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   Chapter 4 MRS. MAVOR’S STORY

Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks By Ralph Connor Characters: 19217

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


The days that followed the Black Rock Christmas were anxious days and weary, but not for the brightest of my life would I change them now; for, as after the burning heat or rocking storm the dying day lies beautiful in the tender glow of the evening, so these days have lost their weariness and lie bathed in a misty glory. The years that bring us many ills, and that pass so stormfully over us, bear away with them the ugliness, the weariness, the pain that are theirs, but the beauty, the sweetness, the rest they leave untouched, for these are eternal. As the mountains, that near at hand stand jagged and scarred, in the far distance repose in their soft robes of purple haze, so the rough present fades into the past, soft and sweet and beautiful.

I have set myself to recall the pain and anxiety of those days and nights when we waited in fear for the turn of the fever, but I can only think of the patience and gentleness and courage of her who stood beside me, bearing more than half my burden. And while I can see the face of Leslie Graeme, ghastly or flushed, and hear his low moaning or the broken words of his delirium, I think chiefly of the bright face bending over him, and of the cool, firm, swift-moving hands that soothed and smoothed and rested, and the voice, like the soft song of a bird in the twilight, that never failed to bring peace.

Mrs. Mavor and I were much together during those days. I made my home in Mr. Craig's shack, but most of my time was spent beside my friend. We did not see much of Craig, for he was heart-deep with the miners, laying plans for the making of the League the following Thursday; and though he shared our anxiety and was ever ready to relieve us, his thought and his talk had mostly to do with the League.

Mrs. Mavor's evenings were given to the miners, but her afternoons mostly to Graeme and to me, and then it was I saw another side of her character. We would sit in her little dining-room, where the pictures on the walls, the quaint old silver, and bits of curiously cut glass, all spoke of other and different days, and thence we would roam the world of literature and art. Keenly sensitive to all the good and beautiful in these, she had her favourites among the masters, for whom she was ready to do battle; and when her argument, instinct with fancy and vivid imagination, failed, she swept away all opposing opinion with the swift rush of her enthusiasm; so that, though I felt she was beaten, I was left without words to reply. Shakespeare and Tennyson and Burns she loved, but not Shelley, nor Byron, nor even Wordsworth. Browning she knew not, and therefore could not rank him with her noblest three; but when I read to her 'A Death in the Desert,' and, came to the noble words at the end of the tale-

'For all was as I say, and now the man

Lies as he once lay, breast to breast with God,'

the light shone in her eyes, and she said, 'Oh, that is good and great; I shall get much out of him; I had always feared he was impossible.' And 'Paracelsus,' too, stirred her; but when I recited the thrilling fragment, 'Prospice,' on to that closing rapturous cry-

'Then a light, then thy breast,

O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again,

And with God be the rest!'-

the red colour faded from her cheek, her breath came in a sob, and she rose quickly and passed out without a word. Ever after, Browning was among her gods. But when we talked of music, she, adoring Wagner, soared upon the wings of the mighty Tannhauser, far above, into regions unknown, leaving me to walk soberly with Beethoven and Mendelssohn. Yet with all our free, frank talk, there was all the while that in her gentle courtesy which kept me from venturing into any chamber of her life whose door she did not set freely open to me. So I vexed myself about her, and when Mr. Craig returned the next week from the Landing where he had been for some days, my first question was-

'Who is Mrs. Mavor? And how in the name of all that is wonderful and unlikely does she come to be here? And why does she stay?'

He would not answer then; whether it was that his mind was full of the coming struggle, or whether he shrank from the tale, I know not; but that night, when we sat together beside his fire, he told me the story, while I smoked. He was worn with his long, hard drive, and with the burden of his work, but as he went on with his tale, looking into the fire as he told it, he forgot all his present weariness and lived again the scenes he painted for me. This was his story:-

'I remember well my first sight of her, as she sprang from the front seat of the stage to the ground, hardly touching her husband's hand. She looked a mere girl. Let's see-five years ago-she couldn't have been a day over twenty three. She looked barely twenty. Her swift glance swept over the group of miners at the hotel door, and then rested on the mountains standing in all their autumn glory.

