This is not easy, because when the mine is working visitors are a nuisance and are not encouraged, but if you go at any other time, it is possible to come away with a totally wrong impression. Once I halted in the street and counted the factory chimneys I could see; there were thirty-three of them, but there would have been far more if the air had not been obscured by smoke.
The time to go there is when the machines are roaring and the air is black with coal dust, and when you can actually see what the miners have to do. He had literary tastes, too, and carried one of Scott's novels on all his wanderings.
But their consumption of detective stories is terrific. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. The relief is overwhelming. Stamp-collectors are a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums.
Six tall Indian warders were guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Before I had been down a mine I had vaguely imagined the miner stepping out of the cage and getting to work on a ledge of coal a few yards away.
We began questioning the people as to where the elephant had gone and, as usual, failed to get any definite information.
They would come in and demand some rare and expensive book, would make us promise over and over again to keep it for them, and then would vanish never to return. But our principal sideline was a lending library—the usual 'twopenny no-deposit' library of five or six hundred volumes, all fiction.
It was idiotic, he said. We smoked furtively, hiding our cigarettes like schoolboys when we heard the Tramp Major's step, for smoking though connived at, was officially forbidden. No one could do their work who had not a young man's body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that, just a few pounds of extra flesh on the waist-line, and the constant bending would be impossible.
The crowd would laugh at me. I took my rifle, an old. That would never do. Well, that's all for this morning, thank God. But many of them, of course, were unmistakable paranoiacs. He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side.
Tramps hardly ever get away from these subjects; they talk, as it were, nothing but shop. It has a population of half a million and it contains fewer decent buildings than the average East Anglian village of five hundred. It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah.
Here was I, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. The friction of the great beast's foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.
Everything was so quiet and smelt so clean, it was hard to realize that only a few minutes ago we had been packed with that band of prisoners in a stench of drains and soft soap. The, boredom in that crowded, comfortless room was now unbearable.
He walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees. But if left to itself the air will take the shortest way round, leaving the deeper workings unventilated; so all the short cuts have to be partitioned off.
The cotton blankets were almost useless. One man, I recall, clung to the bars of hiss cage when we went to take him out. These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two. When the coal has been extracted to the depth to which the machine has cut, the coal face has advanced by five feet.
Fresh props are put in to hold up the newly exposed roof, and during the next shift the conveyor belt is taken to pieces, moved five feet forward and re-assembled. He gave me another long look. First edition snobs were much commoner than lovers of literature, but oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks were commoner still, and vague-minded women looking for birthday presents for their nephews were commonest of all.
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THE SPIKE. It was late-afternoon.
Forty-nine of us, forty-eight men and one woman, lay on the green waiting for the spike to open. We were too tired to talk much. Reviews, essays, books and the arts: the leading international weekly for literary culture. Port Manteaux churns out silly new words when you feed it an idea or two.
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