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   Chapter 13 THE SONG OF THE SAW

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 25242

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


There was still a subdued note to Roscoe's manner the next morning. He was pale. He talked freely however of the affairs of Viking and Sunburst, and spoke of business which called him to Mr. Devlin's great saw mill that day. A few moments after breakfast we were standing in the doorway. "Well," he said, "shall we go?"

I was not quite sure where he meant to go, but I took my hat and joined him. I wondered if it would be to the summer hotel or the great mill. My duty lay in the direction of the hotel. When we stepped out, he added: "Let us take the bridle-path along the edge of the ravine to the hotel."

The morning was beautiful. The atmosphere of the woods was of soft, diffusive green-the sunlight filtering through the transparent leaves. Bowers of delicate ferns and vines flanked the path, and an occasional clump of giant cedars invited us: the world was eloquent.

Several tourists upon the verandah of the hotel remarked us with curiosity as we entered. A servant said that Mrs. Falchion would be glad to see us; and we were ushered into her sitting-room. She carried no trace of yesterday's misadventure. She appeared superbly well. And yet, when I looked again, when I had time to think upon and observe detail, I saw signs of change. There was excitement in the eyes, and a slight nervous darkness beneath them, which added to their charm. She rose, smiling, and said: "I fear I am hardly entitled to this visit, for I am beyond convalescence, and Justine is not in need of shrift or diagnosis, as you see."

I was not so sure of Justine Caron as she was, and when I had paid my respects to her, I said a little priggishly (for I was young), still not too solemnly: "I cannot allow you to pronounce for me upon my patients, Mrs. Falchion; I must make my own inquiries."

But Mrs. Falchion was right. Justine Caron was not suffering much from her immersion; though, speaking professionally, her temperature was higher than the normal. But that might be from some impulse of the moment, for Justine was naturally a little excitable.

We walked aside, and, looking at me with a flush of happiness in her face, she said: "You remember one day on the 'Fulvia' when I told you that money was everything to me; that I would do all I honourably could to get it?"

I nodded. She continued: "It was that I might pay a debt-you know it. Well, money is my god no longer, for I can pay all I owe. That is, I can pay the money, but not the goodness, the noble kindness. He is most good, is he not? The world is better that such men as Captain Galt Roscoe live-ah, you see I cannot quite think of him as a clergyman. I wonder if I ever shall!" She grew suddenly silent and abstracted, and, in the moment's pause, some ironical words in Mrs. Falchion's voice floated across the room to me: "It is so strange to see you so. And you preach, and baptise; and marry, and bury, and care for the poor and-ah, what is it?-'all those who, in this transitory life, are in sorrow, need, sickness, or any other adversity'?... And do you never long for the flesh-pots of Egypt? Never long for"-here her voice was not quite so clear-"for the past?"

I was sure that, whatever she was doing, he had been trying to keep the talk, as it were, on the surface. I was equally sure that, to her last question, he would make no reply. Though I was now speaking to Justine Caron, I heard him say quite calmly and firmly: "Yes, I preach, baptise, marry, and bury, and do all I can for those who need help."

"The people about here say that you are good and charitable. You have won the hearts of the mountaineers. But you always had a gift that way."-I did not like her tone.-"One would almost think you had founded a new dispensation. And if I had drowned yesterday, you would, I suppose, have buried me, and have preached a little sermon about me.-You could have done that better than any one else!... What would you have said in such a case?"

There was an earnest, almost a bitter, protest in the reply.

"Pardon me, if I cannot answer your question. Your life was saved, and that is all we have to consider, except to be grateful to Providence. The duties of my office have nothing to do with possibilities."

She was evidently torturing him, and I longed to say a word that would torture her. She continued: "And the flesh-pots-you have not answered about them: do you not long for them-occasionally?"

"They are of a period," he answered, "too distant for regret."

"And yet," she replied softly, "I fancied sometimes in London last year, that you had not outgrown that antique time-those lotos-days."

He made no reply at once, and in the pause Justine and I passed out to the verandah.

"How long does Mrs. Falchion intend remaining here, Miss Caron?" I said.

Her reply was hesitating: "I do not quite know; but I think some time. She likes the place; it seems to amuse her."

"And you-does it amuse you?"

