"Oh, Mysie, I'm no' angry wi' him," he replied brokenly, trying hard to make his voice sound dearly. "I'm no' angry wi' onybody."
"I'm glad o' that, Rob," she said, her hand caressing his head. "You was ay a guid hearted laddie—I'm awfu' glad." Then her mind began to wander and she was back in Edinburgh speaking of her father and John.
"Oh, faither," she rambled on. "Dinna be angry wi' me. There's naebody to blame. Dinna be angry."
Then Robert was conscious that others were in the room, and looking up he beheld his mother and Jenny Maitland and behind them with anxious face and frightened eyes stood Peter Rundell, the picture of misery and despair.
"She's kind o' wanderin', puir thing," he heard the mother say in explanation to the others. "She's kind o' wanderin' in her mind."
It was a sad little group which stood round the dying girl, all anxious and alarmed and watchful. Then after a while she opened her eyes again and there was a look of startled surprise as if she were looking at something in the distance. Then she began to recognize each and all of them in turn, first Robert, who still held her hand, then her mother and Nellie, and Peter. A faint smile came into her eyes and he stepped forward. Her lips moved slowly and a faint sound came falteringly from them.
"Dinna be angry wi' onybody," she panted. "It was a'—a—mistake."
Then raising her hand she held it out to Peter, who advanced towards the bedside and placing his hand on Robert's she clasped them together in her own. "There noo—dinna be angry—it was a' a mistake. It was Rob I liket—it was him—I wanted. But it—was—a' a mistak'. Dinna be—" and the glazed sunken eyes closed forever, never to open again, a faint noise gurgled in her throat, and the dews of death stood out in beads upon the pale brow. A tiny quiver of the eyelids, and a tremor through the thin hands and Mysie—poor ruined broken waif of the world—was gone.
"Oh, my God! She's deid," gasped Robert, clasping the thin dead hands in a frenzy of passionate grief. "Oh, Mysie! Mysie! Oh God! She's deid," and his head bent low over the bed while great sobs tore through him, and shook his young frame, as the storm shakes the young firs of the woods. Then suddenly recollecting himself as his mother put her hand upon his bent head saying: "Rise up, Robin, like a man. You maun gang oot noo." He rose and with tears in his eyes that blinded him so that he hardly saw where he was going, he stumbled out into the darkness under the pale stars—out into the night to the open moor, his grief so burdening that he felt as if the whole world had gone from his reckoning.
"Oh, my poor Mysie," he groaned. "It was all a horrible mistake," and the darkness came down in thick heavy folds as if the whole world were mourning for the loss of the young girl's soul, but it brought no comfort to him.
A CALL FOR HELP
It was a quiet night in early April, full of the hush which seems to gather all the creative forces together, before the wild outburst of prodigal creation begins in wild flower and weed and moorland grasses, and Robert Sinclair, who had walked and tramped over the moors for hours, until he was nearly exhausted, his heart torn and his mind in an agony of suffering, sat down upon a little hillock, his elbows on his knees and his hands against his cheeks.
The moor-birds screamed and circled in restless flight around him. They were plainly protesting against his intrusion into their domain. They shrilled and dived in their flight, almost touching the bent head, with swooping wing, to rise again, cleaving the air and sheering round again; but still the lonely figure sat looking into darkness, becoming numbed with cold, and all unconscious of the passage of time.
Gradually the cold began to tell upon him, and he started to his feet, plodding up the hill, through the soft mossy yielding soil. Back again he came after a time, his limbs aching with the long night's tramping; but yet he never thought of going home or turning towards the village.
"Oh, Mysie!" he groaned again and again, and all night long only these two words escaped his lips. They came in a low sad tone, like the wind coming through far-off trees; but they were vibrant with suffering, and only the moor-birds cried in answer.
"Oh, Mysie!" and the winds sighed it again and again, as they came wandering down out of the stillness between the hills, to pass on into the silence of the night again, like lost souls wandering through an uncreative world, proclaiming to other spheres the doom that had settled upon earth.
