"Tha'rt late again, Joan," she said.
"Ay," Joan answered, "I'm late."
She laid her things aside and came to the firelight. The little one always won her first attention when she came from her day's labor.
"Has she been frettin'?" she asked.
"Ay," said Liz, "she's done nowt else but fret lately. I dunnot know what ails her."
She was in Joan's arms by this time, and Joan stood looking at the puny face.
"She is na well," she said in a low voice. "She has pain as we know nowt on, poor little lass. We conna help her, or bear it fur her. We would if we could, little un,"—as if she forgot Liz's presence.
"Joan," Liz faltered, "what if yo' were to lose her?"
"I hope I shanna. I hope I shanna."
"Yo' could na bear it?"
"Theer is na mich as we conna bear."
"That's true enow," said Liz. "I wish foak could dee o' trouble."
"Theer's more nor yo' has wished th' same," Joan answered.
She thought afterward of the girl's words and remembered how she looked when she uttered them,—her piteous eyes resting on the embers, her weak little mouth quivering, her small hands at work,—but when she heard them, she only recognized in them a new touch of the old petulance to which she had become used.
Joan went about her usual tasks, holding the baby in her arms. She prepared the evening meal with Liz's assistance and they sat down to eat it together. But Liz had little appetite. In-deed neither of them ate much and both were more than usually silent. A shadow of reserve had lately fallen between them.
After the meal was ended they drew their seats to the hearth again, and Liz went back to her brooding over the fire. Joan, lulling the child, sat and watched her. All Liz's beauty had returned to her. Her soft, rough hair was twisted into a curly knot upon her small head, her pretty, babyish face was at its best of bloom and expression—that absent, subdued look was becoming to her.
"Theer's honest men as mought ha' loved her," said Joan, inwardly. "Theer's honest men as would ha' made her life happy."
It was just as she was thinking this that Liz turned round to her.
"If she lived to be a woman," with a gesture toward the child; "if she lived to be a woman, do yo' think as sh'd remember me if—if owt should happen to me now?"
"I conna tell," Joan answered, "but I'd try to mak' her."
"Would yo'?" and then she dropped her face upon her hands. "It ud be best if she'd forget me," she said. "It ud be best if she'd forget me."
"Nay, Liz," said Joan. "Tha'rt out o' soarts."
"Ay, I am," said the girl, "an' I need be. Eh, Joan! tha'rt a good wench. I wish I wur loike thee."
"Tha need na, lass."
"But I do. Tha'd nivver go wrong i' th' world. Nowt could mak' thee go wrong. Tha'rt so strong like. An' tha'rt patient, too, Joan, an' noan loike the rest o' women. I dunnot think—if owt wur to happen me now—as tha'd ha' hard thowts o' me. Wouldst tha?" wistfully.
"Nay, lass. I've been fond o' thee, an' sorry fur thee, and if tha wur to dee tha mayst mak' sure I'd noan be hard on thee. But tha art na goin' to dee, I hope."
To her surprise the girl caught her hand, and, pulling it down upon her knee, laid her cheek against it and burst into tears.
"I dunnot know; I mought, or—or—summat. But nivver tha turn agen me, Joan,—nivver tha hate me. I am na loike thee,—I wur na made loike thee. I conna stand up agen things, but I dunnot think as I'm so bad as foaks say!"
When this impassioned mood passed away, she was silent again for a long time. The baby fell asleep upon Joan's breast, but she did not move it,—she liked to feel it resting there; its close presence always seemed to bring her peace. At length, however, Liz spoke once more.
"Wheer wur thy feyther goin' wi' Spring an' Braddy?" she asked.
Joan turned a pale face toward her.
"Wheer did yo' see him wi' Spring an' Braddy?"
"Here," was Liz's reply. "He wur here this afternoon wi' em. They did na coom in, though,—they waited i' th' road, while he went i' th' back room theer fur summat. I think it wur a bottle. It wur that he coom fur, I know, fur I heerd Braddy say to him, 'Hast getten it?' an' thy feyther said, 'Ay,' an' th' other two laughed as if they wur on a spree o' some soart."
Joan rose from her chair, white and shaking.
"Tak' th' choild," she said, hoarsely. "I'm goin' out."
"Out!" cried Liz. "Nay, dunnot go out What ails thee, Joan?"
"I ha' summat to do," said Joan. "Stay tha here with th' choild." And almost before she finished speaking she was gone, and the door had closed behind her.
There would be three of them against one man. She walked faster as she thought of it, and her breath was drawn heavily.
Lowrie bent down in his hiding-place, smiling grimly. He knelt upon the grass behind a hedge at the road-side. He had reached the place a quarter of an hour before, and he had chosen his position as coolly as if he had been sitting down to take his tramp dinner in the shade. There was a gap in the hedge and he must not be too near to it or too far from it. It would be easier to rush through this gap than to leap the hedge; but he must not risk being seen. The corner where the other men lay concealed was not far above him. It was only a matter of a few yards, but if he stood to wait at one turn and the engineer took the other, the game would escape.
So he had placed his comrades at the second, and he had taken the first.
"I'd loike to ha' th' first yammer at him," he had said, savagely. "Yo' can coom when yo' hear me."
As he waited by the hedge, he put his hand out stealthily toward his "knob-stick" and drew it nearer, saying to himself:
"When I ha' done settlin' wi' him fur mysen, I shall ha' a bit o' an account to settle fur her. If it's his good looks as she's takken wi', she'll be noan so fond on him when she sees him next, I'll warrant."
He had hit upon the greater villainy of stopping short of murder,—if he could contain himself when the time came.
At this instant a sound reached his ears which caused him to start. He bent forward slightly toward the gap to listen. There were footsteps upon the road above him—footsteps that sounded familiar. Clouds had drifted across the sky and darkened it, but he had heard that tread too often to mistake it now when every nerve was strung to its highest tension. A cold sweat broke out upon him in the impotence of his wrath.
"It's th' lass hersen," he said. "She's heerd summat, an' she's as good as her word!"—with an oath.
He got up and stood a second trembling with rage. He drew his sleeve across his forehead and wiped away the sweat, and then turned round sharply.
"I'll creep up th' road an' meet her afore she reaches th' first place," he panted. "If she sees th' lads, it's aw up wi' us. I'll teach her summat as she'll noan forget."
He was out into the Knoll Road in a minute more.
"I'll teach her to go agen me," he muttered.
"I'll teach her, by ———" But the sentence was never ended. There was a murmur he did not understand, a rush, a heavy rain of blows, a dash of something in his face that scorched like liquid fire, and with a shriek, he fell writhing.
CHAPTER XXX - The Slip of Paper
A minute after there rushed past Joan, in the darkness, two men,—stumbling and cursing as they went, out of breath, horror-stricken and running at the top of their speed.
"It wur Lowrie hissen, by ———!" she heard one say, as he dashed by.
"Feyther! Feyther, wheer are yo'? Feyther, are yo' nigh me?" she cried, for she heard both the blows and the shriek.
But there came no answer to her ear. The rapid feet beating upon the road, their echo dying in the distance, made the only sound that broke the stillness. There was not even a groan. Yet a few paces from her, lay a battered, bleeding form. There was no starlight now, she could see only the vague outline of the figure, which might be that of either one man or the other. For an instant, the similarity in stature which had deceived his blundering companions, deceived her also; but when she knelt down and touched the shoulder, she knew it was not the master who lay before her.
"It's feyther hissen," she said, and then she drew away her hand, shuddering. "It's wet wi' blood," she said. "It's wet wi' blood!"
He did not hear her when she spoke; he was not conscious that she tried to raise him; his head hung forward when she lifted him; he lay heavily, and without motion, upon her arms.
"They ha' killed him!" she said. "How is it, as it is na him?"
There was neither light nor help nearer than "The Crown" itself, and when her brain became clearer, she remembered this. Without light and assistance, she could do nothing; she could not even see what hurt he had sustained. Dead or dying, he must lie here until she had time to get help.
She took off her shawl, and folding it, laid his head gently upon it Then she put her lips to his ear.
"Feyther," she said, "I'm goin' to bring help to thee. If tha con hear me, stir thy hond."
He did not stir it, so she disengaged her arm as gently as possible, and, rising to her feet, went on her way.
There were half a dozen men in the bar-room when she pushed the door inward and stood upon the threshold. They looked up in amazement.
"Those on yo' as want to help a deeing mon," she said, "come wi' me. My feyther's lyin' in the Knoll Road, done to death."
All were astir in a moment. Lanterns and other necessaries were provided, and bearing one of these lanterns herself, Joan led the way.
As she stepped out onto the pavement a man was passing, and, attracted by the confusion, turned to the crowd:
"What is the matter?" he asked.
"There's a mon been killed up on th' Knoll Road," answered one of the colliers. "It's this lass's feyther, Dan Lowrie."
The man strode into the light and showed an agitated face.
"Killed!" he said, "Dan Lowrie!"
It was Fergus Derrick.
He recognized Joan immediately, and went to her.
"For pity's sake," he exclaimed, "don't go with them. If what they say is true, this is no place for you. Let me take you home. You ought not——"
"It wur me," interrupted Joan, in a steady voice, "as found him."
He could not persuade her to remain behind, so he walked on by her side. He asked her no questions. He knew enough to understand that his enemy had reaped the whirlwind he had himself sown.
