A COUNTESS FROM CANADA
A Story of Life in the Backwoods
Author of "Three Girls in Mexico" "Daughters of the Dominion" "Sisters of Silver Creek" "A Courageous Girl" &c.
ILLUSTRATED BY CYRUS CUNEO
I. BEYOND THE SECOND PORTAGE II. A CURIOUS ACCIDENT III. OUTWITTING THE ENEMY IV. A NIGHT OF ROUGH WORK V. A SACRED CONFIDENCE VI. BUSINESS BOTHERS VII. ANOTHER CLUE VIII. THE FIRST RAIN IX. THE FLOOD X. THE STRANGER PROVES A FRIEND IN NEED XI. A WOMAN OF BUSINESS XII. THE FIRST OF THE FISHING XIII. MARY XIV. WOULD THEY BE FRIENDS? XV. MR. SELINCOURT IS INDISCREET XVI. "WE MUST BE FRIENDS!" XVII. 'DUKE RADFORD'S NEW FRIEND XVIII. STANDING ASIDE XIX. AN AWKWARD FIX XX. KATHERINE MAKES A DISCOVERY XXI. MATTER FOR HEARTACHE XXII. A BUSINESS XXIII. THE MAJORITY DECIDES XXIV. MR. SELINCOURT IS CONFIDENTIAL XXV. THE RIFT IN THE CLOUDS XXVI. FIGHTING THE STORM XXVII. A BEARER OF EVIL TIDINGS XXVIII. THE GLADNESS XXIX. WINTER AGAIN XXX. PREPARATIONS XXXI. THE WEDDING
The Rescue of Jarvis Ferrars 'Duke Radford Meets with an Accident Katherine and Miles Spearing for Fish "With all her strength Katherine hauled at the rope" Bartering with the Indians Drifting Down the River
Beyond the Second Portage
"Oh dear, how I should love to go out!"
Katherine Radford stretched her arms wearily above her head as she spoke. There had been five days of persistent snowfall; but this morning the clouds had broken, showing strips and patches of blue sky, and there was bright sunshine flooding the world again, with hard and sparkling frost.
"Why don't you go?" demanded Phil, who was the youngest. "Miles and me don't mind having a holiday at all."
"Speak for yourself if you like," growled Miles, who was thirteen; "but I want to get this schooling business over and done with, so that I can start doing something useful."
"And speak grammatically, please, or else keep silent. You should have said, 'Miles and I'," remarked Katherine with quite crushing dignity, as she turned from the window to take her place at the table once more. Phil thrust his tongue in his cheek, after the manner beloved of small boys, and subsided into silence and an abstracted study of his spelling book.
The schoolroom was a small chamber, partitioned off from the store by a wall of boards so thin that all conversation about buying and selling, with the gossip of the countryside thrown in, was plainly audible to the pupils, whose studies suffered in consequence. The stovepipe from the store went through this room, keeping it comfortably warm, and in winter 'Duke Radford and the boys slept there, because it was so terribly cold in the loft.
Katherine had come home from college in July, determined to teach school all winter, and to make a success of it, too, in a most unpromising part of the world. But even the most enthusiastic teacher must fail to get on if there are no scholars to teach, and at present she had only Miles and Phil, her two brothers, as pupils. This was most trying to Katherine's patience, for, of course, if there had only been pupils enough, she could have had a properly constituted school, and a salary also. She might even have had a regular schoolhouse to teach in, instead of being compelled to use a makeshift such as this. But everything must have a beginning, and so she had worked on bravely through the autumn, hoping against hope for more pupils. In the intervals between teaching the boys she kept the books for her father, and even attended to the wants of an occasional customer when 'Duke Radford was busy or absent.
The store at Roaring Water Portage was awkwardly placed for business. It stood on a high bank overlooking the rapids, and when it was built, five years before, had been the centre of a mining village. But the mining village had been abandoned for three years now, because the vein of copper had ended in a thick seam of coal, which, under present circumstances, was not worth working. Now the nearest approach to a village was at Seal Cove, at the mouth of the river, nearly three miles away, where there were about half a dozen wooden huts, and the liquor saloon kept by Oily Dave when he was at home, and shut up when he was absent on fishing expeditions.
Although houses were so scarce, there was no lack of trade for the lonely store in the woods. All through the summer there was a procession of birchbark canoes, filled with red men and white, coming down the river to the bay, laden with skins of wolf, fox, beaver, wolverine, squirrel, and skunk, the harvest of the winter's trapping. Then in winter the cove and the river were often crowded with boats, driven to anchorage there by the ice, and to escape the fearful storms sweeping over the bay. The river was more favoured as an anchorage than the cove, because it was more sheltered, and also because there was open water at the foot of the rapids even in the severest winter, and had been so long as anyone could remember.
As the morning wore on, Katherine's mood became even more restless, and she simply yearned for the fresh air and the sunshine. She was usually free to go out-of-doors in the afternoons, because the boys only worked until noon, and then again in the evening, when it was night school, and Katherine did her best with such of the fisher folk as preferred learning to loafing and gambling in Oily Dave's saloon.
Even Miles seemed stupid this morning, for he was usually such a good worker; while Phil was quite hopeless. Both boys were bitten with the snow mania, and longing to be out-of-doors, in all the exhilarating brilliancy of sunshine, frost, and snow. Noon came at last, books were packed away; the boys rushed off like mad things, while Katherine went more soberly across the store and entered the living-room, which was sitting-room and kitchen combined.
An older girl was there, looking too young to be called a woman, but who nevertheless was a widow, and the mother of the twin girls who were rolling on the floor and playing with a big, shaggy wolfhound. She was Nellie, Mrs. Burton, whose husband had been drowned while sealing when the twins were twelve months old. Mrs. Burton had come home to live then, and keep house for her father, so that Katherine might go to Montreal to finish her education.
"Did you see Father as you came through the store?" Mrs. Burton asked, as she rapidly spread the dinner on the table in the centre of the room, while Katherine joined in the frolic that was going on with the twins and the dog.
"No, he was not there," Katherine answered.
"He wants you to go up to the second portage with him this afternoon. Another boat got in this morning with some mails on board, and there are stores to be taken for Astor M'Kree," said Mrs. Burton.
"That will be lovely!" cried Katherine, giving Lotta a toss up in the air, after which Beth had to be treated in a similar fashion to prevent jealousy. "I am simply yearning to be outside in the sunshine and the cold. I have been wishing all the morning that I were a man; then I could go off hunting, trapping, or even lumbering, and so breathe fresh air all day long."
Mrs. Burton smiled. "I expect if you were a man you would just do as other men do; that is, smoke a dirty little pipe all day long, and so never breathe fresh air at all."
"That is not the sort of man I would be," retorted Katherine, with a toss of her head.
Then she put the twins into their high chairs: her father and the boys came in, and dinner began. It was a hasty meal, as early dinner has to be when half of the day's work lies beyond it, and in less than half an hour Katherine was getting into a thick pilot coat, fur cap, mittens, and a big muffler; for, although the sun was so bright, the cold was not to be trifled with.
'Duke Radford, short for Marmaduke, was a sombre-looking man of fifty. Twenty-five years of pioneer life in the Keewatin country had worn him considerably, and he looked older than his years. But he was a strong man still, and to-day he had loaded a sledge with stores to draw himself, while Katherine looked after the four great dogs which drew the other sledge.
The track for the first three miles was as bad as a track could be. 'Duke Radford went first, to beat or pack the snow a little firmer for Katherine and the dogs; but even then every movement of her snowshoes sent the white powdery dust flying in clouds. The dogs followed close behind, so close that she had often to show a whip to keep them back, from fear that they would tread on her snowshoes and fling her down.
It was five good long miles to the abode of Astor M'Kree, beyond the second portage, but the last two miles were easy travelling, over a firm level track. "Astor M'Kree has been hauling timber or something over here to-day. I wonder how he managed it?" called out Katherine, as her father's pace on the well-packed snow quickened, while she flew after him and the dogs came racing on behind. He shouted back some answer that was inaudible, then raced on at a great pace. Those last two miles were pure enjoyment all round, and when they drew up before the little brown house of the boatbuilder, Katherine was sparkling, glowing, and rosy, with a life and animation which she never showed indoors.
Mrs. M'Kree was a worn-looking little woman, with three babies toddling about her feet, and she welcomed her visitors with great effusiveness.