"Oh, Mysie!" groaned a moorland brook close by, which grumbled at some obstruction in its pathway, and then sighed over its mossy bed, like a tired child emerging exhausted from a long fever, to fall asleep as deeply as if the seal of death had been planted upon the little lips. Occasionally he shifted his position, as his limbs grew cramped, or rose to pace the moor again to bring himself more exhaustion; but always he came back to the little knoll, and sat down again, groaning out the sad plaintive words, that were at once an appeal and a cry, a defiance and a submission. By and by the first gray streaks of dawn came filtering through the curtains of the cloudy east, touching the low hills with gray nimble fingers, or weaving a tapestry of magic, as they brightened and grew clearer, over the gray face of the morn.
Soon the birds leapt again from every corner, climbing upon the ladders of light and tumbling ecstasies of mad joy to welcome the day, as if they feared to be left in the darkness with this strange figure, which merely sat and groaned softly, and looked before it with silent agony in its eyes; and now that the light had again come, they shouted their protest in a louder, shriller note; they mounted upon the waves of light and swooped down into the trough of the semi-darkness, expostulating and crying, not so much in alarm now, as in anger. For with the light comes courage to birds as well as men, and fear, the offspring of ignorance, which is bred in darkness, loses its power when its mystery is revealed.
But even with the coming of the day the still silent figure did not move. It continued to sit until the birds grew tired of protesting, and even the mountain hare wandered close by, sniffing the breeze in his direction, and cocking its ears and listening, as it sat upon its hind legs, only to resume its leisurely wandering again, feeling assured that there was nothing to fear in the direction of this quiet, bent figure of sorrow, that sat merely staring at the hills, and saw naught of anything before him. The things he saw were not the things around him. He was moving in a multitude again. He was walking among them with pity in his heart—a great pity for their ignorance, their lack of vision; and he was giving them knowledge and restoring light to their eyes, to widen their range of vision, so that they could take things in their true perspective. He was full of a great sympathy for their shortcomings, recognizing to the full that only by sowing love could love be reaped, only in service could happiness be found—that he who gave his life would save it.
The great dumb mass of humanity needed serving—needed love. It passed on blindly, wounding itself as it staggered against its barriers, bruising its heart and soul in the darkness, and never learning its lessons. Saviors in all ages had lifted the darkness a bit, and given knowledge, and sometimes it had profited for a while till false prophets arose to mislead.
It was a seething feverish mass, stamping and surging towards every blatant voice which cried the false message to it, rousing it to anger, and again misleading, until it often rose to rend its saviors instead of those who had duped it so shamelessly.
All the tragic procession filed past, and he gave them peace and knowledge. By and by they grew to a long thin stream, feverish and agitated, seemingly all converging towards a point—pain and anxiety in every quick movement, and suffering in every gesture. He looked with still more and more compassion upon them, with a greater love in his breast, but it did not calm them as before, and at last in desperation he stretched out his hands in appealing pity for them, his whole being aglow with the desire to help and pity and love, and he found that the scene changed. He was on the moor, and there was the discomfort of cold in his limbs; but—yes, he was looking at the pit, and there was a long stream of men, women and children, principally women and children, running frantically across the moor towards the pit, and he could hear the faint sound of their voices, which clearly betokened suffering, anxiety and alarm. Something had happened. He must have been looking at that procession for a long time, he realized, and pulling himself together, he bounded to his feet and was off in a long striding race through the moor towards the pit, his heart telling him that something had happened which was out of the ordinary kind of accident that regularly happened at a coal mine. He bounded along, knowing as he went that there was something more of sorrow for his mother in this, whatever it was. He felt so, but could not account for the feeling, and as this thought grew in intensity in his mind, he changed his course a bit, and made for home, to ascertain what had really happened. It was something big, he felt, but whatever it was, his mother must again be called upon to suffer, and his alarm grew with his pace, until he arrived breathless at the house. One look at her face, and he knew his instincts had told him the truth.
She was white and strained, though tearless, but her eyes were full of an awful suffering.
"What has happened, mother?" he demanded, as if he could hardly wait for her to answer.
"The moss has broken in, an' twenty-three men are lost. Jamie an' Andra are among them. They gaed oot themselves this morning, telling me they could work fine, even though you werena there. Oh, Rob! What will I do! Oh, dear! Oh, dear! My bonnie laddies!" and with a sob in her voice she turned away, and Robert was again out of the house, and running through the moor to the pit, as hard as desperation could drive him. His two brothers were down there, and they must be got out. Even as he ran he wondered what strange freak of fate it was, that had kept him out there on the moor all night and so saved him from this terrible fate.
