At last it was Sunday morning, and the men had now been
forty-eight hours in the well. A rumour had got about that they
were still alive. The bells rang out for service as usual, and
Milly brushed her grandfather’s well-worn beaver hat, settled his
necktie, and pulled down his coat, just as she had done for the
last eight years, and they went off to church together. Somehow
it seemed wonderful to Milly that anything should go on as it had
done last week, for every one in the village was felling the
strain of the anxiety caused by the prolonging of the terrible
situation of the entombed men.
Geo Lummis and Martin and two other men had been working all
night, and just as the “tolling in” began a relief gang arrived,
and the four tired men came trooping through the churchyard, as
being the shortest cut to their homes. Milly, with several other
people, stood aside to let them pass. They looked worn out and
weary, toil-stained and depressed. Nobody spoke, and they none of
them lifted their eyes as they passed; they were too dead beat
for greeting of any sort. Milly cast a glance at Geo. She was
beginning to take a very lively interest in that young man, for
Geo, seen through his weak but loving mother’s spectacles, was a
very different person from Geo seen through her grandfather’s
somewhat prejudiced glasses. Anyway, he was behaving well now,
and there was no need to look back.
The doctor, who accompanied them as far as the gate, now
returned, and affirmed the rumour that it had been satisfactorily
ascertained that _one_ of the unfortunate men, at least, was
alive–that shouts and knocking had been distinctly heard, but
that as yet no means of communication had been effected. This,
however, he hoped would be done in the course of an hour or two,
and he expected to have really good news for them when they came
out of church.
Nobody ever quite knew how that service was got through. Most
people tried their best to follow, but each one was conscious of
a divided attention. Every one was listening with at least one
ear for the shout that they knew would go up when the expected
communication was affected.
It came at last! The vicar had just gone up to the pulpit and
given out his text when though the open doors came the distant
shout “Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah-h-h!” Many among the congregation
started to their feet, some fell to their knees, and others
sobbed audibly. The vicar paused with uplifted hand to secure
silence till the shouts ceased, and then addressed the people.
“There will be no sermon this morning,” he said. “I think your
own thankful thoughts will be more appropriate than any words of
mine;” and after a short prayer of thanksgiving, he gave the
blessing and dismissed the congregation.
“Not, I beg and pray of you,” he said, “to rush off to the scene
of action, where your presence can be of no service to the
unfortunate men, and for the moment will only hinder the efforts
of their rescuers. Leave them a little while, is my advice, till
the excitement has cooled down, and then take your places quietly
beyond the barrier if you will; but I implore you to remember
that the men who are working at the relief want cool heads and
steady nerves, and they have come fresh to the work, and at
present want no encouraging shouts or chaff to keep them going,
as our brave fellows did last night when they hardly knew how to
The vicar’s advice was good, and, for example’s sake, he denied
himself the pleasure of hurrying off to the well, and many of his
congregation refrained also. It was then twelve o’clock, and by
three that afternoon the rescue gang reached the cylinder twenty
feet below the surface by tunnelling, only to discover, to their
intense dismay, that a mass of woodwork had fallen on to the
mouth of it, and that rescue that way was impossible. The
foreman, however, managed in a clever way to pull out a small
piece of loose wood, and calling down to the men below received
the welcome answer, “We are all right, but are in three feet of
water. Couldn’t you get us a drink?”
The foreman shouted up the message, and in a trice a dozen
willing messengers were running to the village, returning
speedily with jugs of such various liquors as their personal
tastes and means suggested. There were beer, porter, milk,
brandy, cocoa, cider; but the doctor, who had been on the scene
all morning with his improvised ambulance, insisted on milk and
beaten up eggs with brandy. The tidings, of course, soon spread,
not only over Willowton, but to all the neighbouring villages,
and the half-dozen policemen who were on duty had their work cut
out for them in keeping the crowd from coming inside the ropes.
As it was, every tree in the vicinity was thick with boys and
men, and every fence and bank that offered any point of vantage
was a mass of eager lookers-on.
Now it was that the most dangerous work was to begin. It was
decided to endeavour to reach the men by making a hole in the top
of the cylinder, and three men were lowered with ropes around
them, and instructed to remove the soil in pails. This they did
with the greatest care, so as to prevent any falling back–a
danger that was very likely to occur. At the end of an hour and a
half a slight slip occurred, and the entombed men called out that
the mould was coming down upon them.
“You’re goin’ to cover us up and ha’ done with us,” said Hayes,
with a feeble attempt at jocosity; “but give us a drink first.”
“Sartinly, sartinly, that we will,” said one of the men
encouragingly, and a few minutes later a bottle of the
“egg-flip,” with a covered light attached to it, was lowered
through the aperture, and the work began again.
It was nearly half-past seven when the men were again spoken to.
They seemed to be losing heart. They had knocked the light out,
they said, and they were wet through and wanted to come up.
“So you shall, my boys,” shouted the foreman, “as soon as we can
get you.” And with that they had to be content.