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   Chapter 17 RIDING THE REEFS

Mrs. Falchion, Complete By Gilbert Parker Characters: 22874

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

The next afternoon Roscoe was sitting on the coping deep in thought, when Ruth rode up with her father, dismounted, and came upon him so quietly that he did not hear her. I was standing in the trees a little distance away.

She spoke to him once, but he did not seem to hear. She touched his arm. He got to his feet.

"You were so engaged that you did not hear me," she said.

"The noise of the rapids!" he answered, after a strange pause, "and your footstep is very light."

She leaned her chin on her hand, rested against the rail of the coping, looked meditatively into the torrent below, and replied: "Is it so light?" Then after a pause: "You have not asked me how I came, who came with me, or why I am here."

"It was first necessary for me to conceive the delightful fact that you are here," he said in a dazed, and, therefore, not convincing tone.

She looked him full in the eyes. "Please do not pay me the ill compliment of a compliment," she said. "Was it the sailor who spoke then or the-or yourself? It is not like you."

"I did not mean it as a compliment," he replied. "I was thinking about critical and important things."

"'Critical and important' sounds large," she returned.

"And the awakening was sudden," he continued. "You must make allowance, please, for-"

"For the brusque appearance of a very unimaginative, substantial, and undreamlike person? I do. And now, since you will not put me quite at my ease by assuming, in words, that I have been properly 'chaperoned' here, I must inform you that my father waits hard by-is, as my riotous young brother says, 'without on the mat.'"

"I am very glad," he replied with more politeness than exactness.

"That I was duly escorted, or that my father is 'without on the mat'? ... However, you do not appear glad one way or the other. And now I must explain our business. It is to ask your company at dinner (do consider yourself honoured-actually a formal dinner party in the Rockies!) to meet the lieutenant-governor, who is coming to see our famous Viking and Sunburst.... But you are expected to go out where my father feeds his-there, see-his horse on your 'trim parterre.' And now that I have done my duty as page and messenger without a word of assistance, Mr. Roscoe, will you go and encourage my father to hope that you will be vis-a-vis to his excellency?" She lightly beat the air with her whip, while I took a good look at the charming scene.

Roscoe looked seriously at the girl for an instant. He understood too well the source of such gay social banter. He knew it covered a hurt. He said to her: "Is this Ruth Devlin or another?"

And she replied very gravely: "It is Ruth Devlin and another too," and she looked down to the chasm beneath with a peculiar smile; and her eyes were troubled.

He left her and went and spoke to her father whom I had joined, but, after a moment, returned to Ruth. Ruth turned slightly to meet him as he came. "And is the prestige of the house of Devlin to be supported?" she said; "and the governor to be entertained with tales of flood and field?"

His face had now settled into a peculiar calmness. He said with a touch of mock irony: "The sailor shall play his part-the obedient retainer of the house of Devlin."

"Oh," she said, "you are malicious now! You turn your long accomplished satire on a woman." And she nodded to the hills opposite, as if to tell them that it was as they had said to her: those grand old hills with which she had lived since childhood, to whom she had told all that had ever happened to her.

"No, indeed no," he replied, "though I am properly rebuked. I fear I am malicious-just a little, but it is all inner-self-malice: 'Rome turned upon itself.'"

"But one cannot always tell when irony is intended for the speaker of it. Yours did not seem applied to yourself," was her slow answer, and she seemed more interested in Mount Trinity than in him.

"No?" Then he said with a playful sadness: "A moment ago you were not completely innocent of irony, were you?"

"But a man is big and broad, and should not-he should be magnanimous, leaving it to woman, whose life is spent among little things, to be guilty of littlenesses. But see how daring I am-speaking like this to you who know so much more than I do.... Surely, you are still only humorous, when you speak of irony turned upon yourself-the irony so icy to your friends?"