He could understand how his brothers would feel at the chance of working one day by themselves. He had always been their guide and protector. They had gone into the pit with him when they left school, and had just continued working with him since, learning their trade from his greater experience, and trusting always to his better judgment when there was danger to avoid. They would go out that day with the intention of working like slaves to produce an extra turn of coal. Even though it were but one extra hutch, they would fill it, and slave all day with never a rest, so that they could have the satisfaction of seeing approval in his eyes, when they told him at night how many they had turned out, and how well things had gone generally with them in his absence.
He reached the pit, to find that the moss was already rising in the shaft, and that there was no possibility of getting down to try and save these twenty-three men and boys who were imprisoned in the darkness beneath.
He came across Tam Donaldson, who was the last to get up.
"Tell me aboot it, Tam," he said. "Is there no chance of getting down? Do you think any of them will be safe so far?" and a whole lot of other anxious questions were rattled off, while Tam, dripping wet from having to wade and fight the last fifty fathoms toward the pit bottom, through the silent, sinister, creeping moss that filled the roadways and tunnels, stood to give him an account of what had taken place.
"They were a' sitting at their piece, Rob—a' but James and Andra. They were keen to get as muckle work done as possible, an' they had some coal to get to fill oot a hutch, when a' at yince we heard Andra crying on us to rin. Had they a' ran doon the brae we'd a' hae been safe, for we could hae gotten to the bottom afore the moss; but some ran into the inside heading, an' hadna time to realize that their outlet was cut off, an' there they are; for the moss was comin' doon the full height of the road when I ran back to try an' cry on them to come back. So I had to rin for't too, an' jist got oot by the skin o' my teeth.
"I kent fine it wad happen," he went on, as Robert stood, the tears in his eyes, as he realized how hopeless the position was of ever being able to restore these men and boys again to their homes. There was anger in Tam's voice as he spoke. "It's a' to get cheap coal, an' they ought to hae known, for they were telt, that to open oot that seam into long well workings so near the surface, an' wi' sic a rotten roof, was invitin' disaster, wi' as muckle rain as we hae had lately. They are a lot o' murderers—that's what they are! But what the hell do they care, sae lang as they get cheap coal!"
Robert turned away sick at heart. It was certainly a foolish thing, he had thought at the time, for the management to change their method of working the coal; for even though the seam had grown thinner, he felt that it could have still been worked at a profit under the old system. He knew also that the men were all upset at the time by this change, but the management had assured them that there was no danger, and that it would mean more money for the men, as they would be enabled to produce more coal.
This certainly had happened for a week or two, but the rates were soon broken, because they were making too high wages; and the men found, as usual, that their increased output had merely meant increased work for them, and increased profits for the owners.
Was there nothing to be done? Robert wondered, as he paced restlessly back and forth, his mind busy, as the mind of every man present, and anxious to make any sacrifice, to take any risk, if by so doing they might save those imprisoned in the mine. Even while his mind was working, he could not help listening to the talk of those around him. There were strange opinions expressed, and wild plans of rescue were suggested and discussed and disputed. Everyone condemned the coal company for what had happened, but over all there were the white-faced women and the silent children; the muffled sobs, the tears, and the agony of silent wet eyes that spoke more pain than all the tragedies that had ever been written.
Robert could not help listening to one man—a big, raw, loosely-built fellow, who stood in the midst of a group of women laying off his idea of a rescue.
"I'm rale glad to be out of it," he said, "for Jean's sake, an' the bairns; but for a' that I'd gang doon again an' try an' get them oot if there was ony chance o' doin' it."
"Hoo is Jean?" one woman interposed to enquire about his wife, who had been ill a long time.
"Oh, she's gettin' on fine noo, an' the doctor has a hopeful word o' her," he answered. "In fact, I was just feeding the birds the last time he was in, an' asked him hoo she was doin'."
This man, Dugald McIntosh, had one god—his canaries. He read all he could get to read about them, and studied the best conditions under which to rear them, sacrificed everything he could to breed better birds, and this was always a topic for him to discourse upon.
"I was just busy feedin' them when he cam' in, and after he had examined her, I asked him hoo she was gettin' on."
