The Prospector by Ralph Connor
IV. Only One Claim
It always gave Brown a sense of content to enter the Macgregor cottage. Even among the thrifty North country folk the widow Macgregor's home, while not as pretentious as those of the well-to- do farmers, had been famous as a model of tidy house-keeping. Her present home was a little cottage of three rooms with the kitchen at the back. The front room where Mrs. Macgregor received her few visitors, and where Shock did most of his reading, except when driven to his bedroom by the said visitors, was lighted by two candles in high, polished, old-fashioned brass candlesticks, and by the fire from the hearth, which radiated a peace and comfort which even the shiny hair-cloth chairs and sofa and the remaining somewhat severe furniture of the room could not chill. It was the hearth and mantel that had decided Mrs. Macgregor and Shock in their purchase of the little cottage, which in many eyes was none too desirable. On the walls hung old-fashioned prints of Robbie Burns and his Highland Mary, the Queen and the Prince Consort, one or two quaint family groups, and over the mantel a large portrait of a tall soldier in full Highland dress. Upon a bracket in a corner stood a glass case enclosing a wreath of flowers wrought in worsted, and under it in a frame hung a sampler with the Lord's Prayer similarly wrought. On one side of the room stood a clock upon a shelf, flanked by the Family Bible and such books as "The Saint's Rest," "Holy Living," "The Fourfold State," "Scots Worthies," all ancient and well worn. On the other side stood a bookcase which was Shock's, and beside it a table where he did his work. Altogether it was a very plain room, but the fireplace and the shining candlesticks and the rag carpet on the floor redeemed it from any feeling of discomfort, while the flowers that filled the windows left an air of purity and sweetness.
"Come away, my lad, come away," said Mrs. Macgregor, who sat knitting by the fire. "The night is chill enough. Come away up to the fire."
"Thanks, Mrs. Macgregor," said Brown, "it does me good to look at you by the fire there with your knitting. When I'm an old man I only hope I'll have a cozy hearthstone like this to draw up to, and on the other side a cozy old lady like you with pink cheeks like these which I must now kiss."
"Tut, tut, it's a daft laddie you are whatever," said the old lady, blushing a little, but not ill-pleased. "Sit ye down yonder." Brown, ever since his illness, when Mrs. Macgregor and Shock had nursed him back from death's door two years ago, was one of the family, and, indeed, he used endearments with the old lady that the undemonstrative Shock would never have dared to use. "Ye're late, Hamish. Surely yon man had much to say," said his mother, looking lovingly upon her great, sturdy son.
"That he had, mother, and great it was, I can tell you."
Then Shock proceeded, after his habit, to give his mother a full share of what he had been enjoying. Mrs. Macgregor listened intently, pausing now and then in her knitting to ejaculate, "Well- a-well!" "Look at that, now!" "Hear to him!" When Shock had finished, Brown broke in: "It was truly magnificent, I assure you, Mrs. Macgregor, and the enthusiasm of the man! And his yarns! Oh, he is truly, great!"
"And what would he be doing at the college?" enquired the old lady. "There would not be much money there, I doubt."
"Men, mother, men," cried Shock with some excitement. "Volunteers for the Great West, and a hard time he is having, too, what with the foreign field, and needy vacancies in this country, and city pulpits, and the like."
Mrs. Macgregor sat silent, her needles flying fast and her lips pressed together.
"I wish you could have heard him, Mrs. Macgregor," said Brown, enthusiastically. "He has a tongue like a rasp, and at times it takes off the skin. That was fine, Shock, about the fellows who could not give him answer till they had asked the Lord about it. 'I find a good many men,' the old chap said, 'who, after anxiously enquiring as to the work expected of them, remuneration, prospects of advance, etc., always want to lay the matter before the Lord before giving their answer. And I am beginning to think that the Lord has some grudge against the West, for almost invariably He appears to advise these men to leave it severely alone.' Oh, it was great!" Little Brown hugged his knee in delight at the memory of that rasping tongue.
"But surely there are plenty of men," said Mrs. Macgregor a little impatiently, "for there's no want of them whateffer when a congregation falls vacant."
"That's so," replied Brown; "but you see he wants only first-class men--men ready for anything in the way of hardship, and not to be daunted by man or devil."