It was he who knelt first by the side of the prostrate man, holding the lantern above the almost unrecognizable face. Then he would have raised the lifeless hand, but Joan, who had bent down near him, stopped him with a quick move.
"Dunnot do that," she faltered, and when he looked up in surprise, he comprehended her meaning, even before she added, in a passionate undertone, the miserable words:
"Ther's blood on it, as might ha' bin yo're own."
"Theer's a bottle here," some one cried out suddenly. "A bottle as I just set my foot on. Chaps, theer's been vitriol throwed."
"Ay," cried another, "so theer has; chaps, look yo' here. Th' villains has vitriolled him."
They laid him upon the shutter they had brought, and carried him homeward. Joan and Derrick were nearest to him as they walked.
They were not far from the cottage, and it was not long before the light glimmered through the window upon them. Seeing it, Joan turned to Derrick suddenly.
"I mun hurry on before," she said. "I mun go and say a word to Liz. Comin' aw at onct th' soight ud fear her."
Reaching the house, she pushed the door open and went in. Everything was so quiet that she fancied the girl must have gone to bed.
"Liz," she said aloud. "Liz!"
Her voice fell with an echoing sound upon the silent room. She looked at the bed and saw the child lying there asleep. Liz was not with it. She passed quickly into the room adjoining and glanced around. It was empty. Moved by some impulse she went back to the bed, and in bending over the child, saw a slip of paper pinned upon its breast, and upon this paper Joan read, in the sprawling, uncertain hand she knew so well:
"Dunnot be hard on me, Joan, dunnot—Good-bye!"
When Derrick entered the door, he found Joan standing alone in the centre of the room, holding the scrap of paper in her hand.
CHAPTER XXXI - The Last Blow
"He won't live," the doctor said to Derrick. "He's not the man to get over such injuries, powerful as he looks. He has been a reckless, drunken brute, and what with the shock and reaction nothing will save him. The clumsy rascals who attacked him meant to do him harm enough, but they have done him more than they intended, or at least the man's antecedents will help them to a result they may not have aimed at. We may as well tell the girl, I suppose—fine creature, that girl, by the way. She won't have any sentimental regrets. It's a good riddance for her, to judge from what I know of them."
"I will tell her," said Derrick.
She listened to him with no greater show of emotion than an increased pallor. She remembered the wounded man only as a bad husband and a bad father. Her life would have been less hard to bear if he had died years ago, but now that death stood near him, a miserable sense of desolateness fell upon her, inconsistent as such a feeling might seem.
The village was full of excitement during this week. Everybody was ready with suggestions and conjectures, everybody wanted to account for the assault. At first there seemed no accounting for it at all, but at length some one recollected that Lowrie had been last seen with Spring and Braddy. They had "getten up a row betwixt theirsens, and t'others had punsed him."
The greatest mystery was the use of vitriol. It could only be decided that it had not been an ordinary case of neighborly "punsing," and that there must have been a "grudge" in the matter. Spring and Braddy had disappeared, and all efforts to discover their whereabouts were unavailing.
On the subject of Liz's flight Joan was silent, but it did not remain a secret many hours. A collier's wife had seen her standing, crying, and holding a little bundle on her arm at the corner of a lane, and having been curious enough to watch, had also seen Landsell join her a few minutes later.
"She wur whimperin' afore he coom," said the woman, "but she cried i' good earnest when he spoke to her, an' talked to him an' hung back as if she could na mak' up her moind whether to go or no. She wur a soft thing, that wench, it wur allus whichivver way th' wind blowed wi' her. I could nivver see what that lass o' Lowrie's wanted wi' her. Now she's getten th' choild on her honds."
The double shock had numbed Joan. She went about the place and waited upon her father in a dull, mechanical way. She said but little to the curious crowd, who, on pretence of being neighborly, flocked to the house. She had even had very little to say to Anice. Perhaps after all, her affection for poor Liz had been a stronger one than she had thought.
"I think," Grace said gently to Anice, "that she does not exactly need us yet."
He made the remark in the Rector's presence and the Reverend Harold did not agree with him.
"I am convinced that you are mistaken, Grace," he said. "You are a little too—well, too delicately metaphysical for these people. You have sensitive fancies about them, and they are not a sensitive class. What they want is good strong doctrine, and a certain degree of wholesome frankness. They need teaching. That young woman, now—it seems to me that this is the time to rouse her to a sense of her—her moral condition. She ought to be roused, and so ought the man. It is a great pity that he is unconscious."
Of Joan's strange confession of faith, Anice had told him something, but he had been rather inclined to pronounce it "emotional," and somehow or other could not quite divest himself of the idea that she needed the special guidance of a well-balanced and experienced mind. The well-balanced and experienced mind in view was his own, though of course he was not aware of the fact that he would not have been satisfied with that of any other individual. He was all the more disinclined to believe in Joan's conversion because his interviews with her continued to be as unsatisfactory as ever. Her manner had altered; she had toned down somewhat, but she still caused him to feel ill at ease. If she did not defy him any longer or set his teachings at naught, her grave eyes, resting on him silently, had sometimes the effect of making his words fail him; which was a novel experience with the Rector.
In a few days Lowrie began to sink visibly. As the doctor predicted, the reaction was powerful, and remedies were of no avail. He lay upon the bed, at times unconscious, at times tossing to and fro in delirium. During her watching at the bedside, Joan learned the truth. Sometimes he fancied himself tramping the Knoll Road homeward through the rain, and then he muttered sullenly of the "day" that was coming to him, and the vengeance he was returning to take; sometimes he went through the scene with Joan herself, and again, he waited behind the hedge for his enemy, one moment exultant, the next striving to struggle to his feet with curses upon his lips and rage in his heart, as he caught the sound of the advancing steps he knew so well. As he went over these scenes again and again, it was plain enough to the listener that his vengeance had fallen upon his own head.
The day after he received his hurts a collier dropped into "The Crown" with a heavy stick in his hand.
"I fun this knob-stick nigh a gap i' th' hedge on th' Knoll Road," he said. "It wur na fur fro' wheer they fun Lowrie. Happen them chaps laid i' wait fur him an' it belongs to one o' 'em."
"Let's ha' a look at it," said a young miner, and on its being handed to him he inspected it closely.
"Why!" he exclaimed. "It's Lowrie's own. I seed him wi' it th' day afore he wur hurt. I know th' shape o' th' knob. How could it ha' coom theer?"
But nobody could guess. It was taken to Joan and she listened to the story without comment. There was no reason why they should be told what she had already discovered.
When Lowrie died, Anice and Grace were in the room with Joan. After the first two days the visitors had dropped off. They had satisfied their curiosity. Lowrie was not a favorite, and Joan had always seemed to stand apart from her fellows, so they were left to themselves.
Joan was standing near the bed when there came to him his first and last gleam of consciousness. The sun was setting, and its farewell glow streaming through the window fell upon his disfigured face and sightless eyes. He roused him-self, moving uneasily.
"What's up wi' me?" he muttered. "I conna see—I conna—"
Joan stepped forward.
"Feyther," she said.
Then memory seemed to return to him. An angry light shot across his face. He flung out his hands and groaned:
"What!" he cried, "tha art theer, art tha?" and helpless and broken as he was, he wore that moment a look Joan had long ago learned to understand.
"Ay, feyther," she answered.
It appeared as if, during the few moments in which he lay gasping, a full recognition of the fact that he had been baffled and beaten after all—that his plotting had been of no avail—forced itself upon him. He made an effort to speak once or twice and failed, but at last the words came.
"Tha went agen me, did tha?" he panted. "Dom thee!" and with a struggle to summon all his strength, he raised himself, groping, struck at her with his clenched hand, and failing to reach her, fell forward with his face upon the bed.
It was all over when they raised him and laid him back again. Joan stood upright, trembling a little, but otherwise calm.
CHAPTER XXXII - "Turned Methody!"
It had been generally expected that when all was over the cottage upon the Knoll Road would be closed and deserted, but some secret fancy held Joan to the spot. Perhaps the isolation suited her mood; perhaps the mere sense of familiarity gave her comfort.
"I should na be less lonely any wheer else," she said to Anice Barholm. "Theer's more here as I feel near to than i' any other place. I ha' no friends, yo' know. As to th' choild, I con carry it to Thwaite's wife i' th' mornin' when I go to th' pit, an' she'll look after it till neet, for a trifle. She's getten childern o' her own, and knows their ways."
So she went backward and forward night and morning with her little burden in her arms. The child was a frail, tiny creature, never strong, and often suffering, and its very frailty drew Joan nearer to it. It was sadly like Liz, pretty and infantine. Many a rough but experienced mother, seeing it, prophesied that its battle with life would be brief. With the pretty face, it had inherited also the helpless, irresolute, appealing look. Joan saw this in the baby's eyes sometimes and was startled at its familiarity; even the low, fretted cry had in it something that was painfully like its girl-mother's voice. More than once a sense of fear had come upon Joan when she heard and recognized it. But her love only seemed to strengthen with her dread.
Day by day those who worked with her felt more strongly the change developing so subtly in the girl. The massive beauty which had almost seemed to scorn itself was beginning to wear a different aspect; the defiant bitterness of look and tone was almost a thing of the past; the rough, contemptuous speech was less scathing and more merciful when at rare intervals it broke forth.
"Summat has coom over her," they said among themselves. "Happen it wur trouble. She wur different, somehow."
