By Ralph Connor
I THE COWARD
II A FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
III THE ESCUTCHEON CLEARED
V WESTWARD HO!
VI JANE BROWN
VII THE GIRL OF THE WOOD LOT
VIII YOU FORGOT ME
IX EXCEPT HE STRIVE LAWFULLY
X THE SPIRIT OF CANADA
XI THE SHADOW OF WAR
XII MEN AND A MINE
XIII A DAY IN SEPTEMBER
XIV AN EXTRAORDINARY NURSE
XV THE COMING OF JANE
XVI HOSPITALITY WITHOUT GRUDGING
XVII THE TRAGEDIES OF LOVE
XVIII THE VOICE IN THE WILDERNESS
XIX THE CLOSING OF THE DOOR
XX THE GERMAN TYPE OF CITIZENSHIP
XXII THE TUCK OF DRUM
XXIII A NEUTRAL NATION
XXIV THE MAJOR AND THE MAJOR'S WIFE
Spring had come. Despite the many wet and gusty days which April had thrust in rude challenge upon reluctant May, in the glory of the triumphant sun which flooded the concave blue of heaven and the myriad shaded green of earth, the whole world knew to-day, the whole world proclaimed that spring had come. The yearly miracle had been performed. The leaves of the maple trees lining the village street unbound from their winter casings, the violets that lifted brave blue eyes from the vivid grass carpeting the roadside banks, the cherry and plum blossoms in the orchards decking the still leafless trees with their pink and white favours, the timid grain tingeing with green the brown fields that ran up to the village street on every side—all shouted in chorus that spring had come. And all the things with new blood running wild in their veins, the lambs of a few days still wobbly on ridiculous legs skipping over and upon the huge boulders in farmer Martin's meadow, the birds thronging the orchard trees, the humming insects rioting in the genial sun, all of them gave token of strange new impulses calling for something more than mere living because spring had come.
Upon the topmost tip of the taller of the twin poplars that flanked the picket gate opening upon the Gwynnes' little garden sat a robin, his head thrown back to give full throat to the song that was like to burst his heart, monotonous, unceasing, rapturous. On the door step of the Gwynnes' house, arrested on the threshold by the robin's song, stood the Gwynne boy of ten years, his eager face uplifted, himself poised like a bird for flight.
"Law-r-ence," clear as a bird call came the voice from within.
"Mo-th-er," rang the boy's voice in reply, high, joyous and shrill.
"Ri-ght a-way af-ter school. Good-bye, mo-ther, dear," called the boy.
"W-a-i-t," came the clear, birdlike call again, and in a moment the mother came running, stood beside the boy, and followed his eye to the robin on the poplar tree. "A brave little bird," she said. "That is the way to meet the day, with a brave heart and a bright song. Goodbye, boy." She kissed him as she spoke, giving him a slight pat on the shoulder. "Away you go."
But the boy stood fascinated by the bird so gallantly facing his day. His mother's words awoke in him a strange feeling. "A brave heart and a bright song"—so the knights in the brave days of old, according to his Stories of the Round Table, were wont to go forth. In imitation of the bird, the boy threw back his head, and with another cheery good-bye to his mother, sprang clear of the steps and ran down the grass edged path, through the gate and out onto the village street. There he stood first looking up the country road which in the village became a street. There was nothing to be seen except that in the Martin orchard "Ol' Martin" was working with his team under the trees which came in rows down to the road. Finding nothing to interest him there, he turned toward the village and his eyes searched the street. Opposite the Gwynnes' gate, Dr. Bush's house stood back among the trees, but there was no sign of life about it. Further down on the same side of the street, the Widow Martin's cottage, with porch vine covered and windows bright with flowers, hid itself under a great spreading maple. In front of the cottage the Widow Martin herself was busy in the garden. He liked the Widow Martin but found her not sufficiently exciting to hold him this spring morning. A vacant lot or two and still on the same side came the blacksmith's shop just at the crossroads, and across the street from it his father's store. But neither at the blacksmith's shop nor at the store across from it was there anything to awaken even a passing interest. Some farmers' teams and dogs, Pat Larkin's milk wagon with its load of great cans on its way to the cheese factory and some stray villagers here and there upon the street intent upon their business. Up the street his eye travelled beyond the crossroads where stood on the left Cheatley's butcher shop and on the right McKenny's hotel with attached sheds and outhouses. Over the bridge and up the hill the street went straight away, past the stone built Episcopal Church whose spire lifted itself above the maple trees, past the Rectory, solid, square and built of stone, past the mill standing on the right back from the street beside the dam, over the hill, and so disappeared. The whole village seemed asleep and dreaming among its maple trees in the bright sunlight.
Throwing another glance at the robin still singing on the treetop overhead, the boy took from his pocket a mouth-organ, threw back his head, squared his elbows out from his sides to give him the lung room he needed, and in obedience to a sharp word of command after a preliminary tum, tum, tum, struck up the ancient triumph hymn in memory of that hero of the underground railroad by which so many slaves of the South in bygone days made their escape "up No'th" to Canada and to freedom.
"Glory, glory, hallelujah, his soul goes marching on." By means of "double-tongueing," a recently acquired accomplishment, he was able to give a full brass band effect to his hymn of freedom. Many villagers from door or window cast a kindly and admiring eye upon the gallant little figure stepping to his own music down the street. He was brass band, conductor, brigadier general all in one, and behind him marched an army of heroes off for war and deathless glory, invisible and invincible. To the Widow Martin as he swung past the leader flung a wave of his hand. With a tender light in her old eyes the Widow Martin waved back at him. "God bless his bright face," she murmured, pausing in her work to watch the upright little figure as he passed along. At the blacksmith's shop the band paused.
Tink, tink, tink, tink, Tink, tink-a-tink-tink-tink. Tink tink, tink, tink, Tink, tink-a-tink-tink-tink.
The conductor graduated the tempo so as to include the rhythmic beat of the hammer with the other instruments in his band. The blacksmith looked, smiled and let his hammer fall in consonance with the beat of the boy's hand, and for some moments there was glorious harmony between anvil and mouth organ and the band invisible. At the store door across the street the band paused long enough simply to give and receive an answering salute from the storekeeper, who smiled upon his boy as he marched past. At the crossroads the band paused, marking time. There was evidently a momentary uncertainty in the leader's mind as to direction. The road to the right led straight, direct, but treeless, dusty, uninviting, to the school. It held no lure for the leader and his knightly following. Further on a path led in a curve under shady trees and away from the street. It made the way to school longer, but the lure of the curving, shady path was irresistible. Still stepping bravely to the old abolitionist hymn, the procession moved along, swung into the path under the trees and suddenly came to a halt. With a magnificent flourish the band concluded its triumphant hymn and with the conductor and brigadier the whole brigade stood rigidly at attention. The cause of this sudden halt was to be seen at the foot of a maple tree in the person of a fat lump of good natured boy flesh supine upon the ground.
"Hello, Joe; coming to school?"
"Ugh," grunted Joe, from the repose of limitless calm.
"Come on, then, quick, march." Once more the band struck up its hymn.
"Hol' on, Larry, it's plenty tam again," said Joe. The band came to a stop. "I don' lak dat school me," he continued, still immersed in calm.
Joe's struggles with an English education were indeed tragically pathetic. His attempts with aspirates were a continual humiliation to himself and a joy to the whole school. No wonder he "no lak dat school." Besides, Joe was a creature of the open fields. His French Canadian father, Joe Gagneau, "Ol' Joe," was a survival of a bygone age, the glorious golden age of the river and the bush, of the shanty and the raft, of the axe and the gun, the age of Canadian romance, of daring deed, of wild adventure.
"An' it ees half-hour too queek," persisted Joe. "Come on hup to de dam." A little worn path invited their feet from the curving road, and following their feet, they found themselves upon a steep embankment which dammed the waters into a pond that formed the driving power for the grist mill standing near. At the farther end of the pond a cedar bush interposed a barrier to the sight and suggested mysterious things beyond. Back of the cedar barrier a woods of great trees, spruce, balsam, with tall elms and maples on the higher ground beyond, offered deeper mysteries and delights unutterable. They knew well the cedar swamp and the woods beyond. Partridges drummed there, rabbits darted along their beaten runways, and Joe had seen a woodcock, that shyest of all shy birds, disappear in glancing, shadowy flight, a ghostly, silent denizen of the ghostly, silent spaces of the forest. Even as they gazed upon that inviting line of woods, the boys could see and hear the bluejays flash in swift flight from tree to tree and scream their joy of rage and love. From the farther side of the pond two boys put out in a flat-bottomed boat.
"There's big Ben and Mop," cried Larry eagerly. "Hello, Ben," he called across the pond. "Goin' to school?"
"Yap," cried Mop, so denominated from the quantity and cut of the hair that crowned his head. Ben was at the oars which creaked and thumped between the pins, but were steadily driving the snub-nosed craft on its toilsome way past the boys.
"Hello, Ben," cried Larry. "Take us in too."
"All right," said Ben, heading the boat for the bank. "Let me take an oar, Ben," said Larry, whose experience upon the world of waters was not any too wide.
"Here, where you goin'," cried Mop, as the boat slowly but surely pointed toward the cedars. "You stop pulling, Ben. Now, Larry, pull around again. There now, she's right. Pull, Ben." But Ben sat rigid with his eyes intent upon the cedars.
"What's the matter, Ben?" said Larry. Still Ben sat with fixed gaze.
"By gum, he's in, boys," said Ben in a low voice. "I thought he had his nest in one of them stubs."
"What is it—in what stub?" inquired Larry, his voice shrill with excitement.
"That big middle stub, there," said Ben. "It's a woodpecker. Say, let's pull down and see it." Under Mop's direction the old scow gradually made its way toward the big stub.
They explored the stub, finding in it a hole and in the hole a nest, the mother and father woodpeckers meanwhile flying in wild agitation from stub to stub and protesting with shrill cries against the intruders. Then they each must climb up and feel the eggs lying soft and snug in their comfy cavity. After that they all must discuss the probable time of hatching, the likelihood of there being other nests in other stubs which they proceeded to visit. So the eager moments gaily passed into minutes all unheeded, till inevitable recollection dragged them back from the world of adventure and romance to that of stern duty and dull toil.
"Say, boys, we'll be late," cried Larry, in sudden panic, seizing his oar. "Come on, Ben, let's go."
