It was then that the burden of life descended with such crushing force on Katherine. The work of the store must go on, and it was harder in winter than in summer. She spent long hours burrowing among the piles of merchandise in the underground chamber beneath the store, where were kept the goods bought and brought to Roaring Water Portage when the waters were open. Or, with Miles for a companion, she went long distances across the snowy wastes, delivering stores by dog team and sledge. This was all very well on the still days, when the sun shone with cloudless brilliancy in a clear sky, and the dogs tore along like mad creatures, and the whole of the expedition would seem like a frolic; but there were other days when things were very different. Sometimes a raging wind would sweep in from the bay, laden with a terrible stinging damp, which kind of cold pierced like daggers. Or a roaring north wind would howl through the forests, snapping off big trees from their roots as if they were only twigs, while earth, air, and sky were a confusion of whirling snowflakes. These were the dangerous days, and they never ventured far from home when such blizzards were raging, unless it was for the three miles' run down to Seal Cove, where the trail had been dug out, and the snow banked, at the beginning of winter.
There were a large number of sealing and walrus boats laid up in ice between Roaring Water Portage and Seal Cove. Most of these had men living on board, who passed the days in loafing, in setting traps for wolves, or in boring holes through the ice for fishing. Many of them spent a great portion of their time in the little house at the bend of the river, where Oily Dave dispensed bad whisky and played poker with his customers from morning to night, or, taking a rough average, for sixteen hours out of the twenty-four. These were the men whom Katherine most dreaded to encounter. They looked bold admiration, and roared out compliments at the top of husky voices, but they ventured nothing further; her manner was too repressive, and the big dogs which always accompanied her were much too fierce to be trifled with. Mrs. Burton had left off lamenting the chances of damage to her sister's complexion from exposure, for she realized that Katherine must be breadwinner now, and the stern necessities of life had to be first consideration for them all.
One day Katherine found to her surprise that some tin buckets of lard were missing from the store. It was only the day before that, rummaging in the far corner of the cellar, she had unearthed six of these buckets, which had apparently been forgotten, as the date chalked on them was eighteen months old. With much hard work she hauled four of them to the store above, ripped the cover from one, so that the contents might be retailed at so much per pound, and left the other three standing in a row on a shelf which was remote from the stove. But now two were gone, and looking at the one which had been opened she saw that it was only half full. For a moment she supposed that there must have been a considerable run on lard during the previous evening, while she was teaching night school, with Miles on duty in the store. It had been such a fine clear evening that many people were abroad who would otherwise have been in bed, or at any rate shut up in the stuffy little cabins of the snow-banked sealers.
A minute of thought, however, showed her that such a demand for lard would have been so much out of the common as to have elicited some comment from Miles at closing time. Each bucket would contain something over thirty pounds in weight, so the sale of over sixty pounds' weight of lard in one evening would have been something of a record for Roaring Water Portage. Miles was busy at the wood pile; she could not leave the store to go and question him then, so had to wait with what patience she could muster until he came indoors again. Her father had not left his bed yet; indeed he rarely did leave it now until noon or later, when he dressed himself, walked across the kitchen, and sat in the rocking-chair until it was time for bed again.
The life would have seemed dreary and monotonous enough if it had not been for the hard and constant work, which made the days of that winter fly faster for Katherine than any winter had ever flown before. She did not mind the work. Young, strong, and with plenty of energy, the daily toil seemed rather pleasant than otherwise. It was business bothers like this about the missing lard which tried her patience and temper. Presently Miles came in, his face red and warm from hard work in the open air, but puckered into a look of worry, which found a reflection on the countenance of Katherine.
"We are running out of fish for the dogs, Katherine. Have we been using it too fast, do you think?" he asked.
"Surely not. The poor creatures cannot work unless they are well fed, and they have never had more than they could eat. How much longer will it last?"
"Three days perhaps, not more," Miles answered. "It has seemed to go all at once."
"Just so. I should fancy the fish has suffered in the same way as the lard. You had better keep the door of the fish-house locked in future. I wonder where we can get some more fish? People's stocks of dried fish will be getting low now, I expect," Katherine said, wrinkling her brows and trying to think of a likely place where the want could be supplied.
"I know where we could get fresh fish, pretty nearly any amount of it, if you didn't mind the bother of catching it. We could freeze it and keep it so. But what about the lard? You meant it to be sold, didn't you?"
"Yes, of course; but how much did you sell?" asked Katherine, with a hope that he really had sold it all and merely forgotten to mention it.
"Sixteen pounds, all told. Oily Dave seemed uncommonly pleased with it; though, of course, he wanted to beat me down two cents a pound, and when he found I would not put up with that, he tried to palm some bad money off on to me. I'm not so sure that he would not have had me there, for I'm not half so sharp about money as I ought to be, but Stee Jenkin called out to me to keep my eyes open, and then I soon found out there was something on hand, so I made the old rascal pay up in honest coin."
There was an air of modest swagger about Miles as he spoke, for he rather prided himself on his business acumen and general smartness, so Katherine's next words were a terrible blow to his pride.
"My dear boy, you had better have let him have his two cents twice over, and then winked at the money, than have given him such a chance as he must have made for himself last night," she said bitterly.
"What do you mean?" he demanded, with the offended air he always displayed when his pride was wounded.
"I mean that Oily Dave or some of his precious companions walked off with two whole buckets of that lard from under your nose last night, unless indeed you took the trouble to carry it into the cellar again."
"It would not have been possible for anyone to do that, for I was here all the time," he answered stiffly.
"Quite all the time, or did you have to leave for anything; some silly little thing, perhaps?" she said in a coaxing tone, anxious to win him from his show of bad temper, and at the same time get some clue to the disappearance of the stuff.
"I don't think I went away at all," Miles began, then caught himself up in a sudden recollection. "Oh yes, I did! I remember I took a ten-dollar bill, that Jean Doulais brought, indoors for Father to give me change."
"Then while you were indoors the thief stepped into the store and walked off with our two pails of lard. Well, I hope the stuff will make him very sick indeed!" exclaimed Katherine, in a tone of disgust.
"I wonder who it was? It couldn't possibly have been Jean," said Miles, "for he was sitting on the counter and banging his heels. When I went into the kitchen I heard him thumping away all the time I was there, and he was sitting and banging when I came back."
"Was it Jean Doulais who made all that noise?" said Katherine. "I was demonstrating on the blackboard, and had to write my explanations, because I could not make myself heard. One of the boys volunteered to go and punch the noisy one's head, but this I forbade for prudent reasons."
"Pity you didn't let the fellow come. He might have happened on the thief," growled Miles. "If Jean didn't take the things, he must know pretty well who did. Will you tackle him about it?"
"I think not," replied Katherine, after a pause for consideration. "He might think we suspected him, which would be bad from a business point of view. Then he would be certain to tell the thief, and that would lessen our chances of detecting him."
"What a desperately light-fingered lot they are here this winter!" Miles exclaimed in a petulant tone. "Just see what a rush we had to save the stores from your cache the night Father had his accident."
"But we did save them," replied Katherine with a ripple of laughter. "And incidentally we also saved the lives of a noble pair of men."
Miles gave a grunt of disgust. "A regular pity they didn't get killed, I think; and I shouldn't wonder if they are at the bottom of this piece of thieving also."
Katherine shook her head. "Oily Dave may be, for pilfering seems to be second nature with him. But Stee Jenkin is made of better stuff, and I believe he is really grateful because we saved him that night. Then remember how kind he and his wife were to us when Father was so ill. Oh, I've got a better opinion of Stee than to think he would steal our things now!"
Miles grunted again in a disbelieving fashion, but he did not attempt to upset Katherine's convictions by argument; only they agreed that for the future a more vigilant watch should be kept both indoors and out. A padlock and chain were put on the door of the fish-house, everything that could be locked up was carefully made fast; then Katherine and Miles set themselves to the task of keeping their eyes open to find out who had stolen the lard.
Later in that same day a miserable-looking Indian came in with a lot of dried fish which he wanted to trade off for provisions, and, after a good deal of bargaining, Katherine took the lot in exchange for a small barrel of flour and a packet of tobacco.
"No need for us to go fishing to-morrow, Miles. I have got enough fish to last the dogs for a fortnight, if we are careful," she said to her brother, when he came back from a journey down to Seal Cove.
"Where did you get it from?" he asked.
"From an Indian who called himself Waywassimo, so I think he must have been reading Longfellow's Hiawatha, for you know Waywassimo was the lightning, and Annemeekee the thunder," Katherine replied. "Only there was nothing grand nor terrible about this Waywassimo. He was simply a miserable-looking Indian with a most dreadful cough."
Miles began to laugh in a hugely delighted fashion, but it was some time before Katherine could get from him the cause of his mirth. At length, with many chuckles, he commenced to explain.
"There has been a wretched-looking Indian hanging about Seal Cove for the last two or three days, stealing pretty nearly everything he could lay his hands on, and Mrs. Jenkin told me that last night he broke into Oily Dave's fish-house and cleared off with every bit of dried fish there was."
"So I have been buying stolen goods. How horrid!" exclaimed Katherine with a frown. "Now I suppose it is my duty to hand at least a part of that fish back to Oily Dave. Oh dear, I would rather it had been anyone else, for I do dislike him so much!"
