: The Underground City
A WEEK after the events just related had taken place, James Starr's
friends had become very anxious. The engineer had disappeared, and no
reason could be brought forward to explain his absence. They learnt, by
questioning his servant, that he had embarked at Granton Pier. But from
that time there were no traces of James Starr. Simon Ford's letter had
requested secrecy, and he had said nothing of his departure for the
Therefore in Edinburgh nothing was talked of but the unaccountable
absence of the engineer. Sir W. Elphiston, the President of the Royal
Institution, communicated to his colleagues a letter which James Starr
had sent him, excusing himself from being present at the next meeting
of the society. Two or three others produced similar letters. But though
these documents proved that Starr had left Edinburgh--which was known
before--they threw no light on what had become of him. Now, on the part
of such a man, this prolonged absence, so contrary to his usual habits,
naturally first caused surprise, and then anxiety.
A notice was inserted in the principal newspapers of the United Kingdom
relative to the engineer James Starr, giving a description of him and
the date on which he left Edinburgh; nothing more could be done but to
wait. The time passed in great anxiety. The scientific world of England
was inclined to believe that one of its most distinguished members
had positively disappeared. At the same time, when so many people
were thinking about James Starr, Harry Ford was the subject of no less
anxiety. Only, instead of occupying public attention, the son of the old
overman was the cause of trouble alone to the generally cheerful mind of
It may be remembered that, in their encounter in the Yarrow shaft, Jack
Ryan had invited Harry to come a week afterwards to the festivities at
Irvine. Harry had accepted and promised expressly to be there. Jack Ryan
knew, having had it proved by many circumstances, that his friend was
a man of his word. With him, a thing promised was a thing done. Now, at
the Irvine merry-making, nothing was wanting; neither song, nor dance,
nor fun of any sort--nothing but Harry Ford.
The notice relative to James Starr, published in the papers, had not
yet been seen by Ryan. The honest fellow was therefore only worried by
Harry's absence, telling himself that something serious could alone have
prevented him from keeping his promise. So, the day after the Irvine
games, Jack Ryan intended to take the railway from Glasgow and go to the
Dochart pit; and this he would have done had he not been detained by an
accident which nearly cost him his life. Something which occurred on the
night of the 12th of December was of a nature to support the opinions of
all partisans of the supernatural, and there were many at Melrose Farm.
Irvine, a little seaport of Renfrew, containing nearly seven thousand
inhabitants, lies in a sharp bend made by the Scottish coast, near the
mouth of the Firth of Clyde. The most ancient and the most famed ruins
on this part of the coast were those of this castle of Robert Stuart,
which bore the name of Dundonald Castle.
At this period Dundonald Castle, a refuge for all the stray goblins
of the country, was completely deserted. It stood on the top of a high
rock, two miles from the town, and was seldom visited. Sometimes a
few strangers took it into their heads to explore these old historical
remains, but then they always went alone. The inhabitants of Irvine
would not have taken them there at any price. Indeed, several legends
were based on the story of certain "fire-maidens," who haunted the old
The most superstitious declared they had seen these fantastic creatures
with their own eyes. Jack Ryan was naturally one of them. It was a fact
that from time to time long flames appeared, sometimes on a broken piece
of wall, sometimes on the summit of the tower which was the highest
point of Dundonald Castle.
Did these flames really assume a human shape, as was asserted? Did they
merit the name of fire-maidens, given them by the people of the coast?
It was evidently just an optical delusion, aided by a good deal of
credulity, and science could easily have explained the phenomenon.
However that might be, these fire-maidens had the reputation of
frequenting the ruins of the old castle and there performing wild
strathspeys, especially on dark nights. Jack Ryan, bold fellow though he
was, would never have dared to accompany those dances with the music of
"Old Nick is enough for them!" said he. "He doesn't need me to complete
his infernal orchestra."
We may well believe that these strange apparitions frequently furnished
a text for the evening stories. Jack Ryan was ending the evening with
one of these. His auditors, transported into the phantom world, were
worked up into a state of mind which would believe anything.
