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Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks By Ralph Connor Characters: 28243

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

Billy Breen's legacy to the Black Rock mining camp was a new League, which was more than the old League re-made. The League was new in its spirit and in its methods. The impression made upon the camp by Billy Breen's death was very remarkable, and I have never been quite able to account for it. The mood of the community at the time was peculiarly susceptible. Billy was one of the oldest of the old-timers. His decline and fall had been a long process, and his struggle for life and manhood was striking enough to arrest the attention and awaken the sympathy of the whole camp. We instinctively side with a man in his struggle for freedom; for we feel that freedom is native to him and to us. The sudden collapse of the struggle stirred the men with a deep pity for the beaten man, and a deep contempt for those who had tricked him to his doom. But though the pity and the contempt remained, the gloom was relieved and the sense of defeat removed from the men's minds by the transforming glory of Billy's last hour. Mr. Craig, reading of the tragedy of Billy's death, transfigured defeat into victory, and this was generally accepted by the men as the true reading, though to them it was full of mystery. But they could all understand and appreciate at full value the spirit that breathed through the words of the dying man: 'Don't be 'ard on 'em, they didn't mean no 'arm.' And this was the new spirit of the League.

It was this spirit that surprised Slavin into sudden tears at the grave's side. He had come braced for curses and vengeance, for all knew it was he who had doctored Billy's lemonade, and instead of vengeance the message from the dead that echoed through the voice of the living was one of pity and forgiveness.

But the days of the League's negative, defensive warfare were over. The fight was to the death, and now the war was to be carried into the enemy's country. The League men proposed a thoroughly equipped and well-conducted coffee-room, reading-room, and hall, to parallel the enemy's lines of operation, and defeat them with their own weapons upon their own ground. The main outlines of the scheme were clearly defined and were easily seen, but the perfecting of the details called for all Craig's tact and good sense. When, for instance, Vernon Winton, who had charge of the entertainment department, came for Craig's opinion as to a minstrel troupe and private theatricals, Craig was prompt with his answer-

'Anything clean goes.'

'A nigger show?' asked Winton.

'Depends upon the niggers,' replied Craig with a gravely comic look, shrewdly adding, 'ask Mrs. Mavor'; and so the League Minstrel and Dramatic Company became an established fact, and proved, as Craig afterwards told me, 'a great means of grace to the camp.'

Shaw had charge of the social department, whose special care it was to see that the men were made welcome to the cosy, cheerful reading room, where they might chat, smoke, read, write, or play games, according to fancy.

But Craig felt that the success or failure of the scheme would largely depend upon the character of the Resident Manager, who, while caring for reading-room and hall, would control and operate the important department represented by the coffee-room.

'At this point the whole business may come to grief,' he said to Mrs. Mavor, without whose counsel nothing was done.

'Why come to grief?' she asked brightly.

'Because if we don't get the right man, that's what will happen,' he replied in a tone that spoke of anxious worry.

'But we shall get the right man, never fear.' Her serene courage never faltered. 'He will come to us.'

Craig turned and gazed at her in frank admiration and said-

'If I only had your courage!'

'Courage!' she answered quickly. 'It is not for you to say that'; and at his answering look the red came into her cheek and the depths in her eyes glowed, and I marvelled and wondered, looking at Craig's cool face, whether his blood were running evenly through his veins. But his voice was quiet, a shade too quiet I thought, as he gravely replied-

'I would often be a coward but for the shame of it.'

And so the League waited for the man to come, who was to be Resident Manager and make the new enterprise a success. And come he did; but the manner of his coming was so extraordinary, that I have believed in the doctrine of a special providence ever since; for as Craig said, 'If he had come straight from Heaven I could not have been more surprised.'

While the League was thus waiting, its interest centred upon Slavin, chiefly because he represented more than any other the forces of the enemy; and though Billy Breen stood between him and the vengeance of the angry men who would have made short work of him and his saloon, nothing could save him from himself, and after the funeral Slavin went to his bar and drank whisky as he had never drunk before. But the more he drank the fiercer and gloomier he became, and when the men drinking with him chaffed him, he swore deeply and with such threats that they left him alone.