"Well, now, I must say it is right down good of you to get through all this way on the very first fine day. My word, what weather we've been having!" she exclaimed. "I was telling Astor only last night that if we had much more of that sort I'd have to keep him on sawdust puddings and pine-cone soup. That fetched a long face on to him, I can tell you; for it is downright fond of his food he is, and a rare trencherman too."
"It is bad to run short of stores in keen weather like this," said 'Duke Radford, who with the help of his daughter was bringing bags, barrels, and bundles of goods into the house from the two sledges, while the dogs rested with an air of enjoyment delightful to behold.
When the stores were all safely housed, Mrs. M'Kree insisted on their drinking a cup of hot coffee before they returned; and just as she was lifting the coffee pot from the stove her husband came in. He was tall, thin, and sombre of face, as men who live in the woods are apt to be, but he had a genial manner, and that he was no tyrant could be seen from the way his children clung about his legs.
"Dear me, these youngsters!" he exclaimed, sitting down on the nearest bench with a child on each knee. "I wish they were old enough to go to your school, Miss Radford, then I'd get some peace for part of the day at least."
"I wish they were old enough, too," sighed Katherine. "It is really quite dreadful to think what a long time I have got to wait before all the small children in the neighbourhood are of an age to need school."
"By which time I expect you won't be wanting to keep school at all," said Mrs. M'Kree with a laugh. Then to her husband she said: "Mr. Radford brought some letters, Astor; perhaps you'll want to read them before he goes back."
"Ah! yes, I'd better perhaps, though there will be no hurry about the answers, I guess, for this will be the last mail that will get through the Strait before the spring." He stood up as he spoke, sliding the babies on to the ground at his feet, for he could not read his letters with the small people clutching and clawing at his hands. The others went on talking, to be interrupted a few minutes later by a surprised exclamation from the master of the house.
"Now, would you believe it! The Company has been bought out!"
"What company?" asked 'Duke Radford.
"Why, the fishing-fleet owners, Barton and Skinner and that lot," rejoined Astor M'Kree abstractedly, being again buried in his letter. He was a boat-builder by trade, and this change in things might make a considerable difference to him.
"Who is it that has bought the company out?" demanded Mrs. M'Kree anxiously. Life was quite hard enough for her already; she did not want it to become more difficult still.
"An Englishman named Oswald Selincourt," replied Astor. "He is rich, too, and means to put money into the business. He wants me to have four more boats ready by the time the waters are open, and says he is coming himself next summer to see into matters a bit. Now that looks hopeful."
Katherine chanced at that moment to glance across at her father, and was startled by the look on his face; it was just as if something had made him desperately afraid. But it was only for a moment, and then he had got his features into control, so she hastily averted her head lest he should see her looking, and think that she was trying to pry into what did not concern her. He swallowed down the rest of his coffee at a gulp and rose to go. But his manner now was so changed and uneasy that Katherine must have wondered at it, even if she had not caught a glimpse of that dreadful look on his face when Astor M'Kree announced the change in the ownership of the fishing fleet.
The journey home was taken in a different style from the journey out: the two sledges were tied together, and both pairs of snowshoes piled on the hindmost; then, Katherine and her father taking their places on the first, the dogs started off at a tearing gallop, which made short work of the two miles of level track, and gave Katherine and her father plenty of occupation in holding on. But when they reached the broken ground the pace grew steadier, and conversation became possible once more.
'Duke Radford began to talk then with almost feverish haste, but he carefully avoided any mention of the news contained in the boatbuilder's letter, and a sickening fear of something, she knew not what, crept into the heart of Katherine and spoiled for her the glory of that winter afternoon. The sun went down in flaming splendours of crimson and gold, a young moon hung like a sickle of silver above the dark pine forest, and everywhere below was the white purity of the fresh-fallen snow.
Supper was nearly ready when they got back to Roaring Water Portage, but there were two or three customers in the store, and Katherine went to help her father with them, while Miles unharnessed and fed the four dogs. Oily Dave was one of the people gathered round the stove waiting to be served with flour and bacon, and it was his voice raised in eager talk which Katherine heard when she came back from the sitting-room into the store.
"If it's true what they are saying, that Barton, Skinner, & Co. are in liquidation, then things is going to look queer for some of us when the spring comes, and the question will be as to who can claim the boats, though some of them ain't much good."
"I suppose that you'll stick to your'n, seeing that it is by far the best in the fleet," said another man, who had a deep, rumbling laugh.
Katherine looked at her father in dumb surprise. She had been expecting him to announce the news of the fishing boats having been bought by the Englishman with the remarkable name, instead of which he was just going on with his work, and looking as if he had no more information than the others.
Lifting his head at that moment he caught his daughter's perplexed glance, and, after a moment, said hastily: "I wouldn't be in too much hurry about appropriating the boats if I were you."
"Why not?" chorused the listeners.
"Barton & Skinner have been bought out, and the new owner might not approve of his property being made off with in that fashion," 'Duke Radford replied.
"Who's bought it? Who told you? Look here, we want to know," one man burst out impatiently.
"Then you had better go up to the second portage and ask Astor M'Kree," rejoined 'Duke Radford slowly. "It was he who told me about it, and he has got the order to build four more boats."
"Now that looks like business, anyhow. Who is the man?" demanded Rick Portus, who was younger than the others, and meant "to make things hum" when he got a chance.
'Duke Radford fumbled with the head of a flour barrel, and for a moment did not answer. It was an agonizing moment for Katherine, who was entering items in the ledger, and had to be blind and deaf to what was passing round her, yet all the time was acutely conscious that something was wrong somewhere.
The head of the barrel came off with a jerk, and then 'Duke answered with an air of studied indifference: "An Englishman, Astor M'Kree said he was; Selincourt or some such name, I think."
A burst of eager talk followed this announcement, but, her entries made in the ledger, Katherine slipped away from it all and hurried into the sitting-room, where supper was already beginning. But the food had lost its flavour for her, and she might have been feeding on the sawdust and pine cones of which Mrs. M'Kree had spoken for all the taste her supper possessed. She had to talk, however, and to seem cheerful, yet all the time she was shrinking and shivering because of this mysterious mood displayed by her father at the mention of a strange man's name.
'Duke Radford did not come in from the store until it was nearly time for night school, so Katherine saw very little more of him, except at a distance, for that evening; but he was so quiet and absorbed that Mrs. Burton asked more than once if he were feeling unwell. She even insisted on his taking a basin of onion gruel before he went to bed, because she thought he had caught a chill. He swallowed the gruel obediently enough, yet knew all the time that the chill was at his heart, where no comforting food nor drink could relieve him.
A Curious Accident
The nearest Hudson's Bay store to Roaring Water Portage was fifteen miles away by land, but only five by boat, as it stood on an angle of land jutting into the water, three miles from the mouth of the river. 'Duke Radford's business took him over to this place, which was called Fort Garry, always once a week, and sometimes oftener. Usually either Miles or Phil went with him, although on rare occasions Katherine took the place of the boys and helped to row the boat across the inlet to the grim old blockhouse crowning the height.
It was a week after the trip to the house of Astor M'Kree that the storekeeper announced his intention of going to Fort Garry, and said that he should need Miles to help him.
"I must go by land to-day, which is a nuisance, for it takes so much longer," he declared, as he sat down to breakfast, which at this time of the year had always to be taken by lamplight.
"Shall I come instead?" asked Katherine, who was frying potatoes at the stove. "I am quicker on snowshoes than Miles, and he has got such a bad cold."
"You can if you like, though it isn't work for a girl," he answered in a dispirited tone.
"It is work for a girl if a girl has got it to do," she rejoined, with a merry laugh; "and I shall just love to come with you, Father. When will you start?"
"At dawn," he replied brusquely; and, finishing his meal in silence, he went into the store.
"Katherine, what is the matter with Father? Do you think he is ill?" Mrs. Burton asked in a troubled tone. "He has been so quiet and gloomy for the last few days; he does not eat well, and he does not seem to care to talk to any of us."
Katherine shivered and hesitated. She knew the moment from which the change in her father's manner dated, but she could not speak of it even to her sister. "Perhaps the cold weather tries him a great deal just at first; it has come so suddenly, and we are not seasoned to it yet, you know," she answered evasively.
"I hope it is only that," answered Mrs. Burton, brightening up at the suggestion. "And really the cold has been terribly trying for the last week, though it won't seem so bad when we get used to it. I am glad you are going with Father, though, for Miles has such a dreadful cold, poor boy."
"His own fault," laughed Katherine. "If he will go and sit in a tub half the day, in the hope of shooting swans, he must expect to get a cold."
