That Lass o' Lowrie's/Chapter XXXIV
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Chapter XXXIV. The Decision
|Chapter XXXV. In the Pit→|
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 be found his temporary excitement abating somewhat, but still his mood was by no means undisturbed.
It was after they had finished tea and the arm-chairs 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."