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Chapter 24

The time came for Mary to take her departure, and Hal got up, wincing with pain, to escort her home. She regarded him gravely, having not realised before how seriously he was suffering. As they walked along she asked, "Why do ye do such work, when ye don't have to?"

"But I _do_ have to! I have to earn a living!"

"Ye don't have to earn it that way! A bright young fellow like you--an American!"

"Well," said Hal, "I thought it would be interesting to see coal mining."

"Now ye've seen it," said the girl--"now quit!"

"But it won't do me any harm to go on for a while!"

"Won't it? How can ye know? When any day they may carry you out on a plank!"

Her "company manner" was gone; her voice was full of bitterness, as it always was when she spoke of North Valley. "I know what I'm tellin' ye, Joe Smith. Didn't I lose two brothers in it--as fine lads as ye'd find anywhere in the world! And many another lad I've seen go in laughin', and come out a corpse--or what is worse, for workin' people, a cripple. Sometimes I'd like to go and stand at the pit-mouth in the mornin' and cry to them, 'Go back, go back! Go down the canyon this day! Starve, if ye have to, beg if ye have to, only find some other work but coal-minin'!'"

Her voice had risen to a passion of protest; when she went on a new note came into it--a note of personal terror. "It's worse now--since you came, Joe! To see ye settin' out on the life of a miner--you, that are young and strong and different. Oh, go away, Joe, go away while ye can!"

He was astonished at her intensity. "Don't worry about me, Mary," he said. "Nothing will happen to me. I'll go away after a while."

The path was irregular, and he had been holding her arm as they walked. He felt her trembling, and went on again, quickly, "It's not I that should go away, Mary. It's yourself. You hate the place--it's terrible for you to have to live here. Have you never thought of going away?"

She did not answer at once, and when she did the excitement was gone from her voice; it was flat and dull with despair. "'Tis no use to think of me. There's nothin' I can do--there's nothin' any girl can do when she's poor. I've tried--but 'tis like bein' up against a stone wall. I can't even save the money to get on a train with! I've tried it--I been savin' for two years--and how much d'ye think I got, Joe? Seven dollars! Seven dollars in two years! No--ye can't save money in a place where there's so many things that wring the heart. Ye may hate them for being cowards--but ye must help when ye see a man killed, and his family turned out without a roof to cover them in the winter-time!"

"You're too tender-hearted, Mary."

"No, 'tis not that! Should I go off and leave me own brother and sister, that need me?"

"But you could earn money and send it to them."

"I earn a little here--I do cleanin' and nursin' for some that need me."

"But outside--couldn't you earn more?"

"I could get a job in a restaurant for seven or eight a week, but I'd have to spend more, and what I sent home would not go so far, with me away. Or I could get a job in some other woman's home, and work fourteen hours a day for it. But, Joe, 'tis not more drudgery I want, 'tis somethin' fair to look upon--somethin' of my own!" She flung out her arms suddenly like one being stifled. "Oh, I want somethin' that's fair and clean!"

Again he felt her trembling. Again the path was rough, and having an impulse of sympathy, he put his arm about her. In the world of leisure, one might indulge in such considerateness, and he assumed it would not he different with a miner's daughter. But then, when she was close to him, he felt, rather than heard, a sob.

"Mary!" he whispered; and they stopped. Almost without realising it, he put his other arm about her, and in a moment more he felt her warm breath on his cheek, and she was trembling and shaking in his embrace. "Joe! Joe!" she whispered. "_You_ take me away!"

She was a rose in a mining-camp, and Hal was deeply moved. The primrose path of dalliance stretched fair before him, here in the soft summer night, with a moon overhead which bore the same message as it bore in the Italian gardens of the leisure-class. But not many minutes passed before a cold fear began to steal over Hal. There was a girl at home, waiting for him; and also there was the resolve which had been growing in him since his coming to this place--a resolve to find some way of compensation to the poor, to repay them for the freedom and culture he had taken; not to prey upon them, upon any individual among them. There were the Jeff Cottons for that!

"Mary," he pleaded, "we mustn't do this."

"Why not?"

"Because--I'm not free. There is some one else."

He felt her start, but she did not draw away.

"Where?" she asked, in a low voice.

"At home, waiting for me."

"And why didn't ye tell me?"

"I don't know."

Hal realised in a moment that the girl had ground of complaint against him. According to the simple code of her world, he had gone some distance with her; he had been seen to walk out with her, he had been accounted her "fellow." He had led her to talk to him of herself--he had insisted upon having her confidences. And these people who were poor did not have subtleties, there was no room in their lives for intellectual curiosities, for Platonic friendships or philanderings. "Forgive me, Mary!" he said.

She made no answer; but a sob escaped her, and she drew back from his arms--slowly. He struggled with an impulse to clasp her again. She was beautiful, warm with life--and so much in need of happiness!

But he held himself in check, and for a minute or two they stood apart. Then he asked, humbly, "We can still be friends, Mary, can't we? You must know--I'm so _sorry_!"

But she could not endure being pitied. "'Tis nothin'," she said. "Only I thought I was going to get away! That's what ye mean to me."

Upton Sinclair