It did not help Slavin either to have Nixon stride in through the crowd drinking at his bar and give him words of warning.

'It is not your fault, Slavin,' he said in slow, cool voice, 'that you and your precious crew didn't sent me to my death, too. You've won your bet, but I want to say, that next time, though you are seven to one, or ten times that, when any of you boys offer me a drink I'll take you to mean fight, and I'll not disappoint you, and some one will be killed,' and so saying he strode out again, leaving a mean-looking crowd of men behind him. All who had not been concerned in the business at Nixon's shack expressed approval of his position, and hoped he would 'see it through.'

But the impression of Nixon's words upon Slavin was as nothing compared with that made by Geordie Crawford. It was not what he said so much as the manner of awful solemnity he carried. Geordie was struggling conscientiously to keep his promise to 'not be 'ard on the boys,' and found considerable relief in remembering that he had agreed 'to leave them tae the Almichty.' But the manner of leaving them was so solemnly awful, that I could not wonder that Slavin's superstitious Irish nature supplied him with supernatural terrors. It was the second day after the funeral that Geordie and I were walking towards Slavin's. There was a great shout of laughter as we drew near.

Geordie stopped short, and saying, 'We'll juist gang in a meenute,' passed through the crowd and up to the bar.

'Michael Slavin,' began Geordie, and the men stared in dead, silence, with their glasses in their hands. 'Michael Slavin, a' promised the lad a'd bear ye nae ill wull, but juist leave ye tae the Almichty; an' I want tae tell ye that a'm keepin' ma wur-r-d. But'-and here he raised his hand, and his voice became preternaturally solemn-'his bluid is upon yer han's. Do ye no' see it?'

His voice rose sharply, and as he pointed, Slavin instinctively glanced at his hands, and Geordie added-

'Ay, and the Lord will require it o' you and yer hoose.'

They told me that Slavin shivered as if taken with ague after Geordie went out, and though he laughed and swore, he did not stop drinking till he sank into a drunken stupor and had to be carried to bed. His little French-Canadian wife could not understand the change that had come over her husband.

'He's like one bear,' she confided to Mrs. Mavor, to whom she was showing her baby of a year old. 'He's not kees me one tam dis day. He's mos hawful bad, he's not even look at de baby.' And this seemed sufficient proof that something was seriously wrong; for she went on to say-

'He's tink more for dat leel baby dan for de whole worl'; he's tink more for dat baby dan for me,' but she shrugged her pretty little shoulders in deprecation of her speech.

'You must pray for him,' said Mrs. Mavor, 'and all will come right.'

'Ah! madame!' she replied earnestly, 'every day, every day, I pray la sainte Vierge et tous les saints for him.'

'You must pray to your Father in heaven for him.'

'Ah! oui! I weel pray,' and Mrs. Mavor sent her away bright with smiles, and with new hope and courage in her heart.

She had very soon need of all her courage, for at the week's end her baby fell dangerously ill. Slavin's anxiety and fear were not relieved much by the reports the men brought him from time to time of Geordie's ominous forebodings; for Geordie had no doubt but that the Avenger of Blood was hot upon Slavin's trail; and as the sickness grew, he became confirmed in this conviction. While he could not be said to find satisfaction in Slavin's impending affliction, he could hardly hide his complacency in the promptness of Providence in vindicating his theory of retribution.

But Geordie's complacency was somewhat rudely shocked by Mr. Craig's answer to his theory one day.

'You read your Bible to little profit, it seems to me, Geordie: or, perhaps, you have never read the Master's teaching about the Tower of Siloam. Better read that and take that warning to yourself.'

Geordie gazed after Mr. Craig as he turned away, and muttered-

'The toor o' Siloam, is it? Ay, a' ken fine aboot the toor o' Siloam, and aboot the toor o' Babel as weel; an' a've read, too, about the blaspheemious Herod, an' sic like. Man, but he's a hot-heided laddie, and lacks discreemeenation.'

'What about Herod, Geordie?' I asked.

'Aboot Herod?'-with a strong tinge of contempt in his tone. 'Aboot Herod? Man, hae ye no' read in the Screepturs aboot Herod an' the wur-r-ms in the wame o' him?'