"Don't fret yourself; wait until you hear the end of my story, and then you will see that for once the biter has been bitten," answered Miles, with so much chuckling and gurgling that he seemed to be in a fair way to choke himself. "Mrs. Jenkin says she is quite positive that Oily Dave stole that fish, because his fish-house was quite empty a week ago, as she saw with her own eyes, but yesterday, when she was cleaning his house for him, she saw that he had a lot of fish. He told her then that he had bought it to sell again. She knew how much of that to believe, however, and asked me if we had missed any of our fish."
"What did you say?" asked Katherine, who then began to wonder if their fish had really wasted through being stolen, instead of having merely been used too fast.
"Oh, I didn't commit myself! Mrs. Jenkin has a good heart, but her head is as soft as blubber, so I was pretty careful not to say much," Miles answered, with a wag of his own head, which he thumped with his fist to show that at least he was not topped with blubber.
"It is maddening whichever way one looks at it!" cried Katherine. "If Oily Dave stole our fish, and Waywassimo stole it from him again, then I have been buying our own property, and paying for it at a rather stiff price. I simply could not beat that poor wretch down, he looked so sad and hungry. Oh, Miles, what shall we do? If this business leaks out we shall just be the laughing-stock of the whole place."
"It is not going to leak out; I'll take good care of that," retorted the boy, squaring his jaws. "If we say nothing about it, who is to be any the wiser? Was there anyone here when you bought the fish?"
"Not a soul. How very fortunate!" cried Katherine, beginning to smile again. "It is quite bad enough to be taken in by such a trick, but it would be simply intolerable to have other people knowing about it and laughing at our misfortunes."
Miles nodded. This was just his own opinion, and he would have suffered tortures if the wits of Seal Cove had been able to taunt him about his clever sister having bought her own fish. Then he said slowly, as if he had been giving the matter profound consideration; "There isn't a scrap of doubt in my mind that if Oily Dave took the fish he took the lard as well."
"Then I wish Waywassimo would steal that too!" said Katherine with a laugh.
It was fully a fortnight after this before Katherine and Miles found any opportunity for going fishing. Then there came a day when they had to take a load of stores up beyond the second portage, to the house of Astor M'Kree, and they decided to bring a load of fish back with them if possible, as the store which Katherine had bought from Waywassimo was beginning to run low. Their father seemed better that day, and was able to look after the store with the help of Phil.
Katherine too was bright and lively this morning, as if there were no dark shadow of trouble in her life. Sometimes she was fearfully sick at heart with the remembrance of her father's confidence, and a dread of what the summer might bring; but at other times, on days like this, she took comfort in the ice, the snow, and the searching cold. Winter was not nearly over yet, a hundred things might happen before the summer came, and so her high spirits pushed the dark shadow to one side and for a brief space forgot all about it. She was especially blithe of heart to-day, and so had donned a skirt of scarlet blanket cloth, which matched in hue the woollen cloud she wrapped about her head. On other days, when her mood was more sombre, she wore a dark-blue skirt, like the thick, fur-lined coat which was put on every time she left the house.
"How gay you look, Katherine!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton, as her sister came dancing into the kitchen, where she was making bread. "But what a pity to put on that scarlet skirt if you are going to bring fish home!"
"I shan't spoil it, or if I do I will wear it spoiled until it drops into rags," replied Katherine. "I call it my happiness skirt, and I wear it only when I feel happy. To-day the winter has somehow got into my bones or up in my head, and I feel as light-hearted and reckless as if I had been having oxygen pumped into me by a special contrivance; so plainly this is the proper time for my scarlet skirt."
"It is so funny that scarlet suits you so well, for you are certainly not a brunette," Mrs. Burton said, looking at Katherine in warm sisterly admiration. "But indeed you would look charming in anything."
Katherine swept her a curtsy. "Now that is a compliment most flatteringly paid. Really, Nellie, I don't see how you can expect me to be properly humble-minded if you say things of that sort, for you are such a dear, sincere little person that every word you speak carries conviction with it. But Miles is waiting and I must be off. Don't worry if we are rather late back, for we must bring as much fish as we can."
Mrs. Burton left the bread to take care of itself for a while, and, throwing a thick shawl round her shoulders, came out to see the start. There was only one sledge to-day, but that was piled high with stores of various descriptions, from a barrel of flour to a roll of scarlet flannel, and from canned pineapple to a tin of kerosene. This last was the light de luxe in that part of the world, fish oil serving for all ordinary purposes of illumination. Miles looked after the dogs, while Katherine sped on in front, an ice saw and two fish spears carried across her shoulder. It was just the sort of morning when work was absolute joy, and toil became nothing but the zest of endeavour. Fresh snow had fallen during the night, but the sun was so bright and warm that the cold had no chance against it. The winter was advancing, as was evidenced by longer hours of daylight and hotter sunshine; but when night came the frost was more severe than ever, as if loath to loose its grip on the lakes and streams of that wide white land.
Roaring Water Portage had lost all claim to its name for the present. The river which rushed in summer with a roar over the rocks in rapids was absolutely silent now, and the rocks were merely snow-covered hummocks. The river above was frozen, there was no water to run down, and all the resonant echoes were dumb. The silence and the brightness suited Katherine's mood. She hurried on in front, so that even the shouts of Miles to the dogs became faint in the distance. Then her pace decreased as she swung along with a gentle swaying motion, the big frame of her snowshoe never quite lifted from the ground. When the boatbuilder's house came in sight she hesitated, wondering if it would not be pleasanter to remain outside in the pure fresh air until Miles came, instead of sitting in the hot, stuffy kitchen talking to Mrs. M'Kree. Then, remembering how solitary was the life of the poor little woman, shut up from month's end to month's end with her babies, Katherine decided to get on as quickly as she could and give Mrs. M'Kree the benefit of her society.
Mrs. M'Kree received her literally with open arms, and gave her a hug which nearly took her breath away. "Oh, I am glad you've come yourself! If the weather had been bad I should have been quite sure of seeing you; but as it was so fine I was desperately afraid you'd send the boys. But where is the sledge?"
"Miles is coming on with the dogs, but I came forward at a tremendous pace just because the morning was so beautiful, and I wanted to be alone," Katherine answered, subsiding into a rocking-chair and picking up the M'Kree baby which happened to be nearest.
"Wanted to be alone? My dear, that doesn't sound natural in a young girl. Oh, I hope you are not getting melancholy from all the trouble you've had this winter!"
"How can you even think of melancholy and me in the same connection!" protested Katherine with a merry laugh. "Why, I am a most cheerful person always, and Nellie complains that I live in a perfect whirlwind of high spirits."
"So you may. But if you want to go mooning off alone, it is a sure sign that something is wrong, unless indeed you are in love," and Mrs. M'Kree nodded her head in delight at her own shrewdness.
But Katherine only laughed as she asked: "Pray, whom do you think I should be likely to fall in love with? There are so few eligible men in this part of the world."
"How was I to know but what you left your heart in Montreal last winter? At least there are men enough there," Mrs. M'Kree said. Then she asked anxiously: "My dear, what is the matter? You look quite ill."
Katherine had started to her feet with a look of profound amazement on her face, for at that moment the door of the next room had opened, and another small M'Kree appeared, dragging after him a tin bucket, on which he was raining a shower of resounding blows.
"Where did you get that thing?" she asked with a gasp, instantly recognizing the bucket as identical with the two filled with lard which had been stolen.
Mrs. M'Kree appeared slightly confused, and tried to hide her embarrassment by scolding her offspring.
"Jamie, Jamie, why will you make such a fearful riot? Miss Radford will run away and never come back if you are not quiet."
"I don't care if she does," replied the juvenile. He had not yet reached the age when pretty girls become interesting, and the noise he was producing filled him with tremendous satisfaction, so he banged away with renewed ardour.
Katherine crossed the room with a quick step, and, seizing Jamie, swung him up to the window. "See, here comes Miles," she said, "and he has some toffee in the sledge. Run out and ask him to give you some."
One look of beaming satisfaction Jamie flung her, then, wriggling from her grasp, he tore away to the door and was seen no more for some time. Then Katherine turned to Mrs. M'Kree and said imploringly: "Please tell me where you got that bucket from, and how long you have had it?"
"I'll tell you, of course, seeing that you make such a point of it, but I'm not specially proud of the business, I can assure you," Mrs. M'Kree said, with a touch of irritability very unusual with her. "Oily Dave was up here about a week ago, and he said that he had some buckets of rough fat that would do for greasing sledge runners, or to mix with caulking pitch. He told us he bought the stuff from one of the American whalers that were fishing in the bay last summer, and he offered to sell us a bucket at such a ridiculously low price that Astor bought one off-hand."
"What happened then?" demanded Katherine, her lips twitching with amusement; for she knew quite enough of Oily Dave and his methods to be sure that Astor M'Kree had been rather badly duped.
"The stuff was more than half sawdust, but it had been worked in so carefully that you could not tell that until you came to rub the grease on to runners and that sort of thing; then of course it gritted up directly. But the worst of it was that Astor had mixed some of it with a lot of caulking pitch, which of course is quite spoiled, and he was about the maddest man in Keewatin on the day that he found it out."
Katherine was laughing; she really could not help it. But Mrs. M'Kree, not understanding where the joke came in, said in a reproachful tone: "My dear, it was not a laughing matter to me, either then or now; for when one is married what affects one's husband affects one's self also, and that sometimes in a very disagreeable fashion."