"Ou ay!" said the old lady, nodding her head grimly; "he will not be finding so many of yon kind."
"But it must be a great country," went on Brown. "You ought to bear him tell of the rivers with sands of gold, running through beds of coal sixty feet thick."
The old lady shook her cap at him, peering over her glasses. "Ye're a gay callant, and you will be taking your fun off me"
"But it's true. Ask Shock there."
"What?" said Shock, waking up from a deep study. Brown explained.
" Yes," said Shock. "The sands of the Saskatchewan are full of gold, and you know, mother, about the rivers in Cariboo."
"Ay, I remember fine the Cariboo, and Cariboo Cameron and his gold. But not much good did it do him, poor fellow."
"But," said Shock, gazing into the fire, "it was terrible to hear his tales of these men in the mines with their saloons and awful gambling places, and the men and women in their lonely shacks in the foot-hills. My! I could see them all."
Mrs. Macgregor looked sharply into her son's face, then laying her knitting down in her lap she turned to him and said severely, "And what took them out yonder? And did they not know what-na country it was before they went out?"
"Yes," said Shock, still looking into the fire, "but there they are, Mother, there they are, and no living soul to speak a good word to them."
"Well then," said the old lady, even more impatiently, "let them put up with it, as better before them have done to their credit, ay, and to their good as well."
"Meantime the saloons and worse are getting them," replied Shock, "and fine fellows they are, too, he says."
"And is yon man wanting the lads from the college to go out yonder to those terrible-like mines and things so far from their homes? Why does he not send the men who are wanting places?" Mrs. Macgregor's tone was unusually sharp. Both Shock and Brown looked at her in surprise.
"Yes, you may look," she went on, "but I say let them that's not needed here go out yonder, and there will be plenty of them, I warrant."
"'And they'd none of them be missed,'" sang Brown.
"I doubt they wouldn't do," said Shock, shaking his head sadly.
"Well, mother," cried Brown, "you'll have a chance of hearing him yourself to-morrow morning, for he is going to preach in your church, I see."
The old lady shrugged her shoulders. "Indeed, and I wish our meenister wouldn't be so ready with his pulpit for every Bill and Bob that comes the way. He will not be needing a rest again, will he?"
Shock gazed at his mother in sheer amazement. He had never seen her like this before. This bitter impatience was so unlike her usual calm, dignified self-control.
"But mother," he ventured, "the cause will be needing money and the people will need to hear about it, surely."
"Oh, as to that," she answered in a relieved tone, "it is not much that we can give, but what we can we will, and, indeed, there are many of them in that Kirk that would be the better of giving a little of their money. But, lad," she added as if dismissing a painful subject, "you must be at your books."
"Which means I must go. I know you, Mother Macgregor," said Brown, using his pet name for the woman who had for two years been more of a mother to him than his own.
"Ay, and within a few weeks you will be wishing, as well, that someone had set you to your books, for the examinators will be upon you."
"And, doubtless, shear me as bare as Delilah did Samson of old. But I am not promising you I am going to work. My physician warns me against work on Saturday nights, so I am going to hunt up The Don."
"Indeed then, you will know well where to look for him," said the old lady shrewdly.
"Ah, mother, you're too sharp for any of us. Not much escapes your eyes."
"Indeed, one does not require eyes to see some things, and yon laddie is daft enough."
"Daft's the word," said Brown, "and has been for the last three years. Is not it astonishing and profoundly humiliating," he added solemnly, "to see a chit of a girl, just because she has brown curls and brown eyes with a most bewildering skill in using them, so twiddle a man? It passes my comprehension."
The old lady shook her head at him. "Wait you, my lad. Your day will come."
"I hear The Don has got the offer of a great appointment in connection with the new railway in that country and I fear that means trouble for him. There are those who would be delighted to see him out of the way for a couple of years or so."
But the old lady would not gossip, so Brown was forced to drop the subject with the remark, "But I'll do what I can to assist the Fates, and I'll begin by bringing both those young ladies to hear your big gun to-morrow if I can, Shock. They ought to know more about their own country."
Shock glanced up quickly as if to speak, but seemed to think better of it and poked the fire instead.