All at once shouts were heard outside. Jack Ryan stopped short in the
middle of his story, and all rushed out of the barn. The night was
pitchy dark. Squalls of wind and rain swept along the beach. Two or
three fishermen, their backs against a rock, the better to resist the
wind, were shouting at the top of their voices.
Jack Ryan and his companions ran up to them. The shouts were, however,
not for the inhabitants of the farm, but to warn men who, without being
aware of it, were going to destruction. A dark, confused mass appeared
some way out at sea. It was a vessel whose position could be seen by
her lights, for she carried a white one on her foremast, a green on
the starboard side, and a red on the outside. She was evidently running
straight on the rocks.
"A ship in distress?" said Ryan.
"Ay," answered one of the fishermen, "and now they want to tack, but
it's too late!"
"Do they want to run ashore?" said another.
"It seems so," responded one of the fishermen, "unless he has been
misled by some--"
The man was interrupted by a yell from Jack. Could the crew have heard
it? At any rate, it was too late for them to beat back from the line of
breakers which gleamed white in the darkness.
But it was not, as might be supposed, a last effort of Ryan's to warn
the doomed ship. He now had his back to the sea. His companions turned
also, and gazed at a spot situated about half a mile inland. It was
Dundonald Castle. A long flame twisted and bent under the gale, on the
summit of the old tower.
"The Fire-Maiden!" cried the superstitious men in terror.
Clearly, it needed a good strong imagination to find any human likeness
in that flame. Waving in the wind like a luminous flag, it seemed
sometimes to fly round the tower, as if it was just going out, and a
moment after it was seen again dancing on its blue point.
"The Fire-Maiden! the Fire-Maiden!" cried the terrified fishermen and
All was then explained. The ship, having lost her reckoning in the
fog, had taken this flame on the top of Dundonald Castle for the Irvine
light. She thought herself at the entrance of the Firth, ten miles
to the north, when she was really running on a shore which offered no
What could be done to save her, if there was still time? It was too
late. A frightful crash was heard above the tumult of the elements. The
vessel had struck. The white line of surf was broken for an instant; she
heeled over on her side and lay among the rocks.
At the same time, by a strange coincidence, the long flame disappeared,
as if it had been swept away by a violent gust. Earth, sea, and sky were
plunged in complete darkness.
"The Fire-Maiden!" shouted Ryan, for the last time, as the apparition,
which he and his companions believed supernatural, disappeared. But then
the courage of these superstitious Scotchmen, which had failed before a
fancied danger, returned in face of a real one, which they were ready to
brave in order to save their fellow-creatures. The tempest did not deter
them. As heroic as they had before been credulous, fastening ropes round
their waists, they rushed into the waves to the aid of those on the
Happily, they succeeded in their endeavors, although some--and bold Jack
Ryan was among the number--were severely wounded on the rocks. But the
captain of the vessel and the eight sailors who composed his crew were
hauled up, safe and sound, on the beach.
The ship was the Norwegian brig MOTALA, laden with timber, and bound for
Glasgow. Of the MOTALA herself nothing remained but a few spars, washed
up by the waves, and dashed among the rocks on the beach.
Jack Ryan and three of his companions, wounded like himself, were
carried into a room of Melrose Farm, where every care was lavished on
them. Ryan was the most hurt, for when with the rope round his waist
he had rushed into the sea, the waves had almost immediately dashed him
back against the rocks. He was brought, indeed, very nearly lifeless on
to the beach.
The brave fellow was therefore confined to bed for several days, to his
great disgust. However, as soon as he was given permission to sing as
much as he liked, he bore his trouble patiently, and the farm echoed
all day with his jovial voice. But from this adventure he imbibed a more
lively sentiment of fear with regard to brownies and other goblins who
amuse themselves by plaguing mankind, and he made them responsible
for the catastrophe of the Motala. It would have been vain to try and
convince him that the Fire-Maidens did not exist, and that the flame,
so suddenly appearing among the ruins, was but a natural phenomenon. No
reasoning could make him believe it. His companions were, if possible,
more obstinate than he in their credulity. According to them, one of the
Fire-Maidens had maliciously attracted the MOTALA to the coast. As to
wishing to punish her, as well try to bring the tempest to justice! The
magistrates might order what arrests they pleased, but a flame cannot
be imprisoned, an impalpable being can't be handcuffed. It must be
acknowledged that the researches which were ultimately made gave ground,
at least in appearance, to this superstitious way of explaining the
The inquiry was made with great care. Officials came to Dundonald
Castle, and they proceeded to conduct a most vigorous search. The
magistrate wished first to ascertain if the ground bore any footprints,
which could be attributed to other than goblins' feet. It was impossible
to find the least trace, whether old or new. Moreover, the earth, still
damp from the rain of the day before, would have preserved the least
The result of all this was, that the magistrates only got for their
trouble a new legend added to so many others--a legend which would be
perpetuated by the remembrance of the catastrophe of the MOTALA, and
indisputably confirm the truth of the apparition of the Fire-Maidens.
