By Sara Jeannette Duncan, 1861-1922 (aka Mrs. Everard Cotes)
It would have been idle to inquire into the antecedents, or even the circumstances, of old Mother Beggarlegs. She would never tell; the children, at all events, were convinced of that; and it was only the children, perhaps, who had the time and the inclination to speculate. Her occupation was clear; she presided like a venerable stooping hawk, over a stall in the covered part of the Elgin market-place, where she sold gingerbread horses and large round gingerbread cookies, and brown sticky squares of what was known in all circles in Elgin as taffy. She came, it was understood, with the dawn; with the night she vanished, spending the interval on a not improbable broomstick. Her gingerbread was better than anybody's; but there was no comfort in standing, first on one foot and then on the other, while you made up your mind—the horses were spirited and you could eat them a leg at a time, but there was more in the cookies—she bent such a look on you, so fierce and intolerant of vacillation. She belonged to the group of odd characters, rarer now than they used to be, etched upon the vague consciousness of small towns as in a way mysterious and uncanny; some said that Mother Beggarlegs was connected with the aristocracy and some that she had been "let off" being hanged. The alternative was allowed full swing, but in any case it was clear that such persons contributed little to the common good and, being reticent, were not entertaining. So you bought your gingerbread, concealing, as it were, your weapons, paying your copper coins with a neutral nervous eye, and made off to a safe distance, whence you turned to shout insultingly, if you were an untrounced young male of Elgin, "Old Mother Beggarlegs! Old Mother Beggarlegs!" And why "Beggarlegs" nobody in the world could tell you. It might have been a dateless waggery, or it might have been a corruption of some more dignified surname, but it was all she ever got. Serious, meticulous persons called her "Mrs" Beggarlegs, slightly lowering their voices and slurring it, however, it must be admitted. The name invested her with a graceless, anatomical interest, it penetrated her wizened black and derisively exposed her; her name went far indeed to make her dramatic. Lorne Murchison, when he was quite a little boy was affected by this and by the unfairness of the way it singled her out. Moved partly by the oppression of the feeling and partly by a desire for information he asked her sociably one day, in the act of purchase, why the gilt was generally off her gingerbread. He had been looking long, as a matter of fact, for gingerbread with the gilt on it, being accustomed to the phrase on the lips of his father in connection with small profits. Mother Beggarlegs, so unaccustomed to politeness that she could not instantly recognize it, answered him with an imprecation at which he, no doubt, retreated, suddenly thrown on the defensive hurling the usual taunt. One prefers to hope he didn't, with the invincible optimism one has for the behaviour of lovable people; but whether or not his kind attempt at colloquy is the first indication I can find of that active sympathy with the disabilities of his fellow-beings which stamped him later so intelligent a meliorist. Even in his boy's beginning he had a heart for the work; and Mother Beggarlegs, but for a hasty conclusion, might have made him a friend.
It is hard to invest Mother Beggarlegs with importance, but the date helps me—the date I mean, of this chapter about Elgin; she was a person to be reckoned with on the twenty-fourth of May. I will say at once, for the reminder to persons living in England that the twenty-fourth of May was the Queen's Birthday. Nobody in Elgin can possibly have forgotten it. The Elgin children had a rhyme about it—
The twenty-fourth of May Is the Queen's Birthday; If you don't give us a holiday, We'll all run away.
But Elgin was in Canada. In Canada the twenty-fourth of May WAS the Queen's Birthday; and these were times and regions far removed from the prescription that the anniversary "should be observed" on any of those various outlying dates which by now, must have produced in her immediate people such indecision as to the date upon which Her Majesty really did come into the world. That day, and that only, was the observed, the celebrated, a day with an essence in it, dawning more gloriously than other days and ending more regretfully, unless, indeed, it fell on a Sunday when it was "kept" on the Monday, with a slightly clouded feeling that it wasn't exactly the same thing. Travelled persons, who had spent the anniversary there, were apt to come back with a poor opinion of its celebration in "the old country"—a pleasant relish to the more-than-ever appreciated advantages of the new, the advantages that came out so by contrast. More space such persons indicated, more enterprise they boasted, and even more loyalty they would flourish, all with an affectionate reminiscent smile at the little ways of a grandmother. A "Bank" holiday, indeed! Here it was a real holiday, that woke you with bells and cannon—who has forgotten the time the ancient piece of ordnance in "the Square" blew out all the windows in the Methodist church?—and went on with squibs and crackers till you didn't know where to step on the sidewalks, and ended up splendidly with rockets and fire-balloons and drunken Indians vociferous on their way to the lock-up. Such a day for the hotels, with teams hitched three abreast in front of their aromatic barrooms; such a day for the circus, with half the farmers of Fox County agape before the posters—with all their chic and shock they cannot produce such posters nowadays, nor are there any vacant lots to form attractive backgrounds—such a day for Mother Beggarlegs! The hotels, and the shops and stalls for eating and drinking, were the only places in which business was done; the public sentiment put universal shutters up, but the public appetite insisted upon excepting the means to carnival. An air of ceremonial festivity those fastened shutters gave; the sunny little town sat round them, important and significant, and nobody was ever known to forget that they were up, and go on a fool's errand. No doubt they had an impressiveness for the young countryfolk that strolled up and down Main Street in their honest best, turning into Snow's for ice-cream when a youth was disposed to treat. (Gallantry exacted ten-cent dishes, but for young ladies alone, or family parties, Mrs Snow would bring five-cent quantities almost without asking, and for very small boys one dish and the requisite number of spoons.) There was discrimination, there was choice, in this matter of treating. A happy excitement accompanied it, which you could read in the way Corydon clapped his soft felt hat on his head as he pocketed the change. To be treated—to ten-cent dishes—three times in the course of the day by the same young man gave matter for private reflection and for public entertainment, expressed in the broad grins of less reckless people. I speak of a soft felt hat, but it might be more than that: it might be a dark green one, with a feather in it; and here was distinction, for such a hat indicated that its owner belonged to the Independent Order of Foresters, who Would leave their spring wheat for forty miles round to meet in Elgin and march in procession, wearing their hats, and dazzlingly scatter upon Main Street. They gave the day its touch of imagination, those green cocked hats; they were lyrical upon the highways; along the prosaic sidewalks by twos and threes they sang together. It is no great thing, a hat of any quality; but a small thing may ring dramatic on the right metal, and in the vivid idea of Lorne Murchison and his sister Advena a Robin Hood walked in every Independent Forester, especially in the procession. Which shows the risks you run if you, a person of honest livelihood and solicited vote, adopt any portion of a habit not familiar to you, and go marching about with a banner and a band. Two children may be standing at the first street corner, to whom your respectability and your property may at once become illusion and your outlawry the delightful fact.
A cheap trip brought the Order of Green Hats to Elgin; and there were cheap trips on this great day to persuade other persons to leave it. The Grand Trunk had even then an idea of encouraging social combination for change of scene, and it was quite a common thing for the operatives of the Milburn Boiler Company to arrange to get themselves carried to the lakeside or "the Falls" at half a dollar a head. The "hands" got it up themselves and it was a question in Elgin whether one might sink one's dignity and go as a hand for the sake of the fifty-cent opportunity, a question usually decided in the negative. The social distinctions of Elgin may not be easily appreciated by people accustomed to the rough and ready standards of a world at the other end of the Grand Trunk; but it will be clear at a glance that nobody whose occupation prescribed a clean face could be expected to travel cheek by jowl, as a privilege, with persons who were habitually seen with smutty ones, barefaced smut, streaming out at the polite afternoon hour of six, jangling an empty dinner pail. So much we may decide, and leave it, reflecting as we go how simple and satisfactory, after all, are the prejudices which can hold up such obvious justification. There was recently to be pointed out in England the heir to a dukedom who loved stoking, and got his face smutty by preference. He would have been deplorably subversive of accepted conventions in Elgin; but, happily or otherwise, such persons and such places have at present little more than an imaginative acquaintance, vaguely cordial on the one side, vaguely critical on the other, and of no importance in the sum.
Polite society, to return to it, preferred the alternative of staying at home and mowing the lawn or drinking raspberry vinegar on its own beflagged verandah; looking forward in the afternoon to the lacrosse match. There was nearly always a lacrosse match on the Queen's Birthday, and it was the part of elegance to attend and encourage the home team, as well as that of small boys, with broken straw hats, who sneaked an entrance, and were more enthusiastic than anyone. It was "a quarter" to get in, so the spectators were naturally composed of persons who could afford the quarter, and persons like the young Flannigans and Finnigans, who absolutely couldn't, but who had to be there all the same. Lorne and Advena Murchison never had the quarter, so they witnessed few lacrosse matches, though they seldom failed to refresh themselves by a sight of the players after the game when, crimson and perspiring, but still glorious in striped jerseys, their lacrosses and running shoes slung over one shoulder, these heroes left the field.