"I doubt they would be more profited in their own church," said Mrs. Macgregor. "'Traivellin' sheep are sair tae keep,' as they say in the South country. No, it's little enough the poor things will be getting in yon church of theirs with their read prayers and their bit sairmon--a sairmonette, they will be calling it. Ay, a sairmonette!" The old lady indulged herself in a quiet chuckle of indescribable contempt.
"Why, mother," said Shock in a reproving tone, "don't you know that their minister is just a splendid preacher. There is no better in the city."
"And that's not saying much," said the old lady. "But I'm glad to hear it."
"My! mother, but you are censorious to-night. You can't expect to find men like Candlish, Chalmers, and Macdonald of Ferintosh in every age."
"Ay," said the old lady with an emphatic shake of her head, "and that's a true word. Men like yon are not to be found, and like McCheyae and Burns and Guthrie and the rest of them. Oh! it iss manys the Sabbath morning when I wass a lass that I walked with my shoes and stockings in my hand down the glen to hear these men preach. And yon was the preaching. Yon was the preaching. None of your puny, peeping, fifteen-meenute sairmonettes, but preaching, terrible heart-smiting preaching." The old lady had ceased her knitting and was sitting erect in her chair gazing straight before her. The young men sat silent, fearing to break the spell that was upon her, and waiting eagerly for what they knew was coming.
"Man! man!" she continued, "those were the days! and those were the men! I have heard such preaching as would cause your heart to quake within you, and make you to listen with the fear of death upon you lest it should stop."
"It must have been terrible preaching, indeed," said Brown softly.
"Terrible! ay, terrible's the word. Lad, lad," said the old lady, turning upon Brown her piercing blue-grey eyes, "in the old Mullin Church I have seen the very rafters throbbing, and strong men and women swaying like the tree-tops in the glen while Burns was raging forth upon them like the Tummel in spate, while visions of the eternal things--the throne of God and the Judgment Day--filled our eyes." She paused a few moments and then sinking back into her chair she went on, "Ay, terrible preaching, yon, like the storm-blast sweeping the hillsides and rending the firs in the Pass. Yes! yes! But gentle at times and winning, like the rain falling soft at night, wooing at the bluebells and the daisies in the glen, or like a mother croonin over the babe at her breast, till men wept for love and longing after Himself. Ay, lad, lad, yon was the preaching."
There was a long silence while they waited for her to continue.
"What was that sermon, mother, at Mullin that time upon the words 'Will ye also go away?' you remember?" at length asked Shock cunningly.
His mother sighed. "Ay, and that was a sairmon to draw the heart out o' you. That was the melting day, while the big men gripped their sticks hard and the women wiped at their eyes that would never be done running, and that man's voice soughing over them like the wind in the pines in the evening, Yes! yes! But," suddenly recalling herself, "come, lads, you must be off to your books."
The young men sat a few moments silently gazing into the fire, and then Brown rose and said, "Good-night, mother. You're the greatest preacher I know, and I would not mind a whole hour from you." His voice was earnest and his eyes soft and tender as he stooped and kissed her cheek.
"Good-night, laddie," answered Mrs. Macgregor, patting his hand gently. "I doubt, after all, the fault nowadays is not with the preaching so much as with the hearing."
"Well, I'm off. You will see me to-morrow with my flock of straying sheep. But I warn you that after you hear that man from the West you will all be volunteering as missionaries."
The old lady took up her knitting again and after the door had closed upon Brown sat back in her chair with a weary sigh.
"You're tired to-night, mother," said Shock gently.
"Tired? And what for would I be tired? No, no, but the day is long."
"Yes, some days, mother. But the longest pass."
She glanced quickly at her son, but save for a quivering of the lips usually so firm, there was no sign of the pain which both knew lay at the heart of each. Her mood of impatience had passed. She was once more herself, calm and strong, looking with steadfast eyes into the future, knowing well that whatever the days might bring, He who for fifty years had been her refuge and her strength would not fail her.
The appeal for the West was the theme of conversation at the Fairbanks home, where the usual company had assembled. The Don was describing the Superintendent's address at the College and thrilling his listeners with his own enthusiasm, when Brown entered.