They were somewhat uneasy under this alteration; but, on the whole, the general feeling was by no means unfriendly. Time had been when they had known Joan Lowrie only as a "lass" who held herself aloof, and yet in a manner overruled them; but in these days more than one stunted, overworked girl or woman found her hard task rendered easier by Joan's strength and swiftness.
It was true that his quiet and unremitted efforts had smoothed Grace's path to some extent. There were ill-used women whom he had helped and comforted; there were neglected children whose lives he had contrived to brighten; there were unbelievers whose scoffing his gentle simplicity and long-suffering had checked a little. He could be regarded no longer with contempt in Riggan; he even had his friends there.
Among those who still mildly jeered at the little Parson stood foremost, far more through vanity than malice, "Owd Sammy Craddock." A couple of months after Lowrie's death, "Owd Sammy" had sauntered down to the mine one day, and was entertaining a group of admirers when Grace went by.
It chanced that, for some reason best known to himself, Sammy was by no means in a good humor. Something had gone wrong at home or abroad, and his grievance had rankled and rendered him unusually contumacious.
Nearing the group, Grace looked up with a faint but kindly smile.
"Good-morning!" he said; "a pleasant day, friends!"
"Owd Sammy" glanced down at him with condescending tolerance. He had been talking himself, and the greeting had broken in upon his eloquence.
"Which on us," he asked dryly; "which on us said it wur na?"
A few paces from the group of idlers Joan Lowrie stood at work. Some of the men had noted her presence when they lounged by, but in the enjoyment of their gossip, they had forgotten her again. She had seen Grace too; she had heard his greeting and the almost brutal laugh that followed it; and, added to this, she had caught a passing glimpse of the Curate's face. She dropped her work, and, before the laugh had died out, stood up confronting the loungers.
"If theer is a mon among yo' as he has harmed," she said; "if theer's one among yo' as he's ivver done a wrong to, let that mon speak up."
It was "Owd Sammy" who was the first to recover himself. Probably he remembered the power he prided himself upon wielding over the weaker sex. He laid aside his pipe for a moment and tried sarcasm,—an adaptation of the same sarcasm he had tried upon the Curate.
"Which on us said theer wur?" he asked.
Joan turned her face, pale with repressed emotion, toward him.
"There be men here as I would scarce ha' believed could ha' had much agen him. I see one mon here as has a wife as lay nigh death a month or so ago, an' it were the Parson as went to see her day after day, an' tuk her help and comfort. Theer's another mon here as had a little un to dee, an' when it deed, it wur th' Parson as knelt by its bed an' held its hond an' talkt to it when it were feart. Theer's other men here as had help fro' him as they did na know of, an' it wur help from a mon as wur na far fro' a-bein' as poor an' hard worked i' his way as they are i' theirs. Happen th' mon I speak on dunnot know much about th' sick wife, an' deein choild, an' what wur done for 'em, an' if they dunnot, it's th' Parson's fault."
"Why!" broke in "Owd Sammy." "Blame me, if tha art na turned Methody! Blame me," in amazement, "if tha art na!"
"Nay," her face softening; "it is na Methody so much. Happen I'm turnin' woman, fur I conna abide to see a hurt gi'en to them as has na earned it. That wur why I spoke. I ha' towd yo' th' truth o' th' little chap yo' jeered at an' throw'd his words back to."
Thus it became among her companions a commonly accepted belief that Joan Lowrie had turned "Methody." They could find no other solution to her championship of the Parson.
"Is it true as tha's j'ined th' Methodys?" Thwaite's wife asked Joan, somewhat nervously.
She had learned to be fond of the girl, and did not like the idea of believing in her defection.
"No," she answered, "it is na."
The woman heaved a sigh of relief.
"I thowt it wur na," she said. "I towd th' Maxys as I did na believe it when they browt th' tale to me. They're powerful fond o' talebearing that Maxy lot."
Joan stopped in her play with the child.
"They dunnot understand," she said, "that's aw. I ha' learned to think different, an' believe i' things as I did na use to believe in. Happen that's what they mean by talkin' o' th' Methodys."
People learned no more of the matter than this. They felt that in some way Joan had separated herself from their ranks, but they found it troublesome to work their way to any more definite conclusion.
"Hast heard about that lass o' Lowrie's?" they said to one another; "hoo's takken a new turn sin' Lowrie deed; hoo allus wur a queer-loike, high-handed wench."
After Lowrie's death, Anice Barholm and Joan were oftener together than ever. What had at first been friendship had gradually become affection.
"I think," Anice said to Grace, "that Joan must go away from here and find a new life."
"That is the only way," he answered. "In this old one there has been nothing but misery for her, and bitterness and pain."
Fergus Derrick was sitting at a table turning over a book of engravings. He looked up sharply.
"Where can you find a new life for her?" he asked. "And how can you help her to it? One dare not offer her even a semblance of assistance."
They had not spoken to him, but he had heard, as he always heard, everything connected with Joan Lowrie. He was always restless and eager where she was concerned. All intercourse between them seemed to be at an end. Without appearing to make an effort to do so, she kept out of his path. Try as he might, he could not reach her. At last it had come to this: he was no longer dallying upon the brink of a great and dangerous passion,—it had overwhelmed him.
"One cannot even approach her," he said again.
Anice regarded him with a shade of pity in her face.
"The time is coming when it will not be so," she said.
The night before Joan Lowrie had spent an hour with her. She had come in on her way from her work, before going to Thwaite's, and had knelt down upon the hearth-rug to warm herself. There had been no light in the room but that of the fire, and its glow, falling upon her face, had revealed to Anice something like hag-gardness.
"Joan," she said, "are you ill?"
Joan stirred a little uneasily, but did not look at her as she answered:
"Nay, I am na ill; I nivver wur ill i' my loife."
"Then," said Anice, "what—what is it that I see in your face?"
There was a momentary tremor of the finely moulded, obstinate chin.
"I'm tired out," Joan answered. "That's all," and her hand fell upon her lap.
Anice turned to the fire.
"What is it?" she asked, almost in a whisper.
Joan looked up at her,—not defiant, not bitter, not dogged,—simply in appeal against her own despair.
"Is na theer a woman's place fur me i' th' world? Is it allus to be this way wi' me? Con I nivver reach no higher, strive as I will, pray as I will,—fur I have prayed? Is na theer a woman's place fur me i' th' world?"
"Yes," said Anice, "I am sure there is."
"I've thowt as theer mun be somewheer. Sometimes I've felt sure as theer mun be, an' then agen I've been beset so sore that I ha' almost gi'en it up. If there is such a place fur me I mun find it—I mun!"
"You will find it," said Anice. "Some day, surely."
Anice thought of all this again when she glanced at Derrick. Derrick was more than usually disturbed to-day. He had for some time been working his way to an important decision, fraught with some annoyance and anxiety to himself. There was to be a meeting of the owners in a few weeks, and at this meeting he had determined to take a firm stand.
"The longer I remain in my present position, the more fully I am convinced of the danger constantly threatening us," he said to Anice. "I am convinced that the present system of furnaces is the cause of more explosions than are generally attributed to it. The mine here is a 'fiery' one, as they call it, and yet day after day goes by and no precautions are taken. There are poor fellows working under me whose existence means bread to helpless women and children. I hold their lives in trust, and if I am not allowed to place one frail barrier between them and sudden death, I will lead them into peril no longer,—I will resign my position. At least I can do that."
The men under him worked with a dull, heavy daring, born of long use and a knowledge of their own helplessness against their fate. There was not one among them who did not know that in going down the shaft to his labor, he might be leaving the light of day behind him forever. But seeing the blue sky vanish from sight thus during six days of fifty-two weeks in the year, engendered a kind of hard indifference. Explosions had occurred, and might occur again; dead men had been carried up to be stretched on the green earth,—men crushed out of all semblance to humanity; some of themselves bore the marks of terrible maiming; but it was an old story, and they had learned to face the same hazard recklessly.
With Fergus Derrick, however, it was a different matter. It was he who must lead these men into new fields of danger.
CHAPTER XXXIII - Fate
The time came, before many days, when the last tie that bound Joan to her present life was broken. The little one, who from the first had clung to existence with a frail hold, at last loosened its weak grasp. It had been ill for several days,—so ill that Joan had remained at home to nurse it,—and one night, sitting with it upon her knee in her accustomed place, she saw a change upon the small face.
It had been moaning continuously, and suddenly the plaintive sound ceased. Joan bent over it. She had been holding the tiny hand as she always did, and at this moment the soft fingers closed upon one of her own quietly. She was quite alone, and for an instant there was a deep silence. After her first glance at the tiny creature, she broke this silence herself.
"Little lass," she said in a whisper, "what ails thee? Is thy pain o'er?"
As she looked again at the baby face upturned as if in silent answer, the truth broke in upon her.
Folding her arms around the little form, she laid her head upon its breast and wept aloud,—wept as she had never wept before. Then she laid the child upon a pillow and covered its face. Liz's last words returned to her with a double force. It had not lived to forget or blame her. Where was Liz to-night,—at this hour, when her child was so safe?
The next morning, on her way downstairs to the breakfast-room, Anice Barholm was met by a servant.
"The young woman from the mines would like to see you, Miss," said the girl.
Anice found Joan awaiting her below.
