"Wait until you have tried a winter here, before speaking too positively about it; you may find the isolation too dreadful to be borne. We who are used to it do not mind so much, but a person accustomed to daily papers and frequent posts would seem entirely out of the world," she said, thinking of the long, long nights, when the wolves howled in the woods, and the silent weeks when the falls were frozen; and she wondered how this man, who had been brought up in cities, could bear to think of such a life.
He laughed in a cheery, unconvinced fashion. "I have thought of all that: but I can live without daily papers, or letters either, if need be; although, if Roaring Water Portage develops as I believe it is going to do, without doubt we shall get a regular postal service of a sort. If it can't be done any other way, I will do it myself. Only I must have a bigger house, for in winter we should be very much cramped in that little hut over the river."
Katherine nodded thoughtfully. "Yes, you would want a big room for giving parties and entertainments. Mary would make a lovely hostess, and the fisher folk would feel as if they were living in a new world. Oily Dave's dreadful whisky would have no chance at all against the attractions offered by your big house."
Mr. Selincourt frowned. "That drink-selling of his is the thorn among my roses of content, and I don't see how to put it down just at present. I can't, from sheer decency, send the man packing, just after he has helped to save my daughter from a dreadful death. Of course I know that he only helped, and that you could and would have done it without him if he had not been there, still, he was there, and I must remember it in his favour, although he has charged pretty heavily for his services."
"That is my fault, I fear," Katherine said in laughing apology. "But I know what Oily Dave is, and that the one thing to move him is money; so when Mrs. Jenkin told me he was the only man about, I told her to say to him he must come at once, for there was money in the work."
"You were quite right, and if you had promised him a hundred dollars I would cheerfully have paid it," Mr. Selincourt replied; and then he turned to talk to 'Duke Radford, who had been sitting all this time with his head resting on his hand, and taking no notice at all of what the others were talking about.
But when the tea-things were cleared away, and Katherine had gone back to the store again, Mr. Selincourt followed her and commenced talking afresh of what he meant and hoped to make of that particular part of the world in the course of the next two or three years. He had a special purpose in coming up river that afternoon, for he wanted to consult Katherine on a business point, and did not feel very sure of his ground.
Being a straightforward man in all things, however, he stated bluntly what he had to say. "I want to buy your land, if I can, Miss Katherine, and I am prepared to pay you any price in reason that you like to ask me for it. I understand that your father owns the river frontage for about a mile on this side of the water, which is practically from here to the swamps, and it is land that I should very much like to possess."
"But it is not mine to sell," she said blankly, too much taken by surprise to know whether she felt pleased or offended by the suggestion.
"I know it is not. But your father cannot be approached on any question of buying or selling, so I had to come to you to see how you felt about it, and I want you to think the matter over," Mr. Selincourt replied.
"All the thinking in the world cannot alter the position so far as I am concerned," said Katherine, with a little gesture of weariness. "Our father is apparently a hopeless invalid, afflicted more in mind than in body, yet no really qualified doctor has seen him, to certify his unfitness for managing his own affairs. We, his children, are all under age, except Nellie. By the way, why did you not go to her?—she is the eldest. Though, even if you had, she could only have spoken as I have done."
"I came to you because you stand in your father's place, carrying on business in his name," Mr. Selincourt said quietly. "And if you felt that it would be for the good of yourself and the others to have some easier life than this, it would be very much my pleasure to help you in realizing your wishes."
"But how?" asked Katherine, who failed to see how her father's property could be disposed of without consulting him, while he was in life, and they, his children, were all under age save one.
Mr. Selincourt smiled. "Things can mostly be managed when one wants them to be done. If you and the others believed it would be for the good of the family to sell your father's property, we could bring a doctor up here to certify to his unfitness for business. Your sister would have to be made acting trustee for the rest of you, and so the thing would be done."
Katherine shook her head in a dubious fashion, saying: "I will talk to the others about it if you wish, but I do not think it will make any difference; we must just go on as we are doing, and make the best of things as they are. Of course I don't know much about business, except what I have picked up anyhow, for my profession is teaching; but we have done very well since the work has been dumped into our hands, and our profits this year are in excess of any preceding one's."
"That is very encouraging. But then you would succeed in anything you undertook, because you put your whole heart into it, and that is the secret of success," Mr. Selincourt said warmly. After a momentary hesitation he went on: "Mind you, this is a business offer that I am making you, and even though I might give you double or treble what your land would fetch in the open market at the present time, I should still look to get a fifty-per-cent return on my invested capital, although I suppose it is very unbusinesslike of me to tell you so."
"But how would you do it?" demanded Katherine.
"My dear young lady, I believe there is a fortune in every acre of ground on either side of the river," said Mr. Selincourt excitedly. "Mary is keen on geology, as you know, and I have studied minerals pretty closely. We have found abundant traces of iron, of copper, and of coal. Now, the last is more important than the other two, for without it they would be practically useless, so far from civilization; but with it they may be worked to immense advantage."
"Would not the working be rather costly at the first?" Katherine asked, with a sensation as if her breath were being taken away.
"Doubtless! It has already been proved, over and over again, that if you want to get a fortune from under the earth you must first put a fortune in it," he replied.
"But suppose, after you had put it in, you found yourself disappointed in your returns—discovered, perhaps, that there was no fortune awaiting you in the ground after all? What would you do then?—for of course you could not get back what you had spent," said Katherine, with an air of amusement, for to her the statement of there being a fortune in every acre of that barren ground sounded like fiction pure and simple.
"In that case I should probably have to take off my coat, roll up my sleeves, and go to work to earn a living for myself and Mary; but I am not afraid of having to do it just yet," he answered, laughing. Then as a customer entered the store he went off to talk to 'Duke Radford, who was sitting outside in the sun, and Katherine did not see him again that evening.
As in duty bound, she decided to take counsel with the others, although her own mind was fully made up with regard to Mr. Selincourt's offer. Life in some other more civilized place would probably be easier and pleasanter for herself. Such work as she had to do now was labour for men, and by no means suitable for women or girls. But it was not herself she had to think of first in this case; Miles and Phil were the ones to be considered here, and she determined that the light in which Miles regarded the question should be the standpoint from which she would view it too. By this time she was quite satisfied in her own mind of her ability to keep the business working in a profitable manner; but if she were to venture upon earning a living for the six who were dependent upon her efforts in some other way, she would not be so sure of herself, and to doubt might be to fail.
It was not easy to get time to confer all together in that busy household, but by good fortune a chance occurred that very evening, and Katherine took it thankfully enough, knowing that it might be long before such an opportunity came again. Her father had gone to bed, tired out with his day of sitting and walking in the sunshine, and was sleeping peacefully. The twins had also been put to rest, and were droning themselves to sleep in a drowsy sing-song duet with which they always filled the house before subsiding into their nightly slumber.
"Don't go to bed for a few minutes, Phil; I want to talk to you. We have got to have a family conclave," said Katherine, as Phil, with a mighty yawn, was turning his steps to the ladder which led to the loft.
"What's a conclave? And it is no use going on at me about that bucket of water I tilted over down the ladder on to Nick Jones; it stood so handy, and wanted such a little push, that I just could not help doing it," the boy answered in a sullen tone. He had been in mischief on board the steamer, escaping with a warning from the captain and a lecture from Mrs. Burton; but he was by no means repentant yet, although perhaps a trifle apprehensive of the form of reprisal which Nick Jones might choose to take.
Katherine laughed. She had been in mischief herself too often when at Phil's age not to feel sympathy with him on the score of the prank he had played that afternoon. It was this same sympathetic understanding of their moods and actions which gave her so much influence with the boys, enabling her to twist them round her little finger, as Miles expressed it.
"A conclave is a talk, discussion, or argument, but it has nothing to do with your getting into mischief, Phil. It was a great temptation, as you say, and I expect that in your place I should have longed to do the same. Only there is another side from which to view the business, and that is the side of Nick Jones. No doubt he feels a bit ruffled, and if he thrashes you for your impudence, or ducks you in the river, why, you will just have to take it lying down."
"He has got to catch me first," said Phil, with that disposition to swagger in which he delighted to indulge. Then he burst out eagerly, as he slid his arm round her waist and leaned his head back against her arm: "It was truly lovely, Katherine, and you would have laughed until you choked if you had been there. Nick was just setting his foot on the bottom of the ladder, and his face was all smuts and smudges, so that he looked as if he had not washed for a fortnight; he had got his mouth open too, wide open, and I guess that was the first mouthful of clean water that he has swallowed for a good long while past."
"You are really a shocking boy, and if you get a ducking it will be only what you deserve," said Katherine, who was laughing at this picture of the discomfiture of Nick Jones. "But sit down here and let us get our business settled, because we are all tired and longing for bed."
"I'm not tired," said Miles, shutting the book he had been reading with a sigh. It always seemed to be time to go to bed when he wanted to sit up, just as it was always morning and time to get up when he was in the full enjoyment of being in bed.
"But you will be tired to-morrow, and no one who is weary can do the best that is in him," said Katherine gently.
The Majority Decides
To the surprise of Katherine, Mrs. Burton was very anxious that Mr. Selincourt's offer should be accepted, and she urged that point very strongly.
"If you were a boy, Katherine, I would not say one word to influence you either way. Even now it is for your sake, not mine, that I should like to take the chance of getting away from this place. For myself, I would rather be here than at any other place in the wide world; but I do know that you are hopelessly buried alive, and the work you have to do is unsuitable for any girl."
Katherine put up her hand with a pleading gesture, and there was distress in her eyes as she said hurriedly: "That is not fair to the boys, Nellie. I asked that you should all speak for yourselves, not for each other; that can be done afterwards: the main thing is to know how we each feel about the matter personally. Now, Miles, let us know what you think?"
Miles fidgeted, looked supremely uncomfortable, and finally burst out: "I think it is just horrid to go settling things like this about Father, as if he were dead, while he is still alive!"
