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A Countess from Canada: A Story of Life in the Backwoods

A Countess from Canada: A Story of Life in the Backwoods

Author:Bessie Marchant


"Oh dear, how I should love to go out!" Katherine Radford stretched her arms wearily above her head as she spoke. There had been five days of persistent snowfall; but this morning the clouds had broken...
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  "Oh dear, how I should love to go out!"

  Katherine Radford stretched her arms wearily above her head as shespoke. There had been five days of persistent snowfall; but thismorning the clouds had broken, showing strips and patches of bluesky, and there was bright sunshine flooding the world again, withhard and sparkling frost.

  "Why don't you go?" demanded Phil, who was the youngest. "Milesand me don't mind having a holiday at all."

  "Speak for yourself if you like," growled Miles, who was thirteen;"but I want to get this schooling business over and done with, sothat I can start doing something useful."

  "And speak grammatically, please, or else keep silent. You shouldhave said, 'Miles and I'," remarked Katherine with quite crushingdignity, as she turned from the window to take her place at thetable once more. Phil thrust his tongue in his cheek, after themanner beloved of small boys, and subsided into silence and anabstracted study of his spelling book.

  The schoolroom was a small chamber, partitioned off from the storeby a wall of boards so thin that all conversation about buying andselling, with the gossip of the countryside thrown in, was plainlyaudible to the pupils, whose studies suffered in consequence. Thestovepipe from the store went through this room, keeping itcomfortably warm, and in winter 'Duke Radford and the boys sleptthere, because it was so terribly cold in the loft.

  Katherine had come home from college in July, determined to teachschool all winter, and to make a success of it, too, in a mostunpromising part of the world. But even the most enthusiasticteacher must fail to get on if there are no scholars to teach, andat present she had only Miles and Phil, her two brothers, aspupils. This was most trying to Katherine's patience, for, ofcourse, if there had only been pupils enough, she could have had aproperly constituted school, and a salary also. She might evenhave had a regular schoolhouse to teach in, instead of beingcompelled to use a makeshift such as this. But everything musthave a beginning, and so she had worked on bravely through theautumn, hoping against hope for more pupils. In the intervalsbetween teaching the boys she kept the books for her father, andeven attended to the wants of an occasional customer when 'DukeRadford was busy or absent.

  The store at Roaring Water Portage was awkwardly placed forbusiness. It stood on a high bank overlooking the rapids, and whenit was built, five years before, had been the centre of a miningvillage. But the mining village had been abandoned for three yearsnow, because the vein of copper had ended in a thick seam of coal,which, under present circumstances, was not worth working. Now thenearest approach to a village was at Seal Cove, at the mouth of theriver, nearly three miles away, where there were about half a dozenwooden huts, and the liquor saloon kept by Oily Dave when he was athome, and shut up when he was absent on fishing expeditions.

  Although houses were so scarce, there was no lack of trade for thelonely store in the woods. All through the summer there was aprocession of birchbark canoes, filled with red men and white,coming down the river to the bay, laden with skins of wolf, fox,beaver, wolverine, squirrel, and skunk, the harvest of the winter'strapping. Then in winter the cove and the river were often crowdedwith boats, driven to anchorage there by the ice, and to escape thefearful storms sweeping over the bay. The river was more favouredas an anchorage than the cove, because it was more sheltered, andalso because there was open water at the foot of the rapids even inthe severest winter, and had been so long as anyone could remember.

  As the morning wore on, Katherine's mood became even more restless,and she simply yearned for the fresh air and the sunshine. She wasusually free to go out-of-doors in the afternoons, because the boysonly worked until noon, and then again in the evening, when it wasnight school, and Katherine did her best with such of the fisherfolk as preferred learning to loafing and gambling in Oily Dave'ssaloon.

  Even Miles seemed stupid this morning, for he was usually such agood worker; while Phil was quite hopeless. Both boys were bittenwith the snow mania, and longing to be out-of-doors, in all theexhilarating brilliancy of sunshine, frost, and snow. Noon came atlast, books were packed away; the boys rushed off like mad things,while Katherine went more soberly across the store and entered theliving-room, which was sitting-room and kitchen combined.

  An older girl was there, looking too young to be called a woman,but who nevertheless was a widow, and the mother of the twin girlswho were rolling on the floor and playing with a big, shaggywolfhound. She was Nellie, Mrs. Burton, whose husband had beendrowned while sealing when the twins were twelve months old. Mrs.Burton had come home to live then, and keep house for her father,so that Katherine might go to Montreal to finish her education.

  "Did you see Father as you came through the store?" Mrs. Burtonasked, as she rapidly spread the dinner on the table in the centreof the room, while Katherine joined in the frolic that was going onwith the twins and the dog.