"I ha' come to tell yo'," she said, "that th' little un deed at midneet. Theer wur no one I could ca' in. I sat alone wi' it i' th' room aw th' neet, an' then I left it to come here."
Anice and Thwaite's wife returned home with her. What little there was to be done, they re-mained to do. But this was scarcely more than to watch with her until the pretty baby face was hidden away from human sight.
When all was over, Joan became restless. The presence of the child had saved her from utter desolation, and now that it was gone, the emptiness of the house chilled her. At the last, when her companions were about to leave her, she broke down.
"I conna bear it," she said. "I will go wi' yo'."
Thwaite's wife had proposed before that she should make her home with them; and now, when Mrs. Thwaite returned to Riggan, Joan accompanied her, and the cottage was locked up.
This alteration changed greatly the routine of her life. There were children in the Thwaite household—half a dozen of them—who, having overcome their first awe of her, had learned before the baby died to be fond of Joan. Her handsome face attracted them when they ceased to fear its novelty; and the hard-worked mother said to her neighbors:
"She's getten a way wi' childer, somehow,—that lass o' Lowrie's. Yo'd wonder if yo' could see her wi' 'em. She's mony a bit o' help to me."
But as time progressed, Anice Barholm noted the constant presence of that worn look upon her face. Instead of diminishing, it grew and deepened. Even Derrick, who met her so rarely, saw it when he passed her in the street.
"She is not ill, is she?" he asked Anice once, abruptly.
Anice shook her head.
"No, she is not ill."
"Then she has some trouble that nobody knows about," he said. "What a splendid creature she is!" impetuously—"and how incomprehensible!"
His eyes chanced to meet Anice's, and a dark flush swept over his face. He got up almost immediately after and began to pace the room, as was his habit.
"Next week the crisis will come at the mines," he said. "I wonder how it will end for me."
"You are still determined?" said Anice.
"Yes, I am still determined. I wish it were over. Perhaps there will be a Fate in it"—his voice lowering itself as he added this last sentence.
"A Fate?" said Anice.
"I am growing superstitious and full of fancies," he said. "I do not trust to myself, as I once did. I should like Fate to bear the responsibility of my leaving Riggan or remaining in it."
"And if you leave it?" asked Anice.
For an instant he paused in his walk, with an uncertain air. But he shook this uncertainty off with a visible effort, the next moment.
"If I leave it, I do not think I shall return, and Fate will have settled a long unsettled question for me."
"Don't leave it to Fate," said Anice in a low tone. "Settle it for yourself. It does not—it is not—it looks——"
"It looks cowardly," he interrupted her. "So it does, and so it is. God knows I never felt myself so great a coward before!"
He had paused again. This time he stood before her. The girl's grave, delicate face turned to meet his glance and seeing it, a thought seemed to strike him.
"Anice," he said, the dark flush rising afresh. "I promised you that if the time should ever come when I needed help that it was possible you might give, I should not be afraid to ask you for it. I am coming to you for help. Not now—some day not far distant. That is why I remind you of the compact."
"I did not need reminding," she said to him.
"I might have known that," he answered,—"I think I did know it But let us make the compact over again."
She held out her hand to him, and he took it eagerly.
CHAPTER XXXIV - The Decision
The owners of the Riggan collieries held their meeting. That a person in their employ should differ from them boldly, and condemn their course openly, was an extraordinary event; that a young man in the outset of his career should dare so much was unprecedented. It would be a ruinous thing, they said among themselves, for so young a man to lose so important a position on the very threshold of his professional life, and they were convinced that his knowledge of this would restrain him. But they were astounded to find that it did not.
He brought his plans with him, and laid them before them. They were plans for the abolition of old and dangerous arrangements, for the amelioration of the condition of the men who labored at the hourly risk of their lives, and for rendering this labor easier. Especially, there were plans for a newer system of ventilation—proposing the substitution of fans for the long-used furnace. One or two of the younger men leaned toward their adoption. But the men with the greatest influence were older, and less prone to the encouragement of novelty.
"It's all nonsense," said one. "Furnaces have been used ever since the mines were opened, and as to the rest—it arises, I suppose, from the complaints of the men. They always will complain—they always did."
"So far they have had reason for complaint," remarked Derrick. "As you say, there have been furnaces ever since there have been mines, and there have also been explosions which may in many cases be attributed to them. There was an explosion at Browton a month ago which was to some extent a mystery, but there were old miners who understood it well enough. The return air, loaded with gas, had ignited at the furnace, and the result was that forty dead and wounded men were carried up the shaft, to be recognized, when they were recognizable, by mothers, and wives, and children, who depended upon them for their scant food."
Derrick argued his cause well and with spirit, keeping a tight rein upon himself; but when, having exhausted his arguments, he found that he had not advanced his cause, and that it was a settled matter that he should not, he took fire.
"Then, gentlemen," he said, "I have but one resource. I will hold no human life lightly in my hands. I have the honor to tender you my resignation."
There was a dead silence for a moment or so. They had certainly not expected such a result as this. A well-disposed young man, who sat near to Derrick, spoke to him in a rapid undertone.
"My dear fellow," he said, "it will be the ruin of you. For my part, I admire your enthusiasm, but do not be rash."
"A man with a will and a pair of clean hands is not easily ruined," returned Derrick a trifle hotly. "As to being rash or enthusiastic, I am neither the one nor the other. It is not enthusiasm which moves me, it is a familiarity with stern realities."
When he left the room his fate had been decided. At the end of the week he would have no further occupation in Riggan. He had only two more days' work before him and he had gained the unenviable reputation of being a fire-and-tow young fellow, who was flighty enough to make a martyr of himself.
Under the first street-lamp he met Grace, who was evidently making his way home.
"I will go with you," he said, taking his arm.
Once within the walls of the pleasant little room, he found it easy to unbosom himself. He described his interview with his employers, and its termination.
"A few months ago, I flattered myself that my prospects were improving," he said; "but now it seems that I must begin again, which is not an easy matter, by the way."
By the time he ended he found his temporary excitement abating somewhat, but still his mood was by no means undisturbed.
It was after they had finished tea and the armchairs had been drawn to the fire that Grace himself made a revelation.
"When you met me to-night, I was returning from a visit I had paid to Joan Lowrie."
"At Thwaite's?" said Derrick.
"At Thwaite's. She—the fact is I went on business—she has determined to change her plan of life."
"In what manner?"
"She is to work no more at the mines. I am happy to say that I have been able to find her other employment."
There was an interval of silence, at length broken by Derrick.
"Grace," he said, "can you tell me why she decided upon such a course?"
Grace looked at him with questioning surprise.
"I can tell you what she said to me on the subject," he replied. "She said it was no woman's work, and she was tired of it."
"She is not the woman to do anything without a motive," mused Derrick.
"No," returned the Curate.
A moment later, as if by one impulse, their eyes met. Grace started as if he had been stung. Derrick simply flushed.
"What is it?" he asked.
"I—I do not think I understand," Grace faltered. "Surely I am blundering."
"No," said Derrick, gloomily. "You cannot blunder since you know the truth. You did not fancy that my feeling was so trivial that I could have conquered it so soon? Joan Lowrie——"
Grace's voice had broken in upon him with a startled sound.
The two men regarded each other in bewilderment. Then again Derrick was the first to speak.
"Grace," he said, "you have misunderstood me."
Grace answered him with a visible tremor.
"If," he said, "it was to your love for Joan Lowrie you referred when you spoke to me of your trouble some months ago, I have misunderstood you. If the obstacles you meant were the obstacles you would find in the path of such a love, I have misunderstood you. If you did not mean that your heart had been stirred by a feeling your generous friendship caused you to regard as unjust to me, I have misunderstood you miserably."
"My dear fellow!" Derrick exclaimed, with some emotion. "My dear fellow, do you mean to tell me that you imagined I referred to Miss Barholm?"
"I was sure of it," was Grace's agitated reply. "As I said before, I have misunderstood you miserably."
"And yet you had no word of blame for me?"
"I had no right to blame you. I had not lost what I believed you had won. It had never been mine. It was a mistake," he added, endeavoring to steady himself. "But don't mind me, Derrick. Let us try to set it right; only I am afraid you will have to begin again."
Derrick drew a heavy breath. He took up a paper-knife from the table, and began to bend it in his hands.
"Yes," he said, "we shall have to begin again. And it is told in a few words," he said, with a deliberateness painful in its suggestion of an intense effort at self-control. "Grace, what would you think of a man who found himself setting reason at defiance, and in spite of all obstacles confronting the possibility of loving and marrying—if she can be won—such a woman as Joan Lowrie?"
"You are putting me in a difficult position," Paul answered. "If he would dare so much, he would be the man to dare to decide for himself."
Derrick tossed the paper-knife aside.
"And you know that I am the person in question. I have so defied the world, in spite of myself at first, I must confess. I have confronted the possibility of loving Joan Lowrie until I do love her. So there the case stands."
Gradually there dawned upon the Curate's mind certain remembrances connected with Joan. Now and then she had puzzled and startled him, but here, possibly, might be a solution of the mystery.
"And Joan Lowrie herself?" he asked, questioningly.
"Joan Lowrie herself," said Derrick, "is no nearer to me to-day than she was a year ago."
"Are you,"—hesitatingly,—"are you quite sure of that?"
The words had escaped his lips in spite of himself.
Derrick started and turned toward him with a sudden movement
"Grace!" he said.
