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   Chapter 15 COMING TO THEIR OWN

Black Rock: A Tale of the Selkirks By Ralph Connor Characters: 17230

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02


A man with a conscience is often provoking, sometimes impossible. Persuasion is lost upon him. He will not get angry, and he looks at one with such a far-away expression in his face that in striving to persuade him one feels earthly and even fiendish. At least this was my experience with Craig. He spent a week with me just before he sailed for the Old Land, for the purpose, as he said, of getting some of the coal dust and other grime out of him.

He made me angry the last night of his stay, and all the more that he remained quite sweetly unmoved. It was a strategic mistake of mine to tell him how Nelson came home to us, and how Graeme stood up before the 'Varsity chaps at my supper and made his confession and confused Rattray's easy-stepping profanity, and started his own five-year league. For all this stirred in Craig the hero, and he was ready for all sorts of heroic nonsense, as I called it. We talked of everything but the one thing, and about that we said not a word till, bending low to poke my fire and to hide my face, I plunged-

'You will see her, of course?'

He made no pretence of not understanding but answered-

'Of course.'

'There's really no sense in her staying over there,' I suggested.

'And yet she is a wise woman,' he said, as if carefully considering the question.

'Heaps of landlords never see their tenants, and they are none the worse.'

'The landlords?'

'No, the tenants.'

'Probably, having such landlords.'

'And as for the old lady, there must be some one in the connection to whom it would be a Godsend to care for her.'

'Now, Connor,' he said quietly, 'don't. We have gone over all there is to be said. Nothing new has come. Don't turn it all up again.'

Then I played the heathen and raged, as Graeme would have said, till Craig smiled a little wearily and said-

'You exhaust yourself, old chap. Have a pipe, do'; and after a pause he added in his own way, 'What would you have? The path lies straight from my feet. Should I quit it? I could not so disappoint you-and all of them.'

And I knew he was thinking of Graeme and the lads in the mountains he had taught to be true men. It did not help my rage, but it checked my speech; so I smoked in silence till he was moved to say-

'And after all, you know, old chap, there are great compensations for all losses; but for the loss of a good conscience towards God, what can make up?'

But, all the same, I hoped for some better result from his visit to Britain. It seemed to me that something must turn up to change such an unbearable situation.

The year passed, however, and when I looked into Craig's face again I knew that nothing had been changed, and that he had come back to take up again his life alone, more resolutely hopeful than ever.

But the year had left its mark upon him too. He was a broader and deeper man. He had been living and thinking with men of larger ideas and richer culture, and he was far too quick in sympathy with life to remain untouched by his surroundings. He was more tolerant of opinions other than his own, but more unrelenting in his fidelity to conscience and more impatient of half-heartedness and self-indulgence. He was full of reverence for the great scholars and the great leaders of men he had come to know.

'Great, noble fellows they are, and extraordinarily modest,' he said-'that is, the really great are modest. There are plenty of the other sort, neither great nor modest. And the books to be read! I am quite hopeless about my reading. It gave me a queer sensation to shake hands with a man who had written a great book. To hear him make commonplace remarks, to witness a faltering in knowledge-one expects these men to know everything-and to experience respectful kindness at his hands!'

'What of the younger men?' I asked.

'Bright, keen, generous fellows. In things theoretical, omniscient; but in things practical, quite helpless. They toss about great ideas as the miners lumps of coal. They can call them by their book names easily enough, but I often wondered whether they could put them into English. Some of them I coveted for the mountains. Men with clear heads and big hearts, and built after Sandy M'Naughton's model. It does seem a sinful waste of God's good human stuff to see these fellows potter away their lives among theories living and dead, and end up by producing a book! They are all either making or going to make a book. A good thing we haven't to read them. But here and there among them is some quiet chap who will make a book that men will tumble over each other to read.'

Then we paused and looked at each other.

'Well?' I said. He understood me.

'Yes!' he answered slowly, 'doing great work. Every one worships her just as we do, and she is making them all do something worth while, as she used to make us.'

He spoke cheerfully and readily as if he were repeating a lesson well learned, but he could not humbug me. I felt the heartache in the cheerful tone.

'Tell me about her,' I said, for I knew that if he would talk it would do him good. And talk he did, often forgetting me, till, as I listened, I found myself looking again into the fathomless eyes, and hearing again the heart-searching voice. I saw her go in and out of the little red-tiled cottages and down the narrow back lanes of the village; I heard her voice in a sweet, low song by the bed of a dying child, or pouring forth floods of music in the great new hall of the factory town near by. But I could not see, though he tried to show me, the stately gracious lady receiving the country folk in her home. He did not linger over that scene, but went back again to the gate-cottage where she had taken him one day to see Billy Breen's mother.

'I found the old woman knew all about me,' he said, simply enough; 'but there were many things about Billy she had never heard, and I was glad to put her right on some points, though Mrs. Mavor would not hear it.'