The Birthday I am thinking of, with Mrs Murchison as a central figure in the kitchen, peeling potatoes for dinner, there was a lacrosse match of some importance for the Fox County Championship and the Fox County Cup as presented by the Member for the South Riding. Mrs Murchison remains the central figure, nevertheless, with her family radiating from her, gathered to help or to hinder in one of those domestic crises which arose when the Murchisons were temporarily deprived of a "girl." Everybody was subject to them in Elgin, everybody had to acknowledge and face them. Let a new mill be opened, and it didn't matter what you paid her or how comfortable you made her, off she would go, and you might think yourself lucky if she gave a week's warning. Hard times shut down the mills and brought her back again; but periods of prosperity were very apt to find the ladies of Elgin where I am compelled to introduce Mrs Murchison—in the kitchen. "You'd better get up—the girl's gone," Lorne had stuck his head into his sister's room to announce, while yet the bells were ringing and the rifles of the local volunteers were spitting out the feu de joie. "I've lit the fire an' swep' out the dining-room. You tell mother. Queen's Birthday, too—I guess Lobelia's about as mean as they're made!" And the Murchisons had descended to face the situation. Lorne had by then done his part, and gone out into the chromatic possibilities of the day; but the sense of injury he had communicated to Advena in her bed remained and expanded. Lobelia, it was felt, had scurvily manipulated the situation—her situation, it might have been put, if any Murchison had been in the temper for jesting. She had taken unjustifiable means to do a more unjustifiable thing, to secure for herself an improper and unlawful share of the day's excitements, transferring her work, by the force of circumstances, to the shoulders of other people since, as Mrs Murchison remarked, somebody had to do it. Nor had she her mistress testified the excuse of fearing unreasonable confinement. "I told her she might go when she had done her dishes after dinner," said Mrs Murchison, "and then she had only to come back at six and get tea—what's getting tea? I advised her to finish her ironing yesterday, so as to be free of it today; and she said she would be very glad to. Now, I wonder if she DID finish it!" and Mrs Murchison put down her pan of potatoes with a thump to look in the family clothes basket. "Not she! Five shirts and ALL the coloured things. I call it downright deceit!"
"I believe I know the reason she'll SAY," said Advena. "She objects to rag carpet in her bedroom. She told me so."
"Rag carpet—upon my word!" Mrs Murchison dropped her knife to exclaim. "It's what her betters have to do with! I've known the day when that very piece of rag carpet—sixty balls there were in it and every one I sewed with my own fingers—was the best I had for my spare room, with a bit of ingrain in the middle. Dear me!" she went on with a smile that lightened the whole situation, "how proud I was of that performance! She didn't tell ME she objected to rag carpet!"
"No, Mother," Advena agreed, "she knew better."
They were all there in the kitchen, supporting their mother, and it seems an opportunity to name them. Advena, the eldest, stood by the long kitchen table washing the breakfast cups in "soft" soap and hot water. The soft soap—Mrs Murchison had a barrelful boiled every spring in the back yard, an old colonial economy she hated to resign—made a fascinating brown lather with iridescent bubbles. Advena poured cupfuls of it from on high to see the foam rise, till her mother told her for mercy's sake to get on with those dishes. She stood before a long low window, looking out into the garden and the light, filtering through apple branches on her face showed her strongly featured and intelligent for fourteen. Advena was named after one grandmother; when the next girl came Mrs Murchison, to make an end of the matter, named it Abigail, after the other. She thought both names outlandish and acted under protest, but hoped that now everybody would be satisfied. Lorne came after Advena, at the period of a naive fashion of christening the young sons of Canada in the name of her Governor-General. It was a simple way of attesting a loyal spirit, but with Mrs Murchison more particular motives operated. The Marquis of Lorne was not only the deputy of the throne, he was the son-in-law of a good woman of whom Mrs Murchison thought more, and often said it, for being the woman she was than for being twenty times a Queen; and he had made a metrical translation of the Psalms, several of which were included in the revised psalter for the use of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, from which the whole of Knox Church sang to the praise of God every Sunday. These were circumstances that weighed with Mrs Murchison, and she called her son after the Royal representative, feeling that she was doing well for him in a sense beyond the mere bestowal of a distinguished and a euphonious name, though that, as she would have willingly acknowledged, was "well enough in its place."
We must take this matter of names seriously; the Murchisons always did. Indeed, from the arrival of a new baby until the important Sunday of the christening, nothing was discussed with such eager zest and such sustained interest as the name he should get—there was a fascinating list at the back of the dictionary—and to the last minute it was problematical. In Stella's case, Mrs Murchison actually changed her mind on the way to church; and Abby, who had sat through the sermon expecting Dorothy Maud, which she thought lovely, publicly cried with disappointment. Stella was the youngest, and Mrs Murchison was thankful to have a girl at last whom she could name without regard to her own relations or anybody else's. I have skipped about a good deal, but I have only left out two, the boys who came between Abby and Stella. In their names the contemporary observer need not be too acute to discover both an avowal and to some extent an enforcement of Mr Murchison's political views; neither an Alexander Mackenzie nor an Oliver Mowat could very well grow up into anything but a sound Liberal in that part of the world without feeling himself an unendurable paradox. To christen a baby like that was, in a manner, a challenge to public attention; the faint relaxation about the lips of Dr Drummond—the best of the Liberals himself, though he made a great show of keeping it out of the pulpit—recognized this, and the just perceptible stir of the congregation proved it. Sonorously he said it. "Oliver Mowat, I baptize thee in the Name of the Father—" The compliment should have all the impressiveness the rite could give it, while the Murchison brothers and sisters, a-row in the family pew, stood on one foot with excitement as to how Oliver Mowat would take the drops that defined him. The verdict was, on the way home, that he behaved splendidly. Alexander Mackenzie, the year before, had roared.
He was weeping now, at the age of seven, silently, but very copiously, behind the woodpile. His father had finally cuffed him for importunity; and the world was no place for a just boy, who asked nothing but his rights. Only the woodpile, friendly mossy logs unsplit, stood inconscient and irresponsible for any share in his black circumstances; and his tears fell among the lichens of the stump he was bowed on till, observing them, he began to wonder whether he could cry enough to make a pond there, and was presently disappointed to find the source exhausted. The Murchisons were all imaginative.
The others, Oliver and Abby and Stella, still "tormented." Poor Alec's rights—to a present of pocket-money on the Queen's Birthday—were common ones, and almost statutory. How their father, sitting comfortably with his pipe in the flickering May shadows under the golden pippin, reading the Toronto paper, could evade his liability in the matter was unfathomable to the Murchisons; it was certainly illiberal; they had a feeling that it was illegal. A little teasing was generally necessary, but the resistance today had begun to look ominous and Alec, as we know, too temerarious, had retired in disorder to the woodpile.
Oliver was wiping Advena's dishes. He exercised himself ostentatiously upon a plate, standing in the door to be within earshot of his father.
"Eph Wheeler," he informed his family, "Eph Wheeler, he's got twenty-five cents, an' a English sixpence, an' a Yankee nickel. An' Mr Wheeler's only a common working man, a lot poorer'n we are."
Mr Murchison removed his pipe from his lips in order, apparently, to follow unimpeded the trend of the Dominion's leading article. Oliver eyed him anxiously. "Do, Father," he continued in logical sequence. "Aw do."
"Make him, Mother," said Abby indignantly. "It's the Queen's BIRTHDAY!"
"Time enough when the butter bill's paid," said Mrs Murchison.
"Oh the BUTTER bill! Say, Father, aren't you going to?"
"What?" asked John Murchison, and again took out his pipe, as if this were the first he had heard of the matter.
"Give us our fifteen cents each to celebrate with. You can't do it under that," Oliver added firmly. "Crackers are eight cents a packet this year, the small size."
"Nonsense," said Mr Murchison. The reply was definite and final, and its ambiguity was merely due to the fact that their father disliked giving a plump refusal. "Nonsense" was easier to say, if not to hear than "No." Oliver considered for a moment, drew Abby to colloquy by the pump, and sought his brother behind the woodpile. Then he returned to the charge.
"Look here, Father," he said, "CASH DOWN, we'll take ten."
John Murchison was a man of few words, but they were usually impregnated with meaning, especially in anger. "No more of this," he said. "Celebrate fiddlesticks! Go and make yourselves of some use. You'll get nothing from me, for I haven't got it." So saying, he went through the kitchen with a step that forbade him to be followed. His eldest son, arriving over the backyard fence in a state of heat, was just in time to hear him. Lorne's apprehension of the situation was instant, and his face fell, but the depression plainly covered such splendid spirits that his brother asked resentfully, "Well, what's the matter with YOU?"
"Matter? Oh, not much. I'm going to see the Cayugas beat the Wanderers, that's all; an' Abe Mackinnon's mother said he could ask me to come back to tea with them. Can I, Mother?"
"There's no objection that I know of," said Mrs Murchison, shaking her apron free of stray potato-parings, "but you won't get money for the lacrosse match or anything else from your father today, I can assure you. They didn't do five dollars worth of business at the store all day yesterday, and he's as cross as two sticks."
"Oh, that's all right." Lorne jingled his pocket and Oliver took a fascinated step toward him. "I made thirty cents this morning, delivering papers for Fisher. His boy's sick. I did the North Ward—took me over'n hour. Guess I can go all right, can't I?"