"I guess it's pretty late now," replied Ben, slowly taking up his oar.
"Dat bell, I hear him long tam," said Joe placidly. "Oh, Joe!" cried Larry in distress. "Why didn't you tell us?"
Joe shrugged his shoulders. He was his own master and superbly indifferent to the flight of time. With him attendance at school was a thing of more or less incidental obligation.
"We'll catch it all right," said Mop with dark foreboding. "He was awful mad last time and said he'd lick any one who came late again and keep him in for noon too."
The prospect was sufficiently gloomy.
"Aw, let's hurry up anyway," cried Larry, who during his school career had achieved a perfect record for prompt and punctual attendance.
In ever deepening dejection the discussion proceeded until at length Mop came forward with a daring suggestion.
"Say, boys, let's wait until noon. He won't notice anything. We can easily fool him."
This brought no comfort to Larry, however, whose previous virtues would only render this lapse the more conspicuous. A suggestion of Joe's turned the scale.
"Dat woodchuck," he said, "he's got one hole on de hill by dere. He's big feller. We dron heem out."
"Come on, let's," cried Mop. "It will be awful fun to drown the beggar out."
"Guess we can't do much this morning, anyway," said Ben, philosophically making the best of a bad job. "Let's go, Larry." And much against his will, but seeing no way out of the dilemma, Larry agreed.
They explored the woodchuck hole, failing to drown out that cunning subterranean architect who apparently had provided lines of retreat for just such emergencies as confronted him now. Wearied of the woodchuck, they ranged the bush seeking and finding the nests of bluejays and of woodpeckers, and in a gravel pit those of the sand martens. Joe led them to the haunts of the woodcock, but that shy bird they failed to glimpse. Long before the noon hour they felt the need of sustenance and found that Larry's lunch divided among the four went but a small way in satisfying their pangs of hunger. The other three, carefree and unconcerned for what the future might hold, roamed the woods during the afternoon, but to Larry what in other circumstances would have been a day of unalloyed joy, brought him only a present misery and a dread for the future. The question of school for the afternoon was only mentioned to be dismissed. They were too dirty and muddy to venture into the presence of the master. Consequently the obvious course was to wait until four o'clock when joining the other children they might slip home unnoticed.
The afternoon soon began to lag. The woods had lost their first glamour. Their games grew to be burdensome. They were weary and hungry, and becoming correspondingly brittle in temper. Already Nemesis was on their trail. Sick at heart and weighted with forebodings, Larry listened to the plans of the other boys by which they expected to elude the consequences of their truancy. In the discussion of their plans Larry took no part. They offered him no hope. He knew that if he were prepared to lie, as they had cheerfully decided, his simple word would carry him through at home. But there the difficulty arose. Was he willing to lie? He had never lied to his mother in all his life. He visualised her face as she listened to him recounting his falsified tale of the day's doings and unconsciously he groaned aloud.
"What's the matter with you, Larry?" inquired Mop, noticing his pale face.
"Oh, nothing; it's getting a little cold, I guess."
"Cold!" laughed Mop. "I guess you're getting scared all right."
To this Larry made no reply. He was too miserable, too tired to explain his state of mind. He was doubtful whether he could explain to Mop or to Joe his unwillingness to lie to his mother.
"It don't take much to scare you anyway," said Mop with an ugly grin.
The situation was not without its anxieties to Mop, for while he felt fairly confident as to his ability to meet successfully his mother's cross examination, there was always a possibility of his father's taking a hand, and that filled him with a real dismay. For Mr. Sam Cheatley, the village butcher, was a man of violent temper, hasty in his judgments and merciless in his punishment. There was a possibility of unhappy consequences for Mop in spite of his practiced ability in deception. Hence his nerves were set a-jangling, and his temper, never very certain, was rather on edge. The pale face of the little boy annoyed him, and the little whimsical smile which never quite left his face confronted him like an insult.
"You're scared," reiterated Mop with increasing contempt, "and you know you're scared. You ain't got any spunk anyway. You ain't got the spunk of a louse." With a quick grip he caught the boy by the collar (he was almost twice Larry's size), and with a jerk landed him on his back in a brush heap. The fall brought Larry no physical hurt, but the laughter of Joe and especially of big Ben, who in his eyes was something of a hero, wounded and humiliated him. The little smile, however, did not leave his face and he picked himself up and settled his coat about his collar.
"You ain't no good anyway," continued Mop, with the native instinct of the bully to worry his victim. "You can't play nothin' and you can't lick nobody in the whole school."
Both of these charges Larry felt were true. He was not fond of games and never had he experienced a desire to win fame as a fighter.
"Aw, let him alone, can't you, Mop?" said big Ben. "He ain't hurtin' you none."
"Hurtin' me," cried Mop, who for some unaccountable reason had worked himself into a rage. "He couldn't hurt me if he tried. I could lick him on my knees with one hand behind my back. I believe Joe there could lick him with one hand tied behind his back."
"I bet he can't," said Ben, measuring Larry with his eye and desiring to defend him from this degrading accusation. "I bet he'd put up a pretty fine scrap," continued Ben, "if he had to." Larry's heart warmed to his champion.
"Yes, if he had to," replied Mop with a sneer. "But he would never have to. He wouldn't fight a flea. Joe can lick him with one hand, can't you, Joe?"
"I donno. I don' want fight me," said Joe.
"No, I know you don't want to, but you could, couldn't you?" persisted Mop. Joe shrugged his shoulders. "Ha, I told you so. Hurrah for my man," cried Mop, clapping Joe on the back and pushing him toward Larry.
Ben began to scent sport. He was also conscious of a rising resentment against Mop's exultant tone and manner.
"I bet you," he said, "if Larry wanted to, he could lick Joe even if he had both hands, but if Joe's one hand is tied behind his back, why Larry would just whale the tar out of him. But Larry does not want to fight."
"No," jeered Mop, "you bet he don't, he ain't got it in him. I bet you he daren't knock a chip off Joe's shoulder, and I will tie Joe's hand behind his back with his belt. Now there he is, bring your man on. There's a chip on his shoulder too."
Larry looked at Joe, the little smile still on his face. "I don't want to fight Joe. What would I fight Joe for?" he said.
"I told you so," cried Mop, dancing about. "He ain't got no fight in him.
Take a dare, Take a dare, Chase a cat, And hunt a hare."
Ben looked critically at Larry as if appraising the quality of his soul. "Joe can't lick you with one hand tied behind his back, can he, Larry?"
"I don't want to fight Joe," persisted Larry still smiling.
"Ya, ya," persisted Mop. "Here, Joe, you knock this chip off Larry's shoulder." Mop placed the gauge of battle on Larry's shoulder. "Go ahead, Joe."
To Joe a fight with a friend or a foe was an event of common occurrence. With even a more dangerous opponent than Larry he would not have hesitated. For to decline a fight was with Joe utterly despicable. So placing himself in readiness for the blow that should have been the inevitable consequence, he knocked the chip off Larry's shoulder. Still Larry smiled at him.
"Aw, your man's no good. He won't fight," cried Mop with unspeakable disgust. "I told you he wouldn't fight. Do you know why he won't fight? His mother belongs to that people, them Quakers, that won't fight for anything. He's a coward an' his mother's a coward before him."
The smile faded from Larry's lips. His face which had been pale flamed a quick red, then as quickly became dead white. He turned from Joe and looked at the boy who was tormenting him. Mop was at least four years older, strongly and heavily built. For a moment Larry stood as though estimating Mop's fighting qualities. Then apparently making up his mind that on ordinary terms, owing to his lack in size and in strength, he was quite unequal to his foe, he looked quickly about him and his eye fell upon a stout and serviceable beechwood stake. With quiet deliberation he seized the club and began walking slowly toward Mop, his eyes glittering as if with madness, his face white as that of the dead. So terrifying was his appearance that Mop began to back away. "Here you, look out," he cried, "I will smash you." But Larry still moved steadily upon him. His white face, his burning eyes, his steady advance was more than Mop could endure. His courage broke. He turned and incontinently fled. Whirling the stick over his head, Larry flung the club with all his might after him. The club caught the fleeing Mop fairly between the shoulders. At the same time his foot caught a root. Down he went upon his face, uttering cries of deadly terror.
"Keep him off, keep him off. He will kill me, he will kill me."
But Larry having shot his bolt ignored his fallen enemy, and without a glance at him, or at either of the other boys, or without a word to any of them, he walked away through the wood, and deaf to their calling disappeared through the cedar swamp and made straight for home and to his mother. With even, passionless voice, with almost no sign of penitence, he told her the story of the day's truancy.
As her discriminating eye was quick in discerning his penitence, so her forgiveness was quick in meeting his sin. But though her forgiveness brought the boy a certain measure of relief he seemed almost to take it for granted, and there still remained on his face a look of pain and of more than pain that puzzled his mother. He seemed to be in a maze of uncertainty and doubt and fear. His mother could not understand his distress, for Larry had told her nothing of his encounter with Mop. Throughout the evening there pounded through the boy's memory the terrible words, "He is a coward and his mother is a coward before him." Through his father's prayer at evening worship those words continued to beat upon his brain. He tried to prepare his school lessons for the day following, but upon the page before his eyes the same words took shape. He could not analyse his unutterable sense of shame. He had been afraid to fight. He knew he was a coward, but there was a deeper shame in which his mother was involved. She was a Quaker, he knew, and he had a more or less vague idea that Quakers would not fight. Was she then a coward? That any reflection should be made upon his mother stabbed him to the heart. Again and again Mop's sneering, grinning face appeared before his eyes. He felt that he could have gladly killed him in the woods, but after all, the paralysing thought ever recurred that what Mop said was true. His mother was a coward! He put his head down upon his books and groaned aloud.
"What is it, dear?" inquired his mother.
"I am going to bed, mother," he said.
"Is your head bad?" she asked.
"No, no, mother. It is nothing. I am tired," he said, and went upstairs.
Before she went to sleep the mother, as was her custom, looked in upon him. The boy was lying upon his face with his arms flung over his head, and when she turned him over to an easier position, on the pillow and on his cheeks were the marks of tears. Gently she pushed back the thick, black, wavy locks from his forehead, and kissed him once and again. The boy turned his face toward her. A long sobbing sigh came from his parted lips. He opened his eyes.
