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[personal profile] dragonlaire


16.


    A fortnight later, Frank Montague was in his son Christopher's bedroom, reading him a bedtime story. From below, Rebecca, now pregnant again with their second child, called out from the bottom of the stairs. He walked to the second floor landing and inquired, "Yes, Becky?"

    "Frank, someone is here to see you."

    He must have been preoccupied with his son's story, he thought, because he failed to hear anyone knock at the door. He descended the stairs to the first floor. Henry Bevens stood waiting in the foyer, still wearing his great coat and holding his hat.

    "Frank," he smiled, "I've come to see you about a job you mentioned some time back."

    Frank rushed forward, his stunned expression breaking into a wide grin, seizing his lost friend in a ferocious hug.

    "Why haven't you written? When did you arrive? What are you doing here?"

    "Patience, dear friend, all will be answered presently, but I can only answer one question at a time. But, yes, I have just arrived. I came directly here from the station. I sent a wire to Cameron. He met the train and was kind enough to drive me out here."

    "Where's Cameron now? We should all dine together. Why didn't you wire me?"

    "Cameron left. He'll return in the morning. Well, I didn't wire you because I wanted to greet you in my own way. I was afraid that you might be angry with me."

    "I was for a while, especially after you wrote to Cameron and not to me. But all that's been forgotten months ago. I'm just so happy you've returned. Here, give me your hat and coat. Where's your luggage?"

    "I have an overnight bag in your pantry. Hopkins took it. The rest is being shipped. It should arrive in a day or two."

   

    During dinner, Rebecca insisted that Bevens share his attention with no one but her. She had so many questions, she explained, about Washington, the latest fashions. Was he still single? Had he met any eligible women? Where was he going to stay and for how long? Frank would have to delay his questions until after coffee and dessert were served, after the dishes were cleared, and after she retired for the evening.

    Bevens noticed with some interest that Rebecca and Frank had expanded their domestic staff. Hopkins, the original servant, was still here, but now he had been appointed butler and assigned a new black assistant named Berry, a designated footman. Dinner had been prepared by a middle-aged, heavy-set woman named Martha; the carriages were tended by a tall, muscular young man named Kitlins. Berry and Kitlins had been born free, in Maryland and Delaware respectively; Hopkins and Martha had acquired their freedom long before their employment in the Montague household.

    Once the servants had removed the evening's dishes, Rebecca bid the men good night and retired to the front parlor; she had an appointment, she explained, with some unfinished knitting and the third chapter of an exciting popular novel.

   

    Frank escorted Bevens into the newly furnished library, Rebecca's latest undertaking. The two men sat down in large, comfortable wing chairs on either side of the hearth. While Frank tended to the fire, Hopkins entered, bringing cigars, glasses, and a bottle of gin. Sampling the liquor and lighting their cigars, they sat together quietly, neither sure how to begin their long delayed reunion.

    Bevens spoke the silence first. "Where should I begin?"

    "I suppose some sort of chronology of the events that unfolded after we left you at the Morgantown station," Frank smiled softly.

    "Ah, yes."

    "Henry, I know that some of what happened afterward may be painful for you. I won't feel offended if you'd prefer to skip forward in time."

    "No, Frank. That's all right. I've weathered most of the emotional storm by now; time is the great healer and all of that rot, you know.

    "As you may remember, I was on my way to Washington to rendezvous with my fiancee Alice Guilford. We had agreed upon a tentative wedding date, but none of the other particulars had been arranged. There were a dozen loose ends; nothing had been cast in stone, so to speak.

    "In any case, I cabled her from Morgantown station before leaving, outlining my itinerary and expected time of arrival in Baltimore. From that point on, the details of my schedule were uncertain; they depended on making timely train connections to Washington.

    "As luck would have it, I missed the earlier train; the next one wasn't due for another hour and a half. I wasn't overly disappointed because I had brought along some coal production reports I wanted to review for Brewster.

    While I was thus immersed, sitting in the Baltimore station waiting room, a Western Union messenger flagged me down. It was a telegram from Alice asking me to free her from our engagement. Its tone was terse, almost impersonal. Apparently she had been seeing someone else for the past six months. They had fallen deeply in love and intended to marry as soon as her present situation with me could be clarified. She didn't provide a great deal of information about the affair, only that the fellow is a naval attaché and has been transferred to our London embassy. I assumed that was the reason for the exigency of her request. So I acceded to her wishes and cabled back my permission. What else could I do?"

    "Do you know anything else about him?"

    "Not a bit, not even his name. What eventually became of the love struck couple is another mystery. I've heard nothing further and declined to make any inquiries. It's taken me a while to accept the fact that Alice is gone from my life, but I have. I never expect to see her again. As far as I'm concerned, the matter has been settled."