"Please forgive me for laughing!" cried Katherine. "But Oily Dave is such a slippery old rogue, and sometimes he overreaches even himself." Then she told Mrs. M'Kree about the disappearance of the lard, and how she had recognized the bucket upon which Jamie had been drumming so vigorously.
"What will you do?" asked Mrs. M'Kree.
"I don't see what we can do, except keep a sharper lookout in future. There is not enough evidence to go and boldly accuse him of having walked off with two buckets of lard for which he had not paid. There may be a hundred buckets like that in the district, every one of which has contained grease of some description, from best dairy butter down to train oil mixed with sawdust," Katherine replied with a laugh, in which the other now joined.
"It is a good thing you can laugh about it; but I am afraid that I shouldn't have felt like laughing if I had been in your case," said Mrs. M'Kree. Then she cried out in protest: "Must you go so soon, really? Why, you have been here no time at all, and there are heaps of things I wanted to say to you."
"Yes, we must go. We are going to Ochre Lake for fish. Miles says there are heaps there to be had for the catching, and the dogs are getting short of food. We have worked them very hard this winter, so they have needed more to eat, I suppose," Katherine replied. Then she went out to help her brother to bring the stores in, and Mrs. M'Kree came to assist also.
"Ochre Lake is a good long way off, so I mustn't keep you if you are going there. A good six miles from here it must be, if you follow the river," said Mrs. M'Kree; then made a grab at the packet of toffee in Jamie's chubby hand, for he was evidently intent on eating it all himself, and so leaving none for the others.
"We shall not follow the river, but take the short cut through the woods; and we shall go fast too, for the dogs will travel light, you see," Katherine said. Then picking up the fish spears and the ice saw she glided on ahead, while Miles and the dogs went racing after her.
At first, when they left the boatbuilder's house behind, it was wilderness without a sign of life, but after they had gone two or three miles, footprints of various sizes appeared on the snow. There were marks of wolf, of wolverine, of fox, with smaller prints which could only have been made by little creatures like the mink, ermine, and such tiny fry, that, clad in fur white like the snow, scurried hither and thither through the silent wastes hunting for food, yet finding in many cases swift death through the skill of the trapper. At length the lake was reached. In summer it was a sheet of muddy yellow water abounding in fish, and many acres in extent. Now it was a wide snowfield, except at one end, where for some unexplained reason it was open water still. This was the part at which they arrived, and Katherine halted on the bank with an exclamation of surprise. "Why, we shan't need the saw at all; it is open water!"
"The ice at the edge is too thin to stand upon, and we mustn't take risks here, for Father says there is a whirlpool at this end, and it is the constant motion of the water that keeps it from freezing," Miles answered; and taking the saw from Katherine he commenced making a hole in the ice a few yards from the open water.
The dog's were lying panting on the bank as if quite exhausted, but their ears were perked up, and their eyes were very wide open, for they quite understood what was going on, and the prospect of fish freshly caught was very welcome after their months of living on the dried article. When a hole had been cut in the ice, Katherine went to stand by it and spear the fish which immediately crowded to the surface as if anxious to be caught. Miles went to a little distance, where he cut another hole for himself, and for the next hour the two worked as hard as they could at spearing fish, then throwing them on the snow, where they quickly froze stiff. The water seemed entirely alive with fish, which could only be accounted for by the fact that the main part of the lake, which was shallow, was frozen solid, so that all the fish had been forced to the end where the moving water did not freeze.
"I guess we have got a load now, so we might as well stop," said Katherine, whose arms were beginning to ache, having already had more than enough of slaughter for that day at least.
"You load while I jab at a few more of these big fellows, for they seem as if they are just yearning to be caught," Miles cried excitedly. "I never had such fishing as this; it is prime!"
"It isn't fishing at all; it is nothing but killing. Horrid work, I call it," Katherine cried with a shudder, as, gathering up the frozen fish, she proceeded to stack them on the sledge in much the same fashion as she might have stacked billets of firewood.
The dogs had eaten a good meal, and were in fine feather for work; so, although the load was heavy, they made very good pace, and Katherine, gliding along now by the side of Miles, told him of how she had found Jamie M'Kree banging away on one of their stolen lard buckets. Miles was furiously angry, and wanted to go straight off to Seal Cove, denouncing Oily Dave as a thief; but Katherine would not hear of it.
"By precipitating matters we may do a great deal more harm than good," she said. "We have had to buy our wisdom in rather an expensive school, but it ought to make us wiser in future. So far we have only suspicions to go upon, not facts, and it is very likely that if we accused Oily Dave of stealing our stuff he would be clever enough to turn the tables on us, and have us prosecuted for libel, or something of that sort, which would not be pleasant—nor profitable."
"I can't sit meekly down under things of that sort," retorted the boy, with the sullen look dropping over his face which Katherine hated to see there.
"It isn't easy, I know, but very often it pays best in the long run," she answered earnestly. "Whatever we do, or don't do, we must take especial care that Father isn't worried just now. He must be our chief thought for the present, and if our business pride gets wounded, we must just take the hurt lying down for his sake."
"Katherine, are you afraid that Father is going to die?" Miles asked, turning his head quickly to look at her; and there was the same terrified expression on his face which had been there when he asked the same question a few weeks before.
"I think his recovery will depend very largely on whether we can keep him from anxiety for the next two or three months," she answered; and there was a stab of pain at her heart as she thought of the gnawing apprehension and worry which were secretly sapping his strength.
"Then Oily Dave mustn't be meddled with just now, I suppose," Miles said, with a sigh of renunciation; "but sooner or later he has got to pay for it, or I will know the reason why."
The First Rain
The weary weeks of winter passed slowly away. April came in with long bright days and abundant sunshine, but still the frost-king held sway, and all the earth was snowbound, the rivers were mute, and the waterfalls existed only in name. The men in the store were saying one night that some Indians had got through from Thunder Bay by way of the Albany River with mails; but as this meant about four hundred miles on snowshoes, Katherine regarded it only as a piece of winter fiction, and thought no more about it. There were fifty miles of hill and valley between Roaring Water Portage and the Albany River at its nearest point; but this was undoubtedly the nearest trail to civilization and the railway, and when the waters were open it was easier than any other route.
Two days later Katherine was in the cellar overhauling the stores, which were getting so shrunken that she was wondering how they could possibly be made to hold out, when she heard Phil calling, and, going up the ladder, found a tired-looking Indian standing there, who had a bag of mails strapped on to his back.
"Have you really come from Thunder Bay?" she asked in a surprised tone.
"Yah," he responded promptly, and, dislodging the burden from his back, showed her the name Maxokama on the official seals of the bag.
Her father being too unwell to leave his bed that day, Katherine received the mail as his deputy, and, giving the Indian a receipt for it, proceeded to open the bag and sort the letters it contained. There were only a few, and as they were mostly directed to those in authority in the fishing fleet, and to Astor M'Kree, Katherine was quick in coming to the conclusion that it was Mr. Selincourt who had arranged with the post office for the forwarding of this particular mail. A shiver of fear shook her as she thought of him. As a rule she preferred to keep him out of her remembrance as much as possible; but there were times when the fact of his coming was forced upon her. The broad glare of sunlight streaming in through the open door of the store was another reminder that spring was coming with giant strides, and from spring to summer in that land of fervid sunshine was a period so brief as to be almost breathless.
The Indian made some purchases of food and tobacco, but as his conversational powers did not seem to go beyond a sepulchral "Yah", which he used indifferently for yes and no, neither Katherine nor Phil could get much information out of him. When he had gone, Miles came back from wood-cutting on the slopes above the portage, and was immediately started off to deliver the letters at Seal Cove.
A mail that arrives only once in five months or so is bound to be treated as a thing of moment, even when, as in this case, it was limited to half a dozen letters and three or four newspapers. To Katherine's great delight one of the papers was addressed to The Postmaster, Roaring Water Portage, and she carried it in to her father in the dreary little room which was walled off from the store.
"What have you got: a letter?" he asked, turning towards her, his face looking even more thin and drawn than usual.
"No, there were no letters for any of us; ours usually come by way of Montreal and Lake Temiskaming, you know; but this is a sort of special mail, which has been brought by Indians from Maxokama. But there is a newspaper for you, which shows it is a good thing to be postmaster even of a place so remote as this," she said with a laugh.
"A newspaper will be a treat indeed. I think I will get up, Katherine, and sit by the stove in the store; one can't read a newspaper comfortably in bed. Besides, you will be wanting to go out delivering the mail."
"Miles has taken the Seal Cove letters, but there is one for Astor M'Kree that Phil and I will take up this afternoon; the dogs will be glad of a run," she answered, bringing his garments and arranging them near the bed so that he could slip into them easily.
"Fancy a team of four dogs, a sledge, and two people to carry one letter!" he exclaimed.
"Not quite that," she responded with a laugh, glad to see that his mood was so cheerful. "There is a newspaper to go too, and we shall take up a small barrel of flour, with some bacon and sugar."
"That sounds better at any rate, and I shall be delighted for you to have a run in the sunshine," 'Duke Radford said, with that thoughtful consideration for others which made his children love him with such an ardent affection.
Katherine had not gone many yards from the door that afternoon before she noticed a difference in the temperature; it was a soft, clinging warmth, which made her glad to unfasten her scarlet cloud, while the glare of the sunshine was becoming paler, as if a mist were rising.
"Phil, the rain is coming; I can smell it, and the dogs can smell it too. We are in for weather of sorts, I fancy, but Astor M'Kree must get his letter first, even if we have to race for it!" she cried.