"Why, yes, I suppose you can," said his mother. The others were dumb. Oliver hunched his shoulders and kicked at the nearest thing that had paint on it. Abby clung to the pump handle and sobbed aloud. Lorne looked gloomily about him and went out. Making once more for the back fence, he encountered Alexander in the recognized family retreat. "Oh, my goodness!" he said, and stopped. In a very few minutes he was back in the kitchen, followed sheepishly by Alexander, whose grimy face expressed the hope that beat behind his little waistcoat.
"Say, you kids," he announced, "Alec's got four cents, an' he says he'll join up. This family's going to celebrate all right. Come on down town."
No one could say that the Murchisons were demonstrative. They said nothing, but they got their hats. Mrs Murchison looked up from her occupation.
"Alec," she said, "out of this house you don't go till you've washed your face. Lorne, come here," she added in a lower voice, producing a bunch of keys. "If you look in the right-hand corner of the top small drawer in my bureau you'll find about twenty cents. Say nothing about it, and mind you don't meddle with anything else. I guess the Queen isn't going to owe it all to you."
"We've seen changes, Mr Murchison. Aye. We've seen changes."
Dr Drummond and Mr Murchison stood together in the store door, over which the sign "John Murchison: Hardware," had explained thirty years of varying commercial fortune. They had pretty well begun life together in Elgin. John Murchison was one of those who had listened to Mr Drummond's trial sermon, and had given his vote to "call" him to the charge. Since then there had been few Sundays when, morning and evening, Mr Murchison had not been in his place at the top of his pew, where his dignified and intelligent head appeared with the isolated significance of a strong individuality. People looked twice at John Murchison in a crowd; so did his own children at home. Hearing some discussion of the selection of a premier, Alec, looking earnestly at him once said, "Why don't they tell Father to be it?" The young minister looked twice at him that morning of the trial sermon, and asked afterward who he was. A Scotchman, Mr Drummond was told, not very long from the old country, who had bought the Playfair business on Main Street, and settled in the "Plummer Place," which already had a quarter of a century's standing in the annals of the town. The Playfair business was a respectable business to buy; the Plummer Place, though it stood in an unfashionable outskirt, was a respectable place to settle in; and the minister, in casting his lot in Elgin, envisaged John Murchison as part of it, thought of him confidently as a "dependance," saw him among the future elders and office-bearers of the congregation, a man who would be punctual with his pew-rent, sage in his judgements, and whose views upon church attendance would be extended to his family.
So the two came, contemporaries, to add their labour and their lives to the building of this little outpost of Empire. It was the frankest transfer, without thought of return; they were there to spend and be spent within the circumference of the spot they had chosen, with no ambition beyond. In the course of nature, even their bones and their memories would enter into the fabric. The new country filled their eyes; the new town was their opportunity, its destiny their fate. They were altogether occupied with its affairs, and the affairs of the growing Dominion, yet obscure in the heart of each of them ran the undercurrent of the old allegiance. They had gone the length of their tether, but the tether was always there. Thus, before a congregation that always stood in the early days, had the minister every Sunday morning for thirty years besought the Almighty, with ardour and humility, on behalf of the Royal Family. It came in the long prayer, about the middle. Not in the perfunctory words of a ritual, but in the language of his choice, which varied according to what he believed to be the spiritual needs of the reigning House, and was at one period, touching certain of its members, though respectful, extremely candid. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, "now in session," also—was it ever forgotten once? And even the Prime Minister, "and those who sit in council with him," with just a hint of extra commendation if it happened to be Mr Gladstone. The minister of Knox Church, Elgin, Ontario, Canada, kept his eye on them all. Remote as he was, and concerned with affairs of which they could know little, his sphere of duty could never revolve too far westward to embrace them, nor could his influence, under any circumstances, cease to be at their disposal. It was noted by some that after Mr Drummond had got his D.D. from an American University he also prayed occasionally for the President of the neighbouring republic; but this was rebutted by others, who pointed out that it happened only on the occurrence of assassinations, and held it reasonable enough. The cavillers mostly belonged to the congregation of St Andrew's, "Established"—a glum, old-fashioned lot indeed—who now and then dropped in of a Sunday evening to hear Mr Drummond preach. (There wasn't much to be said for the preaching at St Andrew's.) The Established folk went on calling the minister of Knox Church "Mr" Drummond long after he was "Doctor" to his own congregation, on account of what they chose to consider the dubious source of the dignity; but the Knox Church people had their own theory to explain this hypercriticism, and would promptly turn the conversation to the merits of the sermon.
Twenty-five years it was, in point, this Monday morning when the Doctor—not being Established we need not hesitate, besides by this time nobody did—stood with Mr Murchison in the store door and talked about having seen changes. He had preached his anniversary sermon the night before to a full church when, laying his hand upon his people's heart, he had himself to repress tears. He was aware of another strand completed in their mutual bond: the sermon had been a moral, an emotional, and an oratorical success; and in the expansion of the following morning Dr Drummond had remembered that he had promised his housekeeper a new gas cooking-range, and that it was high time he should drop into Murchison's to inquire about it. Mrs Forsyth had mentioned at breakfast that they had ranges with exactly the improvement she wanted at Thompson's, but the minister was deaf to the hint. Thompson was a Congregationalist and, improvement or no improvement, it wasn't likely that Dr Drummond was going "outside the congregation" for anything he required. It would have been on a par with a wandering tendency in his flock, upon which he systematically frowned. He was as great an autocrat in this as the rector of any country parish in England undermined by Dissent; but his sense of obligation worked unfailingly both ways.
John Murchison had not said much about the sermon; it wasn't his way, and Dr Drummond knew it. "You gave us a good sermon last night, Doctor"; not much more than that, and "I noticed the Milburns there; we don't often get Episcopalians"; and again, "The Wilcoxes"—Thomas Wilcox, wholesale grocer, was the chief prop of St Andrew's—"were sitting just in front of us. We overtook them going home, and Wilcox explained how much they liked the music. 'Glad to see you,' I said. 'Glad to see you for any reason,'" Mr Murchison's eye twinkled. "But they had a great deal to say about 'the music.'" It was not an effusive form of felicitation; the minister would have liked it less if it had been, felt less justified, perhaps, in remembering about the range on that particular morning. As it was, he was able to take it with perfect dignity and good humour, and to enjoy the point against the Wilcoxes with that laugh of his that did everybody good to hear; so hearty it was, so rich in the grain of the voice, so full of the zest and flavour of the joke. The range had been selected, and their talk of changes had begun with it, Mr Murchison pointing out the new idea in the boiler and Dr Drummond remembering his first kitchen stove that burned wood and stood on its four legs, with nothing behind but the stove pipe, and if you wanted a boiler you took off the front lids and put it on, and how remarkable even that had seemed to his eyes, fresh from the conservative kitchen notions of the old country. He had come, unhappily, a widower to the domestic improvements on the other side of the Atlantic. "Often I used to think," he said to Mr Murchison, "if my poor wife could have seen that stove how delighted she would have been! But I doubt this would have been too much for her altogether!"
"That stove!" answered Mr Murchison. "Well I remember it. I sold it myself to your predecessor, Mr Wishart, for thirty dollars—the last purchase he ever made, poor man. It was great business for me—I had only two others in the store like it. One of them old Milburn bought—the father of this man, d'ye mind him?—the other stayed by me a matter of seven years. I carried a light stock in those days."
It was no longer a light stock. The two men involuntarily glanced round them for the satisfaction of the contrast Murchison evoked, though neither of them, from motives of vague delicacy, felt inclined to dwell upon it. John Murchison had the shyness of an artist in his commercial success, and the minister possibly felt that his relation toward the prosperity of a member had in some degree the embarrassment of a tax-gatherer's. The stock was indeed heavy now. You had to go upstairs to see the ranges, where they stood in rows, and every one of them bore somewhere upon it, in raised black letters, John Murchison's name. Through the windows came the iterating ring on the iron from the foundry in Chestnut Street which fed the shop, with an overflow that found its way from one end of the country to the other. Finicking visitors to Elgin found this wearing, but to John Murchison it was the music that honours the conqueror of circumstances. The ground floor was given up to the small wares of the business, chiefly imported; two or three young men, steady and knowledgeable-looking, moved about in their shirt sleeves among shelves and packing-cases. One of them was our friend Alec; our other friend Oliver looked after the books at the foundry. Their father did everything deliberately; but presently, in his own good time, his commercial letter paper would be headed, with regard to these two, "John Murchison and Sons." It had long announced that the business was "Wholesale and Retail."
Dr Drummond and Mr Murchison, considering the changes in Elgin from the store door, did it at their leisure, the merchant with his thumbs thrust comfortably in the armholes of his waistcoat, the minister, with that familiar trick of his, balancing on one foot and suddenly throwing his slight weight forward on the other. "A bundle of nerves," people called the Doctor: to stand still would have been a penance to him; even as he swayed backward and forward in talking, his hand must be busy at the seals on his watch chain and his shrewd glance travelling over a dozen things you would never dream so clever a man would take notice of. It was a prospect of moderate commercial activity they looked out upon, a street of mellow shopfronts on both sides, of varying height and importance, wearing that air of marking a period, a definite stop in growth, that so often coexists with quite a reasonable degree of activity and independence in colonial towns. One could almost say, standing there in the door at Murchison's, where the line of legitimate enterprise had been overpassed and where its intention had been none too sanguine—on the one hand in the faded, and pretentious red brick building with the false third storey, occupied by Cleary which must have been let at a loss to dry-goods or anything else; on the other hand in the solid "Gregory block," opposite the market, where rents were as certain as the dividends of the Bank of British North America.