"Fine," he said, "gi'e her plenty o' sweet milk noo, and fresh eggs, an' she'll sune be on her feet again. Fresh eggs! mind you, an' me canna get yin for my canaries! I thocht it was a guid yin!"
Robert turned away; but there was working in his mind an idea, and he ran round to the colliery office to the manager, who was nearly mad with grief and anxiety at what had happened.
"Come in, Sinclair," he said simply. "Can you suggest anything to help us? Whatever is done, it can only be done quickly; for the moss is rising rapidly in the shaft, and even though some of the men are safe in the upper workings, it is only a question of a very short time till the moss will rise and suffocate them, or until the black damp does so. If you have any idea that can help, out with it and let us make a trial, for the inactivity is killing me."
"I have been thinking, Mr. Anderson," replied Robert, "that we might go down the old air-shaft over in the moss there, and run along the top level, which is not far from the surface, and try and blast it through on the heading into which the moss broke."
It might be full of moss too, for no one knew the extent of the breakage in the metals, and even though it were clear, the damp would be lying in it; but surely they might make an attempt on it. Robert remembered working this level to within about nine feet from going through on the heading. If he had plenty of hands, just to go down and drill a hole in anywhere, and blast out the coal with a shot or two wherever he could best place them, he might succeed in getting through to the men. It might be that after the first rush filling the roadways, the flood of moss had drained off, and was not now running so thickly down the heading.
"Let me go and try, sir," he pleaded eagerly. "I think I can manage, if the level is still unbroken. We can work in short turns, so as not to be overcome with the damp. Will you let me have a try? I believe it's the only chance we have, and if we do succeed, look what it will mean to the women in the village. Will you let me try?"
"Yes," replied Anderson, reaching for his lamp, "and I shall be one of the triers too. Go out and pick seven or eight men. I'll get the necessary tools and get off over the moor to the old air shaft. It may still be open. It is a pity we let it go out of repair, but we can have a trial."
Robert ran out, a hope filling his heart, telling his news to those round about, and the first man to step forth, before he had finished, was Dugald McIntosh, the man who had put more value on his canaries than on his wife's health, who quietly lifted up the drills the manager had brought, and slinging them lightly over his shoulder, was off across the moor at a run, with a dozen men at his heels, all eager to get to grips with the danger, and try to rescue their imprisoned comrades.
A FIGHT WITH DEATH
Robert Sinclair seemed to be the one man who knew what to do—at least, he seemed to be the only one who had a definite aim in view and as if by some natural instinct everyone was just ready to do his bidding. He was the leader of the herd towards whom everyone looked ready for a new order to meet any new situation which might arise. Initiative and resource were a monopoly in his hands. He was silent, and worked to get ready to descend the old air-shaft, with grim set lips. Yet there seemed to be no sense of bustle, only the work was done quickly and orderly, his orders being issued as much by signs as by speech, and soon a windlass was erected with ropes and swing chair fastened, into which he at once leaped, followed by another man. Tools and explosives were packed in and lamps lit and the order given to lower the chair.
Robert felt a queer sort of feeling as he stood waiting on the first motion of the little drum round which the rope wound. He was cool and clear brained—in fact he wondered why he was so collected. He felt he was standing out of all this maelstrom of suffering and terror. Not that he was impervious to anxiety for the men below, not that he was unmoved by all that it meant to those standing round; but after that first wild throb of terror that had clutched at his heart when his mother had told him the dread news and that his two brothers were imprisoned in the mine, something seemed suddenly to snap within him, the load and the intensity of the pain lifted, and from that moment he had been master of the situation.
He glanced round him as he waited quietly in his swinging seat. He felt as he looked, no sense of fear or impending doom. He knew that black damp probably lay in dense quantities down in that yawning gulf below him, he knew that the sides of the shaft were in a bad state of disrepair, and that they might give way at any time as the swinging rope must inevitably touch them, and bring the whole thing in upon him, with hundreds of tons of debris and moss.
Yet it was not of these things he thought. Perhaps he did not think of anything particularly, but a far-off lilt of a children's game which was played at school, kept iterating and reiterating through his brain, and everything seemed done to that tune.
"Don't take a laddie, oh, Laddie oh, laddie oh, Don't take a laddie oh, Take a bonnie wee lassie."
