"It is not coal you are burning up,
But human creatures' lives."
The flaring, flickering light from the lamps in their caps showed their coal-begrimed faces as they huddled together and talked in hushed tones of the thing that had happened. Near them on the floor of the mine lay a man's head, blackened and blood-smeared. A little beyond it was a hand, the fingers still twitching slightly. From underneath the mass of slate, newly fallen, a little red stream trickled Slowly toward them. They moved a little farther from it, and a little farther, until they were huddled against the opposite wall, but it followed them stealthily.
They knew that they must die. No human power could rescue them before the deadly gases crept upon them. But the horror in their eyes was not all a horror of death.
The youngest, a boy of fourteen, slipped his hand into his father's.
"Let's write to her," he said, "and to the children."
"Write," groaned the father, "write! What can we tell her? Can we tell her how to fill six mouths when she has nothing–nothing?"
"We can tell her," the boy said bravely, though the horror deepened in his eyes, "that we're not afraid to die."
The man was already fumbling in his pocket for a pencil. The others followed his example.
"I'm not afraid to die," the father said, "but God knows I'm afraid for her to live."
They crouched down in the narrow space and began writing on such scraps of paper as they could find in their pockets, spreading it out as smoothly as possible on knee or dinner pail or smooth bit of slate. For a long while there was unbroken silence, save for the labored breathing of the men as the air became more oppressive and the scratching of the pencils as their work-stiffened fingers moved clumsily, but rapidly, in the race with death. And, though they knew that it was their master's greed for profits that had made the mine a death trap, there was no word of bitterness or resentment in the letters they wrote to their dearest.
Before they had finished writing one of them fell back and lay writhing and gasping for breath. They did not try to revive him. They knew that to do so would only prolong his torture. When he lay still at last, with distorted face and protruding tongue, they felt a little relieved. They knew he was at rest.
The boy was trembling violently. Each breath was harder to draw than the one before it. He turned a little with his back to the dead man, and looked at his father.
"I'll tell her to use my clothes for the children," he whispered. "She won't do it unless I tell her to–and it will help a little."
And outside, in the clear, morning sunlight, the women were weeping.
But in one of the costliest mansions of a city not far away a man sat at his dainty breakfast table scowling over the news that had just reached him through the telephone.
He looked across at the prettily painted thing for whom he had divorced the wife of his youth.
"It will cost a confounded lot of money," he growled, "to get that mine in working order again."