"Boys will do unwise things, I fancy. They can't help it, so it is of no use to blame them," Mrs. Burton said with a sigh.
Katherine laughed again. Mrs. Burton had a way of never blaming anyone, and slipped through life always thinking the very best of the people with whom she came in contact, crediting them with good intentions however far short they might prove of good in reality. The sisters were alike in features and in their dainty, womanly ways, but in character they were a wide contrast. Katherine, under her girlish softness and pretty winning manner, had hidden a firm will and purpose, a sound judgment, and a resourcefulness which would stand her in good stead in the emergencies of life. She liked to decide things for herself, and choose what she would do; but Mrs. Burton always needed someone to lean upon and to settle momentous questions for her.
'Duke Radford was ready to start by the time dawn arrived, and Katherine was ready too. It was so very cold that she had twisted a cloud of brilliant scarlet wool all over her head and ears, in addition to her other wrappings. There were some stores to take to Fort Garry, and there would be others to bring back, as considerable trading was done between the fort and the settlement. Very often when 'Duke Radford ran out of some easy-to-sell commodity he was able to replenish his stock from the fort, while he in his turn accepted furs in barter from his customers, which he disposed of to the agent when next he visited the fort. As on the journey to the second portage, 'Duke Radford went first, drawing a laden sledge, followed by Katherine, who looked after the dogs. There would be no riding either way to-day, and the daylight would be only just long enough for the work, the snow on the trail not being hard enough as yet to make the going very easy.
Fort Garry was reached without incident, although, to Katherine's secret dismay, her father had not spoken to her once, but had just gone moodily forward with his head hanging down, and dragging the sledge after him. He roused up a little when the fort was reached, and talked to Peter M'Crawney, the agent, an eager-faced Scot with an insatiable desire for information on all sorts of subjects. Mrs. M'Crawney was an Irishwoman who was always sighing for the mild, moist climate and the peat reek of her childhood's home. But Peter knew when he was well off, and meant to stick to his post until he had saved enough money to live without work.
"Teaching school, are you? Well it's myself that would like to be one of your scholars, for it's bonny you look with that scarlet thing wrapped round your head!" exclaimed Mrs. M'Crawney in an admiring tone, when Katherine sat down to have a talk with her whilst 'Duke Radford did his business with the agent.
"You can come if you like; we don't have any age limit at Roaring Water Portage," Katherine answered with a laugh. She had to be bright and vivacious despite the heaviness of her heart, for it would never do to display her secret uneasiness on her father's account, or to betray his changed condition to strangers.
"And pretty I should look at my age, sitting among the babies learning to do strokes and pothooks," the Irishwoman said, echoing the laugh. Then she began to question Katherine eagerly concerning the news which had filtered through into the solitudes from the great world outside. "They are saying that the Mr. Selincourt who has bought the fishing fleet will come here when the waters open; but wherever will he stay?"
"I don't know; perhaps he will have one of the huts down at Seal Cove, although they are very dirty. I think if I were in his place I should have a new hut built, or else live in a tent," Katherine answered.
"He will have a hut built, I expect; then perhaps if he likes the place he will come every year. Although it's funny the whims rich people have, to be coming to a place like this, when they might be living in a civilized country, with everything that heart could desire within a hand's reach," said Mrs. M'Crawney with a toss of her head.
"I suppose being able to have all they want spoils them so much that they are always wanting a change. But if we don't start we shall be late in getting home, and travelling is very bad over the broken ground at the end of the bay," Katherine said, as she rose and began to draw her scarlet cloud closer round her head again.
Her father was still talking to Peter M'Crawney when she came in search of him, but he looked so much relieved at the interruption that she could only suppose the agent had been talking overmuch about the rich Englishman who was expected in that remote quarter of the world next spring, when the waters were open.
"Are you ready to go now?" Katherine asked, a sudden pang of pity stabbing at her heart, for in the strong light her father's face looked worn and furrowed, more than she had ever seen it before; indeed, a look of age had crept over his countenance during the last few days that was very marked, while his dark hair showed streaks of grey which had certainly not been there a week ago. He had momentarily taken off his cap, to do something to one of the lappets which was not comfortable; but now he put it on again, covering his head, ears, and a good part of his face as well.
"Yes, I am ready, and rather keen on starting, for there is a damp smell coming in the air which may mean a slight thaw or more fall, and either would be bad for us to-day," he answered, lifting his head and sniffing, like a dog that scents a trail.
"Can't the dogs pull you a piece, Miss?" asked the agent in a tone of concern. "It is a shocking long way for a bit of a girl, even though she is on snowshoes."
"It is not longer for me than for Father, and I don't even have to drag the sledge as he does," Katherine replied brightly, as she fitted her moccasined feet into the straps of her snowshoes.
The dogs were in a great hurry to start, and one, a great brown-and-white beast which always followed next the leader, kept flinging up its head and howling in the most dismal manner until they were well on their way. The noise got on Katherine's nerves to such an extent that she was tempted to use her whip to the dog, and only refrained because it seemed so cruel to thrash a creature for just being miserable. To cheer the animals for the heavy work before them, she talked to them as if they were human beings, encouraging them so much that they took the first ten miles at a tremendous rate, following so close on the track of the first sledge that presently 'Duke Radford held up his hand as a signal for stopping, then turned round to expostulate in a peevish tone: "What do you mean by letting the dogs wear themselves out at such a rate? We shall have one of them dropping exhausted presently, and then we shall be in a nice fix."
"I haven't used the whip once, Father, but I thought it was better to get them on as fast as I could, for I have felt and seen ever so many snowflakes in the last half-hour," Katherine said penitently.
'Duke Radford turned his face rather anxiously windward, and was considerably worried to find that a few small snowflakes came dancing slowly down, and that the slight draught of the morning was changing to a raw, cold wind from off the water.
"It is a fall coming, and by the look of it, it may be heavy. You had better keep the dogs coming as fast as you can. But stop if I throw up my hand, or you will be running me down."
"Shall we change places for a time?" asked Katherine. "I am not a bit tired, but you look just worn out."
"No, no, I can't have you dragging a sledge. But be careful and keep the dogs from rushing down the slopes and overrunning me," he answered, then started forward again.
The flakes were falling faster now, but they were so fine that they would have scarcely counted had it not been for the number of them. At the end of the next half-hour the fall was like a fog of whirling atoms, and the travellers looked like moving snow figures. The dogs were still running well, and Katherine found it hard work to keep them back, especially on the slopes, where they would persist in trying to make rushes, so getting thoroughly out of hand. She was keeping them back down one long bad slope which abounded in pitfalls, when to her horror she heard her father cry out, then saw him and his sledge disappear, shooting into a whirling smother of snow.
With a sharp order to the dogs to stop, which they promptly obeyed by dropping in four panting heaps on the snow, she went forward alone to see what had happened to her father. It was a simple enough accident, and one that had to be constantly guarded against in drawing a sledge when travelling on snowshoes. In going down the slope the sledge had travelled proportionally faster than the man, and, catching against the framework of one of the snowshoes, had flung him with tremendous force between two trees. The trees, which were really two shoots from one root, grew so close together that when 'Duke Radford was pitched in between them he was wedged fast by the force of the impact, while the sledge, coming on behind, bounded on to his prostrate body. He groaned when Katherine dragged the sledge away, and cried out with the pain when she tried to help him out.
"Did it hurt you so badly? Oh, I am sorry! But I will be more careful next time," she said; and, stepping carefully backwards after that first vain attempt, she slipped her feet clear of the snowshoes and went closer to the tree, so that she might try to lift him out of the fork by sheer strength of arm. But the snow was so soft that she sank in over her ankles, going deeper and deeper with every attempt which she made to wriggle herself free.
"This won't do," she said sharply. "I won't be long, Father dear, but I must pack the snow a bit before I can get firm standing ground."
Slipping her father's snowshoes, one of which was broken, from his feet, she took the broken part and proceeded to beat the snow firm all round the trees. This took perhaps ten minutes, although she worked so hard that she perspired despite the cold. The snow was firm now; she could stand without sinking, and going round in front of her father she exerted all her strength and lifted him up a little. He was bleeding from a wound on his face, and seemed to be quite dazed.
"Can you help yourself at all?" she asked urgently, knowing that it was quite impossible for her unaided strength to get him clear of the fork. But his only reply was a groan, and Katherine began to grow frightened. It was quite impossible to leave him while she went to summon aid, and equally impossible to get help without going for it. Meanwhile the cold was so intense that every moment of waiting became a risk. Even the dogs were whining and restless, impatient to get off again for the last stage of their journey.