A hearty fellow like Jack Ryan, with so strong a constitution, could not
be long confined to his bed. A few sprains and bruises were not quite
enough to keep him on his back longer than he liked. He had not time to
Jack, therefore, soon got well. As soon as he was on his legs again,
before resuming his work on the farm, he wished to go and visit his
friend Harry, and learn why he had not come to the Irvine merry-making.
He could not understand his absence, for Harry was not a man who would
willingly promise and not perform. It was unlikely, too, that the son of
the old overman had not heard of the wreck of the MOTALA, as it was in
all the papers. He must know the part Jack had taken in it, and what had
happened to him, and it was unlike Harry not to hasten to the farm and
see how his old chum was going on.
As Harry had not come, there must have been something to prevent him.
Jack Ryan would as soon deny the existence of the Fire-Maidens as
believe in Harry's indifference.
Two days after the catastrophe Jack left the farm merily, feeling
nothing of his wounds. Singing in the fullness of his heart, he awoke
the echoes of the cliff, as he walked to the station of the railway,
which VIA Glasgow would take him to Stirling and Callander.
As he was waiting for his train, his attention was attracted by a bill
posted up on the walls, containing the following notice:
"On the 4th of December, the engineer, James Starr, of Edinburgh,
embarked from Granton Pier, on board the Prince of Wales. He disembarked
the same day at Stirling. From that time nothing further has been heard
"Any information concerning him is requested to be sent to the President
of the Royal Institution, Edinburgh."
Jack Ryan, stopping before one of these advertisements, read it twice
over, with extreme surprise.
"Mr. Starr!" he exclaimed. "Why, on the 4th of December I met him with
Harry on the ladder of the Dochart pit! That was ten days ago! And he
has not been seen from that time! That explains why my chum didn't come
And without taking time to inform the President of the Royal Institution
by letter, what he knew relative to James Starr, Jack jumped into the
train, determining to go first of all to the Yarrow shaft. There he
would descend to the depths of the pit, if necessary, to find Harry, and
with him was sure to be the engineer James Starr.
"They haven't turned up again," said he to himself. "Why? Has anything
prevented them? Could any work of importance keep them still at the
bottom of the mine? I must find out!" and Ryan, hastening his steps,
arrived in less than an hour at the Yarrow shaft.
Externally nothing was changed. The same silence around. Not a living
creature was moving in that desert region. Jack entered the ruined shed
which covered the opening of the shaft. He gazed down into the dark
abyss--nothing was to be seen. He listened--nothing was to be heard.
"And my lamp!" he exclaimed; "suppose it isn't in its place!" The lamp
which Ryan used when he visited the pit was usually deposited in a
corner, near the landing of the topmost ladder. It had disappeared.
"Here is a nuisance!" said Jack, beginning to feel rather uneasy. Then,
without hesitating, superstitious though he was, "I will go," said he,
"though it's as dark down there as in the lowest depths of the infernal
And he began to descend the long flight of ladders, which led down the
gloomy shaft. Jack Ryan had not forgotten his old mining habits, and
he was well acquainted with the Dochart pit, or he would scarcely have
dared to venture thus. He went very carefully, however. His foot tried
each round, as some of them were worm-eaten. A false step would entail a
deadly fall, through this space of fifteen hundred feet. He counted each
landing as he passed it, knowing that he could not reach the bottom of
the shaft until he had left the thirtieth. Once there, he would have no
trouble, so he thought, in finding the cottage, built, as we have said,
at the extremity of the principal passage.