"Just what I feel myself," broke in Katherine, giving Miles an affectionate squeeze. "Still, dear, the necessity has arisen to discuss the business, and we must just face it as other disagreeables have to be met and overcome. So, putting Father entirely out of the question for the moment, tell us what you think you would like best."
"That can be done in a very few words," he said gruffly. "I dare say it sounds beastly selfish, but I'd rather stay here than go anywhere else on the face of the earth. The land is our own; why should we not keep it? We have got a good paying business together; why should we give it up? If we could pull through last winter and make a profit, we certainly ought to do better still this year, for we are all wiser, older, and stronger. It is fearfully hard on Katherine to be obliged to do the journeys, I know, but that can stop when I am a bit older, and more of a dab at valuing pelts."
"Now, Phil, it is your turn," said Katherine quickly; she had seen that Mrs. Burton was about to speak, and was anxious that Phil should have first chance.
But the boy was half-asleep, and had to be well shaken up by Miles before they could bring him to a full understanding of what was required of him. Then he asked drowsily: "If we went to live anywhere else should I have to go to school in summer as well as in winter?"
"Of course you would," retorted Mrs. Burton promptly; adding, with a touch of quite unusual severity: "and it would be a very good thing for you, because in that case you would have no time to play such monkey tricks as that which you indulged in to-day."
"Then I'd rather stop here. School in winter is quite tiring enough, but school all the year round would about wear me out. Store work is just play compared with the fag of simple equations and that sort of thing."
Katherine and Miles laughed merrily, while even Mrs. Burton had to smile. Phil's attitude towards book-learning had always been one of utter distaste, although in other things he was a good, hard-working boy, never disposed to shirk nor to waste his time, even if the matter in hand was not entirely to his mind.
"Now you have all said what you think and feel about it," said Katherine, "I can have my say on the matter, and I might begin by putting the most conclusive argument first, which is that I am quite certain we have no legal or moral right to lay a finger on Father's business affairs at present; I mean, in the way of upsetting them. If things were different, and the business was not prospering, we might have some excuse for meddling and changing; as it is, we have none."
"Then what did you make all this bother about?" demanded Phil, who had been roused from his sleepiness by having a wet dishcloth tucked firmly round his neck by Miles.
"Because it is a privilege we all share equally to do our very best for our father, and no one of us ought to decide anything momentous concerning him without taking counsel with the others," Katherine answered, leaning forward and catching the dishcloth, which Phil had aimed at Miles.
"It is all very well for Mr. Selincourt to offer us a fancy price for our land, but if there is a fortune in every acre why shouldn't we have it? I shouldn't in the least mind being a millionaire," said Miles.
"Of course you would not; neither should I: but the secret of the whole matter turns, according to Mr. Selincourt, on first of all having a fortune to put into the ground before we can get out the one that is there waiting for us," laughed Katherine.
"Very well, we'll stick at the store until we have made our pile, then we can do as we like about throwing it away in order to get another. Meanwhile we will keep the land, while Mr. Selincourt amuses himself by digging holes and flinging away money on the other side of the river," said Miles, getting up from his chair and yawning widely.
"Hear, hear!" echoed Phil, clapping his hands.
"Nellie, dear, it is the majority that decides, and you have lost," Katherine said, as she hustled the boys off to bed, and prepared to retire herself.
"For my own part, as I said before, I'm not sorry to lose, and I do feel as you do, that we have no right to dispose of Father's property," Mrs. Burton said. Then she went on, her voice shaken by real feeling: "But, Katherine, the life you have to lead just about breaks my heart. You are the brightest and cleverest of us all, and should have the best chance, instead of which you just have no chance at all. Take to-day, for instance; we have all been out enjoying ourselves, whilst you have been grubbing at home at work."
"It had to be either Miles or me," Katherine reminded her gently; "and think how he enjoyed it. There are so many pleasures which come my way that would not interest him at all, and that makes me so thankful for a chance of giving him a treat like that of to-day."
"I don't mind going out with Miles, because his manners are decent, and he is so quiet," said Mrs. Burton, "but I did not know where to put my head for very shame when Phil threw that pail of water on to Nick Jones."
"It was very foolish and silly, of course, and I expect Phil will have to pay pretty dearly for his mischief. If only Nick will pay him back in a manly fashion, without being cruel, I shan't care. Boys learn wisdom quicker through having to bear the consequences of their own actions, and it does not do for them to be too much shielded. Did you have a pleasant time?"
"Yes; it was lovely. The captain and the officers were so polite and nice, and the tea was very prettily done. Mary was there, of course, and Mr. Ferrars. I heard a good bit of talk about them too," Mrs. Burton said, with a happy little wag of her head. Her own hope and joy in life having become so much a thing of the past, made her much more interested in the concerns of others.
"What sort of talk?" asked Katherine. Of course she knew very well what the answer would be, and that it would make her heart ache worse than ever; but the situation had got to be faced, so the sooner she became hardened to the pain the better for her peace of mind.
"Oh, the usual things! Mrs. M'Kree said she thought they would make a lovely pair: for though Mary isn't pretty, she is very distinguished; and Mr. Ferrars has a way of carrying himself which makes me think he must come from a very good family indeed. I noticed that Mary's manner was very different to him to-day, and from the way he treated her it looked almost as if they had come to an understanding." Mrs. Burton's air was one of beaming satisfaction now, for she liked Jervis Ferrars quite well enough to be glad there was a chance of his marrying a rich wife, and so being lifted out of the fierce struggle with narrow means.
Katherine's heart felt sick and cold within her. She remembered what Mary had said about the boon asked by Jervis, which had been denied, and the denial regretted ever since. Probably that rescue from the tidehole had given Jervis the courage and the right to ask his boon again, and this time Mary would know her own heart too well to refuse happiness, even though it came to her at the hands of a poor man.
She was glad to turn out early next morning and go with Phil to do the "back-ache" portage, because it took her away from any likelihood of an encounter with Mary, who would probably be brimming over with happiness.
"It is quite natural that she should feel like that, and I am very glad for her," Katherine announced to herself in a defiant tone, as she loaded packages of groceries and bundles of dry goods on to the dogs in the morning, for them to carry over the portage to the boathouse above the falls.
It never once occurred to her that she could have made a mistake, or that she had jumped to wrong conclusions in the matter. She was so used to making up her mind on all sorts of subjects without any waste of time, that naturally she decided she was right in this thing also. The dogs trotted up the portage path with a hearty goodwill, for they had the sense to know that the journey was not a long one and that their work would soon be over. There were only three of them this morning, for Hero was at the house over the river.
Katherine and Phil followed the dogs. They also carried burdens, and, as the portage path was steep, they were glad not to waste their breath in talking while they toiled up the hill. The last dog, which walked just in front of Katherine, carried two wooden boxes, filled with marmalade for Mrs. M'Kree, and it was funny to see how careful the creature was to keep right in the middle of the path, so that its burden did not bump against the rocks which projected on either side of the narrow trail.
"Good dog! You shall have a smear of marmalade on your biscuit for supper to-night, if I don't forget it," Katherine said, when the boathouse was reached without any danger to the consignment of marmalade.
"Pity to waste good stuff like that on a creature which can't appreciate it. Now, I am very gone on marmalade," remarked Phil, as he put the two boxes into the boat.
"You shall have some for supper too; but you must not begrudge the poor dog just a little taste," Katherine said, as with a brief word of command she sent two of the dogs hurrying back to the store for some bundles of meal and flannel that had been left behind for a second journey.
While the dogs were gone, she and Phil stowed into the boat all the goods which had been brought over, then they sat down to wait for the remainder of the load, and Phil's tongue began to be busy on the events of yesterday.
"I'm downright glad we've got to do the backache portage to-day, because, as we can't be in two places at once, I shan't be found at the store if anyone comes to see me special," he said, winking up at a bluebird which sat on a bough above his head. The bird gave a little chirp, whisked its tail, and then stayed motionless, as if much interested in the talk.
"Who would be likely to make a special visit to you to-day?" asked Katherine, momentarily forgetting Phil's prank of yesterday.
"Nick Jones, of course. I guess if I had been minding store to-day, and had seen him coming in at the door, my heart would have about gone down into my boots," admitted Phil, with great candour.
"But he may come to-morrow, you know," suggested Katherine.
"No, he won't, for a lot of them start the next morning in the Mary for a week's fishing off the Twins; and Mr. Ferrars is going too, I know, because I heard him say so," replied Phil.
"The Twins are those two islands east of Akimiski, are they not?" asked Katherine.
"I suppose so; they are out in the Bay somewhere, I know, and they are very dangerous, because there are such strong currents all round them and no end of hidden rocks," Phil said in a cheerful tone, as if he were rather pleased than otherwise that his enemy had to face so much danger in the near future.
"That must be the place where a boat was wrecked two years ago and all the people were drowned. I wonder they are taking the Mary," said Katherine, for that was the biggest and best of the new boats, built by Astor M'Kree in the previous winter.
"They are taking her because she is such a good boat; no use having a leaky old tub for such work. Here come the dogs!" and Phil jumped up in such a hurry that the bluebird flew away in alarm.
The dogs were unloaded, the things they had brought being packed into the boat; then Katherine and Phil took their up-river way, and the dogs went back to the store to spend the morning as they thought fit.
Phil's news, had puzzled Katherine a great deal. It seemed so strange to her that Jervis Ferrars should go off to the rough, dangerous work of fishing off the shores of the inhospitable Twins if he were really engaged to Mary. His absence from Seal Cove would mean that someone would have to do his work there, as the boats coming in had to have their cargoes totalled and entered, while the drying, sorting, and packing needed constant supervision. Perhaps some little ghost of a hope crept into her heart that morning; at any rate, the pull up river seemed easier, and it was not such hard work as usual doing the second portage, even though she had to carry the wooden boxes, with the jars of marmalade for Mrs. M'Kree, swung across her own shoulders, a heavy, uncomfortable burden to be carried through the hot sunshine.
