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   Chapter 8 THE BREAKING OF THE LEAGUE

Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks By Ralph Connor Characters: 22820

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


There is no doubt in my mind that nature designed me for a great painter. A railway director interfered with that design of nature, as he has with many another of hers, and by the transmission of an order for mountain pieces by the dozen, together with a cheque so large that I feared there was some mistake, he determined me to be an illustrator and designer for railway and like publications. I do not like these people ordering 'by the dozen.' Why should they not consider an artist's finer feelings? Perhaps they cannot understand them; but they understand my pictures, and I understand their cheques, and there we are quits. But so it came that I remained in Black Rock long enough to witness the breaking of the League.

Looking back upon the events of that night from the midst of gentle and decent surroundings, they now seem strangely unreal, but to me then they appeared only natural.

It was the Good Friday ball that wrecked the League. For the fact that the promoters of the ball determined that it should be a ball rather than a dance was taken by the League men as a concession to the new public opinion in favour of respectability created by the League. And when the manager's patronage had been secured (they failed to get Mrs. Mavor's), and it was further announced that, though held in the Black Rock Hotel ballroom-indeed, there was no other place-refreshments suited to the peculiar tastes of League men would be provided, it was felt to be almost a necessity that the League should approve, should indeed welcome, this concession to the public opinion in favour of respectability created by the League.

There were extreme men on both sides, of course. 'Idaho' Jack, professional gambler, for instance, frankly considered that the whole town was going to unmentionable depths of propriety. The organisation of the League was regarded by him, and by many others, as a sad retrograde towards the bondage of the ancient and dying East; and that he could not get drunk when and where he pleased, 'Idaho,' as he was called, regarded as a personal grievance.

But Idaho was never enamoured of the social ways of Black Rock. He was shocked and disgusted when he discovered that a 'gun' was decreed by British law to be an unnecessary adornment of a card-table. The manner of his discovery must have been interesting to behold.

It is said that Idaho was industriously pursuing his avocation in Slavin's, with his 'gun' lying upon the card-table convenient to his hand, when in walked policeman Jackson, her Majesty's sole representative in the Black Rock district. Jackson, 'Stonewall' Jackson, or 'Stonewall,' as he was called for obvious reasons, after watching the game for a few moments, gently tapped the pistol and asked what he used this for.

'I'll show you in two holy minutes if you don't light out,' said Idaho, hardly looking up, but very angrily, for the luck was against him. But Jackson tapped upon the table and said sweetly-

'You're a stranger here. You ought to get a guide-book and post yourself. Now, the boys know I don't interfere with an innocent little game, but there is a regulation against playing it with guns; so,' he added even more sweetly, but fastening Idaho with a look from his steel-grey eyes, 'I'll just take charge of this,' picking up the revolver; 'it might go off.'

Idaho's rage, great as it was, was quite swallowed up in his amazed disgust at the state of society that would permit such an outrage upon personal liberty. He was quite unable to play any more that evening, and it took several drinks all round to restore him to articulate speech. The rest of the night was spent in retailing for his instruction stories of the ways of Stonewall Jackson.

Idaho bought a new 'gun,' but he wore it 'in his clothes,' and used it chiefly in the pastime of shooting out the lights or in picking off the heels from the boys' boots while a stag dance was in progress in Slavin's. But in Stonewall's presence Idaho was a most correct citizen. Stonewall he could understand and appreciate. He was six feet three, and had an eye of unpleasant penetration. But this new feeling in the community for respectability he could neither understand nor endure. The League became the object of his indignant aversion, and the League men of his contempt. He had many sympathisers, and frequent were the assaults upon the newly-born sobriety of Billy Breen and others of the League. But Geordie's watchful care and Mrs. Mavor's steady influence, together with the loyal co-operation of the League men, kept Billy safe so far. Nixon, too, was a marked man. It may be that he carried himself with unnecessary jauntiness toward Slavin and Idaho, saluting the former with, 'Awful dry weather! eh, Slavin?' and the latter with, 'Hello, old sport! how's times?' causing them to swear deeply; and, as it turned out, to do more than swear.