'I was proud of our mountains that evening. Turning to her husband, she exclaimed: "O Lewis, are they not grand? and lovely, too?" Every miner lost his heart then and there, but all waited for Abe the driver to give his verdict before venturing an opinion. Abe said nothing until he had taken a preliminary drink, and then, calling all hands to fill up, he lifted his glass high, and said solemnly-

'"Boys, here's to her."

'Like a flash every glass was emptied, and Abe called out, "Fill her up again, boys! My treat!"

'He was evidently quite worked up. Then he began, with solemn emphasis-

'"Boys, you hear me! She's a No. 1, triple X, the pure quill with a bead on it: she's a-," and for the first time in his Black Rock history Abe was stuck for a word. Some one suggested "angel."

'"Angel!" repeated Abe, with infinite contempt. "Angel be blowed," (I paraphrase here); "angels ain't in the same month with her; I'd like to see any blanked angel swing my team around them curves without a shiver."

'"Held the lines herself, Abe?" asked a miner.

'"That's what," said Abe; and then he went off into a fusilade of scientific profanity, expressive of his esteem for the girl who had swung his team round the curves; and the miners nodded to each other, and winked their entire approval of Abe's performance, for this was his specialty.

'Very decent fellow, Abe, but his talk wouldn't print.'

Here Craig paused, as if balancing Abe's virtues and vices.

'Well,' I urged, 'who is she?'

'Oh yes,' he said, recalling himself; 'she is an Edinburgh young lady-met Lewis Mayor, a young Scotch-English man, in London-wealthy, good family, and all that, but fast, and going to pieces at home. His people, who own large shares in these mines here, as a last resort sent him out here to reform. Curiously innocent ideas those old country people have of the reforming properties of this atmosphere! They send their young bloods here to reform. Here! in this devil's camp-ground, where a man's lust is his only law, and when, from sheer monotony, a man must betake himself to the only excitement of the place-that offered by the saloon. Good people in the east hold up holy hands of horror at these godless miners; but I tell you it's asking these boys a good deal to keep straight and clean in a place like this. I take my excitement in fighting the devil and doing my work generally, and that gives me enough; but these poor chaps-hard worked, homeless, with no break or change-God help them and me!' and his voice sank low.

'Well,' I persisted, 'did Mavor reform?'

Again he roused himself. 'Reform? Not exactly. In six-months he had broken through all restraint; and, mind you, not the miners' fault-not a miner helped him down. It was a sight to make angels weep when Mrs. Mavor would come to the saloon door for her husband. Every miner would vanish; they could not look upon her shame, and they would send Mavor forth in the charge of Billy Breen, a queer little chap, who had belonged to the Mavors in some way in the old country, and between them they would get him home. How she stood it puzzles me to this day; but she never made any sign, and her courage never failed. It was always a bright, brave, proud face she held up to the world-except in church; there it was different. I used to preach my sermons, I believe, mostly for her-but never so that she could suspect-as bravely and as cheerily as I could. And as she listened, and especially as she sang-how she used to sing in those days!-there was no touch of pride in her face, though the courage never died out, but appeal, appeal! I could have cursed aloud the cause of her misery, or wept for the pity of it. Before her baby was born he seemed to pull himself together, for he was quite mad about her, and from the day the baby came-talk about miracles!-from that day he never drank a drop. She gave the baby over to him, and the baby simply absorbed him.

'He was a new man. He could not drink whisky and kiss his baby. And the miners-it was really absurd if it were not so pathetic. It was the first baby in Black Rock, and they used to crowd Mavor's shop and peep into the room at the back of it-I forgot to tell you that when he lost his position as manager he opened a hardware shop, for his people chucked him, and he was too proud to write home for money-just for a chance to be asked in to see the baby. I came upon Nixon standing at the back of the shop after he had seen the baby for the first time, sobbing hard, and to my question he replied: "It's just like my own." You can't understand this. But to men who have lived so long in the mountains

that they have forgotten what a baby looks like, who have had experience of humanity only in its roughest, foulest form, this little mite, sweet and clean, was like an angel fresh from heaven, the one link in all that black camp that bound them to what was purest and best in their past.

