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Chapter 24

Hal stood for a few moments in thought. He was surprised that such things should be happening while Percy Harrigan's train was in the village. He was considering whether he should go to Percy, or whether a hint to Cotton or Cartwright would not be sufficient.

"Mary," he said, in a quiet voice, "you needn't distress yourself so. We can get better treatment for the women, I'm sure."

But her sobbing went on. "What can ye do? They're bound to have their way!"

"No," said Hal. "There's a difference now. Believe me--something can be done. I'll step over and have a word with Jeff Cotton."

He started towards the door; but there came a cry: "Hal!" It was Jessie, whom he had almost forgotten in his sudden anger at the bosses.

At her protest he turned and looked at her; then he looked at Mary. He saw the latter's hands fall from her tear-stained face, and her expression of grief give way to one of wonder. "Hal!"

"Excuse me," he said, quickly. "Miss Burke, this is my friend, Miss Arthur." Then, not quite sure if this was a satisfactory introduction, he added, "Jessie, this is my friend, Mary."

Jessie's training could not fail in any emergency. "Miss Burke," she said, and smiled with perfect politeness. But Mary said nothing, and the strained look did not leave her face.

In the first excitement she had almost failed to notice this stranger; but now she stared, and realisation grew upon her. Here was a girl, beautiful with a kind of beauty hardly to be conceived of in a mining-camp; reserved, yet obviously expensive--even in a mackintosh and rubber-shoes. Mary was used to the expensiveness of Mrs. O'Callahan, but here was a new kind of expensiveness, subtle and compelling, strangely unconscious. And she laid claim to Joe Smith, the miner's buddy! She called him by a name hitherto unknown to his North Valley associates! It needed no word from Little Jerry to guide Mary's instinct; she knew in a flash that here was the "other girl."

Mary was seized with sudden acute consciousness of the blue calico dress, patched at the shoulder and stained with grease-spots; of her hands, big and rough with hard labour; of her feet, clad in shoes worn sideways at the heel, and threatening to break out at the toes. And as for Jessie, she too had the woman's instinct; she too saw a girl who was beautiful, with a kind of beauty of which she did not approve, but which she could not deny--the beauty of robust health, of abounding animal energy. Jessie was not unaware of the nature of her own charms, having been carefully educated to conserve them; nor did she fail to make note of the other girl's handicaps--the patched and greasy dress, the big rough hands, the shoes worn sideways. But even so, she realised that "Red Mary" had a quality which she lacked--that beside this wild rose of a mining-camp, she, Jessie Arthur, might possibly seem a garden flower, fragile and insipid.

She had seen Hal lay his hand upon Mary's arm, and heard her speak to him. She called him Joe! And a sudden fear had leaped into Jessie's heart.

Like many girls who have been delicately reared, Jessie Arthur knew more than she admitted, even to herself. She knew enough to realise that young men with ample means and leisure are not always saints and ascetics. Also, she had heard the remark many times made that these women of the lower orders had "no morals." Just what did such a remark mean? What would be the attitude of such a girl as Mary Burke--full-blooded and intense, dissatisfied with her lot in life--to a man of culture and charm like Hal? She would covet him, of course; no woman who knew him could fail to covet him. And she would try to steal him away from his friends, from the world to which he belonged, the future of happiness and ease to which he was entitled. She would have powers--dark and terrible powers, all the more appalling to Jessie because they were mysterious. Might they possibly be able to overcome even the handicap of a dirty calico dress, of big rough hands and shoes worn sideways?

These reflections, which have taken many words to explain, came to Jessie in one flash of intuition. She understood now, all at once, the incomprehensible phenomenon--that Hal should leave friends and home and career, to come and live amid this squalor and suffering! She saw the old drama of the soul of man, heaven and hell contending for mastery of it; and she knew that she was heaven, and that this "Red Mary" was hell.

She looked at Hal. He seemed to her so fine and true; his face was frank, he was the soul of honourableness. No, it was impossible to believe that he had yielded to such a lure! If that had been the case, he would never have brought her to this cabin, he would never have taken a chance of her meeting the girl. No; but he might be struggling against temptation, he might be in the toils of it, and only half aware of it. He was a man, and therefore blind; he was a dreamer, and it would be like him to idealise this girl, calling her na´ve and primitive, thinking that she had no wiles! Jessie had come just in time to save him! And she would fight to save him--using wiles more subtle than those at the command of any mining-camp hussy!

Upton Sinclair