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   Chapter 16 A DUEL IN ARCADY

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 16870

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The more I thought of Mrs. Falchion's attitude towards Roscoe, the more I was puzzled. But I had at last reduced the position to this: Years ago Roscoe had cared for her and she had not cared for him. Angered or indignant at her treatment of him, Roscoe's affections declined unworthily elsewhere. Then came a catastrophe of some kind, in which Alo (whoever she was) suffered. The secret of this catastrophe Mrs. Falchion, as I believe, held. There was a parting, a lapse of years, and then the meeting on the 'Fulvia': with it, partial restoration of Mrs. Falchion's influence, then its decline, and then a complete change of position. It was now Mrs. Falchion that cared, and Roscoe that shunned. It perplexed me that there seemed to be behind Mrs. Falchion's present regard for Roscoe some weird expression of vengeance, as though somehow she had been wronged, and it was her duty to punish. In no other way was the position definable. That Roscoe would never marry her was certain to my mind. That he could not marry her now was also certain-to me; I had the means to prevent it. That she wished to marry him I was not sure, though she undoubtedly cared for him. Remained, therefore, the supposition that if he cared for her she would do him no harm, as to his position. But if he married Ruth, disaster would come-Roscoe himself acknowledged that she held the key of his fortunes.

Upon an impulse, and as a last resort, I had taken action whereby in some critical moment I might be able to wield a power over Mrs. Falchion. I was playing a blind game, but it was the only card I held. I had heard from the lawyer in Montreal that Madras, under another name, had gone to the prairie country to enter the mounted police. I had then telegraphed to Winnipeg, but had got no answer.

I had seen her many times, but we had never, except very remotely, touched upon the matter which was uppermost in both our minds. It was not my wish to force the situation. I knew that my opportunity would come wherein to spy upon the mind of the enemy. It came. On the evening that Justine Caron called upon Roscoe, I accidentally met Mrs. Falchion in the grounds of the hotel. She was with several people, and as I spoke to her she made a little gesture of invitation. I went over, was introduced to her companions, and then she said:

"Dr. Marmion, I have not yet made that visit to the salmon-fishers at Sunburst. Unfortunately, on the days when I called on Miss Devlin, my time was limited. But now I have a thirst for adventure, and time hangs heavy. Will you perform your old office of escort, and join a party, which we can make up here, to go there to-morrow?"

I had little love for Mrs. Falchion, but I consented, because it seemed to me the chance had come for an effective talk with her; and I suggested that we should go late in the afternoon of the next day, and remain till night and see the Indians, the half-breeds, and white fishermen working by torch-light on the river. The proposition was accepted with delight.

Then the conversation turned upon the feud that existed between Viking and Sunburst, the river-drivers and the fishers. During the last few days, owing to the fact that there were a great many idle river-men about, the river-driving for the season being done, there had been more than one quarrel of a serious nature at Sunburst. It had needed a great deal of watchfulness on the part of Mr. Devlin and his supporters to prevent fighting. In Sunburst itself, Mr. Devlin had much personal influence. He was a man of exceedingly strong character, bold, powerful, persuasive. But this year there had been a large number of rough, adventurous characters among the river-men, and they seemed to take delight in making sport of, and even interfering with, the salmon-fishers. We talked of these things for some time, and then I took my leave. As I went, Mrs. Falchion stepped after me, tapped me on the arm, and said in a slow, indolent tone:

"Whenever you and I meet, Dr. Marmion, something happens-something strange. What particular catastrophe have you arranged for to-morrow? For you are, you know, the chorus to the drama."

"Do not spoil the play by anticipation," I said.

"One gets very weary of tragedy," she retorted. "Comedy would be a relief. Could you not manage it?"

"I do not know about to-morrow," I said, "as to a comedy. But I promise you that one of these days I will present to you the very finest comedy imaginable."

"You speak oracularly," she said; "still you are a professor, and professors always pose. But now, to be perfectly frank with you, I do not believe that any comedy you could arrange would be as effective as your own."

"You have read 'Much Ado about Nothing'," I said.

"Oh, it is as good as that, is it?" she asked.

"Well, it has just as good a final situation," I answered. She seemed puzzled, for she saw I spoke with some undercurrent of meaning. "Mrs. Falchion," I said to her suddenly and earnestly, "I wish you to think between now and to-morrow of what I am just going to say to you."

"It sounds like the task set an undergraduate, but go on," she said.

"I wish you to think," said I, "of the fact that I helped to save your life."

She flushed; an indignant look shot into her face, and her voice vibrating, she said:

"What man would have done less?" Then, almost immediately after, as though repenting of what she had said, she continued in a lower tone and with a kind of impulsiveness uncommon to her: "But you had courage, and I appreciate that; still, do not ask too much. Good-night."

