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Chapter 19

After allowing a sufficient time for the party in the dining-car to finish breakfast, Hal went down to the tracks, and induced the porter to take in his name to Percy Harrigan. He was hoping to persuade Percy to see the village under other than company chaperonage; he heard with dismay the announcement that the party had arranged to depart in the course of a couple of hours.

"But you haven't seen anything at all!" Hal protested.

"They won't let us into the mine," replied the other. "What else is there we can do?"

"I wanted you to talk to the people and learn something about conditions here. You ought not to lose this chance, Percy!"

"That's all right, Hal, but you might understand this isn't a convenient time. I've got a lot of people with me, and I've no right to ask them to wait."

"But can't they learn something also, Percy?"

"It's raining," was the reply; "and ladies would hardly care to stand round in a crowd and see dead bodies brought out of a mine."

Hal got the rebuke. Yes, he had grown callous since coming to North Valley; he had lost that delicacy of feeling, that intuitive understanding of the sentiments of ladies, which he would surely have exhibited a short time earlier in his life. He was excited about this disaster; it was a personal thing to him, and he lost sight of the fact that to the ladies of the Harrigan party it was, in its details, merely sordid and repelling. If they went out in the mud and rain of a mining-village and stood about staring, they would feel that they were exhibiting, not human compassion, but idle curiosity. The sights they would see would harrow them to no purpose; and incidentally they would be exposing themselves to distressing publicity. As for offering sympathy to widows and orphans--well, these were foreigners mostly, who could not understand what was said to them, and who might be more embarrassed than helped by the intrusion into their grief of persons from an alien world.

The business of offering sympathy had been reduced to a system by the civilisation which these ladies helped to maintain; and, as it happened, there was one present who was familiar with this system. Mrs. Curtis had already acted, so Percy informed Hal; she had passed about a subscription-paper, and in a couple of minutes over a thousand dollars had been pledged. This would be paid by check to the "Red Cross," whose agents would understand how to distribute relief among such sufferers. So the members of Percy's party felt that they had done the proper and delicate thing, and might go their ways with a quiet conscience.

"The world can't stop moving just because there's been a mine-disaster," said the Coal King's son. "People have engagements they must keep."

And he went on to explain what these engagements were. He himself had to go to a dinner that evening, and would barely be able to make it. Bert Atkins was to play a challenge match at billiards, and Mrs. Curtis was to attend a committee meeting of a woman's club. Also it was the last Friday of the month; had Hal forgotten what that meant?

After a moment Hal remembered--the "Young People's Night" at the country club! He had a sudden vision of the white colonial mansion on the mountain-side, with its doors and windows thrown wide, and the strains of an orchestra floating out. In the ball-room the young ladies of Percy's party would appear--Jessie, his sweetheart, among them--gowned in filmy chiffons and laces, floating in a mist of perfume and colour and music. They would laugh and chatter, they would flirt and scheme against one another for the sovereignty of the ball-room--while here in North Valley the sobbing widows would be clutching their mangled dead in their arms! How strange, how ghastly it seemed! How like the scenes one read of on the eve of the French Revolution!

Upton Sinclair