"It does not matter about me. I am madame's servant; but, indeed, it does not amuse me particularly."

"Do you like the place?"

The reply was somewhat hurried, and she glanced at me a little nervously. "Oh yes," she said, "I like the place, but-"

Here Roscoe appeared at the door and said, "Mrs. Falchion wishes to see Viking and Mr. Devlin's mills, Marmion. She will go with us."

In a little time we were on our way to Viking. I walked with Mrs. Falchion, and Roscoe with Justine. I was aware of a new element in Mrs. Falchion's manner. She seemed less powerfully attractive to me than in the old days, yet she certainly was more beautiful. It was hard to trace the new characteristic. But at last I thought I saw it in a decrease of that cold composure, that impassiveness, so fascinating in the past. In its place had come an allusive, restless something, to be found in words of troublesome vagueness, in variable moods, in an increased sensitiveness of mind and an undercurrent of emotional bitterness-she was emotional at last! She puzzled me greatly, for I saw two spirits in her: one pitiless as of old; the other human, anxious, not unlovely.

At length we became silent, and walked so side by side for a time. Then, with that old delightful egotism and selfishness-delightful in its very daring-she said: "Well, amuse me!"

"And is it still the end of your existence," I rejoined-"to be amused?"

"What is there else to do?" she replied with raillery.

"Much. To amuse others, for instance; to regard human beings as something more than automata."

"Has Mr. Roscoe made you a preaching curate? I helped Amshar at the Tanks."

"One does not forget that. Yet you pushed Amshar with your foot."

"Did you expect me to kiss the black coward? Then, I nursed Mr. Roscoe in his illness."

"And before that?"

"And before that I was born into the world, and grew to years of knowledge, and learned what fools we mortals be, and-and there-is that Mr. Devlin's big sawmill?"

We had suddenly emerged on a shelf of the mountainside, and were looking down into the Long Cloud Valley. It was a noble sight. Far to the north were foothills covered with the glorious Norfolk pine, rising in steppes till they seemed to touch white plateaus of snow, which again billowed to glacier fields whose austere bosoms man's hand had never touched; and these suddenly lifted up huge, unapproachable shoulders, crowned with majestic peaks that took in their teeth the sun, the storm, and the whirlwinds of the north, never changing countenance from day to year and from year to age.

Facing this long line of glory, running irregularly on towards that sea where Franklin and M'Clintock led their gay adventurers,-the bold ships,-was another shore, not so high or superior, but tall and sombre and warm, through whose endless coverts of pine there crept and idled the generous Chinook winds-the soothing breath of the friendly Pacific. Between these shores the Long Cloud River ran; now boisterous, now soft, now wallowing away through long channels, washing gorges always dark as though shaded by winter, and valleys always green as favoured by summer. Creeping along a lofty narrow path upon that farther shore was a mule train, bearing packs which would not be opened till, through the great passes of the mountain, they were spilled upon the floors of fort and post on the east side of the Rockies.

Not far from where the mule train crept along was a great hole in the mountain-side, as though antique giants of the hills had tunnelled through to make themselves a home or to find the eternal secret of the mountains. Near to this vast dark cavity was a hut-a mere playhouse, it seemed, so small was it, viewed from where we stood. From the edge of a cliff just in front of this hut, there swung a long cable, which reached almost to the base of the shore beneath us; and, even as we looked, we saw what seemed a tiny bucket go swinging slowly down that strange hypotenuse. We watched it till we saw it get to the end of its journey in the valley beneath, not far from the great mill to which we were bound.

"How mysterious!" said Mrs. Falchion. "What does it mean? I never saw anything like that before. What a wonderful thing!"

Roscoe explained. "Up there in that hut," he said, "there lives a man called Phil Boldrick. He is a unique fellow, with a strange history. He has been miner, sailor, woodsman, river-driver, trapper, salmon-fisher;-expert at the duties of each of these, persistent at none. He has a taste for the ingenious and the unusual. For a time he worked in Mr. Devlin's mill. It was too tame for him. He conceived the idea of supplying the valley with certain necessaries, by intercepting the mule trains as they passed across the hills, and getting them down to Viking by means of that cable. The valley laughed at him; men said it was impossible. He went to Mr. Devlin, and Mr. Devlin came to me. I have, as you know, some knowledge of machinery and engineering. I thought the thing feasible but expensive, and told Mr. Devlin so. However, the ingenuity of the thing pleased Mr. Devlin, and, with that singular enterprise which in other directions has made him a rich man, he determined on its completion. Between us we managed it. Boldrick carries on his aerial railway with considerable success, as you see."