Backwards and forwards they went along the portage path, but they did not have to carry the boat, fortunately, as a birchbark belonging to Astor M'Kree was always available for their use on the long portage—a great convenience this, as Katherine and Phil would hardly have managed the burden of the boat between them. Mrs. M'Kree as usual received Katherine literally with open arms, and pressed her to remain on her way back for tea. This invitation Katherine would have promptly refused, but for an appealing look from Phil, whose courage regarding a meeting with his enemy was fast evaporating.
"You are very kind. We ought to be back about four o'clock, then perhaps we can stay for an hour," Katherine said, accepting on Phil's behalf, although her own desires were solely and entirely for getting home as fast as she could.
"A regular brick you are, Katherine!" exclaimed Phil, as they settled themselves in the birchbark for the journey up to the long portage. "I just wish to be as late home as possible this evening, and then most likely I shall be tired enough to want to go to bed directly I get there."
"It strikes me that it is not your strength which is likely to give out, but your nerve," Katherine answered with a laugh; then went on in a graver tone: "I don't scold you when you play monkey tricks, as you did yesterday, but it is hard work not to despise you when I see you trying to escape the consequences of what you have done by sneaking off to bed, pretending you are tired, when in reality you are only afraid."
Phil reddened, looked dreadfully ashamed of himself for about two minutes, then said in a cheerful tone: "It is rather nice of me to be willing to play round with those sticky M'Kree babies, as if I were a kid myself."
"I suppose it is; yet down underneath I dare say you rather like the playing round, as you call it," laughed Katherine, and then she worked on in silence up the solitary reaches of the river, with the glaring sunshine on her unsheltered back, and swarms of flies tormenting her unprotected face and neck. These last became such an intolerable nuisance after a time, that she was forced to swathe herself in a hot and cumbering veil.
The "back-ache" portage was worthy of its name that day, and it was considerably past noon before they arrived at the Indian village to which they were bound. At first they could not find anyone at home, the whole community being away in the forest peeling bark from the birch trees for the making of canoes. But the same kind of thing had happened before, so Katherine was not at a loss. Picking up a tin pan, she commenced beating a military tattoo upon it with a thick stick; while Phil, with a trumpet improvised from a roll of birchbark, produced an ear-splitting din which must have carried far through the quiet woods. It was not long before their customers arrived on the scene, and then the business of barter began. A very long business it proved to-day, for, the weather being warm and comfortable, the red men and women seemed to thoroughly enjoy sitting round at their ease and taking time to consider whether they wished to be purchasers or not.
But Katherine was patient and tactful too. After all, the training of a teacher is not lost in the buying and selling of a backwoods store. The same gifts of persuasion are needful in both cases, and the same gentle firmness is useful in settling the bargain which has come to completion. It was four o'clock before Katherine was able to turn her back on the Indian village, but by then she had sold every article which had been brought up river, and was laden with a currency of valuable furs and some specimens of narwhal ivory, very beautiful, but apparently of great age. The same kind of thing had happened before, and she could never quite make out where it had come from, for the narwhal was so rarely met with in the Hudson Bay waters now, and was a creature so fierce, that it was puzzling to know how people in birchbark canoes, armed only with spears, could ever manage to secure it. A theory held by her father in his days of health was, that in places along those little-known shores the tusks of narwhals dead centuries before might be found by the Indians buried in the sands, and it was finds of this sort which they dug up and offered for sale.
Their stay at Mrs. M'Kree's house was very short after all, though Katherine was thankful indeed for the cup of tea awaiting her there, and much too grateful for the kindness to be fastidious about its overdrawn condition. As a matter of fact, the tea had been gently on the boil for more than two hours, but this was a minor detail in the comfort of people who had an outdoor life and worked hard from dawn to dark.
It was pleasant to slip down on the swift current of the river when the cool of the evening came on. Katherine was almost sorry when the home portage was reached, for it was like taking up the burden of life again, and she was tired enough to feel that rest was a luxury indeed. The dogs were soon over at the boathouse to help with the parcels, and then Katherine and Phil, both heavily laden, passed up the portage path, and night came down.
There were lights twinkling in and about the store when they reached it, and Katherine laughed to see how Phil crept past the door of the store, making for the entrance to the house instead.
But she did not call him back, being quite willing to shield his retreat so far as she could possibly do so, for a ducking at that time in the evening would not be pleasant; moreover, Mrs. Burton would have his clothes to dry, which was another consideration of importance just then.
Nick Jones was not in the store when she entered, and she noticed at once that the crowd of evening loungers was less than usual. They were busily talking, too, and although they all bade her a civil good evening, went on with their talk where they had dropped it.
"Mr. Ferrars came up to see you this evening," Miles whispered, when she went to help him with some boxes which were beyond his reach.
"To see me?" Katherine asked in surprise.
"Yes, he even went over the portage to see if you were coming, but he could not wait, because the Mary sailed with the evening tide," answered Miles.
Mr. Selincourt is Confidential
The hot colour flamed in Katherine's cheeks; but no one saw it, for her back was to the group of men talking by the store door, and Miles had turned round to put on the counter the box which she had reached down for him.
"Why did Mr. Ferrars wish to see me?" she asked, striving successfully to make her voice steady. Of course it might have been that Jervis wanted to see her on some matter of business connected with the store; but in any case, and whatever his errand, it was pleasant to think that he had come up the river on purpose to see her.
"I don't know, he didn't say; but he carried himself with as much swaggering importance as if it were he, and not Mr. Selincourt, who intended buying up as much of Roaring Water Portage as he could lay hands upon," Miles answered, in a grumpy tone. The group of men at the door had moved outside, where it was cooler, so brother and sister were for the moment alone.
"I don't think Mr. Ferrars ever put on much side," protested Katherine, taking up the cudgels in defence of the absent one, although there was an increased heaviness in her heart as she reflected that perhaps, after all, he was betrothed to Mary Selincourt, and hence the inward elation resulting in the outward swagger.
"Oh, he could, sometimes!" went on Miles, who appeared to be in rather a bad temper just then. "I suppose he is going to marry Miss Selincourt, and that is why he puts on such a fearful lot of cheek. Downright horrid money-grubbing, I call it, for before she came he was always——"
"Always what?" demanded Katherine sharply. Her voice sounded a trifle muffled, because for some reason or other she had stuffed her head and shoulders in a bean bin, and was measuring beans in a desperate hurry, which seemed a rather unnecessary task, as she had no orders to fill.
But Miles, who had stumbled perilously near to an indiscretion, plainly thought better of it, and ventured on no more speech concerning the matter, calling instead to one of the men standing outside the door to ask some question about goods which had been ordered for the next day, and had to be sent down to Seal Cove.
Katherine went to bed in a very mixed frame of mind that night. At one moment she was sorry that she had not been at home when Mr. Ferrars came to see her; then, with a quick revulsion of feeling, she was heartily glad that she had been away, and shrank with very real reluctance from the thought of the next time she would have to see him. But that would not be for another week; a good many things might happen before then, though she did not even guess how many were going to happen.
In the morning Mary came over to the store very early indeed, and her face was in a pucker of dissatisfaction and discontent.
"It is so truly horrid of things to fall out like this," she began vehemently, bursting into the store, where Katherine and Miles were busy weighing and packing goods which had to be delivered that day.
"How have they fallen out?" asked Katherine with a smile. She was used to Mary's excitable outbursts, which were usually about trifles too small for notice; but this was a bigger matter.
"The men came up with the mail yesterday; the delay was owing to a breakdown on one of the portages, and they had to camp for a whole week whilst they were repairing their boat. It is very vexing, coming as it does just now, because we should have known our fate so much earlier. We have to go back to Montreal for the winter, and it is so tiresome!" sighed Mary.
"I'm afraid you won't get much pity for your hard fate," laughed Katherine, with a lightening of heart which made her secretly ashamed of herself. "I found Montreal very pleasant for winter quarters, and I only wish it were possible for us to spare Miles to go for this next winter."
"I don't want to go!" interposed Miles hastily.
"Neither do I, Miles," said Mary; "so we are both in the same boat. Only the worst of it is I have got to go, whether I like it or not, because my father will not leave me here without him. Such nonsense! As if I were not old enough to take care of myself!"
"Which you are not. Remember the tidehole," Katherine remarked, in a tone of mock solemnity.
"Once bitten, twice shy! No more tideholes for me," Mary answered, with a shake of her head. Then she went on: "I have brought over some newspapers for Mr. Radford, but there was no public mail matter in this lot except some English letters for Mr. Ferrars which had come directed to our agent in Montreal; so we sent them straight down to Seal Cove yesterday afternoon without troubling the post office at all."
"That was very kind of you. If they had been sent here I should have had to deliver them last night after I got back from the long portage," Katherine answered, as she took the bundle of papers which Mary put into her hand.
"Which would have been a great shame, for I am sure that you must have been tired out. Besides, you would have been too late, for Mr. Ferrars sailed for the Twins last night with the evening tide; and I have got to be clerk and overseer whilst he is away, so I must be off. Don't you wish me joy of my work?"
"I certainly hope that you will enjoy it," Katherine replied, and Mary went off in a bustle, calling for Hero, who was her constant companion morning, noon, and night, a sort of hairy shadow, and devotion itself.
When she had gone, Katherine sighed a little, then said to Miles, who still looked a trifle sullen: "I do wish it had been possible for you to go to the city this autumn. I know Father wished it so much, and here would have been a good opportunity for your journey, because you could have gone with the Selincourts, then you would not have felt so lonely. I know that I nearly broke my heart when I went, because of feeling so solitary."
"I am very glad that I can't be spared, because I simply don't want to go, and should not value the chance if I had it," Miles answered. "I will settle to work at books again directly winter comes, and will put as much time in as I can spare at them, especially at book-keeping. Education is not much good to people who don't want it; and I would rather work with my hands any day than work with my head. But of course there are some things I must know to be a good man of business, and these I can learn at home, I am thankful to say."
