There followed a night and then another day of torturing suspense. The fan came, but it had to be set up before anything could be done. As volumes of black smoke continued to pour from the shaft, the opening was made tight with a board and canvas cover; it was necessary, the bosses said, but to Hal it seemed the climax of horror. To seal up men and boys in a place of deadly gases!
There was something peculiarly torturing in the idea of men caught in a mine; they were directly under one's feet, yet it was impossible to get to them, to communicate with them in any way! The people on top yearned to them, and they, down below, yearned back. It was impossible to forget them for even a few minutes. People would become abstracted while they talked, and would stand staring into space; suddenly, in the midst of a crowd, a woman would bury her face in her hands and burst into tears, and then all the others would follow suit.
Few people slept in North Valley during those two nights. They held mourning parties in their homes or on the streets. Some house-work had to be done, of course, but no one did anything that could be left undone. The children would not play; they stood about, silent, pale, like wizened-up grown people, over-mature in knowledge of trouble. The nerves of every one were on edge, the self-control of every one balanced upon a fine point.
It was a situation bound to be fruitful in imaginings and rumours, stimulated to those inclined to signs and omens--the seers of ghosts, or those who went into trances, or possessed second sight or other mysterious gifts. There were some living in a remote part of the village who declared they had heard explosions under the ground, several blasts in quick succession. The men underground were setting off dynamite by way of signalling!
In the course of the second day Hal sat with Mary Burke upon the steps of her home. Old Patrick lay within, having found the secret of oblivion at O'Callahan's. Now and then came the moaning of Mrs. Zamboni, who was in her cabin with her brood of children. Mary had been in to feed them, because the distracted mother let them starve and cry. Mary was worn out, herself; the wonderful Irish complexion had faded, and there were no curves to the vivid lips. They had been sitting in silence, for there was nothing to talk of but the disaster--and they had said all there was to say about that. But Hal had been thinking while he watched Mary.
"Listen, Mary," he said, at last; "when this thing is over, you must really come away from here. I've thought it all out--I have friends in Western City who will give you work, so you can take care of yourself, and of your brother and sister too. Will you go?"
But she did not answer. She continued to gaze indifferently into the dirty little street.
"Truly, Mary," he went on. "Life isn't so terrible everywhere as it is here. Come away! Hard as it is to believe, you'll forget all this. People suffer, but then they stop suffering; it's nature's way--to make them forget."
"Nature's way has been to beat me dead," said she.
"Yes, Mary. Despair can become a disease, but it hasn't with you. You're just tired out. If you'll try to rouse yourself--" And he reached over and caught her hand with an attempt at playfulness. "Cheer up, Mary! You're coming away from North Valley."
She turned and looked at him. "Am I?" she asked, impassively; and she went on studying his face. "Who are ye, Joe Smith? What are ye doin' here?"
"Working in a coal-mine," he laughed, still trying to divert her.
But she went on, as gravely as before. "Ye're no working man, that I know. And ye're always offering me help! Ye're always sayin' what ye can do for me!" She paused and there came some of the old defiance into her face. "Joe, ye can have no idea of the feelin's that have got hold of me just now. I'm ready to do something desperate; ye'd best be leavin' me alone, Joe!"
"I think I understand, Mary. I would hardly blame you for anything you did."
She took up his words eagerly. "Wouldn't ye, Joe? Ye're sure? Then what I want is to get the truth from ye. I want ye to talk it out fair!"
"All right, Mary. What is it?"
But her defiance had vanished suddenly. Her eyes dropped, and he saw her fingers picking nervously at a fold of her dress. "About us, Joe," she said. "I've thought sometimes ye cared for me. I've thought ye liked to be with me--not just because ye were sorry for me, but because of _me_. I've not been sure, but I can't help thinkin' it's so. Is it?"
"Yes, it is," he said, a little uncertainly. "I _do_ care for you."
"Then is it that ye don't care for that other girl all the time?"
"No," he said, "it's not that."
"Ye can care for two girls at the same time?"
He did not know what to say. "It would seem that I can, Mary."
She raised her eyes again and studied his face. "Ye told me about that other girl, and I been wonderin', was it only to put me off? Maybe it's me own fault, but I can't make meself believe in that other girl, Joe!"
"You're mistaken, Mary," he answered, quickly. "What I told you was true."
"Well, maybe so," she said, but there was no conviction in her tone. "Ye come away from her, and ye never go where she is or see her--it's hard to believe ye'd do that way if ye were very close to her. I just don't think ye love her as much as ye might. And ye say you do care some for me. So I've thought--I've wondered--"
She stopped, forcing herself to meet his gaze: "I been tryin' to work it out! I know ye're too good a man for me, Joe. Ye come from a better place in life, ye've a right to expect more in a woman--"
"It's not that, Mary!"
But she cut him short. "I know that's true! Ye're only tryin' to save my feelin's. I know ye're better than me! I've tried hard to hold me head up, I've tried a long time not to let meself go to pieces. I've even tried to keep cheerful, telling meself I'd not want to be like Mrs. Zamboni, forever complainin'. But 'tis no use tellin' yourself lies! I been up to the church, and heard the Reverend Spragg tell the people that the rich and poor are the same in the sight of the Lord. And maybe 'tis so, but I'm not the Lord, and I'll never pretend I'm not ashamed to be livin' in a place like this."
"I'm sure the Lord has no interest in keeping you here--" he began.
But she broke in, "What makes it so hard to bear is knowin' there's so many wonderful things in the world, and ye can never have them! 'Tis as if ye had to see them through a pane of glass, like in the window of a store. Just think, Joe Smith--once, in a church in Sheridan, I heard a lady sing beautiful music; once in my whole lifetime! Can ye guess what it meant to me?"
"Yes, Mary, I can."
"But I had that all out with meself--years ago. I knew the price a workin' girl has to pay for such things, and I said, I'll not let meself think about them. I've hated this place, I've wanted to get away--but there's only one way to go, to let some man take ye! So I've stayed; I've kept straight, Joe. I want ye to believe that."
"Of course, Mary!"
"No! It's not been 'of course'! It means ye have to fight with temptations. It's many a time I've looked at Jeff Cotton, and thought about the things I need! And I've done without! But now comes the thing a woman wants more than all the other things in the world!"
She paused, but only for a moment. "They tell ye to love a man of your own class. Me old mother said that to me, before she died. But suppose ye didn't happen to? Suppose ye'd stopped and thought what it meant, havin' one baby after another, till ye're worn out and drop--like me old mother did? Suppose ye knew good manners when ye see them--ye knew interestin' talk when ye heard it!" She clasped her hands suddenly before her, exclaiming, "Ah, 'tis something different ye are, Joe--so different from anything around here! The way ye talk, the way ye move, the gay look in your eyes! No miner ever had that happy look, Joe; me heart stops beatin' almost when ye look at me!" She stopped with a sharp catching of her breath, and he saw that she was struggling for self-control. After a moment she exclaimed, defiantly: "But they'd tell ye, be careful, ye daren't love that kind of man; ye'd only have your heart broken!"
There was silence. For this problem the amateur sociologist had no solution at hand--whether for the abstract question, or for its concrete application!
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