"I asked if you were sure of that," answered Grace, coloring. "I am not."
CHAPTER XXXV - In the Pit
The next morning Derrick went down to the mine as usual. There were several things he wished to do in these last two days. He had heard that the managers had entered into negotiations with a new engineer, and he wished the man to find no half-done work. The day was bright and frosty, and the sharp, bracing air seemed to clear his brain. He felt more hopeful, and less inclined to view matters darkly.
He remembered afterward that, as he stepped into the cage, he turned to look at the unpicturesque little town, brightened by the winter's sun; and that, as he went down, he glanced up at the sky and marked how intense appeared the bit of blue, which was framed in by the mouth of the shaft.
Even in the few hours that had elapsed since the meeting the rumor of what he had said and done had been bruited about. Some collier had heard it and had told it to his comrades, and so it had gone from one to the other. It had been talked over at the evening and morning meal in divers cottages, and many an anxious woman had warmed into praise of the man who had "had a thowt for th' men."
In the first gallery he entered he found a deputation of men awaiting him,—a group of burly miners with picks and shovels over their shoulders,—and the head of this deputation, a spokesman burlier and generally gruffer than the rest, stopped him.
"Mester," he said, "we chaps 'ud loike to ha' a word wi' yo'."
"All right," was Derrick's reply, "I am ready to listen."
The rest crowded nearer as if anxious to participate as much as possible, and give their spokesman the support of their presence.
"It is na mich as we ha' getten to say," said the man, "but we're fain to say it. Are na we, mates?"
"Ay, we are, lad," in chorus.
"It's about summat as we'n heerd. Theer wur a chap as towd some on us last neet, as yo'd getten th' sack fro' th' managers—or leastways as yo'd turned th' tables on 'em an' gi'en them th' sack yo'rsen. An' we'n heerd as it begun wi' yo're standin' up fur us chaps—axin fur things as wur wanted i' th' pit to save us fro' runnin' more risk than we need. An' we heerd as yo' spoke up bold, an' argied fur us an' stood to what yo' thowt war th' reet thing, an' we set our moinds on tellin' yo' as we'd heerd it an' talked it over, an' we'd loike to say a word o' thanks i' common fur th' pluck yo' showed. Is na that it, mates?"
"Ay, that it is, lad!" responded the chorus.
Suddenly one of the group stepped out and threw down his pick.
"An' I'm dom'd, mates," he said, "if here is na a chap as 'ud loike to shake hands wi' him."
It was the signal for the rest to follow his example. They crowded about their champion, thrusting grimy paws into his hand, grasping it almost enthusiastically.
"Good luck to yo', lad!" said one. "We'n noan smooth soart o' chaps, but we'n stand by what's fair an' plucky. We shall ha' a good word fur thee when tha hast made thy flittin'."
"I'm glad of that lads," responded Derrick, heartily, by no means unmoved by the rough-and-ready spirit of the scene. "I only wish I had had better luck, that's all."
A few hours later the whole of the little town was shaken to its very foundations, by something like an earthquake, accompanied by an ominous, booming sound which brought people flocking out of their houses, with white faces. Some of them had heard it before—all knew what it meant. From the colliers' cottages poured forth women, shrieking and wailing,—women who bore children in their arms and had older ones dragging at their skirts, and who made their desperate way to the pit with one accord. From houses and workshops there rushed men, who, coming out in twos and threes joined each other, and, forming a breathless crowd, ran through the streets scarcely daring to speak a word—and all ran toward the pit.
There were scores at its mouth in five minutes; in ten minutes there were hundreds, and above all the clamor rose the cry of women:
"My Mester's down!"
"Four lads o' mine is down!"
"Three o' mine!"
"My little un's theer—th' youngest—nobbut ten year owd—nobbut ten year owd, poor little chap! an' on'y been at work a week!"
"Ay, wenches, God ha' mercy on us aw'—God ha' mercy!" And then more shrieks and wails in which the terror-stricken children joined.
It was a fearful sight. How many lay dead and dying in the noisome darkness below, God only knew! How many lay mangled and crushed, waiting for their death, Heaven only could tell!
In five minutes after the explosion occurred, a slight figure in clerical garb made its way through the crowd with an air of excited determination.
"The Parson's feart," was the general comment.
"My men," he said, raising his voice so that all could hear, "can any of you tell me who last saw Fergus Derrick?"
There was a brief pause, and then came a reply from a collier who stood near.
"I coom up out o' th' pit an hour ago," he said, "I wur th' last as coom up, an' it wur on'y chance as browt me. Derrick wur wi' his men i' th' new part o' th' mine. I seed him as I passed through."
Grace's face became a shade or so paler, but he made no more inquiries.
His friend either lay dead below, or was waiting for his doom at that very moment. He stepped a little farther forward.
"Unfortunately for myself, at present," he said, "I have no practical knowledge of the nature of these accidents. Will some of you tell me how long it will be before we can make our first effort to rescue the men who are below?"
Did he mean to volunteer—this young whipper-snapper of a parson? And if he did, could he know what he was doing?
"I ask you," he said, "because I wish to offer myself as a volunteer at once; I think I am stronger than you imagine and at least my heart will be in the work. I have a friend below,—my-self," his voice altering its tone and losing its firmness,—"a friend who is worthy the sacrifice of ten such lives as mine if such a sacrifice could save him."
One or two of the older and more experienced spoke up. Under an hour it would be impossible to make the attempt—it might even be a longer time, but in an hour they might, at least, make their first effort.
If such was the case, the Parson said, the intervening period must be turned to the best account. In that time much could be thought of and done which would assist themselves and benefit the sufferers. He called upon the strongest and most experienced, and almost without their recognizing the prominence of his position, led them on in the work. He even rallied the weeping women and gave them something to do. One was sent for this necessary article and another for that. A couple of boys were despatched to the next village for extra medical assistance, so that there need be no lack of attention when it was required. He took off his broadcloth and worked with the rest of them until all the necessary preparations were made and it was considered possible to descend into the mine.
When all was ready, he went to the mouth of the shaft and took his place quietly.
It was a hazardous task they had before them. Death would stare them in the face all through its performance. There was choking after-damp below, noxious vapors, to breathe which was to die; there was the chance of crushing masses falling from the shaken galleries—and yet these men left their companions one by one and ranged themselves, without saying a word, at the Curate's side.
"My friends," said Grace, baring his head, and raising a feminine hand. "My friends, we will say a short prayer."
It was only a few words. Then the Curate spoke again.
"Ready!" he said.
But just at that moment there stepped out from the anguished crowd a girl, whose face was set and deathly, though there was no touch of fear upon it.
"I ax yo'," she said, "to let me go wi' yo' and do what I con. Lasses, some on yo' speak a word fur Joan Lowrie!"
There was a breathless start. The women even stopped their outcry to look at her as she stood apart from them,—a desperate appeal in the very quiet of her gesture as she turned to look about her for some one to speak.
"Lasses," she said again. "Some on yo' speak a word fur Joan Lowrie!"
There rose a murmur among them then, and the next instant this murmur was a cry.
"Ay," they answered, "we con aw speak fur yo'. Let her go, lads! She's worth two o' th' best on yo'. Nowt fears her. Ay, she mun go, if she will, mun Joan Lowrie! Go, Joan, lass, and we'n not forget thee!"
But the men demurred. The finer instinct of some of them shrank from giving a woman a place in such a perilous undertaking—the coarser element in others rebelled against it.
"We'n ha' no wenches," these said, surlily.
Grace stepped forward. He went to Joan Lowrie and touched her gently on the shoulder.
"We cannot think of it," he said. "It is very brave and generous, and—God bless you!—but it cannot be. I could not think of allowing it myself, if the rest would."
"Parson," said Joan coolly, but not roughly, "tha'd ha' hard work to help thysen, if so be as th' lads wur willin'."
"But," he protested, "it may be death. I could not bear the thought of it. You are a woman. We cannot let you risk your life."
She turned to the volunteers.
"Lads," she cried, passionately, "yo' munnot turn me back. I—sin I mun tell yo'——" and she faced them like a queen,—"theer's a mon down theer as I'd gi' my heart's blood to save."
They did not know whom she meant, but they demurred no longer.
"Tak' thy place, wench," said the oldest of them. "If tha mun, tha mun."
She took her seat in the cage by Grace, and when she took it she half turned her face away. But when those above began to lower them, and they found themselves swinging downward into what might be to them a pit of death, she spoke to him.
"Theer's a prayer I'd loike yo' to pray," she said. "Pray that if we mun dee, we may na dee until we ha' done our work."
It was a dreadful work indeed that the rescuers had to do in those black galleries. And Joan was the bravest, quickest, most persistent of all. Paul Grace, following in her wake, found himself obeying her slightest word or gesture. He worked constantly at her side, for he, at least, had guessed the truth. He knew that they were both engaged in the same quest. When at last they had worked their way—lifting, helping, comforting—to the end of the passage where the collier had said he last saw the master then, for one moment, she paused, and her companion, with a thrill of pity, touched her to attract her attention.
"Let me go first," he said.
"Nay," she answered, "we'n go together."
The gallery was a long and low one, and had been terribly shaken. In some places the props had been torn away, in others they were borne down by the loosened blocks of coal. The dim light of the "Davy" Joan held up showed such a wreck that Grace spoke to her again.
