It chanced before many days that Hal got a holiday, relieving the monotony of his labours as stableman: an accidental holiday, not provided for in his bargain with the pit-boss. Something went wrong with the ventilating-course in Number Two, and he began to notice a headache, and heard the men grumbling that their lamps were burning low. Then, as matters began to get serious, orders came to get the mules to the surface.
Which meant an amusing adventure. The delight of Hal's pets at seeing the sunlight was irresistibly comic. They could not be kept from lying down and rolling on their backs in the cinder-strewn street; and when they were corralled in a distant part of the camp where actual grass grew, they abandoned themselves to rapture like a horde of school children at a picnic.
So Hal had a few free hours; and being still young and not cured of idle curiosities, he climbed the canyon wall to see the mountains. As he was sliding down again, toward evening, a vivid spot of colour was painted into his picture of mine-life; he found himself in somebody's back yard, and being observed by somebody's daughter, who was taking in the family wash. It was a splendid figure of a lass, tall and vigorous, with the sort of hair that in polite circles is called auburn, and that flaming colour in the cheeks which is Nature's recompense to people who live where it rains all the time. She was the first beautiful sight Hal had seen since he had come up the canyon, and it was only natural that he should be interested. It seemed to him that, so long as the girl stared, he had a right to stare back. It did not occur to him that he too was a pleasing sight--that the mountain air had given colour to his cheeks and a shine to his gay brown eyes, while the mountain winds had blown his wavy brown hair.
"Hello," said she, at last, in a warm voice, unmistakably Irish.
"Hello yourself," said Hal, in the accepted dialect; then he added, with more elegance, "Pardon me for trespassing on your wash."
Her grey eyes opened wider. "Go on!" she said.
"I'd rather stay," said Hal. "It's a beautiful sunset."
"I'll move, so ye can see it better." She carried her armful of clothes over and dropped them into the basket.
"No," said Hal, "it's not so fine now. The colours have faded."
She turned and gazed at him again. "Go on wid ye! I been teased about my hair since before I could talk."
"'Tis envy," said Hal, dropping into her way of speech; and he came a few steps nearer, so that he could inspect the hair more closely. It lay above her brow in undulations which were agreeable to the decorative instinct, and a tight heavy braid of it fell over her shoulders and swung to her waist-line. He observed the shoulders, which were sturdy, obviously accustomed to hard labour; not conforming to accepted romantic standards of femininity, yet having an athletic grace of their own. They were covered with a faded blue calico dress, unfortunately not entirely clean; also, the young man noticed, there was a rent in one shoulder through which a patch of skin was visible. The girl's eyes, which had been following his, became defiant; she tossed a piece of her washing over the shoulder, where it stayed through the balance of the interview.
"Who are ye?" she demanded, suddenly.
"My name's Joe Smith. I'm a stableman in Number Two."
"And what were ye doin' up there, if a body might ask?" She lifted her grey eyes to the bare mountainside, down which he had come sliding in a shower of loose stones and dirt.
"I've been surveying my empire," said he.
"My empire. The land belongs to the company, but the landscape belongs to him who cares for it."
She tossed her head a little. "Where did ye learn to talk like ye do?"
"In another life," said he--"before I became a stableman. Not in entire forgetfulness, but trailing clouds of glory did I come."
For a moment she wrestled with this. Then a smile broke upon her face. "Sure, 'tis like a poetry-book! Say some more!"
"_O, singe fort, so suess und fein_!" quoted Hal--and saw her look puzzled.
"Aren't you American?" she inquired; and he laughed. To speak a foreign language in North Valley was not a mark of culture!
"I've been listening to the crowd at Reminitsky's," he said, apologetically.
"Oh! You eat there?"
"I go there three times a day. I can't say I eat very much. Could you live on greasy beans?"
"Sure," laughed the girl, "the good old pertaties is good enough for me."
"I should have said you lived on rose leaves!" he observed.
"Go on wid ye! 'Tis the blarney-stone ye been kissin'!"
"'Tis no stone I'd be wastin' my kisses on."
"Ye're gettin' bold, Mister Smith. I'll not listen to ye." And she turned away, and began industriously taking her clothes from the line. But Hal did not want to be dismissed. He came a step closer.
"Coming down the mountain-side," he said, "I found something wonderful. It's bare and grim up there, but I came on a sheltered corner where the sun shone, and there was a wild rose. Only one! I thought to myself, 'So roses grow, even in the loneliest parts of the world!'"
"Sure, 'tis a poetry-book again!" she cried. "Why didn't ye bring the rose?"
"There is a poetry-book that tells us to 'leave the wild-rose on its stalk.' It will go on blooming there; but if one were to pluck it, it would wither in a few hours."
He had meant nothing more by this than to keep the conversation going. But her answer turned the tide of their acquaintance.
"Ye can never be sure, lad. Perhaps to-night a storm may come and blow it to pieces. Perhaps if ye'd pulled it and been happy, 'twould 'a been what the rose was for."
Whatever of unconscious patronage there had been in the poet's attitude was lost now in the eternal mystery. Whether the girl knew it--or cared--she had won the woman's first victory. She had caught the man's mind and pinned it with curiosity. What did this wild rose of the mining camps mean?
The wild rose, apparently unconscious that she had said anything epoch-making, was busy with the wash; and meantime Hal Warner studied her features and pondered her words. From a lady of sophistication they would have meant only one thing, an invitation; but in this girl's clear grey eyes was nothing of wantonness, only pain. But what was this pain in the face and words of one so young, so eager and alive? Was it the melancholy of her race, the thing one got in old folk-songs? Or was it a new and special kind of melancholy, engendered in mining-camps in the far West of America?
The girl's countenance was as intriguing as her words. Her grey eyes were set under sharply defined dark brows, which did not match her hair. Her lips also were sharply defined, and straight, almost without curves, so that it seemed as if her mouth had been painted in carmine upon her face. These features gave her, when she stared at you, an aspect vivid and startling, bold, with a touch of defiance. But when she smiled, the red lips would curve into gentler lines, and the grey eyes would become wistful, and seemingly darker in colour. Winsome indeed, but not simple, was this Irish lass!
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