'Oh yes, I see,' I hastened to answer.

'Ay, a fule can see what's flapped in his face,' with which bit of proverbial philosophy he suddenly left me. But Geordie thenceforth contented himself, in Mr. Craig's presence at least, with ominous head-shakings, equally aggravating, and impossible to answer.

That same night, however, Geordie showed that with all his theories he had a man's true heart, for he came in haste to Mrs. Mavor to say:

'Ye'll be needed ower yonder, a'm thinkin'.'

'Why? Is the baby worse? Have you been in?'

'Na, na,' replied Geordie cautiously, 'a'll no gang where a'm no wanted. But yon puir thing, ye can hear ootside weepin' and moanin'.'

'She'll maybe need ye tae,' he went on dubiously to me. 'Ye're a kind o' doctor, a' hear,' not committing himself to any opinion as to my professional value. But Slavin would have none of me, having got the doctor sober enough to prescribe.

The interest of the camp in Slavin was greatly increased by the illness of his baby, which was to him as the apple of his eye. There were a few who, impressed by Geordie's profound convictions upon the matter, were inclined to favour the retribution theory, and connect the baby's illness with the vengeance of the Almighty. Among these few was Slavin himself, and goaded by his remorseful terrors he sought relief in drink. But this brought him only deeper and fiercer gloom; so that between her suffering child and her savagely despairing husband, the poor mother was desperate with terror and grief.

'Ah! madame,' she sobbed to Mrs. Mavor, 'my heart is broke for him. He's heet noting for tree days, but jis dreenk, dreenk, dreenk.'

The next day a man came for me in haste. The baby was dying and the doctor was drunk. I found the little one in a convulsion lying across Mrs. Mavor's knees, the mother kneeling beside it, wringing her hands in a dumb agony, and Slavin standing near, silent and suffering. I glanced at the bottle of medicine upon the table and asked Mrs. Mavor the dose, and found the baby had been poisoned. My look of horror told Slavin something was wrong, and striding to me he caught my arm and asked-

'What is it? Is the medicine wrong?'

I tried to put him off, but his grip tightened till his fingers seemed to reach the bone.

'The dose is certainly too large; but let me go, I must do something.'

He let me go at once, saying in a voice that made my heart sore for him, 'He has killed my baby; he has killed my baby.' And then he cursed the doctor with awful curses, and with a look of such murderous fury on his face that I was glad the doctor was too drunk to appear.

His wife hearing his curses, and understanding the cause, broke out into wailing hard to bear.

'Ah! mon petit ange! It is dat wheeskey dat's keel mon baby. Ah! mon cheri, mon amour. Ah! mon Dieu! Ah, Michael, how often I say that wheeskey he's not good ting.'

It was more than Slavin could bear, and with awful curses he passed out. Mrs. Mavor laid the baby in its crib, for the convulsion had passed away; and putting her arms about the wailing little Frenchwoman, comforted and soothed her as a mother might her child.

'And you must help your husband,' I heard her say. 'He will need you more than ever. Think of him.'

'Ah oui! I weel,' was the quick reply, and from that moment there was no more wailing.

It seemed no more than a minute till Slavin came in again, sober, quiet, and steady; the passion was all gone from his face, and only the grief remained.

As we stood leaning over the sleeping child the little thing opened its eyes, saw its father, and smiled. It was too much for him. The big man dropped on his knees with a dry sob.

'Is there no chance at all, at all?' he whispered, but I could give him no hope. He immediately rose, and pulling himself together, stood perfectly quiet.

A new terror seized upon the mother.

'My baby is not-what you call it?' going through the form of baptism. 'An' he will not come to la sainte Vierge,' she said, crossing herself.

'Do not fear for your little one,' said Mrs. Mavor, still with her arms about her. 'The good Saviour will take your darling into His own arms.'

But the mother would not be comforted by this. And Slavin too, was uneasy.

'Where is Father Goulet?' he asked.

'Ah! you were not good to the holy pere de las tam, Michael,' she replied sadly. 'The saints are not please for you.'

'Where is the priest?' he demanded.

