The Ford Family
: The Underground City
TEN minutes afterwards, James Starr and Harry issued from the principal
gallery. They were now standing in a glade, if we may use this word
to designate a vast and dark excavation. The place, however, was not
entirely deprived of daylight. A few rays straggled in through
the opening of a deserted shaft. It was by means of this pipe that
ventilation was established in the Dochart pit. Owing to its lesser
density, the wa
m air was drawn towards the Yarrow shaft. Both air and
light, therefore, penetrated in some measure into the glade.
Here Simon Ford had lived with his family ten years, in a subterranean
dwelling, hollowed out in the schistous mass, where formerly stood the
powerful engines which worked the mechanical traction of the Dochart
Such was the habitation, "his cottage," as he called it, in which
resided the old overman. As he had some means saved during a long life
of toil, Ford could have afforded to live in the light of day, among
trees, or in any town of the kingdom he chose, but he and his wife and
son preferred remaining in the mine, where they were happy together,
having the same opinions, ideas, and tastes. Yes, they were quite fond
of their cottage, buried fifteen hundred feet below Scottish soil.
Among other advantages, there was no fear that tax gatherers, or rent
collectors would ever come to trouble its inhabitants.
At this period, Simon Ford, the former overman of the Dochart pit, bore
the weight of sixty-five years well. Tall, robust, well-built, he would
have been regarded as one of the most conspicuous men in the district
which supplies so many fine fellows to the Highland regiments.
Simon Ford was descended from an old mining family, and his ancestors
had worked the very first carboniferous seams opened in Scotland.
Without discussing whether or not the Greeks and Romans made use of
coal, whether the Chinese worked coal mines before the Christian era,
whether the French word for coal (HOUILLE) is really derived from the
farrier Houillos, who lived in Belgium in the twelfth century, we may
affirm that the beds in Great Britain were the first ever regularly
worked. So early as the eleventh century, William the Conqueror divided
the produce of the Newcastle bed among his companions-in-arms. At the
end of the thirteenth century, a license for the mining of "sea coal"
was granted by Henry III. Lastly, towards the end of the same century,
mention is made of the Scotch and Welsh beds.
It was about this time that Simon Ford's ancestors penetrated into the
bowels of Caledonian earth, and lived there ever after, from father to
son. They were but plain miners. They labored like convicts at the work
of extracting the precious combustible. It is even believed that the
coal miners, like the salt-makers of that period, were actual slaves.
However that might have been, Simon Ford was proud of belonging to this
ancient family of Scotch miners. He had worked diligently in the same
place where his ancestors had wielded the pick, the crowbar, and the
mattock. At thirty he was overman of the Dochart pit, the most important
in the Aberfoyle colliery. He was devoted to his trade. During long
years he zealously performed his duty. His only grief had been to
perceive the bed becoming impoverished, and to see the hour approaching
when the seam would be exhausted.
It was then he devoted himself to the search for new veins in all the
Aberfoyle pits, which communicated underground one with another. He
had had the good luck to discover several during the last period of
the working. His miner's instinct assisted him marvelously, and the
engineer, James Starr, appreciated him highly. It might be said that
he divined the course of seams in the depths of the coal mine as a
hydroscope reveals springs in the bowels of the earth. He was par
excellence the type of a miner whose whole existence is indissolubly
connected with that of his mine. He had lived there from his birth, and
now that the works were abandoned he wished to live there still. His son
Harry foraged for the subterranean housekeeping; as for himself, during
those ten years he had not been ten times above ground.
"Go up there! What is the good?" he would say, and refused to leave his
black domain. The place was remarkably healthy, subject to an equable
temperature; the old overman endured neither the heat of summer nor
the cold of winter. His family enjoyed good health; what more could he
But at heart he felt depressed. He missed the former animation,
movement, and life in the well-worked pit. He was, however, supported by
one fixed idea. "No, no! the mine is not exhausted!" he repeated.
