From the time that Tom was old enough to handle pick and shovel, he had worked in the tin mines. And very lucky he was, always finding rich lodes of tin, or stumbling on heaps of Cornish diamonds that some unknown hands had piled up to carry off.
One night Tom was working hard in an old mine - a very ancient mine indeed - when he heard sounds like those, of tiny shovels and picks.
"It is the Knockers!" said Tom to himself, and he listened quietly. Then he heard, as if only two or three yards away, little miners doing all sorts of underground work. Some were wheeling barrows, others were shovelling; and he could distinguish even the sounds of boring, swabbing the holes, and blasting.
The noises came nearer and nearer, and Tom heard distinctly many squeaky voices all talking at once, and strange cackling laughter. He grew quite savage listening to all this clatter, and to the squeaking and tee-hee-ing; and being a rash fellow, he struck the wall before him violently with his pick, and threw a handful of stones in the direction where the Knockers seemed to be working.
"Scat!" he shouted, "or I'll beat your brains out, I will, if you don't leave here!" The words were scarcely out of his mouth, when a shower of stones fell all around him, and on him, and frightened him nearly out of his senses.
Still he was resolved to work there until morning and so he kept on using his pick for about an hour. Then, as his candle was burned out, he stopped, lit another, and sat down to eat his breakfast.
He had almost finished his bread and cheese, when he heard many little squeaking voices, some far away, and others close to him, crying out: "Tom! Tom! Leave us a bite of your breakfast, or bad luck to you, to-morrow, Tom!" At first he could not make out the words, only his own name, then the cries sounded very plain, and he was angry. "Leave the little rogues a bite of my good breakfast!" thought he, "not a crumb of it do they get!" And with that he ate the last morsel.
Then he heard the little voices squeaking louder than before: "Tom! Tom! We'll send you bad luck tomorrow, Tom! you greedy creature not to leave a single crumb for the Knockers!" And they kept on squeaking, and tee-heeing in a mocking way; but getting farther and farther in the distance until they were quite gone.
Then Tom felt tired and drowsy, and lay down on the floor to sleep awhile.
When he waked, the place was very still. He rubbed his eyes, and saw a score of Knockers leaning on their tools, and standing in a circle around him. They were little, withered old men, with legs like drum-sticks, and arms longer and thinner than their legs. They kept nodding their great ugly heads, squinting their horrid eyes, wriggling their hooked noses, and grinning from ear to ear.
Tom lay there trembling and frightened almost to death. Then the oldest and ugliest of the Knockers came close to him, and stooping, made the most horrid grimaces in Tom's face; while all the others lolled out their tongues, and rolled themselves into balls, and grinned at him from between their spindle-legs.
Then Tom saw that his candle was sputtering and just going out, and he sprang to his feet to light another. As he did so, all the httle men vanished. They seemed to melt away one into the other like puffs of smoke.
Feeling very stiff and tired, Tom mounted the ladders, and left the mine. When he told the old tinners what he had seen, they were not surprised, for it was well known among them that the mine Tom had been working in was the abode of troops of Knockers. But the tinners, one and all, blamed Tom for speaking to the little men in an unfriendly way, and for not leaving them a bite of his breakfast.
From that time on, all Tom's luck was gone.
The mines closed down, and his money went, and he was hurt by a fall. And though he tried hard to find the Knockers again, so that he might feed them well, he never saw one, nor even heard the sounds of their picks and shovels in the mine.