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Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks By Ralph Connor Characters: 20618

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Thursday morning found Craig anxious, even gloomy, but with fight in every line of his face. I tried to cheer him in my clumsy way by chaffing him about his League. But he did not blaze up as he often did. It was a thing too near his heart for that. He only shrank a little from my stupid chaff and said-

'Don't, old chap; this is a good deal to me. I've tried for two years to get this, and if it falls through now, I shall find it hard to bear.'

Then I repented my light words and said, 'Why! the thing will go sure enough: after that scene in the church they won't go back.'

'Poor fellows!' he said as if to himself; 'whisky is about the only excitement they have, and they find it pretty tough to give it up; and a lot of the men are against the total abstinence idea. It seems rot to them.'

'It is pretty steep,' I said. 'Can't you do without it?'

'No; I fear not. There is nothing else for it. Some of them talk of compromise. They want to quit the saloon and drink quietly in their shacks. The moderate drinker may have his place in other countries, though I can't see it. I haven't thought that out, but here the only safe man is the man who quits it dead and fights it straight; anything else is sheerest humbug and nonsense.'

I had not gone in much for total abstinence up to this time, chiefly because its advocates seemed for the most part to be somewhat ill-balanced; but as I listened to Craig, I began to feel that perhaps there was a total abstinence side to the temperance question; and as to Black Rock, I could see how it must be one thing or the other.

We found Mrs. Mavor brave and bright. She shared Mr. Craig's anxiety but not his gloom. Her courage was of that serene kind that refuses to believe defeat possible, and lifts the spirit into the triumph of final victory. Through the past week she had been carefully disposing her forces and winning recruits. And yet she never seemed to urge or persuade the men; but as evening after evening the miners dropped into the cosy room downstairs, with her talk and her songs she charmed them till they were wholly hers. She took for granted their loyalty, trusted them utterly, and so made it difficult for them to be other than true men.

That night Mrs. Mavor's large storeroom, which had been fitted up with seats, was crowded with miners when Mr. Craig and I entered.

After a glance over the crowd, Craig said, 'There's the manager; that means war.' And I saw a tall man, very fair, whose chin fell away to the vanishing point, and whose hair was parted in the middle, talking to Mrs. Mavor. She was dressed in some rich soft stuff that became her well. She was looking beautiful as ever, but there was something quite new in her manner. Her air of good-fellowship was gone, and she was the high-bred lady, whose gentle dignity and sweet grace, while very winning, made familiarity impossible.

The manager was doing his best, and appeared to be well pleased with himself. 'She'll get him if any one can. I failed,' said Craig.

I stood looking at the men, and a fine lot of fellows they were. Free, easy, bold in their bearing, they gave no sign of rudeness; and, from their frequent glances toward Mrs. Mavor, I could see they were always conscious of her presence. No men are so truly gentle as are the Westerners in the presence of a good woman. They were evidently of all classes and ranks originally, but now, and in this country of real measurements, they ranked simply according to the 'man' in them. 'See that handsome, young chap of dissipated appearance?' said Craig; 'that's Vernon Winton, an Oxford graduate, blue blood, awfully plucky, but quite gone. When he gets repentant, instead of shooting himself, he comes to Mrs. Mavor. Fact.'

'From Oxford University to Black Rock mining camp is something of a step,' I replied.

'That queer-looking little chap in the corner is Billy Breen. How in the world has he got here?' went on Mr. Craig. Queer-looking he was. A little man, with a small head set on heavy square shoulders, long arms, and huge hands that sprawled all over his body; altogether a most ungainly specimen of humanity.

By this time Mrs. Mavor had finished with the manager, and was in the centre of a group of miners. Her grand air was all gone, and she was their comrade, their friend, one of themselves. Nor did she assume the role of entertainer, but rather did she, with half-shy air, cast herself upon their chivalry, and they were too truly gentlemen to fail her. It is hard to make Western men, and especially old-timers, talk. But this gift was hers, and it stirred my admiration to see her draw on a grizzled veteran to tell how, twenty years ago, he had crossed the Great Divide, and had seen and done what no longer fell to men to see or do in these new days. And so she won the old-timer. But it was beautiful to see the innocent guile with which she caught Billy Breen, and drew him to her corner near the organ. What she was saying I knew not, but poor Billy was protesting, waving his big hands.

The meeting came to order, with Shaw in the chair, and the handsome young Oxford man secretary. Shaw stated the object of the meeting in a few halting words; but when he came to speak of the pleasure he and all felt in being together in that room, his words flowed in a stream, warm and full. Then there was a pause, and Mr. Craig was called. But he knew better than to speak at that point. Finally Nixon rose hesitatingly; but, as he caught a bright smile from Mrs. Mavor, he straightened himself as if for a fight.