It sang continually within him and men seemed to move to its regular beat, as they hurried to get ready. He looked at the hills, and noted how quiet everything seemed, their curving outlines gave such a sense of eternal rest. There was a patch of lovely blue sky above him, he noticed where the clouds opened up and a glint of golden glorious sunshine came through; but it looked garish and it closed again and the white clouds trailed away, their lower fringes clinging to the hill tops like veils of gossamer woven by time to deck the bride of Spring. A lark rose at the edge of the crowd of weeping women and children as if unmindful of the tragedy over which it sang so rapturously, and he noted its fluttering wings and swelling throat as it soared in circles of glad song.
All these things and more he noted though it was but a momentary pause.
"Are you right?" came the question from the men at the windlass, far away it seemed and unconnected with the scene.
"Right," he answered with a start, and looking round he seemed to become aware of the white-faced, red-eyed women among whom his mother's face seemed to stand out. She was not weeping, he noticed, but oh God! her face seemed to turn him with the intensity of the suffering in her eyes. He realized that he had not noticed her before, and now with a wild throb of pity he stretched out his hands towards her, a look of suffering in his eyes, as if he were feeling the pains of humanity crucified anew, and the chair began to drop slowly below the surface, swinging down into the darkness and the evil dangers that lurked below. Her face was the last thing he saw—a face full of agony yet calm with a great renunciation coming to birth in her eyes, her lips drawn thin like a slit in her face and all the color gone from them, the head bent a little as if a great blow had fallen upon her—an island of agony set in a sea of despair.
A wild impulse seized him to go back. It was too much to ask of a woman, he felt. Too great a burden of tragedy to heap upon one soul, as he cast his mind back through the suffering years and viewed all the pain she had borne, and the terrible Gethsemane which her life had been; but as the chair swung round he clutched the swaying rope and with the other hand steadied it from crashing against the side of the shaft as they slowly dropped lower and lower into the darkness and the evil smells which hung around.
"Things look bad here," said his comrade as they passed down where at some time a huge portion from the side had fallen out and down into the bottom of the old shaft.
"Ay," answered Robert, "everything seems just ready to collapse," and they dropped lower and lower, swaying from side to side, cautiously guiding their swinging chair from the moss-oozing side, their nerves strained as they listened to the creeking rope as it was paid out from above.
"Holy God," cried his mate, "that was a near thing," as a huge mass of rocks and slimy moss lunged out a little below them and hurtled away in a loud rumbling noise.
Robert pulled the signal cord to stop and looked up to see the white clouds passing over the narrow funnel-like shaft in which they hung. Then he gave the signal to let out again noting how thick with damp the atmosphere was becoming, and having difficulty with his light.
Lower and lower they swung and dropped down into the old shaft and as the rope creaked and crazed above them it lilted:
"Choose, choose, wha' you'll tak', Wha' you'll tak', wha' you'll tak', Choose, choose wha' you'll tak', A laddie or a lassie."
And the memory of the old lilt brought back other scenes again and he found himself guiding the chair from the shaft side steering it off with his hand at every rhythmic beat of the child song.
Soon they reached the bottom of the shaft, for it was not very deep, and found a mass of debris, almost choking up the roadways on either side of the bottom. But they got out of their chair and soon began to "redd" away the stones though they found very great difficulty in getting the lamps to burn. Occasionally, as they worked, little pieces came tumbling from the side of the shaft, telling its own tale, and as soon as Robert got a decent sized kind of opening made through the rocks which blocked the roadway he sent up the other man to bring down more help and to get others started to repair the old shaft by putting in stays and batons to preserve the sides and so prevent them from caving in altogether.
He found his way along the level which had been driven to within nine feet of going through on the heading in which the inbreak of moss had taken place. He noticed the roof was broken in many places and that the timber which had been put in years before was rotten. Strange noises seemed to assail his senses, and stranger smells, yet the lilt of that old childish game was ever humming in his brain and he saw himself with other boys and girls with clasped hands linked in a circle and going round in a ring as they sang the old ditty.
"Three breakings should dae it," he said as he looked at the face of the coal dripping with water from the cracks in the roof. "If only they were here to put up the props. I could soon blow it through," and he began to prepare a place for batons and props, pending the arrival of more help from those who were only too eager to come down to his aid.