Katherine dropped the sugar scoop with which she had been shovelling out brown sugar, and, crossing over to where Miles was standing, gave him a hearty hug and a resounding kiss.
"What is that for?" he asked, with a wriggle of pretended disgust, although there was a lifting of the sullen look in his face.
"Because you are such a thoroughly good sort," she answered. "You have been such a comfort, Miles, ever since Father was taken ill; it was just as if you went to bed a boy and woke up a man."
When the boys had been started off to Seal Cove with a boatload of goods, and Katherine had tidied away the litter in the store, she went into the stockroom at the back to spread out the furs in readiness for the coming of Mr. Selincourt. In an ordinary way she would have taken them over to Fort Garry to-day, but with the prospect of a customer they could wait for a more convenient time.
She was still busy spreading out and arranging pelts of black fox, white fox, silver fox, beaver, skunk, and racoon (there were wolfskins in plenty, too, but these she did not produce, as they were commoner, and so would doubtless not appeal to the rich man's fancy); then she heard a noise of knocking in the store, and, running out, found that Mr. Selincourt and an Indian had arrived together.
Neither of them was in the slightest hurry. But Katherine attended to the red man first, being desirous of getting rid of him, then watched him down the bank and waited until he had embarked in his frail canoe before attending to her other and more important customer.
"Please pardon me for keeping you waiting," she said, turning with smiling apology to Mr. Selincourt; "but that is Wise Eye from Ochre Lake, and he is the wiliest thief on the river. Ah, I thought so! He is coming back again. Quick! stand back in that corner behind the stove, and you will see some fun."
Mr. Selincourt promptly flattened himself into a small space between a bag of meal and a barrel of molasses, while Katherine dived into a recess by the bean bin, and then they waited, holding their breath as children do when playing hide-and-seek.
It was a good long wait, for Wise Eye was a shrewd rogue. Then Mr. Selincourt from his corner saw a figure on all-fours coming over the doorstep. At first he thought it was a dog, because of the peculiar sniffing sound it made, but a second glance showed it to be Wise Eye in search of plunder. Gradually, gradually he edged himself inside, creeping so silently that there was no sound at all, and a thievish hand had just shot out to annex a bag of rice that stood within reaching distance, when Katherine emerged into view and said quietly: "You can't have that rice unless you pay for it, Wise Eye; we don't give things away."
The red man erected himself with a shocked look, as if insulted by the bare mention of stealing, and, opening a dirty hand, showed half a dollar tucked away in his palm.
"Wise Eye not want the rice, nor anything, but what he pay for," he answered loftily; "but he drop his money here and come look for it, just to find it lying close to rice bag, and now he find it he say good morning and go."
Katherine laughed, for, angry as Wise Eye's depredations made her, it was amusing to find him bowled out once in a while.
"Had the fellow really lost his money?" asked Mr. Selincourt, coming out from his hiding-place very sticky on one side and very floury on the other.
"He has none to lose except that one bad coin, which is his greatest treasure, and which he has tendered in payment so often that I am quite sick of the sight of the thing," Katherine replied. "But he keeps the coin ready as an excuse, do you see? I guessed he would try coming back, because you said that you had come to see the furs, and he knows we do not keep those out here in the store."
"Well, he is a wily rogue! What are you going to do now?" asked Mr. Selincourt, as she moved across to the door.
"Turn the key on him; it is the only thing to do. These Indians are really a great trial; we have to keep such a sharp lookout always. It is because of them that we never dare leave things outside unless there is someone to watch."
"Your father is sitting out there in the sun," said Mr. Selincourt, who could never seem to realize the extent of 'Duke Radford's limitations.
"I know, but he would not understand, poor dear; he never notices things like that," Katherine answered, with a mournful drop in her voice, as she turned the key and led the way to the stockroom.
Mr. Selincourt followed silently, and when Katherine first began to show him the furs he looked at them with an abstracted gaze, which showed his thoughts to be far away. But his interest grew in the beautiful things after a time, and he selected with a judgment and discretion which showed that he knew very well what he was about. When he had bought all that he required he turned away from them, and began to talk of the matter which was uppermost in his mind.
"Well, have you come to any decision about disposing of your land?" he asked.
"Yes," answered Katherine, who was busy rearranging the pelts which Mr. Selincourt had rejected. "We had a family consultation, and the majority settled the question, and decided that we did not want to sell, and that we had not sufficient reason for selling even if we had wanted it very much indeed. Our business is paying very well, and there is no need to upset existing arrangements."
Mr. Selincourt nodded his head thoughtfully, then he answered: "I must say I think you have done wisely; although, of course, it is against my own interest to admit it, because I wanted to buy. But it is a very hard life for a girl."
"It will be easier in a few years, when Miles grows up; and he gets bigger and more capable every day. Oh, I shall have a very easy time, I can assure you, when my brother is a man!" she said, with a laugh.
"I trust you will, and a good time too, for I am sure that no girl ever deserved it more than you do," he replied warmly. Then he went on: "I had a very hard time myself when I was a young man, an experience so cruelly hard and wearing that sometimes I wonder that I did not lose faith and hope entirely."
"But don't you think that faith and hope are given to us in proportion to our need of them?" asked Katherine, a little unsteadily. Her heart was beating with painful throbs, for she guessed only too well to what period of his life Mr. Selincourt was referring.
"Perhaps so. Yes, indeed I think it must be so, otherwise I don't see how I could have pulled through. I have recalled a good deal about that time since I have been here at Roaring Water Portage, and have seen how you have had to work, and to sacrifice yourself for the good of others; and I have often thought that I should like to tell you the story of my struggle. Would you care to hear it?"
"Yes, very much," Katherine answered faintly, although, much as she wished to know all about it, she dreaded hearing the story of her father's wrong-doing told by other lips than his own.
"When I was a very young man I was clerk in a Bristol business house, taking a good salary, and, as I believed, with an unblemished character. My father was dependent on me, and two young sisters, and I was rather proud of being, as it were, the keystone of the home. Then one day an old friend of my father's came to see me, and paid me fifty pounds, which he said he had owed to my father for twenty years—a gambling debt. He begged and implored me to say no word about it to anyone, especially to my father."
"Why not, if it was your father's debt?" asked Katherine, who was keenly interested.
"Because my father would not have taken it, although twenty years before he had paid the fifty pounds out of his own pocket, to save this friend of his from exposure and ruin. At first I was disposed not to take it either; but, as the man represented to me, I had others dependent on me, and for their sakes I was in duty bound to take it, and to do the best I could for them with it."
"I think so too," murmured Katherine; but Mr. Selincourt continued almost as if he had not heard her speak.
"I took the money and banked it with my other savings, feeling rather proud of having such a nest-egg, and making up my mind that when the summer came I would give the girls and the old man such a holiday as they had never even dreamed of before. Then the blow fell. I was called into the room of the chief one morning, and asked if I were a gambler. Of course I said no, and that with a very clear conscience, for I had never been addicted to betting nor card playing in my life. Then I was asked to explain the lump sum of fifty pounds which I had added to my banking account in the previous week."
"But I thought that banking accounts were very private and confidential things," said Katherine.
"So they are supposed to be; but the private affairs of a fellow in my position would be sure to get closely overhauled, and a shrewd bank manager might deem it only his duty to enquire how anyone with my salary and responsibilities could afford to pay in big sums like that," Mr. Selincourt replied. "Of course I could not explain how I had come by the money, and to my amazement I was curtly dismissed, and without a character."
"How horribly cruel!" panted Katherine, whose hands were pressed against her breast, and whose face was deathly white. No one knew how terribly she suffered then, as she stood there bearing, as it were, the punishment for her father's guilty silence, while she listened to the story of what his victim had had to endure.
"It did seem cruel, as you say, horribly cruel!" Mr. Selincourt said, a grey hardness spreading over his kindly face, as if the memory of the bitter past was more than he could bear. "The two years that followed were crammed with poverty and privation; there was almost constant sickness in the home, and I could get no work except occasional jobs of manual labour, at which any drayman or navvy could have beaten me easily, by reason of superior strength. I left Bristol and went to Cardiff, hoping that I might lose my want of a character in the crowd. But it was of no use. 'Give a dog a bad name and hang him', is one of the truest proverbs we've got. What is the matter, child?" he asked, as an involuntary sob broke from poor Katherine.
"Nothing, nothing; only I am so sorry for you!" she cried, breaking down a little, in spite of her efforts after self-control.
"You need not be, as you will hear in a moment; and, at any rate, I don't look much like an object of pity," he said, with a laugh. "I was on the docks one winter evening, wet, dark, and late, when I saw a man robbed of his purse. I chased the thief, collared the purse, and took it back to its owner, who proved to be one of the richest merchants of the town. He wanted to give me money. I told him that I wanted work. I told him, too, about my damaged reputation, and my inability to clear myself."
"Did he believe you?" she asked eagerly.
"He did; or if he didn't then, he did afterwards. Years later he admitted that for the first twelve months of my time with him he paid to have me watched; but that was really to my advantage, as I came scatheless through the ordeal."
"It was really good of him to take so much interest in you," said Katherine.
"So I have always felt," Mr. Selincourt answered. "Christopher Ray stood to me for employer and friend. In course of time he became still more, for he gave me his daughter, Mary's mother, and when he died he left me his wealth."
"It was not all a misfortune for you, then, that for a time you had to live under a cloud," said Katherine eagerly.
"Rightly speaking it was not misfortune, but good fortune that came to me when I lost position and character at one blow. I have often thought that perhaps I owed my downfall to someone who either said about me what was not true, or kept silent when a word might have put me straight; but, if so, that person was my very good friend, and it is to him, or to her, that I owe the first step to the success which came after."
Poor Katherine! One desperate effort she made after self-control, but it was of no use, and, covering her face with her hands, she burst into tears.
The Rift in the Clouds
"My dear child, I can never forgive myself for having made you cry like this!" exclaimed Mr. Selincourt; for Katherine was sobbing as vigorously as she did most other things, and he was genuinely distressed.