"Father, you must help yourself," the girl cried despairingly. "I can't possibly get you out of the tree alone, and you will just freeze to death if you are not quick."
The urgency of her tone seemed to rouse him a little, and, seeing that he appeared to be coming to himself again, she rubbed his face briskly with snow, which quickened his faculties, and incidentally made the wound on his cheek smart horribly; but that was a minor matter, the chief thing being to make him bestir himself. Then by a great effort she lifted him up again, and this time he put out his hand and clutched at the trunk of the tree, and so kept himself from slipping back into the fork, while she ran round and pulled him clear of the trees, making him lean upon her whilst she debated on her next move.
"I don't know how we shall get home; I can't walk," he said feebly.
"Of course you can't; that is entirely out of the question," she said briskly. "I must unload the two sledges, and cache the things close to this tree, under your sledge; then the dogs can draw you home. There is not much over three miles to be done, so we shall not be long."
She made him sit on the snow while she set about her preparations, for he seemed too weak to stand alone. Most of the goods were taken from the dog sledge and piled in a heap at the foot of the forked trees. The other sledge was brought alongside and unloaded also, then Katherine dragged the hand sledge on to the top of the packages, with the runners sticking upwards, so that a curious wolf might think it was a trap of a fresh shape, and avoid it accordingly. All this took time, however, and when she had got her father packed into the sledge in readiness for a start it was almost dark, while the snow was coming down thicker than ever. The brown-and-white dog was howling dismally again, while the black one which had a cropped ear seemed disposed to follow suit.
It was of no use trying to guide the dogs now, and, falling into the rear, Katherine shouted to them to go forward, and left it to their instinct to find the way home. She had to keep shouting and singing to them the whole of the way. If from very weariness her voice sank to silence, they dropped into a slow walk; but when it rang out again in a cheery shout, they plunged forward at a great pace, which was maintained only so long as she continued shouting. But at last, after what seemed an interminable time, she heard the noise of the water coming over Roaring Water Portage; the dogs heard it too, and the need for shouting ceased, for they knew they were almost at the end of the journey.
Outwitting the Enemy
Among his neighbours at Seal Cove, 'Duke Radford counted one very pronounced enemy, and that was Oily Dave, master of one of the sealing boats, and keeper of the only whisky saloon within twenty or thirty miles of Roaring Water Portage. The cause of the enmity was now nearly two years old, but like a good many other things it had gained strength with age. Oily Dave had been supplying the red man with liquor, and this in defiance of the law which forbade such sales; 'Duke Radford reported him, and Oily Dave was mulcted in a fine so heavy that it consumed all the profits from his Indian traffic, and a good many other and more legitimate profits also. Since then Oily Dave had hated the storekeeper with a zest and energy which bade fair to become the ruling passion of his life; but except for a few minor disagreeables, that could hardly be said to count, his ill will had thus far not gone beyond sneer and invective.
Katherine was always afraid of him, and of what he might do to her father if he had the chance; for his nature was small and mean, so small and so mean that, though he might not risk a reprisal which would bring him within the reach of the law, he would not hesitate at any small, mean act of spite which might injure his victim, yet would not reflect on himself. Since knowing of her father's trouble, she had been more afraid of Oily Dave than ever, for there was a sinister look about the man, and she feared she knew not what.
When the dogs, with their master in the sledge, and Katherine following close behind, dashed up to the door of the store that evening, Oily Dave was the first person to step forward to lend a helping hand in getting 'Duke Radford housed and his hurts examined. There were six or seven men loafing about the store that evening, and they all helped; so Katherine, when she had kicked off her snowshoes, was able to dart indoors to warn Mrs. Burton about what had happened.
"He ought to be put to bed at once, Nellie. Night school must go for to-night, and if he has to keep his bed to-morrow, why, I must teach in here, or even in the store," she said hurriedly, deciding everything on the spot as was her wont, because Mrs. Burton always found it so difficult to make up her mind on any subject.
"Do you think that would be best, or shall we give him our bedroom?—though that would be frightfully inconvenient, and I should be so worried to be obliged to put the children to bed in that other room at night, so far away from us, after the store is closed," sighed Mrs. Burton, who stood still in the middle of the room, clasping and unclasping her hands in nervous distress, while Katherine dragged off her encumbering wraps, tossing them in a heap on the floor.
"Come and help me to make the bed, Nellie," she said, turning away and leaving Mrs. Burton's plaintive questions unanswered.
The elder sister at once did as the younger requested, sighing a little as she went, yet relieved all the same because the matter had been settled for her. By this time some of the men had brought 'Duke Radford into the store, and, sitting him on the bench by the stove, were peeling off his outer wraps. Some of the others had unharnessed the dogs, while Phil carried out their supper. Miles, meanwhile, was looking sharply after the store; for, although these neighbours were so kind and helpful, some of them were not to be trusted farther than they could be seen, and would have helped themselves to sugar, beans, tobacco, or anything else which took their fancy if the opportunity had been given them for doing so.
Whilst two of the men took 'Duke Radford's clothes off, and got him safely into bed, another man approached Miles and asked for a particular kind of tobacco. The boy sought for it in the place where it was usually kept, but, failing to find it, turned to Katherine, who stood in impatient misery by the stove, waiting to go to her father when the men had done with him.
"Katherine. where is the Black Crow tobacco kept now? It always used to be on the shelf below the tea packets."
"We are out of it," she replied. "But we shall have plenty to-morrow. I had to cache most of the stores we were bringing; but they are safe enough, for I turned the little sledge upside down on the top of them, so I guess neither wolf nor wolverine will be able to get at them to tear the packets to pieces."
"You won't be able to get them either, for with all this snow you will never be able to find them," said the man in a disappointed tone, for he was a great smoker who cared for only one sort of tobacco.
"Oh! make your mind quite easy on that score," replied Katherine. "I hung Father's broken snowshoe in a branch of the tree, to mark the place, and I shall go over quite early to-morrow to bring the goods home."
Directly she had spoken she repented her words; for she saw, without appearing to see, a look full of meaning which passed between Oily Dave and the customer who had been disappointed. It was only a glance, and might stand for nothing, but she had seen it and was angry with herself for the indiscretion which had made her utter words which had better not have been spoken. The men came out of the bedroom then, so she and Nellie were able to go in.
'Duke Radford was considerably battered. He had a broken collar bone; one shoulder was bruised so badly that it looked as if it had been beaten with a hammer; and one side of his face had a deep flesh wound. Mrs. Burton was a capital nurse: she and Katherine between them soon had the sufferer as comfortable as it was possible to make him; then they fed him with strong hot broth, after which Mrs. Burton remembered that Katherine had had no supper, and hustled her off to the other room in search of food. Katherine noticed as she went back through the store that Oily Dave had gone, also the man who had wanted to buy the Black Crow tobacco.
"Miles, can you leave Phil to look after things, and come with me for five minutes?" she said, with a thrill of anxiety in her tone. She was faint and spent with hunger and fatigue, the prospect before her seemed too dreadful to be faced, yet deep down in her heart was the stern determination not to be outwitted if she could help it. But she must first of all get rid of this stupid trembling, which made her feel as if her limbs were not strong enough to bear the weight of her body; so sitting down at the table she prepared to get a good square meal as the first step towards the successful accomplishment of what was to come after. Miles was a minute later in coming, because he had been attending to a customer. "What is the matter; is Father very bad?" he asked, with a quaver of fear in his tone. Accidents, or sickness of any kind, always seemed so much worse in winter, and then death and disaster had already worked havoc in the family.
"Poor Father is bad enough, but I dare say he will do very well with care, and Nellie is a famous one for looking after sick folks," Katherine answered, as cheerfully as she could, quick to understand what was in the mind of Miles, and feeling genuinely sorry for him. Then she said briskly: "But I have gone and done a fearfully stupid thing to-night, and I want to know if you feel brave enough to help me out of a very big muddle?"
Miles bristled up in an offended fashion. "I suppose I've got as much pluck as most people; anyhow I'm not quite a coward."
"Of course you are not, or I should not have dreamed of asking you to help me to-night," Katherine said, with a nervous laugh; then in a jerky tone she went on: "I want you to get the store shut up as soon as possible, then, directly the people have cleared off, we have got to go and bring those stores home that I had to cache."
"But we can't go at night, and in a snowstorm!" expostulated Miles; but his eyes glowed and his nostrils dilated, as if the very thought of such an expedition sent thrills of delight all through him.
