IT WAS the first time the new doctor's wife had been inside of a mine. Her statcato shrieks of laughter and somewhat effusive exclamations came back to them from the end of the passage, where a little party of young people–the elite of the mining camp–surrounded one of the electric machines that do the work of many men.
They sat in the empty car that had brought the party through the mine, their absence unnoticed by the crowd around the machine.
"If you are going away tonight," he had said, "you shall at least give me these few minutes. You shall tell me why you are going."
He could see her very dimly by the flickering light from the lamps in the caps of the miners who were running the machine. Something in her face kept him silent, waiting for her reply.
"I am going," she said, at last, "because I think I ought to go." He leaned forward from his place on the opposite edge of the car, trying, in the dim light, to find in her face the key to her words. "I don't understand," he said. "Why do you say 'ought?' Nobody else needs you as I do–and you love me."
His voice was not pleading–only puzzled and hurt. She drew a quick breath and turned her face away from his sorrowful scrutiny.
"If I had not happened to come over tonight," he said, "you would have gone without letting me know that you were going–without giving me a chance to tell you how much I want you to stay–though you know that without telling."
He paused, but the girl did not answer.
"It doesn't seem quite fair," he said, trying to speak very gently, "after all we've planned–after you'd promised–
"Don't," she said, "I will tell you. I meant to write after I left and tell you. It wouldn't be so hard."
Her hands were clasped in her lap. He took them in his and felt how tensely the fingers were locked together. They did not relax in his grasp.
"You know I love you," she began, half whispering. "I always loved you. When I was little and you taught me to play boys' games and thrashed those who said I was 'only a girl.' We have been such jolly chums, and I thought it would last forever. I still think I will love you always–I know I will, Jack, but I must leave you."
"Because if I stay here I will marry you."
"You have promised to marry me."
"Yes, but you wouldn't hold me to that promise, Jack, now that I see we oughtn't to marry."
"Oughtn't? Why oughtn't we?" the boy cried, impatiently. "You've no parents to forbid it, and your sister only objects because I'm a miner. Is that your reason, too?" he asked, suddenly, "because I am a miner? But, no, I can't think that of you, little chum."
"It-is-because you are a miner." She spoke slowly and very low.
He drew back, astonished, hurt, disgusted; but a flash of green light from the electric machine showed him the girl's white face and his hands closed again over hers.
"Why should that worry you so, little chum?" He moved closer to her. "I'll quit being a miner if you say so."
"That wouldn't make any difference," she said wearily. "You would still be poor."
He did not answer; perhaps he could not. Presently the girl went on: "She has been reminding me of that ever since she found out I cared for you. At first it was 'How would you like to live in those miners' shanties with only one new hat a year?' And I laughed at her. What are houses and hats compared with you! She would say: 'He dresses well enough now, but after you are married he won't care anything about decent clothes, and couldn't afford them anyway.' I told her I would marry you if I knew you would always wear blue overalls. She kept on; you know she is very persistent. She said everything she could to dissuade me, but I only laughed."
The green light from the end of the passage showed the girl's face now and then as she talked. You would have thought there had never been any laughter in that little white face.
"You remember, Jack, when little Tommy Johnson was sick so long, and they couldn't take him to the hospital–they couldn't afford it. They had only the company doctor and he finally performed the operation alone. It was the only chance–" she shuddered. "I was there when he died, and heard his mother's cry, 'It was poverty that killed him–Poverty murdered my baby!'–oh, Jack, it was horrible. And my sister said to me when she heard about it, 'Poor people never can take care of their children as they ought.' And I was angry with her–unreasonably angry–and she saw her advantage and followed it up.
"Whenever a child is sick or ragged, or hungry looking, she says to me: 'Poor people oughtn't to have children.' Whenever a man dies or is killed in the mines and leaves his wife with a little, helpless family that she can't possibly take good care of, my sister looks at me pityingly and says: 'What else can girls expect when they rush headlong into marriage without thinking of the future?' Whenever a child dies–and, oh, jack, they die so often–she reminds me that one-half the children born to working people die before they are five years old."
The girl's voice choked and stopped. There came a fresh outburst of exclamations and giggles from the party at the end of the passage.
"That is why I am going away," she said. "Because I never can marry you, Jack." He was crouching at her feet in the empty car, clinging: to her hands as a drowning man might cling.
"I hadn't thought of that," he said. "My God!"
There was a moment's silence. The green flash came and went, showing to each the face of the other.
"Maybe you can forget me," she whispered. It was the only comfort she could offer him.
'"Forget you?" He raised his head. "No, I won't forget you. I won't let you leave me. This is madness, Grace. You are mine. You shall not let such a little thing separate us."
"Little'" She turned on him as a mother might turn on one that menaced her child. "It is not a little thing." He bowed his head on her knee.
"I might have known," he said. "I oughtn't, to have thought of you in this way. I might have known that you couldn't stoop to such as me. Why should you sacrifice yourself–"
"Don't, Jack," she said. "It wouldn't be a sacrifice if I had only myself to consider. You know I'm not afraid of poverty for myself. Tell me you understand."
"I understand," he groaned; "little chum, I understand."
After a long while he spoke again.
"If I should work and save and push and grab and become successful–a capitalist–would that make any difference?"
"No," she said. "Business men are such soulless things. I don't want you to try. I could not love a money making machine."
She spoke bitterly–half mechanically. She had thought it all over so many times and had found no way of escape.
"Half of them die," she said, "but none of them live. It is not life–this sordid struggle of each against all. The struggle that dulls man's intellect and kills his soul, and makes him worse than the beasts of the field. It is not life."
He laid his face against her tense little hands.
"There must be some way," he said. "Your sister has no children, Grace, and the doctor's wife–" he paused.
"I know," she whispered, "they told me, Jack, but it's murder. I couldn't–you wouldn't want me to do–that."
"No, no," he murmured, soothingly, "I would not wont you to do that."
He pulled her down against him, and she laid her head for a moment on his breast. The monotonous, shrilling sound of the machine ceased suddenly. The voices and laughter rang out more clearly, then moved nearer.
"They are coming," she whispered. "Kiss me, Jack; it's the last time–"
A moment later the hotel keeper's daughter, walking with the schoolmaster, a little in advance of the rest of the party, described the two figures sitting upright on opposite sides of the little car.
"Well, if there ain't Grace and Jack," she cried, not maliciously–she was merely doing as she would have been done by. "They've slipped off alone here–a-sparking."
She laughed loudly, and the rest of the party joined in her mirth.