It was almost an hour before help came in the shape of two men carrying some props. Then came another two and soon more timber began to arrive regularly and the swinging blows of their hammers as they drove in the fresh props were soon echoing through the tunnels, and Robert set up his boring machine and soon the rickety noise of it drowned all others. He paused to change a drill when a faint hullo was heard from the other side.
"Hullo," he yelled, then held his breath in tense silence to hear the response which came immediately. "Are you all safe?" he roared, his voice carrying easily through the open coal.
"Ay," came the faint answer; "but the moss is rising in the heading and you'll have to hurry up."
Robert knew this, and one of his helpers had gone down an old heading to explore and had returned to say that it was rising steadily and was now within two hundred feet from the old shaft down which he had descended.
"Where away did the roof break?" roared Robert as he changed his second drill.
"Half way doon the cousie brae," came the answer, "an' we're all shut in like rats. Hurry up and get us oot," and again the rickety, rackety noise of the boring machine began and drowned all other noises.
He soon drilled his holes and he could hear them on the other side singing now some ribald song to keep up their courage, while others who were religiously inclined chanted hymns and psalms, but all were wondering whether Robert and his men would be able to break through the barrier in time to save them before the persistently rising moss claimed them.
He charged his shots and called them to go back, telling them the number of his charges, then lit his fuse and ran out of the old level to wait in a place of safety while the explosion took place.
Soon they boomed out and the concussion put them all in darkness; but they soon had the lamps re-lit and were back in among the thick volumes of powder smoke, groping about and shading their lamps and peering in to see what their shots had done to lessen the barrier between them and their imprisoned comrades.
Then the shovels set to work and tossed the coal which the shots had dislodged back into the roadway and soon the boring machines were busy again, eating into the coal; for those tireless arms of Robert's never halted. He swung the handle or wielded the pick or shovel, never taking a, rest, while the sweat streamed from his body working like some mechanical product for always in his mind he was calculating his chances for being able to blast it through the barrier before the moss rose.
"It has only a stoop length an' a half to rise now," reported one of the men. "It's creeping up like the doom o' the day o' judgment. But I think we'll manage. If these shots do as well as the last ones we should be within two feet of them, an' surely to God we can bite the rest of it, if we canna blaw it. Let me stem the shots, Rob, an' you take a rest."
"You go to hell," was the unexpectedly astounding reply; for no one had ever heard Robert Sinclair use language like this before. "As soon as thae shots are off an' if they blaw as well as the others we'll turn out the coal an' then you can gang up the pit, every yin o' you. I'll soon blow through the rest of it, and if you are all up by then it will make for speed in getting the others out. We're going to have a race for it even though we manage as I'm thinking to. So get out of the way and don't talk. Again the air's getting too dam'd thick for you all remaining here. There's hardly as muckle as would keep a canary living," and again he called to those on the other side to beware of the shots, and again ran out to a place of safety while the explosions took place.
Once more the result of the shots was good; but the smoke choked and blinded them and one man was overcome by the fumes. They carried him out the road a bit and after he showed signs of coming round, Robert gave instructions for him to be taken to the surface.
"Oh, Lod, but it's nippin' my e'en," said one as he rubbed his eyes and blew his nose, sneezed and finally expectorated. "It's as thick as soor milk, be dam'd!"
"Well, get him up, and I'll away back and redd out the shots and try and get it through again. The moss is rising quicker noo an' it has only aboot eighty feet to come."
So back he went among the thick choking volume of smoke, tripping and stumbling and staggering from side to side as he scrambled on. Would he be in time to blast the barrier down before the steadily creeping moss rose to cut off his only avenue of escape?
"My God! What's that?" he asked himself as he paused while a rumble and crash behind him told him that the old shaft had caved in burying his comrades in rocks and moss and water.
He ran back but could get no further than within a stoop length of the old shaft. There were hundreds of tons of debris and all was finally lost. For the first time terror seized him and he tore desperately at the bowlders of stone, cutting his fingers and lacerating his body all over with cuts and bruises. He raved and swore and shouted in desperation, the sweat streaming from every pore, his eyes wild and glaring, but he was soon driven back by the moss which was oozing and percolating through the broken mass of bowlders and gradually it forced him back with a rush as it burst through with a sudden slushing sound as if suddenly relieved from a barrier which held it. Back he rushed, his light again becoming extinguished, the flood pursuing him relentlessly, the air now so heavy that he could hardly breathe, but groping his way he reached the first end roadway down which for the moment the flood ran to meet the rising moss creeping up relentlessly from below.