"That you, mother?" he asked, the old whimsical smile at his lips. "Good-night."
He settled down into the clothes and in a moment was fast asleep. The mother stood looking down upon her boy. He had not told her his trouble, but her touch had brought him comfort, and for the rest she was content to wait.
A FIGHT FOR FREEDOM
The village schoolhouse was packed to the door. Over the crowded forms there fell a murky light from the smoky swinging lamp that left dark unexplored depths in the corners of the room. On the walls hung dilapidated maps at angles suggesting the interior of a ship's cabin during a storm, or a party of revellers, returning homeward, after the night before, gravely hilarious. Behind the platform a blackboard, cracked into irregular spaces, preserved the mental processes of the pupils during their working hours, and in sharp contrast to these the terribly depressing perfection of the teacher's exemplar in penmanship, which reminded the self-complacent slacker that "Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom."
It was an evangelistic meeting. Behind the table, his face illumined by the lamp thereon, stood a man turning over the leaves of a hymn book. His aspect suggested a soul, gentle, mild and somewhat abstracted from its material environment. The lofty forehead gave promise of an idealism capable of high courage, indeed of sacrifice—a promise, however, belied somewhat by an irresolute chin partly hidden by a straggling beard. But the face was sincere and tenderly human. At his side upon the platform sat his wife behind a little portable organ, her face equally gentle, sincere and irresolute.
The assembly—with the extraordinary patience that characterises public assemblies—waited for the opening of the meeting, following with attentive eyes the vague and trifling movements of the man at the table. Occasionally there was a rumble of deep voices in conversation, and in the dark corners subdued laughter—while on the front benches the animated and giggling whispering of three little girls tended to relieve the hour from an almost superhuman gravity.
At length with a sudden acquisition of resolution the evangelist glanced at his watch, rose, and catching up a bundle of hymn books from the table thrust them with unnecessary energy into the hands of a boy who sat on the side bench beside his mother. The boy was Lawrence Gwynne.
"Take these," said the man, "and distribute them, please."
Lawrence taken thus by surprise paled, then flushed a quick red. He glanced up at his mother and at her slight nod took the books and distributed them among the audience on one side of the room while the evangelist took the other. As the lad passed from bench to bench with his books he was greeted with jocular and slightly jeering remarks in undertone by the younger members of the company, which had the effect of obviously increasing the ineptitude of his thin nervous fingers, but could not quite dispel the whimsical smile that lingered about the corners of his mouth and glanced from the corners of his grey-blue eyes.
The meeting opened with the singing of a popular hymn which carried a refrain catchy enough but running to doggerel. Another hymn followed and another. Then abruptly the evangelist announced,
"Now we shall have a truly GREAT hymn, a hymn you must sing in a truly great way, in what we call the grand style, number three hundred and sixty-seven."
Then in a voice, deep, thrilling, vibrant with a noble emotion, he read the words:
"When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of Glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride."
They sang the verse, and when they had finished he stood looking at them in silence for a moment or two, then announced solemnly:
"Friends, that will not do for this hymn. Sing it with your hearts. Listen to me."
Then he sang a verse in a deep, strong baritone.
Timidly they obeyed him.
"No, no, not at all," he shouted at them. "Listen."
Again with exquisitely distinct articulation and in a tone rich in emotion and carrying in it the noble, penetrating pathos of the great words in which is embodied the passion of that heart subduing world tragedy. He would not let them try it again, but alone sang the hymn to the end. By the spell of his voice he had gripped them by the heart. The giggling girls in the front seat sat gazing at him with open mouths and lifted eyes. From every corner of the room faces once dull were filled with a great expectant look.
"You will never sing those words as you should," he cried, "until you know and feel the glory of that wondrous cross. Never, never, never." His voice rose in a passionate crescendo.
After he had finished singing the last great verse, he let his eyes wander over the benches until they rested upon the face of the lad on the side bench near him.
"Aha, boy," he cried. "You can sing those words. Try that last verse."
The boy stared, fascinated, at him.
"Sing the last verse, boy," commanded the evangelist, "sing."
As if impelled by another will than his own, the boy slowly, with his eyes still fastened on the man's face, threw back his head and began to sing. His voice rose, full, strong, in a quaint imitation in method of articulation and in voice production of the evangelist himself. At the third line of the verse the evangelist joined in great massive tones, beating time vigorously in a rallentando.
"Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all."
The effect was a great emotional climax, the spiritual atmosphere was charged with fervour. The people sat rigid, fixed in their places, incapable of motion, until released by the invitation of the leader, "Let us pray." The boy seemed to wake as from a sleep, glanced at his mother, then at the faces of the people in the room, sat down, and quickly covered his face with his hands and so remained during the prayer.
The dramatic effect of the singing was gradually dispelled in the prayer and in a Scripture reading which followed. By the time the leader was about to begin his address, the people had almost relapsed into their normal mental and spiritual condition of benevolent neutrality. A second time a text was announced, when abruptly the door opened and up the aisle, with portentous impressiveness as of a stately ocean liner coming to berth, a man advanced whose presence seemed to fill the room and give it the feeling of being unpleasantly crowded. A buzz went through the seats. "The Rector! The Rector!" The evangelist gazed upon the approaching form and stood as if incapable of proceeding until this impressive personage should come to rest. Deliberately the Rector advanced to the side bench upon which Larry and his mother were seated, and slowly swinging into position calmly viewed the man upon the platform, the woman at the organ, the audience filling the room and then definitely came to anchor upon the bench.
The preacher waited until this manoeuvre had been successfully accomplished, coughed nervously, made as if to move in the direction of the important personage on the side bench, hesitated, and finally with an air of embarrassment once more announced his text. At once the Rector was upon his feet.
"Will you pardon me, sir," he began with elaborate politeness. "Do I understand you're a clergyman?"
"Oh, no, sir," replied the evangelist, "just a plain preacher."
"You are not in any Holy Orders then?"
"Oh, no, sir."
"Are you an ordained or accredited minister of any of the—ah—dissenting bodies?"
"Not exactly, sir."
"Then, sir," demanded the Rector, "may I ask by what authority you presume to exercise the functions of the holy ministry and in my parish?"
"Well—really—sir, I do not know why I—"
"Then, sir, let me tell you this will not be permitted," said the Rector sternly. "There are regularly ordained and accredited ministers of the Church and of all religious bodies represented in this neighbourhood, and your ministrations are not required."
"But surely, sir," said the evangelist hurriedly as if anxious to get in a word, "I may be permitted in this free country to preach the Gospel."
"Sir, there are regularly ordained and approved ministers of the Gospel who are quite capable of performing this duty. I won't have it, sir. I must protect these people from unlicensed, unregulated—ah—persons, of whose character and antecedents we have no knowledge. Pray, sir," cried the Rector, taking a step toward the man on the platform, "whom do you represent?"
The evangelist drew himself up quietly and said, "My Lord and Master, sir. May I ask whom do you represent?"
It was a deadly thrust. For the first time during the encounter the Rector palpably gave ground.
"Eh? Ah—sir—I—ah—ahem—my standing in this community is perfectly assured as an ordained clergyman of the Church of England in Canada. Have you any organisation or church, any organised Christian body to which you adhere and to which you are responsible?"
"What is that body?"
"The Church of Christ—the body of believers."
"Is that an organised body with ordained ministers and holy sacraments?"
"We do not believe in a paid ministry with special privileges and powers," said the evangelist. "We believe that every disciple has a right to preach the glorious Gospel."
"Ah, then you receive no support from any source in this ministry of yours?"
The evangelist hesitated. "I receive no salary, sir."
"I receive no regular salary," reiterated the evangelist.
"Do not quibble, sir," said the Rector sternly. "Do you receive any financial support from any source whatever in your mission about the country?"
"I receive—" began the evangelist.
"Do you or do you not?" thundered the Rector.
"I was about to say that my expenses are paid by my society."
"Thank you, no more need be said. These people can judge for themselves."
"I am willing that they should judge, but I remind you that there is another Judge."
"Yes, sir," replied the Rector with portentous solemnity, "there is, before whom both you and I must stand."
"And now then," said the evangelist, taking up the Bible, "we may proceed with our meeting."
"No, sir," replied the Rector, stepping upon the platform. "I will not permit it."
"You have no right to—"
"I have every right to protect this community from heretical and disingenuous, not to say dishonest, persons."
"You call me dishonest?"
"I said disingenuous."
The evangelist turned toward the audience. "I protest against this intrusion upon this meeting. I appeal to the audience for British fair play."
Murmurs were heard from the audience and subdued signs of approval. The Rector glanced upon the people.
"Fair play," he cried, "you will get as will any man who appears properly accredited and properly qualified to proclaim the Gospel, but in the name of this Christian community, I will prevent the exploitation of an unwary and trusting people."
"Liberty of speech!" called a voice from a dark corner.
"Liberty of speech," roared the Rector. "Who of you wants liberty of speech? Let him stand forth."
There followed a strained and breathless silence. The champion of free speech retreated behind his discretion.
"Ah, I thought so," said the Rector in grim contempt.
But even as he spoke a quiet voice invaded the tense silence like a bell in a quiet night. It was Mrs. Gwynne, her slight girlish figure standing quietly erect, her face glowing as with an inner light, her eyes resting in calm fearlessness upon the Rector's heated countenance.
"Sir," she said, "my conscience will not permit me to sit in silence in the presence of what I feel to be an infringement of the rights of free people. I venture very humbly to protest against this injustice, and to say that this gentleman has a right to be heard."
An even more intense silence fell upon the people. The Rector stood speechless, gazing upon the little woman who had thus broken every tradition of the community in lifting her voice in a public assembly and who had dared to challenge the authority of one who for nearly twenty years had been recognised as the autocrat of the village and of the whole countryside. But the Rector was an alert and gallant fighter. He quickly recovered his poise.
"If Mrs. Gwynne, our good friend and neighbour, desires to address this meeting," he said with a courteous and elaborate bow, "and I am sure by training and tradition she is quite capable of doing so, I am confident that all of us will be delighted to listen to her. But the question in hand is not quite so simple as she imagines. It is—"
"Liberty of speech," said the voice again from the dark corner.
The Rector wheeled fiercely in the direction from which the interruption came.
"Who speaks," he cried; "why does he shrink into the darkness? Let him come forth."
Again discretion held the interrupter silent.