'I ain't no good at makin' speeches,' he began; 'but it ain't speeches we want. We've got somethin' to do, and what we want to know is how to do it. And to be right plain, we want to know how to drive this cursed whisky out of Black Rock. You all know what it's doing for us-at least for some of us. And it's time to stop it now, or for some of us it'll mighty soon be too late. And the only way to stop its work is to quit drinkin' it and help others to quit. I hear some talk of a League, and what I say is, if it's a League out and out against whisky, a Total Abstinence right to the ground, then I'm with it-that's my talk-I move we make that kind of League.'

Nixon sat down amid cheers and a chorus of remarks, 'Good man!' 'That's the talk!' 'Stay with it!' but he waited for the smile and the glance that came to him from the beautiful face in the corner, and with that he seemed content.

Again there was silence. Then the secretary rose with a slight flush upon his handsome, delicate face, and seconded the motion. If they would pardon a personal reference he would give them his reasons. He had come to this country to make his fortune; now he was anxious to make enough to enable him to go home with some degree of honour. His home held everything that was dear to him. Between him and that home, between him and all that was good and beautiful and honourable, stood whisky. 'I am ashamed to confess,' and the flush deepened on his cheek, and his lips grew thinner, 'that I feel the need of some such league.' His handsome face, his perfect style of address, learned possibly in the 'Union,' but, more than all, his show of nerve-for these men knew how to value that-made a strong impression on his audience; but there were no following cheers.

Mr. Craig appeared hopeful; but on Mrs. Mavor's face there was a look of wistful, tender pity, for she knew how much the words had cost the lad.

Then up rose a sturdy, hard-featured man, with a burr in his voice that proclaimed his birth. His name was George Crawford, I afterwards learned, but every one called him Geordie. He was a character in his way, fond of his glass; but though he was never known to refuse a drink, he was never known to be drunk. He took his drink, for the most part, with bread and cheese in his own shack, or with a friend or two in a sober, respectable way, but never could be induced to join the wild carousals in Slavin's saloon. He made the highest wages, but was far too true a Scot to spend his money recklessly. Every one waited eagerly to hear Geordie's mind. He spoke solemnly, as befitted a Scotsman expressing a deliberate opinion, and carefully, as if choosing his best English, for when Geordie became excited no one in Black Rock could understand him.

'Maister Chairman,' said Geordie, 'I'm aye for temperance in a' things.' There was a shout of laughter, at which Geordie gazed round in pained surprise. 'I'll no' deny,' he went on in an explanatory tone, 'that I tak ma mornin', an' maybe a nip at noon; an' a wee drap aifter wark in the evenin', an' whiles a sip o' toddy wi' a freen thae cauld nichts. But I'm no' a guzzler, an' I dinna gang in wi' thae loons flingin' aboot guid money.'

'And that's thrue for you, me bye,' interrupted a rich Irish brogue, to the delight of the crowd and the amazement of Geordie, who went calmly on-

'An' I canna bide yon saloon whaur they sell sic awfu'-like stuff-it's mair like lye nor guid whisky,-and whaur ye're never sure o' yer richt change. It's an awfu'-like place; man!'-and Geordie began to warm up-'ye can juist smell the sulphur when ye gang in. But I dinna care aboot thae Temperance Soceeities, wi' their pledges an' havers; an' I canna see what hairm can come till a man by takin' a bottle o' guid Glenlivet hame wi' him. I canna bide thae teetotal buddies.'

Geordie's speech was followed by loud applause, partly appreciative of Geordie himself, but largely sympathetic with his position.

Two or three men followed in the same strain advocating a league for mutual improvement and social purposes, but without the teetotal pledge; they were against the saloon, but didn't see why they should not take a drink now and then.

Finally the manager rose to support his 'friend, Mistah-ah-Cwafoad,' ridiculing the idea of a total abstinence pledge as fanatical and indeed 'absuad.' He was opposed to the saloon, and would like to see a club formed, with a comfortable club-room, books, magazines, pictures, games, anything, 'dontcheknow, to make the time pass pleasantly'; but it was 'absuad to ask men to abstain fwom a pwopah use of-aw-nouwishing dwinks,' because some men made beasts of themselves. He concluded by offering $50.00 towards the support of such

a club.