And that man would have given serious offense who could have ventured
to express before Simon Ford any doubt that old Aberfoyle would one day
revive! He had never given up the hope of discovering some new bed which
would restore the mine to its past splendor. Yes, he would willingly,
had it been necessary, have resumed the miner's pick, and with his
still stout arms vigorously attacked the rock. He went through the dark
galleries, sometimes alone, sometimes with his son, examining, searching
for signs of coal, only to return each day, wearied, but not in despair,
to the cottage.
Madge, Simon's faithful companion, his "gude-wife," to use the Scotch
term, was a tall, strong, comely woman. Madge had no wish to leave the
Dochart pit any more than had her husband. She shared all his hopes and
regrets. She encouraged him, she urged him on, and talked to him in
a way which cheered the heart of the old overman. "Aberfoyle is only
asleep," she would say. "You are right about that, Simon. This is but a
rest, it is not death!"
Madge, as well as the others, was perfectly satisfied to live
independent of the outer world, and was the center of the happiness
enjoyed by the little family in their dark cottage.
The engineer was eagerly expected. Simon Ford was standing at his door,
and as soon as Harry's lamp announced the arrival of his former viewer
he advanced to meet him.
"Welcome, Mr. Starr!" he exclaimed, his voice echoing under the roof
of schist. "Welcome to the old overman's cottage! Though it is buried
fifteen hundred feet under the earth, our house is not the less
"And how are you, good Simon?" asked James Starr, grasping the hand
which his host held out to him.
"Very well, Mr. Starr. How could I be otherwise here, sheltered from
the inclemencies of the weather? Your ladies who go to Newhaven or
Portobello in the summer time would do much better to pass a few months
in the coal mine of Aberfoyle! They would run no risk here of catching a
heavy cold, as they do in the damp streets of the old capital."
"I'm not the man to contradict you, Simon," answered James Starr, glad
to find the old man just as he used to be. "Indeed, I wonder why I do
not change my home in the Canongate for a cottage near you."
"And why not, Mr. Starr? I know one of your old miners who would be
truly pleased to have only a partition wall between you and him."
"And how is Madge?" asked the engineer.
"The goodwife is in better health than I am, if that's possible,"
replied Ford, "and it will be a pleasure to her to see you at her table.
I think she will surpass herself to do you honor."
"We shall see that, Simon, we shall see that!" said the engineer, to
whom the announcement of a good breakfast could not be indifferent,
after his long walk.
"Are you hungry, Mr. Starr?"
"Ravenously hungry. My journey has given me an appetite. I came through
"Ah, it is raining up there," responded Simon Ford.
"Yes, Simon, and the waters of the Forth are as rough as the sea."
"Well, Mr. Starr, here it never rains. But I needn't describe to you
all the advantages, which you know as well as myself. Here we are at the
cottage. That is the chief thing, and I again say you are welcome, sir."
Simon Ford, followed by Harry, ushered their guest into the dwelling.
James Starr found himself in a large room lighted by numerous lamps, one
hanging from the colored beams of the roof.
"The soup is ready, wife," said Ford, "and it mustn't be kept waiting
any more than Mr. Starr. He is as hungry as a miner, and he shall
see that our boy doesn't let us want for anything in the cottage!
By-the-bye, Harry," added the old overman, turning to his son, "Jack
Ryan came here to see you."
"I know, father. We met him in the Yarrow shaft."
"He's an honest and a merry fellow," said Ford; "but he seems to be
quite happy above ground. He hasn't the true miner's blood in his veins.
Sit down, Mr. Starr, and have a good dinner, for we may not sup till
As the engineer and his hosts were taking their places:
"One moment, Simon," said James Starr. "Do you want me to eat with a
"It will be doing us all possible honor, Mr. Starr," answered Ford.
"Well, in order to eat heartily, I must not be at all anxious. Now I
have two questions to put to you."
"Go on, sir."
"Your letter told me of a communication which was to be of an
"It is very interesting indeed."
"To you and to me, Mr. Starr. But I do not want to tell it you until
after dinner, and on the very spot itself. Without that you would not
"Simon," resumed the engineer, "look me straight in the face. An
interesting communication? Yes. Good! I will not ask more," he added, as
if he had read the reply in the old overman's eyes.