"It is not snowing so badly now, and luckily the moon will help us. Moreover, if we don't go tonight it will not be of much use to go at all; for if we wait until the morning I fancy we shall find that most of the stores have disappeared, especially the Black Crow tobacco," Katherine replied, then told him of the look she had seen pass between the man who wanted the tobacco and Oily Dave, after she had been so foolishly frank in explaining where the stores were to be found.
"I'll go and shut up sharp, then we'll start as soon as possible," Miles said, with a jump of irrepressible joyfulness, for nothing appealed to him like adventure.
"Don't let anyone even guess what we are going to do!" cried Katherine, who felt that enough indiscretion had been committed that night to last them for a long time to come.
"Trust me for that!" replied Miles. "I shall pull a face as long as a fiddle, and yawn my head half off while I'm clearing up. Oh, it will be rich to out-wit that precious pair! I had been wondering why Stee Jenkin should go off so quiet and early with Oily Dave, but I should never have guessed at the reason. I shall be through with the shutting-up in about twenty minutes, and I've had my supper, so there won't be anything to wait for."
Katherine felt better when she had eaten her supper; the thought of what was before her was less of an ordeal, and she was more than ever determined that Oily Dave and the other man must be outwitted, cost what it might. There was to be no night school that night, so, directly the door of the store was shut and barred, Miles and Katherine were able to set out. The twins were in bed, and fast asleep. Mrs. Burton was still busy in her father's room, so there was only Phil to look after things.
"Tell Nellie when she comes out of Father's room that Miles and I have got some work to do outside which may take us an hour or more," Katherine said to her youngest brother. "Meanwhile you must just make yourself as useful as possible—clear away supper, wash the cups and plates, take care of the fire, and look after things generally. You will have a school holiday to-morrow, so no lessons need be learned to-night. We shall have to do the store work while Father is ill, so you and Miles will have to be satisfied with night school with the men instead of having lessons in the day."
"Hooray!" chirruped Phil, who had no love of learning, but always yearned for action. Then he asked anxiously: "Couldn't you stay in and look after things to-night, while I go and help Miles with the outside work?"
Katherine laughed and shook her head. "No, no, the outside work would be too heavy for you to-night; you might even get your nose frozen. But you must stay up until we come back, because Nellie may need you to help her."
"I'll stay," replied the boy, but he manifested so much curiosity about the nature of the outside work that had to be done that Katherine had finally to command him to stay inside the house.
Neither she nor Miles wished anyone to know what they were going to do: there were so many reasons for keeping their errand secret. Mrs. Burton would have wept and wailed at the mere thought of such a journey at night, while Phil simply could not keep a secret.
The dogs were tired and sleepy, very unwilling to be turned out and harnessed again, but directly they were fairly out of their shed the cold seemed to rouse them, and they set off at a great pace. Katherine and Miles were riding in the empty sledge now, with their snowshoes tucked in beside them. The snow-storm had spent itself; the moon shone out of a cloudless sky, while myriads of stars lent their aid to the illumination of the night. Even the cold was less noticeable than in the afternoon, when the damp wind blew off the water and the snow was falling so fast.
"It was worth while your being indiscreet for once, seeing that it has brought us out on a night like this," Miles said, as he crouched low in the sledge, holding on with both thickly mittened hands, for Katherine was driving, and the dogs were going with leaps and bounds, which made the sledge bounce and sway in a very erratic fashion.
"You won't say the indiscretion was worth while if it turns out that we are the second arrivals and not the first," Katherine answered. But her tone was buoyant and hopeful; for she had little doubt about getting to the scene of her father's accident before Oily Dave and Stee Jenkin had succeeded in locating the spot.
"Wolves! listen to them!" exclaimed Miles, as a hideous yapping and howling sounded across the snowy waste.
"They are a good way off though, and I brought a pair Of Father's revolvers in case of accident," Katherine replied, her heart beating a little quicker, although in reality she would much rather have met two or three wolves just then than have encountered Oily Dave and the man who had wanted to buy the Black Crow tobacco.
"I'm glad you thought to bring them," said Miles. "Nick Jones told me the wolves are uncommonly hungry for so early in the year, and they are in great numbers too. He trapped twenty last week."
"That means twenty less to bother us to-night, which is a great comfort," she answered, laughing nervously, for the yapping and howling seemed to be coming nearer and nearer. Then, recognizing a landmark, she cried out joyfully: "Oh, here is the place, and there hangs the broken snowshoe!"
"What is that?" cried Miles sharply, as a shadowy something slid away out of sight among the trees, a something that was so much like its surroundings as to be hardly distinct from them.
"A wolf. Look at the dogs. Mind what you are about, Miles, or they'll bolt!" she called quickly. They were both on the ground now, and the boy was trying to hold in the dogs, which were barking, raging, howling, and whining, making a violent uproar, and all striving to get free in order to rush at that something which had slid out of sight among the trees a minute before.
"We must tie them up. I can't hold the brutes. They pull as if they were mad," said Miles breathlessly, while the dogs struggled and fought, nearly dragging him off his feet, as he tried to keep them from dashing away in pursuit of what they deemed a legitimate quarry.
Katherine swung a rope with a running noose over the head and shoulders of the leader, a huge white dog with a black patch on its back like a saddle.
"There, my fine fellow; now perhaps you will understand that this is not playtime, but a working day extending into the night," she said, as she patted the great beast in an affectionate manner to show that it was repression, not punishment, which was intended by the tightening of the rope.
The dog whined, licking her mitten, but left off struggling, as if it realized the uselessness of such a course. The other dogs were fastened in like manner, for they had all been trained to hunt wolves, and might bolt at an unexpected moment, wrecking the sledge and scattering the things which were loaded upon it. Then came ten minutes of hard work clearing away the snow and getting at the packages which Katherine had been obliged to cache a few hours before. One package had been torn open, and its contents scattered, which showed that the wolf had already started thieving operations; so that even if Oily Dave and his companion had contemplated no raid on the cache, there would not have been much left later which was worth carrying away.
"I don't like you having to draw that sledge. Suppose it overruns you, and you get hurt, like Father did this afternoon," Miles said in a troubled tone, as Katherine prepared to go forward with the hand sledge, while he followed behind with the dogs.
"I don't intend to let it overrun me, so there is no need to worry. In fact there is much more danger for you if the dogs hear the wolves and try to bolt. But let us get along as fast as we can, or Nellie will be in a fine state of anxiety about us," Katherine replied. Then, gathering the lines of the sledge round her arms, as her father had taught her, she set out at a good pace, followed by Miles and the dogs.
For a time little was to be heard save the creaking of the babiche lacing of the snowshoes, for the dogs were running silently, and Miles, saving his breath for the work of getting along, was controlling them merely by dumb show, flourishing the whip to hold them back when they took on a spurt, or beckoning them along when they showed signs of lagging. They were less than a mile from home, and going well, when suddenly a hideous uproar broke out near at hand—the long-drawn howling of wolves, human shouts and cries, and the crack of a revolver.
A Night of Rough Work
"Phil, where is Katherine?" asked Mrs. Burton, coming out of her father's room about half an hour after the two had started to bring home the stores.
"She has gone to help Miles to do some work outside, though what it can be I'm sure I don't know," grumbled Phil, who was sleepy and wanted to get to bed. He had washed the supper things after a fashion, had cleared up the kitchen for the night, according to his own ideas of tidiness, and now was sitting in the rocking-chair by the stove, trying very hard to keep his eyes open.
"Oh dear, how unwise of her!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton in a plaintive tone. "I am always so afraid for her to go outside at night when it is freezing so sharply, for her face would be quite spoiled if she were to get it frostbitten, and she is so pretty."
"Is she?" Phil's voice had a drowsy drawl, as if the subject of Katherine's looks had very little interest for him, as indeed it had. But an unexpected lurch of the chair, coming at that moment, landed him in a squirming heap on the floor.
"Oh, Phil, I am so sorry that I upset you, dear, but I had to catch at the chair to save myself from falling over the broom! What made you leave it lying on the floor?" asked Mrs. Burton, who had been the innocent cause of his collapse.
Phil rose to his feet and dusted the ashes from the sleeve of his jacket with a rueful air. "Did I leave the broom there? Oh, I suppose I forgot it! I remember I had it to sweep up the fireplace, because I could not find a brush."
"There is the brush hanging close to the stove," remarked Mrs. Burton. Then she broke out again: "I wonder what Katherine can be doing out-of-doors at this time of the night, and Miles too?"