She had developed greatly. Her mind had been sharpened by pain. The edge of her wit had become poignant, her speech rendered logical and allusive. Roscoe was wise enough to understand that the change in her had been achieved by the change in himself; that since Mrs. Falchion came, Ruth had awakened sharply to a distress not exactly definable. She felt that though he had never spoken of love to her, she had a right to share his troubles. The infrequency of his visits to her of late, and something in his manner, made her uneasy and a little bitter. For there was an understanding between them, though it had been unspoken and unwritten. They had vowed without priest or witness. The heart speaks eloquently in symbols first, and afterwards in stumbling words.

It seemed to Roscoe at this moment, as it had seemed for some time, that the words would never be spoken. And was this all that had troubled her-the belief that Mrs. Falchion had some claim upon his life? Or had she knowledge, got in some strange way, of that wretched shadow in his past?

This possibility filled him with bitterness. The old Adam in him awoke, and he said within himself "God in heaven, must one folly, one sin, kill me and her too? Why me more than another!... And I love her, I love her!"

His eyes flamed until their blue looked all black, and his brows grew straight over them sharply, making his face almost stern.... There came swift visions of renouncing his present life; of going with her-anywhere: to tell her all, beg her forgiveness, and begin life over again, admitting that this attempt at expiation was a mistake; to have his conscience clear of secret, and trust her kindness. For now he was sure that Mrs. Falchion meant to make his position as a clergyman impossible; to revenge herself on him for no wrong that, as far as he knew, he ever did directly to her. But to tell this girl, or even her father or mother, that he had been married, after a shameful, unsanctified fashion, to a savage, with what came after, and the awful thing that happened-he who ministered at the altar! Now that he looked the thing in the face it shocked him. No, he could not do it.

She said to him, while he looked at her as though he would read her through and through, though his mind was occupied with a dreadful possibility beyond her:

"Why do you look so? You are stern. You are critical. Have I-disimproved so?"

The words were full of a sudden and natural womanly fear, that something in herself had fallen in value. They had a pathos so much the more moving because she sought to hide it.

There swam before his eyes the picture of happiness from which she herself had roused him when she came. He involuntarily, passionately, caught her hand and pressed it to his lips twice; but spoke nothing.

"Oh! oh!-please!" she said. Her voice was low and broken, and she spoke appealingly. Could he not see that he was breaking her heart, while filling it also with unbearable joy? Why did he not speak and make this possible, and not leave it a thing to flush her cheeks, and cause her to feel he had acted on a knowledge he had no right to possess till he had declared himself in speech? Could he not have spared her that?-This Christian gentleman, whose worth had compassed these mountains and won the dwellers among them-it was bitter. Her pride and injured heart rose up and choked her.

He let go her hand. Now his face was partly turned from her, and she saw how thin and pale it was. She saw, too, what I had seen during the past week, that his hair had become almost white about the temples; and the moveless sadness of his position struck her with unnatural force, so that, in spite of herself, tears came suddenly to her eyes, and a slight moan broke from her. She would have run away; but it was too late.

He saw the tears, the look of pity, indignation, pride, and love in her face.

"My love!" he cried passionately. He opened his arms to her.

But she stood still. He came very close to her, spoke quickly, and almost despairingly: "Ruth, I love you, and I have wronged you; but here is your place, if you will come."

At first she seemed stunned, and her face was turned to her mountains, as though the echo of his words were coming back to her from them, but the thing crept into her heart and flooded it. She seemed to wake, and then all her affection carried her into his arms, and she dried her eyes upon his breast.

After a time he whispered, "My dear, I have wronged you. I should not have made you care for me."

She did not seem to notice that he spoke of wrong. She said: "I was yours, Galt, even from the beginning, I think, though I did not quite know it. I remember what you read in church the first Sunday you came, and it has always helped me; for I wanted to be good."

She paused and raised her eyes to his, and then with sweet solemnity she said: "The words were:

"'The Lord God is my strength, and He will make my feet like hinds'

feet, and He will make me to walk upon mine high places.'"

