maggot could see nothing in the gloomy interior as he advanced, but baby could see his father’s dark form clearly.  Still, no sound escaped from him, for horror had bereft him of power.  Just then the dark cloud passed off the moon, and a bright beam shone full on the upper half of the baby’s face as he peeped over the edge of one of the tubs.  Maggot saw two glaring eyeballs, and felt frozen alive instantly.  Tonkin, looking over his comrade’s shoulder, also saw the eyes, and was petrified on the spot.  Suddenly baby Maggot found his voice and uttered a most awful yell.  Maggot senior found his limbs, and turned to fly.  So did Tonkin, but he slipped and fell at the first step.  Maggot fell over him.  Both rose and dashed up the shaft, scraping elbows, shins, and knuckles as they went, and, followed by a torrent of hideous cries, that sounded in their ears like the screaming of fiends, they gained the surface, and, without exchanging a word, fled in different directions on the wings of terror!

Maggot did not halt until he burst into his house, and flung himself into his own chair by the chimney corner, whence he gazed on what was calculated to alarm as well as to perplex him.  This was the spectacle of his own wife taking tea in floods of tears, and being encouraged in her difficult task by Mrs Penrose and a few sympathising friends.

With some difficulty he got them to explain this mystery.

“What! baby gone lost?” he exclaimed; “where away?”

When it was told him what had occurred, Maggot’s eyes gradually opened, and his lips gradually closed, until the latter produced a low whistle.

“I think that I do knaw where the cheeld is,” he said; “come along, an’ I’ll show un to ’ee.”

So saying, the wily smith, assuming an air of importance and profound wisdom, arose and led his wife and her friends, with a large band of men who had prepared torches, straight to the old shaft.  Going down, but sternly forbidding any one to follow he speedily returned with the baby in his arms, to the surprise of all, and to the unutterable joy of the child’s mother.

In one sense, however, the result was disastrous.  Curious persons were there who could not rest until they had investigated the matter further, and the tubs were not only discovered, but carried off by those who had no title to them whatever!  The misfortune created such a tumult of indignation in the breast of Maggot, that he was heard in his wrath to declare he “would have nothin’ more to do with un, but would go into the bal the next settin’ day.”

This was the commencement of that series of events which, as we have stated at the beginning of this chapter, were brought about by that wonderful baby ­the baby Maggot.