The Dancing Miners, by Olivia Arieti
Once upon a time, in a faraway village swept by the nastiest wind and the bleakest rain, lived an avid mine owner, Sir Ernest Darkmont, whose heart was as dark as his name. Ambitious and despotic, he married a woman who was very wealthy and of noble descent, qualities that pleased him more than any other virtue. After his wife’s death, the haughty fellow jealously secluded their twelve lovely daughters in his sumptuous mansion in order to avoid any contact with the local people. In particular, he wanted to keep them away from the lads, mainly brawny young miners or farmers that worked in his mine or on his fields. The dukes, barons, and -why not?- princes of the nearby counties were the only possible suitors for his girls.The sisters grew in beauty, but also in loneliness, for never could they go beyond the park’s imposing gates.
One morning, Rosalind, the eldest, overheard a maidservant talking to the other.
“Poor Hugh, he’s so frustrated for having to work in that horrid pit all those hours and with such a low wage.”
“Nothing more hazardous, indeed,” remarked the other angrily, and added, “My boy always returns as black as soot as if he had come from the devil’s abyss.”
The girl immediately reported the conversation to her sisters, and all began questioning the conduct of their potent father. As a matter of fact, Sir Ernest considered his coal black gold, and wanted to accumulate as much as possible, totally careless of the lives of the lads who worked in his mine with scarce ventilation and no lamps.
That same day, while taking a walk in the park with her sisters, Suzel, the second eldest, noticed the timeworn handle of a wooden trapdoor partly covered by moss. Among the general curiosity, she lifted it open, and all eyes converged on a very steep staircase.
“Wonder where it leads…” Judith, the third eldest cried. She was about to step down when Rosalind muttered, “Better go tonight, sisters, when everyone’s fast asleep.”
Once in bed, the girls waited for the entire house to be still, then they quickly dressed and in a silent line, hurried out. Rosalind pulled the little door open and one after the other, they descended the endless steps and found themselves in a narrow corridor that seemed to lead to the other part of the earth. At last, they reached a shattered wooden door that flung open on an even more shattered landing, and twelve rickety wagons appeared. Each girl entered one, and down they went as if sliding on magic tracks. Cries of fear and amusement pervaded the tunnel.
When the wagons finally stopped, twelve handsome miners thrusting their pickaxes in the walls of a dark and dusty cave stood before them. Seized with stupor and delight, they rushed over and helped the sisters out.
Surprisingly, the bleak walls began to glitter; the coal had turned into iridescent diamonds and the sooty dust into star dust. A sweet music filled the air, and the miners put away their heavy tools, took the girls’ hands and began to dance, their strong arms around Sir Ernest’s daughters’ delicate waists.
Youth and beauty were swirling in an endless dream until Isabel, the youngest, cried, “Oh my, we have to go back home, sisters, we can’t risk being caught.”
After making the girls promise they would return the following night, the boys helped them back into the wagons that quickly slid upwards. The sisters hurried through the dark corridor, up the steps, and faster than falling stars, they were in bed.
With unfamiliar emotions in their hearts and their partners’ images in the eyes, the girls happily fell asleep happily. As usual, they had left their shoes in front of the door without noticing that they were all sooty and worn out.
The sisters kept their promise; no night passed by without their visit to the miners, and no morning arrived without their dirty and worn out shoes outside the bedroom door.
The maidservant couldn’t avoid reporting the fact to the governess who reluctantly reported it to their father. The fellow grew very suspicious and ordered to the latter to sleep in his daughters’ room. That night, Dorothy, the fourth eldest, offered the old woman a goblet of mulled wine combined with soporific substances. No sooner she was fast asleep, the girls dressed and rushed out once again.
On seeing the shoes in the same condition, Sir Ernest, seized with anger, dismissed the governess on the spot and ordered Harry, his most trustful servant, to keep watch outside his daughters’ bedroom door. The fellow happened to be one of the miners’ fathers. Much to his surprise, he noticed that the lad was in higher spirits lately and went down the pit with an unfamiliar glee; neither a lament nor a sigh was uttered anymore despite the working hours had become longer.
As soon as he heard the girls’ muffled voices, Harry hid behind a nearby wardrobe. Once they were out, he followed them at a convenient distance, straight to the trapdoor and down the staircase. He reached the landing just after the last wagon had left. The poor man was desperate. Never would he be able to go down that horrid pit and see where the sisters had gone.
The air was unbreathable, and the stony walls tinged with all shades of black and grey, appeared as if about to crumble and crush him. Harry thought of the dangers his son and the other lads went through, of their sweaty faces and broken backs, and felt sorry for them.
Unexpectedly, another rickety wagon appeared and stopped before him. The servant, anxious to solve the mystery, hurriedly jumped in. No one can imagine Harry’s amazement when he saw Ernest Darkmont’s daughters clinging to the poor miners and twirling to the softest music he had ever heard.
By now, the girls had fallen deeply in love with their partners. They didn’t care if they weren’t the lords, barons or princes they were expected to marry, for the miners’ devotion and tenderness had no parallels to them. But however could they tell their father?
The same question struck the poor servant. His heart was both rejoicing and bleeding if ever such a combination may exist. His honesty, though, induced him to go back up, and face the arrogant master.
“Well, Harry, where did my daughters dance their shoes to pieces?” Sir Ernest asked.
“In your mine, Sir, with twelve valiant miners,” he replied.
“In my mine?” cried the stunned father.
Harry nodded and handed him a piece of his precious coal.
“That’s why their shoes were all sooty,” exclaimed Sir Ernest furiously.
Then he began cursing him and swore he would send away all the miners from the county and his daughters to their aunt’s who lived in a far country. The silly girls would remain there until they completely forgot the lowly suitors. Immediately afterwards, he rushed to their bedroom door where he himself would stand until their arrival.
Dawn was on its way when a sudden blast resounded in the little village; the mine’s alarm whistles immediately followed. With throbbing hearts and eyes full of tears, the villagers rushed out, all with a common hope and prayer.
Ernest Darkmont was there too. Grave and silent, he listened to the terrifying explosions. The thought that his daughters were there too made him shudder. Fear, grief and unfamiliar feelings of regret pervaded him. For the first time, he realized how insensitive and stingy he had been on not making the mine a safer place to work in.
The women’s reproachful gaze pierced his soul, the men’s muffled blames reached his heart. By now, everyone was holding his breath, and all eyes were fixed on the spot where the boys were expected to come up.
Nobody could know that when a cascade of coal, rocks and dust tumbled down, each miner tried to cover with his own body the terrified girls. To add to it, water started flooding furiously from the walls’ many cracks and was about to inundate the whole area.
As the sweethearts clung to each other in a final embrace, three wagons only came out of the darkness. With the strength of despair, the wounded boys thrust their beloved into them and watched them vanish away.
When the mine owner’s daughters reached the surface, the gowns smeared with blood and the sooty faces signed with grief, a mournful yet dismayed silence fell on all the bystanders. The girls hugged the mothers and silently walked by their father without uttering a word. Their disapproval and loss of love was his greatest punishment.
The twelve sisters didn’t marry any of their noble suitors, but, heart-broken, each moved in the family of their beloved and comforted the desolate parents.
It is said that at nighttime, a soft music fills the air right where the mine stood, and the brave miners can still be seen dancing with their sweethearts.
Olivia Arieti, a US citizen, with a degree from the University of Pisa, lives in Torre del Lago Puccini, Italy, with her family. Besides being a published playwright, she loves writing poems and short stories that have appeared in several magazines and anthologies in the USA and the UK.
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Tags: fairy tales, family, Olivia Arieti, romance