"Ruth," he answered, "you have always walked on the high places. You have never failed. And you are as safe as the nest of the eagle, a noble work of God."

"No, I am not noble; but I should like to be so. Most women like goodness. It is instinct with us, I suppose. We had rather be good than evil, and when we love we can do good things; but we quiver like the compass-needle between two poles. Oh, believe me! we are weak; but we are loving."

"Your worst, Ruth, is as much higher than my best as the heaven is-"

"Galt, you hurt my fingers!" she interrupted.

He had not noticed the almost fierce strength of his clasp. But his life was desperately hungry for her. "Forgive me, dearest.-As I said, better than my best; for, Ruth, my life was-wicked, long ago. You cannot understand how wicked!"

"You are a clergyman and a good man," she said, with pathetic negation.

"You give me a heart unsoiled, unspotted of the world. I have been in some ways worse than the worst men in the valley there below."

"Galt, Galt, you shock me!" she said.

"Why did I speak? Why did I kiss your hand as I did? Because at the moment it was the only honest thing to do; because it was due you that I should say: 'Ruth, I love you, love you so much'"-here she nestled close to him-"'so well, that everything else in life is as nothing beside it-nothing! so well that I could not let you share my wretchedness.'"

She ran her hand along his breast and looked up at him with swimming eyes.

"And you think that this is fair to me? that a woman gives the heart for pleasant weather only? I do not know what your sorrow may be, but it is my right to share it. I am only a woman; but a woman can be strong for those she loves. Remember that I have always had to care for others-always; and I can bear much. I will not ask what your trouble is, I only ask you"-here she spoke slowly and earnestly, and rested her hand on his shoulder-"to say to me that you love no other

woman; and that-that no other woman has a claim upon you. Then I shall be content to pity you, to help you, to love you. God gives women many pains, but none so great as the love that will not trust utterly; for trust is our bread of life. Yes, indeed, indeed!"

"I dare not say," he said, "that it is your misfortune to love me, for in this you show how noble a woman can be. But I will say that the cup is bitter-sweet for you.... I cannot tell you now what my trouble is; but I can say that no other living woman has a claim upon me.... My reckoning is with the dead."

"That is with God," she whispered, "and He is just and merciful too.... Can it not be repaired here?" She smoothed back his hair, then let her fingers stray lightly on his cheek.

It hurt him like death to reply. "No, but there can be punishment here."

She shuddered slightly. "Punishment, punishment," she repeated fearfully-"what punishment?"

"I do not quite know." Lines of pain grew deeper in his face.... "Ruth, how much can a woman forgive?"

"A mother, everything." But she would say no more. He looked at her long and earnestly, and said at last: "Will you believe in me no matter what happens?"

"Always, always." Her smile was most winning.

"If things should appear dark against me?"

"Yes, if you give me your word."

"If I said to you that I did a wrong; that I broke the law of God, though not the laws of man?"

There was a pause in which she drew back, trembling slightly, and looked at him timidly and then steadily, but immediately put her hands bravely in his, and said: "Yes."

"I did not break the laws of man."

"It was when you were in the navy?" she inquired, in an awe-stricken tone.

"Yes, years ago."

"I know. I feel it. You must not tell me. It was a woman, and this other woman, this Mrs. Falchion knows, and she would try to ruin you, or"-here she seemed to be moved suddenly by a new thought-"or have you love her. But she shall not, she shall not-neither! For I will love you, and God will listen to me, and answer me."

"Would to Heaven I were worthy of you! I dare not think of where you might be called to follow me, Ruth."

"'Whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God,'" she rejoined in a low voice.