"Oh, I am glad to cry! I mean, I am so happy, because it came out all right. And oh, please do forgive me for having been so foolish! I wonder whatever you must think of me!" and, heaving a deep sigh of relief, Katherine sat up and wiped her eyes.
"I think you are a very charming and tender-hearted young lady. But I shall have to be very careful how I tell you sad things, if this is the way you are going to receive my confidences," he said, with a rather rueful air; for she was by no means the sort of girl he would have expected to indulge in the weakness of tears.
Katherine laughed. She was desperately ashamed of having been so foolish; but those words of gratitude, spoken by Mr. Selincourt about the person who had wronged him were like balm to her sore heart. It was as if her father had confessed his fault, and had been forgiven on earth as well as in heaven.
"You must pay the penalty of your eloquence by seeing your audience drowned in tears," she said lightly. Then, rolling up the remainder of the furs, she left the stockroom and returned to the store, whither Mr. Selincourt followed her; and as there were no customers he sat on a box and talked on, as if it were a real pleasure to have found a sympathetic listener.
"Those two years of struggle, of disappointment and bitter poverty, have had their uses," he said, in a meditative fashion, as he sat looking out through the door, which Katherine had unlocked again. His gaze was on the river, which sparkled and gleamed in the sunshine, but his thoughts were far away.
Katherine answered only by a splitting, rending noise, as she tore a piece of calico. But that did not matter, because he was too much absorbed in his own thoughts to need other speech just then.
"Perhaps if I had not been poor myself I should not have had sympathy with other men who were in the slough and couldn't get out," he said, speaking as much to himself as to Katherine.
"It is fine to be able to help other people," she replied, cutting the next piece of calico to avoid making so much noise.
"Yes, but I think no one realizes the full blessing of it who has not known in his own person what it is to be in trouble and to be helped himself," he said, his tone still dreamy, and his gaze on the hurrying water.
"Have you helped a great many?" she asked softly.
"A few," he answered. "Some have been disappointments, of course, and once or twice I have been robbed for my pains; but I have had my compensations, especially in Archie Raymond and Jervis Ferrars."
"Who is Archie Raymond?" demanded Katherine, who was measuring calico as rapidly, and with as much dexterity, as if she had served an apprenticeship behind a drapery counter, instead of having been trained for teaching.
Mr. Selincourt brought his gaze from the river, jerking his head round to get a good view of Katherine; then he asked, in a surprised tone: "Hasn't Mary told you about him? I thought girls always talked to each other about such things."
"What things?" asked Katherine.
"Why, sweethearts, and all that sort of stuff," he answered vaguely.
Katherine flushed, caught her breath in a little gasp, and, clenching the hand which held the calico, said rather unsteadily: "Mary and I have certainly not discussed sweethearts and that sort of stuff, as you call it."
Mr. Selincourt laughed in great amusement, then said more gravely: "Mary has been very much spoiled, and in all her life she has never been denied anything save one, as I told you before, and I am hoping very much that it will all come right for her yet, when she has learned her lesson of patient waiting."
Katherine dropped her calico, and, nerving herself for a great effort of endurance, said: "Won't you tell me what you mean? I never could understand hints and vague suggestions about things."
"It is like this," began Mr. Selincourt, who was only too pleased to get a listener as sympathetic as Katherine: "a year ago last winter Mary fell in love with Archie Raymond, or else he fell in love with her; anyhow they became engaged, although I demurred a little, on account of his inability to support a wife. But I gave way in time, for he was a thoroughly good fellow, and one of the sort who was bound to rise when he got a chance. Mary was exacting, however—I told you she had been spoiled—and Archie wasn't the sort to be led about on a string like a lapdog; so naturally they quarrelled."
"Poor Mary!" exclaimed Katherine softly.
"And poor Archie too, I guess," returned Mr. Selincourt. "It was his misfortune that he cared so much for her. I believe she would have treated him better if he had not been so much her slave; but even slaves can't endure too much, so he revolted after a time. Jervis Ferrars, who was Archie's friend, came to Mary and begged that she would see Archie, if only for ten minutes, because there was something to be said between them which could not be put into a letter. But my girl is made of obstinate stuff that crops up in awkward places sometimes; so she sent word by Jervis that if Archie liked to send her a letter of apology she would read it, but she would not see him until that had been done."
"Did he do it?" asked Katherine eagerly. A white light of illumination had suddenly flashed into her mind concerning the nature of the boon which Jervis Ferrars had begged at the hands of Mary, and been denied.
Mr. Selincourt laughed. "I told you that he was a man and not a lapdog. That sort don't go crawling round asking pardon for wrongs they have not committed. The next we heard of Archie Raymond was that he had joined Max Bohrnsen's Arctic Expedition in place of a man who had fallen out through sickness, and that he had sailed for the Polar Seas on a two years' absence."
"Poor Mary!" sighed Katherine again, then immediately felt ashamed of her own secret light-heartedness.
"Yes, it was poor Mary then," replied Mr. Selincourt, a shade coming over his pleasant face. "The worst of it was that she had only herself to thank for all the trouble that had come upon her, and as it was not a thing to be talked about, it had to be borne without any outside sympathy to make it easier."
"Has she never heard from him since?" asked Katherine softly, and now there were tears in her eyes, and a whole world of pity in her heart for this girl who had deliberately flung away the love she wanted, from pure obstinacy and self-will.
"Only once. Directly she knew that he had gone beyond recall she began to repent in good earnest, and sent him a cable to the only port where his vessel would be likely to stop, something to this effect; 'It is I who apologize; will you forgive?' And after weeks and weeks of waiting this answer came back: 'Yes, in two years' time'."
Katherine drew a long breath, and her eyes were still misty. "How long the waiting time must seem to Mary, and the months can bring her no tidings of what she most wants to know."
"That is true; but I am quite sure it is good for her," Mr. Selincourt answered. "Never before has there been anything in her life which called for waiting or patience, and it is the lessons which are hardest to learn which do us most good."
"Won't Mary be displeased because you have told me all this?" asked Katherine.
"It will make no difference to her if she does not know, and you are not the sort of girl to go about bragging of the things you have been told. But it seemed to me that it might help you to an understanding of Mary's character if you knew," Mr. Selincourt replied rather awkwardly.
Katherine flushed a sudden, uncomfortable red, and began measuring calico in a great hurry; only, as she had turned her work round, and was doing it all over again, it was rather wasted labour. A thought had flashed into her mind that perhaps this good, kindly man had heard some of the talk which was coupling the names of Miss Selincourt and Jervis Ferrars, and so had told her this about Mary of set purpose.
"Thank you for telling me," she said; then went on hurriedly: "I am so glad to know. It explains why sometimes Mary does not look happy. I had thought it just boredom and discontent."
"Most people would think so, but that is just because they don't understand her. She is made of fine, good stuff at the bottom, only sometimes it is rather hard to get at. This week she will be perfectly happy and charming to live with, because she will have to be at the fish sheds all the time, checking the incoming boats; and next week she will be down in the dumps, because she has nothing in the world to do."
"That at least is a complaint that I am in no danger of suffering from," laughed Katherine, as, realizing that she had been working twice on the calico, she folded it up and started on another length.
"And I have been wasting your time in a fearful fashion; but perhaps you will forgive me, because I like talking to you so much," he said, rising from his seat and laughing, as he looked at his watch, to think how the morning had flown. "Now I will go and talk to your good father for a little while, and then I will whistle for Pierre to come over and row me down to Seal Cove for lunch with Mary, to round off the morning."
Katherine rushed about the store with great vigour and much bustling energy after the visitor had betaken himself outside. Of course he had wasted her morning to a serious extent, but what mattered arrears of work compared with the peace of mind the talk had brought her? Never once since the day on which her father had confided to her the secret trouble which was weighing him down had Katherine been so light-hearted. Now, at least so far as she was concerned, that trouble, even the remembrance of it, might be put away for ever. Mr. Selincourt had said that he owed a debt of gratitude to the person who had wronged him; so plainly there was no question of making up to him for any loss that he had suffered. True, the wrong was there, and nothing could undo the sin which had been committed; but it was the sinner who had suffered, not the sinned against. Katherine looked out through the open door of the store and saw her father walking up and down beside the man he had wronged, and a sharp pang of pity for the invalid smote her heart. His punishment was very heavy; but even she, his daughter, who loved him so well, could not deny that it was just that he who did the wrong should pay the penalty thereof.
"Poor darling Father!" she murmured. "But no one need ever know. Nothing could be gained by dragging the old, bad past to light, and so it shall be buried for ever." Then, covering her face with her hands, she prayed that the forgiveness of Heaven might rest upon the poor sinner, whose punishment had come to him on earth.
The hours of that day flew as if every one of them were holiday time, instead of being crammed to the full with even harder work than usual. The other matter of which Mr. Selincourt had spoken, Mary's engagement to the unknown Archie Raymond, Katherine buried deep in her heart, a thing to be gloated over in secret, a cause for happiness which she did not care to be frank over, even to herself. So the long, busy day went on to evening, and, in spite of all the work there had been to get through, Katherine found herself with half an hour of leisure before bedtime.
She was standing outside, fighting the mosquitoes, and wondering if she had sufficient energy left to go up the portage path to the high ground, to see the moon rise, when she saw the Selincourt boat shoot out from under the alder trees on the other side of the river, and make across for the store.
"It is Mary!" she whispered to herself; and Mary it was, with a weary, white face, and a fleecy white shawl wrapped about her head and shoulders.
"Will you come up the hill, Katherine, and see the moon rise?" she asked, in a tired tone.
"I was just thinking of doing so, only it seemed hardly worth the effort to go up alone; now you have come it will be pleasant," Katherine answered, and, although she knew it not, there was more friendliness in her tone than Mary had ever found there before.
"Do you know, I tried going up the hill on my side, a better hill than yours, and with a better view, but it was so lonely! Isn't it funny what a difference companionship makes?"