  "No, he was not there," Katherine answered.

  "He wants you to go up to the second portage with him thisafternoon. Another boat got in this morning with some mails onboard, and there are stores to be taken for Astor M'Kree," saidMrs. Burton.

  "That will be lovely!" cried Katherine, giving Lotta a toss up inthe air, after which Beth had to be treated in a similar fashion toprevent jealousy. "I am simply yearning to be outside in thesunshine and the cold. I have been wishing all the morning that Iwere a man; then I could go off hunting, trapping, or evenlumbering, and so breathe fresh air all day long."

  Mrs. Burton smiled. "I expect if you were a man you would just doas other men do; that is, smoke a dirty little pipe all day long,and so never breathe fresh air at all."

  "That is not the sort of man I would be," retorted Katherine, witha toss of her head.

  Then she put the twins into their high chairs: her father and theboys came in, and dinner began. It was a hasty meal, as earlydinner has to be when half of the day's work lies beyond it, and inless than half an hour Katherine was getting into a thick pilotcoat, fur cap, mittens, and a big muffler; for, although the sunwas so bright, the cold was not to be trifled with.

  'Duke Radford, short for Marmaduke, was a sombre-looking man offifty. Twenty-five years of pioneer life in the Keewatin countryhad worn him considerably, and he looked older than his years. Buthe was a strong man still, and to-day he had loaded a sledge withstores to draw himself, while Katherine looked after the four greatdogs which drew the other sledge.

  The track for the first three miles was as bad as a track could be.'Duke Radford went first, to beat or pack the snow a little firmerfor Katherine and the dogs; but even then every movement of hersnowshoes sent the white powdery dust flying in clouds. The dogsfollowed close behind, so close that she had often to show a whipto keep them back, from fear that they would tread on her snowshoesand fling her down.

  It was five good long miles to the abode of Astor M'Kree, beyondthe second portage, but the last two miles were easy travelling,over a firm level track. "Astor M'Kree has been hauling timber orsomething over here to-day. I wonder how he managed it?" calledout Katherine, as her father's pace on the well-packed snowquickened, while she flew after him and the dogs came racing onbehind. He shouted back some answer that was inaudible, then racedon at a great pace. Those last two miles were pure enjoyment allround, and when they drew up before the little brown house of theboatbuilder, Katherine was sparkling, glowing, and rosy, with alife and animation which she never showed indoors.

  Mrs. M'Kree was a worn-looking little woman, with three babiestoddling about her feet, and she welcomed her visitors with greateffusiveness.

  "Well, now, I must say it is right down good of you to get throughall this way on the very first fine day. My word, what weatherwe've been having!" she exclaimed. "I was telling Astor only lastnight that if we had much more of that sort I'd have to keep him onsawdust puddings and pine-cone soup. That fetched a long face onto him, I can tell you; for it is downright fond of his food he is,and a rare trencherman too."

  "It is bad to run short of stores in keen weather like this," said'Duke Radford, who with the help of his daughter was bringing bags,barrels, and bundles of goods into the house from the two sledges,while the dogs rested with an air of enjoyment delightful to behold.

  When the stores were all safely housed, Mrs. M'Kree insisted ontheir drinking a cup of hot coffee before they returned; and justas she was lifting the coffee pot from the stove her husband camein. He was tall, thin, and sombre of face, as men who live in thewoods are apt to be, but he had a genial manner, and that he was notyrant could be seen from the way his children clung about his legs.

  "Dear me, these youngsters!" he exclaimed, sitting down on thenearest bench with a child on each knee. "I wish they were oldenough to go to your school, Miss Radford, then I'd get some peacefor part of the day at least."

  "I wish they were old enough, too," sighed Katherine. "It isreally quite dreadful to think what a long time I have got to waitbefore all the small children in the neighbourhood are of an age toneed school."

  "By which time I expect you won't be wanting to keep school atall," said Mrs. M'Kree with a laugh. Then to her husband she said:"Mr. Radford brought some letters, Astor; perhaps you'll want toread them before he goes back."

  "Ah! yes, I'd better perhaps, though there will be no hurry aboutthe answers, I guess, for this will be the last mail that will getthrough the Strait before the spring." He stood up as he spoke,sliding the babies on to the ground at his feet, for he could notread his letters with the small people clutching and clawing at hishands. The others went on talking, to be interrupted a few minuteslater by a surprised exclamation from the master of the house.

  "Now, would you believe it! The Company has been bought out!"

  "What company?" asked 'Duke Radford.

  "Why, the fishing-fleet owners, Barton and Skinner and that lot,"rejoined Astor M'Kree abstractedly, being again buried in hisletter. He was a boat-builder by trade, and this change in thingsmight make a considerable difference to him.