We parted at that, and did not meet again until the next afternoon, when I joined her and her party at the summer hotel. Together we journeyed down to Sunburst.

It was the height of the salmon-fishing season. Sunburst lay cloyed among the products of field and forest and stream. At Viking one got the impression of a strong pioneer life, vibrant, eager, and with a touch of Arcady. But viewed from a distance Sunburst seemed Arcady itself. It was built in green pastures, which stretched back on one side of the river, smooth, luscious, undulating to the foot-hills. This was on one side of the Whi-Whi River. On the other side was a narrow margin, and then a sheer wall of hills in exquisite verdure. The houses were of wood, and chiefly painted white, sweet and cool in the vast greenness. Cattle wandered shoulders deep in the rich grass, and fruit of all kinds was to be had for the picking. The population was strangely mixed. Men had drifted here from all parts of the world, sometimes with their families, sometimes without them. Many of them had settled here after mining at the Caribou field and other places on the Frazer River. Mexican, Portuguese, Canadian, Californian, Australian, Chinaman, and coolie lived here, side by side, at ease in the quiet land, following a primitive occupation with primitive methods.

One could pick out the Indian section of the village, because not far from it was the Indian graveyard, with its scaffolding of poles and brush and its offerings for the dead. There were almost interminable rows of scaffolding on the river's edge and upon the high bank where hung the salmon drying in the sun. The river, as it ambled along, here over shallows, there over rapids and tiny waterfalls, was the pathway for millions and millions of salmon upon a pilgrimage to the West and North-to the happy hunting grounds of spawn. They came in droves so thick at times that, crowding up the little creeks which ran into the river, they filled them so completely as to dam up the water and make the courses a solid mass of living and dead fish. In the river itself they climbed the rapids and leaped the little waterfalls with incredible certainty; except where man had prepared his traps for them. Sometimes these traps were weirs or by-washes, made of long lateral tanks of wicker-work. Down among the boulders near the shore, scaffoldings were raised, and from these the fishermen with nets and wicker-work baskets caught the fish as they came up.

We wandered about during the afternoon immensely interested in all that we saw. During that time the party was much together, and my conversation with Mrs. Falchion was general. We had supper at a quiet little tavern, idled away an hour in drinking in the pleasant scene; and when dusk came went out again to the banks of the river.

From the time we

left the tavern to wander by the river I managed to be a good deal alone with Mrs. Falchion. I do not know whether she saw that I was anxious to speak with her privately, but I fancy she did. Whatever we had to say must, in the circumstances, however serious, be kept superficially unimportant. And, as it happened, our serious conference was carried on with an air of easy gossip, combined with a not artificial interest in all we saw. And there was much to see. Far up and down the river the fragrant dusk was spotted with the smoky red light of torches, and the atmosphere shook with shadows, through which ran the song of the river, more amiable than the song of the saw, and the low, weird cry of the Indians and white men as they toiled for salmon in the glare of the torches. Here upon a scaffolding a half-dozen swung their nets and baskets in the swift river, hauling up with their very long poles thirty or forty splendid fish in an hour; there at a small cascade, in great baskets sunk into the water, a couple of Indians caught and killed the salmon that, in trying to leap the fall, plumped into the wicker cage; beyond, others, more idle and less enterprising, speared the finny travellers, thus five hundred miles from home-the brave Pacific.

Upon the banks the cleaning and curing went on, the women and children assisting, and as the Indians and half-breeds worked they sang either the wild Indian melodies, snatches of brave old songs of the 'voyageurs' of a past century, or hymns taught by the Jesuit missionaries in the persons of such noble men as Pere Lacombe and Pere Durieu, who have wandered up and down the vast plains of both sides of the Rockies telling an old story in a picturesque, heroic way. These old hymns were written in Chinook, that strange language,-French, English, Spanish, Indian, arranged by the Hudson's Bay Company, which is, like the wampum-belt, a common tongue for tribes and peoples not speaking any language but their own. They were set to old airs-lullabies, chansons, barcarolles, serenades, taken out of the folk-lore of many lands. Time and again had these simple arcadian airs been sung as a prelude to some tribal act that would not bear the search-light of civilisation-little by the Indians east of the Rockies, for they have hard hearts and fierce tongues, but much by the Shuswaps, Siwashes, and other tribes of the Pacific slope, whose natures are for peace more than for war; who, one antique day, drifted across from Japan or the Corea, and never, even in their wild, nomadic state, forgot their skill and craft in wood and gold and silver.

We sat on the shore and watched the scene for a time, saying nothing. Now and again, as from scaffolding to scaffolding, from boat to boat, and from house to house, the Chinook song rang and was caught up in a slow monotone, so not interfering with the toil, there came the sound of an Indian drum beaten indolently, or the rattle of dry hard sticks-a fantastic accompaniment.