"Sometimes, and in some moods. But there are other times and other moods in which companionship is a nuisance, and solitude the only thing to be desired. At least, that is how I have felt," said Katherine. Then she added hastily: "To-night I felt as if I wanted someone to see the moon rise with me, so I am very glad you came."
They walked up the hill in silence, despite the desire for company which both had felt, and stood together at the top, watching the silver glory of the moon coming up over the black pine trees, with no speech at all until Mary asked with a ring of envy in her tone: "What has come to you to-night?"
Katherine flushed, answering in quick apology: "Please forgive me. It is fearfully rude of me to be so silent and abstracted."
"It wasn't that. Speech is only one way of expressing one's thoughts, and very often not the most eloquent way either. But you look so light-hearted to-night; it shines from your eyes, and—and—well, it is awkward to express what I mean, but it is visible in every gesture. To put it briefly, you look like a person to be envied."
"I believe I am to be envied," Katherine answered, flushing again under the amused scrutiny in Mary's glance. "Everyone who has health and vigour, with an infinite capacity for enjoyment, should surely be envied by those not equally blessed, don't you think?"
Mary sighed. "I have health and vigour too. I am not so sure about the infinite capacity for enjoyment; but I like work, and plenty of it. Do you know, I thoroughly enjoyed myself at Seal Cove to-day. I went out on the landing wharf to help the men to count the take, then I entered it, wrote out the tokens, and worked as hard as if I were doing it for a weekly wage."
"Well?" There was gentle questioning in Katherine's tone, but no curiosity; happily there was need for none. She could understand something of Mary's moods without explanation now, and could give the sympathy, which was also better expressed without words.
"It isn't well; that is the trouble of it," Mary said wistfully. "The work is all very well while it lasts, but when it is done, one is tired, and there is nothing left but weariness and moods again—just these and nothing more."
"Oh yes, there is! You are leaving out the most important thing; there is rest. And when one is rested, really rested, the world is all new again for a time," Katherine answered brightly. She was speaking now from her own experience, for that was how she had felt when her trouble was at its blackest.
"I had forgotten rest; but then it won't always come, sometimes sleep is impossible." Mary sighed again, for to-night her mood verged on the morbid.
"Sometimes, but not often, when people are as healthy as we are," Katherine replied with a laugh; then, slipping her hand through Mary's arm, with a persuasive touch she drew her homeward. "Come! People who have to get up and work in the morning must go to bed at night, or suffer next day. I am fearfully sleepy, and to-morrow I have to go over to Fort Garry with all those furs which your father did not buy."
"I too must be at work in good time, for I want to be at Seal Cove before ten o'clock, and that does not leave much space for one's housekeeping duties," Mary said, in a brighter tone, as the two came down the hill together.
"Let Mr. Selincourt keep house while you are so busy, or, better still, get Nellie to do what you want; she will be delighted," urged Katherine, who was disposed to the belief that Mary's morbid mood was largely the result of fatigue.
"Oh, Mrs. Burton is more than kind in making bread for me, and all that sort of thing; while, as everyone knows, my father spoils me all the time! But I like work, and just now I feel as if I could hardly have too much of it; so I don't mind how long Mr. Ferrars stays away at the fishing at the Twins," Mary said. Then, bidding Katherine good night at the foot of the hill, she got into her boat and was rowed across the river.
Katherine shook her head a little doubtfully as she went indoors; for in her heart she did not echo the other's last words.
Fighting the Storm
The summer had been one of such almost unvarying fine weather that the next morning's outlook came as a disagreeable surprise to Katherine. The sun shone with a pale, watery gleam, grey clouds were piled along the horizon, and a moaning wind crept through the pine trees, made the birch leaves quiver, and thinned the foliage of the alders at the foot of the rapids.
"Phil, we shall have to be quick this morning, or we shall have to come crawling home round the shore instead of rowing straight across the bay," Katherine said, as she piled bundles of pelts into the boat, and tied over them a canvas sheet, for security from any chance wave.
"Oh, we can hustle, and very likely the storm won't break before night!" Phil said easily.
"More likely that it will break before noon," retorted Miles, who was helping to bring out the pelts from the stockroom. "Don't go to-day, Katherine; it is fearful work crossing from Fort Garry when there is a strong north-east wind. I came across with Father once, when we thought we must have been swamped every minute."
"Do not worry yourself, my dear boy," laughed Katherine, "I shall not attempt to cross if the weather is very rough; I shall skirt the shore all the way. It is miles farther, of course, but it is safe, and that is the main thing."
"I wish you were not going, or that I could come with you," Miles said in a worried tone. "Look here; couldn't Phil manage the store for one day with Nellie's help, then we would take an extra pair of oars, and I would help to row?"
Katherine shook her head. "It is not to be thought of, dear. I expect some of those Indians from Nackowasset Creek will be over the portage to-day; then Wise Eye is in the neighbourhood, I know, and if he as much as caught a glimpse of both of us going down river in a boat he would fairly haunt the store until we came back, and Phil would have a tottering time of it."
"That Nackowasset lot are a horrible set of thieves," said Miles.
"Yes, and neither Phil nor Nellie would be up to all their tricks; so, you see, you will be quite indispensable. I shall get on very well; don't worry about me in any case, for if the storm should prove terrifically bad we could even stay at Fort Garry all night," Katherine replied.
The last pelt was tucked away under the canvas sheet, Phil scrambled aboard and crouched down in the most convenient place he could find, and Katherine nodded a bright farewell to Miles, who lingered on the bank with a very dissatisfied look on his face; then the boat moved out into the current and began to slip quickly down river. At present they felt little or nothing of the wind, but when the hut of Oily Dave was in line with them they began to feel the influence of the freshening puffs of wind on their progress, and Katherine decided to take a middle course across the open water to the fort; that is, she would not venture so far out as usual, nor would she hug the shore entirely.
But although the wind came sighing and moaning over the water, it was nothing more at present than a fairly stiff breeze, and, finding it so much better than she had expected, Katherine took heart again, and was glad that she had persevered in her undertaking; for she was anxious to get the furs off her hands. Every place at the store was so crowded now, from the shipments which had recently come in, that it was really a relief to get these bundles of pelts cleared out of the way.
"Oily Dave's hotel is closed, so I suppose the proprietor has cleared off out to the fishing," Phil said, as the little brown hut on the left shore slid by, and they began to rock on the open water of the river's mouth.
"I expect he has," replied Katherine, who was pulling with long, steady strokes, the exercise and the wind between them bringing a bright glow into her face. "Do you know, I am sure he has worked harder and more honestly this summer than for many a year past; I believe he is beginning to be a reformed character."
"How long will it take to reform him?" asked Phil, laughing; but Katherine could only shake her head and say she did not know.
The gulls were riding on the crests of the waves, or skimming so closely down on the water that it was hard to know whether they were swimming or flying; and long strings of geese overhead all headed southward showed plainly that summer was on the wane. All these things Katherine took note of as she pulled across the choppy water to Fort Garry, only now they did not sadden her as two days ago they would have done. Hope had shone into her life again, a heavy burden had been lifted, and it seemed to her that she could never again feel quite so sorrowful and worn down as she had done sometimes during the last few months.
"Hurrah! Safely arrived!" she exclaimed, as the boat grounded on the pebbly beach in front of the old blockhouse, which looked even grimmer and uglier on this grey day than when the sun shone down upon it.
"Good morning, Miss Radford! Now, I wonder who told you how badly I needed a woman of some sort to happen along this morning?" said Peter M'Crawney, coming out from the stockade on which the house was built, and advancing to meet Katherine, who was coming up from the shore with a great bundle of pelts on each shoulder, while Phil, laden in similar fashion, walked behind.
"Does that mean that Mrs. M'Crawney is ill again?" Katherine asked.
Peter shrugged his shoulders. "She is desperate uneasy in her mind, poor lass, and as hard to live with as a houseful of mosquitoes, which it is lucky I haven't got, or I should be forced to drown myself to keep from going out of my mind."
"Not so bad as that, I hope," Katherine said with a laugh, and instantly resolved that it would be her duty to stay an hour with the poor woman, who pined so much because of the solitude in which her life was cast.
"It is pretty bad anyhow," he growled, a frown coming over his face. He was a fairly patient man, all things considered, but his domestic tribulations were greater than anyone knew or even guessed at.
Katherine turned an anxious eye towards the sky before going in at the house door. If she could start back in anything under a quarter of an hour she might hope to go as she had come, with not much extra labour nor fatigue; but an hour or perhaps an hour and a half hence it would be very different. The storm was coming slowly, but when rough weather came like that it had a trick of lasting sometimes for several days. However, if the worst came to the worst, she could always skirt the shore, and, consoling herself with this thought, she entered the house, leaving M'Crawney and Phil to unload the pelts and bring them up from the boat.
The miserable, neglected look of the house struck Katherine first. Peter was not great at housework, while the half-breed, Simon, who lived with them, helped with the trapping in winter, and did a little of all sorts of work, was rather less clean and tidy in his ways than even Peter. The sight of the dusty, ill-kept room irritated Katherine. Last night's supper dishes still littered the table, and had probably served for breakfast dishes as well. What was the use of wasting her time in trying to console a woman who so neglected her home, and the privileges of home-making that came with it? For a few minutes she felt disposed to turn back with only a five minutes' civil talk. But there was one's duty to one's neighbour—and that is a more important duty in isolated places than in more crowded centres.
Then an idea flashed into her mind. If by any means she could contrive to make Mrs. M'Crawney ashamed of herself, it might be more useful than medicine, might even work a cure, in fact; and that would be something worth doing, even though it entailed skirting the shore all the way home. To think was to act. Whisking off her coat and hat, she rolled up her sleeves, and for want of an apron pinned a big towel round her; a very dirty towel it was too, but something she must have to protect her frock, and it had to be the towel or nothing.
First, with plenty of noise and clatter, she piled the dirty crockery ready for washing, and, filling the stove with wood, set a kettle of water on to get hot. This done, she flung door and window wide, and proceeded to sweep the room. By the amount of dust she raised she judged that it must have been at least a week, perhaps a fortnight, since it was swept last.