Jack Ryan went on thus until he got to the twenty-sixth landing, and
consequently had two hundred feet between him and the bottom.
Here he put down his leg to feel for the first rung of the
twenty-seventh ladder. But his foot swinging in space found nothing to
rest on. He knelt down and felt about with his hand for the top of the
ladder. It was in vain.
"Old Nick himself must have been down this way!" said Jack, not without
a slight feeling of terror.
He stood considering for some time, with folded arms, and longing to be
able to pierce the impenetrable darkness. Then it occurred to him that
if he could not get down, neither could the inhabitants of the mine get
up. There was now no communication between the depths of the pit and the
upper regions. If the removal of the lower ladders of the Yarrow shaft
had been effected since his last visit to the cottage, what had become
of Simon Ford, his wife, his son, and the engineer?
The prolonged absence of James Starr proved that he had not left the pit
since the day Ryan met with him in the shaft. How had the cottage been
provisioned since then? The food of these unfortunate people, imprisoned
fifteen hundred feet below the surface of the ground, must have been
exhausted by this time.
All this passed through Jack's mind, as he saw that by himself he could
do nothing to get to the cottage. He had no doubt but that communication
had been interrupted with a malevolent intention. At any rate, the
authorities must be informed, and that as soon as possible. Jack Ryan
bent forward from the landing.
"Harry! Harry!" he shouted with his powerful voice.
Harry's name echoed and re-echoed among the rocks, and finally died away
in the depths of the shaft.
Ryan rapidly ascended the upper ladders and returned to the light of
day. Without losing a moment he reached the Callander station, just
caught the express to Edinburgh, and by three o'clock was before the
There his declaration was received. His account was given so clearly
that it could not be doubted. Sir William Elphiston, President of the
Royal Institution, and not only colleague, but a personal friend of
Starr's, was also informed, and asked to direct the search which was
to be made without delay in the mine. Several men were placed at his
disposal, supplied with lamps, picks, long rope ladders, not forgetting
provisions and cordials. Then guided by Jack Ryan, the party set out for
the Aberfoyle mines.
The same evening the expedition arrived at the opening of the Yarrow
shaft, and descended to the twenty-seventh landing, at which Jack Ryan
had been stopped a few hours previously. The lamps, fastened to long
ropes, were lowered down the shaft, and it was thus ascertained that the
four last ladders were wanting.
As soon as the lamps had been brought up, the men fixed to the landing a
rope ladder, which unrolled itself down the shaft, and all descended one
after the other. Jack Ryan's descent was the most difficult, for he went
first down the swinging ladders, and fastened them for the others.
The space at the bottom of the shaft was completely deserted; but Sir
William was much surprised at hearing Jack Ryan exclaim, "Here are bits
of the ladders, and some of them half burnt!"
"Burnt?" repeated Sir William. "Indeed, here sure enough are cinders
which have evidently been cold a long time!"
"Do you think, sir," asked Ryan, "that Mr. Starr could have had any
reason for burning the ladders, and thus breaking of communication with
"Certainly not," answered Sir William Elphiston, who had become very
thoughtful. "Come, my lad, lead us to the cottage. There we shall
ascertain the truth."
Jack Ryan shook his head, as if not at all convinced. Then, taking a
lamp from the hands of one of the men, he proceeded with a rapid step
along the principal passage of the Dochart pit. The others all followed
In a quarter of an hour the party arrived at the excavation in which
stood Simon Ford's cottage. There was no light in the window. Ryan
darted to the door, and threw it open. The house was empty.
They examined all the rooms in the somber habitation. No trace of
violence was to be found. All was in order, as if old Madge had been
still there. There was even an ample supply of provisions, enough to
last the Ford family for several days.
The absence of the tenants of the cottage was quite unaccountable. But
was it not possible to find out the exact time they had quitted it? Yes,
for in this region, where there was no difference of day or night, Madge
was accustomed to mark with a cross each day in her almanac.