"'Thy God my God!'" he repeated after her slowly. He suddenly wondered if his God was her God; whether now, in his trouble, he had that comfort which his creed and profession should give him. For the first time he felt acutely that his choice of this new life might have been more a reaction from the past, a desire for expiation, than radical belief that this was the right and only thing for him to do. And when, some time after, he bade Ruth good-bye, as she went with her father, it came to him with appalling conviction that his life had been a mistake. The twist of a great wrong in a man's character distorts his vision; and if he has a tender conscience he magnifies his misdeeds.

In silence Roscoe and I watched the two ride down the slope. I guessed what had happened: afterwards I was told all. I was glad of it, though the end was not yet promising. When we turned to go towards the house again, a man lounged out of the trees towards us. He looked at me, then at Roscoe, and said:

"I'm Phil Boldrick's pal from Danger Mountain." Roscoe held out his hand, and the man took it, saying: "You're The Padre, I suppose, and Phil was soft on you. Didn't turn religious, did he? He always had a streak of God A'mighty in him; a kind of give-away-the-top-of-your-head chap; friend o' the widow and the orphan, and divvy to his last crust with a pal. I got your letter, and come over here straight to see that he's been tombed accordin' to his virtues; to lay out the dollars he left me on the people he had on his visitin' list; no loafers, no gophers, not one; but to them that stayed by him I stay, while prog and liquor last."

I saw Roscoe looking at him in an abstracted way, and, as he did not reply, I said: "Phil had many friends and no enemies." Then I told him the tale of his death and funeral, and how the valley mourned for him.

While I spoke he stood leaning against a tree, shaking his head and listening, his eyes occasionally resting on Roscoe with a look as abstracted and puzzled as that on Roscoe's face. When I had finished he drew his hand slowly down his beard and a thick sound came from behind his fingers. But he did not speak.

Then I suggested quietly that Phil's dollars could be put to a better use than for prog and liquor.

He did not reply to this at all; but after a moment's pause, in which he seemed to be studying the gambols of a squirrel in a pine tree, he rubbed his chin nervously, and more in soliloquy than conversation said: "I never had but two pals that was pals through and through. And one was Phil and the other was Jo-Jo Brackenbury."

Here Roscoe's hand, which had been picking at the bark of a poplar, twitched suddenly.

The man continued: "Poor Jo went down in the 'Fly Away' when she swung with her bare ribs flat before the wind, and swamped and tore upon the bloody reefs at Apia.... God, how they gnawed her! And never a rag holdin' nor a stick standin', and her pretty figger broke like a tin whistle in a Corliss engine. And Jo Brackenbury, the dandiest rip, the noisiest pal that ever said 'Here's how!' went out to heaven on a tearing sea."

"Jo Brackenbury-" Roscoe repeated musingly. His head was turned away from us.

"Yes, Jo Brackenbury; and Captain Falchion said to me" (I wonder that I did not start then) "when I told him how the 'Fly Away' went down to Davy, and her lovers went aloft, reefed close afore the wind-'Then,' says he, 'they've got a damned sound seaman on the Jordan, and so help me! him that's good enough to row my girl from open sea, gales poundin' and breakers showin' teeth across the bar to Maita Point, is good enough for use where seas is still and reefs ain't fashionable.'"

Roscoe's face looked haggard as it now turned towards us. "If you will meet me," he said to the stranger, "to-morrow morning, in Mr. Devlin's office at Viking, I will hand you over Phil Boldrick's legacy."

The man made as if he would shake hands with Roscoe, who appeared not to notice the motion, and then said: "I'll be there. You can bank on that; and, as we used to say down in the Spicy Isles, where neither of you have been, I s'pose, Talofa!"

He swung away down the hillside.

Roscoe turned to me. "You see, Marmion, all things circle to a centre. The trail seems long, but the fox gets killed an arm's length from his hole."

"Not always. You take it too seriously," I said. "You are no fox."

"That man will be in at the death," he persisted.

"Nonsense, Roscoe. He does not know you. What has he to do with you? This is overwrought nerves. You are killing yourself with worry."