Of all the work in the world she hated sweeping most, declaring to herself that doing a portage in blazing sunshine, with a load of furs on one's back, was play to sweeping. The dust got on her face, it walked up her nostrils and down her throat, making her feel as if she must in self-defence throw down her broom and fly outside, where the clean, strong wind was blowing. But it was not like her to give up, when once she had set her hand to anything; so she finished the sweeping, then fled outside to let the dust blow away from her face and hair while the thick atmosphere in the room she had left cleared enough to admit of the next set of operations.
Peter M'Crawney was talking to Phil on the other side of the fence, and from several inarticulate growls which reached her ears she judged that Simon must be there too. Then she heard Phil start on a description of what had taken place at the captain's reception on the ocean-going steamer, and judged herself safe for another ten minutes, for well she knew that he would not spare them full details, especially of the monkey trick he had played on Nick Jones.
In ten minutes one could do a great deal if one tried; so back again she hurried, and set to work dusting the furniture with an old cotton jacket of Peter's, because she could find no duster. The buttons got in the way sometimes, but that was a minor detail, and it did not do to be over-particular about trifles when one was in a hurry. The dusting was done, and she had started work on the dirty dishes, when the door of the inner room came open with a jerk, and Mrs. M'Crawney, very much in undress, poked her head out.
"Miss Radford, is it you?" she cried in profound astonishment. "I couldn't think what the noise was out here. If it had been night I should have settled it in my own mind that Peter and Simon had been having too much to drink, though no two men could be more sober than they are."
"A good thing they are, for there must be terrible temptations for men living in such discomfort to drown their troubles in strong drink," Katherine answered severely. Then she asked in a more kindly tone: "Do you feel better this morning?"
"Oh, I am well enough, thank you! It isn't my body; bodies don't matter unless they ache, which mine doesn't, the saints be praised!" Mrs. M'Crawney exclaimed with pious fervour, as she emerged from her bedroom and seated herself in all her squalid untidiness on the nearest chair.
"If it is not your body, what is it, then? Do you think you are going out of your mind?" demanded Katherine sharply; and turning from her dish-washing, she treated the woman to a calm appraising stare, which took in every detail, from the unbrushed hair straggling over the ragged nightdress to the unwashed, naked feet.
"Going out of my mind?" screamed Mrs. M'Crawney in furious indignation. "Indeed no! I've got my wits as well as you've got your own, Miss Katherine Radford; more so, I should say, for I have a deal too much sense to go slaving myself to death doing work that no one is likely to say 'thank you' for."
Katherine laughed merrily: "Don't be too sure of that. I expect that you will be saying 'thank you' presently, when you are washed and dressed; it makes such a difference when one's hair is tidy! If you will go into your room again I will bring you some hot water in a minute. But I can hear my brother Phil coming, and he is such a dreadful mimic that he will be taking you off for the benefit of Seal Cove to-morrow, in spite of all that I can do to stop him."
Mrs. M'Crawney vanished with all speed, the hint about being made fun of being more powerful to move her than anything else would have been.
Katherine carried in the hot water and tried not to see how badly the bedroom needed sweeping also. She had no more time for heavy housework that day, nor did she deem it a duty to waste her strength on labour which the Irishwoman was equally well able to perform. Peter had come in when she returned to the outer room, and was looking about him as if scarcely able to believe the evidence of his own eyes.
"Well, if it don't beat everything!" he exclaimed, then strode over to the shelf and examined the books, which Katherine had been careful to dust. "You've taken the dust off the books too! I expect you found it rather thick on 'em, didn't you? I don't think it has been rubbed off 'em these six months past."
"Just what I thought!" she retorted, scrubbing the table with great energy. "But I hope you don't expect me to pity you for that. A man who can read books ought to know how to dust them."
"I hadn't thought of doing it myself, that's a fact; but they look real nice now," he said admiringly. And he was wheeling round to pay Katherine a compliment from another direction, when the bedroom door opened again, and a surprised: "Hullo! what's up?" burst from him.
Even Katherine looked amazed, the transformation had been so rapid. Ten minutes ago a tousled, unclean creature, in a ragged night garment had disappeared, and now a clean-faced woman in a tidy frock, and with tidy hair, came from the inner room.
"It is like your impudence to be asking such personal questions as that," Mrs. M'Crawney retorted lightly, with a smile which showed her good-looking when she was not peevish. "But it is better I'm feeling in myself, which is sure to come to the outside sooner or later. Now, Miss Radford, dear, there's no call for you to go blacking that stove; I'll do it myself after you are gone. I'm just dreadful obliged to you for what you've done, especially for sweeping the floor. I've a soul above sweeping, I have, and I can't be always lowering myself to dirty work of that sort; it is damaging to the morals, I find."
Katherine laughed until the tears came into her eyes, then gasped out in jerky tones: "It would be very bad for my morals to live with floors unswept, and I think that is how most people feel."
"Perhaps they do, but I was never the ordinary kind of woman; my mother always said I was sort of one by meself, and she was right. When Mrs. Burton was staying here, with them two blessed babies, I used to marvel how she could laugh and carry on as she did, while the hungry sea as drowned her husband rocked at the very door of the house. Now, if it had been me, and my husband lay somewhere out there under the grey, heaving water, I could not have sung and danced and played hop-scotch, blindman's buff, and things of that sort, the same as she did."
Katherine's lips took on a scornful curl, and there was an indignant light in her eyes as she retorted: "No, I expect if Mr. M'Crawney died you would wear crape a yard deep all round your frocks, and talk morning, noon, and night of how much you loved him. But I am quite sure that he would love you a great deal more if you took the trouble to give him tidy rooms and well-cooked meals. If I were a man I should just hate a woman who treated me as badly as you treat Mr. M'Crawney."
"Hooray, you've got it now, and no mistake, old woman!" interjected Peter, rubbing his hands in huge enjoyment of the scene. Katherine had forgotten all about him, or it is possible she would not have spoken so plainly; as it was, at the sound of his laugh, she turned with a swift apology to Mrs. M'Crawney.
"Please forgive me, I have no right to meddle in your concerns; but it just makes me feel wrathful to see you throwing away the happiness you might have, and existing in such dirt and discomfort, when everything about you might be clean, sweet, and wholesome."
Mrs. M'Crawney dropped into a rocking-chair and laughed in great amusement. "Sure, it is as good as going to a theaytre to see you a-carrying on and lecturing me with the stormlight in your eyes. You are a very pretty girl anyhow, but when you are angry it is downright lovely that you are. I'd forgive ye for a deal more than telling the truth, if you'd only come a bit oftener and row me."
"I say, Katherine, are you nearly ready to start?" asked Phil, putting his head in at the door. He had been with Simon to inspect some tame wolf cubs; but, seeing that the weather was growing more threatening, had decided that the sooner they got away from Fort Garry the better.
"Yes, I will be ready in two minutes," Katherine answered; and, receiving payment for the pelts in a written order upon the Company, which she tied in a bag round her neck for safety, she drew on her coat, tied her hat securely on her head, and declared herself ready to start.
A fine rain was beginning to blur the sea like a fog, and she realized that the journey before her might be a great deal worse than she had expected.
"Good-bye, my dear; a safe journey to you, and the best of luck always!" exclaimed Mrs. M'Crawney, following her to the door. Then, seizing her in a bearlike embrace, the Irishwoman whispered: "It is downright ashamed of myself you've made me; and if I don't do better in future, then my name is not Juliana Kathleen M'Crawney, and never has been!"
"Good-bye! We shall get home all right; don't worry about us," Katherine answered bravely.
"There is one comfort: we shan't need to wash our faces any more to-day, though we may need a little drying," remarked Phil, as they rounded an angle of the coast and caught the full force of the wind.
"It might be worse, for we are being blown along," Katherine replied, as she tugged at her oars and faced the driving rain.
For three hours they toiled on, working their way from point to point, skirting the swamps, and keeping in close under the alders.
There was never real actual danger close inshore for anyone who understood the management of a boat, but the work was fearful, and Katherine was so near to exhaustion when she at last pulled round past the shut-up house of Oily Dave, that she was thankful to let Phil take the oars and pull up the quieter waters of the river to Roaring Water Portage.
"I wonder how Oily Dave likes being at the fishing to-day?" said Phil, swaying himself to and fro and jerking the boat fearfully with his short, uneven strokes.
But Katherine, sitting in a huddled, wet heap on the opposite seat, did not answer. She was thinking of someone else who was at the fishing, and praying that he might be kept in safety and brought back unharmed.
A Bearer of Evil Tidings
In was a very tired Katherine who awoke to face the work of the next day. It was storming still, with a driving rain, so journeys of any kind were out of the question; and, yielding to the wisdom of Mrs. Burton, she remained in bed until nearly noon. Her arms ached so badly that she could scarcely move them, her body was weary in every part, and the long night had been hideous for her by reason of the nightmare dreams which broke her rest. Always it seemed when she fell asleep that she was tormented with visions of Jervis Ferrars struggling for his life in deep waters, falling from beetling cliffs on to rugged rocks below, or being pursued by enraged and vindictive walruses across slippery places, where no one on two feet could hope to stand without falling.
Even when she awoke the dreams haunted her still, and it was not until the new day came, and the rest of the household had gone to their usual avocations, that any real sleep came to her. The twins were singing when she awoke at noon; indeed, they almost always were singing: but this morning it was a lilting baby song about "The sun is always shining, somewhere, somewhere", and Katherine took heart as she listened, then rose and dressed in great haste, for it was years since she had remained in bed so late in the day, and she was wondering what the others were doing without her to help them.
Miles was standing at the store door looking out across the river when she entered by the other door from the living-room, and he was so absorbed that he did not hear her come up behind him, and only started when she put her hand on his arm to shake him into attention.
"What are you staring at?" she asked lightly.