"Let's race, then; the dog's are willing, and so am I," replied Phil, who was seated in the sledge among the packages, while Katherine travelled ahead on snowshoes,
And race they did; but already the snow was getting wet and soft on the surface, so that the going was heavy, the sledge cut in deeply, and it was a very tired team of dogs which dropped to the ground in front of the boatbuilder's house. Phil set to work hauling out the stores, but Katherine as usual went in to chat with Mrs. M'Kree, who looked upon her visits with the utmost pleasure.
"I expect it is the last time we shall come up by sledge this season," said Katherine. "But in case the ice is troublesome, and we can't get a canoe through for a week or two, we have brought you double stores."
"That is a good thing, for we are all blessed with healthy appetites up here, and it isn't pleasant to even think of going on short commons," replied Mrs. M'Kree. "But do wait until I've read this letter, for there may be news in it, and there is so little of that sort of thing here that we ought to share any tidings from outside that may happen to get through."
"Perhaps Mr. M'Kree would rather read his letter first himself," suggested Katherine, who would have preferred not to hear about anything that letter might contain. She guessed it was from Mr. Selincourt, and for that reason shunned anything to do with it.
"Astor has gone across to Fort Garry to-day; he started at dawn, and a pretty stiff journey he'll have before he gets back: but I warned him not to go, for I smelled the rain coming when I put my head outside this morning; my nose is worth two of his, for he can't smell weather, and never could," Mrs. M'Kree answered, pulling a hairpin from her head and preparing to slit open the envelope in her hand.
"Still, he might rather that his letter waited for him unopened," murmured Katherine; but Mrs. M'Kree was already deep in her husband's correspondence, and paid no heed at all.
"Oh! oh! what do you think!" she cried a moment later, giving an excited jump, which so startled Katherine that she jumped too.
"How should I know what to think?" she said; then was angry to find that she was trembling violently.
"Mr. Selincourt hopes to arrive in June, and he is going to bring his daughter with him," announced Mrs. M'Kree with a shout, waving the letter in a jubilant fashion.
"Impossible!" remarked Katherine scornfully, the colour dying out of her face. "The first steamers can't get through Hudson Strait until the first week in July."
"They are not coming that way, but straight from Montreal by way of Lake Temiskaming. My word! the young lady will have a chance of roughing it, for the portages on that route are a caution, so Astor says," Mrs. M'Kree answered, then fairly danced round the room. "Just fancy how gay we shall be this summer with a young lady fresh out from England among us! And her father must be just the right sort of moneyed gentleman, for he wants Astor to get a little hut ready for him by the middle of June."
"A what?" Katherine had risen to go, and was buttoning her coat, but faced round upon the little woman with blank surprise in her face, as if she failed to understand what the other was saying.
"A hut. They will want some sort of a place to live in. There is no hotel here, you see, and they are going to stay all summer. What a pity it is you haven't got room to board them at the store!"
"We don't want them," retorted Katherine quickly. "We have quite enough to do without having to wait on a lot of idle boarders."
"Oh! I don't fancy they will be very idle, for Mr. Selincourt says that he and his daughter intend being out a great deal among the fishers," said Mrs. M'Kree, who still kept dipping into the letter, and besought her visitor to stay until she had read it all.
But Katherine would not wait; she was in a hurry to start on the return journey, for every hour now would make the snow surface more wet and rotten to travel over. She was sick at heart, too, and suffering from the keenest disappointment. Six months ago how she would have rejoiced at the prospect of having Miss Selincourt at Roaring Water Portage for the weeks of the short, busy summer. An educated girl to talk to would make all the difference in the isolation in which they were forced to live. Katherine felt herself thrill and flutter with delight, even while she trembled with dread at the thought of her father having to meet Mr. Selincourt face to face. She wondered if the rich man who was coming would remember her father, and if he knew of the wrong that the latter had done in keeping silent, so that he might prosper by the other's downfall.
Bitter tears smarted in her eyes as she toiled through the melting snow; then a dash of wet struck her in the face, and she realized that the rain had begun, and the long winter was coming to an end at last. The last mile was very hard to traverse, and when at length they went down the hill between the high rocks of the portage trail, Katherine heard a faint rippling sound which warned her that the waters were beginning to flow. The store was crowded with men, as was often the case in the late afternoon, and Katherine's hope of being able to tell her father the news quietly was doomed to disappointment. Her first glance at him told her that he knew all there was to be known, and the look of suffering on his face hurt her all the more because she knew there was no balm for his pain. Miles was doing what was necessary in the store under his father's direction, and, because there seemed no need for her assistance just then, Katherine went on indoors to get a little rest before it was time for evening school.
"Oh, Katherine, have you heard the news?" cried Mrs. Burton, who was knitting stockings and reciting "Old Mother Hubbard" between whiles to the twins.
"Yes; at least, I have heard about Mr. Selincourt coming, if that is what you mean," Katherine answered, as she unfastened her outer garments.
"That is not the best part of the news by any means," returned Mrs. Burton, giving Lotta a little shake to silence the demand for more of "Mother Hubbard". "What delights me so much is to think that Miss Selincourt is coming too. Just imagine what it will be to have cultured society here at Roaring Water Portage!"
"She will despise us, most likely, and consider us about on a level with Peter M'Crawney's wife, or that poor little Mrs. Jenkin," said Katherine.
"Nonsense!" Mrs. Burton's tone was energetic; her manner one of mild surprise. "No one would despise you. They might look down upon me a little, but you are quite a different matter."
"Perhaps I am," replied Katherine. "But somehow I have got the feeling in my bones that Miss Selincourt and I shall not fall in love with each other."
"I expect that what you have really got in your bones is a touch of rheumatism from wading through wet snow," Mrs. Burton said anxiously. "Dear, you must take care of yourself, for what would become of us all if you were to fall ill?"
Katherine laughed, only there was not much mirth in the sound. "There is nothing the matter with me, nor likely to be, for I am tough as shoe leather; only sometimes my temper gets knobby, because all the children I can find to teach are grown-up babies of thirty and forty, who prefer flirting to arithmetic, and have to be continually snubbed in order to keep them in their places. The stupid creatures make me so angry!"
"Poor Katherine! It is hard on you, for you are certainly much too good-looking to teach a night school; but, on the other hand, what a good thing it has been for the men to have the school to occupy their evenings," said Mrs. Burton. "Mrs. Jenkin was saying only yesterday that there has not been half so much drinking and gambling at Seal Cove this winter as there was last year, because the men would rather come here and listen to your lectures on history and geography."
"They are willing enough to listen, and will sit looking as stupid as a school of white whales, caught in a stake trap," replied Katherine. "But see what dunces some of them are when I try to knock a little arithmetic into their thick heads."
"Yes, I will admit they are rather dense; and you are very much more patient with them than I should be, I'm afraid," Mrs. Burton said with a sigh. The night school had privately been a very great trial to her, for since 'Duke Radford's indifferent health had caused him to lie in bed so much, it had been impossible to use the room off the store as schoolroom, and so for two hours every evening the family living-room had been invaded by a swarm of more or less unwashed men, whose habits were not always of the most refined description.
"The need for patience will soon be over now," Katherine said, understanding the cause of the sigh, although Mrs. Burton had uttered no spoken complaint. "Miles says the men were beginning to break the boats out yesterday, and it is raining now, which will help matters on a great deal, unless, indeed, it rains too long, and then we may have floods."
"Oh dear, I hope not!" replied Mrs. Burton with a shiver, for spring floods were no joke in that part of the world. "By the way, has Miles told you that he saw the Englishman to-day?"
"What Englishman?" demanded Katherine, with dismay in her tone, for her thoughts immediately flew to Mr. Selincourt; only, of course, it was not possible that he could arrive before June.
"Didn't you hear that an Englishman came through from Maxokama with the Indians who brought up the mail?" said Mrs. Burton in surprise.
"Not a word. But certainly he must be a plucky sort of person to have ventured a journey of four hundred miles on snowshoes. Do you know who he is?" Katherine asked with quickened interest.
"Someone to do with the fishing, I think; a sort of master of the fleet very likely," replied Mrs. Burton, who had dropped her knitting and gathered both the little girls on to her lap, as the surest means of keeping them quiet while she talked to her sister.
"How will Oily Dave like that, I wonder?" Katherine said in a musing tone, and then her thoughts went wandering off to the pails of stolen lard. She had kept up an unremitting watchfulness ever since the time when the theft occurred, and had missed nothing more of importance; but her mistrust of Oily Dave was as great as ever.
"I don't suppose he will like it at all," Mrs. Burton answered. "But it is quite time that a more responsible man was put in charge."
Twenty-four hours of a hard, continuous downpour, accompanied by a warm south wind, worked a mighty difference in the aspect of things at Roaring Water Portage. By night on the day following the arrival of the mail from Maxokama, the water was coming down the rapids with a roar, bringing great lumps of ice with it, which crashed to fragments on the rocks, or were washed down with the current to be a menace to the shipping anchored in the river below. All day long, heedless of the pouring rain, the men had worked at getting the boats free from their winter coating of ice and snow. So when night came, everyone was too thoroughly wet and tired to think of night school, which gave Katherine a welcome holiday from teaching.