Main Street expressed the idea that, for the purpose of growing and doing business, it had always found the days long enough. Drays passed through it to the Grand Trunk station, but they passed one at a time; a certain number of people went up and down about their affairs, but they were never in a hurry; a street car jogged by every ten minutes or so, but nobody ran after it. There was a decent procedure; and it was felt that Bofield—he was dry-goods, too—in putting in an elevator was just a little unnecessarily in advance of the times. Bofield had only two storeys, like everybody else, and a very easy staircase, up which people often declared they preferred to walk rather than wait in the elevator for a young man to finish serving and work it. These, of course, were the sophisticated people of Elgin; countryfolk, on a market day, would wait a quarter of an hour for the young man and think nothing of it; and I imagine Bofield found his account in the elevator, though he did complain sometimes that such persons went up and down on frivolous pretexts or to amuse the baby. As a matter of fact, Elgin had begun as the centre of "trading" for the farmers of Fox County, and had soon over-supplied that limit in demand; so that when other interests added themselves to the activity of the town there was still plenty of room for the business they brought. Main Street was really, therefore, not a fair index; nobody in Elgin would have admitted it. Its appearance and demeanour would never have suggested that it was now the chief artery of a thriving manufacturing town, with a collegiate institute, eleven churches, two newspapers, and an asylum for the deaf and dumb, to say nothing of a fire department unsurpassed for organization and achievement in the Province of Ontario. Only at twelve noon it might be partly realized when the prolonged "toots" of seven factory whistles at once let off, so to speak, the hour. Elgin liked the demonstration; it was held to be cheerful and unmistakable, an indication of "go-ahead" proclivities which spoke for itself. It occurred while yet Dr Drummond and Mr Murchison stood together in the store door.
"I must be getting on," said the minister, looking at his watch. "And what news have you of Lorne?"
"Well, he seems to have got through all right."
"What—you've heard already, then?"
"He telegraphed from Toronto on Saturday night." Mr Murchison stroked his chin, the better to retain his satisfaction. "Waste of money—the post would have brought it this morning—but it pleased his mother. Yes, he's through his Law Schools examination, and at the top, too, as far as I can make out."
"Dear me, and you never mentioned it!" Dr Drummond spoke with the resigned impatience of a familiar grievance. It was certainly a trying characteristic of John Murchison that he never cared about communicating anything that might seem to ask for congratulation. "Well, well! I'm very glad to hear it."
"It slipped my mind," said Mr Murchison. "Yes, he's full-fledged 'barrister and solicitor' now; he can plead your case or draw you up a deed with the best of them. Lorne's made a fair record, so far. We've no reason to be ashamed of him."
"That you have not." Personal sentiments between these two Scotchmen were indicated rather than indulged. "He's going in with Fulke and Warner, I suppose—you've got that fixed up?"
"Pretty well. Old man Warner was in this morning to talk it over. He says they look to Lorne to bring them in touch with the new generation. It's a pity he lost that son of his."
"Oh, a great pity. But since they had to go outside the firm they couldn't have done better; they couldn't have done better. I hope Lorne will bring them a bit of Knox Church business too; there's no reason why Bob Mackintosh should have it all. They'll be glad to see him back at the Hampden Debating Society. He's a great light there, is Lorne; and the Young Liberals, I hear are wanting him for chairman this year."
"There's some talk of it. But time enough—time enough for that! He'll do first-rate if he gets the law to practise, let alone the making of it."
"Maybe so; he's young yet. Well, good morning to you. I'll just step over the way to the Express office and get a proof out of them of that sermon of mine. I noticed their reporter fellow—what's his name?—Rawlins, with his pencil out last night, and I've no faith in Rawlins."
"Better cast an eye over it," responded Mr Murchison cordially, and stood for a moment or two longer in the door watching the crisp, significant little figure of the minister as he stepped briskly over the crossing to the newspaper office. There Dr Drummond sat down, before he explained his errand, and wrote a paragraph.
"We are pleased to learn," it ran "that Mr Lorne Murchison, eldest son of Mr John Murchison, of this town, has passed at the capital of the Province his final examination in Law, distinguishing himself by coming out at the top of the list. It will be remembered that Mr Murchison, upon entering the Law Schools, also carried off a valuable scholarship. We are glad to be able to announce that Mr Murchison, Junior, will embark upon his profession in his native town, where he will enter the well-known firm of Fulke and Warner."
The editor, Mr Horace Williams, had gone to dinner, and Rawlins was out so Dr Drummond had to leave it with the press foreman. Mr Williams read it appreciatively on his return, and sent it down with the following addition:
"This is doing it as well as it can be done. Elgin congratulates Mr L. Murchison upon having produced these results, and herself upon having produced Mr L. Murchison."
From the day she stepped into it Mrs Murchison knew that the Plummer Place was going to be the bane of her existence. This may have been partly because Mr Murchison had bought it, since a circumstance welded like that into one's life is very apt to assume the character of a bane, unless one's temperament leads one to philosophy, which Mrs Murchison's didn't. But there were other reasons more difficult to traverse: it was plainly true that the place did require a tremendous amount of "looking after," as such things were measured in Elgin, far more looking after than the Murchisons could afford to give it. They could never have afforded, in the beginning, to possess it had it not been sold, under mortgage, at a dramatic sacrifice. The house was a dignified old affair, built of wood and painted white, with wide green verandahs compassing the four sides of it, as they often did in days when the builder had only to turn his hand to the forest. It stood on the very edge of the town; wheatfields in the summer billowed up to its fences, and corn-stacks in the autumn camped around it like a besieging army. The plank sidewalk finished there; after that you took the road or, if you were so inclined, the river, into which you could throw a stone from the orchard of the Plummer Place. The house stood roomily and shadily in ornamental grounds, with a lawn in front of it and a shrubbery at each side, an orchard behind, and a vegetable garden, the whole intersected by winding gravel walks, of which Mrs Murchison was wont to say that a man might do nothing but weed them and have his hands full. In the middle of the lawn was a fountain, an empty basin with a plaster Triton, most difficult to keep looking respectable and pathetic in his frayed air of exile from some garden of Italy sloping to the sea. There was also a barn with stabling, a loft, and big carriage doors opening on a lane to the street. The originating Plummer, Mrs Murchison often said, must have been a person of large ideas, and she hoped he had the money to live up to them. The Murchisons at one time kept a cow in the barn, till a succession of "girls" left on account of the milking, and the lane was useful as an approach to the backyard by the teams that brought the cordwood in the winter. It was trying enough for a person with the instinct of order to find herself surrounded by out-of-door circumstances which she simply could not control but Mrs Murchison often declared that she could put up with the grounds if it had stopped there. It did not stop there. Though I was compelled to introduce Mrs Murchison in the kitchen, she had a drawing-room in which she might have received the Lieutenant-Governor, with French windows and a cut-glass chandelier, and a library with an Italian marble mantelpiece. She had an icehouse and a wine cellar, and a string of bells in the kitchen that connected with every room in the house; it was a negligible misfortune that not one of them was in order. She had far too much, as she declared, for any one pair of hands and a growing family, and if the ceiling was not dropping in the drawing-room, the cornice was cracked in the library or the gas was leaking in the dining-room, or the verandah wanted reflooring if anyone coming to the house was not to put his foot through it; and as to the barn, if it was dropping to pieces it would just have to drop. The barn was definitely outside the radius of possible amelioration—it passed gradually, visibly, into decrepitude, and Mrs Murchison often wished she could afford to pull it down.
It may be realized that in spite of its air of being impossible to "overtake"—I must, in this connection, continue to quote its mistress—there was an attractiveness about the dwelling of the Murchisons the attractiveness of the large ideas upon which it had been built and designed, no doubt by one of those gentlefolk of reduced income who wander out to the colonies with a nebulous view to economy and occupation, to perish of the readjustment. The case of such persons, when they arrive, is at once felt to be pathetic; there is a tacit local understanding that they have made a mistake. They may be entitled to respect, but nothing can save them from the isolation of their difference and their misapprehension. It was like that with the house. The house was admired—without enthusiasm—but it was not copied. It was felt to be outside the general need, misjudged, adventitious; and it wore its superiority in the popular view like a folly. It was in Elgin, but not of it: it represented a different tradition; and Elgin made the same allowance for its bedroom bells and its old-fashioned dignities as was conceded to its original master's habit of a six-o'clock dinner, with wine.