'I know

not for sure. At de Landin', dat's lak.'

'I'll go for him,' he said. But his wife clung to him, beseeching him not to leave her, and indeed he was loth to leave his little one.

I found Craig and told him the difficulty. With his usual promptness, he was ready with a solution.

'Nixon has a team. He will go.' Then he added, 'I wonder if they would not like me to baptize their little one. Father Goulet and I have exchanged offices before now. I remember how he came to one of my people in my absence, when she was dying, read with her, prayed with her, comforted her, and helped her across the river. He is a good soul, and has no nonsense about him. Send for me if you think there is need. It will make no difference to the baby, but it will comfort the mother.'

Nixon was willing enough to go; but when he came to the door Mrs. Mavor saw the hard look in his face. He had not forgotten his wrong, for day by day he was still fighting the devil within that Slavin had called to life. But Mrs. Mavor, under cover of getting him instructions, drew him into the room. While listening to her, his eyes wandered from one to the other of the group till they rested upon the little white face in the crib. She noticed the change in his face.

'They fear the little one will never see the Saviour if it is not baptized,' she said, in a low tone.

He was eager to go.

'I'll do my best to get the priest,' he said, and was gone on his sixty miles' race with death.

The long afternoon wore on, but before it was half gone I saw Nixon could not win, and that the priest would be too late, so I sent for Mr. Craig. From the moment he entered the room he took command of us all. He was so simple, so manly, so tender, the hearts of the parents instinctively turned to him.

As he was about to proceed with the baptism, the mother whispered to Mrs. Mavor, who hesitatingly asked Mr. Craig if he would object to using holy water.

'To me it is the same as any other,' he replied gravely.

'An' will he make the good sign?' asked the mother timidly.

And so the child was baptized by the Presbyterian minister with holy water and with the sign of the cross. I don't suppose it was orthodox, and it rendered chaotic some of my religious notions, but I thought more of Craig that moment than ever before. He was more man than minister, or perhaps he was so good a minister that day because so much a man. As he read about the Saviour and the children and the disciples who tried to get in between them, and as he told us the story in his own simple and beautiful way, and then went on to picture the home of the little children, and the same Saviour in the midst of them, I felt my heart grow warm, and I could easily understand the cry of the mother-

'Oh, mon Jesu, prenez moi aussi, take me wiz mon mignon.'

The cry wakened Slavin's heart, and he said huskily-

'Oh! Annette! Annette!'

'Ah, oui! an' Michael too!' Then to Mr. Craig-

'You tink He's tak me some day? Eh?'

'All who love Him,' he replied.

'An' Michael too?' she asked, her eyes searching his face, 'An' Michael too?'

But Craig only replied: 'All who love Him.'

'Ah, Michael, you must pray le bon Jesu. He's garde notre mignon.' And then she bent over the babe, whispering-

'Ah, mon cheri, mon amour, adieu! adieu! mon ange!' till Slavin put his arms about her and took her away, for as she was whispering her farewells, her baby, with a little answering sigh, passed into the House with many rooms.

'Whisht, Annette darlin'; don't cry for the baby,' said her husband. 'Shure it's better off than the rest av us, it is. An' didn't ye hear what the minister said about the beautiful place it is? An' shure he wouldn't lie to us at all.' But a mother cannot be comforted for her first-born son.

An hour later Nixon brought Father Goulet. He was a little Frenchman with gentle manners and the face of a saint. Craig welcomed him warmly, and told him what he had done.

'That is good, my brother,' he said, with gentle courtesy, and, turning to the mother, 'Your little one is safe.'

Behind Father Goulet came Nixon softly, and gazed down upon the little quiet face, beautiful with the magic of death. Slavin came quietly and stood beside him. Nixon turned and offered his hand. But Slavin said, moving slowly back-

'I did ye a wrong, Nixon, an' it's a sorry man I am this day for it.'

'Don't say a word, Slavin,' answered Nixon, hurriedly. 'I know how you feel. I've got a baby too. I want to see it again. That's why the break hurt me so.'

'As God's above,' replied Slavin earnestly, 'I'll hinder ye no more.' They shook hands, and we passed out.

