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Mark Twain > The Gilded Age > Chapter LXII

The Gilded Age

Chapter LXII

Philip Sterling's circumstances were becoming straightened. The prospect
was gloomy. His long siege of unproductive labor was beginning to tell
upon his spirits; but what told still more upon them was the undeniable
fact that the promise of ultimate success diminished every day, now.
That is to say, the tunnel had reached a point in the hill which was
considerably beyond where the coal vein should pass (according to all his
calculations) if there were a coal vein there; and so, every foot that
the tunnel now progressed seemed to carry it further away from the object
of the search.

Sometimes he ventured to hope that he had made a mistake in estimating
the direction which the vein should naturally take after crossing the
valley and entering the hill. Upon such occasions he would go into the
nearest mine on the vein he was hunting for, and once more get the
bearings of the deposit and mark out its probable course; but the result
was the same every time; his tunnel had manifestly pierced beyond the
natural point of junction; and then his, spirits fell a little lower.
His men had already lost faith, and he often overheard them saying it was
perfectly plain that there was no coal in the hill.

Foremen and laborers from neighboring mines, and no end of experienced
loafers from the village, visited the tunnel from time to time, and their
verdicts were always the same and always disheartening--"No coal in that
hill." Now and then Philip would sit down and think it all over and
wonder what the mystery meant; then he would go into the tunnel and ask
the men if there were no signs yet? None--always "none."

He would bring out a piece of rock and examine it, and say to himself,
"It is limestone--it has crinoids and corals in it--the rock is right"
Then he would throw it down with a sigh, and say, "But that is nothing;
where coal is, limestone with these fossils in it is pretty certain to
lie against its foot casing; but it does not necessarily follow that
where this peculiar rock is coal must lie above it or beyond it; this
sign is not sufficient."

The thought usually followed:--"There is one infallible sign--if I could
only strike that!"

Three or four tines in as many weeks he said to himself, "Am I a
visionary? I must be a visionary; everybody is in these days; everybody
chases butterflies: everybody seeks sudden fortune and will not lay one
up by slow toil. This is not right, I will discharge the men and go at
some honest work. There is no coal here. What a fool I have been; I
will give it up."

But he never could do it. A half hour of profound thinking always
followed; and at the end of it he was sure to get up and straighten
himself and say: "There is coal there; I will not give it up; and coal
or no coal I will drive the tunnel clear through the hill; I will not
surrender while I am alive."

He never thought of asking Mr. Montague for more money. He said there
was now but one chance of finding coal against nine hundred and ninety
nine that he would not find it, and so it would be wrong in him to make
the request and foolish in Mr. Montague to grant it.

He had been working three shifts of men. Finally, the settling of a
weekly account exhausted his means. He could not afford to run in debt,
and therefore he gave the men their discharge. They came into his cabin
presently, where he sat with his elbows on his knees and his chin in his
hands--the picture of discouragement and their spokesman said:

"Mr. Sterling, when Tim was down a week with his fall you kept him on
half-wages and it was a mighty help to his family; whenever any of us was
in trouble you've done what you could to help us out; you've acted fair
and square with us every time, and I reckon we are men and know a man
when we see him. We haven't got any faith in that hill, but we have a
respect for a man that's got the pluck that you've showed; youv'e fought
a good fight, with everybody agin you and if we had grub to go on, I'm d-
--d if we wouldn't stand by you till the cows come home! That is what
the boys say. Now we want to put in one parting blast for luck. We want
to work three days more; if we don't find anything, we won't bring in no
bill against you. That is what we've come to say."

Philip was touched. If he had had money enough to buy three days' "grub"
he would have accepted the generous offer, but as it was, he could not
consent to be less magnanimous than the men, and so he declined in a
manly speech; shook hands all around and resumed his solitary communings.
The men went back to the tunnel and "put in a parting blast for luck"
anyhow. They did a full day's work and then took their leave. They
called at his cabin and gave him good-bye, but were not able to tell him
their day's effort had given things a mere promising look.