The architectural expression of the town was on a different scale, beginning with "frame," rising through the semidetached, culminating expensively in Mansard roofs, cupolas and modern conveniences, and blossoming, in extreme instances, into Moorish fretwork and silk portieres for interior decoration. The Murchison house gained by force of contrast: one felt, stepping into it, under influences of less expediency and more dignity, wider scope and more leisured intention; its shabby spaces had a redundancy the pleasanter and its yellow plaster cornices a charm the greater for the numerous close-set examples of contemporary taste in red brick which made, surrounded by geranium beds, so creditable an appearance in the West Ward. John Murchison in taking possession of the house had felt in it these satisfactions, had been definitely penetrated and soothed by them, the more perhaps because he brought to them a capacity for feeling the worthier things of life which circumstances had not previously developed. He seized the place with a sense of opportunity leaping sharp and conscious out of early years in the grey "wynds" of a northern Scottish town; and its personality sustained him, very privately but none the less effectively, through the worry and expense of it for years. He would take his pipe and walk silently for long together about the untidy shrubberies in the evening, for the acute pleasure of seeing the big horse chestnuts in flower; and he never opened the hall door without a feeling of gratification in its weight as it swung under his hand. In so far as he could, he supplemented the idiosyncrasies he found. The drawing-room walls, though mostly bare in their old-fashioned French paper—lavender and gilt, a grape-vine pattern—held a few good engravings; the library was reduced to contain a single bookcase, but it was filled with English classics. John Murchison had been made a careful man, not by nature, by the discipline of circumstances; but he would buy books. He bought them between long periods of abstinence, during which he would scout the expenditure of an unnecessary dollar, coming home with a parcel under his arm for which he vouchsafed no explanation, and which would disclose itself to be Lockhart, or Sterne, or Borrow, or Defoe. Mrs Murchison kept a discouraging eye upon such purchases; and when her husband brought home Chambers's Dictionary of English Literature, after shortly and definitely repulsing her demand that he should get himself a new winter overcoat, she declared that it was beyond all endurance. Mrs Murchison was surrounded, indeed, by more of "that sort of thing" than she could find use or excuse for; since, though books made but a sporadic appearance, current literature, daily, weekly, and monthly, was perpetually under her feet. The Toronto paper came as a matter of course, as the London daily takes its morning flight into the provinces, the local organ as simply indispensable, the Westminster as the corollary of church membership and for Sunday reading. These were constant, but there were also mutables—Once a Week, Good Words for the Young, Blackwood's, and the Cornhill they used to be; years of back numbers Mrs Murchison had packed away in the attic, where Advena on rainy days came into the inheritance of them, and made an early acquaintance with fiction in Ready Money Mortiboy and Verner's Pride, while Lorne, flat on his stomach beside her, had glorious hours on The Back of the North Wind. Their father considered such publications and their successors essential, like tobacco and tea. He was also an easy prey to the subscription agent, for works published in parts and paid for in instalments, a custom which Mrs Murchison regarded with abhorrence. So much so that when John put his name down for Masterpieces of the World's Art, which was to cost twenty dollars by the time it was complete, he thought it advisable to let the numbers accumulate at the store.
Whatever the place represented to their parents, it was pure joy to the young Murchisons. It offered a margin and a mystery to life. They saw it far larger than it was; they invested it, arguing purely by its difference from other habitations, with a romantic past. "I guess when the Prince of Wales came to Elgin, Mother, he stayed here," Lorne remarked, as a little boy. Secretly he and Advena took up boards in more than one unused room, and rapped on more than one thick wall to find a hollow chamber; the house revealed so much that was interesting, it was apparent to the meanest understanding that it must hide even more. It was never half lighted, and there was a passage in which fear dwelt—wild were the gallopades from attic to cellar in the early nightfall, when every young Murchison tore after every other, possessed, like cats, by a demoniac ecstasy of the gloaming. And the garden, with the autumn moon coming over the apple trees and the neglected asparagus thick for ambush, and a casual untrimmed boy or two with the delicious recommendation of being utterly without credentials, to join in the rout and be trusted to make for the back fence without further hint at the voice of Mrs Murchison—these were joys of the very fibre, things to push ideas and envisage life with an attraction that made it worth while to grow up.
And they had all achieved it—all six. They had grown up sturdily, emerging into sobriety and decorum by much the same degrees as the old house, under John Murchison's improving fortunes, grew cared for and presentable. The new roof went on, slate replacing shingles, the year Abby put her hair up; the bathroom was contemporary with Oliver's leaving school; the electric light was actually turned on for the first time in honour of Lorne's return from Toronto, a barrister and solicitor; several rooms had been done up for Abby's wedding. Abby had married, early and satisfactorily, Dr Harry Johnson, who had placidly settled down to await the gradual succession of his father's practice; "Dr Harry and Dr Henry" they were called. Dr Harry lived next door to Dr Henry, and had a good deal of the old man's popular manner. It was an unacknowledged partnership, which often provided two opinions for the same price; the town prophesied well of it. That left only five at home, but they always had Abby over in the West Ward, where Abby's housekeeping made an interest and Abby's baby a point of pilgrimage. These considerations almost consoled Mrs Murchison declaring, as she did, that all of them might have gone but Abby, who alone knew how to be "any comfort or any dependence" in the house; who could be left with a day's preserving; and I tell you that to be left by Mrs Murchison with a day's preserving, be it cherries or strawberries, damsons or pears, was a mark of confidence not easy to obtain. Advena never had it; Advena, indeed, might have married and removed no prop of the family economy. Mrs Murchison would have been "sorry for the man"—she maintained a candour toward and about those belonging to her that permitted no illusions—but she would have stood cheerfully out of the way on her own account. When you have seen your daughter reach and pass the age of twenty-five without having learned properly to make her own bed, you know without being told that she will never be fit for the management of a house—don't you? Very well then. And for ever and for ever, no matter what there was to do, with a book in her hand—Mrs Murchison would put an emphasis on the "book" which scarcely concealed a contempt for such absorption. And if, at the end of your patience, you told her for any sake to put it down and attend to matters, obeying in a kind of dream that generally drove you to take the thing out of her hands and do it yourself, rather than jump out of your skin watching her.
Sincerely Mrs Murchison would have been sorry for the man if he had arrived, but he had not arrived. Advena justified her existence by taking the university course for women at Toronto, and afterward teaching the English branches to the junior forms in the Collegiate Institute, which placed her arbitrarily outside the sphere of domestic criticism. Mrs Murchison was thankful to have her there—outside—where little more could reasonably be expected of her than that she should be down in time for breakfast. It is so irritating to be justified in expecting more than seems likely to come. Mrs Murchison's ideas circulated strictly in the orbit of equity and reason; she expected nothing from anybody that she did not expect from herself; indeed, she would spare others in far larger proportion. But the sense of obligation which led her to offer herself up to the last volt of her energy made her miserable when she considered that she was not fairly done by in return. Pressed down and running over were the services she offered to the general good, and it was on the ground of the merest justice that she required from her daughters "some sort of interest" in domestic affairs. From her eldest she got no sort of interest, and it was like the removal of a grievance from the hearth when Advena took up employment which ranged her definitely beyond the necessity of being of any earthly use in the house. Advena's occupation to some extent absorbed her shortcomings, which was much better than having to attribute them to her being naturally "through-other," or naturally clever, according to the bias of the moment. Mrs Murchison no longer excused or complained of her daughter; but she still pitied the man.
"The boys," of course, were too young to think of matrimony. They were still the boys, the Murchison boys; they would be the boys at forty if they remained under their father's roof. In the mother country, men in short jackets and round collars emerge from the preparatory schools; in the daughter lands boys in tailcoats conduct serious affairs. Alec and Oliver, in the business, were frivolous enough as to the feminine interest. For all Dr Drummond's expressed and widely known views upon the subject, it was a common thing for one or both of these young men to stray from the family pew on Sunday evenings to the services of other communions, thereafter to walk home in the dusk under the maples with some attractive young person, and be sedately invited to finish the evening on her father's verandah. Neither of them was guiltless of silk ties knitted or handkerchiefs initialled by certain fingers; without repeating scandal, one might say by various fingers. For while the ultimate import of these matters was not denied in Elgin, there was a general feeling against giving too much meaning to them, probably originating in a reluctance among heads of families to add to their responsibilities. These early spring indications were belittled and laughed at; so much so that the young people them selves hardly took them seriously, but regarded them as a form of amusement almost conventional. Nothing would have surprised or embarrassed them more than to learn that their predilections had an imperative corollary, that anything should, of necessity, "come of it." Something, of course, occasionally did come of it; and, usually after years of "attention," a young man of Elgin found himself mated to a young woman, but never under circumstances that could be called precipitate or rash. The cautious blood and far sight of the early settlers, who had much to reckon with, were still preponderant social characteristics of the town they cleared the site for. Meanwhile, however, flowers were gathered, and all sorts of evanescent idylls came and went in the relations of young men and maidens. Alec and Oliver Murchison were already in the full tide of them.
