Martha never forgot that moment. As if with a sudden awaking of memory, there flashed across her mind all the child’s simple, winning ways. She seemed to see her dying mother again, laying the helpless baby in her arms, and bidding her to be a mother to it. She heard her father’s last charge to take care of little Nan, when he also was passing away. Her own wicked carelessness and neglect, Stephen’s terrible sorrow if little Nan should be dead, all the woeful consequences of her fault, were stamped upon her heart with a sudden and very bitter stroke. Those who were watching her from the lane saw her stand as if transfixed for a moment; and then a piercing scream, which made every one within hearing start with terror, rang through the frosty air, as Martha sprang forward to the mouth of the old pit, and, peering down its dark and narrow depths, could just discern a little white figure lying motionless at the bottom of the shaft.
A brother’s grief.
In a very short time all the people at work on the surface of the mine knew that Stephen Fern’s little sister was dead—lying dead in the very pit where he was then labouring for her, with the spirit and strength and love of a father rather than a brother. Every face was overcast and grave; and many of the boys and girls were weeping, for little Nan had endeared herself to them all since she came to live at the cinder-hill cabin. Tim felt faint and heart-sick, almost wishing he could have perished in the child’s stead, for poor Stephen’s sake; but he had to rouse himself, for one of the banksmen was going to shout the terrible tidings down the shaft; and if Stephen should be near, instead of being at work farther in the pit, the words would fall upon him without any softening or preparation. He implored them to wait until he could run and tell Miss Anne; but while he was speaking they saw Miss Anne herself coming towards the pit, her face very pale and sorrowful, for the rumour had reached the master’s house, and she was hastening to meet Stephen, and comfort him, if that were possible.
‘Oh, Miss Anne!’ cried Tim; ’it will kill poor Stephen, if it come upon him sudden like. I know the way through the old pit to where poor little Nan has fallen; and I’ll go and find her. The roof’s dropped in, and only a boy could creep along. But who’s to tell Stevie? Oh, Miss Anne, couldn’t you go down with me, and tell him gently your own self?’
‘Yes, I will go,’ said Miss Anne, weeping.
Underground, in those low, dark, pent-up galleries, lighted only here and there by a glimmering lamp, the colliers were busy at their labours, unconscious of all that was happening overhead. Stephen was at work at some distance from the others, loading a train of small square waggons with the blocks of coal which he and Black Thompson had picked out of the earth. He was singing softly to himself the