She spent the time in sewing, and in making herself so generally entertaining that even her father was more than once beguiled into laughter. He was better and more hopeful than for a long time past. He was even led into thinking and talking of the future, and the work which would have to be done directly the fast-melting snow made it possible to get about once more. Before daylight faded he had helped Miles to get the big boat out, and carefully inspected the seams to make sure that no caulking was required. They used birchbark canoes a great deal at Roaring Water Portage in the summer-time, but there was too much ice about for birchbarks to be safe yet.
"We will knock up a little shed for the boat above the portage this summer, then when next winter comes we can lay her up there, instead of having to bring her down here," he said to Miles, as the two discussed the probability of being able to get the boat up the portage within a week.
"Oh, don't talk of next winter, Father; we have not got rid of this one yet!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton, who was entirely happy and contented to-night, because of the omission of night school.
"It is going very fast anyhow, and I guess we shall see bare ground in places to-morrow," Miles put in, talking in a sleepy tone; for he too had been breaking out ice that day, and was desperately tired.
"Yes, it is going, and I'm glad of it, for it has been the hardest winter to live through that I can remember, and I'm thankful to see the last of it," 'Duke Radford answered; and something in his look and tone made Katherine ask quickly:
"Don't you feel well to-night, Father?"
"Yes, I feel better than I have done for many a week past," he replied promptly; adding, in a tone too low for any but her to hear, "and happier too."
"I believe you will feel better now, and get strong quickly," said Mrs. Burton hopefully. "The winter had thoroughly gripped your system, and that was why you could not get better before."
All night long the roar of the water seemed to grow louder and louder, while the ice crashed, and the wild wind howled through the leafless trees. But the morning broke fine, and the sun came out to warm up a wet world. Such a very wet world it was, with the river swollen to twice its ordinary width! But as Miles had predicted, there was bare ground visible, and to eyes which had looked on snow-covered earth for six long months the sight was welcome indeed.
When breakfast was over, Katherine and Miles ran the boat down to the water's edge, and floated it, getting in and paddling up and down to see that there was no leakage, and to enjoy the novel sensation after the long abstention from boating. But there was work to be done, and they could not afford to spend even a part of the day in rowing for their own amusement. Stores had to be taken down to Seal Cove, and there was some bargaining to be done for some tusks of narwhal ivory which 'Duke Radford had been commissioned to obtain if possible. Narwhal ivory was getting scarcer every year, and the storekeeper at Roaring Water Portage was prepared to pay a very good price indeed for all that he could obtain.
The journey down to Seal Cove was performed with ease and swiftness, the only trouble necessary being the steering, which called for the utmost care in that racing current.
"It will be stiff work coming back," commented Miles, thinking how hard they would have to pull to make any sort of headway.
"Yes, I think we had better come home round by the off-creek; the water won't run so fast down there," replied Katherine: and Miles, being of the same opinion, assented with a nod.
At Seal Cove a curious state of things existed. The barrier of ice at the mouth of the river had not yet given way, and the racing current, penned in by the barrier, was mounting higher and higher, and threatened to flood the whole neighbourhood.
Katherine and Miles delivered as many of their stores as they could. But it was not possible to go bargaining for narwhal ivory, as the flood made their destination inaccessible, so they turned back instead, and started to row up a little backwater called the off-creek, which in summer was too tiny to admit of the passage of even a small boat, but was swollen now to the size of a river. This waterway led straight past the unwholesome habitation of Oily Dave, which faced the main river, while the creek ran at the back door, or where the back door would have been had the tumbledown house possessed one. The water was all round the house now, and must have been creeping in under the edge of the door, only from the back of the house they could not see this.
The two rested on their oars watching the scene, wondering whether the house would be swept away, and where Oily Dave would build himself a new residence, when they heard shouts, and from the distant bank of the river saw a woman standing waving her arms in a frantic manner.
"It is Mrs. Jenkin. But what can she want, for certainly her house won't be in any danger yet awhile?" said Miles, looking across the wide waste of waters to where a little brown hut was pitched high up on the bank.
"Hush! What is she saying?" cried Katherine, and put her hand to her ear to show that she was listening.
Mrs. Jenkin saw the motion, and lifted her voice afresh. "There is a man—danger—house—Oily Dave!"
That was all they could hear, for the wind carried the words away, and a great block of ice crashed against the front of Oily Dave's abode, making the wooden hut shiver with the force of the blow.
"Oily Dave is shut up in his house, and Mrs. Jenkin wants us to save him," said Katherine, waving her arms to show the woman on the bank that she heard and understood.
"The old baggage isn't worth saving, but I suppose we shall have to try what we can do," Miles answered, then shouted to Katherine to look out.
The warning came only just in time, for at that moment the huge block of ice which had struck the house before came swirling round in their direction, and they had to dodge it as best they could.
"We must get round to the front, if we can," said Katherine, when they had got the boat safely away from the danger of collision with the ice.
"Not possible; look there!" shouted Miles excitedly, as a great sheet of ice came gaily floating on the swift current, caught against the corner of the house, and stuck there, banging, grinding, and jarring with the movements of the swirling water, and threatening to beat the house down like a battering ram. At the same moment they heard a cry for help from inside the house, and the woman on the far bank shouted and gesticulated more wildly than before, while the whole structure groaned and shivered like a creature in pain.
Katherine turned pale, but seized the oars resolutely. "There is only one thing to do, Miles, and I am going to do it. Can you hold the boat at the edge of the ice for five or ten minutes?"
"You are not going to get on to the ice?" he protested, his voice sharp with dismay, as he looked at the bowing, bobbing fragment many square yards in extent, which was grinding against the side of the house, but which might split into fragments at any moment.
"Yes, I am. Then I shall creep round to the front, so that Oily Dave can see me, and then, perhaps, his courage will be equal to coming outside," she said, standing up and throwing off her thick coat, for it would not do to be encumbered with much clothing when any moment might plunge her into the water.
"Katherine, don't go. It is an awful risk, and the old man isn't worth it!" pleaded Miles, and, despite the fact of his being a boy, there were actual tears in his eyes as he urged her not to go.
But she would not listen, calling out sharply: "Bump her against the ice and then I'll spring."
Putting out his strength, Miles brought the boat with a bang against the floating ice island, and at the same moment Katherine sprang lightly from the boat. But, despite her care, she landed on all-fours, and, as the ice was awash, got rather wet in the process. Rising to an erect position after a few preliminary staggers, she walked cautiously out towards the middle of the ice island, which would bring her within sight of the prisoner in the hut, and would, she hoped, inspire him with sufficient courage to help him in the task of getting him into the boat.
By this time the woman on the bank understood what she was doing, and ceased shouting. It was Katherine's turn to make a noise now, and she did it with all her might. "Oily Dave, come out! We've got a boat at the back, and we will save you if you will be quick."
She was making so much noise herself, and picking her way with such extreme care over the rotten ice, that she failed to hear the first response to her calling, and the next pulled her up with a jerk.
"Oily Dave isn't here, but if you will take me I shall be very thankful."
The voice was a strange one, and had an unmistakable ring of refinement and culture. Katherine faced round with such a start of surprise as to nearly send her sprawling again, for the ice was full of pitfalls. A young man was leaning out through the small square opening which did duty for a window, and her first impression of him was of someone extremely tired, and that gave her the clue to his identity. He must be the Englishman who had come from Maxokama with the Indians who had brought the mail.
"Open the door and come out that way," she said in a tone of sharp authority. "You will never be able to squeeze through that small window unless your shoulders are very narrow indeed."
"Which they are not," he replied, and disappeared from view.
She heard him banging and tugging at the door, but never a jot did it stir, and after about five minutes of this futile work he appeared again at the window. The water was nearly on a level with the opening now, and rising moment by moment, while there were ominous ripping and rending sounds in Katherine's ice island, which warned her that the rescue must take place in the next few minutes if it was to be effected at all.
"The door is jammed. What am I to do?" the unknown asked in a calm tone, with no flurry or fuss. Indeed, Katherine wondered if he realized how great was his peril and her own.
"Break it down, smash it, anything; only be quick, please," she said sharply, marvelling a little at his unconcern in the face of such grave danger.
Again he disappeared, and Katherine heard a rain of heavy blows beginning to fall upon the door; then with a cracking, splitting noise the panel gave way, the man inside wrenched off the broken part, and stood revealed up to his waist in water. But there was a space of fully three yards between himself and Katherine's island of ice, and, as the ground dropped away sharply in front of the house, she knew he must not venture to attempt wading.
"Get a plank or Oily Dave's long table," she said, her manner more dictatorial than before, for the unknown was so terribly slow in his movements, and the water was still rising.
Mrs. Jenkin had commenced shouting again, but Katherine paid no heed to her, for the unknown had appeared with a long, narrow trestle table, which, resting one set of legs on the doorstep, reached to the ice. But it was a perilous bridge, and Katherine knew it; only there was no other way, so the peril had to be faced.
"Now run, only be ready to spring," she cried, trying to encourage him.
"Easier said than done," he answered. "I can scarcely walk, much less run."
"Then you must crawl; only please make haste. The ice is so rotten that every minute I am fearing it will give way," she said. Then dropping on her knees on the ice, regardless of the water which washed over its surface, she tried to hold the edge of the table steady for him to cross.