"Does it remind you of the South Seas?" I asked Mrs. Falchion, as, with her chin on her hand, she watched the scene.

She drew herself up, almost with an effort, as though she had been lost in thought, and looked at me curiously for a moment. She seemed trying to call back her mind to consider my question. Presently she answered me: "Very little. There is something finer, stronger here. The atmosphere has more nerve, the life more life. This is not a land for the idle or vicious, pleasant as it is."

"What a thinker you are, Mrs. Falchion!"

She seemed to recollect herself suddenly. Her voice took on an inflection of satire. "You say it with the air of a discoverer. With Columbus and Hervey and you, the world-" She stopped, laughing softly at the thrust, and moved the dust about with her foot.

"In spite of the sarcasm, I am going to add that I feel a personal satisfaction in your being a woman who does think, and acts more on thought than impulse."

"'Personal satisfaction' sounds very royal and august. It is long, I imagine, since you took a-personal satisfaction-in me."

I was not to be daunted. "People who think a good deal and live a fresh, outdoor life-you do that-naturally act most fairly and wisely in time of difficulty-and contretemps."

"But I had the impression that you thought I acted unfairly and unwisely-at such times."

We had come exactly where I wanted. In our minds we were both looking at those miserable scenes on the 'Fulvia', when Madras sought to adjust the accounts of life and sorely muddled them.

"But," said I, "you are not the same woman that you were."

"Indeed, Sir Oracle," she answered: "and by what necromancy do you know?"

"By none. I think you are sorry now-I hope you are-for what-"

She interrupted me indignantly. "You go too far. You are almost-unbearable. You said once that the matter should be buried, and yet here you work for an opportunity, Heaven knows why, to place me at a disadvantage!"

"Pardon me," I answered; "I said that I would never bring up those wretched scenes unless there was cause. There is cause."

She got to her feet. "What cause-what possible cause can there be?"

I met her eye firmly. "I am bound to stand by my friend," I said. "I can and I will stand by him."

"If it is a game of drawn swords, beware!" she retorted. "You speak to me as if I were a common adventuress. You mistake me, and forget that you-of all men-have little margin of high morality on which to speculate."

"No, I do not forget that," I said, "nor do I think of you as an adventuress. But I am sure you hold a power over my friend, and-"

She stopped me. "Not one word more on the subject. You are not to suppose this or that. Be wise do not irritate and annoy a woman like me. It were better to please me than to preach to me."

"Mrs. Falchion," I said firmly, "I wish to please you-so well that some day you will feel that I have been a good friend to you as well as to him-"

Again she interrupted me. "You talk in foolish riddles. No good can come of this."

"I cannot believe that," I urged; "for when once your heart is moved by the love of a man, you will be just, and then the memory of another man who loved you and sinned for you-"

"Oh, you coward!" she broke out scornfully-"you coward to persist in this!"

I made a little motion of apology with my hand, and was silent. I was satisfied. I felt that I had touched her as no words of mine had ever touched her before. If she became emotional, was vulnerable in her feelings, I knew that Roscoe's peace might be assured. That she loved Roscoe now I was quite certain. Through the mists I could see a way, even if I failed to find Madras and arrange another surprising situation. She was breathing hard with excitement.

Presently she said with incredible quietness, "Do not force me to do hard things. I have a secret."

"I have a secret too," I answered. "Let us compromise."

"I do not fear your secret," she answered. She thought I was referring to her husband's death. "Well," I replied, "I honestly hope you never will. That would be a good day for you."

"Let us go," she said; then, presently: "No, let us sit here and forget that we have been talking."

I was satisfied. We sat down. She watched the scene silently, and I watched her. I felt that it would be my lot to see stranger things happen to her than I had seen before; but all in a different fashion. I had more hope for my friend, for Ruth Devlin, for-!

I then became silent even to myself. The weltering river, the fishers and their labour and their songs, the tall dark hills, the deep gloomy pastures, the flaring lights, were then in a dream before me; but I was thinking, planning.

As we sat there, we heard noises, not very harmonious, interrupting the song of the salmon-fishers. We got up to see. A score of river-drivers were marching down through the village, mocking the fishers and making wild mirth. The Indians took little notice, but the half-breeds and white fishers were restless.

"There will be trouble here one day," said Mrs. Falchion.

"A free fight which will clear the air," I said.

"I should like to see it-it would be picturesque, at least," she added cheerfully; "for I suppose no lives would be lost."

"One cannot tell," I answered; "lives do not count so much in new lands."

"Killing is hateful, but I like to see courage."

And she did see it.

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