From this point of view they did not know what to make of Lorne. It was not as if their brother were in any way ill calculated to attract that interest which gave to youthful existence in Elgin almost the only flavour that it had. Looks are looks, and Lorne had plenty of them; taller by an inch than Alec, broader by two than Oliver, with a fine square head and blue eyes in it, and features which conveyed purpose and humour, lighted by a certain simplicity of soul that pleased even when it was not understood. "Open," people said he was, and "frank"—so he was, frank and open, with horizons and intentions; you could see them in his face. Perhaps it was more conscious of them than he was. Ambition, definitely shining goals, adorn the perspectives of young men in new countries less often than is commonly supposed. Lorne meant to be a good lawyer, squarely proposed to himself that the country should hold no better; and as to more selective usefulness, he hoped to do a little stumping for the right side when Frank Jennings ran for the Ontario House in the fall. It wouldn't be his first electioneering: from the day he became chairman of the Young Liberals the party had an eye on him, and when occasion arose, winter or summer, by bobsleigh or buggy, weatherbeaten local bosses would convey him to country schoolhouses for miles about to keep a district sound on railway policy, or education, or tariff reform. He came home smiling with the triumphs of these occasions, and offered them, with the slow, good-humoured, capable drawl that inspired such confidence in him, to his family at breakfast, who said "Great!" or "Good for you, Lorne!" John Murchison oftenest said nothing, but would glance significantly at his wife, frowning and pursing his lips when she, who had most spirit of them all, would exclaim, "You'll be Premier yet, Lorne!" It was no part of the Murchison policy to draw against future balances: they might believe everything, they would express nothing; and I doubt whether Lorne himself had any map of the country he meant to travel over in that vague future, already defining in local approbation, and law business coming freely in with a special eye on the junior partner. But the tract was there, subconscious, plain in the wider glance, the alerter manner; plain even in the grasp and stride which marked him in a crowd; plain, too, in the preoccupation with other issues, were it only turning over a leader in the morning's Dominion, that carried him along indifferent to the allurements I have described. The family had a bond of union in their respect for Lorne, and this absence of nugatory inclinations in him was among its elements. Even Stella who, being just fourteen, was the natural mouthpiece of family sentiment, would declare that Lorne had something better to do than go hanging about after girls, and for her part she thought all the more of him for it.
"I am requested to announce," said Dr Drummond after the singing of the last hymn, "the death, yesterday morning, of James Archibald Ramsay, for fifteen years an adherent and for twenty-five years a member of this church. The funeral will take place from the residence of the deceased, on Court House Street, tomorrow afternoon at four o'clock. Friends and acquaintances are respectfully—invited—to attend."
The minister's voice changed with the character of its affairs. Still vibrating with the delivery of his sermon, it was now charged with the official business of the interment. In its inflections it expressed both elegy and eulogy; and in the brief pause before and after "invited" and the fall of "attend" there was the last word of comment upon the mortal term. A crispation of interest passed over the congregation; every chin was raised. Dr Drummond's voice had a wonderful claiming power, but he often said he wished his congregation would pay as undivided attention to the sermon as they did to the announcements.
"The usual weekly prayer meeting will be held in the basement of the church on Wednesday evening." Then almost in a tone of colloquy, and with just a hint of satire about his long upper lip—
"I should be glad to see a better attendance of the young people at these gatherings. Time was when the prayer meeting counted among our young men and women as an occasion not to be lightly passed over. In these days it would seem that there is too much business to be done, or too much pleasure to be enjoyed, for the oncoming generation to remember their weekly engagement with the Lord. This is not as it should be; and I rely upon the fathers and mothers of this congregation, who brought these children in their arms to the baptismal font, there to be admitted to the good hopes and great privileges of the Church of God—I rely upon them to see that there shall be no departure from the good old rule, and that time is found for the weekly prayer meeting."
Mrs Murchison nudged Stella, who returned the attention, looking elaborately uninterested, with her foot. Alec and Oliver smiled consciously; their father, with an expression of severe gravity, backed up the minister who, after an instant's pause, continued—
"On Tuesday afternoon next, God willing, I shall visit the following families in the East Ward—Mr Peterson, Mr Macormack, Mrs Samuel Smith, and Mr John Flint. On Thursday afternoon in the South Ward, Mrs Reid, Mr P. C. Cameron, and Mr Murchison. We will close by singing the Third Doxology: Blessed, blessed be Jehovah, Israel's God to all eternity—"
The congregation trooped out; the Murchisons walked home in a clan, Mr and Mrs Murchison, with Stella skirting the edge of the sidewalk beside them, the two young men behind. Abby, when she married Harry, had "gone over" to the Church of England. The wife must worship with the husband; even Dr Drummond recognized the necessity, though he professed small opinion of the sway of the spouse who, with Presbyterian traditions behind her, could not achieve union the other way about; and Abby's sanctioned defection was a matter of rather shame-faced reference by her family. Advena and Lorne had fallen into the degenerate modern habit of preferring the evening service.
"So we're to have the Doctor on Thursday," said Mrs Murchison, plainly not displeased. "Well, I hope the dining-room carpet will be down."
"I expect he'll be wanting his tea," replied Mr Murchison. "He's got you in the right place on the list for that, Mother—as usual."
"I'd just like to see him go anywhere else for his tea the day he was coming to our house," declared Stella. "But he GENERALLY has too much sense."
"You boys," said Mrs Murchison, turning back to her sons, "will see that you're on hand that evening. And I hope the Doctor will rub it in about the prayer meeting." Mrs Murchison chuckled. "I saw it went home to both of you, and well it might. Yes, I think I may as well expect him to tea. He enjoys my scalloped oysters, if I do say it myself."
"We'll get Abby over," said Mr Murchison. "That'll please the Doctor."
"I must say," remarked Stella, "he seems to think a lot more of Abby now that she's Mrs Episcopal Johnson."
"Yes, Abby and Harry must come," said Mrs Murchison, "and I was thinking of inviting Mr and Mrs Horace Williams. We've been there till I'm ashamed to look them in the face. And I've pretty well decided," she added autocratically, "to have chicken salad. So if Dr Drummond has made up his mouth for scalloped oysters he'll be disappointed."
"Mother," announced Stella, "I'm perfectly certain you'll have both."
"I'll consider it," replied her mother. "Meanwhile we would be better employed in thinking of what we have been hearing. That's the third sermon from the Book of Job in six weeks. I must say, with the whole of the two Testaments to select from, I don't see why the Doctor should be so taken up with Job."
Stella was vindicated; Mrs Murchison did have both. The chicken salad gleamed at one end of the table and the scalloped oysters smoked delicious at the other. Lorne had charge of the cold tongue and Advena was entrusted with the pickled pears. The rest of the family were expected to think about the tea biscuits and the cake, for Lobelia had never yet had a successor that was any hand with company. Mrs Murchison had enough to do to pour out the tea. It was a table to do anybody credit, with its glossy damask and the old-fashioned silver and best china that Mrs Murchison had brought as a bride to her housekeeping—for, thank goodness, her mother had known what was what in such matters—a generous attractive table that you took some satisfaction in looking at. Mrs Murchison came of a family of noted housekeepers; where she got her charm I don't know. Six-o'clock tea, and that the last meal in the day, was the rule in Elgin, and a good enough rule for Mrs Murchison, who had no patience with the innovation of a late dinner recently adopted by some people who could keep neither their servants nor their digestions in consequence. It had been a crisp October day; as Mr Murchison remarked, the fall evenings were beginning to draw in early; everybody was glad of the fire in the grate and the closed curtains. Dr Drummond had come about five, and the inquiries and comments upon family matters that the occasion made incumbent had been briskly exchanged, with just the word that marked the pastoral visit and the practical interest that relieved it. And he had thought, on the whole, that he might manage to stay to tea, at which Mrs Murchison's eyes twinkled as she said affectionately—
"Now, Doctor, you know we could never let you off."
Then Abby had arrived and her husband, and finally Mr and Mrs Williams, just a trifle late for etiquette, but well knowing that it mustn't be enough to spoil the biscuits. Dr Drummond in the place of honour, had asked the blessing, and that brief reminder of the semiofficial character of the occasion having been delivered, was in the best of humours. The Murchisons were not far wrong in the happy divination that he liked coming to their house. Its atmosphere appealed to him; he expanded in its humour, its irregularity, its sense of temperament. They were doubtful allurements, from the point of view of a minister of the Gospel, but it would not occur to Dr Drummond to analyse them. So far as he was aware, John Murchison was just a decent, prosperous, Christian man, on whose word and will you might depend, and Mrs Murchison a stirring, independent little woman, who could be very good company when she felt inclined. As to their sons and daughters, in so far as they were a credit, he was as proud of them as their parents could possibly be, regarding himself as in a much higher degree responsible for the formation of their characters and the promise of their talents. And indeed, since every one of them had "sat under" Dr Drummond from the day he or she was capable of sitting under anybody, Mr and Mrs Murchison would have been the last to dispute this. It was not one of those houses where a pastor could always be sure of leaving some spiritual benefit behind; but then he came away himself with a pleasant sense of nervous stimulus which was apt to take his mind off the matter. It is not given to all of us to receive or to extend the communion of the saints; Mr and Mrs Murchison were indubitably of the elect, but he was singularly close-mouthed about it, and she had an extraordinary way of seeing the humorous side—altogether it was paralysing, and the conversation would wonderfully soon slip round to some robust secular subject, public or domestic. I have mentioned Dr Drummond's long upper lip; all sorts of racial virtues resided there, but his mouth was also wide and much frequented by a critical, humorous, philosophical smile which revealed a view of life at once kindly and trenchant. His shrewd grey eyes were encased in wrinkles, and when he laughed his hearty laugh they almost disappeared in a merry line. He had a fund of Scotch stories, and one or two he was very fond of, at the expense of the Methodists, that were known up and down the Dominion, and nobody enjoyed them more than he did himself. He had once worn his hair in a high curl on his scholarly forehead, and a silvering tuft remained brushed upright; he took the old-fashioned precaution of putting cotton wool in his ears, which gave him more than ever the look of something highly concentrated and conserved but in no way detracted from his dignity. St Andrew's folk accused him of vanity because of the diamond he wore on his little finger. He was by no means handsome, but he was intensely individual; perhaps he had vanity; his people would have forgiven him worse things. And at Mrs Murchison's tea party he was certainly, as John Murchison afterward said, "in fine feather."