  "Who is it that has bought the company out?" demanded Mrs. M'Kreeanxiously. Life was quite hard enough for her already; she did notwant it to become more difficult still.

  "An Englishman named Oswald Selincourt," replied Astor. "He isrich, too, and means to put money into the business. He wants meto have four more boats ready by the time the waters are open, andsays he is coming himself next summer to see into matters a bit.Now that looks hopeful."

  Katherine chanced at that moment to glance across at her father,and was startled by the look on his face; it was just as ifsomething had made him desperately afraid. But it was only for amoment, and then he had got his features into control, so shehastily averted her head lest he should see her looking, and thinkthat she was trying to pry into what did not concern her. Heswallowed down the rest of his coffee at a gulp and rose to go.But his manner now was so changed and uneasy that Katherine musthave wondered at it, even if she had not caught a glimpse of thatdreadful look on his face when Astor M'Kree announced the change inthe ownership of the fishing fleet.

  The journey home was taken in a different style from the journeyout: the two sledges were tied together, and both pairs ofsnowshoes piled on the hindmost; then, Katherine and her fathertaking their places on the first, the dogs started off at a tearinggallop, which made short work of the two miles of level track, andgave Katherine and her father plenty of occupation in holding on.But when they reached the broken ground the pace grew steadier, andconversation became possible once more.

  'Duke Radford began to talk then with almost feverish haste, but hecarefully avoided any mention of the news contained in theboatbuilder's letter, and a sickening fear of something, she knewnot what, crept into the heart of Katherine and spoiled for her theglory of that winter afternoon. The sun went down in flamingsplendours of crimson and gold, a young moon hung like a sickle ofsilver above the dark pine forest, and everywhere below was thewhite purity of the fresh-fallen snow.

  Supper was nearly ready when they got back to Roaring WaterPortage, but there were two or three customers in the store, andKatherine went to help her father with them, while Milesunharnessed and fed the four dogs. Oily Dave was one of the peoplegathered round the stove waiting to be served with flour and bacon,and it was his voice raised in eager talk which Katherine heardwhen she came back from the sitting-room into the store.

  "If it's true what they are saying, that Barton, Skinner, & Co. arein liquidation, then things is going to look queer for some of uswhen the spring comes, and the question will be as to who can claimthe boats, though some of them ain't much good."

  "I suppose that you'll stick to your'n, seeing that it is by farthe best in the fleet," said another man, who had a deep, rumblinglaugh.

  Katherine looked at her father in dumb surprise. She had beenexpecting him to announce the news of the fishing boats having beenbought by the Englishman with the remarkable name, instead of whichhe was just going on with his work, and looking as if he had nomore information than the others.

  Lifting his head at that moment he caught his daughter's perplexedglance, and, after a moment, said hastily: "I wouldn't be in toomuch hurry about appropriating the boats if I were you."

  "Why not?" chorused the listeners.

  "Barton & Skinner have been bought out, and the new owner might notapprove of his property being made off with in that fashion," 'DukeRadford replied.

  "Who's bought it? Who told you? Look here, we want to know," oneman burst out impatiently.

  "Then you had better go up to the second portage and ask AstorM'Kree," rejoined 'Duke Radford slowly. "It was he who told meabout it, and he has got the order to build four more boats."

  "Now that looks like business, anyhow. Who is the man?" demandedRick Portus, who was younger than the others, and meant "to makethings hum" when he got a chance.

  'Duke Radford fumbled with the head of a flour barrel, and for amoment did not answer. It was an agonizing moment for Katherine,who was entering items in the ledger, and had to be blind and deafto what was passing round her, yet all the time was acutelyconscious that something was wrong somewhere.

  The head of the barrel came off with a jerk, and then 'Dukeanswered with an air of studied indifference: "An Englishman, AstorM'Kree said he was; Selincourt or some such name, I think."

  A burst of eager talk followed this announcement, but, her entriesmade in the ledger, Katherine slipped away from it all and hurriedinto the sitting-room, where supper was already beginning. But thefood had lost its flavour for her, and she might have been feedingon the sawdust and pine cones of which Mrs. M'Kree had spoken forall the taste her supper possessed. She had to talk, however, andto seem cheerful, yet all the time she was shrinking and shiveringbecause of this mysterious mood displayed by her father at themention of a strange man's name.

  'Duke Radford did not come in from the store until it was nearlytime for night school, so Katherine saw very little more of him,except at a distance, for that evening; but he was so quiet andabsorbed that Mrs. Burton asked more than once if he were feelingunwell. She even insisted on his taking a basin of onion gruelbefore he went to bed, because she thought he had caught a chill.He swallowed the gruel obediently enough, yet knew all the timethat the chill was at his heart, where no comforting food nor drinkcould relieve him.