The current of feeling was setting strongly against the total abstinence idea, and Craig's face was hard and his eyes gleamed like coals. Then he did a bit of generalship. He proposed that since they had the two plans clearly before them they should take a few minutes' intermission in which to make up their minds, and he was sure they would be glad to have Mrs. Mavor sing. In the interval the men talked in groups, eagerly, even fiercely, hampered seriously in the forceful expression of their opinion by the presence of Mrs. Mavor, who glided from group to group, dropping a word here and a smile there. She reminded me of a general riding along the ranks, bracing his men for the coming battle. She paused beside Geordie, spoke earnestly for a few moments, while Geordie gazed solemnly at her, and then she came back to Billy in the corner near me. What she was saying I could not hear, but poor Billy was protesting, spreading his hands out aimlessly before him, but gazing at her the while in dumb admiration. Then she came to me. 'Poor Billy, he was good to my husband,' she said softly, 'and he has a good heart.'

'He's not much to look at,' I could not help saying.

'The oyster hides its pearl,' she answered, a little reproachfully.

'The shell is apparent enough,' I replied, for the mischief was in me.

'Ah yes,' she replied softly, 'but it is the pearl we love.'

I moved over beside Billy, whose eyes were following Mrs. Mavor as she went to speak to Mr. Craig. 'Well,' I said; 'you all seem to have a high opinion of her.'

'An 'igh hopinion,' he replied, in deep scorn. 'An 'igh hopinion, you calls it.'

'What would you call it?' I asked, wishing to draw him out.

'Oi don't call it nothink,' he replied, spreading out his rough hands.

'She seems very nice,' I said indifferently.

He drew his eyes away from Mrs. Mavor, and gave attention to me for the first time.

'Nice!' he repeated with fine contempt; and then he added impressively, 'Them as don't know shouldn't say nothink.'

'You are right,' I answered earnestly, 'and I am quite of your opinion.'

He gave me a quick glance out of his little, deep-set, dark-blue eyes, and opened his heart to me. He told me, in his quaint speech, how again and again she had taken him in and nursed him, and encouraged him, and sent him out with a new heart for his battle, until, for very shame's sake at his own miserable weakness, he had kept out of her way for many months, going steadily down.

'Now, oi hain't got no grip; but when she says to me to-night, says she, "Oh, Billy"-she calls me Billy to myself' (this with a touch of pride)-'"oh, Billy," says she, "we must 'ave a total habstinence league to-night, and oi want you to 'elp!" and she keeps a-lookin' at me with those heyes o' hern till, if you believe me, sir,' lowering his voice to an emphatic whisper, 'though oi knowed oi couldn't 'elp none, afore oi knowed oi promised 'er oi would. It's 'er heyes. When them heyes says "do," hup you steps and "does."'

I remembered my first look into her eyes, and I could quite understand Billy's submission. Just as she began to sing I went over to Geordie and took my seat beside him. She began with an English slumber song, 'Sleep, Baby, Sleep'-one of Barry Cornwall's, I think,-and then sang a love-song with the refrain, 'Love once again'; but no thrills came to me, and I began to wonder if her spell over me was broken. Geordie, who had been listening somewhat indifferently, encouraged me, however, by saying, 'She's just pittin' aff time with thae feckless sangs; man, there's nae grup till them.' But when, after a few minutes' pause, she began 'My Ain Fireside,' Geordie gave a sigh of satisfaction. 'Ay, that's somethin' like,' and when she finished the first verse he gave me a dig in the ribs with his elbow that took my breath away, saying in a whisper, 'Man, hear till yon, wull ye?' And again I found the spell upon me. It was not the voice after all, but the great soul behind that thrilled and compelled. She was seeing, feeling, living what she sang, and her voice showed us her heart. The cosy fireside, with its bonnie, blithe blink, where no care could abide, but only peace and love, was vividly present to her, and as she sang we saw it too. When she came to the last verse-

'When I draw in my stool

On my cosy hearth-stane,

My heart loups sae licht

I scarce ken't for my ain,'

there was a feeling of tears in the flowing song, and we knew the words had brought her a picture of the fireside that would always seem empty. I felt the tears in my eyes, and, wondering at myself, I cast a stealthy glance at the men about me; and I saw that they, too, were looking through their hearts' windows upon firesides and ingle-neuks that gleamed from far.

And then she sang 'The Auld Hoose,' and Geordie, giving me another poke, said, 'That's ma ain sang,' and when I asked him what he meant, he whispered fiercely, 'Wheesht, man!' and I did, for his face looked dangerous.

In a pause between the verses I heard Geordie saying to himself, 'Ay, I maun gie it up, I doot.'

'What?' I ventured.

'Naething ava.' And then he added impatiently, 'Man, but ye're an inqueesitive buddie,' after which I subsided into silence.

Immediately upon the meeting being called to order, Mr. Craig made his speech, and it was a fine bit of work. Beginning with a clear statement of the object in view, he set in contrast the two kinds of leagues proposed. One, a league of men who would take whisky in moderation; the other, a league of men who were pledged to drink none themselves, and to prevent in every honourable way others from drinking. There was no long argument, but he spoke at white heat; and as he appealed to the men to think, each not of himself alone, but of the others as well, the yearning, born of his long months of desire and of toil, vibrated in his voice and reached to the heart. Many men looked uncomfortable and uncertain, and even the manager looked none too cheerful.