An absorbing topic held them, a local topic, a topic involving loss and crime and reprisals. The Federal Bank had sustained a robbery of five thousand dollars, and in the course of a few days had placed their cashier under arrest for suspected complicity. Their cashier was Walter Ormiston, the only son of old Squire Ormiston, of Moneida Reservation, ten miles out of Elgin, who had administered the affairs of the Indians there for more years than the Federal Bank had existed. Mr Williams brought the latest news, as was to be expected; news flowed in rivulets to Mr Williams all day long; he paid for it, dealt in it, could spread or suppress it.
"They've admitted the bail," Mr Williams announced, with an air of self-surveillance. Rawlins had brought the intelligence in too late for the current issue, and Mr Williams was divided between his human desire to communicate and his journalistic sense that the item would be the main feature of the next afternoon's Express.
"I'm glad of that. I'm glad of that," repeated Dr Drummond. "Thank you, Mrs Murchison, I'll send my cup. And did you learn, Williams, for what amount?"
Mr Williams ran his hand through his hair in the effort to remember, and decided that he might as well let it all go. The Mercury couldn't fail to get it by tomorrow anyhow.
"Three thousand," he said. "Milburn and Dr Henry Johnson."
"I thought Father was bound to be in it," remarked Dr Harry.
"Half and half?" asked John Murchison.
"No," contributed Mrs Williams. "Mr Milburn two and Dr Henry one. Mr Milburn is Walter's uncle, you know."
Mr Williams fastened an outraged glance on his wife, who looked another way. Whatever he thought proper to do, it was absolutely understood that she was to reveal nothing of what "came in," and was even carefully to conserve anything she heard outside with a view to bringing it in. Mrs Williams was too prone to indiscretion in the matter of letting news slip prematurely; and as to its capture, her husband would often confess, with private humour, that Minnie wasn't much of a mouser.
"Well, that's something to be thankful for," said Mrs Murchison. "I lay awake for two hours last night thinking of that boy in jail, and his poor old father, seventy-nine years of age, and such a fine old man, so thoroughly respected."
"I don't know the young fellow," said Dr Drummond, "but they say he's of good character, not over-solid, but bears a clean reputation. They're all Tories together, of course, the Ormistons."
"It's an old U. E. Loyalist family," remarked Advena. "Mr Ormiston has one or two rather interesting Revolutionary trophies at his house out there."
"None the worse for that. None the worse for that," said Dr Drummond.
"Old Ormiston's father," contributed the editor of the Express, "had a Crown grant of the whole of Moneida Reservation at one time. Government actually bought it back from him to settle the Indians there. He was a well-known Family Compact man, and fought tooth and nail for the Clergy Reserves in 'fifty."
"Well, well," said Dr Drummond, with a twinkle. "We'll hope young Ormiston is innocent, nevertheless."
"Nasty business for the Federal Bank if he is," Mr Williams went on. "They're a pretty unpopular bunch as it is."
"Of course he's innocent," contributed Stella, with indignant eyes; "and when they prove it, what can he do to the bank for taking him up? That's what I want to know."
Her elders smiled indulgently. "A lot you know about it, kiddie," said Oliver. It was the only remark he made during the meal. Alec passed the butter assiduously, but said nothing at all. Adolescence was inarticulate in Elgin on occasions of ceremony.
"I hear they've piled up some big evidence," said Mr Williams. "Young Ormiston's been fool enough to do some race-betting lately. Minnie, I wish you'd get Mrs Murchison to show you how to pickle pears. Of course," he added, "they're keeping it up their sleeve."
"It's a hard place to keep evidence," said Lorne Murchison at last with a smile which seemed to throw light on the matter. They had all been waiting, more or less consciously, for what Lorne would have to say.
"Lorne, you've got it!" divined his mother instantly.
"Got what, Mother?"
"The case! I've suspected it from the minute the subject was mentioned! That case came in today!"
"And you sitting there like a bump on a log, and never telling us!" exclaimed Stella, with reproach.
"Stella, you have a great deal too much to say," replied her brother. "Suppose you try sitting like a bump on a log. We won't complain. Yes, the Squire seems to have made up his mind about the defence, and my seniors haven't done much else today."
"Rawlins saw him hitched up in front of your place for about two hours this morning," said Mr Williams. "I told him I thought that was good enough, but we didn't say anything, Rawlins having heard it was to be Flynn from Toronto. And I hadn't forgotten the Grand Trunk case we put down to you last week without exactly askin'. Your old man was as mad as a hornet—wanted to stop his subscription; Rawlins had no end of a time to get round him. Little things like that will creep in when you've got to trust to one man to run the whole local show. But I didn't want the Mercury to have another horse on us."
"Do you think you'll get a look in, Lorne?" asked Dr Harry.
"Oh, not a chance of it. The old man's as keen as a razor on the case, and you'd think Warner never had one before! If I get a bit of grubbing to do, under supervision, they'll consider I ought to be pleased." It was the sunniest possible tone of grumbling; it enlisted your sympathy by its very acknowledgement that it had not a leg to stand on.
"They're pretty wild about it out Moneida way," said Dr Harry. "My father says the township would put down the bail three times over."
"They swear by the Squire out there," said Mr Horace Williams, liberally applying his napkin to his moustache. "He treated some of them more than square when the fall wheat failed three years running, about ten years back; do you remember, Mr Murchison? Lent them money at about half the bank rate, and wasn't in an awful sweat about getting it in at that either."
"And wasn't there something about his rebuilding the school-house at his own expense not so long ago?" asked Dr Drummond.
"Just what he did. I wanted to send Rawlins out and make a story of it—we'd have given it a column, with full heads; but the old man didn't like it. It's hard to know what some people will like. But it was my own foolishness for asking. A thing like that is public property."
"There's a good deal of feeling," said Lorne. "So much that I understand the bank is moving for change of venue."
"I hope they won't get it," said Dr Drummond sharply. "A strong local feeling is valuable evidence in a case like this. I don't half approve this notion that a community can't manage its own justice when it happens to take an interest in the case. I've no more acquaintance with the Squire than 'How d'ye do?' and I don't know his son from Adam; but I'd serve on the jury tomorrow if the Crown asked it, and there's many more like me."
Mr Williams, who had made a brief note on his shirt cuff, restored his pencil to his waistcoat pocket. "I shall oppose a change of venue," said he.
It was confidently expected by the Murchison family that when Stella was old enough she would be a good deal in society. Stella, without doubt, was well equipped for society; she had exactly those qualities which appealed to it in Elgin, among which I will mention two—the quality of being able to suggest that she was quite as good as anybody without saying so, and the even more important quality of not being any better. Other things being equal—those common worldly standards that prevailed in Elgin as well as anywhere else in their degree—other things being equal, this second simple quality was perhaps the most important of all. Mr and Mrs Murchison made no claim and small attempt upon society. One doubts whether, with children coming fast and hard times long at the door, they gave the subject much consideration; but if they did, it is highly unlikely to have occurred to them that they were too good for their environment. Yet in a manner they were. It was a matter of quality, of spiritual and mental fabric; they were hardly aware that they had it, but it marked them with a difference, and a difference is the one thing a small community, accustomed comfortably to scan its own intelligible averages, will not tolerate. The unusual may take on an exaggeration of these; an excess of money, an excess of piety, is understood; but idiosyncrasy susceptible to no common translation is regarded with the hostility earned by the white crow, modified among law-abiding humans into tacit repudiation. It is a sound enough social principle to distrust that which is not understood, like the strain of temperament inarticulate but vaguely manifest in the Murchisons. Such a strain may any day produce an eccentric or a genius, emancipated from the common interests, possibly inimical to the general good; and when, later on, your genius takes flight or your eccentric sells all that he has and gives it to the poor, his fellow townsmen exchange shrewd nods before the vindicating fact.