But on the whole the anti-League men were in favour of a respectable ball, and most of the League men determined to show their appreciation of the concession of the committee to the principles of the League in the important matter of refreshments by attending in force.

Nixon would not go. However jauntily he might talk, he could not trust himself, as he said, where whisky was flowing, for it got into his nose 'like a fish-hook into a salmon.' He was from Nova Scotia. For like reason, Vernon Winton, the young Oxford fellow, would not go. When they chaffed, his lips grew a little thinner, and the colour deepened in his handsome face, but he went on his way. Geordie despised the 'hale hypothick' as a 'daft ploy,' and the spending of five dollars upon a ticket he considered a 'sinfu' waste o' guid siller'; and he warned Billy against 'coontenancin' ony sic redeeklus nonsense.'

But no one expected Billy to go; although the last two months he had done wonders for his personal appearance, and for his position in the social scale as well. They all knew what a fight he was making, and esteemed him accordingly. How well I remember the pleased pride in his face when he told me in the afternoon of the committee's urgent request that he should join the orchestra with his 'cello! It was not simply that his 'cello was his joy and pride, but he felt it to be a recognition of his return to respectability.

I have often wondered how things combine at times to a man's destruction.

Had Mr. Craig not been away at the Landing that week, had Geordie not been on the night-shift, had Mrs. Mavor not been so occupied with the care of her sick child, it may be Billy might have been saved his fall.

The anticipation of the ball stirred Black Rock and the camps with a thrill of expectant delight. Nowadays, when I find myself forced to leave my quiet smoke in my studio after dinner at the call of some social engagement which I have failed to elude, I groan at my hard lot, and I wonder as I look back and remember the pleasurable anticipation with which I viewed the approaching ball. But I do not wonder now any more than I did then at the eager delight of the men who for seven days in the week swung their picks up in the dark breasts of the mines, or who chopped and sawed among the solitary silences of the great forests. Any break in the long and weary monotony was welcome; what mattered the cost or consequence! To the rudest and least cultured of them the sameness of the life must have been hard to bear; but what it was to men who had seen life in its most cultured and attractive forms I fail to imagine. From the mine, black and foul, to the shack, bare, cheerless, and sometimes hideously repulsive, life swung in heart-grinding monotony till the longing for a 'big drink' or some other 'big break' became too great to bear.

It was well on towards evening when Sandy's four horse team, with a load of men from the woods, came swinging round the curves of the mountain-road and down the street. A gay crowd they were with their bright, brown faces and hearty voices; and in ten minutes the whole street seemed alive with lumbermen-they had a faculty of spreading themselves so. After night fell the miners came down 'done up slick,' for this was a great occasion, and they must be up to it. The manager appeared in evening dress; but this was voted 'too giddy' by the majority.

As Graeme and I passed up to the Black Rock Hotel, in the large store-room of which the ball was to be held, we met old man Nelson looking very grave.

'Going, Nelson, aren't you?' I said.

'Yes,' he answered slowly; 'I'll drop in, though I don't like the look of things much.'

'What's the matter, Nelson?' asked Graeme cheerily. 'There's no funeral on.'

'Perhaps not,' replied Nelson, 'but I wish Mr. Craig were home.' And then he added, 'There's Idaho and Slavin together, and you may bet the devil isn't far off.'

But Graeme laughed at his suspicion, and we passed on. The orchestra was tuning up. There were two violins, a concertina, and the 'cello. Billy Breen was lovingly fingering his instrument, now and then indulging himself in a little snatch of some air that came to him out of his happier past. He looked perfectly delighted, and as I paused to listen he gave me a proud glance out of his deep, little, blue eyes, and went on playing softly to himself. Presently Shaw came along.

'That's good, Billy,' he called out. 'You've got the trick yet, I see.'

