Told At A Tunnel's Mouth by Anonymous
A group of navvies waited for the relief party at the mouth of a tunnel.
"Sing us a song, Sam!" said one.
"Got a cold, Bill; try the new hand."
A loud laugh followed this remark, and that for two reasons; one was Sam's cold, which was not strange, seeing that for fourteen hours they had worked (as only English navvies can) in that long tunnel, at times half choked with smoke and steam, and then half-frozen with the bitter winter wind; the other reason was his suggestion for the fresh hand to sing, whose strange silent manner had not made him a favourite in the rough but hearty gang of navvies. Once Sam had watched and saw him reach over a part of his dinner to a mate who was "not up to the mark," when the said mate could not swallow the hard fare he had provided himself with; and Sam wished to know more, being, as he would have said, "kinder curus on sich p'ints," so he asked.
"P'rhaps you'll oblige?"
"How long have we got, mates?"
"Matter of half-hour before the relief comes."
"I'll sing you a song at last, if you'll hear a story first."
"Hear! hear!" said Sam; and the rest agreed. So the new hand placed himself a little nearer the middle of the group, and leaning on his pick, began:
"A bargain is a bargain, mates, and I shall keep you to your word; if you don't hear me out覧no song. I'm going to talk about my little Meg; and if you don't know why I am quiet-like now, you will before I have done. Once I had as nice a home as any man need wish for, and the girl I brought to it was the right sort, I can tell you; none of your flashy, dressy, empty-headed ones, but a right down decent hard-working maid she was. But she was religious, always wanted to go to church or chapel, or what not, on the Sunday, and I didn't care for that; so I told her, 'Alice,' says I, 'you have married me, and you'll have to stick to me, or else there'll be a row.' Well, she begged to go, but I would not hear a word of it; so she gave in.
"So we went on for more than a year; I was middlin' steady, and she kept the home up well, only I noticed she seemed less happy-like; and if I stopped her going to church or chapel on Sunday, I couldn't get her to go out for pleasure with me; for she said, 'Fair's fair; I keep away from one place to please you, I keep away from others to please myself.' And I thought there was something in that; don't you?"
The men made a murmur, half yes, half no, and seemed to grow more attentive; it was level with their understanding.
He went on.
"Soon after that Meg was born, and how glad Alice was, to be sure! why, that child, I believe she would have worked her fingers to the bone for it. Some folks talk as if our little ones were a curse to us; why, mates, them as says so are worse than a jackdaw, and as empty as a bag of wind; they ain't got no heart themselves."
"No; they're all jaw," said Sam.
"Well, anyway, we didn't call Meg a curse by a long stretch; she crowed and grew, and every year bound us more together; for whatever little differences we had in other things we were one on the babe覧she was the best in the world. But while Meg grew strong the mother grew weak, until she was as thin as a shadow; then I asked the doctor, who said she wanted change of air. I asked her if she would like to go and see her mother, and take Meg; lor', how pleased she was! So she went, and I saw her off.
"How I got on without her I don't know; badly enough it was. When she came back little Meg was four years old. Mates, I didn't know the wife, so white and ill she was; but the child was brighter than ever, the sunshine of our lives. To make the story short, while I hoped and hoped Alice would mend, she didn't; and the sight of her face, so ghost-like, kind of haunted me覧she was queer and lonely-like and覧well, lads, I took to drink!"
The fresh hand's voice quivered a little, but he grasped the pick firmer, and continued: "Most every night I kept away from home, not because I hated it, boys, for my heart was there, but I just could not bear to see Alice; somehow death appeared written in her face, and I wanted to give him plenty of room覧I was not ready for him. The neighbours kept the place and Meg tidy, and I took home what was left after paying score at the 'Lion.'"
Bill gave Sam a good nudge to look at the speaker, for the tears had gathered in his eyes and were rolling in little channels down his cheeks.
"One night there was a noise in the bar at the 'Lion.' Somebody sung out, 'Mind the little 'un;' then there was a fall and a cry覧Meg's cry覧and I ran out, to see the landlady catch her up, and the blood flowing from a great gash in the forehead. 'Pure accident,' some one said; but I caught hold of Meg, the landlady bound her up somehow, and I rushed home with her覧home to her mother, and the sight of the child seemed to put life into Alice; she fondled and sang to the little one in a way that almost broke my heart. The doctor came and bound the head up, but the little eyes were fast closed and he gave no hope.