Choking and only half conscious he staggered on with all sense of disaster gone from his mind, with no thought of his comrades on the other side waiting so impatiently to be released, and singing their frothy songs in the hope that all was well, his legs doubling below him, and his lungs heaving to expel the poison which the thick air contained. Down at last he fell, his head striking against the side of the roadway, and he lay still.
The moss might rise hungrily over him now, the rotten roof might fall upon him, all the dangers of the mine might conspire together against him; but nothing they might do could ever again strike terror into the young heart that lay there, feebly throbbing its last as it was being overcome with the deadly poison of the black damp.
He was proof against all their terrors now, the spirit could evade them yet; for though the old shaft might collapse and imprison his body and claim it as a sacrifice to the King Terror of the Underworld, no prison was ever created that could contain the indomitable spirit of man as God. He was free—free, and was happy and could cry defiance to the dangers of the mine, to the terrors of time itself. He could clutch the corners of the earth, and play with it as a toy of time, among the Gods of Eternity.
"Choose, choose wha' you'll tak'," throbbed the young heart and a smile of triumph played upon the lips as the pictures of bygone times flitted across his dying brain. He was again the happy infant, hungry it may be, and ill-clad, but Heaven contained no happier soul. The little stomach might not be filled with sufficient food; but the spirit of him as it was in younger years knew no material limits to its laughter in the childish ring games of youth. Again he was waiting in the dark wintry mornings on Mysie, so that she would not be afraid to go to work on the pit-head; ay, and he was happy to take the windward side of her in the storm, and shield her from the winter's blast, tying her little shawl about her ears and making her believe he did not feel the cold at all.
He was back again at his mother's knee, listening to her glorious voice singing some pitiful old ballad, as she crooned him to sleep; or lying trying to forget the hunger he felt as the glorious old tune seemed to drown his senses while he waited to say his prayer at night.
"Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me, Bless Thy little lamb to-night, In the darkness be Thou near me, Keep me safe till morning light."
Then there was the "good-night" to everyone and the fond kiss of the best of all mothers, the sinking into sleep that billowed and rocked the weary young spirit of him, crushed and bruised by the forces of the world, and finally the sweet shy smile of a young girl blushing and awkward, but flooding his soul with happiness and thrilling every fiber of him with her magic as she stood upon the hill crest, outlined against the sunset with a soft breeze blowing, kissing the gray hill side, bringing perfumes from every corner of the moor and beckoning him as she rose upward, he followed higher and higher, the picture taking shape and becoming more real until it merged into spirit.
And the creeping moss moved upward, hungry for its prey and greedy to devour the fine young body so fresh and strong and lusty; but it was balked, for it claimed only the empty shell. The prize had gone on the wings of an everlasting happiness and the spirit of the moor, because there is no forgetting, triumphed over the spirit of destruction, so that in the records of the spirit he shall say:
"I shall remember when the red sun glowing Sinks in the west, a gorgeous flare of fire; How then you looked with the soft breeze blowing Cool through your hair, a heaving living pyre Fired by the sun for the sweet day's ending; I still shall hear the whirring harsh moor-hen, Roused from her rest among the rushes bending I shall remember then.
"I shall remember every well-loved feature, How, on the hill crest when the day was done, Just how you looked, dear, God's most glorious creature, Heaven's silhouette outlined against the sun; I shall remember just how you the fairest, Dearest and brightest thing that God e'er made, Warmed all my soul with holy fire the rarest, That vision shall not fade."
But pain and tragedy forever seem to have no limit to their hunger; and in the clear spring air above the place where the bodies of her boys lay, Mrs. Sinclair's heart was again the food upon which the tragedy of life fed. All the years of her existence were bound up in the production of coal, and the spirits of her husband and of her sons call to-day to the world of men—men who have wives, men who have mothers, men who have sweethearts and sisters and daughters, stand firm together; and preserve your women folk from these tragedies, if you would justify your manhood in the world of men.