But Billy only nodded and went on playing.

'Where's Nixon?' I asked.

'Gone to bed,' said Shaw, 'and I am glad of it. He finds that the safest place on pay-day afternoon. The boys don't bother him there.'

The dancing-room was lined on two sides with beer-barrels and whisky-kegs; at one end the orchestra sat, at the other was a table with refreshments, where the 'soft drinks' might be had. Those who wanted anything else might pass through a short passage into the bar just behind.

This was evidently a superior kind of ball, for the men kept on their coats, and went through the various figures with faces of unnatural solemnity. But the strain upon their feelings was quite apparent, and it became a question how long it could be maintained. As the trips through the passage-way became more frequent the dancing grew in vigour and hilarity, until by the time supper was announced the stiffness had sufficiently vanished to give no further anxiety to the committee.

But the committee had other cause for concern, inasmuch as after supper certain of the miners appeared with their coats off, and proceeded to 'knock the knots out of the floor' in break-down dances of extraordinary energy. These, however, were beguiled into the bar-room and 'filled up' for safety, for the committee were determined that the respectability of the ball should be preserved to the end. Their reputation was at stake, not in Black Rock only, but at the Landing as well, from which most of the ladies had come; and to be shamed in the presence of the Landing people could not be borne. Their difficulties seemed to be increasing, for at this point something seemed to go wrong with the orchestra. The 'cello appeared to be wandering aimlessly up and down the scale, occasionally picking up the tune with animation, and then dropping it. As Billy saw me approaching, he drew himself up with great solemnity, gravely winked at me, and said-

'Shlipped a cog, Mishter Connor! Mosh hunfortunate! Beauchiful hinstrument, but sh

lips a cog. Mosh hunfortunate!'

And he wagged his little head sagely, playing all the while for dear life, now second and now lead.

Poor Billy! I pitied him, but I thought chiefly of the beautiful, eager face that leaned towards him the night the League was made, and of the bright voice that said, 'You'll sign with me, Billy?' and it seemed to me a cruel deed to make him lose his grip of life and hope; for this is what the pledge meant to him.

While I was trying to get Billy away to some safe place, I heard a great shouting in the direction of the bar, followed by trampling and scuffling of feet in the passage-way. Suddenly a man burst through, crying-

'Let me go! Stand back! I know what I'm about!'

It was Nixon, dressed in his best; black clothes, blue shirt, red tie, looking handsome enough, but half-drunk and wildly excited. The highland Fling competition was on at the moment, and Angus Campbell, Lachlan's brother, was representing the lumber camps in the contest. Nixon looked on approvingly for a few moments, then with a quick movement he seized the little Highlander, swung him in his powerful arms clean off the floor, and deposited him gently upon a beer-barrel. Then he stepped into the centre of the room, bowed to the judges, and began a sailor's hornpipe.

The committee were perplexed, but after deliberation they decided to humour the new competitor, especially as they knew that Nixon with whisky in him was unpleasant to cross.

Lightly and gracefully he went through his steps, the men crowding in from the bar to admire, for Nixon was famed for his hornpipe. But when, after the hornpipe, he proceeded to execute a clog-dance, garnished with acrobatic feats, the committee interfered. There were cries of 'Put him out!' and 'Let him alone! Go on, Nixon!' And Nixon hurled back into the crowd two of the committee who had laid remonstrating hands upon him, and, standing in the open centre, cried out scornfully-

'Put me out! Put me out! Certainly! Help yourselves! Don't mind me!' Then grinding his teeth, so that I heard them across the room, he added with savage deliberation, 'If any man lays a finger on me, I'll-I'll eat his liver cold.'

He stood for a few moments glaring round upon the company, and then strode toward the bar, followed by the crowd wildly yelling. The ball was forthwith broken up. I looked around for Billy, but he was nowhere to be seen. Graeme touched my arm-

'There's going to be something of a time, so just keep your eyes skinned.'

'What are you going to do?' I asked.