'And to see the mother and her baby handle the miners!

'Oh, it was all beautiful beyond words! I shall never forget the shock I got one night when I found "Old Ricketts" nursing the baby. A drunken old beast he was; but there he was sitting, sober enough, making extraordinary faces at the baby, who was grabbing at his nose and whiskers and cooing in blissful delight. Poor "Old Ricketts" looked as if he had been caught stealing, and muttering something about having to go, gazed wildly round for some place in which to lay the baby, when in came the mother, saying in her own sweet, frank way: "O Mr. Ricketts" (she didn't find out till afterwards his name was Shaw), "would you mind keeping her just a little longer?-I shall be back in a few minutes." And "Old Ricketts" guessed he could wait.

'But in six months mother and baby, between them, transformed "Old Ricketts" into Mr. Shaw, fire-boss of the mines. And then in the evenings, when she would be singing her baby to sleep, the little shop would be full of miners, listening in dead silence to the baby-songs, and the English songs, and the Scotch songs she poured forth without stint, for she sang more for them than for her baby. No wonder they adored her. She was so bright, so gay, she brought light with her when she went into the camp, into the pits-for she went down to see the men work-or into a sick miner's shack; and many a man, lonely and sick for home or wife, or baby or mother, found in that back room cheer and comfort and courage, and to many a poor broken wretch that room became, as one miner put it, "the anteroom to heaven."'

Mr. Craig paused, and I waited. Then he went on slowly-

'For a year and a half that was the happiest home in all the world, till one day-'

He put his face in his hands, and shuddered.

'I don't think I can ever forget the awful horror of that bright fall afternoon, when "Old Ricketts" came breathless to me and gasped, "Come! for the dear Lord's sake," and I rushed after him. At the mouth of the shaft lay three men dead. One was Lewis Mavor. He had gone down to superintend the running of a new drift; the two men, half drunk with Slavin's whisky, set off a shot prematurely, to their own and Mavor's destruction. They were badly burned, but his face was untouched. A miner was sponging off the bloody froth oozing from his lips. The others were standing about waiting for me to speak. But I could find no word, for my heart was sick, thinking, as they were, of the young mother and her baby waiting at home. So I stood, looking stupidly from one to the other, trying to find some reason-coward that I was-why another should bear the news rather than I. And while we stood there, looking at one another in fear, there broke upon us the sound of a voice mounting high above the birch tops, singing-

"Will ye no' come back again?

Will ye no' come back again?

Better lo'ed ye canna be,

Will ye no' come back again?"

'A strange terror seized us. Instinctively the men closed up in front of the body, and stood in silence. Nearer and nearer came the clear, sweet voice, ringing like a silver bell up the steep-

"Sweet the lav'rock's note and lang,

Liltin' wildly up the glen,

But aye tae me he sings ae sang,

Will ye no' come back again?"

'Before the verse was finished "Old Ricketts" had dropped on his knees, sobbing out brokenly, "O God! O God! have pity, have pity, have pity!"-and every man took off his hat. And still the voice came nearer, singing so brightly the refrain,

'"Will ye no' come back again?'

'It became unbearable. "Old Ricketts" sprang suddenly to his feet, and, gripping me by the arm, said piteously, "Oh, go to her! for Heaven's sake, go to her!" I next remember standing in her path and seeing her holding out her hands full of red lilies, crying out, "Are they not lovely? Lewis is so fond of them!" With the promise of much finer ones I turned her down a path toward the river, talking I know not what folly, till her great eyes grew grave, then anxious, and my tongue stammered and became silent. Then, laying her hand upon my arm, she said with gentle sweetness, "Tell me your trouble, Mr. Craig," and I knew my agony had come, and I burst out, "Oh, if it were only mine!" She turned quite white, and with her deep eyes-you've noticed her eyes-drawing the truth out of mine, she said, "Is it mine, Mr. Craig, and my baby's?" I waited, thinking with what words to begin. She put one hand to her heart, and with the other caught a little poplar-tree that shivered under her grasp, and said with white lips, but even more gently, "Tell me." I wondered at my voice being so steady as I said, "Mrs. Mavor, God will help you and your baby. There has been an accident-and it is all over."