"As for you—you, sir," continued the Rector, turning upon the evangelist, "if you desire—"
But at this point there was a sudden commotion from the opposite side of the room. A quaint dwarfish figure, crippled but full of vigour, stumped up to the platform.
"My son," he said, grandly waving the Rector to one side, "allow me, my son. You have done well. Now I shall deal with this gentleman."
The owner of the misshapen body had a noble head, a face marked with intellectual quality, but the glitter in the large blue eye told the same tale of mental anarchy. Startled and astonished, the evangelist backed away from the extraordinary creature that continued to advance upon him.
"Sir," cried the dwarf, "by what right do you proclaim the divine message to your fellowmen? Have you known the cross, have you felt the piercing crown, do you bear upon your body the mark of the spear?" At this with a swift upward hitch of his shirt the dwarf exposed his bare side. The evangelist continued to back away from his new assailant, who continued vigorously to follow him up. The youngsters in the crowd broke into laughter. The scene passed swiftly from tragedy to farce. At this point the Rector interposed.
"Come, come, John," he said, laying a firm, but gentle, hand upon the dwarf's shoulder. "That will do now. He is perfectly harmless, sir," he said, addressing the evangelist. Then turning to the audience, "I think we may dismiss this meeting," and, raising his hands, he pronounced the benediction, and the people dispersed in disorder.
With a strained "Good-night, sir," to the evangelist and a courteous bow to Mrs. Gwynne, the Rector followed the people, leaving the evangelist and his wife behind packing up their hymn books and organ, their faces only too clearly showing the distress which they felt. Mrs. Gwynne moved toward them.
"I am truly grieved," she said, addressing the evangelist, "that you were not given an opportunity to deliver your message."
"What a terrible creature that is," he exclaimed in a tone indicating nervous anxiety.
"Oh, you mean poor John?" said Mrs. Gwynne. "The poor man is quite harmless. He became excited with the unusual character of the meeting. He will disturb you no more."
"I fear it is useless," said the evangelist. "I cannot continue in the face of this opposition."
"It may be difficult, but not useless," replied Mrs. Gwynne, the light of battle glowing in her grey eyes.
"Ah, I do not know. It may not be wise to stir up bad feeling in a community, to bring the name of religion into disrepute by strife. But," he continued, offering his hand, "let me thank you warmly for your sympathy. It was splendidly courageous of you. Do you—do you attend his church?"
"Yes, we worship with the Episcopal Church. I am a Friend myself."
"Ah, then it was a splendidly courageous act. I honour you for it."
"But you will continue your mission?" she replied earnestly.
"Alas, I can hardly see how the mission can be continued. There seems to be no opening."
Mrs. Gwynne apparently lost interest. "Good-bye," she said simply, shaking hands with them both, and without further words left the room with her boy. For some distance they walked together along the dark road in silence. Then in an awed voice the boy said:
"How could you do it, mother? You were not a bit afraid."
"Afraid of what, the Rector?"
"No, not the Rector—but to speak up that way before all the people."
"It was hard to speak," said his mother, "very hard, but it was harder to keep silent. It did not seem right."
The boy's heart swelled with a new pride in his mother. "Oh, mother," he said, "you were splendid. You were like a soldier standing there. You were like the martyrs in my book."
"Oh, no, no, my boy."
"I tell you yes, mother, I was proud of you."
The thrilling passion in the little boy's voice went to his mother's heart. "Were you, my boy?" she said, her voice faltering. "I am glad you were."
Hand in hand they walked along, the boy exulting in his restored pride in his mother and in her courage. But a new feeling soon stirred within him. He remembered with a pain intolerable that he had allowed the word of so despicable a creature as Mop Cheatley to shake his faith in his mother's courage. Indignation at the wretched creature who had maligned her, but chiefly a passionate self-contempt that he had allowed himself to doubt her, raged tumultuously in his heart and drove him in a silent fury through the dark until they reached their own gate. Then as his mother's hand reached toward the latch, the boy abruptly caught her arm in a fierce grip.
"Mother," he burst forth in a passionate declaration of faith, "you're not a coward."
"A coward?" replied his mother, astonished.
The boy's arms went around her, his head pressed into her bosom. In a voice broken with passionate sobs he poured forth his tale of shame and self-contempt.
"He said you were a Quaker, that the Quakers were cowards, and would never fight, and that you were a coward, and that you would never fight. But you would, mother, wouldn't you? And you're not a real Quaker, are you, mother?"
"A Quaker," said his mother. "Yes, dear, I belong to the Friends, as we call them."
"And they, won't they ever fight?" demanded the boy anxiously.
"They do not believe that fighting with fists, or sticks, or like wild beasts," said his mother, "ever wins anything worth while."
"Never, mother?" cried the boy, anxiety and fear in his tones. "You would fight, you would fight to-night, you would fight the Rector."
"Yes, my boy," said his mother quietly, "that kind of fighting we believe in. Our people have never been afraid to stand up for the right, and to suffer for it too. Remember that, my boy," a certain pride rang out in the mother's voice. She continued, "We must never be afraid to suffer for what we believe to be right. You must never forget that through all your life, Larry." Her voice grew solemn. "You must never, never go back from what you know to be right, even if you have to suffer for it."
"Oh, mother," whispered the boy through his sobs, "I wish I were brave like you."
"No, no, not like me," whispered his mother, putting her face down to his. "You will be much braver than your mother, my boy, oh, very much braver than your mother."
The boy still clung to her as if he feared to let her go. "Oh, mother," he whispered, "do you think I can be brave?"
"Yes, my boy," her voice rang out again confident and clear. "It always makes us brave to know that He bore the cross for us and died rather than betray us."
There were no more words between them, but the memory of that night never faded from the boy's mind. A new standard of heroism was set up within his soul which he might fail to reach but which he could never lower.
THE ESCUTCHEON CLEARED
Mr. Michael Gwynne, the Mapleton storekeeper, was undoubtedly the most popular man not in the village only but in the whole township. To begin with he was a man of high character, which was sufficiently guaranteed by the fact that he was chosen as Rector's Warden in All Saints Episcopal Church. He was moreover the Rector's right-hand man, ready to back up any good cause with personal effort, with a purse always open but not often full, and with a tongue that was irresistible, for he had to an extraordinary degree the gift of persuasive speech. Therefore, the Rector's first move in launching any new scheme was to secure the approval and co-operation of his Warden.
By the whole community too Mr. Gwynne was recognised as a gentleman, a gentleman not in appearance and bearing only, a type calculated to repel plain folk, but a gentleman in heart, with a charm of manner which proceeded from a real interest in and consideration for the welfare of others. This charm of manner proved a valuable asset to him in his business, for behind his counter Mr. Gwynne had a rare gift of investing the very calicoes and muslins which he displayed before the dazzled eyes of the ladies who came to buy with a glamour that never failed to make them appear altogether desirable; and even the hard-headed farmers fell under this spell of his whether he described to them the superexcellent qualities of a newly patented cream separator or the virtues of a new patent medicine for ailing horses whose real complaint was overwork or underfeeding. With all this, moreover, Mr. Gwynne was rigidly honest. No one ever thought of disputing an account whether he paid it or not, and truth demands that with Mr. Gwynne's customers the latter course was more frequently adopted.
It was at this point that Mr. Gwynne failed of success as a business man. He could buy with discrimination, he had a rare gift of salesmanship, but as a collector, in the words of Sam Cheatley, the village butcher, himself a conspicuous star in that department of business activity, "He was not worth a tinker's curse." His accounts were sent out punctually twice a year. His wife saw to that. At times of desperation when pressure from the wholesale houses became urgent, special statements were sent out by Mr. Gwynne himself. But in such cases the apology accompanying these statements was frequently such as to make immediate payment seem almost an insult. His customers held him in high esteem, respected his intellectual ability—for he was a Trinity man—were fascinated by his charm of manner, loved him for his kindly qualities, but would not pay their bills.
Many years ago, having failed to work harmoniously with his business partner, a shrewd, hard-headed, Belfast draper—hard-hearted Mr. Gwynne considered him—Mr. Gwynne had decided to emigrate to Canada with the remnant of a small fortune which was found to be just sufficient to purchase the Mapleton general store, and with it a small farm of fifty acres on the corner of which the store stood. It was the farm that decided the investment; for Mr. Gwynne was possessed of the town man's infatuation for farm life and of the optimistic conviction that on the farm a living at least for himself and his small family would be assured.
But his years of business in Mapleton had gradually exhausted his fortune and accumulated a staggering load of debt which was the occasion of moments of anxiety, even of fear, to the storekeeper. There was always the thought in his mind that against his indebtedness on the credit side there were his book accounts which ran up into big figures. There was always, if the worst came to the worst, the farm. But if Mr. Gwynne was no business man still less was he a farmer. Tied to his store by reason of his inability to afford a competent assistant, the farming operations were carried on in haphazard fashion by neighbours who were willing to liquidate their store debts with odd days' work at times most convenient to themselves, but not always most seasonable for the crops. Hence in good years, none too good with such haphazard farming, the farm was called upon to make up the deficiency in the financial returns of the store. In bad years notes had to be renewed with formidable accumulations of interest. But such was Mr. Gwynne's invincible optimism that he met every new embarrassment with some new project giving new promise of success.
Meanwhile during these painful years his brave little wife by her garden and her poultry materially helped to keep the family in food and to meet in some degree the household expenses. She was her own servant except that the Widow Martin came to her aid twice a week. Her skill with needle and sewing machine and a certain creative genius which she possessed enabled her to evolve from her husband's old clothes new clothes for her boy, and from her own clothing, when not too utterly worn, dresses for her two little girls. And throughout these years with all their toil and anxiety she met each day with a spirit undaunted and with a face that remained serene as far at least as her husband and her children ever saw. Nor did she allow the whole weight of trials to taint the sweetness of her spirit or to dim her faith in God. Devoted to her husband, she refused to allow herself to criticise his business ability or methods. The failure, which she could not but admit, was not his fault; it was the fault of those debtors who declined to pay their just dues.
In an hour of desperation she ventured to point out to her husband that these farmers were extending their holdings and buying machinery with notes that bore interest. "And besides, Michael," she said, "Lawrence must go to High School next year. He will pass the Entrance examination this summer, and he must go."