'Do? Keep myself beautifully out of trouble,' he replied.

In a few moments the crowd came surging back headed by Nixon, who was waving a whisky-bottle over his head and yelling as one possessed.

'Hello!' exclaimed Graeme softly, 'I begin to see. Look there!'

'What's up?' I asked.

'You see Idaho and Slavin and their pets,' he replied.

'They've got poor Nixon in tow. Idaho is rather nasty,' he added, 'but I think I'll take a hand in this game; I've seen some of Idaho's work before.'

The scene was one quite strange to me, and was wild beyond description. A hundred men filled the room. Bottles were passed from hand to hand, and men drank their fill. Behind the refreshment-tables stood the hotelman and his barkeeper with their coats off and sleeves rolled up to the shoulder, passing out bottles, and drawing beer and whisky from two kegs hoisted up for that purpose. Nixon was in his glory. It was his night. Every man was to get drunk at his expense, he proclaimed, flinging down bills upon the table. Near him were some League men he was treating liberally, and never far away were Idaho and Slavin passing bottles, but evidently drinking little.

I followed Graeme, not feeling too comfortable, for this sort of thing was new to me, but admiring the cool assurance with which he made his way through the crowd that swayed and yelled and swore and laughed in a most disconcerting manner.

'Hello!' shouted Nixon as he caught sight of Graeme. 'Here you are!' passing him a bottle. 'You're a knocker, a double-handed front door knocker. You polished off old whisky-soak here, old demijohn,' pointing to Slavin, 'and I'll lay five to one we can lick any blankety blank thieves in the crowd,' and he held up a roll of bills.

But Graeme proposed that he should give the hornpipe again, and the floor was cleared at once, for Nixon's hornpipe was very popular, and tonight, of course, was in high favour. In the midst of his dance Nixon stopped short, his arms dropped to his side, his face had a look of fear, of horror.

There, before him, in his riding-cloak and boots, with his whip in his hand as he had come from his ride, stood Mr. Craig. His face was pallid, and his dark eyes were blazing with fierce light. As Nixon stopped, Craig stepped forward to him, and sweeping his eyes round upon the circle he said in tones intense with scorn-

'You cowards! You get a man where he's weak! Cowards! you'd damn his soul for his money!'

There was dead silence, and Craig, lifting his hat, said solemnly-

'May God forgive you this night's work!'

Then, turning to Nixon, and throwing his arm over his shoulder, he said in a voice broken and husky-

'Come on, Nixon! we'll go!'

Idaho made a motion as if to stop him, but Graeme stepped quickly foreword and said sharply, 'Make way there, can't you?' and the crowd fell back and we four passed through, Nixon walking as in a dream, with Craig's arm about him. Down the street we went in silence, and on to Craig's shack, where we found old man Nelson, with the fire blazing, and strong coffee steaming on the stove. It was he that had told Craig, on his arrival from the Landing, of Nixon's fall.

There was nothing of reproach, but only gentlest pity, in tone and touch as Craig placed the half-drunk, dazed man in his easy-chair, took off his boots, brought him his own slippers, and gave him coffee. Then, as his stupor began to overcome him, Craig put him in his own bed, and came forth with a face written over with grief.

'Don't mind, old chap,' said Graeme kindly.

But Craig looked at him without a word, and, throwing himself into a chair, put his face in his hands. As we sat there in silence the door was suddenly pushed open and in walked Abe Baker with the words, 'Where is Nixon?' and we told him where he was. We were still talking when again a tap came to the door, and Shaw came in looking much disturbed.

'Did you hear about Nixon?' he asked. We told him what we knew.

'But did you hear how they got him?' he asked, excitedly.

As he told us the tale, the men stood listening, with faces growing hard.