"A singular man," said Mrs. Falchion. "I should like to see him. Come, sit down here and tell me all you know about him, will you not?"

Roscoe assented. I arranged a seat for us, and we all sat.

Roscoe was about to begin, when Mrs. Falchion said, "Wait a minute. Let us take in this scene first."

We were silent. After a moment I turned to Mrs. Falchion, and said: "It is beautiful, is it not?"

She drew in a long breath, her eyes lighted up, and she said, with a strange abandon of gaiety: "Yes, it is delightful to live."

It seemed so, in spite of the forebodings of my friend and my own uneasiness concerning him, Ruth Devlin, and Mrs. Falchion. The place was all peace: a very monotony of toil and pleasure. The heat drained through the valley back and forth in visible palpitations upon the roofs of the houses, the mills, and the vast piles of lumber: all these seemed breathing. It looked a busy Arcady. From beneath us life vibrated with the regularity of a pulse: distance gave a kind of delighted ease to toil. Event appeared asleep.

But when I look back now, after some years, at the experiences of that day, I am astonished by the running fire of events, which, unfortunately, were not all joy.

As I write I can hear that keen wild singing of the saw come to us distantly, with a pleasant, weird elation. The big mill hung above the river, its sides all open, humming with labour, as I had seen it many a time during my visit to Roscoe. The sun beat in upon it, making a broad piazza of light about its sides. Beyond it were pleasant shadows, through which men passed and repassed at their work. Life was busy all about it. Yet the picture was bold, open, and strong. Great iron hands reached down into the water, clamped a massive log or huge timber, lightly drew it up the slide from the water, where, guided by the hand-spikes of the men, it was laid upon its cradle and carried slowly to the devouring teeth of the saws: there to be sliced through rib and bone in moist sandwiched layers, oozing the sweet sap of its fibre; and carried out again into the open to be drained to dry bones under the exhaust-pipes of the sun: piles upon piles; houses with wide chinks through which the winds wandered, looking for tenants and finding none.

To the north were booms of logs, swilling in

the current, waiting for their devourer. Here and there were groups of river-drivers and their foremen, prying twisted heaps of logs from the rocks or the shore into the water. Other groups of river-drivers were scattered upon the banks, lifting their huge red canoes high up on the platforms, the spring's and summer's work of river-driving done; while others lounged upon the grass, or wandered lazily through the village, sporting with the Chinamen, or chaffing the Indian idling in the sun-a garish figure stoically watching the inroads of civilisation. The town itself was squat but amiable: small houses and large huts; the only place of note and dignity, the new town hall, which was greatly overshadowed by the big mill, and even by the two smaller ones flanking it north and south.

But Viking was full of men who had breathed the strong life of the hills, had stolen from Nature some of her brawny strength, and set themselves up before her as though a man were as great as a mountain and as good a thing to see. It was of such a man that Galt Roscoe was to tell us. His own words I will not give, but will speak of Phil Boldrick as I remember him and as Roscoe described him to us.

Of all the men in the valley, none was so striking as Phil Boldrick. Of all faces his was the most singular; of all characters his the most unique; of all men he was the most unlucky, save in one thing-the regard of his fellows. Others might lay up treasures, not he; others lose money at gambling, not he-he never had much to lose. But yet he did all things magniloquently. The wave of his hand was expansive, his stride was swaying and decisive, his over-ruling, fraternal faculty was always in full swing. Viking was his adopted child; so much so that a gentleman river-driver called it Philippi; and by that name it sometimes went, and continues still so among those who knew it in the old days.