"He shall go," said her husband. "I am resolved to make a change in my method of business. I shall go after these men. They shall no longer use my money for their business and for their families while my business and my family suffer. You need not look that way, I have made up my mind and I shall begin at once."
Unfortunately the season was not suitable for collections. The farmers were engrossed with their harvesting, and after that with the fall ploughing, and later with the marketing of their grain. And as the weeks passed Mr. Gwynne's indignant resolve that his customers should not do business on his money gradually cooled down. The accounts were sent out as usual, and with the usual disappointing result.
Meantime Mr. Gwynne's attention was diverted from his delinquent debtors by an enterprise which to an unusual degree awakened his sympathy and kindled his imagination. The Reverend Heber Harding, ever since his unfortunate encounter with the travelling evangelist, was haunted with the uneasy feeling that he and his church were not completely fulfilling their functions in the community and justifying their existence. The impression had been the more painfully deepened in him by the sudden eruption of a spirit of recklessness and a certain tendency to general lawlessness in some of the young men of the village. As a result of a conference with the leading men of his congregation, he had decided to organise a young men's club. The business of setting this club in active operation was handed over to Mr. Gwynne, than whom no one in the village was better fitted for the work. The project appealed to Mr. Gwynne's imagination. A room was secured in the disused Orange Hall. Subscriptions were received to make purchase of apparatus and equipment necessary for games of various sorts. With vivid remembrance of his college days, Mr. Gwynne saw to it that as part of the equipment a place should be found for a number of sets of boxing gloves.
There were those who were not too sure of the uplifting influence of the boxing gloves. But after Mr. Gwynne had given an exhibition of the superior advantages of science over brute force in a bout with Mack Morrison before a crowded hall, whatever doubt might exist as to the ethical value of the boxing gloves, there was no doubt at all as to their value as an attractive force in the building up of the membership of the Young Men's Club. The boxing class became immensely popular, and being conducted under Mr. Gwynne's most rigid supervision, it gradually came to exert a most salutary influence upon its members. They learned, for one thing, to take hard knocks without losing their tempers.
In the boxing class thus established, none showed a greater eagerness to learn than did Larry. Every moment of his father's spare time he utilised to add to his knowledge of the various feints and guards and cuts and punches and hooks that appeared necessary to a scientific acquaintance with the manly art. He developed an amazing capacity to accept punishment. Indeed, he appeared almost to welcome rough handling, especially from the young men and boys bigger than himself. Light in weight and not very muscular, he was wiry and quick in eye and in action, and under his father's teaching he learned how to "make his heels save his head." He was always ready for a go with any one who might offer, and when all others had wearied of the sport Larry would put in an extra half hour with the punching bag. With one boy only he refused to spar. No persuasion, no taunts, no challenge could entice him to put on the gloves with Mop Cheatley. He could never look steadily at Mop for any length of time without seeing again on his face the sneering grin and hearing again the terrible words spoken two years ago in the cedar woods behind the mill pond: "You're a coward and your mother's a coward before you." He refused to spar with Mop for he knew that once face to face with him he could not spar, he must fight. But circumstances made the contest inevitable. In the working out of a tournament, it chanced that Mop was drawn to face Larry, and although the disparity both in age and weight seemed to handicap the smaller boy to an excessive degree, Larry's friends who were arranging the schedule, among them Mack Morrison with big Ben Hopper and Joe Gagneau as chorus, and who knew something of Larry's skill with his hands and speed on his feet, were not unwilling to allow the draw to stand.
The days preceding the tournament were days of misery for Larry. The decision in the contest would of course be on points and he knew that he could outpoint without much difficulty his antagonist who was clumsy and slow. For the decision Larry cared nothing at all. At the most he had little to lose for it would be but small disgrace to be beaten by a boy so much bigger. The cause of his distress was something quite other than this. He knew that from the first moment of the bout he would be fighting. That this undoubtedly would make Mop fight back, and he was haunted by the fear that in the stress of battle he might play the coward. Would he be able to stand up to Mop when the fight began to go against him? And suppose he should run away, should show himself a coward? How could he ever live after that, how look any of the boys in the face? Worst of all, how could he face his father, whose approval in this boxing game since he had revealed himself as a "fighting man" the boy coveted more than anything else. But his father was not present when the boy stepped into the ring. Impelled by the dread of showing himself a coward and running away, Larry flung to the winds his father's favourite maxim, "Let your heels save your head," a maxim which ought if ever to be observed in such a bout as this in which he was so out-classed in weight.
At the word "Time" Larry leaped for his opponent and almost before Mop was aware that the battle had begun he was being blinded, staggered and beaten all around the ring, and only a lucky blow, flung wildly into space and landing heavily upon Larry's face, saved him from complete defeat in the first round. That single heavy blow was sufficient to give temporary pause to Larry's impetuosity, but as soon as he got back his wind he once more ran in, feinting, ducking, plunging, but ever pressing hard upon his antagonist, who, having recovered from his first surprise, began to plant heavy blows upon Larry's ribs, until at the end of the round the boy was glad enough to sink back into his corner gasping for breath.
Ben Hopper, who was acting as Larry's second, was filled with surprise and indignation at his principal's fighting tactics. "You blame fool," he said to Larry as he ministered to his all too apparent necessities. "What do you think you're doing? Do you think he's a sausage machine and you a bloody porker? Keep away from him. You know he's too heavy for you. If he were not so clumsy he would have had you out before this. One good punch from him would do it. Why don't you do your foot work?"
"Corec," said Joe. "Larree, you fight all the same Mack Morrison's ram. Head down, jump in—head down, jump in. Why you run so queek on dat Mop feller? Why you not make him run after you?"
"He's right, Larry," said Ben. "Use your feet; make him come after you. You will sure get his wind."
But Larry stood recovering his breath, glowering meanwhile at his enemy across the ring. He neither heeded nor heard the entreaties of his friends. In his ears one phrase only rang with insistent reiteration. "He's a coward, an' his mother's a coward before him." Only one obsession possessed him, he must keep hard at his enemy.
"Time!" The second round was on. Like a tiger upon his prey, Larry was upon his foe, driving fast and furious blows upon his head and face. But this time Mop was ready for him, and bearing in, head down, he took on his left guard the driving blows with no apparent injury, and sent back some half a dozen heavy swings that broke down Larry's guard, drove him across the ring and finally brought him gasping to his knees.
"Stay where you are," yelled Ben. "Take your count, Larry, and keep away from him. Do you hear me? Keep away, always away."
At the ninth count Larry sprang to his feet, easily eluded Mop's swinging blow, and slipping lightly around the ring, escaped further attack until he had picked up his wind.
"That's the game," yelled Ben. "Keep it up, old boy, keep it up."
"C'est bon stuff, Larree," yelled Joe, dancing wildly in Ben's corner. "C'est bon stuff, Larree, for sure."
But once more master of his wind, Larry renewed his battering assault upon Mop's head, inflicting some damage indeed, but receiving heavy punishment in return. The close of the round found him exhausted and bleeding. In spite of the adjurations and entreaties of his friends, Larry pursued the same tactics in the third round, which ended even more disastrously than the second. His condition was serious enough to bring Mack Morrison to his side.
"What's up with you, Larry?" said Mack. "Where's your science gone? Why don't you play the game as you know it?"
"Mack, Mack," panted Larry. "It ain't a game. I'm—I'm fighting, and, Mack, I'm not afraid of him."
Mack whistled. "Who said you are afraid of him, youngster?"
"He did, Mack, he called me a coward—you remember, Ben, up in the cedar bush that day we played hookey—you remember, Ben?" Ben nodded. "He called me a coward and"—grinding the words between his teeth—"he called my mother a coward. But I am not afraid of him, Mack—he can't make me afraid; he can't make me run away." What with his rage and his secret fear, the boy had quite lost control of himself.
"So that's it," said Mack, reading both rage and fear in his eyes. "Listen to me, Larry," he continued in a voice low and stern. "You quit this monkey work right now or, by the jumping Jehoshaphat, I will lick the tar out of you myself when this is over. You're not afraid of him; I know that—we all know that. But you don't want to kill him, eh? No. What you want is to make him look like a fool. Well, then, fight, if you want to fight, but remember your rules. Play with him, make him follow you round until you get his wind; there's your chance. Then get him hard and get away."
But the boy spoke no word in reply. He was staring gloomily, desperately, before him into space.
Mack seized him, and shaking him impatiently, said, "Larry boy, listen to me. Don't you care for anybody but yourself? Don't you care for me at all?"
At that Larry appeared to wake up as from a sleep.
"What did you say, Mack?" he answered. "Of course I care, you know that, Mack."
"Then," said Mack, "for God's sake, get a smile on your face. Smile, confound you, smile."
The boy passed his gloved hand over his face, looked for a moment into Mack's eyes, and the old smile came back to his lips.
"Now you're all right," cried Mack in triumph. "Remember your father's rule, 'Keep your head with your heels.'" And Larry did remember! For on the call of "Time" he slipped from Ben's knees and began to circle lightly about Mop, smiling upon him and waiting his chance. His chance soon came, for Mop, thinking that his enemy had had about enough and was ready to quit, adopted aggressive tactics, and, feinting with his right, swung heavily with his left at the smiling face. But the face proved elusive, and upon Mop's undefended head a series of blows dealt with savage fury took all the heart out of him. So he cried to the referee as he ducked into his corner:
"He's fightin'. He's fightin'. I'm not fightin'."
"You'd better get busy then," called Ben derisively from his corner. "Now, Larry, sail into him," and Larry sailed in with such vehemence that Mop fairly turned tail and ran around the ring, Larry pursuing him amid the delighted shouts of the spectators.
This ended the contest, the judges giving the decision to Mop, who, though obviously beaten at the finish, had showed a distinct superiority on points. As for Larry, the decision grieved him not at all. He carried home a face slightly disfigured but triumphant, his sole comment to his mother upon the contest being, "I was not afraid of him anyway, mother; he could not make me run."
"I am not so sure of this boxing, Lawrence," she said, but the boy caught the glint in her eyes and was well enough content.
In the late evening Ben, with Larry and Joe following him, took occasion to look in upon Mop at the butcher shop.
"Say, Mop," said Ben pleasantly, "what do you think of Larry now? Would you say he was a coward?"
"What do you mean?" asked Mop, suspecting trouble.