"Perhaps they are gone to a surprise party. Don't you remember there was one at Astor M'Kree's last winter?" suggested Phil, whose tumble had dispelled some of his sleepiness, although he still talked in a drowsy tone, and rumpled his hair wildly all over his head.
"Katherine would not go to a surprise party with Father lying in such a condition," replied Mrs. Burton severely. Then she went on: "Besides, she must be pretty well worn out, poor girl, for she has done thirty miles on snowshoes since the morning, with all the worry and trouble of Father's accident thrown in."
"Perhaps she has gone to help Miles to look after his wolf traps. I wanted to go instead, only she wouldn't let me. I told her that girls ought to stay indoors to wash cups and things, while boys did the outside work," Phil explained, in a rather injured tone.
Mrs. Burton laughed softly. "I'm glad Katherine did not let you turn out to-night, laddie, though I am sorry she had to go herself. Now make haste and get off to bed; I have put everything ready for you. But you must be very quiet, because I think Father is inclined to go to sleep."
"Katherine said I was not to go to bed until she came in, and I'm not so very tired," replied Phil, choking back a yawn with a great effort.
"I am, though. And if you are in Father's room I shall be able to sit down here by the stove and rest without any worry. So run along, laddie, and be sure that you come to rouse me if Father wants me," Mrs. Burton said. Then, drawing a big shawl round her shoulders, she sat down in the rocking-chair vacated by Phil to wait for the return of her sister and brother.
She wondered why they had gone out, but did not worry about it, except on the score of Katherine's complexion. Even that ceased to trouble her, as she swayed gently to and fro in the comfortable warmth flung out by the stove, and very soon she was fast asleep.
'Duke Radford, who lay in restless discomfort from the pain of his hurts, was the first to hear sounds of an arrival, and he tried to rouse Phil to see what all the commotion was about. But the boy always slept so heavily that it was next to impossible to wake him. The dogs were barking. Katherine called out to Miles, who answered back. Then there were other voices and a great banging at the door of the store. That was when Mrs. Burton first became aware that something was going on, and started up out of the rocking-chair under the impression that she had been there the whole night and that morning had come already.
A glance at the clock showed her, however, that it was not so very late yet, and still a long way from midnight. Then, remembering that Katherine and Miles were out, she guessed it was they who were making such a clamour at the door of the store, and hurried to let them in.
"I hope we haven't frightened Father with all the noise we have had to make, but you seemed so dead asleep that we had to make a great riot in order to get in," Katherine said, as she and Miles towed the sledge inside the store to be unloaded at leisure when morning came.
"I will go and see to Father, but Phil is with him now. Where have you been, Katherine? And oh, I do hope you have not frosted your face!" Mrs. Burton said, with sisterly concern.
Katherine laughed, but even Mrs. Burton noticed that the sound was strained and unmirthful. "My complexion has not suffered, I can assure you. But Nellie, dear, could you get a cup of hot coffee quickly for two men? They have been having a rather terrible time of it, and are a good bit shaken."
"Bring them into the kitchen and I will have the coffee ready directly," Mrs. Burton said promptly. But first of all she just looked into her father's room to tell him there was nothing to worry about. Then she hurried into the kitchen to rouse up the fire and put the coffee pot on to boil.
Oily Dave and Stee Jenkin accepted Katherine's invitation to walk in, following her through the dark store and into the lighted room beyond with a sheepish expression on their faces, which certainly no one had ever seen there before. Stee Jenkin had his outer garments nearly torn off him, there was blood on his face, and he sank on to the nearest bench as if his trembling limbs refused to support him any longer.
"Why, your face is bleeding! What have you been doing—not fighting, I hope?" T here was a touch of severity in Mrs. Burton's tone; for she knew the man did not bear a very good character, and she was not disposed to give herself much trouble on account of anyone who had brought his misfortunes upon his own head.
"Yes, ma'am, I have been fighting, and for my life too, which is a very different thing from a round of fisticuffs with your neighbour," growled Stee Jenkin in a shaken tone, and the hand with which he tried to lift the steaming coffee to his lips shook so violently that he spilled the hot liquid on his clothes.
Katherine and Miles had gone back to the store again, so it was Oily Dave who explained the nature of the fight in which both men had been involved.
"We'd a perticular bit of business on hand to-night," he said, in response to the enquiring look which Mrs. Burton turned upon him, for Stee was plainly too much upset to be coherent. "I'd got a revolver certainly, but Stee had nothing but a knife, for we didn't expect any trouble with wolves so early in the season, though it is a fact we might have done, for everyone knows the place is just about swarming with them this winter."
"Did the wolves attack you? Oh, how truly horrible!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton, with so much genuine sympathy that both men winced under it, hardened offenders though they were; for they knew very well that they deserved the fate which had so nearly fallen upon them.
"About ten of the cowards closed in on us as we were going through a patch of cotton woods, where we couldn't move fast because of catching our snow-shoes," Oily Dave went on, winking and blinking in a nervous fashion. "And we were fairly cornered before we knew where we were. One great brute came at me straight in the face. I knocked him off with my fist and fumbled for my barker, but shot wild and did no more damage than to singe the hair off another brute's back; but I managed to edge a bit closer to Stee, who was getting it rough, and hadn't even a chance to draw his knife. But we should have been down and done for to a dead certainty, if it hadn't been for Miss Radford and Miles. They let the dogs loose from the sledge when they heard the rumpus, and that turned the scale in our favour. That great white dog with the black patch on its back came tearing into the cotton woods roaring like a bull, and then I can tell you there was a stampede among the brutes that were baiting us." Oily Dave drew a long breath as he finished his narration, but the other man groaned.
"Katherine, what were you doing so far away from home at this time of night?" gasped Mrs. Burton, in a shocked tone, as her sister came into the room. "Why, the wolves might have attacked you."
"Not likely; we had the dogs with us, you see. But we had to go about three miles along the trail to bring home the things I had to leave behind when Father had his accident," said Katherine, as she stood beside the stove slowly unwinding her wraps. Now that the strain and excitement were over, she looked white and tired, but her face was set in hard, stern lines, which for the time seemed to add years to her age.
"It is dreadful that you should have to go out at night like that. Wouldn't to-morrow have done as well?" asked Mrs. Burton in a tone of distress.
"No," replied Katherine slowly, as she wrestled with an obstinate fastening of her coat, keeping her gaze carefully on the ground the while. "We were almost too late as it was. A wolf had found out the cache and was beginning to tear the packages to pieces, in spite of my care in turning the hand sledge upside down on the top of them."
Oily Dave rose to his feet with a jerky movement. "I think we had best be moving now," he said gruffly. "Perhaps you'd lend us a couple of the dogs to help us down to Seal Cove; we'll give 'em a good feed when we get there. But neither Stee nor I can face three miles' tramp without something to protect us."
"Yes, you can have two of the dogs on leash; but remember they are dreadfully tired, poor things, for they have had a long, hard day. You had better leave your sledge here to-night, then there will be no temptation for you to let the dogs draw you," Katherine said, in a hard tone.
Mrs. Burton looked at her in surprise, even meditated a word of excuse, because her attitude was so unfriendly towards these neighbours who had been in such direful peril. But the word was not spoken, for Katherine's face was too stern for the elder sister to even suggest any change in her manner. Miles tied two of the dogs on a leash while the men put on their snowshoes, then he carefully drew their sledge inside the door of the store, which was afterwards securely barred.
"Katherine, what is the matter? Why did you and Miles go stealing off in that fashion to bring the stores home without telling me? And why, oh! why, did you treat those men as if they were the dirt beneath your feet?" demanded Mrs. Burton, as she plied her sister and brother with hot coffee and comforting food, to make up to them for all the toil and hardship which had gone before.
"Because I regard them as the scum of the earth," Katherine answered with a yawn, as she stretched out her feet to the glowing warmth of the fire.
"They are not very noble characters certainly, but when men have been face to face with such a terrible death, one feels it is a duty to be kind to them," Mrs. Burton said, in gentle reproof.
Miles burst out laughing, but Katherine shook her head at him and proceeded to explain. "It was because I was afraid those two were going to steal our stores that we started off in such a hurry to get the lot home, and we were on our way back when we heard the wolves, then cries and shots. We let the first two dogs go then, and had to hold on to the others with all our might to keep them from going too. I wish you could have seen how silly those men looked, when they discovered to whom they owed their lives. I could have laughed at the spectacle if I had not been so angry."
"It suits you to be angry, I think," broke in Miles. "You ordered those two round just as if you had been a duchess, and they simply squirmed before you, like the worms that they are."