"Someone in oilskins has just rowed up and stopped over the river at Mr. Selincourt's. It looked like Oily Dave, but Phil said last night that he was away at the fishing," Miles answered, as he turned back into the store.
"So he was," said Katherine. "There was the usual legend in his dirty windows that all drinks must wait until he came back, which is a fearful temptation to temperance people to wish that he would never come back at all."
"His sort is sure to turn up safe and sound, no matter how great the danger; it is the best and worthiest that never come back," Miles said, so gloomily that Katherine took instant alarm.
"What do you mean? Has any bad news come?" she asked, gripping at the rough deal counter for support, and wondering how she would be able to bear it if he said yes.
"Mr. Selincourt went down to Seal Cove this morning and looked in here on his way back," said Miles. "He wanted to see you, but we told him that he could not; then he said that there was a good bit of worry about the boats. One was blown clean into the swamps last night, and will have to stick there until the weather is fine enough for her to be towed off, and another came ashore, badly damaged, at the fish sheds; and he is afraid that some of the other boats may have been driven on to the rocks."
"The boats right out in the bay would be safe, wouldn't they?" Katherine asked, with fear in her eyes.
"You never can say what will be safe in weather such as we had last night," Miles answered; then he moved restlessly towards the door of the store again, and stood looking out, eager to catch the man whose boat was moored under the alders on the opposite bank of the river, and to learn from him if there was news from the sea.
Katherine sat down suddenly. It was as if someone had already been in to say that a boat was wrecked. Disasters which were expected always came, so she told herself, and sat leaning her head against a box of soap, the smell of which ever after suggested shipwreck to her.
Ten minutes went past, then twenty minutes, and nearly half an hour had gone before Miles cried out excitedly: "Here he comes down the path; Mr. Selincourt is there too, without any hat, and it is raining hard! Yes, it is Oily Dave, and there goes his hand up to his mouth, just as if he were drinking!"
Katherine was at work by this time, packing stores into boxes, bags, and bundles, which would have to be carried over the long portage next day; but she left her task now and came round to the door, where she stood behind Miles and looked over his shoulder.
"If Mr. Selincourt were not there I would go down and call to the fellow to come over," said Miles impatiently.
"No need," rejoined Katherine quietly, "he is coming without any calling; don't you see that he is turning his boat across the river?"
Neither spoke after that until the boat grounded, and Oily Dave stepped out on to the bank.
"Miles, you must serve him with what he wants: don't call me; I—I am going to be busy," Katherine said hastily, then beat a rapid retreat from the door. But she only went to the corner where a lot of gay-coloured rugs were hanging, and stood there waiting to hear what Oily Dave might have to tell.
How slowly he walked up from the bank! She could hear his heavy seaboots squelching through the mud, then the deep, grunting noise which always accompanied any of his movements.
"Good morning!" said Miles curtly, as the squelching boots crossed the threshold.
"I don't call it a good morning," snarled Oily Dave.
Katherine drew yet closer into the shadow of the rugs, and clenched her hands tightly to keep from screaming; something bad had got to be told, she was sure, and she doubted her ability to bear it.
"What is wrong?" asked Miles.
"A good deal more than will ever be put right in this world, or the next either, perhaps," replied Oily Dave. "We are afraid the Mary has gone down."
"Ah!" The involuntary moan escaped the listener who was out of sight, but Oily Dave did not hear, or at any rate he did not heed, and, after a brief pause, he went on:
"We was off Akimiski yesterday after walrus, but when it came on to blow we turned home, for there is no anchorage to run to there in dirty weather, but plenty of rocks to fall foul of, which are not quite so pleasant. But we couldn't get home for a while, being blown along the east coast of the island, with a lively chance of being wrecked at any minute. We were beating along under the lee of the island when we saw a boat drifting bottom up, and when we hooked her we found she was the Mary's boat."
"It sounds bad, but it does not spell disaster quite, because, don't you see? they might have lost their boat on the way out," retorted Miles, in a defiant tone, which meant that he did not intend to believe bad news until it was proved beyond a doubt.
"There was a water jar and a bag of biscuits tied to the thwarts," replied Oily Dave. "It's true there wasn't nothing of the jar but the handle, and the biscuits was pap, as was to be expected, but the signs wasn't wanting of what had been taking place, don't you see? If we'd found the boat with nothing in it we could have hoped that it had just been washed adrift, and, though we should have been anxious, there would have been room left for hope, which in common sense and reason there ain't now."
"There is always room for hope until we know," objected Miles. "Besides, Akimiski isn't the Twins by any means; why, they must be fifty miles away, if not more."
"Nearer seventy. But who is to say that they ever got so far as the Twins? If they'd run into any sign of walrus on Akimiski on the way out, they would stop there for certain, a bird in hand being worth two in a bush any day in the week, and though all is fish that comes to our net, it is walrus we're keenest on, as everyone knows. I've been to Mr. Selincourt with the news, and it has about corked him up, poor gentleman! But the young lady was worse still; she turned on me as spiteful as if I'd gone and drowned the Mary's crew myself."
There was a deeply injured note in Oily Dave's tone now. He evidently resented keenly the fact that his bad tidings had not received a more sympathetic hearing.
"Who was on the Mary?" asked Miles.
"The usual lot: Nick Jones, master, Stee Jenkin, Bobby Poole, and Mr. Ferrars. A perfect Jonah that man is, and disaster follows wherever he goes," said Oily Dave, with a melancholy shake of his head.
"What do you mean?" demanded Miles, with a stare of surprise.
"What I say," retorted Oily Dave. "Mr. Selincourt sent him to me as a lodger; the river came down in flood and tried to drown him, and spoiled my house something fearful. Then he gets caught in a tidehole, when out walking with his sweetheart, which Miss Selincourt is, I suppose, though it passes me why a young lady with dollars same as she has got don't look higher than a fisherman. But the thing that strikes me is that the man must have done something pretty bad, somewhere back behind, for the waters to be following him round like this."
"Look here! don't you think it is a pretty low-down thing to be taking a man's character away, directly there's a rumour going round that he is dead?" asked Miles stormily.
"I ain't taking away his character. I'm only saying that if he was fated to drown it is a great pity that he wasn't left to drown in the first place, seeing that it would have saved a lot of bother, and other precious lives also," replied Oily Dave, with the look and pose of a man who is bitterly misunderstood.
"Why, you must be stark, staring mad to talk like this!" exclaimed Miles, in doubt whether to heave the nearest article on which he could lay hands at the head of Oily Dave, or to pity him as a lunatic.
"I'm no more mad than you are, young 'un; but there's a deal of what scholars call practical economy in me, and I can't bear waste of no sort or kind, I can't. Why, when customers come to my hotel and leaves any liquor in their mugs, which is but seldom, I always goes and drains 'em down my own neck, to stop waste. And so I says that if Mr. Ferrars hadn't been saved that first time, we should have been spared trouble since."
"What trouble have you ever taken in the matter?" demanded Miles.
"Didn't I risk my life, and wet myself to the skin, pulling him and Miss Selincourt out of the tidehole?" asked Oily Dave. "If you misdoubt my word, ask your sister, who was there and helped as well as a gal could, which isn't much anyhow. Well, there was three lives in danger that time, him, and me, and Miss Selincourt, and I dare say your sister got dampish at the feet. Now, this third and last time, matters is a deal more serious still. Nick Jones leaves a widow, though she don't much count. Stee Jenkin leaves a widow, nice little woman too. Then there's the children, poor things, orphans afore they are big enough to earn a penny for themselves. Bobby Poole hadn't a wife certainly, but he would have had by and by, most likely. It is a bad business altogether. And now I want some tobacco."
Oily Dave jerked out this last statement with a swift change of tone from mournful regret to cheerful business complacency, and Miles served him in silence, too saddened by the heavy tidings from the sea to break into resentful angry speech with this man, who appeared devoid of either heart or feeling. Then the heavy boots squelched out again, going towards the river bank, where the waiting boat was tied to the mooring post. A moment of waiting to make sure he did not return, and then Katherine, pale now as a ghost, glided out from the shadow of the rugs.
"Miles, dear, can you do without me for the rest of the day if need be? I am going down river to poor Mrs. Jenkin," she said, her voice steady though strained.
"I can manage; but look at the rain!" he exclaimed, swinging his hand towards the open door.
"All the more reason why I should go to her, poor little woman," Katherine answered, then passed with a quick step into the house, in search of garments to keep out the weather.
Mrs. Burton was preparing the early dinner, and Katherine told her of the news Oily Dave had brought, speaking in quiet, mournful tones which yet lacked any note of personal loss. Not even to herself would she admit the sorrow at this time, or it would have broken her down completely. Her instinct of going to comfort someone else was the outcome of the strife she was having not to collapse in a miserable, selfish breakdown.
Mrs. Burton turned white and shivered. Just so had her heavy news come to her, and in her sympathy for Mrs. Jenkin her own wounds bled afresh. But Katherine could not stay to comfort her, the other poor woman needed it so much more.
"Nellie, I am going down to Seal Cove, and if Mrs. Jenkin needs me I shall stay until the morning," she said hurriedly.
"That is good of you, dear," sobbed the elder sister, and would have said something more, only Katherine went out of the room so hastily that there was no chance.
Poor Katherine had fled so precipitately through fear that Nellie should say some word about Jervis, with possibly some commiseration for Mary, and that just now would be a thing too hard to bear. Wrapping herself from neck to heels in a mackintosh coat, with a cap of the same, Katherine got into her boat and pulled down river through the driving rain. She rowed as fast as she could, not so much from haste to be at the end of her journey as from a desire to have no time to think.
Tying her boat up at the foot of the path leading to Mrs. Jenkin's house, she climbed to the house door, slipping at every step. A moment she paused before knocking, expecting to hear sobs and wailing from the inside; but instead there came a burst of childish laughter and a great stamping of little feet, and then she heard Mrs. Jenkin singing in a cheerful, if not very musical, voice: "My love is a soldier dressed in red".