"You must let me go first," he said, with gentle firmness. "If one of these blocks should fall——"
Joan interrupted him,—
"If one on 'em should fall I'm th' one as it had better fall on. There is na mony foak as ud miss Joan Lowrie. Yo' ha' work o' yo're own to do."
She stepped into the gallery before he could protest, and he could only follow her. She went before, holding the Davy high, so that its light might be thrown as far forward as possible. Now and then she was forced to stoop to make her way around a bending prop; sometimes there was a fallen mass to be surmounted, but she was at the front still when they reached the other end without finding the object of their search.
"It—he is na there," she said. "Let us try th' next passage," and she turned into it.
It was she who first came upon what they were looking for; but they did not find it in the next passage, or the next, or even the next. It was farther away from the scene of the explosion than they had dared to hope. As they entered a narrow side gallery, Grace heard her utter a low sound, and the next minute she was down upon her knees.
"Theer's a mon here," she said, "It's him as we're lookin' fur."
She held the dim little lantern close to the face,—a still face with closed eyes, and blood upon it Grace knelt down too, his heart aching with dread.
"Is he———" he began, but could not finish.
Joan Lowrie laid her hand upon the apparently motionless breast and waited almost a minute, and then she lifted her own face, white as the wounded man's—white and solemn, and wet with a sudden rain of tears.
"He is na dead," she said. "We ha' saved him."
She sat down upon the floor of the gallery and lifting his head laid it upon her bosom, holding it close as a mother might hold the head of her child.
"Mester," she said, "gi' me th' brandy flask, and tak' thou thy Davy an' go fur some o' th' men to help us get him to th' leet o' day. I'm gone weak at last. I conna do no more. I'll go wi' him to th' top."
When the cage ascended to the mouth again with its last load of sufferers, Joan Lowrie came with it, blinded and dazzled by the golden winter's sunlight as it fell upon her haggard face.
She was holding the head of what seemed to be a dead man upon her knee. A great shout of welcome rose up from the bystanders.
She helped them to lay her charge upon a pile of coats and blankets prepared for him, and then she turned to the doctor who had hurried to the spot to see what could be done.
"He is na dead," she said. "Lay yo're hond on his heart. It beats yet, Mester,—on'y a little, but it beats."
"No," said the doctor, "he is not dead—yet," with a breath's pause between the two last words. "If some of you will help me to put him on a stretcher, he may be carried home, and I will go with him. There is just a chance for him, poor fellow, and he must have immediate attention. Where does he live?"
"He must go with me," said Grace. "He is my friend."
So they took him up, and Joan stood a little apart and watched them carry him away,—watched the bearers until they were out of sight, and then turned again and joined the women in their work among the sufferers.
CHAPTER XXXVI - Alive Yet
In the bedroom above the small parlor a fire was burning at midnight, and by this fire Grace was watching. The lamp was turned low and the room was very quiet; a dropping cinder made quite a startling sound. When a moan or a movement of the patient broke the stillness—which was only at rare intervals—the Curate rose and went to the bedside. But it was only to look at the sufferer lying upon it, bandaged and unconscious. There was very little he could do. He could follow the instructions given by the medical man before he went away, but these had been few and hurried, and he could only watch with grief in his heart. There was but a chance that his friend's life might be saved. Close attention and unremitting care might rescue him, and to the best of his ability the Curate meant to give him both. But he could not help feeling a deep anxiety. His faith in his own skill was not very great, and there were no professional nurses in Riggan.
"It is the care women give that he needs," he said once, standing near the pillow and speaking to himself. "Men cannot do these things well. A mother or sister might save him."
He went to the window and drew back the curtain to look out upon the night. As he did so, he saw the figure of a woman nearing the house. As she approached, she began to walk more slowly, and when she reached the gates she hesitated, stopped and looked up. In a moment it became evident that she saw him, and was conscious that he saw her. The dim light in the chamber threw his form into strong relief. She raised her hand and made a gesture. He turned away from the window, left the room quietly, and went down-stairs. She had not moved, but stood at the gate awaiting him. She spoke to him in a low tone, and he distinguished in its sound a degree of physical exhaustion.
"Yo' saw me," she said. "I thowt yo' did though I did na think o' yo' bein' at th' winder when I stopped—to—to see th' leet."
"I am glad I saw you," said Grace. "You have been at work among the men who were hurt?"
"Ay," pulling at a bush of evergreen nervously, and scattering the leaves as she spoke. "Theer's scarce a house o' th' common soart i' Riggan as has na trouble in it."
"God help them all!" exclaimed Grace, fervently.
"Have you seen Miss Barholm?" he asked next.
"She wur on th' ground i' ten minnits after th' explosion. She wur in th' village when it happent, an' she drove to th' pit. She's been workin' as hard as ony woman i' Riggan. She saw us go down th' mine, but she did not see us come up. She wur away then wi' a woman as had a lad to be carried home dead. She would ha' come to him but she knowed yo' were wi' him, an' theer wur them as needed her. When th' cages coom up theer wur women as screamed an' held to her, an' throwed theirsens on their knees an' hid their faces i' her dress, an' i' her honds, as if they thowt she could keep th' truth fro' 'em."
Grace trembled in his excitement.
"God bless her! God bless her!" he said, again and again.
"Where is she now?" he asked at length.
"Theer wur a little chap as come up i' the last cageful—he wur hurt bad, an' he wur sich a little chap as it went hard wi' him. When th' doctor touched him he screamed an' begged to be let alone, an' she heerd an' went to him, an' knelt down an' quieted him a bit. Th' poor little lad would na let go o' her dress; he held to it fur dear life, an' sobbed an' shivered and begged her to go wi' him an' howd his head on her lap while th' doctor did what mun be done. An' so she went, an' she's wi' him now. He will na live till day-leet, an' he keeps crying out for th' lady to stay wi' him."
There was another silence, and then Joan spoke:
"Canna yo' guess what I coom to say?"
He thought he could, and perhaps his glance told her so.
"If I wur a lady," she said, her lips, her hands trembling, "I could na ax yo' what I've made up my moind to; but I'm noan a lady, an' it does na matter. If yo' need some one to help yo' wi' him, will yo' let me ha' th' place? I dunnot ax nowt else but—but to be let do th' hard work."
She ended with a sob. Suddenly she covered her face with her hands, weeping wildly.
"Don't do that," he said, gently. "Come with me. It is you he needs."
He led the way into the house and up the stairs, Joan following him. When they entered the room they went to the bedside.
The injured man lay motionless.
"Is theer loife i' him yet?" asked Joan. "He looks as if theer might na be."
"There is life in him," Grace answered; "and he has been a strong man, so I think we may feel some hope."
CHAPTER XXXVII - Watching and Waiting
The next morning the pony-carriage stopped before the door of the Curate's lodgings. When Grace went downstairs to the parlor, Anice Barholm turned from the window to greet him. The appearance of physical exhaustion he had observed the night before in Joan Lowrie, he saw again in her, but he had never before seen the face which Anice turned toward him.
"I was on the ground yesterday, and saw you go down into the mine," she said. "I had never thought of such courage before."
That was all, but in a second he comprehended that this morning they stood nearer together than they had ever stood before.
"How is the child you were with?" he asked.
"He died an hour ago."
When they went upstairs, Joan was standing by the sick man.
"He's worse than he wur last neet," she said. "An' he'll be worse still. I ha' nursed hurts like these afore. It'll be mony a day afore he'll be better—if th' toime ivver comes."
The Rector and Mrs. Barholm, hearing of the accident, and leaving Browton hurriedly to return home, were met by half a dozen different versions on their way to Riggan, and each one was so enthusiastically related that Mr. Barholm's rather dampened interest in his daughter's protege was fanned again into a brisk flame.
"There must be something in the girl, after all," he said, "if one could only get at it. Something ought to be done for her, really."
Hearing of Grace's share in the transaction, he was simply amazed.
"I think there must be some mistake," he said to his wife. "Grace is not the man—not the man physically" straightening his broad shoulders, "to be equal to such a thing."
But the truth of the report forced itself upon him after hearing the story repeated several times before they reached Riggan, and arriving at home they heard the whole story from Anice.
While Anice was talking, Mr. Barholm began to pace the floor of the room restlessly.
"I wish I had been there," he said. "I would have gone down myself."
(It is true: he would have done so.)
"You are a braver man than I took you for," he said to his Curate, when he saw him,—and he felt sure that he was saying exactly the right thing. "I should scarcely have expected such dashing heroism from you, Grace."
"I hardly regarded it in that light," said the little gentleman, coloring sensitively. "If I had, I should scarcely have expected it of myself."
The fact that Joan Lowrie had engaged herself as nurse to the injured engineer made some gossip among her acquaintances at first, but this soon died out. Thwaite's wife had a practical enough explanation of the case.
"Th' lass wur tired o' pit-work; an' no wonder. She's made up her moind to ha' done wi' it; an' she's a first-rate one to nurse,—strong i' the arms, an' noan sleepy-headed. Happen she'll tak' up wi' it fur a trade. As to it bein' him as she meant when she said theer wur a mon as she meant to save, it wur no such thing. Joan Lowrie's noan th' kind o' wench to be runnin' after gentlefolk,—yo' know that yoresens. It's noan o' our business who the mon wur. Happen he's dead; an' whether he's dead or alive, you'd better leave him a-be, an' her too."