The almanac was pinned up on the wall, and there the last cross had been
made at the 6th of December; that is to say, a day after the arrival of
James Starr, to which Ryan could positively swear. It was clear that on
the 6th of December, ten days ago, Simon Ford, his wife, son, and
guest, had quitted the cottage. Could a fresh exploration of the mine,
undertaken by the engineer, account for such a long absence? Certainly
It was intensely dark all round. The lamps held by the men gave light
only just where they were standing. Suddenly Jack Ryan uttered a cry.
"Look there, there!"
His finger was pointing to a tolerably bright light, which was moving
about in the distance. "After that light, my men!" exclaimed Sir
"It's a goblin light!" said Ryan. "So what's the use? We shall never
The president and his men, little given to superstition, darted off in
the direction of the moving light. Jack Ryan, bravely following their
example, quickly overtook the head-most of the party.
It was a long and fatiguing chase. The lantern seemed to be carried by a
being of small size, but singular agility.
Every now and then it disappeared behind some pillar, then was seen
again at the end of a cross gallery. A sharp turn would place it out of
sight, and it seemed to have completely disappeared, when all at once
there would be the light as bright as ever. However, they gained very
little on it, and Ryan's belief that they could never catch it seemed
far from groundless.
After an hour of this vain pursuit Sir William Elphiston and his
companions had gone a long way in the southwest direction of the pit,
and began to think they really had to do with an impalpable being. Just
then it seemed as if the distance between the goblin and those who
were pursuing it was becoming less. Could it be fatigued, or did this
invisible being wish to entice Sir William and his companions to the
place where the inhabitants of the cottage had perhaps themselves been
enticed. It was hard to say.
The men, seeing that the distance lessened, redoubled their efforts. The
light which had before burnt at a distance of more than two hundred
feet before them was now seen at less than fifty. The space continued
to diminish. The bearer of the lamp became partially visible. Sometimes,
when it turned its head, the indistinct profile of a human face could be
made out, and unless a sprite could assume bodily shape, Jack Ryan was
obliged to confess that here was no supernatural being. Then, springing
"Courage, comrades!" he exclaimed; "it is getting tired! We shall soon
catch it up now, and if it can talk as well as it can run we shall hear
a fine story."
But the pursuit had suddenly become more difficult. They were in
unknown regions of the mine; narrow passages crossed each other like
the windings of a labyrinth. The bearer of the lamp might escape them as
easily as possible, by just extinguishing the light and retreating into
some dark refuge.
"And indeed," thought Sir William, "if it wishes to avoid us, why does
it not do so?"
Hitherto there had evidently been no intention to avoid them, but
just as the thought crossed Sir William's mind the light suddenly
disappeared, and the party, continuing the pursuit, found themselves
before an extremely narrow natural opening in the schistous rocks.
To trim their lamps, spring forward, and dart through the opening, was
for Sir William and his party but the work of an instant. But before
they had gone a hundred paces along this new gallery, much wider and
loftier than the former, they all stopped short. There, near the wall,
lay four bodies, stretched on the ground--four corpses, perhaps!
"James Starr!" exclaimed Sir William Elphiston.
"Harry! Harry!" cried Ryan, throwing himself down beside his friend.
It was indeed the engineer, Madge, Simon, and Harry Ford who were lying
there motionless. But one of the bodies moved slightly, and Madge's
voice was heard faintly murmuring, "See to the others! help them first!"
Sir William, Jack, and their companions endeavored to reanimate the
engineer and his friends by getting them to swallow a few drops of
brandy. They very soon succeeded. The unfortunate people, shut up in
that dark cavern for ten days, were dying of starvation. They must have
perished had they not on three occasions found a loaf of bread and a jug
of water set near them. No doubt the charitable being to whom they owed
their lives was unable to do more for them.
Sir William wondered whether this might not have been the work of the
strange sprite who had allured them to the very spot where James Starr
and his companions lay.
However that might be, the engineer, Madge, Simon, and Harry Ford were
saved. They were assisted to the cottage, passing through the narrow
opening which the bearer of the strange light had apparently wished to
point out to Sir William. This was a natural opening. The passage which
James Starr and his companions had made for themselves with dynamite had
been completely blocked up with rocks laid one upon another.
So, then, whilst they had been exploring the vast cavern, the way back
had been purposely closed against them by a hostile hand.