"And the second question?" asked the latter.
"Do you know, Simon, who the person is who can have written this?"
answered the engineer, handing him the anonymous letter.
Ford took the letter and read it attentively. Then giving it to his son,
"Do you know the writing?" he asked.
"No, father," replied Harry.
"And had this letter the Aberfoyle postmark?" inquired Simon Ford.
"Yes, like yours," replied James Starr.
"What do you think of that, Harry?" said his father, his brow darkening.
"I think, father," returned Harry, "that someone has had some interest
in trying to prevent Mr. Starr from coming to the place where you
"But who," exclaimed the old miner, "who could have possibly guessed
enough of my secret?" And Simon fell into a reverie, from which he was
aroused by his wife.
"Let us begin, Mr. Starr," she said. "The soup is already getting cold.
Don't think any more of that letter just now."
On the old woman's invitation, each drew in his chair, James Starr
opposite to Madge--to do him honor--the father and son opposite to each
other. It was a good Scotch dinner. First they ate "hotchpotch," soup
with the meat swimming in capital broth. As old Simon said, his wife
knew no rival in the art of preparing hotchpotch. It was the same with
the "cockyleeky," a cock stewed with leeks, which merited high praise.
The whole was washed down with excellent ale, obtained from the best
brewery in Edinburgh.
But the principal dish consisted of a "haggis," the national pudding,
made of meat and barley meal. This remarkable dish, which inspired the
poet Burns with one of his best odes, shared the fate of all the good
things in this world--it passed away like a dream.
Madge received the sincere compliments of her guest. The dinner
ended with cheese and oatcake, accompanied by a few small glasses of
"usquebaugh," capital whisky, five and twenty years old--just Harry's
age. The repast lasted a good hour. James Starr and Simon Ford had not
only eaten much, but talked much too, chiefly of their past life in the
old Aberfoyle mine.
Harry had been rather silent. Twice he had left the table, and even the
house. He evidently felt uneasy since the incident of the stone, and
wished to examine the environs of the cottage. The anonymous letter had
not contributed to reassure him.
Whilst he was absent, the engineer observed to Ford and his wife,
"That's a fine lad you have there, my friends."
"Yes, Mr. Starr, he is a good and affectionate son," replied the old
"Is he happy with you in the cottage?"
"He would not wish to leave us."
"Don't you think of finding him a wife, some day?"
"A wife for Harry," exclaimed Ford. "And who would it be? A girl from up
yonder, who would love merry-makings and dancing, who would prefer her
clan to our mine! Harry wouldn't do it!"
"Simon," said Madge, "you would not forbid that Harry should take a
"I would forbid nothing," returned the old miner, "but there's no hurry
about that. Who knows but we may find one for him--"
Harry re-entered at that moment, and Simon Ford was silent.
When Madge rose from the table, all followed her example, and seated
themselves at the door of the cottage. "Well, Simon," said the engineer,
"I am ready to hear you."
"Mr. Starr," responded Ford, "I do not need your ears, but your legs.
Are you quite rested?"
"Quite rested and quite refreshed, Simon. I am ready to go with you
wherever you like."
"Harry," said Simon Ford, turning to his son, "light our safety lamps."
"Are you going to take safety lamps!" exclaimed James Starr, in
amazement, knowing that there was no fear of explosions of fire-damp in
a pit quite empty of coal.
"Yes, Mr. Starr, it will be prudent."
"My good Simon, won't you propose next to put me in a miner's dress?"
"Not just yet, sir, not just yet!" returned the old overman, his
deep-set eyes gleaming strangely.
Harry soon reappeared, carrying three safety lamps. He handed one of
these to the engineer, the other to his father, and kept the third
hanging from his left hand, whilst his right was armed with a long
"Forward!" said Simon Ford, taking up a strong pick, which was leaning
against the wall of the cottage.
"Forward!" echoed the engineer. "Good-by, Madge."
"GOD speed you!" responded the good woman.
"A good supper, wife, do you hear?" exclaimed Ford. "We shall be hungry
when we come back, and will do it justice!"