Others might have doubts as to the proper course to pursue under certain circumstances; it was not so with Phil. They might argue a thing out orally, he did so mentally, and gave judgment on it orally. He was final, not oracular. One of his eyes was of glass, and blue; the other had an eccentricity, and was of a deep and meditative grey. It was a wise and knowing eye. It was trained to many things-like one servant in a large family. One side of his face was solemn, because of the gay but unchanging blue eye, the other was gravely humourous, shrewdly playful. His fellow citizens respected him; so much so, that they intended to give him an office in the new-formed corporation; which means that he had courage and downrightness, and that the rough, straightforward gospel of the West was properly interpreted by him.

If a stranger came to the place, Phil was sent first to reconnoitre; if any function was desirable, Phil was requested to arrange it; if justice was to be meted out, Phil's opinion had considerable weight-for he had much greater leisure than other more prosperous men; if a man was taken ill (this was in the days before a doctor came), Phil was asked to declare if he would "shy from the finish."

I heard Roscoe more than once declare that Phil was as good as two curates to him. Not that Phil was at all pious, nor yet possessed of those abstemious qualities in language and appetite by which good men are known; but he had a gift of civic virtue-important in a wicked world, and of unusual importance in Viking. He had neither self-consciousness nor fear; and while not possessed of absolute tact in a social way, he had a knack of doing the right thing bluntly, or the wrong thing with an air of rightness. He envied no man, he coveted nothing; had once or twice made other men's fortunes by prospecting, but was poor himself. And in all he was content, and loved life and Viking.

Immediately after Roscoe had reached the mountains Phil had become his champion, declaring that there was not any reason why a man should not be treated sociably because he was a parson. Phil had been a great traveller, as had many who settled at last in these valleys to the exciting life of the river: salmon-catching or driving logs. He had lived for a time in Lower California and Mexico, and had given Roscoe the name of The Padre: which suited the genius and temper of the rude population. And so it was that Roscoe was called The Padre by every one, though he did not look the character.

As he told his story of Phil's life I could not help but contrast him with most of the clergymen I knew or had seen. He had the admirable ease and tact of a cultured man of the world, and the frankness and warmth of a hearty nature, which had, however, some inherent strain of melancholy. Wherever I had gone with him I had noticed that he was received with good-humoured deference by his rough parishioners and others who were such only in the broadest sense. Perhaps he would not have succeeded so well if he had worn clerical clothes. As it was, of a week day, he could not be distinguished from any respectable layman. The clerical uniform attracts women more than men, who, if they spoke truly, would resent it. Roscoe did not wear it, because he thought more of men than of function, of manliness than clothes; and though this sometimes got him into trouble with his clerical brethren who dearly love Roman collar, and coloured stole, and the range of ritual from a lofty intoning to the eastward position, he managed to live and himself be none the worse, while those who knew him were certainly the better.

When Roscoe had finished his tale, Mrs. Falchion said: "Mr. Boldrick must be a very interesting man;" and her eyes wandered up to the great hole in the mountain-side, and lingered there. "As I said, I must meet him," she added; "men of individuality are rare." Then: "That great 'hole in the wall' is, of course, a natural formation."

"Yes," said Roscoe. "Nature seems to have made it for Boldrick. He uses it as a storehouse."

"Who watches it while he is away?" she said. "There is no door to the place, of course."

Roscoe smiled enigmatically. "Men do not steal up here: that is the unpardonable crime; any other may occur and go unpunished; not it."

The thought seemed to strike Mrs. Falchion. "I might have known!" she said. "It is the same in the South Seas among the natives-Samoans, Tongans, Fijians, and others. You can-as you know, Mr. Roscoe,"-her voice had a subterranean meaning,-"travel from end to end of those places, and, until the white man corrupts them, never meet with a case of stealing; you will find them moral too in other ways until the white man corrupts them. But sometimes the white man pays for it in the end."

Her last words were said with a kind of dreaminess, as though they had no purpose; but though she sat now idly looking into the valley beneath, I could see that her eyes had a peculiar glance, which was presently turned on Roscoe, then withdrawn again. On him the effect was so far disturbing that he became a little pale, but I noticed that he met her glance unflinchingly and then looked at me, as if to see in how far I had been affected by her speech. I think I confessed to nothing in my face.

Justine Caron was lost in the scene before us. She had, I fancy, scarcely heard half that had been said. Roscoe said to her presently: "You like it, do you not?"

"Like it?" she said. "I never saw anything so wonderful."