He sat silent for a little, looking into the coals; then went on in a soft, quiet voice-

'It brought back the mountains and the old days to hear again Billy's tones in his mother's voice, and to see her sitting there in the very dress she wore the night of the League, you remember-some soft stuff with black lace about it-and to hear her sing as she did for Billy-ah! ah!' His voice unexpectedly broke, but in a moment he was master of himself and begged me to forgive his weakness. I am afraid I said words that should not be said-a thing I never do, except when suddenly and utterly upset.

'I am getting selfish and weak,' he said; 'I must get to work. I am glad to get to work. There is much to do, and it is worth while, if only to keep one from getting useless and lazy.'

'Useless and lazy!' I said to myself, thinking of my life beside his, and trying to get command of my voice, so as not to make quite a fool of myself. And for many a day those words goaded me to work and to the exercise of some mild self-denial. But more than all else, after Craig had gone back to the mountains, Graeme's letters from the railway construction camp stirred one to do unpleasant duty long postponed, and rendered uncomfortable my hours of most luxurious ease. Many of the old gang were with him, both of lumbermen and miners, and Craig was their minister. And the letters told of how he laboured by day and by night along the line of construction, carrying his tent and kit with him, preaching straight sermons, watching by sick men, writing their letters, and winning their hearts; making strong their lives, and helping them to die well when their hour came. One day, these letters proved too much for me, and I packed away my paints and brushes, and made my vow unto the Lord that I would be 'useless and lazy' no longer, but would do something with myself. In consequence, I found myself within three weeks walking the London hospitals, finishing my course, that I might join that band of men who were doing something with life, or, if throwing it away, were not losing it for nothing. I had finished being a fool, I hoped, at least a fool of the useless and luxurious kind. The letter that came from Graeme, in reply to my request for a position on his staff, was characteristic of the man, both new and old, full of gayest humour and of most earnest welcome to the work.

Mrs. Mavor's reply was like herself-

'I knew you would not long be content with the making of pictures, which the world does not really need, and would join your friends in the dear West, making lives that the world needs so sorely.'

But her last words tou

ched me strangely-

'But be sure to be thankful every day for your privilege. . . . It will be good to think of you all, with the glorious mountains about you, and Christ's own work in your hands. . . . Ah! how we would like to choose our work, and the place in which to do it!'

The longing did not appear in the words, but I needed no words to tell me how deep and how constant it was. And I take some credit to myself, that in my reply I gave her no bidding to join our band, but rather praised the work she was doing in her place, telling her how I had heard of it from Craig.

The summer found me religiously doing Paris and Vienna, gaining a more perfect acquaintance with the extent and variety of my own ignorance, and so fully occupied in this interesting and wholesome occupation that I fell out with all my correspondents, with the result of weeks of silence between us.

Two letters among the heap waiting on my table in London made my heart beat quick, but with how different feelings: one from Graeme telling me that Craig had been very ill, and that he was to take him home as soon as he could be moved. Mrs. Mavor's letter told me of the death of the old lady, who had been her care for the past two years, and of her intention to spend some months in her old home in Edinburgh. And this letter it is that accounts for my presence in a miserable, dingy, dirty little hall running off a close in the historic Cowgate, redolent of the glories of the splendid past, and of the various odours of the evil-smelling present. I was there to hear Mrs. Mavor sing to the crowd of gamins that thronged the closes in the neighbourhood, and that had been gathered into a club by 'a fine leddie frae the West End,' for the love of Christ and His lost. This was an 'At Home' night, and the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, of all ages and sizes were present. Of all the sad faces I had ever seen, those mothers carried the saddest and most woe-stricken. 'Heaven pity us!' I found myself saying; 'is this the beautiful, the cultured, the heaven-exalted city of Edinburgh? Will it not, for this, be cast down into hell some day, if it repent not of its closes and their dens of defilement? Oh! the utter weariness, the dazed hopelessness of the ghastly faces! Do not the kindly, gentle church-going folk of the crescents and the gardens see them in their dreams, or are their dreams too heavenly for these ghastly faces to appear?'

I cannot recall the programme of the evening, but in my memory-gallery is a vivid picture of that face, sweet, sad, beautiful, alight with the deep glow of her eyes, as she stood and sang to that dingy crowd. As I sat upon the window-ledge listening to the voice with its flowing song, my thoughts were far away, and I was looking down once more upon the eager, coal-grimed faces in the rude little church in Black Rock. I was brought back to find myself swallowing hard by an audible whisper from a wee lassie to her mother-

'Mither! See till yon man. He's greetin'.'