On he came, crawling slowly and painfully. He was so near to her now that Katherine could hear his panting breath and see the look of grim endurance on his drawn face. Mrs. Jenkin was shrieking in a frantic manner, and then Katherine heard a shrill cry from Miles, who was out of sight round the corner of the house. But the noise conveyed no meaning to her. She had just stretched out her hand to grasp that of the unknown, when there came a tremendous crash which shot her off the ice and into the water. The shock which sent her into the water, however, steadied the rickety bridge over which the stranger was crawling by jamming the ice closer under it, and the man, catching her as she took her plunge, held her fast, then dragged her up beside him by sheer strength of arm.
"I am afraid you are rather wet," the stranger said in a tone of rueful apology, keeping his clutch on Katherine as she struggled to a kneeling posture.
Dashing the wet hair from her eyes, Katherine looked anxiously round, fearing that their one way of escape had been cut off. A huge fragment of ice had cannoned into her island and split off a great portion. Plainly that was why Mrs. Jenkin had screamed so shrilly, for she had seen what was coming and had tried to warn her. There were other ice fragments about; huge blocks like miniature bergs were bobbing and bowing to the racing current, while they flashed back the rays of the sun with dazzling brilliancy. But there was still time to get round the corner of the house to the boat, if only they made haste; and, scrambling from her knees to her feet, Katherine cried urgently: "Come, come, we have just time; there is a boat round the corner of the house. If we can get there before the next crash comes we are safe, if not we may drown!"
"Save yourself. It is no use, I can't hurry; every step is torture," the unknown said, with a groan, as she fairly dragged him on to his feet, which were swathed in towels.
But she would not leave him. "Lean on me as heavily as you please. I am tremendously strong, and I would try carrying you if you were not so big," she said, with bustling cheerfulness, as, slipping her arm round him, she hurried him forward.
What a walk it was over that cracking, splitting ice! Mrs. Jenkin had begun screaming again; and although Katherine was wet through with ice-cold water, she could feel the perspiration start as she faced their chances of escape. An oncoming fragment at that moment fouled with a similar piece swirling round from another direction, and the moment thus gained proved their salvation. With quiet obstinacy the stranger made Katherine enter the boat first; then, as he stumbled in himself, the two fragments dashed into the island, which smashed into a thousand pieces.
The Stranger Proves a Friend in Need
"Just in time!" exclaimed Miles with a sob of relief. He would have been most horribly ashamed of tears at any other time, but Katherine's danger had been so imminent that even his natural desire for manliness was forgotten for the moment.
Katherine drew a long breath and set her teeth firmly. She was trembling violently now the strain was over, and it was all she could do to keep from bursting into noisy crying. But the stranger was shivering too, and in her care for him she forgot her own foolish desire for tears.
"You are as wet as I am, and as cold. Can you row?" she asked, remembering the strength of arm he had displayed in dragging her out of the water.
"Yes, and shall be glad to do it. You will be safer rowing too," he answered, then motioned to Miles to give place.
"I'll steer; then we can go ahead," said the boy jerkily. He had not got over his fright yet, and was trembling almost as badly as the others.
Slipping into their places, Katherine and the stranger took the oars. Miles edged them out of the crowding ice dangers, and, keeping well to the bank, they began their progress up river.
"Mrs. Jenkin is beckoning. Will you go across?" asked Miles.
"No," Katherine answered with prompt decision. "The force of the current is fearful, and we have faced enough risks for one day. Besides, it is of no use; we want dry garments. Mrs. Jenkin has barely enough clothes for herself, so I am certain she could not supply my needs; and no garments of Stee's would be big enough for this—this gentleman."
"My name is Jervis Ferrars," put in the stranger, seeing her embarrassment and hastening to relieve it.
"Thank you!" murmured Katherine, a flush coming into her cheeks which made her charming despite her bedraggled condition. Then she went on: "I think it will be better for you to come with us right up to Roaring Water Portage, because then we can lend you some of Father's clothes: he is tall, and they will about fit you, I should think; and it is so very difficult to get what one wants at Seal Cove."
"That I have already proved. But it was very kind of you to come and rescue me. I owe my life to you," the stranger said, with a sudden thrill of feeling in his voice.
Katherine flushed more brightly than before. "We thought it was Oily Dave whom we were trying to save," she said, with a faint ripple of laughter. "And Miles said he wasn't worth it, only of course we had to do the best we could. Are you the Englishman who came through from Maxokama two days ago?"
"Yes," he answered. "And it was the four hundred miles on snowshoes that made my feet so bad, though I am rather proud of having done it."
"I am sure you have a right to be proud of such a feat," Katherine answered; and then they did not say much more, for the work was getting harder every minute, and she wondered what would have happened if there had been only Miles and herself to manage the boat, for certainly the arms of Jervis Ferrars had a strength which Miles did not possess, yet in spite of this it was as much as they could do to make headway against the streaming current.
The danger came when they had to creep past the fishing boats, some of which were anchored so close in to the banks that they had to get out in the open river to pass them. Katherine had left off shivering, but she was trembling still from excitement and exhaustion; moreover, she was miserably self-conscious, because of the stranger who was sitting behind. It was horrible to be wet, dirty, and thoroughly bedraggled, but it was still more horrible to be compelled to sit in such a condition right under the eyes of a strange man, whose every tone and gesture proclaimed him a gentleman. But they were very nearly at the end of the journey. The roar of the rapids was in their ears, and Katherine was thinking with a sigh of relief that she would soon be able to rest her aching arms.
Suddenly Miles leant forward and spoke. "I'm afraid there is something wrong at home. Phil has just dashed out of the store door, looking as white as chalk. He beckoned to us to hurry, and now he has rushed back again."
"Father! Perhaps he is not so well," exclaimed Katherine, with a quick terror gripping at her heart. Then she thought with a swift compunction of the stranger they were bringing home, and wondered if her father would resent the intrusion.
But Phil had run out again just as the boat grounded against the bank, and now he began shouting: "Oh, do come quick; Father is dreadfully ill, and Nellie does not know what to do with him."
"You go first; the boy will help me," said Jervis Ferrars, hurrying Katherine out of the boat.
She landed with a bound and tried to run, but her water-logged garments clung so closely about her that she could only walk, and the few steps to the door seemed like a mile.
"Nellie says it is a stroke, and she is afraid Father is dying," sobbed Phil, who was running to and fro in a distracted fashion.
A faint cry broke from Katherine, and she caught at the doorpost to save herself. Yet even in that moment she realized that this was only what she had been expecting every time that she had returned from an absence all the winter through. But to-day found her so shaken and unfit for strain that it was not wonderful she broke down, feeling that this last disaster was too great to be borne. A moment she clung there sick and faint, while the ground under her feet seemed to rise up like the waves of the sea; then the frightened wailing of Beth and Lotta reached her ears, and steadied her nerves to meet the demands upon her.
"Poor mites, how frightened they must be!" she murmured to herself, then stumbled forward again, crossing the store and entering the kitchen.
'Duke Radford lay on the floor. Doubtless he had fallen so, and Mrs. Burton had been unable to lift him; but there was a pillow under his head and a rug laid over him. He was breathing still, otherwise Katherine would have believed him already dead.
"Oh, Nellie, this is dreadful! Whatever shall we do?" she cried, her voice sharp with pain.
"If only we could get a doctor I wouldn't mind so much," sobbed Mrs. Burton. "But that is an impossibility."
"I am afraid it is," Katherine answered, lightly touching her father's face with her finger, and wondering if he were as unconscious as he looked.
Then she felt herself gently thrust to one side, and the voice of Jervis Ferrars said quietly: "Go and get into dry clothes as quickly as you can, Miss Radford. You can do your Father no immediate good, but you may easily catch pneumonia if you stop in this condition long. I am not really a doctor, but I have had a medical training, and I can do all that can be done in this case."
"Oh, how thankful we are to have you here!" said Mrs. Burton, who felt as if the wet unknown, who was shedding pools of dirty water on to her clean floor, was an angel sent straight from heaven to help her in her time of need.
But Katherine said nothing at all; she only stumbled to her feet in blind haste and hurried away, knowing that collapse into undignified babyish crying was inevitable, and anxious to get away to some place where she might be hidden from the eyes of the others. In that crowded little house there was not much chance of privacy, however, and when Katherine entered the bedroom, to change her wet garments and cry in peace, she was immediately set upon by the twins, who had been shut in there by their mother to be out of the way. The poor mites were so frightened and unhappy that Katherine had to put aside her own miseries in order to comfort them. Then by the time she was clad in dry garments she felt better and braver, so she went back to the other room with the tears unshed.
'Duke Radford still lay on the floor in blank unconsciousness, while Mrs. Burton was busy mopping up the dirty water which had run from the wet garments of the others.
"Mr. Ferrars has gone to get into dry clothes, and then he will see about putting poor Father to bed," Mrs. Burton explained. Then she burst into agitated thanksgiving: "Oh, Katherine, how fortunate that you brought him home with you, and how wonderful it is that there is always someone to help when most it is heeded! Whatever should we have done to-day if we had had no one but the fisher people to help us?"
Katherine was silent, and before the eyes of her mind there arose the picture of that moment before the two big fragments of ice collided, the moment which enabled Jervis Ferrars and herself to get into the boat. But for that pause in the destruction of the ice island it was more than probable that neither she nor the stranger would have been there at all. Of this she said nothing. Nellie had quite enough to bear without being frightened by tragedies which had not happened.
"I am afraid we brought you in a fearful lot of water," Katherine said.