'She was a miner's wife, and there was no need for more. I could see the pattern of the sunlight falling through the trees upon the grass. I could hear the murmur of the river, and the cry of the cat-bird in the bushes, but we seemed to be in a strange and unreal world. Suddenly she stretched out her hands to me, and with a little moan said, "Take me to him."

'"Sit down for a moment or two," I entreated.

'"No, no! I am quite ready. See," she added quietly, "I am quite strong."

'I set off by a short cut leading to her home, hoping the men would be there before us; but, passing me, she walked swiftly through the trees, and I followed in fear. As we came near the main path I heard the sound of feet, and I tried to stop her, but she, too, had heard and knew. "Oh, let me go!" she said piteously; "you need not fear." And I had not the heart to stop her. In a little opening among the pines we met the bearers. When the men saw her, they laid their burden gently down upon the carpet of yellow pine-needles, and then, for they had the hearts of true men in them, they went away into the bushes and left her alone with her dead. She went swiftly to his side, making no cry, but kneeling beside him she stroked his face and hands, and touched his curls with her fingers, murmuring all the time soft words of love. "O my darling, my bonnie, bonnie darling, speak to me! Will ye not speak to me just one little word? O my love, my love, my heart's love! Listen, my darling!" And she put her lips to his ear, whispering, and then the awful stillness. Suddenly she lifted her head and scanned his face, and then, glancing round with a wild surprise in her eyes, she cried, "He will not speak to me! Oh, he will not speak to me!" I signed to the men, and as they came forward I went to her and took her hands.

'"Oh," she said with a wail in her voice; "he will not speak to me." The men were sobbing aloud. She looked at them with wide-open eyes of wonder. "Why are they weeping? Will he never speak to me again? Tell me," she insisted gently. The words were running through my head-

'"There's a land that is fairer than day,"

and I said them over to her, holding her hands firmly in mine. She gazed at me as if in a dream, and the light slowly faded from her eyes as she said, tearing her hands from mine and waving them towards the mountains and the woods-

'"But never more here? Never more here?"

'I believe in heaven and the other life, but I confess that for a moment it all seemed shadowy beside the reality of this warm, bright world, full of life and love. She was very ill for two nights, and when the coffin was closed a new baby lay in the father's arms.

'She slowly came back to life, but there were no more songs. The miners still come about her shop, and talk to her baby, and bring her their sorrows and troubles; but though she is always gentle, almost tender, with them, no man ever says "Sing." And that is why I am glad she sang last week; it will be good for her and good for them.'

'Why does she stay?' I asked.

'Mavor's people wanted her to go to them,' he replied.

'They have money-she told me about it, but her heart is in the grave up there under the pines; and besides, she hopes to do something for the miners, and she will not leave them.'

I am afraid I snorted a little impatiently as I said, 'Nonsense! why, with her face, and manner, and voice she could be anything she liked in Edinburgh or in London.'

'And why Edinburgh or London?' he asked coolly.

'Why?' I repeated a little hotly. 'You think this is better?'

'Nazareth was good enough for the Lord of glory,' he answered, with a smile none too bright; but it drew my heart to him, and my heat was gone.

'How long will she stay?' I asked.

'Till her work is done,' he replied.

'And when will that be?' I asked impatiently.

'When God chooses,' he answered gravely; 'and don't you ever think but that it is worth while. One value of work is not that crowds stare at it. Read history, man!'

He rose abruptly and began to walk about. 'And don't miss the whole meaning of the Life that lies at the foundation of your religion. Yes,' he added to himself, 'the work is worth doing-worth even her doing.'

I could not think so then, but the light of the after years proved him wiser than I. A man, to see far, must climb to some height, and I was too much upon the plain in those days to catch even a glimpse of distant sunlit uplands of triumphant achievement that lie beyond the valley of self-sacrifice.

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