    "Amazing. What did you do afterward?"

    "I drank a great deal, as you can imagine. I spent most of the following month in an alcoholic stupor. After a while, I grew tired of feeling sorry for myself, I sobered up and decided to dedicate a little thought to what I should do next.

    "I cabled Brewster Mining in Uniontown and resigned my position. Alice and I met in Philadelphia. I didn't want to return to Pennsylvania, not for a while anyway. Too many memories I'd rather forget. So I took a job on the Erie Canal up in New York, repairing water locks along the route from Albany to Buffalo. Tedious stuff, actually. I left after three months. For a time, I thought about moving back to Ohio; I visited with my family in  Columbus for several weeks. That was when I realized how much I missed the Appalachian Mountains and the coal mining business. Alice be damned. I was coming back. Once blood and coal dust get mixed in your veins, it's there forever.

    "So, as you can plainly see, here I am."

    "Do you have any plans?"

    "Indeed, I do. I've come to ask you about that job offer you wrote about, the one with an interest in the mine in lieu of a salary. Cameron told me that the two of you have reached a similar agreement. It would be wonderful if the three of us could work together. Is the offer still good?"

    Frank looked away from his friend and stared at the fire. "Yes, Henry, the offer is still good, but the job won't be there. I've decided to close the mine."

    "Why, in heaven's name, would you want to do that? Your coal is the purest in northwestern Virginia. Maybe in the whole Appalachian region."

    "There was an accident, Henry. Four men are dead and one is crippled for life. It was my fault. I should have never opened the mine."

    Bevens poured himself another drink, weighing thoughtfully this latest news. Frank needed counsel; he would have to choose his words carefully.

    "Frank, I'll be completely honest with you. I want that job at your mine, and I'd like to be a part owner along with Cameron. So, it would certainly be in my own self interest to try to convince you to change your mind. But I won't cheapen our friendship for selfish reasons.

    "However, I do think you're wrong, wrong about yourself and wrong in your decision to close the mine. I know what happened out there that day. I read a few reports in the papers, and Cameron filled in the rest of the details. By the way, I met Isador Cheek and Steve Reynolds at the station. They heard about the mine closing in Charleston and decided to return early. You can expect a visit from them tomorrow."

    "Okay, Henry. Thanks for the warning. But go on; I'm listening."

    "You came out here with nothing but raw ambition. You knew little about prospecting for gold, and even less about coal mining. As I remember your story, you didn't even recognize a piece of coal in your pyrite collection. You had minimal education and no useable skills except perhaps enough brazenness to shame a king. You carved a small coal mine in that mountain by yourself and dragged the yield to market, also by yourself. Since then, you've learned the business as well as anyone I know and have gained the respect of every coal mine operator throughout the state. You've even negotiated a deal with the devil to obtain the mineral rights, legal or not.       "You have a good plan that is being implemented. Frank, you've created jobs for nearly a hundred miners who were unemployed until you came along. And you've treated them fairly, more than that actually.

    "Now, there's been an accident at the mine and that's unfortunate. But accidents will always occur in mines; it's the nature of what we do. Coal mining is a dirty and dangerous business. Every miner and every miner's family knows the risks that are taken by men going underground. Yet they go anyway, even the ones with other alternatives. Coal is in their blood; it's part of their life. Ours too.

    "You had a accident. Stay in the business, and you'll have more, I promise you that. A good owner isn't a man who can avoid accidents; no one can do that. A good owner is a man who takes care of his miners and makes certain that they are never exposed to unnecessary risks. And you've done precisely that, that and more.

    "Cameron told me that you blame yourself for the breakdown. That's ridiculous. You crossed a fissured ceiling as the working face developed; that happens everyday in  mines. The trick is to repair the crack properly. An incompetent owner would have ignored it and moved forward, no doubt to a calamitous result. You solicited opinions and formed two plans, both of them good. In a perfect world, either one would have been successful; the one you chose may have failed, but the results of the other one could have been worse. Only God can know for sure. We can just do our best, exactly what you did.

    "Fifty men were in the mine that day, and four men died. But you got the others out, all of them. One has been disabled, true, but he lives and can still be productive doing something else. He could even continue working for the mine in a clerical capacity, say. Many were slightly injured, but all of them are ready to return to work.  Frank, you saved sixteen men that probably would have perished without your leadership. It was an incredibly heroic achievement. And something else, Frank. Your men love you, and for miners to express affection for mine owners is about as common as a herd of unicorns swimming across the Monongahela.

    "Okay. I'm done. But do me a favor and think it over carefully before you close that mine. You'll disappoint a couple of friends, but you'll also throw a hundred men out of work. Good night, Frank."

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January 2012

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