"Just what I say," said Ben, while Larry moved up within range, his face white, his eyes gleaming.
"I ain't saying nothing about nobody," replied Mop sullenly, with the tail of his eye upon Larry's white face and gleaming eyes.
"You say him one tam—in de cedar swamp," said Joe.
"Would you say Larry was a coward?" repeated Ben.
"No, I wouldn't say nothing of the sort," replied Mop promptly.
"Do you think he is a coward?" persisted Ben.
"No," said Mop, "I know he ain't no coward. He don't fight like no coward."
This appeared to satisfy Ben, but Larry, moving slightly nearer, took up the word for himself.
"And would you say my mother was a coward?" he asked in a tense voice, his body gathered as if for a spring.
"Larry, I wouldn't say nothing about your mother," replied Mop earnestly. "I think your mother's a bully good woman. She was awfully good to my mother last winter, I know."
The spring went out of Larry's body. He backed away from Mop and the boys.
"Who said your mother was a coward?" inquired Mop indignantly. "If anybody says so, you bring him to me, and I'll punch his head good, I will."
Larry looked foolishly at Ben, who looked foolishly back at him.
"Say, Mop," said Larry, a smile like a warm light passing over his face, "come on up and see my new rabbits."
Another and greater enterprise was diverting Mr. Gwynne's attention from the delinquencies of his debtors, namely: the entrance of the National Machine Company into the remote and placid life of Mapleton and its district. The manager of this company, having spent an afternoon with Mr. Gwynne in his store and having been impressed by his charm and power of persuasive talk, made him a proposition that he should act as agent of the National Machine Company. The arrangement suggested was one that appealed to Mr. Gwynne's highly optimistic temperament. He was not to work for a mere salary, but was to purchase outright the various productions of the National Machine Company and receive a commission upon all his sales. The figures placed before Mr. Gwynne by the manager of the company were sufficiently impressive, indeed so impressive that Mr. Gwynne at once accepted the proposition, and the Mapleton branch of the National Machine Company became an established fact.
There was no longer any question as to the education of his family. In another year when his boy had passed his entrance examinations he would be able to send him to the high school in the neighbouring town of Easton, properly equipped and relieved of those handicaps with which poverty can so easily wash all the colour out of young life. A brilliant picture the father drew before the eyes of his wife of the educational career of their boy, who had already given promise of exceptional ability. But while she listened, charmed, delighted and filled with proud anticipation, the mother with none the less painful care saved her garden and poultry money, cut to bare necessity her household expenses, skimped herself and her children in the matter of dress, and by every device which she had learned in the bitter school of experience during the ten years of her Canadian life, made such preparation for the expenses of her boy's education as would render it unnecessary to call upon the wealth realised from the National Machine Company's business.
In the matter of providing for the expense of his education Larry himself began to take a not unimportant part. During the past two years he had gained not only in size but in the vigour of his health, and in almost every kind of work on the farm he could now take a man's place. His mother would not permit him to give his time and strength to their own farming operations for the sufficient reason that from these there would be no return in ready money, and ready money was absolutely essential to the success of her plans. The boy was quick, eager and well-mannered, and in consequence had no difficulty in finding employment with the neighbouring farmers. So much was this the case that long before the closing of school in the early summer Larry was offered work for the whole summer by their neighbour, Mr. Martin, at one dollar a day. He could hardly believe his good fortune inasmuch as he had never in all his life been paid at a rate exceeding half that amount.
"I shall have a lot of money, mother," he said, "for my high school now. I wonder how much it will cost me for the term."
Thereupon his mother seized the opportunity to discuss the problem with him which she knew they must face together.
"Let us see," said his mother.
Then each with pencil and paper they drew up to the table, but after the most careful paring down of expenses and the most optimistic estimate of their resources consistent with fact, they made the rather discouraging discovery that they were still fifty dollars short.
"I can't do it, mother," said Larry, in bitter disappointment.
"We shall not give up yet," said his mother. "Indeed, I think with what we can make out of the farm and garden and poultry, we ought to be able to manage."
But a new and chilling thought had come to the lad. He pondered silently, and as he pondered his face became heavily shadowed.
"Say, mother," he said suddenly, "we can't do it. How much are you going to spend on your clothes?"
"All I need," said his mother brightly.
"But how much?"
"I don't know."
"How much did you spend last year?"
"Oh, never mind, Lawrence; that really does not matter."
But the boy insisted. "Did you spend thirty-one dollars?" His mother laughed at him.
"Did you spend twenty?"
"Did you spend fifteen?"
"I do not know," said his mother, "and I am not going to talk about it. My clothes and the girls' clothes will be all right for this year."
"Mother," said Larry, "I am not going to school this year. I am not going to spend thirty-one dollars for clothes while you and the girls spend nothing. I am going to work first, and then go to school. I am not going to school this year." The boy rose from his chair and stood and faced his mother with quivering lips, fighting to keep back the tears.
Mother reached out her hand and drew him toward her. "My darling boy," she said in a low voice, "I love to hear you, but listen to me. Are you listening? You must be educated. Nothing must interfere with that. No suffering is too great to be endured by all of us. The time for education is youth; first because your mind works more quickly and retains better what it acquires, and second because it is a better investment, and you will sooner be able to pay us all back what we spend now. So you will go to school this year, boy, if we can manage it, and I think we can. Some day," she added, patting him on the shoulder, and holding him off from her, "when you are rich you will give me a silk dress."
"Won't I just," cried the boy passionately, "and the girls too, and everything you want, and I will give you a good time yet, mother. You deserve the best a woman ever had and I will give it to you."
The mother turned her face away from him and looked out of the window. She saw not the fields of growing grain but a long vista of happy days ever growing in beauty and in glory until she could see no more for the tears that quietly fell. The boy dropped on his knees beside her.
"Oh, mother, mother," he said. "You have been wonderful to us all, and you have had an awfully hard time. A fellow never knows, does he?"
"A hard time? A hard time?" said his mother, a great surprise in her voice and in her face. "No, my boy, no hard time for me. A dear, dear, lovely time with you all, every day, every day. Never do I want a better time than I have had with you."
The event proved the wisdom of Mrs. Gwynne's determination to put little faith in the optimistic confidence of her husband in regard to the profits to be expected from the operations of the National Machine Company. A year's business was sufficient to demonstrate that the Mapleton branch of the National Machine Company was bankrupt. By every law of life it ought to be bankrupt. With all his many excellent qualities Mr. Gwynne possessed certain fatal defects as a business man. With him the supreme consideration was simply the getting rid of the machines purchased by him as rapidly and in such large numbers as possible. He cheerfully ignored the laws that governed the elemental item of profit. Hence the relentless Nemesis that sooner or later overtakes those who, whether ignorantly or maliciously, break laws, fell upon the National Machine Company and upon those who had the misfortune to be associated with it.
In the wreck of the business Mr. Gwynne's store, upon which the National Machine Company had taken the precaution to secure a mortgage, was also involved. The business went into the hands of a receiver and was bought up at about fifty cents on the dollar by a man recently from western Canada whose specialty was the handling of business wreckage. No one after even a cursory glance at his face would suspect Mr. H. P. Sleighter of deficiency in business qualities. The snap in the cold grey eye, the firm lines in the long jaw, the thin lips pressed hard together, all proclaimed the hard-headed, cold-hearted, iron-willed man of business. Mr. Sleighter, moreover, had a remarkable instinct for values, more especially for salvage values. It was this instinct that led him to the purchase of the National Machine Company wreckage, which included as well the Mapleton general store, with its assets in stock and book debts.
Mr. Sleighter's methods with the easy-going debtors of the company in Mapleton and the surrounding district were of such galvanic vigour that even so practiced a procrastinator as Farmer Martin found himself actually drawing money from his hoarded bank account to pay his store debts—a thing unheard of in that community—and to meet overdue payments upon the various implements which he had purchased from the National Machine Company. It was not until after the money had been drawn and actually paid that Mr. Martin came fully to realise the extraordinary nature of his act.
"That there feller," he said, looking from the receipt in his hand to the store door through which the form of Mr. Sleighter had just vanished, "that there feller, he's too swift fer me. He ain't got any innards to speak of; he'd steal the pants off a dog, he would."
The application of these same galvanically vigorous methods to Mr. Gwynne's debtors produced surprising results. Mr. Sleighter made the astounding discovery that Mr. Gwynne's business instead of being bankrupt would produce not only one hundred cents on the dollar, but a slight profit as well. This discovery annoyed Mr. Sleighter. He hated to confess a mistake in business judgment, and he frankly confessed he "hated to see good money roll past him." Hence with something of a grudge he prepared to hand over to Mr. Gwynne some twelve hundred and fifty dollars of salvage money.
"I suppose he will be selling out his farm," said Mr. Sleighter in conversation with Mr. Martin. "What's land worth about here?"
"Oh, somewhere about a hundred."
"A hundred dollars an acre!" exclaimed Mr. Sleighter. "Don't try to put anything over on me. Personally I admire your generous, kindly nature, but as a financial adviser you don't shine. I guess I won't bother about that farm anyway."
Mr. Sleighter's question awakened earnest thought in Mr. Martin, and the next morning he approached Mr. Gwynne with a proposition to purchase his farm with its attached buildings. Mr. Martin made it clear that he was chiefly anxious to do a neighbourly turn.
"The house and the stable ain't worth much," he said, "but the farm bein' handy to my property, I own up is worth more to me than to other folks, perhaps. So bein' old neighbours, I am willin' to give four thousand dollars, half cash down, for the hull business."
"Surely that is a low figure," said Mr. Gwynne.
"Low figure!" exclaimed Mr. Martin. "All right, I ain't pressin' it on you; but if you could get any one in this neighbourhood to offer four thousand dollars for your farm, I will give you five hundred extra. But," he continued, "I ain't pressin' you. Don't much matter to me."
The offer came at a psychologically critical moment, when Mr. Gwynne was desperately seeking escape from an intolerable environment.
"I shall consult Mrs. Gwynne," he said, "and let you know in a few days."
"Don't know as I can wait that long," said Mr. Martin. "I made the offer to oblige you, and besides I got a chance at the Monroe fifty."
"Call to-morrow night," said Mr. Gwynne, and carried the proposal home to his wife.
