‘The old pit ought to have been bricked up years ago,’ said Cole; ’the child’s death will be upon the master’s head.’
‘It’ll all go to one reckoning,’ muttered Black Thompson. But Stephen seemed not to hear their words. Still, with the child clasped tightly to him, he waited for the lowering of the skip, and when it descended, he seated himself in it without lifting up his head, which was bent over the dead child. Miss Anne and Tim took their places beside him, and they were drawn up to the broad, glittering light of day on the surface, where a crowd of eager bystanders was waiting for Stephen’s appearance.
‘Don’t speak to me, please,’ he murmured, without looking round; and they made way for him in his deep, silent grief, as he passed on homewards, followed by Miss Anne. Once she saw him look up to the hills, where, at Fern’s Hollow, the new house stood out conspicuously against the snow; and when they passed the shaft, he shuddered visibly; but yet he was silent, and scarcely seemed to know that she was walking beside him.
The cabin was full of women from Botfield, for Martha had fallen into violent fits of hysterics, and none of their remedies had any effect in soothing her. One of them took the dead child from Stephen’s arms at the door, and bade him go away and sit in her cottage till she came to him. But he turned off towards the hills; and Miss Anne, seeing that she could say nothing to comfort him just then, watched him strolling along the old road that led to Fern’s Hollow, with his arms folded and his head bent down, as if he were still carrying that sad burden which he had borne up from the pit, so closely pressed against his heart.
‘I’m a murderer, Miss Anne,’ said Martha, with a look of settled despair upon her face, on the evening of the next day.
She had been sitting all the weary hours since morning with her face buried in her hands, hearing and heeding no one, until Miss Anne came and sat down beside her, speaking to her in her own kind and gentle tones. Upon a table in the corner of the cabin lay the little form of the dead child, covered with a white cloth. The old grandfather was crouching over the fire, moaning and laughing by turns; and Stephen was again absent, rambling upon the snowy uplands.
‘And for murderers there is pardon,’ said Miss Anne softly.
‘Oh, I never thought I wanted pardon,’ cried Martha; ’I always felt I’d done my duty better than any of the girls about here. But I’ve killed little Nan; and now I remember how cross I used to be when nobody was nigh, till she grew quite timmer-some of me. Everybody knows I’ve murdered her; and now it doesn’t signify how bad I am. I shall never get over that.’
‘Martha,’ said Miss Anne, ’you are not so guilty of the child’s death as my uncle, who ought to have had the pit bricked over safely when it was no longer in use. But you say you never thought you wanted pardon. Surely you feel your need of it now.’