At this critical moment the crowd got a shock. Billy Breen shuffled out to the front, and, in a voice shaking with nervousness and emotion, began to speak, his large, coarse hands wandering tremulously about.

'Oi hain't no bloomin' temperance horator, and mayhap oi hain't no right to speak 'ere, but oi got somethin' to saigh (say) and oi'm agoin' to saigh it.

'Parson, 'ee says is it wisky or no wisky in this 'ere club? If ye hask me, wich (which) ye don't, then no wisky, says oi; and if ye hask why?-look at me! Once oi could mine more coal than hany man in the camp; now oi hain't fit to be a sorter. Once oi 'ad some pride and hambition; now oi 'angs round awaitin' for some one to saigh, "Ere, Billy, 'ave summat." Once oi made good paigh (pay), and sent it 'ome regular to my poor old mother (she's in the wukus now, she is); oi hain't sent 'er hany for a year and a 'alf. Once Billy was a good fellow and 'ad plenty o' friends; now Slavin 'isself kicks un hout, 'ee does. Why? why?' His voice rose to a shriek. 'Because when Billy 'ad money in 'is pocket, hevery man in this bloomin' camp as meets un at hevery corner says, "'Ello, Billy, wat'll ye 'ave?" And there's wisky at Slavin's, and there's wisky in the shacks, and hevery 'oliday and hevery Sunday there's wisky, and w'en ye feel bad it's wisky, and w'en ye feel good it's wisky, and heverywhere and halways it's wisky, wisky, wisky! And now ye're goin' to stop it, and 'ow? T' manager, 'ee says picters and magazines. 'Ee takes 'is wine and 'is beer like a gentleman, 'ee does, and 'ee don't 'ave no use for Billy Breen. Billy, 'ee's a beast, and t' manager, 'ee kicks un hout. But supposin' Billy wants to stop bein' a beast, and starts a-tryin' to be a man again, and w'en 'ee gets good an' dry, along comes some un and says, "'Ello, Billy, 'ave a smile," it hain't picters nor magazines 'ud stop un then. Picters and magazines! Gawd 'elp the man as hain't nothin' but picters and magazines to 'elp un w'en 'ee's got a devil hinside and a devil houtside a-shovin' and a-drawin' of un down to 'ell. And that's w'ere oi'm a-goin' straight, and yer bloomin' League, wisky or no wisky, can't help me. But,' and he lifted his trembling hands above his head, 'if ye stop the wisky a-flowin' round this camp, ye'll stop some of these lads that's a-followin' me 'ard. Yes, you! and you! and you!' and his voice rose to a wild scream as he shook a trembling finger at one and another.

'Man, it's fair gruesome tae hear him,' said Geordie; 'he's no' canny'; and reaching out for Billy as he went stumbling past, he pulled him down to a seat beside him, saying, 'Sit doon, lad, sit doon. We'll mak a man o' ye yet.' Then he rose and, using many r's, said, 'Maister Chairman, a' doot we'll juist hae to gie it up.'

'Give it up?' called out Nixon. 'Give up the League?'

'Na! na! lad, but juist the wee drap whusky. It's nae that guid onyway, and it's a terrible price. Man, gin ye gang tae Henderson's in Buchanan Street, in Gleska, ye ken, ye'll get mair for three-an'-saxpence than ye wull at Slavin's for five dollars. An' it'll no' pit ye mad like yon stuff, but it gangs doon smooth an' saft-like. But' (regretfully) 'ye'll no' can get it here; an' a'm thinkin' a'll juist sign yon teetotal thing.' And up he strode to the table and put his name down in the book Craig had ready. Then to Billy he said, 'Come' awa, lad! pit yer name doon, an' we'll stan' by ye.'

Poor Billy looked around helplessly, his nerve all gone, and sat still. There was a swift rustle of garments, and Mrs. Mavor was beside him, and, in a voice that only Billy and I could hear, said, 'You'll sign with, me, Billy?'

Billy gazed at her with a hopeless look in his eyes, and shook his little, head. She leaned slightly toward him, smiling brightly, and, touching his arm gently, said-

'Come, Billy, there's no fear,' and in a lower voice, 'God will help you.'

As Billy went up, following Mrs. Mavor close, a hush fell on the men until he had put his name to the pledge; then they came up, man by man, and signed. But Craig sat with his head down till I touched his shoulder. He took my hand and held it fast, saying over and over, under his breath, 'Thank God, thank God!'

And so the League was made.

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