He was motionless and silent for a minute. Then he said very quietly: "No, I do not think that I really worry now. I have known"-here he laid his hand upon my shoulder and his eyes had a shining look-"what it is to be happy, unspeakably happy, for a moment; and that stays with me. I am a coward no longer."

He drew his finger tips slowly across his forehead. Then he continued: "To-morrow I shall be angry with myself, no doubt, for having that moment's joy, but I cannot feel so now. I shall probably condemn myself for cruel selfishness; but I have touched life's highest point this afternoon, Marmion."

I drew his hand down from my shoulder and pressed it. It was cold. He withdrew his eyes from the mountain, and said: "I have had dreams, Marmion, and they are over. I lived in one: to expiate-to wipe out-a past, by spending my life for others. The expiation is not enough. I lived in another: to win a woman's love; and I have, and was caught up by it for a moment, and it was wonderful. But it is over now, quite over. ... And now for her sake renunciation must be made, before I have another dream-a long one, Marmion."

I had forebodings, but I pulled myself together and said firmly: "Roscoe, these are fancies. Stop it, man. You are moody. Come, let us walk, and talk of other things."

"No, we will not walk," he said, "but let us sit there on the coping and be quiet-quiet in that roar between the hills." Suddenly he swung round, caught me by the shoulders and held me gently so.

"I have a pain at my heart, Marmion, as if I'd heard my death sentence; such as a soldier feels who knows that Death looks out at him from iron eyes. You smile: I suppose you think I am mad."

I saw that it was best to let him speak his mind. So I answered: "Not mad, my friend. Say on what you like. Tell me all you feel. Only, for God's sake be brave, and don't give up until there's occasion. I am sure you exaggerate your danger, whatever it is."

"Listen for a minute," said he: "I had a brother Edward, as good a lad as ever was; a boisterous, healthy fellow. We had an old nurse in our family who came from Irish hills, faithful and kind to us both. There came a change over Edward. He appeared not to take the same interest in his sports. One day he came to me, looking a bit pale, and said: 'Galt, I think I should like to study for the Church.' I laughed at it, yet it troubled me in a way, for I saw he was not well. I told Martha, the nurse. She shook her head sadly, and said: 'Edward is not for the Church, but you, my lad. He is for heaven.'

"'For heaven, Martha?' laughed I.

"'In truth for heaven,' she replied, 'and that soon. The look of his eye is doom. I've seen it since I swaddled him, and he will go suddenly.'

"I was angry, and I said to her,-though she thought she spoke the truth,-'This is only Irish croaking. We'll have the banshee next.'

"She got up from her chair and answered me solemnly: 'Galt Roscoe, I HAVE heard the banshee wail, and sorrow falls upon your home. And don't you be so hard with me that have loved you, and who suffers for the lad that often and often lay upon my breast. Don't be so hard; for your day of trouble comes too. You, not he, will be priest at the altar. Death will come to him like a swift and easy sleep; but you will feel its hand upon your heart and know its hate for many a day, and bear the slow pangs of it until your life is all crushed, and you go from the world alone, Love crying after you and not able to save you, not even the love of woman-weaker than death.... And, in my grave, when that day comes beside a great mountain in a strange land, I will weep and pray for you; for I was mother to you too, when yours left you alone bewhiles, never, in this world, to come back.'

"And, Marmion, that night towards morning, as I lay in the same room with Edward, I heard his breath stop sharply. I jumped up and drew aside the curtains to let in the light, and then I knew that the old woman spoke true.... And now!... Well, I am like Hamlet-and I can say with him: 'But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart-but it is no matter!"'....

I tried to laugh and talk away his brooding, but there was little use, his convictions were so strong. Besides, what can you do with a morbidness which has its origin in fateful circumstances?

I devoutly wished that a telegram would come from Winnipeg to let me know if Boyd Madras, under his new name, could be found. I was a hunter on a faint trail.

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