"Once she opened the little eyes, gave one stare wild enough to shudder at, and then closed them; so we sat, Alice with her on her breast in bed, and I on a chair by the side.
"'John,' said Alice, 'I don't think I shall be here long, and I want to talk to you a bit; will you listen?'
"I nodded, for I could not speak.
"'Before I knew you, John, I used to read my Bible and pray to God; since then I have given it up; you did not like it, John; but I have got to die; and it's all dark now, husband. What am I to do?'
"I kept quite still; what could I say?
"'John, I'm too weak to read now; won't you read a bit to me, and give me a little comfort before I die覧if there is any for me?'
"Not for years had I touched the book she spoke of, and where to find it now I did not know; but I hunted round, for I thought, if this will give her ease, I'm bound to try; and at last I found it behind the tea-tray. I asked her where to read; she said anywhere. So I opened and read where Jesus went into a house in which a little child lay dead; how the people mocked and jeered Him when He said she slept (and I looked at our poor Meg, so white and pained, wondering if He would have come to her); how Jesus took that little girl's hand, her cold, dead hand, and said, 'Arise.'
"'Oh, John, if He were only here to speak to Meg and make her well!' said Alice.
"'Perhaps it's only a tale,' I said覧and stopped.
"'No, John,' said Alice. 'When I was well I could live and not think much of Him; but since I've been ill He seems very real to me sometimes; even now, John, I believe He is here!'
"Mates, that was a cold, dark night, and the wind howled outside, the fire was all but out, and the candle flickered about with the draught. I tell you I felt bad, for her words did seem so full of meaning, her eyes almost looked me through.
"'John, if He's here, He can save our Meg. John dear, won't you ask Him? Won't you pray?'
"'Alice, I can't; I don't know how.'
"'Husband, look at the darling; think of her覧of her! John, try. Oh, John, try!'"
The whole group of navvies gathered round him here with open eyes and strained ears, watching eagerly for what was coming.
"I don't know what voice whispered back her words like an echo; but I heard, and fell upon my knees crying to the Lord覧if He was there覧to have mercy on my sinful soul, and to heal our little lamb. Oh, mates, how I did cry, to be sure! and how I did hope it might be true that He was there! for I felt sure, if He was, He would help us覧the old story I had learned years before and forgotten so long覧the story of His cruel death, seemed to rise like a strange bright picture in the awful stillness of that room: how He died for sinners, that such might be brought back to God覧this broke down my hardened heart. Just then, whilst I was on my knees, and the tears of penitence were on my cheeks, Meg, dear little Meg, opened her eyes once more. 'Oh, father, I have had such a beautiful dream,' she said; 'the Lord whom mammy loves has come, and called to such a lovely house your poor tired Meg. Father, take care of dear mammy!'
"The little eyes grew more weary, closed at last, and with one long sigh Meg was gone to the lovely home."
The rough men were touched indeed as he stopped to gasp down his emotion.
"Lads, the mother went before long, clinging to the Lord whom Meg saw, resting on His word as she passed through the Valley of the Shadow into the Light beyond. The old place was too full of sorrow for me; so I wandered on till I got to this place; and if I'm quiet, it is because I think of them. Ever as I work the sense of His presence is with me; their dying words are in my ears. Oh! mates, take my story home to your hearts覧home to your wives and little ones, and with them seek the Saviour, whose love so strangely made me turn from evil unto God."
Not a word had interrupted him all through; but now Sam's voice was heard but little above a whisper,
"Mate, we want the song."
John cleared his voice a little, and, as the men hushed down again, sang:覧
"I stay a little while below;
The changing seasons come and go,
But Christ my joy heals every woe,
In Him I live and fear no foe.
"The night is dark and sad to me,
But even in the gloom I see
My Saviour bright who died to free
My soul from misery.
"Though He has taken those above
Who once have cheered me with their love,
Clad in the robe His hands have wove,
They safely rest, where'er I rove.
"So still to Him my steps do tend;
His power is present to defend;
On His sweet mercy I depend;
His love to me will never end.
"Friends, come to Him, just as you are;
His arms of mercy reach as far
As ever son of man can need;
His blood can pardon, and His love can feed."