"Silly boy, you have never seen a duchess, so you can't know how she would order people about. Indeed she might be mild as milk, which I am not. But I hate to feel as angry as I have been doing to-night, so I am going to creep in and have a look at Father. That will make me feel better and more amiable, I hope."
"Don't disturb him if he is at all sleepy. I am so afraid he will be feverish to-morrow if he does not get a good night," Mrs. Burton said, in a warning tone.
"I shan't disturb him," answered Katherlne; then, taking a lamp, she stole across the dark store to the little room at the other end, where her father was lying.
One look at his face showed her how little chance of sleep there was for him at present; and guessing that it was anxiety as well as pain which kept him awake, she sat down beside him and related again the story of that night's adventures. He laughed, in spite of his pain, at her description of how the precious pair had looked when they found to whom they owed their lives.
"But I don't like you having such hard, rough things to do, Katherine. I wish you and Miles could change places in age," he said, with a sigh.
"I don't," she answered with a shrug. "But you must go to sleep now, Father, or you will be feverish to-morrow. Do the bruises hurt much?" she asked tenderly.
"The bed is full of sore places," he answered, with a whimsical transposition of terms. "But I shall go to sleep presently, I think."
"And wake up in the morning feeling better, I hope," she forced herself to say brightly, though it worried her to see how ill he was looking.
"I don't know about that," he said gravely. "When a man has lived a hard life like mine, a knock-down blow, such as I have had to-day, very often sets a lot of mischief in motion; but there is no need to fear disaster until it actually comes. Get away to your bed now, child. I shan't want anything more until the morning."
Katherine bent and kissed him. With all the strength of her heart she loved her father. In her early girlhood he had been her hero. Since her mother's death he had been her good comrade, and never had there been a shadow between them until that day when they had taken the last mail of the season up to the second portage, and heard the news about the change in the ownership of the fishing fleet from Astor M'Kree. Perhaps he had been taken with some feeling of illness that day, and this continuing ever since had led to his altered ways and gloomy looks. But even with this idea to comfort her Katherine went to her bed with a heavy heart that night, and a dread of the morning to which before she had been a stranger. Her father had said that it was of no use to fear disaster until it really came, but her heart quailed that night as she lay sleepless, thinking of the days which stretched in front of her. Until her father grew strong again she would have to let the day teaching go, even though it might be possible to keep the night school together. Her days would have to be spent in buying and selling, in bartering barrels of flour and pork for skins of wolf, of ermine, and of beaver. She would have to stand between home and the difficulties that menaced from the outside, and if her heart failed her who could wonder at it?
A Sacred Confidence
'Duke Radford was very ill. For a week he hovered between life and death, and Mrs. Burton's skill was taxed to the uttermost. There was no doctor within at least a hundred miles. One of the fishers at Seal Cove had set the broken collar bone, the work being very well done too, although the man was only an amateur in the art of bone-setting. But it was not the broken bone, nor any of his bruises and abrasions, which made 'Duke Radford's peril during that black week of care and anxiety. He was ill in himself, so ill in fact that Mrs. Burton lost heart, declaring that her father's constitution had broken up, and that half a dozen doctors could not pull him through if his time had come.
Katherine would not share this gloomy view, and was always hoping against hope. If only the waters had been open, a doctor might have been procured from somewhere; but in winter time, when the small lakes and many of the lesser rivers were all frozen, nothing in the way of outside help was available, and the dwellers in remote places had to depend upon their own skill, making up in nursing what was lacking in medicine.
By the time the second Sunday came, the sick man showed signs of mending. Mrs. Burton grew hopeful again, while Katherine was nearly beside herself with joy. It had been a fearfully hard week for them all, though the neighbours had been as kind as possible. Stee Jenkin's wife came up from Seal Cove one day, and, after doing as much work as she could find to do, carried the twins off with her to her little house at the Cove, which was a great relief to Mrs. Burton and Katherine. Mrs. M'Kree was ill herself, so could do no more than send a kindly message; but even that was better than nothing, for sympathy is one of the sweetest things on earth when one is in trouble.
Sunday was a blessed relief to them at the end of their troubled week. Finding her father so much better, Mrs. Burton betook herself to bed at noon for the first real untroubled rest she had enjoyed for many days. The boys were stretched in luxurious idleness before the glowing fire in the kitchen, and Katherine was in charge of the sickroom. She was half-asleep herself; the place was so warm and her father lay in such a restful quiet. It had been so terrible all the week because no rest had seemed possible to him. But since last night his symptoms had changed, and now he lay quietly dozing, only rousing to take nourishment. Presently he stirred uneasily, as if the old restlessness were coming back, then asked in a feeble tone:
"Are you there, Nellie?"
"Nellie has gone to lie down, Father; but I will call her if you want her," Katherine said, coming forward to where the sick man could see her.
"No, I don't want her; it is you I want to talk to, only I didn't know whether she was here," he replied.
"I don't think you ought to talk at all," she said, in a doubtful tone. "Drink this broth, dear, and then try to sleep again."
"I will drink the broth, but I don't want to go to sleep again just yet," he said, in a stronger voice.
Katherine fed him as if he were a baby, and indeed he was almost as weak as an infant. But she did not encourage his talking, although she could not prevent it, as he seemed so much better.
"There is something that has been troubling me a great deal, and I want to tell you about it," he said. "I could not speak of it to anyone else, and I don't want you to do so either. But it will be a certain comfort to me that you know it, for you are strong and more fitted for bearing burdens than Nellie, who has had more than her share of sorrow already."
Katherine shivered. There was a longing in her heart to tell her father that she wanted no more burdens, that life was already so hard as to make her shrink from any more responsibility. But, looking at him as he lay there in his weakness, she could not say such words as these.
"What is it you want to tell me, Father?" she asked. Her voice was tender and caressing; he should never have to guess how she shrank from the confidence he wanted to give her, because her instinct told her that it was something which she would not want to hear.
"Do you remember the day we went up to Astor M'Kree's with the last mail which came through before the waters closed?" he said abruptly, and again Katherine shivered, knowing for a certainty that her father's trouble was proving too big for him alone.
"Yes, I remember," she replied very softly,
"That was a black day for me, for it brought dead things to life in a way that I had thought impossible. I used to know that Oswald Selincourt who has bought the fishing fleet."
"That one? Are you sure it is the same?" she asked in surprise. "The name is uncommon, still it is within the bounds of probability that there might be two, and you said the one you knew was a poor man."
"I fancy there is no manner of doubt that it is the same," 'Duke Radford said slowly. "The day we went to Fort Garry, M'Crawney told me he had a letter from Mr. Selincourt too, in which the new owner said he was a Bristol man, and that he had known what it was to be poor, so did not mean to risk money on ventures he had no chance of controlling, and that was why he was coming here next summer to boss the fleet."
"Poor Father!" Katherine murmured softly. "Ah, you may well say poor!" he answered bitterly. "If it were not for you, the boys, poor Nellie, and her babies, I'd just be thankful to know that I'd never get up from this bed again, for I don't feel that I have courage to face life now."
"Father, you must not talk nor think like that, indeed you must not!" she exclaimed, in an imploring tone. "Think how we need you and how we love you. Think, too, how desolate we should be without you."
"That is what I tell myself every hour in the twenty-four, and I shall make as brave a fight for it as I can for your sakes," he said in a regretful tone, as if his family cares were holding him to life against his will. Then he went on: "Oswald Selincourt and I were in the same business house in Bristol years ago, and I did him a great wrong."
Katherine had a sensation that was almost akin to what she would have felt if someone had dashed a bucket of ice-cold water in her face. But she did not move nor cry out, did not even gasp, only sat still with the dumb horror of it all filling her heart, until she felt as if she would never feel happy again. Her father had always seemed to her the noblest of men, and she had revered him so, because he always stood for what was right and true. Then some instinct told her that he must be suffering horribly too, and because she could not speak she slid her warm fingers into his trembling hand and held it fast.
"Thank you, dear, I felt I could trust you," he said simply, and the words braced Katherine for bearing what had to come, more than anything else could have done.
"What is it you want me to know?" she asked, for he had lain for some minutes without speech, as if the task he had set himself was harder than he could perform.
"I wanted to tell you about the wrong I did Selincourt," the sick man said in a reluctant tone. He had brought himself to the point of confiding in his daughter, yet even now he shrank from it as if fearing to lower himself in her eyes. "We were clerks in one business house, only Selincourt was above me, and taking a much higher salary; but if anything happened to move him, I knew that his desk would be offered to me. I was poor, but he in a sense was poorer still, because he had an invalid father and young sisters dependent on him."