"It will soon be wiped up, and the floor none the worse. That poor Mr. Ferrars had no boots or stockings on; his feet were merely swathed in towels. I have sent Miles with warm water to help him put them comfortable; and now there is someone in the store. Dear, can you go? I don't know where Phil is."
"I will go. But what about Father?" Katherine asked, lingering.
"You can do nothing for him, and he is as comfortable as it is possible to make him at present," Mrs. Burton replied. Then Katherine hurried away, for business must be attended to whatever disasters menaced the family peace and happiness.
The customer was a man from one of the fishing boats, which was preparing to leave the river directly the barrier of ice at the mouth gave way. He wanted more stores than could be immediately supplied, and promised to come back for them later.
"I saw you'd got the Englishman in your boat when you came up river; I thought he looked pretty sick," remarked the fisher, who was a Yankee from Long Island Sound.
"His feet are bad, which is not wonderful when one remembers his journey from Maxokama," Katherine answered, wishing that the man would go, so that she might go back to her father.
But this he seemed in no hurry to do, and with a cautious look round to make sure no one was within earshot, he leaned over the counter and asked in a confidential tone: "Can you keep a secret, Miss?"
"I think so, but I am not very fond of them," she answered, drawing back with a repressive air, for the man's manner was more familiar than she cared for.
"Well, it's this then; the Englishman is likely to go on getting sicker still if he keeps lodging at Oily Dave's hotel. Do you twig my meaning?"
"No, certainly not," Katherine answered; then a shiver crept over her, because of the sinister interpretation which might be put to the words.
"I don't want to be hauled up in a libel case," said the Yankee. "Are there any witnesses within hearing?"
"No, not if you keep your voice down," she answered, dropping her own, and feeling that here was something she ought to know, however unpleasant or burdensome the knowledge might prove.
"Well, they are saying that the new fleet-owner, Mr. Selincourt, ain't satisfied with things going on as they used to do, and so he has sent this young man up to spy round a bit, report the catch, keep expenses down, and that sort of thing. Oily Dave has always reckoned to make a good picking out of the fishing, you know, and it ain't likely he'd approve of being spied upon."
"Why have you told me this?" demanded Katherine. Her eyes were dilated with fear, and there was a sickening apprehension in her heart. In that wild place, so far from law and order, a dozen dreadful things might happen, and the world would be none the wiser.
The Yankee laughed and stuffed a plug of tobacco into his left cheek. Then he replied: "They all say on the river that you are a powerful smart girl, and can do most things you set your mind to. Possession is nine points of the law, you know. You have got the Englishman here; keep him somehow—unless you want him to leave Oily Dave's hotel feet foremost, that is."
Katherine gasped, and the words she would have uttered stuck fast in her throat. A man's life had been thrust into her keeping, and she must guard it as best she might.
"I wish you would tell——" she began falteringly, then a door creaked at the far end of the store, and the Yankee straightened himself with great promptitude, ready for instant departure.
"Well, good morning, Miss! Beautiful thaw, ain't it now? I should think the mouth of the river must go bust before to-morrow;" and with a flourish of his very seedy old hat the citizen of the United States walked out of the store. He did not often lift his hat to anyone; for, believing that all men were equal, such observance struck him as servile. But Katherine had a way with her that compelled respect; moreover, she was a downright gritty girl, as he expressed it: so the hat-flourish was really a tribute to her strength of character.
As he went out of the door, Jervis Ferrars came hobbling out from the bedroom leaning on Miles. Dressed in 'Duke Radford's working clothes, he looked like an ordinary working man, except for that indefinable air of culture which clung to him.
"I am going to see to your father now, Miss Radford. Miles and I have got the bed ready, and the sooner we get the poor man undressed and comfortable, the better it will be for him."
"Thank you!" said Katherine, then shivered again as she recalled the Yankee's words about keeping the stranger from the power of Oily Dave.
Jervis Ferrars looked at her keenly, noting the shiver and the trouble in her eyes; then he said abruptly: "What is the matter? Do you feel ill, or is it something fresh?"
For a moment Katherine hesitated, but he would have to be told, she knew, so she said hastily: "It is something that—that you must know. I will tell you presently when I get a chance."
"Very well," he replied briefly, then hobbled on into the kitchen, and for the next hour was occupied in doing his utmost for the sick man.
Katherine was left a moment alone with Mrs. Burton, after 'Duke Radford had been carried to his bed, and she said hastily: "Nellie, would you mind if Mr. Ferrars stayed here for a few days until his feet are better? We are crowded, I know; but either he or the boys could sleep in the loft now it is warmer, and Oily Dave's house is impossible until the flood is down."
"I should say it is impossible at any time," replied Mrs. Burton, "and I shall be only too thankful if he will stay for a while because of poor father. Oh, Katherine, I am afraid this long terrible winter has killed him'" she said, with a quiver of breakdown in her voice.
"It is not the winter. Why, he has scarcely been out at all, so he cannot have suffered from that," Katherine answered sadly. She knew only too well why her father had broken down again, only the worst of it was she could not tell anyone, but must hide the knowledge within her own heart, because it involved her father's honour.
"I have seen him failing for so long, only yesterday and to-day he seemed better," Mrs. Burton went on; "and he was sitting quite comfortably by the stove, not talking very much, but looking thoroughly contented, when he suddenly pitched out of his chair and lay like a log on the floor."
"Will you ask Mr. Ferrars to stay with us, or shall I?" said Katherine.
"I will if you like. I will put it so that he shall think he is doing us a favour, then he will be more comfortable about accepting; and really, as things are, I don't see where else there is for him to go."
"Nor I," replied Katherine, and was thankful to leave the matter in her sister's hands for the present.
A Woman of Business
"What is the trouble, Miss Radford?"
Katherine started. She had been so busy in packing baking powder, tobacco, currants, and things of that description into a box for the fisher from Long Island Sound that she had not heard the approach of Jervis Ferrars, who wore list slippers, and so made but little noise in walking. The long hard day which had held so many momentous happenings was wearing to a close, and so far she had found no chance at all to speak to the stranger about what he had to fear. Mrs. Burton had begged him with tears in her eyes to stay a few days to help them in looking after their father, and Jervis Ferrars had accepted with such evident pleasure at the prospect that Katherine had troubled no further then, and had devoted herself to the many things which called for her attention.
Her father still lay in the condition of absolute unconsciousness into which he had fallen at first, and Mr. Ferrars did not think there would be much change for a few days. He also did not apprehend any immediate danger, and they all took courage from this. Sickness and incapacity did not daunt them; but it was death the separator of whom they were all so much afraid.
"I did not hear you come," Katherine said.
"No, my footgear is not noisy, as befits a sickroom; but then my steps are not sprightly either, so you might have heard me slouching across the floor if you had not been so absorbed in the matter in hand. What is it you want to tell me?" he asked, with a quick change of tone.
"You had better not go back to the house of Oily Dave again," she began in a rather breathless style.
"Very much better not, I should say," he answered. "But why?"
"You have come to watch the fishing in the interest of Mr. Selincourt, have you not?" she asked.
"Yes, the old company complained of considerable leakage in profits, you see; indeed it was on this account that they decided the fleet was an unworkable scheme for a company, and were willing to sell to Mr. Selincourt."
Katherine nodded, then said in a low tone: "But your position will make you enemies, and I have been warned to-day that it is positively dangerous for you to remain in the house with that man."
"Did this warning reach you before you came to rescue me this morning, or since?" he asked quickly.
"Since. We did not even know that you were there."
"Well, it is a comfort to know that, although I have enemies, I have friends too; for such a warning could have come only from a friend," Jervis Ferrars remarked, frowning heavily.
"It was certainly meant in a friendly spirit, and, now you know, you will be careful," she said, and there was more entreaty in her tone than she guessed at, for she was remembering how indifferent to danger he had seemed when she was trying to rescue him from the flood that morning.
"Yes, I shall be careful. And, since to be forewarned is to be forearmed, thank you for telling me. I suppose this accounts for the old rascal going off this morning with the key of the hotel in his pocket."
"Did he do that?" she asked in a startled tone.
"Yes, I had been awake all night with the pain in my feet and in my limbs, and I was disposed to lie and sleep when morning came," Jervis Ferrars replied. "I heard him getting up very early, and asked him what was amiss, for I could hear a great row outside with the ice. He said there was nothing to be afraid of, for his house stood too high ever to be caught in a flood; but he had left a boat in an awkward place and must go and look after it. Then he went out. I heard him lock the door when he was outside. After that I went to sleep, and did not wake again until I heard you shouting, and found the water was nearly on a level with my bed."
Katherine shuddered. "It is too horrible even to think of! We should not have known that anyone was in the house who needed saving, if it had not been for Mrs. Jenkin screaming so loudly from the other bank."
"Then that is another friend; so apparently I have more friends than enemies after all, in which case I am not to be pitied," he said lightly; then asked: "Is that all the trouble—I mean so far as it concerns me?"
"It is all that I know, but I beg you to be careful, for Oily Dave is such a cowardly foe, who only strikes in the dark," she said earnestly.
"In which case I shall be safest when I keep in the light," the Englishman answered with a laugh. "By the way, how did the old fellow earn his title? Was it given to him because he practically lives on lard?"
"I think it was given to him because he was known to help himself so largely to the fish oils which should have been the property of the fleet," she replied. "I did not even know that he was fond of lard, although I have suspected him nearly all winter of having stolen two pails of it from the store one night, when Miles had his back turned for a minute."
