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,