"Father, surely there is no need to tell me of this dead-and-buried action, unless you wish it, for the telling can do no good now," burst out Katherine, who could not bear to see the pain in her father's face.
"A wrong is never dead and buried while the man lives who did it," 'Duke Radford answered with a wan smile, "for his conscience has a trick of rounding on him when he least expects it, and then there is trouble, at least that is how it has been with me. One day a complaint was lodged with our business chiefs that one of the clerks had been gambling, was an habitual gambler in fact. I was not the one, and I was not suspected, but I knew very well which one it was; but when suspicion fell on Selincourt, I just kept silent. For some reason he could not clear himself, was dismissed, and I was promoted. But the promotion did me little good; the firm went bankrupt in the following year, and I was adrift myself."
"What became of Selincourt?" asked Katherine, and was instantly sorry she had spoken, because of the pain in her father's face.
"I don't know. I never heard of him from the day he left the counting-house until Astor M'Kree read his name from that letter, but I thought of him a good bit. It is hard enough for a man to do well with an unblemished character, but to be thrown out of a situation branded as a gambler is ruin, and nothing short of it."
"What became of the other man—the one who was a gambler?" asked Katherine.
"I don't know. He remained with the firm until the crash came. I fancy Selincourt's fate made a great impression on him, for I never heard of his gambling after Selincourt's dismissal," answered her father.
"How strange that he could not clear himself! Do you expect he had been gambling really, as well as the other one?" Katherine said quickly.
"I am sure he had not," replied 'Duke Radford. "He was not that sort at all. But the thing that bowled him over was that he was known to have money in his possession, a considerable amount, for which he could not or would not account."
"Still, I don't see that you were so much to blame," said Katherine soothingly. "If the man was accused and could not clear himself, then plainly there was something wrong somewhere: and after all you simply held your tongue; it was not as if you had stolen anything, letting the blame fall on him, or had falsely accused him in any way."
"Just the arguments with which I comforted myself when I kept silent and profited by the downfall of a man who was blameless," 'Duke Radford replied. "But though there may be a sort of truth in them, it is not real truth, and I have been paying the price ever since of that guilty silence of mine."
"Father, why do you tell me all this now?" cried Katherine protestingly. Never in her heart would she have quite so much admiration for her father again, and the knowledge brought keen suffering with it.
He drew a long breath that was like a sobbing sigh; only too well did he understand what he had done, but he had counted the cost, and was not going to shirk the consequences.
"Because I've got the feeling that you will be able in some way to make the wrong right. I don't know how, and I can't see what can be done, only somehow the conviction has grown to a certainty in my mind, and now I can rest about it," he replied slowly.
"Has this trouble made you so restless and ill?" she asked, thinking that his burden of mental suffering had grown beyond his powers of endurance since he had been keeping his bed.
"I suppose it may have helped. I have suffered horribly, but since I made up my mind to tell you, things have seemed easier, and I have been able to sleep," he answered with a heavy sigh.
"Will you tell me just what you want me to do, if—if——?" she began, but broke off abruptly, for she could not put in words the dread which had come into her heart that her father might be dead before the summer, when Mr. Selincourt was expected in Keewatin.
"If I am alive and well when the summer comes there will be no need for you to do anything; I shall be able to face the consequences of my own wrong-doing. But if not, I leave it to you to do the very best you can. You can't make up for all the man may have had to suffer, but at least you can tell him that I was sorry."
Katherine shuddered. It was bad enough to be compelled to hear that her father had been guilty of such meanness as to keep silent, in order that he might profit by the downfall of an innocent man; but when, in addition to this, she was expected to tell that man of how her father had acted, and, as it were, ask pardon for it, the ordeal appeared beyond her strength to face. Not a word of this did she say, however, for it was quite plain to her that the invalid had already over-excited himself, and she rather dreaded what Mrs. Burton would say presently.
"You must go to sleep, Father, and we will talk about this again another day," she said firmly.
"No, we will not speak of it again, for it is not a pleasant subject for discussion," he replied. "Only tell me that you will take my burden and bear it for me as best you can, if I am not able to bear it myself, and then I can be at peace."
Katherine bent over him, gathering his feeble hands in a close clasp, and the steadfast light in her eyes was beautiful to see. "Dear Father, I will do my very best to make the wrong as right as it can be made. Now try to rest, and get better as fast as you can."
He smiled, shook his head a little at her talk of getting better speedily, then to her great relief he shut his eyes and went to sleep. The burden had fallen from him upon her, and it had fallen so heavily that just at first she was stunned by the blow. There was no sound in the quiet room except the regular breathing of the sleeper. Outside the brief winter day merged into the long northern night; the stars came out, shining with frosty brilliancy, but Katherine sat by the bedside, and never once did her gaze wander to the window. Mrs. Burton came in presently, bringing a lamp, and scolding softly because the room was in darkness. But when she saw how quietly her father was sleeping, her gentle complaining turned into murmurs of pleased satisfaction.
"Really, Katherine, you are a better nurse than I thought. I was so afraid of the restlessness coming on again, as it has done about this time every day since his accident. But now he is sleeping most beautifully, so I feel sure he has taken a turn, and that we shall pull him through."
"Yes," said Katherine, as she followed Mrs. Burton into the store to look after the fire. "I think he will get better now," but her tone was so dull and lacking in spirit that her sister faced round upon her in quick consternation.
"What is the matter? Do you feel ill? Why, you are white as chalk, and you look as if you had seen a ghost!"
"I don't think there are any ghosts to see in this part of the world," Katherine replied, with a brave attempt at a laugh, "unless, indeed, the unquiet spirit of some Hudson's Bay Company's agent, done to death by treacherous Indians, haunts these shores."
"Or some poor sealer caught in the ice and frozen to death," murmured Mrs. Burton, with a sobbing catch in her breath.
Katherine, who was putting wood in the stove, turned suddenly, catching her sister in a warm, impulsive hug. "There are no ghosts nor unquiet spirits among those brave men who meet death while doing their daily work, darling!" she said earnestly. "But I fancy some of those old H.B.C. agents were fearful rogues, and well deserved the fate they met at the hands of the outraged red men."
"Perhaps so; I don't know. But I don't like seeing you look so pale, Katherine. Come and have your tea, and I will send one of the boys to look after Father for a little while."
Katherine followed her sister from the store into the kitchen, wondering as she went if tea, however hot, would have the power to drive away the creeping chill at her heart. Miles went off to take charge of the sickroom, while Phil set tea, chattering all the time concerning the gossip of the store which had come to his ears during the last few days.
"The men are saying that most likely, if Mr. Selincourt is such a rich man, he will be sure to have a steamer run up through the Strait two or three times during the summer with provisions, and so it will be bad for Father and the store," he said, carefully setting the cracked cup for Miles, although by rights it was his own turn to have it.
"What nonsense people talk!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton, with a scornful laugh. "Mr. Selincourt will have his hands full with managing the fishing fleet, and if he is so unwise as to turn general trader, I dare say we can find some way of underselling him or enticing his customers away."
Katherine put down her cup of tea with an unsteady movement which spilled some of the contents over the tablecloth. Here was a view of the situation which she had not thought to be compelled to face. If Mr. Selincourt did anything which took their trade away, and left them face to face with starvation, would it be their duty to sit down meekly and bear such an injustice, without attempting a blow in self-defence, and all because of that evil from the past which, although so long buried, had suddenly come to life again?
"Katherine, how frightened you look! You surely are not worrying about a bit of store gossip, which has probably not the slightest foundation in fact?" Mrs. Burton said in remonstrance.
"It is of no use to worry about anything so remote as Mr. Selincourt and the fishing fleet," Katherine answered languidly. "But I am so tired that bed for a few hours seems the most desirable thing on earth."
"Then go, dear, and get a good rest," said her sister.
But, although Katherine lay down and covered herself with the bedclothes, sleep was long in coming, while the burden she had taken made her heart heavy as lead.
For a few days 'Duke Radford appeared to get better with astonishing rapidity. He left his bed, and crept across the store, to sit in the rocking-chair by the kitchen stove, and said he was now quite well. But when he had pulled up thus far towards strength again, he stopped short, unable to get any farther. In vain Mrs. Burton plied him with every nourishing food she could think of: an invalid he remained, weak and depressed, all his old energy and enterprise under a cloud, and with a settled melancholy which nothing could lift.