They walked into the shed which covered the opening of the Yarrow shaft, whence ladders still gave access to the lower galleries of the pit. The engineer bent over the opening. Formerly from this place could be heard the powerful whistle of the air inhaled by the ventilators. It was now a silent abyss. It was like being at the mouth of some extinct volcano.
When the mine was being worked, ingenious machines were used in certain shafts of the Aberfoyle colliery, which in this respect was very well off; frames furnished with automatic lifts, working in wooden slides, oscillating ladders, called "man-engines," which, by a simple movement, permitted the miners to descend without danger.
But all these appliances had been carried away, after the cessation of the works. In the Yarrow shaft there remained only a long succession of ladders, separated at every fifty feet by narrow landings. Thirty of these ladders placed thus end to end led the visitor down into the lower gallery, a depth of fifteen hundred feet. This was the only way of communication which existed between the bottom of the Dochart pit and the open air. As to air, that came in by the Yarrow shaft, from whence galleries communicated with another shaft whose orifice opened at a higher level; the warm air naturally escaped by this species of inverted siphon.
"I will follow you, my lad," said the engineer, signing to the young man to precede him.
"As you please, Mr. Starr."
"Have you your lamp?"
"Yes, and I only wish it was still the safety lamp, which we formerly had to use!"
"Sure enough," returned James Starr, "there is no fear of fire-damp explosions now!"
Harry was provided with a simple oil lamp, the wick of which he lighted. In the mine, now empty of coal, escapes of light carburetted hydrogen could not occur. As no explosion need be feared, there was no necessity for interposing between the flame and the surrounding air that metallic screen which prevents the gas from catching fire. The Davy lamp was of no use here. But if the danger did not exist, it was because the cause of it had disappeared, and with this cause, the combustible in which formerly consisted the riches of the Dochart pit.
Harry descended the first steps of the upper ladder. Starr followed. They soon found themselves in a profound obscurity, which was only relieved by the glimmer of the lamp. The young man held it above his head, the better to light his companion. A dozen ladders were descended by the engineer and his guide, with the measured step habitual to the miner. They were all still in good condition.
James Starr examined, as well as the insufficient light would permit, the sides of the dark shaft, which were covered by a partly rotten lining of wood.
Arrived at the fifteenth landing, that is to say, half way down, they halted for a few minutes.
"Decidedly, I have not your legs, my lad," said the engineer, panting.
"You are very stout, Mr. Starr," replied Harry, "and it's something too, you see, to live all one's life in the mine."
"Right, Harry. Formerly, when I was twenty, I could have gone down all at a breath. Come, forward!"
But just as the two were about to leave the platform, a voice, as yet far distant, was heard in the depths of the shaft. It came up like a sonorous billow, swelling as it advanced, and becoming more and more distinct.
"Halloo! who comes here?" asked the engineer, stopping Harry.
"I cannot say," answered the young miner.
"Is it not your father?"
"My father, Mr. Starr? no."
"Some neighbor, then?"
"We have no neighbors in the bottom of the pit," replied Harry. "We are alone, quite alone."
"Well, we must let this intruder pass," said James Starr. "Those who are descending must yield the path to those who are ascending."
They waited. The voice broke out again with a magnificent burst, as if it had been carried through a vast speaking trumpet; and soon a few words of a Scotch song came clearly to the ears of the young miner.
"The Hundred Pipers!" cried Harry.