The suggestion to break up her home to a woman of Mrs. Gwynne's type is almost shattering. In the big world full of nameless terrors the one spot offering shelter and safety for herself and her family was her home. But after all, her husband was her great concern, and she could see he was eager for the change. She made up her mind to the sacrifice and decided that she would break up the home in Mapleton and with her husband try again their fortune.
"But four thousand dollars," she said, "is surely a small price."
"Small? I know it is small, but Martin knows I am in a corner. He is a highway robber."
It was a bitter experience for him to be forced to confess himself a business failure, and with this bitterness there mingled a feeling of hostility toward all successful business men. To him it seemed that in order to win success in business a man must become, like Mr. Martin, a highway robber. In this mood of bitterness and hostility toward successful men, Mr. Sleighter found him the next day.
"Couldn't find you at the store," said that gentleman, walking in with his hat on his head. "I wanted to get this business straightened up, so I just came in. Won't take more than five minutes. I guess you won't mind taking a little check from me. Your business turned out better than that fool of an assignee thought. Don't hurt me any, of course. I got all that was comin' to me out of it, but here's this check. Perhaps you'll sign the receipt. I guess they been puttin' it over you all right. You're a little too soft with 'em."
Mr. Gwynne was an even-tempered man, but Mr. Sleighter's patronising manner and his criticism of his business ability wrought in him a rage that he could with difficulty control. He remembered he was in his own house, however, and that the man before him was a stranger. While he was searching for pen and ink the door opened and his wife entered the room. Mr. Sleighter, with his hat still upon his head, was intently gazing out of the window, easily rocking on the two hind legs of the chair. The door opened behind him.
"My dear," said Mr. Gwynne, "will you excuse me? I am engaged."
"Oh, I beg your pardon, I didn't know any one was here. I merely wanted—"
Mr. Sleighter glanced over his shoulder.
"Mr. Sleighter," said Mr. Gwynne. "My wife."
It was not his tone, however, that brought Mr. Sleighter hurriedly to his feet with his hat in his hand. It was something in the bearing of the little lady standing behind him.
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am. I hope you are well," he said, bowing elaborately before her.
"Thank you very much, I am quite well. I have heard a great deal about you, Mr. Sleighter. I am glad to meet you."
Mr. Sleighter held her hand a moment while her eyes rested quietly and kindly, if searchingly, upon his face. This was the man who had profited by her husband's loss. Was he too a highway robber? Mr. Sleighter somehow felt as if his soul were being exposed to a searchlight. It made him uncomfortable.
"It's a fine day, ma'am," he remarked, seeking cover for his soul in conversation. "A little warm for the time," he continued, wiping his forehead with a highly coloured silk handkerchief.
"Won't you sit down, Mr. Sleighter? Do you find it warm? I thought there was quite a chilly wind to-day. But then you are more accustomed to the wind than I."
The searching eyes were holding him steadily, but the face was kindly and full of genuine interest.
"I guess so," he said with a little laugh. He would have scorned to acknowledge that his laugh was nervous and thin. "I come from the windy side of the earth."
"Yes, I am from out West—Alberta. We have got all the winds there is and the Chinook besides for a change."
"Alberta? The Chinook?" The eyes became less searching.
"Yes, that's the wind that comes down from the mountains and licks up the snow at ten miles an hour."
"It was an Alberta man, you know, who invented a rig with runners in front and wheels behind." The lady was bewildered. "To catch up with the Chinook, you see. One of my kid's jokes. Not much of a joke I guess, but he's always ringin' 'em in."
"You have a son, Mr. Sleighter? He's in Alberta now?"
"No, the missis and the kids, three of them, are in Winnipeg. She got tired of it out there; she was always wantin' the city, so I gave in."
"I hear it's a beautiful country out there."
"Now you're talkin', ma'am." She had touched Mr. Sleighter's favourite theme. Indeed, the absorbing passion of his life, next to the picking up of good salvage bargains, was his home in the Foothill country of the West.
While he was engaged in an enthusiastic description of the glories of that wonderland the children came in and were presented. Mr. Gwynne handed his visitor his receipt and stood suggestively awaiting his departure. But Mr. Sleighter was fairly started on his subject and was not to be denied. The little girls drew shyly near him with eyes aglow while Mr. Sleighter's words roiled forth like a mountain flood. Eloquently he described the beauty of the rolling lands, the splendour of the mountains, the richness of the soil, the health-giving qualities of the climate, the warm-hearted hospitality of the settlers.
"None of your pin-head two-by-four shysters that you see here in the East," exclaimed Mr. Sleighter. "I mean some folks, of course," he explained in some confusion.
"And the children, did they like it?" inquired Mrs. Gwynne.
"You bet they did. Why, they was all over the hull prairie, all day and all night, too, mostly—on ponies you know."
"Ponies!" exclaimed Larry. "Did they have ponies? Could they ride? How big are they?"
"How big? Blamed if I know. Let's see. There's Tom. He's just about a man, or thinks he is. He's sixteen or seventeen. Just now he's in the high school at Winnipeg. He don't like it though." Here a shadow fell on Mr. Sleighter's face. "And the girls—there's Hazel, she's fifteen, and Ethel Mary, she's eleven or somewhere thereabouts. I never can keep track of them. They keep againin' on me all the time."
"Yes," said Mrs. Gwynne. "It is hard to realise that they are growing up and will soon be away from us."
"That's so," said Mr. Sleighter.
"And the schools," continued Mrs. Gwynne, "are there good schools?"
"Schools?" exclaimed Mr. Sleighter. "There's a real good school not more than a couple of miles away."
"Two miles," exclaimed the mother aghast.
"Oh, that's nothin'. They ride, of course. But we ain't got much of a master now. He's rather—you know." Mr. Sleighter significantly tipped up with his little finger and winked toward Mr. Gwynne.
"But you love that country," she said.
"Yes, I love it and I hated to leave it. But the missis never liked it. She was city born and bred. She wanted the lights, I guess, and the shows. I don't blame her, though," he continued rapidly. "It's kind of lonely for women, you know. They've got to have amusements and things. But it's God's own country, believe me, and I would go back to-morrow, if I could."
"You still own your ranch?"
"Yes; can't sell easily. You see there's not much broke on it—only a hundred acres or so."
"Why, how big is the ranch?"
"Five hundred acres and a wood lot. I did not farm much, though—mostly cattle and horses. I was away a good deal on the trail."
"Yes, buying cattle and selling again. That was the worst of it. I am not much of a farmer, though farming's all right there, and I was away almost all of the time. I guess that made it pretty hard for the missis and the kids."
At this point the Widow Martin came in to lay the table for tea. Mr. Sleighter took the hint and rose to go.
"You will do us the pleasure of staying for tea, Mr. Sleighter?" said Mrs. Gwynne earnestly.
"Oh, do," said the youngest little girl, Nora, whose snapping black eyes gleamed with eager desire to hear more of the wonderful western land.
"Yes, do, and tell us more," said the boy.
"I hope you will be able to stay," continued Mrs. Gwynne.
Mr. Sleighter glanced at her husband. "Why, certainly," said Mr. Gwynne, "we would be glad to have you."
Still Mr. Sleighter hesitated. "Say, I don't know what's come over me. I feel as if I had been on the stump," he said in an embarrassed voice. "I ain't talked to a soul about that country since I left. I guess I got pretty full, and when you pulled the cork, out she come."
During the tea hour Mrs. Gwynne tried to draw her visitor out to talk about his family, but here she failed. Indeed a restraint appeared to fall upon him that nothing could dispel. Immediately after tea Mrs. Gwynne placed the Bible and Book of Prayers on the table, saying, "We follow the custom of reading prayers every evening after tea, Mr. Sleighter. We shall be glad to have you join us."
"Sure thing, ma'am," said Mr. Sleighter, pushing back his chair and beginning to rock on its hind legs, picking his teeth with his pen knife, to the staring horror of the little girls.
The reading was from the Scripture to which throughout the centuries the Christian Church has gone for authority and guidance in the exercise of charity and in the performance of social service, the story of the Samaritan gentleman to whom the unhappy traveller whose misfortune it was to be sorely mishandled by thieves owed his rescue and his life.
Throughout the reading Mr. Sleighter paid the strictest attention and joined in the prayers with every sign of reverence. At the close he stood awkwardly shifting from one foot to another.
"Well, I'll be goin'," he said. "Don't know how you roped me in for this here visit, ma'am. I ain't et in any one's house since I left home, and I ain't heard any family prayers since my old dad had 'em—a regular old Methodist exhorter he was. He used to pray until all was blue, though most times, specially at night, I used to fall asleep. He was great on religion."
"I don't suppose he was any the worse for that," said Mrs. Gwynne.
"Not a mite, not a mite, ma'am. A little strict, but straight as a string, ma'am. No one could say anythin' against Hiram Sleighter—H. P. Sleighter. I was named for him. He used to pray to beat creation, and then some, but he was a straight man all right. And to-night your kids and your family prayers made me think of them old days. Well, good-night and thank you for the good time you gave me. Best I've had in a dog's age."
"You will come again, Mr. Sleighter," said Mrs. Gwynne, giving him her hand.
"Yes, and tell us more about that new country," added her son. "My, I'd like to go out there!"
"It's a wonderful country all right and you might do a hull lot worse."
Mr. Gwynne accompanied Mr. Sleighter to the door. "Will you walk down to the store?" said Mr. Sleighter.
"Very well," said Mr. Gwynne, setting off with him.
Mr. Sleighter evidently had something on his mind. The usual fountain of his speech seemed to be dried up. As they drew near to the store, he seized Mr. Gwynne by the arm, arrested him, and said:
"Say, Mr. Gwynne, you ain't got any right to be in business. You ain't got the parts, and that Machine Company and the rest of 'em put it all over you."
"We needn't go into that now, I suppose," said Mr. Gwynne.
"No, I guess I am buttin' in—a thing I don't often do—but I am off my stride to-night anyway, and I am doin' what I never did in all my life before. I guess it was them kids of yours and your missis. I know it ain't my business, but what are you goin' to do with yourself?"
"I don't know yet," replied Mr. Gwynne, declining to be confidential.
"Not goin' into business, I hope. You ain't got the parts. Some people ain't got 'em, and you ain't. Goin' to farm?"
"No, I think not. The fact is I'm about selling my farm."
"Yes, I had an offer to-day which I am thinking of accepting."
"An offer, eh, from a feller named Martin, I suppose?"