"Hello! At it again?" cried Brown. "If he doesn't avoid that fiery cross fellow, The Don will be off for the West first thing you know."
"Tell us," cried Betty, "was he as great as all that? Mr. Balfour here would have us believe that this Western man is really something wonderful."
"Well, I don't know," said Brown. "You never think of whether he is wonderful or not, but one thing I know, he makes you see things--the mountains and that foot-hill country, the mining camps and all that saloon and gambling-hell business, till you can smell the brimstone and you want to be in it."
"What? Into the brimstone?" laughed Lloyd.
"I am rather incoherent, I confess. But that old chap suits me. If I were a Theologue, and unattached, I'd be there."
"There's no doubt it is a great country, with vast opportunities," said The Don, glancing at Betty.
"Yes," said Mrs. Fairbanks, frowning as she noted the glance, "and doubtless any young man who has the necessary enterprise and courage will make his fortune with the growth of that country."
"But why unattached? What do you mean by that?" enquired Betty.
"Unattached? Why, you know, just like me--a man with no family ties to speak of. Did you tell them that yarn, Lloyd? Well, I'll tell you. You know the Superintendent was telling the fellows of the difficulty he had in securing men. Well, he managed to get a man from an Eastern College whom he appointed to the Cariboo--right sort of chap, too, apparently--accepted the appointment--everything was arranged--happened, however, he was engaged to a young lady brought up in the lap of luxury, and that sort of thing. When she heard of her young man being appointed to this outlandish place, she promptly collapsed into a faint, sister went into hysterics, mother into a blind rage, result--young man resigned. 'So you see, gentlemen,' said the old chap dryly, 'when you have to consider the tastes and temperament, not only of the young man, but of his young lady and of all her near family relatives, the difficulty of securing men for the West is sensibly increased."
"I think that is just horrid of him," exclaimed Betty indignantly. "The young lady ought to be consulted. Don't you think so?" turning to Lloyd.
"Why certainly, and yet--"
"Most assuredly," said Mrs. Fairbanks. "Would you ask a young lady to go out and bury herself alive in such a country as that, or ask her to wait an indefinite number of years till the young man should return? Why it is simply monstrous." And Mrs. Fairbanks fixed her glasses firmly on her nose and gazed at Brown as if she would annihilate him.
"Why certainly I would," replied Brown, quite unabashed; "and if she loved me," placing his hand over his heart, "she would be glad to do either. I would simply remark, 'My love, I'm off for Greenland.' 'Wait, my dear,' she would promptly reply, 'till I get my furs.'"
"All the same," said Lloyd seriously, "it would be a terrible life for any woman, and a man should hesitate before asking her to share it."
"No society, nothing congenial in environment! Quite impossible!" exclaimed Mrs. Fairbanks with great emphasis. "And quite absurd to dream of it."
"Then," replied Brown warmly to Lloyd, "the only available men for your Chief, apparently, are hopeless old bachelors or young men, however worthy like myself, who are still unappropriated."
"Exactly," said Mrs. Fairbanks with an air of finality.
"But, Mrs. Fairbanks," exclaimed The Don, "what of our soldiers and officers who go to India and other outlandish places? They take their wives along with them, I understand?"
"That's quite a different thing, Mr. Balfour," said Mrs. Fairbanks. "These men go out to serve their Queen and country, and it is recognised as the proper thing, and--well, you see, it is quite different."
"I must say," exclaimed Helen, fastening to forestall the hot answer she knew to be at The Don's lips, "I agree with Mr. Brown. If a man's work calls him to Greenland, his wife ought to go with him or she ought to be willing to wait his return."
"Helen, you speak like a sentimental school-girl," replied Mrs. Fairbanks with a touch of haughty scorn. "Of course if a man is married and duty calls him to a foreign land, he must go. But why should a girl throw away her prospects and condemn herself to a life of obscurity and isolation by attaching herself to a man who chooses to take up some fantastic mission in some outlandish place or other?"
"Why? Because she loves a man whose duty calls him there," exclaimed Helen, her grey eyes glowing.
"Bravo!" replied Brown. "If I see a Western missionary wanting a helpmeet--that's the proper word, I believe--I shall know where to send him."
"Nonsense," cried Mrs. Fairbanks quite crossly, "but surely we need not discuss the question any further."