The next day Philip sold all the tools but two or three sets; he also
sold one of the now deserted cabins as old, lumber, together with its
domestic wares; and made up his mind that he would buy, provisions with
the trifle of money thus gained and continue his work alone. About the
middle of the after noon he put on his roughest clothes and went to the
tunnel. He lit a candle and groped his way in. Presently he heard the
sound of a pick or a drill, and wondered, what it meant. A spark of light
now appeared in the far end of the tunnel, and when he arrived there he
found the man Tim at work. Tim said:

"I'm to have a job in the Golden Brier mine by and by--in a week or ten
days--and I'm going to work here till then. A man might as well be at
some thing, and besides I consider that I owe you what you paid me when I
was laid up."

Philip said, Oh, no, he didn't owe anything; but Tim persisted, and then
Philip said he had a little provision now, and would share. So for
several days Philip held the drill and Tim did the striking. At first
Philip was impatient to see the result of every blast, and was always
back and peering among the smoke the moment after the explosion. But
there was never any encouraging result; and therefore he finally lost
almost all interest, and hardly troubled himself to inspect results at
all. He simply labored on, stubbornly and with little hope.

Tim staid with him till the last moment, and then took up his job at the
Golden Brier, apparently as depressed by the continued barrenness of
their mutual labors as Philip was himself. After that, Philip fought his
battle alone, day after day, and slow work it was; he could scarcely see
that he made any progress.

Late one afternoon he finished drilling a hole which he had been at work
at for more than two hours; he swabbed it out, and poured in the powder
and inserted the fuse; then filled up the rest of the hole with dirt and
small fragments of stone; tamped it down firmly, touched his candle to
the fuse, and ran. By and by the I dull report came, and he was about to
walk back mechanically and see what was accomplished; but he halted;
presently turned on his heel and thought, rather than said:

"No, this is useless, this is absurd. If I found anything it would only
be one of those little aggravating seams of coal which doesn't mean
anything, and--"

By this time he was walking out of the tunnel. His thought ran on:

"I am conquered . . . . . . I am out of provisions, out of money.
. . . . I have got to give it up . . . . . . All this hard work
lost! But I am not conquered! I will go and work for money, and come
back and have another fight with fate. Ah me, it may be years, it may,
be years."

Arrived at the mouth of the tunnel, he threw his coat upon the ground,
sat down on, a stone, and his eye sought the westering sun and dwelt upon
the charming landscape which stretched its woody ridges, wave upon wave,
to the golden horizon.

Something was taking place at his feet which did not attract his

His reverie continued, and its burden grew more and more gloomy.
Presently he rose up and, cast a look far away toward the valley, and his
thoughts took a new direction:

"There it is! How good it looks! But down there is not up here. Well,
I will go home and pack up--there is nothing else to do"

He moved off moodily toward his cabin. He had gone some distance before
he thought of his coat; then he was about to turn back, but he smiled at
the thought, and continued his journey--such a coat as that could be of
little use in a civilized land; a little further on, he remembered that
there were some papers of value in one of the pockets of the relic, and
then with a penitent ejaculation he turned back picked up the coat and
put it on.

He made a dozen steps, and then stopped very suddenly. He stood still a
moment, as one who is trying to believe something and cannot. He put a
hand up over his shoulder and felt his back, and a great thrill shot
through him. He grasped the skirt of the coat impulsively and another
thrill followed. He snatched the coat from his back, glanced at it,
threw it from him and flew back to the tunnel. He sought the spot where
the coat had lain--he had to look close, for the light was waning--then
to make sure, he put his hand to the ground and a little stream of water
swept against his fingers:

"Thank God, I've struck it at last!"

He lit a candle and ran into the tunnel; he picked up a piece of rubbish
cast out by the last blast, and said:

"This clayey stuff is what I've longed for--I know what is behind it."

He swung his pick with hearty good will till long after the darkness had
gathered upon the earth, and when he trudged home at length he knew he
had a coal vein and that it was seven feet thick from wall to wall.

He found a yellow envelope lying on his rickety table, and recognized
that it was of a family sacred to the transmission of telegrams.

He opened it, read it, crushed it in his hand and threw it down. It
simply said:

"Ruth is very ill."

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