When I came to myself she was singing 'The Land o' the Leal,' the Scotch 'Jerusalem the Golden,' immortal, perfect. It needed experience of the hunger-haunted Cowgate closes, chill with the black mist of an eastern haar, to feel the full bliss of the vision in the words-

'There's nae sorrow there, Jean,

There's neither cauld nor care, Jean,

The day is aye fair in

The Land o' the Leal.'

A land of fair, warm days, untouched by sorrow and care, would be heaven indeed to the dwellers of the Cowgate.

The rest of that evening is hazy enough to me now, till I find myself opposite Mrs. Mavor at her fire, reading Graeme's letter; then all is vivid again.

I could not keep the truth from her. I knew it would be folly to try. So I read straight on till I came to the words-

'He has had mountain fever, whatever that may be, and he will not pull up again. If I can, I shall take him home to my mother'-when she suddenly stretched out her hand, saying, 'Oh, let me read!' and I gave her the letter. In a minute she had read it, and began almost breathlessly-

'Listen! my life is much changed. My mother-in-law is gone; she needs me no longer. My solicitor tells me, too, that owing to unfortunate investments there is need of money, so great need, that it is possible that either the estates or the works must go. My cousin has his all in the works-iron works, you know. It would be wrong to have him suffer. I shall give up the estates-that is best.' She paused.

'And come with me,' I cried.

'When do you sail?'

'Next week,' I answered eagerly.

She looked at me a few moments, and into her eyes there came a light soft and tender, as she said-

'I shall go with you.'

And so she did; and no old Roman in all the glory of a Triumph carried a prouder heart than I, as I bore her and her little one from the train to Graeme's carriage, crying-

'I've got her.'

But his was the better sense, for he stood waving his hat and shouting-

'He's all right,' at which Mrs. Mavor grew white; but when she shook hands with him, the red was in her cheek again.

'It was the cable did it,' went on Graeme. 'Connor's a great doctor! His first case will make him famous. Good prescription-after mountain fever try a cablegram!' And the red grew deeper in the beautiful face beside us.

Never did the country look so lovely. The woods were in their gayest autumn dress; the brown fields were bathed in a purple haze; the air was sweet and fresh with a suspicion of the coming frosts of winter. But in spite of all the road seemed long, and it was as if hours had gone before our eyes fell upon the white manse standing among the golden leaves.

'Let them go,' I cried, as Graeme paused to take in the view, and down the sloping dusty road we flew on the dead run.

'Reminds one a little of Abe's curves,' said Graeme, as we drew up at the gate. But I answered him not, for I was introducing to each other the two best women in the world. As I was about to rush into the house, Graeme seized me by the collar, saying-

'Hold on, Connor! you forget your place, you're next.'

'Why, certainly,' I cried, thankfully enough; 'what an ass I am!'

'Quite true,' said Graeme solemnly.

'Where is he?' I asked.

'At this present moment?' he asked, in a shocked voice. 'Why, Connor, you surprise me.'

'Oh, I see!'

'Yes,' he went on gravely; 'you may trust my mother to be discreetly attending to her domestic duties; she is a great woman, my mother.'

I had no doubt of it, for at that moment she came out to us with little Marjorie in her arms.

'You have shown Mrs. Mavor to her room, mother, I hope,' said Graeme; but she only smiled and said-

'Run away with your horses, you silly boy,' at which he solemnly shook his head. 'Ah, mother, you are deep-who would have thought it of you?'

That evening the manse overflowed with joy, and the days that followed were like dreams set to sweet music.

But for sheer wild delight, nothing in my memory can quite come up to the demonstration organised by Graeme, with assistance from Nixon, Shaw, Sandy, Abe, Geordie, and Baptiste, in honour of the arrival in camp of Mr. and Mrs. Craig. And, in my opinion, it added something to the occasion, that after all the cheers for Mr. and Mrs. Craig had died away, and after all the hats had come down, Baptiste, who had never taken his eyes from that radiant face, should suddenly have swept the crowd into a perfect storm of cheers by excitedly seizing his tuque, and calling out in his shrill voice-

'By gar! Tree cheer for Mrs. Mavor.'

And for many a day the men of Black Rock would easily fall into the old and well-loved name; but up and down the line of construction, in all the camps beyond the Great Divide, the new name became as dear as the old had ever been in Black Rock.

Those old wild days are long since gone into the dim distance of the past. They will not come again, for we have fallen into quiet times; but often in my quietest hours I feel my heart pause in its beat to hear again that strong, clear voice, like the sound of a trumpet, bidding us to be men; and I think of them all-Graeme, their chief, Sandy, Baptiste, Geordie, Abe, the Campbells, Nixon, Shaw, all stronger, better for their knowing of him, and then I think of Billy asleep under the pines, and of old man Nelson with the long grass waving over him in the quiet churchyard, and all my nonsense leaves me, and I bless the Lord for all His benefits, but chiefly for the day I met the missionary of Black Rock in the lumber-camp among the Selkirks.

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