In the sick man's room the time passed monotonously. There were days and nights of heavy slumber or unconsciousness,—restless mutterings and weary tossings to and fro. The face upon the pillow was sometimes white, sometimes flushed with fever; but whatever change came to pass, Death never seemed far away.
Grace lost appetite, and grew thin with protracted anxiety and watching. He would not give up his place even to Anice or Mrs. Barholm, who spent much of their time in the house. He would barely consent to snatch a few minutes' rest in the day-time; in truth, he could not have slept if he would. Joan held to her post unflinchingly. She took even less respite than Grace. Having almost forced her to leave the room one morning, Anice went downstairs to find her lying upon the sofa,—her hands clasped under her head, her eyes wide open.
"I conna sleep yet a while," she said. "Dunnot let it trouble yo'. I'm used to it."
Sometimes during the long night Joan felt his hollow eyes following her as she moved about the room, and fixed hungrily upon her when she stood near him.
"Who are you?" he would say. "I have seen you before, and I know your face; but—but I have lost your name. Who are you?"
One night, as she stood upon the hearth, alone in the room,—Grace having gone downstairs for something,—she was startled by the sound of Derrick's voice falling with a singular distinctness upon the silence.
"Who is it that is standing there?" he said.
"Do I know you? Yes—it is——-" but before he could finish, the momentary gleam of recognition had passed away, and he had wandered off again into low, disjointed murmurings.
It was always of the mine, or one other anxiety, that he spoke. There was something he must do or say,—some decision he must reach. Must he give up? Could he give up? Perhaps he had better go away,—far away. Yes; he had better go. No,—he could not,—he must wait and think again. He was tired of thinking,—tired of reasoning and arguing with himself. Let it go for a few minutes. Give him just an hour of rest. He was full of pain; he was losing himself, somehow. And then, after a brief silence, he would begin again and go the weary round once more.
"He has had a great deal of mental anxiety of late,—too much responsibility," said the medical man; "and it is going rather against him."
CHAPTER XXXVIII - Recognition
The turning-point was reached at last. One evening, at the close of his usual visit, the doctor said to Grace:
"To-morrow, I think, you will see a marked alteration. I should not be surprised to find on my next visit that his mind had become permanently cleared. The intervals of half consciousness have become lengthened. Unless some entirely unlooked-for change occurs, I feel sure that the worst is over. Give him close attention to-night. Don't let the young woman leave the room."
That night Anice watched with Joan. It was a strange experience through which these two passed together. If Anice had not known the truth before, she would have learned it then. Again and again Derrick went the endless round of his miseries. How must it end? How could it end? What must he do? How black and narrow the passages were! There she was, coming toward him from the other end,—and if the props gave way———! They were giving way!—Good God! the light was out, and he was held fast by the mass which had fallen upon him. What must he do about her whom he loved, and who was separated from him by this horrible wall? He was dying, and she would never know what he wanted to tell her. What was it that he wanted to say,—That he loved her,—loved her,—loved her! Could she hear him? He must make her hear him before he died,—"Joan! Joan!"
Thus he raved hour after hour; and the two sat and listened, often in dead silence; but at last there rose in Joan Lowrie's face a look of such intense and hopeless pain, that Anice spoke.
"Joan! my poor Joan!" she said.
Joan's head sank down upon her hands.
"I mun go away fro' Riggan," she whispered. "I mun go away afore he knows. Theer's no help fur me."
"No help?" repeated Anice after her.
She did not understand.
"Theer's none," said Joan. "Dunnot yo' see as ony place wheer he is con be no place fur me? I thowt—I thowt the trouble wur aw on my side, but it is na. Do yo' think I'd stay an' let him do hissen a wrong?"
Anice wrung her hands together.
"A wrong?" she cried. "Not a wrong, Joan—I cannot let you call it that."
"It would na be nowt else. Am I fit wife fur a gentlemon? Nay, my work's done when the danger's ower. If he wakes to know th' leet o' day to-morrow morning, it's done then."
"You do not mean," said Anice, "that you will leave us?"
"I conna stay i' Riggan; I mun go away."
Toward morning Derrick became quieter. He muttered less and less until his voice died away altogether, and he sank into a profound slumber. Grace, coming in and finding him sleeping, turned to Joan with a look of intense relief.
"The worst is over," he said; "now we may hope for the best."
"Ay," Joan answered, quietly, "th' worst is ower—fur him."
At last darkness gave way to a faint gray light, and then the gray sky showed long slender streaks of wintry red, gradually widening and deepening until all the east seemed flushed.
"It's mornin'," said Joan, turning from the window to the bed. "I mun gi' him th' drops again."
She was standing near the pillow when the first flood of the sunlight poured in at the window. At this moment Derrick awoke from his sleep to a full recognition of all around him. But the strength of his delirium had died out; his prostration was so utter, that for the moment he had no power to speak and could only look up at the pale face hopelessly. It seemed as if the golden glow of the morning light transfigured it.
"He's awake," Joan said, moving away and speaking to those on the other side of the room. "Will one on yo' pour out th' medicine? My hand's noan steady."
Grace went to the bedside hurriedly.
"Derrick," he said, bending down, "do you know me?"
"Yes," Derrick answered in a faltering whisper, and as he said it the bedroom door closed. Both of them heard it. A shadow fell upon the sick man's face. His eyes met his friend's with a question in them, and the next instant the question put itself into words:
Grace bent lower.
"It was Joan Lowrie."
He closed his eyes and waited a little as if to gain fresh strength. There rose a faint flush upon his hollow cheeks and his mouth trembled.
"How"—he said next—"how—long?"
"You mean to ask me," said Grace, "how long she has been here?"
A motion of assent.
"She has been here from the first."
He asked no further questions. His eyes closed once more and he lay silent.
CHAPTER XXXIX - A Testimonial
Joan went back to her lodgings at the Thwaites' and left Mrs. Barholm and Anice to fill her place.
Too prostrate to question his nurses, Derrick could only lie with closed eyes helpless and weary. He could not even keep himself awake long enough to work his way to any very clear memories of what had happened. He had so many half recollections to tantalize him. He could remember his last definite sensation,—a terrible shock flinging him to the ground, a second of pain and horror, and then utter oblivion. Had he awakened one night and seen Joan Lowrie by the dim fire-light and called out to her, and then lost himself? Had he awakened for a second or so again and seen her standing close to his pillow, looking down at him with an agony of dread in her face?
In answer to his question, Grace had told him that she had been with him from the first How had it happened? This he asked himself again and again, until he grew feverish over it.
"Above all things," he heard the doctor say, "don't let him talk and don't talk to him."
But Grace comprehended something of his mental condition.
"I see by your look that you wish to question me," he said to him. "Have patience for a few days and then I will answer every question you may ask. Try to rest upon that assurance."
There was one question, however, which would not wait. Grace saw it lying in the eager eyes and answered it.
"Joan Lowrie," he said, "has gone home."
Joan's welcome at the Thwaites' house was tumultuous. The children crowded about her, neighbors dropped in, both men and women wanting to have a word with her. There were few of them who had not met with some loss by the ex-plosion, and there were those among them who had cause to remember the girl's daring.
"How's th' engineer?" they asked. "What do th' doctors say o' him?"
"He'll get better," she answered. "They say as he's out o' danger."
"Wur na it him as had his head on yo're knee when yo' come up i' th' cage?" asked one woman.
Mrs. Thwaite answered for her with some sharpness. They should not gossip about Joan, if she could help it.
"I dunnot suppose as she knowd th' difference betwixt one mon an' another," she said. "It wur na loikely as she'd pick and choose. Let th' lass ha' a bit o' quoiet, wenches. Yo' moither her wi' yo're talk."
"It's an ill wind as blows nobody good," said Thwaite himself. "Th' explosion has done one thing—it's made th' mesters change their minds. They're i' th' humor to do what th' engineer axed fur, now."
"Ay," said a tired-looking woman, whose poor attempt at mourning told its own story; "but that wunnot bring my mester back."
"Nay," said another, "nor my two lads."
There had been a great deal of muttered discontent among the colliers before the accident, and since its occurrence there had been signs of open rebellion. Then, too, results had proved that the seasonable adoption of Derrick's plan would have saved some lives at least, and, in fact, some future expenditure. Most of the owners, perhaps, felt somewhat remorseful; a few, it is not impossible, experienced nothing more serious than annoyance and embarrassment, but it is certain that there were one or two who were crushed by a sense of personal responsibility for what had occurred.
It was one of these who made the proposition that Derrick's plan be accepted unreservedly, and that the engineer himself should be requested to resume his position and undertake the management of the work. There was some slight demurring at first, but the catastrophe was so recent that its effect had not had time to wear away, and finally the agreement was made.
But at that time Derrick was lying senseless in the bedroom over the parlor, and the deputation from the company could only wait upon Grace, and make an effort at expressing their sympathy.
After Joan's return to her lodgings, she, too, was visited. There was some curiosity felt concerning her. A young and handsome woman, who had taken so remarkable a part in the tragedy, was necessarily an object of interest.
Mr. Barholm was so fluently decided in his opinion that something really ought to be done, that a visit to the heroine of the day was the immediate result. There was only one form the appreciation of a higher for a lower social grade could take, and it was Mr. Barholm who had been, naturally, selected as spokesman. He explained to Joan the nature of the visit. His friends of the Company had heard the story of her remarkable heroism, and had felt that something was due to her—some token of the admiration her conduct had inspired in them. They had agreed that something ought to be done, and they had called this evening to present her with a little testimonial.