We laid the baby under the pines, not far from Billy Breen, and the sweet spring wind blew through the Gap, and came softly down the valley, whispering to the pines and the grass and the hiding flowers of the New Life coming to the world. And the mother must have heard the whisper in her heart, for, as the Priest was saying the words of the Service, she stood with Mrs. Mavor's arms about her, and her eyes were looking far away beyond the purple mountain-tops, seeing what made her smile. And Slavin, too, looked different. His very features seemed finer. The coarseness was gone out of his face. What had come to him I could not tell.

But when the doctor came into Slavin's house that night it was the old Slavin I saw, but with a look of such deadly fury on his face that I tried to get the doctor out at once. But he was half drunk and after his manner was hideously humorous.

'How do, ladies! How do, gentlemen!' was his loud-voiced salutation. 'Quite a professional gathering, clergy predominating. Lion and Lamb too, ha! ha! which is the lamb, eh? ha! ha! very good! awfully sorry to hear of your loss, Mrs. Slavin; did our best you know, can't help this sort of thing.'

Before any one could move, Craig was at his side, and saying in a clear, firm voice, 'One moment, doctor,' caught him by the arm and had him out of the room before he knew it. Slavin, who had been crouching in his chair with hands twitching and eyes glaring, rose and followed, still crouching as he walked. I hurried after him, calling him back. Turning at my voice, the doctor saw Slavin approaching. There was something so terrifying in his swift noiseless crouching motion, that the doctor, crying out in fear 'Keep him off,' fairly turned and fled. He was too late. Like a tiger Slavin leaped upon him and without waiting to strike had him by the throat with both hands, and bearing him to the ground, worried him there as a dog might a cat.

Immediately Craig and I were upon him, but though we lifted him clear off the ground we could not loosen that two-handed strangling grip. At we were struggling there a light hand touched my shoulder. It was Father Goulet.

'Please let him go, and stand away from us,' he said, waving us back. We obeyed. He leaned over Slavin and spoke a few words to him. Slavin started as if struck a heavy blow, looked up at the priest with fear in his face, but still keeping his grip.

'Let him go,' said the priest. Slavin hesitated. 'Let him go! quick!' said the priest again, and Slavin with a snarl let go his hold and stood sullenly facing the priest.

Father Goulet regarded him steadily for some seconds and then asked-

'What would you do?' His voice was gentle enough, even sweet, but there was something in it that chilled my marrow. 'What would you do?' he repeated.

'He murdered my child,' growled Slavin.

'Ah! how?'

'He was drunk and poisoned him.'

'Ah! who gave him drink? Who made him a drunkard two years ago? Who has wrecked his life?'

There was no answer, and the even-toned voice went relentlessly on-

'Who is the murderer of your child now?'

Slavin groaned and shuddered.

'Go!' and the voice grew stern. 'Repent of your sin and add not another.'

Slavin turned his eyes upon the motionless figure on the ground and then upon the priest. Father Goulet took one step towards him, and, stretching out his hand and pointing with his finger, said-


And Slavin slowly backed away and went into his house. It was an extraordinary scene, and it is often with me now: the dark figure on the ground, the slight erect form of the priest with outstretched arm and finger, and Slavin backing away, fear and fury struggling in his face.

It was a near thing for the doctor, however, and two minutes more of that grip would have done for him. As it was, we had the greatest difficulty in reviving him.

What the priest did with Slavin after getting him inside I know not; that has always been a mystery to me. But when we were passing the saloon that night after taking Mrs. Mavor home, we saw a light and heard strange sounds within. Entering, we found another whisky raid in progress, Slavin himself being the raider. We stood some moments watching him knocking in the heads of casks and emptying bottles. I thought he had gone mad, and approached him cautiously.

'Hello, Slavin!' I called out; 'what does this mean?'

He paused in his strange work, and I saw that his face, though resolute, was quiet enough.

'It means I'm done wid the business, I am,' he said, in a determined voice. 'I'll help no more to kill any man, or,' in a lower tone, 'any man's baby.' The priest's words had struck home.

'Thank God, Slavin!' said Craig, offering his hand; 'you are much too good a man for the business.'