"Well, if I may offer an opinion," said The Don in a deliberate, strained voice, "that country is the place for men with enterprise who believe in themselves, and I think no man is throwing his prospects away who identifies himself with it--nor woman either, for that matter. And what is true of other professions ought to be true of the ministry."
"I agree," cried Brown, adding wickedly, "just the spot for you, Lloyd."
"Why, I should like nothing better," said Lloyd, "if circumstances indicated that my work lay there."
"Well, well, what's come to you all?" cried Mrs. Fairbanks, holding up her jewelled hands in despair.
"The Occidental microbe," suggested Brown.
"And the monumental nonsense it is," said Mrs. Fairbanks, "for men of high culture and special training to lose themselves in such a country as that."
"But," persisted Brown, "they say that that's the very place for such men. Why, that country is full of high-class chaps--University grads, Lords, Dukes, and such, as well as the professional gambler, and other highly technical experts. The Superintendent declared to- night he wouldn't have any but high-class men hence, Lloyd!" and Brown waved his hand toward that gentleman.
"I have no doubt," said Mrs. Fairbanks with severe deliberation, "that Mr. Lloyd has the good sense to perceive that his special training fits him for something quite different, and I think he will not be mad enough to throw away his brilliant prospects in any such silly manner. But come, let us have some music. Mr. Lloyd, you and Betty sing something for us."
As they moved to the piano, Brown looked up at The Don. His handsome, haughty face was set hard and in his eyes burned a light that Brown had often seen there on the football field.
"He's going to tackle and tackle hard, too, poor old chap. Not much chance, though, against that combination of Church and State."
"Oh, that we two were Maying," sang Lloyd in his fine tenor voice, with Betty responding in like sentiment.
"Well, I rather hope not," muttered Brown to himself as he crossed the room to where Helen was seated. Pausing a moment beside her he said in a low tone, "The Don has had an offer on the new railway construction in the West--two years' appointment. Go and talk to him about it. Looks fierce, doesn't he?" And Helen, nodding intelligently, lingered a moment and then moved to where The Don sat, while Brown went toward the piano. "Must get these youngsters inoculated with the Occidental microbe," he muttered as he took his place beside Mrs. Fairbanks, who was listening with pleased approval to the "Maying" duet, the pauses of which Brown industriously employed in soothing her ruffled feelings. So well did he succeed that when he proffered the humble request that the young ladies should be allowed to accompany him to Shock's church in the morning, Mrs. Fairbanks gave a reluctant assent.
"Undoubtedly, I am a great strategist," said Brown to himself next morning as he sat watching with surreptitious glances the faces of the young ladies beside him. The preacher was at his best. The great land where his life mission lay, with its prairies, foot-hills mountains, and valleys, and all their marvellous resources, was spread out before the eyes of the congregation with all the passionate pride of the patriot. The life of the lonely rancher and of his more lonely wife, the desperate struggle for manhood by the mean of the mine and the railroad and the lumber camp, the magnitude of the issues at stake; the pathos of defeat, the glory of triumph, were all portrayed with a power that compelled the sympathy of his hearers, while the shrewd common-sense vein that ran through all convinced their intellects and won their confidence. Perplexity, wonder, horror, compassion, filled their hearts and were reflected with rapid succession on their faces, as he told his stories of the wreck of human lives and consequent agony of human hearts.
"By Jove! they've got it," exclaimed Brown to himself. "The dear Mrs. Fairbanks has no anti-toxine for this microbe." His eyes turned to Shock and there were held fast. "He's got it, too, confound him," he grumbled. "Surely, he wouldn't be beast enough to leave his old mother alone." The mother's face was a strange sight. On it the anguish of her heart was plainly to be seen, but with the anguish the rapt glory of those who triumph by sacrifice.
As the congregation broke up the young ladies hurried to greet Mrs. Macgregor. From the day of the football match they had carefully and persistently nursed the acquaintance then begun till they had come to feel at home in the Macgregor cottage. Hence, when Betty fell into severe illness and they were at their wits' end for a nurse, they gladly accepted Mrs. Macgregor's proffered help, and during the long anxious weeks that followed, the whole family came to regard with respect, confidence, and finally warm affection, the dignified old lady who, with such kindly, shrewd, and tender care, nursed the sick girl back to strength. Helen especially, who had shared the long watch with her, had made for herself a large place in her heart. To-day, after an exchange of greetings, Helen drew Mrs. Macgregor back and allowed the others to go on. For some time they walked in silence, Helen holding the old lady tight by the arm.