"And yet it would not be so wonderful without humanity there," rejoined Mrs. Falchion. "Nature is never complete without man. All that would be splendid without the mills and the machinery and Boldrick's cable, but it would not be perfect: it needs man-Phil Boldrick and Company in the foreground. Nature is not happy by itself: it is only brooding and sorrowful. You remember the mountain of Talili in Samoa, Mr. Roscoe, and the valley about it: how entrancing yet how melancholy it is. It always seems to be haunted, for the natives never live in the valley. There is a tradition that once one of the white gods came down from heaven, and built an altar, and sacrificed a Samoan girl-though no one ever knew quite why: for there the tradition ends."

I felt again that there was a hidden meaning in her words; but Roscoe remained perfectly still. It seemed to me that I was little by little getting the threads of his story. That there was a native girl; that the girl had died or been killed; that Roscoe was in some way-innocently I dared hope-connected with it; and that Mrs. Falchion held the key to the mystery, I was certain. That it was in her mind to use the mystery, I was also certain. But for what end I could not tell. What had passed between them in London the previous winter I did not know: but it seemed evident that she had influenced him there as she did on the 'Fulvia', had again lost her influence, and was now resenting the loss, out of pique or anger, or because she really cared for him. It might be that she cared.

She added after a moment: "Add man to nature, and it stops sulking: which goes to show that fallen humanity is better than no company at all."

She had an inherent strain of mockery, of playful satire, and she told me once, when I knew her better, that her own suffering always set her laughing at herself, even when it was greatest. It was this characteristic which made her conversation very striking, it was so sharply contrasted in its parts; a heartless kind of satire set against the most serious and acute statements. One never knew when she would turn her own or her interlocutor's gravity into mirth.

Now no one replied immediately to her remarks, and she continued: "If I were an artist I should wish to paint that scene, given that the lights were not so bright and that mill machinery not so sharply defined. There is almost too much limelight, as it were; too much earnestness in the thing. Either there should be some side-action of mirth to make it less intense, or of tragedy to render it less photographic; and unless, Dr. Marmion, you would consent to be solemn, which would indeed be droll; or that The Padre there-how amusing they should call him that!-should cease to be serious, which, being so very unusual, would be tragic, I do not know how we are to tell the artist that he has missed a chance of immortalising himself."

Roscoe said nothing, but smiled at her vivacity, while he deprecated her words by a wave of his hand. I also was silent for a moment; for there had come to my mind, while she was speaking and I was watching the scene, something that Hungerford had said to me once on board the 'Fulvia'. "Marmion," said he, "when everything at sea appears so absolutely beautiful and honest that it thrills you, and you're itching to write poetry, look out. There's trouble ahead. It's only the pretty pause in the happy scene of the play before the villain comes in and tumbles things about. When I've been on the bridge," he continued, "of a night that set my heart thumping, I knew, by Jingo! it was the devil playing his silent overture. Don't you take in the twaddle about God sending thunderbolts; it's that old war-horse down below.-And then I've kept a sharp lookout, for I knew as right as rain that a company of waterspouts would be walking down on us, or a hurricane racing to catch us broadsides. And what's gospel for sea is good for land, and you'll find it so, my son."

I was possessed of the same feeling now as I looked at the scene before us, and I suppose I seemed moody, for immediately Mrs. Falchion said: "Why, now my words have come true; the scene can be made perfect. Pray step down to the valley, Dr. Marmion, and complete the situation, for you are trying to seem serious, and it is irresistibly amusing-and professional, I suppose; one must not forget that you teach the young 'sawbones' how to saw."

I was piqued, annoyed. I said, though I admit it was not cleverly said: "Mrs. Falchion, I am willing to go and complete that situation, if you will go with me; for you would provide the tragedy-plenty of it; there would be the full perihelion of elements; your smile is the incarnation of the serious."

She looked at me full in the eyes. "Now that," she said, "is a very good 'quid pro quo'-is that right?-and I have no doubt that it is more or less true; and for a doctor to speak truth and a professor to be under stood is a matter for angels. And I actually believe that, in time, you will be free from priggishness, and become a brilliant conversationalist; and-suppose we wander on to our proper places in the scene.... Besides, I want to see that strange man, Mr. Boldrick."

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