"How did you know?"
"I don't know. I just figgered. Offered you about a hundred dollars, eh?"
"No; I wish he had. It's worth a hundred with the house and buildings—they are good buildings."
"Say, I don't like to butt in on any man's business, but is the price a secret?"
"Oh, no; he offers four thousand, half cash."
"And how much for the buildings?"
"Four thousand for everything, it's not enough but there are not many buyers in this neighbourhood."
"Say, there's nothing rash about that feller. When do you close?"
"Must close to-morrow night. He has a chance of another place."
"Oh, he has, eh? Big rush on, eh? Well, don't you close until I see you some time to-morrow, partner."
Mr. Sleighter scented another salvage deal, his keen eyes gleamed a bit, the firm lips were pressed a little more closely together.
"And say," he said, turning back, "I don't wonder you can't do business. I couldn't do anything myself with a missis like yours. I couldn't get any smooth work over with her lookin' at me like that, durned if I could. Well, good-night; see you to-morrow."
Mr. Sleighter spent the early hours of the following day among the farmers with whom his salvage deal had brought him into contact. The wrecker's instinct was strong in him, and besides he regarded with abhorrence the tactics of Mr. Martin and welcomed an opportunity to beat that gentleman at his own game. He could easily outbid the Martin offer and still buy the farm at a low price. As a result of his inquiries he had made up his mind that the land was worth at the very least eighty dollars an acre and the buildings at least two thousand more. Five thousand would be a ridiculously low figure and six thousand not extravagantly high for both buildings and farm. The farm with the store and machine business attached might offer a fair opening to his son, who was already weary of school and anxious to engage in business for himself.
"Guess I'll take a whirl out of the old boy," he said to himself. "He's a durn fool anyway and if I don't get his money some one else will."
In the afternoon he made his way to the store. "Boss ain't in?" he inquired of the clerk.
"No, he's at the house, I guess."
"Don't know. Guess he's busy over there."
"Seen Mr. Martin around?"
"Yes, he was here a while ago. Said he would be in again later."
Mr. Sleighter greatly disliked the idea of doing business with Mr. Gwynne at his own house. "Can't do no business with his missis and kids around," he said to himself. "Can't get no action with that woman lookin' on seemingly. But that there old Martin geyser is on the job and he might close things up. I guess I will wander over."
To his great relief he found Mr. Gwynne alone and without preliminaries, and with the design of getting "quick action" before the disturbing element of Mrs. Gwynne's presence should be introduced, he made his offer. He explained his purpose in purchasing, and with something of a flourish offered five thousand for "the hull plant, lock, stock and barrel," cash down if specially desired, but he would prefer to pay half in six months. He must have his answer immediately; was not anxious to buy, but if Mr. Gwynne wanted to close up, he only had to say so. He was not going to monkey with the thing.
"You have made me a much better offer than the one I received from Mr. Martin, and I am inclined to accept it, but inasmuch as I have promised to give him an answer to-day, I feel that it's due to him that I should meet him with the bargain still unclosed."
"Why?" enquired Mr. Sleighter in surprise.
"Well, you see I asked him to hold the offer open until this afternoon. I feel I ought to go to him with the matter still open."
"Want to screw him up, eh?" said Mr. Sleighter, his lips drawing close together.
"No, sir." Mr. Gwynne's voice had a little ring in it. "I consider it fairer to Mr. Martin."
"Don't see as how he has much claim on you," replied Mr. Sleighter. "But that's your own business. Say, there he comes now. Look here, my offer is open until six o'clock. After that it's a new deal. Take it or leave it. I will be at your store."
"Very well," said Mr. Gwynne stiffly.
Mr. Sleighter was distinctly annoyed and disappointed. A few minutes' longer pressure, he was convinced, would have practically closed a deal which would have netted him a considerable profit. "Durn old fool," he muttered to himself as he passed out of the room.
In the hallway Mrs. Gwynne's kindly welcome halted him. She greeted him as she would a friend. Would he not sit down for a few moments. No, he was busy. Mr. Sleighter was quite determined to get away from her presence.
"The children were delighted with your description of your western home," she said. "The free life, the beautiful hills, the mountains in the distance—it must indeed be a lovely country."
Mr. Sleighter was taken off his guard. "Yes, ma'am, that's lovely country all right. They'd like it fine out there, and healthy too. It would make a man of that little kid of yours. He looks a little on the weak side to me. A few months in the open and you wouldn't know him. The girls too—"
"Come in here and sit down, won't you, Mr. Sleighter?" said Mrs. Gwynne.
Mr. Sleighter reluctantly passed into the room and sat down. He knew he was taking a risk. However, his offer was already made and the deal he believed would be closed in the store by six o'clock.
"I suppose the land is all taken up out there?" said Mrs. Gwynne.
"Oh, yes, mostly, unless away back. Folks are comin' in all the time, but there's still lots of cheap land around."
"Cheap land, is there?" inquired Mrs. Gwynne with a certain eagerness in her voice. "Indeed I should have thought that that beautiful land would be very dear."
"Why, bless your heart, no. I know good land going for six—seven—eight—ten dollars an acre. Ten dollars is high for good farm lands; for cattle runs four dollars is good. No, there's lots of good land lying around out of doors there. If these people around here could get their heads up long enough from grubbing in the muck they wouldn't stay here over night. They'd be hittin' the trail for the west, you bet."
Mrs. Gwynne turned her honest eyes upon him. "Mr. Sleighter, I want to ask your advice. I feel I can rely upon you ["Durn it all, she's gettin' her work in all right," thought Mr. Sleighter to himself], and I am getting quite anxious in the matter. You see, my husband is determined to leave this place. He wishes to try something else. Indeed, he must try something else. We must make a living, Mr. Sleighter." Mrs. Gwynne's voice became hurried and anxious. "We were delighted last night by your description of that wonderful country in the West, and the children especially. I have been wondering if we might venture to try a small farm in that country—quite a small farm. We have a little money to invest. I thought I might be bold enough to ask you. I know your judgment would be good and I felt somehow that we could trust you. I hope I am not taking a liberty, but somehow I feel that you are not a stranger."
"No, ma'am, certainly not," said Mr. Sleighter in a loud voice, his hope of securing "quick action on that deal" growing dim.
"Do you happen to know any farm—a small farm—which we might be able to buy? We hope to receive four thousand dollars for this place. I feel that it is worth a good deal more, but there are not many buyers about here. Then, of course, perhaps we value our place too highly. Then by your kind help we have got something out of the business—twelve hundred and fifty dollars I think Mr. Gwynne said. We are most grateful to you for that, Mr. Sleighter." Her eyes beamed on him in a most disconcerting way. "And so after our obligations here are met we might have about forty-five hundred dollars clear. Could we do anything with that?"
"I donno, I donno," said Mr. Sleighter quickly and rising from his chair, "I will think it over. I have got to go now."
At this moment Mr. Gwynne came into the room. "Oh, I am glad you are not gone, Mr. Sleighter. I have just told Mr. Martin that I cannot accept his offer."
"Cannot accept, Michael!" said Mrs. Gwynne, dismay in her voice and in her eyes.
"I believe you said your offer was good until six, Mr. Sleighter?"
"Oh, I say, Gwynne, let's get out, let's get over to the store. It's kind of hot here, and I've got to go. Come on over and we'll clean up." Without a farewell word to either of them Mr. Sleighter passed rapidly from the room.
"I do hope there's nothing wrong, Michael," said his wife. "I fear I have made a mistake. I spoke to Mr. Sleighter about the possibility of getting a small farm in the West. You were so eager about it, Michael dear, and I spoke to Mr. Sleighter about it. I hope there is nothing wrong."
"Don't worry, mother. I have his offer for five thousand dollars. Of course he is rather peculiar, I confess, but I believe—" The door opened abruptly upon them, admitting Mr. Sleighter.
"See here, Mr. Gwynne, I can't do no business with you."
"Sir, you made me an offer for my farm," said Mr. Gwynne indignantly, "and I have just refused an offer from Mr. Martin on account of yours."
"Oh, we'll cut that all out," said Mr. Sleighter, whose voice and manner indicated strong excitement. "Now don't talk. Listen to me, my son. You ain't got any right to be playing around with business men anyhow. Now I am going to do a little business for you, if you will allow me, ma'am. I take it you want to get away from here." Mr. Gwynne nodded, gazing at him in astonishment. "You want to go West." Again Mr. Gwynne nodded. "Well, there's only one spot in the West—Alberta. You want a farm."
"Yes," said Mr. Gwynne.
"Yes, certainly," said Mrs. Gwynne.
"There's just one farm that will suit you, an' that's Lakeside Farm, Wolf Willow, Alberta, owned by H. P. Sleighter, Esq., who's going to stump you to a trade. Five hundred acres, one hundred broke an' a timber lot; a granary; stables and corral, no good; house, fair to middlin'. Two hundred an' fifty acres worth ten dollars at least, best out of doors; cattle run, two hundred acres worth five; swamp and sleugh, fifty acres, only good to look at but mighty pretty in the mornin' at sun-up. Not much money in scenery though. Building worth between two and three thousand. Your plant here is worth about six thousand. I know I offered you five thousand, but I was buyin' then and now I am buyin' and sellin'. Anyway, I guess it's about even, an' we'll save you a lot of trouble an' time an' money. An' so, if you really want a western farm, you might just as well have mine. I did not think to sell. Of course I knew I must sell in the long run, but couldn't just see my place in anybody else's hands. Somehow it seems different though to see you folks on it. You seem to fit. Anyway, there's the offer. What do you say?"
"Sit down, Mr. Sleighter," said Mr. Gwynne. "This is a rather surprising proposition."
Mrs. Gwynne's eyes grew soft. "Michael, I think it is wonderful."
But Mr. Gwynne would not look at his wife. "Let me see, Mr. Sleighter, your farm, you say, with buildings, is worth about six thousand to sixty-five hundred. Mine is worth from fifty-five hundred to six thousand. I will take your offer and pay the difference."
"Oh, come off your perch," said Mr. Sleighter. "You're doin' the highfalutin' Vere de Vere act now. Listen to me. The deal is as level as I can figger it. Your farm and store with the machine business suit me all right. I feel I can place my boy right here for a while anyway. My farm, I believe, would suit you better than anythin' else you can get. There's my offer. Take it or leave it."