"That accounts for the bill of fare at his hotel then," Mr. Ferrars said with a laugh. "I have had nothing but lard and bread, sour heavy bread too, or lard and biscuit, or biscuit without the lard, since I arrived at Seal Cove. But I think he need not have charged such high prices for the stuff if he stole it!"
"No indeed!" exclaimed Katherine, with a thrill of indignation in her tone. "But why did you go to such a place? You would surely have been better off on one of the boats, or Mrs. Jenkin would have made room for you somehow, although her house is very small and fearfully crowded."
"It was part of the programme, don't you see? I came to be on the spot to stop the leakage, and, having given a pretty good guess as to where the leaky spot was, Mr. Selincourt told me to lodge, if possible, in the abode of Oily Dave."
"But you will not go back? Mr. Selincourt would not expect it of you," she said, a swift terror leaping into her eyes.
"No, I shall not reside under the roof of Oily Dave any longer," he answered. "But I shall remind him of that locked door, and various other things, some day when it suits me."
"What are you doing? Are you going to put it down in a book?" Katherine asked in surprise, as he drew out a pocket-book and began to write.
"Certainly! You are a woman of business, and must know that it is best to have facts down in black and white," he answered. Then, having finished with Oily Dave, he turned to the other side of the same book, and began questioning her about her father's condition before his seizure, and entering the answers in the same way.
"You think that Father will really rally again?" she asked, with a fear lest his former hopefulness about his patient was merely assumed to cheer Mrs. Burton, who had been plunged in dreadful grief all day.
"I am inclined to believe that he may recover to a certain extent, but I should have a much better idea of his chances if I knew more of his condition beforehand, especially his state of mind. Your sister says that he had no particular worries, nor anything to induce apprehension or acute anxiety. Is that your opinion also?"
The question found Katherine unprepared; she winced, then hesitated, not knowing what to say. He saw the trouble in her eyes, and paused with the pencil held between two fingers. "I am not asking from any desire to know the nature of the worry, if there was one; that would be quite immaterial in its effect on the issues. The thing that counts is to know if he were suffering from acute mental torture. If this be so, then it probably accounts for the seizure, and leaves him with a fair hope of recovery to a limited extent. If, on the other hand, his mind was perfectly placid and peaceful, then I am afraid you must expect the end in a few days, or a week at the furthest, for that would mean that nature is completely worn out, instead of just broken down by worry."
Katherine was white to the lips, and her voice sank to a whisper as she faltered: "Yes, he had acute anxiety, and a worry which wore him all the more because he hid it so carefully; but none of the others knew about it, only myself."
"Thank you! that sets matters on a more satisfactory basis," he said, "and I feel sure we shall see improvement in a few days."
"Will you please not mind telling the others what you have told me about the causes of his condition?" Katherine asked hurriedly. "Miles and Phil are so young, while Mrs. Burton has had too many troubles of her own. That was why Father talked more freely to me."
"There is no need to speak of it any more," he answered, with reassuring kindness. "Now I want to know what arrangements we can make about the sickroom. Do you think the boys can sleep in the loft? Or, if that is too cold, shall we give them a shakedown here in the store?"
"I don't think the loft will be cold now the frost has gone," Katherine answered. "But Mrs. Burton meant that for you, because it is really the only quiet place we have."
"I am going to sit up with your father for the next few nights, but I can get a nap in the loft during the day. When my feet are better I shall have to be away in the boats a great deal, but until then I can be nurse in chief, and so free Mrs. Burton's hands for her other work," he said, gripping the needs of the situation as plainly as if he had known them all for months instead of hours.
"I had meant to stay with Father to-night," said Katherine, flushing a little, and not feeling quite certain whether she entirely approved of having matters taken out of her hands in this fashion.
"That would not do at all. You will have to be business head of the establishment now for a permanency, and the sooner you get your shoulders fitted to the burden the better," he said decidedly.
"But I have practically been the business head all the winter, so the burden is familiar already," she protested, with a wan smile and a sinking at her heart, for she did not like business, and always shrank from the bother of bargaining, which afforded such keen zest to some people's buying and selling.
"That was quite different from what lies before you now," he replied. "You may have had the work to do, but you had always your father's judgment to rely upon. In future you will have to stand alone and judge for yourself."
Katherine bowed her head in token that she understood, then turned away too crushed to utter a word. Jervis Ferrars went back to the sickroom, wincing at the pain he had been compelled to inflict as if the blow had fallen on himself. There were no tears in Katherine's eyes, only the terrible black misery in her heart. She had filled in all the blanks in what, the Englishman had said, and she understood perfectly well that henceforth her father would be only as a child who needed guarding and shielding, instead of a man whose judgment could be relied upon. She had no deception in her mind concerning what would be required of her; the family living must depend on her in the future, and it would rest upon her skill and industry whether the living she earned were merely subsistence, or the decent comfort in which they had all been reared.
"God helping me, they shall want for nothing—nothing!" she exclaimed vehemently, and the very energy with which she spoke seemed to give her back her courage.
It had been a momentous day in her life, a day calling for rare courage and endurance, and the demands on her strength had left her so tired that the other hard days looming in the near distance seemed all the more terrible because of the present exhaustion of body and mind. It was nearly time for shutting up the store, but it was twilight still, for in those northern latitudes the afterglow on clear nights lasts for hours. Katherine was busy at her father's desk in the corner doing the necessary writing which comes to every storekeeper at the close of the day, and she was just wondering when Miles was coming to lock the door and fold the shutter over the one small window, when she heard a slouching step outside, and, glancing up, saw Oily Dave entering at the door. He looked more shifty and slippery than usual, but his manner was bland, even deferential, when he spoke.
"Good evening, Miss Radford! Nice thaw, ain't it? but a bit rapid. How's 'Dook?"
Katherine winced. Of course every man at Roaring Water Portage and Seal Cove called every other man by his Christian name, and she had always been used to hearing "'Duke", but nevertheless it grated horribly, so her manner was a trifle more haughty than usual when she announced that her father was not so well, although she did not choose to inform this man that he was very ill.
"Well, well, poor chap, he don't seem to get on fast, no, that he don't. It's downright lucky for him that he's got sech a bright gal as you to look after things. He is a smart sight better off than I should have been under the circumstances;" and Oily Dave struck an attitude of respectful admiration, leering at Katherine from his half-closed eyes.
"What do you wish, for to-night?" she asked coldly.
"A good many things, my supper most of all, for I've had nothing but a mouthful of biscuit all day. But I shall have to wait for that till I get back to Seal Cove, and then I shall have to cook it myself, for that swell lodger of mine ain't no good about a house," said Oily Dave, with a shake of his head.
Katherine put her hand to her throat with a quick movement, to check a hysterical desire for laughter. She and Mrs. Burton had both marvelled that day at the exceeding handiness displayed by Jervis Ferrars. He had made the bed for the stricken head of the house as deftly as a woman might have done, and had helped in the kitchen at supper time as if he had been getting meals regularly for the last two or three years; but of this she was not disposed to speak, and waited in silence for Oily Dave to state his requirements.
"I want some canned tomatoes. Have you got any?"
"We have plenty of two-pound tins, but we are sold out of the smaller ones," she answered, then made a mental note that in future she would buy all small tins, because they sold so much more easily.
"That's a nuisance, but I suppose I'll have to put up with it," he said, with a sigh and another shake of his head. "Fact is, I want to take home a relish for supper. My lodger don't take to simple food such as we are used to in these parts. It is a downright swell tuck-in he looks to get, same as you might expect to have in one of the Montreal hotels."
Again Katherine wanted to laugh, but checked the impulse resolutely, and asked: "Is the flood at Seal Cove as bad as ever, or has the barrier given way at the mouth of the river?"
"I didn't know there was a flood!" announced Oily Dave, with an air of innocence which sat awkwardly upon him, it was so palpably put on for the occasion. "Fact is, I've been off all day on the cliffs along the bay shore, looking for signs of walrus and seal on the ice floes. Then when it got near sunset I just struck inland, so as to call here on my way home. Who told you there was a flood?"
"I saw it," she answered quietly.
"I hope my lodger is all right," said the old hypocrite, with an air of concern. "That house of mine ain't well situated for floods, as most folks know. If I'd got the time and the money I'd move it up beside Stee Jenkin's hut, which is really in a bootiful situation."
"I wonder you have not done it before," said Katherine, as she went up the steps and fetched the tin of tomatoes from the top shelf.
"Ah, there are a good many things that get left undone for want of time and money!" remarked Oily Dave. "But I'm afraid Mr. Selincourt has made a big mistake in sending that languid swell of a Mr. Ferrars here to boss the fishing. A reg'lar drawing-room party he is and no mistake. Gives himself as many airs as a turkey-cock in springtime, and seems to think all the rest of the world was created on purpose to black his boots."
"We don't sell much boot blacking here. Most of the people grease their boots with fish oil," Katherine said, laughing in spite of herself, only now her amusement was because she knew Jervis Ferrars to be in her father's room, where he could hear every word which was spoken in the store.
"Best thing, too. There is nothing like grease for making leather wear well. Well, I must be going, though I'm that tired. However I'll manage the walk is more than I can say;" and Oily Dave heaved a sigh which this time was not lacking in sincerity.
"Would you like to have one of our boats? Miles will help you to run it down," Katherine said. It was such a usual thing to lend a customer a boat that one or two were always handy, and the customer always understood that the loan was to be returned at his earliest convenience.