Nobody knew it at all in Elgin, but this was the Murchisons' case. They had produced nothing abnormal, but they had to prove that they weren't going to, and Stella was the last and most convincing demonstration. Advena, bookish and unconventional, was regarded with dubiety. She was out of the type; she had queer satisfactions and enthusiasms. Once as a little girl she had taken a papoose from a drunken squaw and brought it home for her mother to adopt. Mrs Murchison's reception of the suggested duty may be imagined, also the comments of acquaintances—a trick like that! The inevitable hour arrived when she should be instructed on the piano, and the second time the music teacher came her pupil was discovered on the roof of the house, with the ladder drawn up after her. She did not wish to learn the piano, and from that point of vantage informed her family that it was a waste of money. She would hide in the hayloft with a novel; she would be off by herself in a canoe at six o'clock in the morning; she would go for walks in the rain of windy October twilights and be met kicking the wet leaves along in front of her "in a dream." No one could dream with impunity in Elgin, except in bed. Mothers of daughters sympathized in good set terms with Mrs Murchison. "If that girl were mine—" they would say, and leave you with a stimulated notion of the value of corporal punishment. When she took to passing examinations and teaching, Elgin considered that her parents ought to be thankful in the probability that she had escaped some dramatic end. But her occupation further removed her from intercourse with the town's more exclusive circles: she had taken a definite line, and she pursued it, preoccupied. If she was a brand snatched from the burning, she sent up a little curl of reflection in a safe place, where she was not further interrupted.
Abby, inheriting all these prejudices, had nevertheless not done so badly; she had taken no time at all to establish herself; she had almost immediately married. In the social estimates of Elgin the Johnsons were "nice people," Dr Henry was a fine old figure in the town, and Abby's chances were good enough. At all events, when she opened her doors as a bride, receiving for three afternoons in her wedding dress, everybody had "called." It was very distinctly understood, of course, that this was a civility that need not lead to anything whatever, a kind of bowing recognition, to be formally returned and quite possibly to end there. With Abby, in a good many cases, it hadn't ended there; she was doing very well, and as she often said with private satisfaction, if she went out anywhere she was just as likely as not to meet her brothers. Elgin society, shaping itself, I suppose, to ultimate increase and prosperity, had this peculiarity, that the females of a family, in general acceptance, were apt to lag far behind the males. Alec and Oliver enjoyed a good deal of popularity, and it was Stella's boast that if Lorne didn't go out much it needn't be supposed he wasn't asked. It was an accepted state of things in Elgin that young men might be invited without their sisters, implying an imperturbability greater than London's, since London may not be aware of the existence of sisters, while Elgin knew all sorts of more interesting things about them. The young men were more desirable than the young women; they forged ahead, carrying the family fortunes, and the "nicest" of them were the young men in the banks. Others might be more substantial, but there was an allure about a young man in a bank as difficult to define as to resist. To say of a certain party-giver that she had "about every bank clerk in town" was to announce the success of her entertainment in ultimate terms. These things are not always penetrable, but no doubt his gentlemanly form of labour and its abridgement in the afternoons, when other young men toiled on till the stroke of six, had something to do with this apotheosis of the bank clerk, as well as his invariable taste in tailoring, and the fact that some local family influence was probably represented in his appointment. Privilege has always its last little stronghold, and it still operates to admiration on the office stools of minor finance in towns like Elgin. At all events, the sprouting tellers and cashiers held unquestioned sway—young doctors and lawyers simply didn't think of competing; and since this sort of thing carries its own penalty, the designation which they shared with so many distinguished persons in history became a byword on the lips of envious persons and small boys, by which they wished to express effeminacy and the substantive of the "stuck-up." "D'ye take me fur a bank clurk?" was a form of repudiation among corner loafers as forcible as it was unjustifiable.
I seem to have embarked, by way of getting to the Milburns' party—there is a party at the Milburns' and some of us are going—upon an analysis of social principles in Elgin, an adventure of difficulty, as I have once or twice hinted, but one from which I cannot well extricate myself without at least leaving a clue or two more for the use of the curious. No doubt these rules had their nucleus in the half-dozen families, among whom we may count the shadowy Plummers, who took upon themselves for Fox County, by the King's pleasure, the administration of justice, the practice of medicine and of the law, and the performance of the charges of the Church of England a long time ago. Such persons would bring their lines of demarcation with them, and in their new milieu of backwoods settlers and small traders would find no difficulty in drawing them again. But it was a very long time ago. The little knot of gentry-folk soon found the limitations of their new conditions; years went by in decades, aggrandizing none of them. They took, perforce, to the ways of the country, and soon nobody kept a groom but the Doctor, and nobody dined late but the Judge. There came a time when the Sheriff's whist club and the Archdeacon's port became a tradition to the oldest inhabitant. Trade flourished, education improved, politics changed. Her Majesty removed her troops—the Dominion wouldn't pay, a poor-spirited business—and a bulwark went with the regiment. The original dignified group broke, dissolved, scattered. Prosperous traders foreclosed them, the spirit of the times defeated them, young Liberals succeeded them in office. Their grandsons married the daughters of well-to-do persons who came from the north of Ireland, the east of Scotland, and the Lord knows where. It was a sorry tale of disintegration with a cheerful sequel of rebuilding, leading to a little unavoidable confusion as the edifice went up. Any process of blending implies confusion to begin with; we are here at the making of a nation.
This large consideration must dispose of small anomalies, such as the acceptance, without cant, of certain forms of the shop, euphemized as the store, but containing the same old vertebral counter. Not all forms. Dry-goods were held in respect and chemists in comparative esteem; house furnishings and hardware made an appreciable claim, and quite a leading family was occupied with seed grains. Groceries, on the other hand, were harder to swallow, possibly on account of the apron, though the grocer's apron, being of linen, had several degrees more consideration than the shoemaker's, which was of leather; smaller trades made smaller pretensions; Mrs Milburn could tell you where to draw the line. They were all hard-working folk together, but they had their little prejudices: the dentist was known as "Doc," but he was not considered quite on a medical level; it was doubtful whether you bowed to the piano-tuner, and quite a curious and unreasonable contempt was bound up in the word "veterinary." Anything "wholesale" or manufacturing stood, of course, on its own feet; there was nothing ridiculous in molasses, nothing objectionable in a tannery, nothing amusing in soap. Such airs and graces were far from Elgin, too fundamentally occupied with the amount of capital invested, and too profoundly aware how hard it was to come by. The valuable part of it all was a certain bright freedom, and this was of the essence. Trade was a decent communal way of making a living, rooted in independence and the general need; it had none of the meaner aspects. Your bow was negligible to the piano-tuner, and everything veterinary held up its head. And all this again qualified, as everywhere, by the presence or absence of the social faculty, that magnetic capacity for coming, as Mrs Murchison would say, "to the fore," which makes little of disadvantages that might seem insuperable and, in default, renders null and void the most unquestionable claims. Anyone would think of the Delarues. Mr Delarue had in the dim past married his milliner, yet the Delarues were now very much indeed to the fore. And, on the other hand, the Leverets of the saw mills, rich and benevolent; the Leverets were not in society simply, if you analysed it, because they did not appear to expect to be in it. Certainly it was well not to be too modest; assuredly, as Mrs Murchison said, you put your own ticket on, though that dear soul never marked herself in very plain figures, not knowing, perhaps for one thing, quite how much she was worth. On the other hand, "Scarce of company, welcome trumpery," Mrs Murchison always emphatically declared to be no part of her social philosophy. The upshot was that the Murchisons were confined to a few old friends and looked, as we know, half-humorously, half-ironically, for more brilliant excursions, to Stella and "the boys."
It was only, however, the pleasure of Mr Lorne Murchison's company that was requested at the Milburns' dance. Almost alone among those who had slipped into wider and more promiscuous circles with the widening of the stream, the Milburns had made something like an effort to hold out. The resisting power was not thought to reside in Mr Milburn, who was personally aware of no special ground for it, but in Mrs Milburn and her sister, Miss Filkin, who seemed to have inherited the strongest ideas. in the phrase of the place, about keeping themselves to themselves. A strain of this kind is sometimes constant, even so far from the fountainhead, with its pleasing proof that such views were once the most general and the most sacred defence of middle-class firesides, and that Thackeray had, after all, a good deal to excuse him. Crossing the Atlantic they doubtless suffered some dilution; but all that was possible to conserve them under very adverse conditions Mrs Milburn and Miss Filkin made it their duty to do. Nor were these ideas opposed, contested, or much traversed in Elgin. It was recognized that there was "something about" Mrs Milburn and her sister—vaguely felt—that you did not come upon that thinness of nostril, and slope of shoulder, and set of elbow at every corner. They must have got it somewhere. A Filkin tradition prevailed, said to have originated in Nova Scotia: the Filkins never had been accessible, but if they wanted to keep to themselves, let them. In this respect Dora Milburn, the only child, was said to be her mother's own daughter. The shoulders, at all events, testified to it; and the young lady had been taught to speak, like Mrs Milburn, with what was known as an "English accent." The accent in general use in Elgin was borrowed—let us hope temporarily—from the other side of the line. It suffered local modifications and exaggerations, but it was clearly an American product. The English accent was thoroughly affected, especially the broad "a." The time may come when Elgin will be at considerable pains to teach itself the broad "a," but that is in the embroidery of the future, and in no way modifies the criticism of Dora Milburn.
Lorne Murchison, however, was invited to the dance. The invitation reached him through the post: coming home from office early on Saturday he produced it from his pocket. Mrs Murchison and Abby sat on the verandah enjoying the Indian summer afternoon; the horse chestnuts dropped crashing among the fallen leaves, the roadside maples blazed, the quiet streets ran into smoky purple, and one belated robin hopped about the lawn. Mrs Murchison had just remarked that she didn't know why, at this time of year, you always felt as if you were waiting for something.