Robert, thereupon, sat down in silence at the table, though there were a hundred different things he wanted to ask about the pit. He could not understand why everyone felt and looked so sleepy, nor divine the cause of the irritable look upon each face, which in the dim light of the paraffin lamp gave a forbidding atmosphere to the home at this time of the day.
At last, however, the meal was over, and when Geordie had lit his pit lamp and stuck his pipe in his mouth, all three started off with a curt “Good morning” to Mrs. Sinclair, who looked after her boys with a smile which chased away the previous irritability from her face.
Arrived at the pit-head, they found a number of miners there squatting on their “hunkers,” waiting the time for descending the shaft. As each newcomer came forward, the man who arrived immediately before him called out: “I’m last.” By this means—“crying the benns,”—as it was called—the order of descent was regulated on the principle of “First come, first served.” Much chaffing was leveled at little Robert by some of the younger men regarding his work and the things which would have to be done by and to him that day.
At last came the all important moment, and Robert, his father and two men stepped on to the cage. After the signal was given, it seemed to the boy as if heaven and earth were passing away in the sudden sheer drop, as the cage plunged down into the yawning hole, out of which came evil smells and shadows cast from the flickering lamps upon the heads of the miners. The rattling of the cage sent a shiver of fear through Robert, and with that first sudden plunge he felt as if his heart were going to leap out of his mouth. But by the time he reached the “bottom,” he had consoled and encouraged himself with the thought that these things were all in the first day’s experience of all miners.
That morning Robert Sinclair was initiated into the art of “drawing” by his brother John. The road was fairly level, to push the loaded “tubs,” thus leaving his father to be helped with the pick at the coal “face.” After an hour or two, Robert, though getting fairly well acquainted with the work, was feeling tired. The strange damp smell, which had greeted his nostrils when the cage began to descend with him that morning, was still strong, though not so overpowering as it had been at first. The subtle shifting shadows cast from his little lamp were becoming familiar, and his nervousness was not now so pronounced, though he was still easily startled if anything unusual took place. The sound of the first shot in the pit nearly frightened him out of his wits, and he listened nervously to every dull report with a strange uneasiness. About one o’clock his father called to him.
“Dinna tak’ that hutch oot the noo, Robert. Just let it staun’, an’ sit doon an’ tak’ yir piece. Ye’ll be hungry, an’ John an’ me will be out the noo if we had this shot stemmed.”