The bundle of crisp bank-notes burned the hand of the man who held them, as Joan Lowrie listened to this speech. She stood upright before them, resting one hand upon the back of a chair, but when the bearer of the testimonial in question rose, she made a step forward. There was more of her old self in her gesture than she had shown for months. Her eyes flashed, her face hardened, a sudden red flew to her cheek.
"Put it up," she said. "I wunnot tak' it."
The man who had the money laid it upon the table, as if he were anxious to be rid of it He was in a glow of anger and shame at the false step they had made.
"I beg your pardon," he said. "I see we have made a mistake."
"Ay," she said, "yo' ha' made a mistake. If yo' choose to tak' that an' gi'e it to th' women an' childer as is left to want bread, yo' may do it an' welcome."
CHAPTER XL - Going South
The first day Fergus Derrick was allowed to spend an hour in an easy-chair by the fire, he heard the story of his rescue from the lips of his friend, listening to it as he rested against the propping cushions.
"Don't be afraid of exciting me," he had said to Grace. "I have conjectured until I am tired of it. Tell me the whole story. Let me hear the end now."
Derrick's breath came quick and short as he listened, and his haggard face flushed. It was not only to his friend he owed his life, but to Joan Lowrie.
"I should like to see her," he said when Grace had finished. "As for you, Grace—well—words are poor things."
"They are very poor things between friends," was Grace's answer; "so let us have none of them. You are on this side of the grave, dear fellow—that is enough."
During the rest of the day Derrick was silent and abstracted, but plainly full of active thought.
By nightfall a feverish spot burned upon his cheek, and his pulse had quickened dangerously.
"I must wait," he said to Grace, "and it is hard work."
Just at that time Anice was sitting in her room at the Rectory, thinking of Joan also, when there came to her the sound of footsteps in the passage and then a summons to the door.
"You may come in," she said.
But it was not a servant, as she had supposed; it was Joan, with a bundle upon her arm.
"You are going away, Joan?" she said. "Tonight?"
"Ay," Joan answered, as she came and stood upon the hearth. "I'm goin' away to-neet."
"You have quite made up your mind?"
"Ay," said Joan. "I mun break loose. I want to get as far fro' th' owd life as I con. I'd loike to forget th' most on it. I'm goin' to-neet, because I dunnot want to be axed questions. If I passed thro' th' town by day-leet, theer's them as ud fret me wi' their talk."
"Have you seen Mr. Grace?" Anice asked.
"No. I shanna ha' th' chance to say good-by to him. I coom partly to ax yo' to say it fur me."
"Yes, I will say it I wish there were no need that I should, though. I wish I could keep you."
There was a brief silence. Joan knelt on one knee by the fender.
"I ha' bin thinkin' o' Liz," she said. "I thowt I'd ax yo'—if it wur to happen so as she'd drift back here agen while I wur away—as yo'd say a kind word to her, an' tell her about th' choild, an' how as I nivver thowt hard on her, an' as th' day nivver wur as I did na pity her fro' th' bottom o' my soul. I'm goin' toward th' south," she said again after a while. "They say as th' south is as different fro' th' north as th' day is fro' the neet. I ha' money enow to help me on, an' when I stop I shall look fur work."
Anice's face lighted up suddenly.
"To the south!" she said. "Why did I not think of that before? If you go toward the south, there is Ashley-Wold and grandmamma, Mrs. Galloway. I will write to her now, if you will let me," rising to her feet.
"If yo'll gi' me th' letter, I'll tak' it an' thank yo'," said Joan. "If she could help me to work or th' loike, I should be glad enow."
Anice's mother's mother had always been her safest resource in the past, and yet, curiously enough, she had not thought of turning toward her in this case until Joan's words had suggested such a course.
Joan took the letter and put it in the bosom of her dress.
"Theer's no more danger fur him?" she said. "Thwaite towd me he wur better."
She spoke questioningly, and Anice answered her—
"Yes, he is out of danger. Joan, what am I to say to him?"
"To say to him!"
She started slightly, but ended with a strained quietness of manner.
"Theer's nowt to say," she added, rising, and preparing to go.
Anice rose also. She held out both her hands, and Joan took them.
"I will go downstairs with you," said Anice; and they went out together.
When they reached the front door, they kissed each other, and Anice stood in the lighted hall and watched the girl's departure.
"Good-by!" she said; "and God bless you!"
Early in the morning, Derrick called his friend to his bedside.
"I have had a bad night," he said to him.
"Yes," Grace answered. "It is easy enough to see that."
There was an unnatural sparkle in the hollow eyes, and the flush upon the cheek had not faded away.
Derrick tried to laugh, and moved restlessly upon his pillow.
"So I should imagine," said he. "The fact is—well you see I have been thinking."
"Yes—yes—Grace, I cannot wait—I must hear something. A hundred things might happen. I must at least be sure she is not far away. I shall never regain strength as long as I have not the rest that knowledge will bring me. Will you go to her and take her a few words of gratitude from me?"
"Will you go now?"
Grace would have left the room, but Derrick stretched out his hand and touched him.
"Stay—" he said.
Grace turned to him again.
"You know"—in the old resolute way—"you know what I mean the end to be, if it may be?"
"I think I do."
Grace appeared at the Rectory very soon afterward, and asked for Miss Barholm. Anice came down into the parlor to meet him at once. She could not help guessing that for some reason or other he had come to speak of Joan, and his first words confirmed her impression.
"I have just left the Thwaites'," he said. "I went there to see Joan Lowrie, and find that she is not there. Mrs. Thwaite told me that she had left Riggan. Is that true?"
"Yes. She went away last night She came here to bid me good-by, and leave a farewell message for you."
Grace was both troubled and embarrassed.
"I——" he faltered. "Do you understand it?"
"Yes," Anice answered.
Their eyes met, and she went on:
"You know we have said that it was best that she should break away entirely from the past. She has gone to try if it is possible to do it. She wants another life altogether."
"I do not know what I must do," said Grace. "You say she has gone away, and I—I came to her from Derrick."
"From Mr. Derrick!" Anice exclaimed; and then both relapsed into silence.
It was Anice who spoke first
"Mamma was going to send some things to Mr. Derrick this morning," she said. "I will have the basket packed and take it myself. If you will let me, I will go with you as soon as I can have the things prepared."
CHAPTER XLI - "A Soart o' Pollygy"
The interview between Anice and Derrick was a long one. At the end Derrick said:
"I shall go to Ashley-Wold."
Grace had been called out almost immediately after his return to the house; but on his way home he met Anice, and having something to say about the school, he turned toward the Rectory with her.
They had not gone far, however, before they were joined by a third party,—Mr. Sammy Craddock, who was wending his way Crownward. Seeing them, Mr. Craddock hesitated for a moment, as if feeling somewhat doubtful; but as they approached him, he pulled off his hat. "I dunnot know," he said, "after aw, if it would not be as well to ha' a witness. Hope yo're nicely, Miss," affably; "an' th' same to yo', Parson. Would yo'" clearing his throat, "would yo' moind shakin' honds wi' a chap?"
Grace gave him his hand.
"Thank yo', Parson," said "Owd Sammy." "It's th' first toime, yo' know, but it shanna be th' last, if yo' dnnnot see owt agen it. Th' truth is, as it's summat as has been on my moind for some toime,—ivver sin' th' accident, i' fact. Pluck's pluck, yo' see, whether yo're for a mon or agen him. Yo're not mich to look at. Yo' mowt be handsomer, an' yo' mowt be likelier,—yo' mowt easily ha' more muscle, an' yo' dnnnot look as if yo' wnr like to be mich i' argyment; but yo're getten a backbone o' yo're own,—I'm danged if yo' ha' na."
"I'm much obliged to you, I am sure," said Grace.
"Yo' need na be," answered Sammy, encouragingly. "Yo' need na be. If yo'd getten owt to be obleeged to me fur, I should na ha' so mich to say. Yo' see I'm makin' a soart o' pollygy,—a soart o' pollygy," with evident enjoyment of the word. "An' that's why I said as it mowt be as well to ha' a witness. I wur allus one as set more store by th' State than th' Church, an' parsons wur na i' my line, an' happen I ha' ben a bit hard on yo', an' ha' said things as carried weight agen yo' wi' them as valleyed my opinion o' things i' general. An' sin' th' blow-up, I ha' made up my moind as I would na moind tellin' yo' as I wur agoin' to w'draw my oppysition, sin' it seemit as if I'd made a bit o' a mistake. Yo're neyther knave nor foo', if yo' are a parson. Theer now! Good-mornin' to yo'!"
"Noan on 'em con say as I wur na fair," Owd Sammy said to himself, as he went on his way shaking his head, "I could na ha' done no fairer. He desarved a bit o' commendation, an' I let him ha' it. Be fair wi a mon, say I, parson or no. An' he is na th' wrong sort, after aw."
He was so well pleased with himself, that he even carried his virtue into The Crown, and diffused it abroad over his pint of sixpenny. He found it not actually unpleasant to display himself as a magnate, who, having made a most natural mistake, had been too independent and straightforward to let the matter rest, and consequently had gone to the magnificent length of apologetic explanation.