It appeared that after the making of the League the Black Rock Hotel man had bet Idaho one hundred to fifty that Nixon could not be got to drink before Easter. All Idaho's schemes had failed, and now he had only three days in which to win his money, and the ball was his last chance. Here again he was balked, for Nixon, resisting all entreaties, barred his shack door and went to bed before nightfall, according to his invariable custom on pay-days. At midnight some of Idaho's men came battering at the door for admission, which Nixon reluctantly granted. For half an hour they used every art of persuasion to induce him to go down to the ball, the glorious success of which was glowingly depicted; but Nixon remained immovable, and they took their departure, baffled and cursing. In two hours they returned drunk enough to be dangerous, kicked at the door in vain, finally gained entrance through the window, hauled Nixon out of bed, and, holding a glass of whisky to his lips, bade him drink. But he knocked the glass sway, spilling the liquor over himself and the bed.

It was drink or fight, and Nixon was ready to fight; but after parley they had a drink all round, and fell to persuasion again. The night was cold, and poor Nixon sat shivering on the edge of his bed. If he would take one drink they would leave him alone. He need not show himself so stiff. The whisky fumes filled his nostrils. If one drink would get them off, surely that was better than fighting and killing some one or getting killed. He hesitated, yielded, drank his glass. They sat about him amiably drinking, and lauding him as a fine fellow after all. One more glass before they left. Then Nixon rose, dressed himself, drank all that was left of the bottle, put his money in his pocket, and came down to the dance, wild with his old-time madness, reckless of faith and pledge, forgetful of home, wife, babies, his whole being absorbed in one great passion-to drink and drink and drink till he could drink no more.

Before Shaw had finished his tale, Craig's eyes were streaming with tears, and groans of rage and pity broke alternately from him. Abe remained speechless for a time, not trusting himself; but as he heard Craig groan, 'Oh, the beasts! the fiends!' he seemed encouraged to let himself loose, and he began swearing with the coolest and most blood-curdling deliberation. Craig listened with evident approval, apparently finding complete satisfaction in Abe's performance, when suddenly he seemed to waken up, caught Abe by the arm, and said in a horror-stricken voice-

'Stop! stop! God forgive us! we must not swear like this.'

Abe stopped at once, and in a surprised and slightly grieved voice said-

'Why! what's the matter with that? Ain't that what you wanted?'

'Yes! yes! God forgive me! I am afraid it was,' he answered hurriedly; 'but I must not.'

'Oh, don't you worry,' went on Abe cheerfully; 'I'll look after that part; and anyway, ain't they the blankest blankety blank'-going off again into a roll of curses, till Craig, in an agony of entreaty, succeeded in arresting the flow of profanity possible to no one but a mountain stage-driver. Abe paused looking hurt, and asked if they did not deserve everything he was calling down upon them.

'Yes, yes,' urged Craig; 'but that is not our business.'

'Well! so I reckoned,' replied Abe, recognising the limitations of the cloth; 'you ain't used to it, and you can't be expected to do it; but it just makes me feel good-let out o' school like-to properly do 'em up, the blank, blank,' and off he went again. It was only under the pressure of Mr. Craig's prayers and commands that he finally agreed 'to hold in, though it was tough.'

'What's to be done?' asked Shaw.

'Nothing,' answered Craig bitterly. He was exhausted with his long ride from the Landing, and broken with bitter disappointment over the ruin of all that he had laboured so long to accomplish.

'Nonsense,' said Graeme; 'there's a good deal to do.'

It was agreed that Craig should remain with Nixon while the others of us should gather up what fragments we could find of the broken League. We had just opened the door, when we met a man striding up at a great pace. It was Geordie Crawford.

'Hae ye seen the lad?' was his salutation. No one replied. So I told Geordie of my last sight of Billy in the orchestra.

'An' did ye no' gang aifter him?' he asked in indignant surprise, adding with some contempt, 'Man! but ye're a feckless buddie.'

'Billy gone too!' said Shaw. 'They might have let Billy alone.'

Poor Craig stood in a dumb agony. Billy's fall seemed more than he could bear. We went out, leaving him heart-broken amid the ruins of his League.

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