'Good or bad, I'm done wid it,' he replied, going on with his work.

'You are throwing away good money, Slavin,' I said, as the head of a cask crashed in.

'It's meself that knows it, for the price of whisky has riz in town this week,' he answered, giving me a look out of the corner of his eye. 'Bedad! it was a rare clever job,' referring to our Black Rock Hotel affair.

'But won't you be sorry for this?' asked Craig.

'Beloike I will; an' that's why I'm doin' it before I'm sorry for it,' he replied, with a delightful bull.

'Look here, Slavin,' said Craig earnestly; 'if I can be of use to you in any way, count on me.'

'It's good to me the both of yez have been, an' I'll not forget it to yez,' he replied, with like earnestness.

As we told Mrs. Mavor that night, for Craig thought it too good to keep, her eyes seemed to grow deeper and the light in them to glow more intense as she listened to Craig pouring out his tale. Then she gave him her hand and said-

'You have your man at last.'

'What man?'

'The man you have been waiting for.'


'Why not?'

'I never thought of it.'

'No more did he, nor any of us.' Then, after a pause, she added gently, 'He has been sent to us?'

'Do you know, I believe you are right,' Craig said slowly, and then added, 'But you always are.'

'I fear not,' she answered; but I thought she liked to hear his words.

The whole town was astounded next morning when Slavin went to work in the mines, and its astonishment only deepened as the days went on, and he stuck to his work. Before three weeks had gone the League had bought and remodelled the saloon and had secured Slavin as Resident Manager.

The evening of the reopening of Slavin's saloon, as it was still called, was long remembered in Black Rock. It was the occasion of the first appearance of 'The League Minstrel and Dramatic Troupe,' in what was described as a 'hair-lifting tragedy with appropriate musical selections.' Then there was a grand supper and speeches and great enthusiasm, which reached its climax when Nixon rose to propose the toast of the evening-'Our Saloon.' His speech was simply a quiet, manly account of his long struggle with the deadly enemy. When he came to speak of his recent defeat he said-

'And while I am blaming no one but myself, I am glad to-night that this saloon is on our side, for my own sake and for the sake of those who have been waiting long to see me. But before I sit down I want to say that while I live I shall not forget that I owe my life to the man that took me that night to his own shack and put me in his own bed, and met me next morning with an open hand; for I tell you I had sworn to God that that morning would be my last.'

Geordie's speech was characteristic. After a brief reference to the 'mysteerious ways o' Providence,' which he acknowledged he might sometimes fail to understand, he went on to express his unqualified approval of the new saloon.

'It's a cosy place, an' there's nae sulphur aboot. Besides a' that,' he went on enthusiastically, 'it'll be a terrible savin'. I've juist been coontin'.'

'You bet!' ejaculated a voice with great emphasis.

'I've juist been coontin',' went on Geordie, ignoring the remark and the laugh which followed, 'an' it's an awfu'-like money ye pit ower wi' the whusky. Ye see ye canna dae wi' ane bit glass; ye maun hae twa or three at the verra least, for it's no verra forrit ye get wi' ane glass. But wi' yon coffee ye juist get a saxpence-worth an' ye want nae mair.'

There was another shout of laughter, which puzzled Geordie much.

'I dinna see the jowk, but I've slippit ower in whusky mair nor a hunner dollars.'

Then he paused, looking hard before him, and twisting his face into extraordinary shapes till the men looked at him in wonder.

'I'm rale glad o' this saloon, but it's ower late for the lad that canna be helpit the noo. He'll not be needin' help o' oors, I doot, but there are ithers'-and he stopped abruptly and sat down, with no applause following.

But when Slavin, our saloon-keeper, rose to reply, the men jumped up on the seats and yelled till they could yell no more. Slavin stood, evidently in trouble with himself, and finally broke out-

'It's spacheless I am entirely. What's come to me I know not, nor how it's come. But I'll do my best for yez.' And then the yelling broke out again.

I did not yell myself. I was too busy watching the varying lights in Mrs. Mavor's eyes as she looked from Craig to the yelling men on the benches and tables, and then to Slavin, and I found myself wondering if she knew what it was that came to Slavin.

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