"Well, what do you think of that?" she said finally. "Wasn't it wonderful? It makes one proud to be a Canadian. What a country that must be! If I were only a man! It's too bad that men have all the good things. Wouldn't you like to go yourself?"
"That I would," said the old lady eagerly, "that I would. But I doubt it's not for me. But yon's a man."
"Yes," cried Helen enthusiastically, "he is a man to follow. Of course, it was a strange sermon for a church--those stories of his, I mean, and all those figures about coal beds and gold and cattle. I'm not used to that sort of thing and I don't like to see the people laugh."
"Ay, he's wise," replied the old lady shrewdly. "When a man laughs he's nearer to letting his money go. Ay, he's wise, yon man."
"Of course, I think he's extreme," said Helen. "You would think to hear him there was no place but the West and that every young minister must go out there and give up everything."
"There's few to go, I doubt," said the old lady in a musing tone, "and yon are terrible-like places for those lads to live."
"Yes, but everyone can't go."
"No, no. That's it. That's just it. Not many can go and not many are fit to go. But those that can--" the old lady paused, drawing her breath in sharply.
"But surely a man may do his work without giving up everything he holds dear," persisted Helen.
"'Forsaketh not all that he hath,'" quoted the old lady softly.
"Yes, but that's not for everybody," insisted Helen.
"'Whosoever,'" quoted Mrs. Macgregor again, with a stern relentlessness in her tone. "Ay, there will be no slipping out from under yon."
"But surely," argued Helen, "it is not reasonable to think that every young minister is bound to forsake home and friends, and all that, and go out to these wild places."
"Not every one will be called. The application will not be easy for any of us, I doubt. Oh, no! it will not be easy."
"But surely, Mrs. Macgregor, there are other claims upon men."
"There iss only one claim, lassie, only one claim. His claim is the first. All other claims will just be working out that first one. Ay, that's it," she said, as if arriving at decision, "only one claim. God peety us! One claim," she added with a sudden break in her voice.
At that break Helen glanced at the old lady. The strong face was working strangely. The tears were slowly making their way down the wrinkled face.
"Oh, Mrs. Macgregor!" exclaimed Helen, "that seems an awfully hard doctrine. Do you think God ever wants a man to leave father, mother, wife, helpless behind?"
"No, no, lassie, not helpless. But--," she could go no further. "But," she continued after a moment or two, clutching Helen by the arm, "he--will--be--going--away, lassie, he will be going away. He will be leaving me and--it iss the will of the Lord. Oh! lassie, lassie, heed me not. He must never see the tears on my face."
"Don't! don't!" cried Helen in a sudden anguish. She had no need of further words to tell her what the old lady meant. "He would never do such a thing! He could not do it!"
"Could not?" answered Mrs. Macgregor. "Ay, he could," she said proudly. "Thank God he could. He will not be shaming his blood. But oh! it iss himself will carry a sore heart away with him and leave a sore heart behind."
"Oh, Mrs. Macgregor!" cried Helen, while her breath came fast and her hand went to her own heart, "perhaps he will not think it to be his duty. Perhaps he will not--"
"Indeed, indeed, and I saw it in hiss face last night, and clearer than ever to-day. He hass heard the voice and it iss for him to obey--and for us."
They were near Mrs. Macgregor's home, where the others stood waiting for them at the gate.
"May I come to see you?" said Helen hurriedly.
"Ay, come," said Mrs. Macgregor with a keen look at her, "you will be needing--I will be needing help."
The others they found eagerly discussing the sermon, but there was little criticism. The Superintendent had won his volunteers. On Shock's face sat the serenity of a great decision, in his deep blue eyes the light of a great enterprise. As he said good-bye to Helen, she became aware that his usual hesitating, nervous awkwardness had given place to quiet, thoughtful dignity. A great resolve and a great sacrifice had lifted him far above things small and common.