Chapter III. The Manse in the Bush
 

Straight north from the St. Lawrence runs the road through the Indian Lands. At first its way lies through open country, from which the forest has been driven far back to the horizon on either side, for along the great river these many years villages have clustered, with open fields about them stretching far away. But when once the road leaves the Front, with its towns and villages and open fields, and passes beyond Martintown and over the North Branch, it reaches a country where the forest is more a feature of the landscape. And when some dozen or more of the crossroads marking the concessions which lead off to east and west have been passed, the road seems to strike into a different world. The forest loses its conquered appearance, and dominates everything. There is forest everywhere. It lines up close and thick along the road, and here and there quite overshadows it. It crowds in upon the little farms and shuts them off from one another and from the world outside, and peers in through the little windows of the log houses looking so small and lonely, but so beautiful in their forest frames. At the nineteenth cross-road the forest gives ground a little, for here the road runs right past the new brick church, which is almost finished, and which will be opened in a few weeks. Beyond the cross, the road leads along the glebe, and about a quarter of a mile beyond the corner there opens upon it the big, heavy gate that the members of the Rev. Alexander Murray's congregation must swing when they wish to visit the manse. The opening of this gate, made of upright poles held by auger-holes in a frame of bigger poles, was almost too great a task for the minister's seven-year-old son Hughie, who always rode down, standing on the hind axle of the buggy, to open it for his father. It was a great relief to him when Long John Cameron, who had the knack of doing things for people's comfort, brought his ax and big auger one day and made a kind of cradle on the projecting end of the top bar, which he then weighted with heavy stones, so that the gate, when once the pin was pulled out of the post, would swing back itself with Hughie straddled on the top of it.

It was his favorite post of observation when waiting for his mother to come home from one of her many meetings. And on this particular March evening he had been waiting long and impatiently.

Suddenly he shouted: "Horo, mamma! Horo!" He had caught sight of the little black pony away up at the church hill, and had become so wildly excited that he was now standing on the top bar frantically waving his Scotch bonnet by the tails. Down the slope came the pony on the gallop, for she knew well that soon Lambert would have her saddle off, and that her nose would be deep into bran mash within five minutes more. But her rider sat her firmly and brought her down to a gentle trot by the time the gate was reached.

"Horo, mamma!" shouted Hughie, clambering down to open the gate.

"Well, my darling! have you been a good boy all afternoon?"

"Huh-huh! Guess who's come back from the shanties!"

"I'm sure I can't guess. Who is it?" It was a very bright and very sweet face, with large, serious, gray-brown eyes that looked down on the little boy.

"Guess, mamma!"

"Why, who can it be? Big Mack?"

"No!" Hughie danced delightedly. "Try again. He's not big."

"I am sure I can never guess. Whoa, Pony!" Pony was most unwilling to get in close enough to the gate-post to let Hughie spring on behind his mother.

"You'll have to be quick, Hughie, when I get near again. There now! Whoa, Pony! Take care, child!"

Hughie had sprung clean off the post, and lighting on Pony's back just behind the saddle, had clutched his mother round the waist, while the pony started off full gallop for the stable.

"Now, mother, who is it?" insisted Hughie, as Lambert, the French- Canadian man-of-all-work, lifted him from his place.

"You'll have to tell me, Hughie!"

"Ranald!"

"Ranald?"

"Yes, Ranald and his father, Macdonald Dubh, and he's hurted awful bad, and--"

"Hurt, Hughie," interposed the mother, gently.

"Huh-huh! Ranald said he was hurted."

"Hurt, you mean, Hughie. Who was hurt? Ranald?"

"No; his father was hurted--hurt--awful bad. He was lying down in the sleigh, and Yankee Jim--"

"Mr. Latham, you mean, Hughie."

"Huh-huh," went on Hughie, breathlessly, "and Yankee--Mr. Latham asked if the minister was home, and I said 'No,' and then they went away."

"What was the matter? Did you see them, Lambert?"

"Oui" ("Way," Lambert pronounced it), "but dey not tell me what he's hurt."

The minister's wife went toward the house, with a shadow on her face. She shared with her husband his people's sorrows. She knew even better than he the life-history of every family in the congregation. Macdonald Dubh had long been classed among the wild and careless in the community, and it weighed upon her heart that his life might be in danger.

"I shall see him to-morrow," she said to herself.

For a few moments she stood on the doorstep looking at the glow in the sky over the dark forest, which on the west side came quite up to the house and barn.

"Look, Hughie, at the beautiful tints in the clouds, and see the dark shadows pointing out toward us from the bush." Hughie glanced a moment.

"Mamma," he said, "I am just dead for supper."

"Oh, not quite, I hope, Hughie. But look, I want you to notice those clouds and the sky behind them. How lovely! Oh, how wonderful!"

Her enthusiasm caught the boy, and for a few moment she forgot even his hunger, and holding his mother's hand, gazed up at the western sky. It was a picture of rare beauty that lay stretched out from the manse back door. Close to the barn came the pasture-field dotted with huge stumps, then the brule where the trees lay fallen across one another, over which the fire had run, and then the solid wall of forest here and there overtopped by the lofty crest of a white pine. Into the forest in the west the sun was descending in gorgeous robes of glory. The treetops caught the yellow light, and gleamed like the golden spires of some great and fabled city.

"Oh, mamma, see that big pine top! Doesn't it look like windows?" cried Hughie, pointing to one of the lofty pine crests through which the sky quivered like molten gold.

"And the streets of the city are pure gold," said the mother, softly.

"Yes, I know," said Hughie, confidently, for to him all the scenes and stories of the Bible had long been familiar. "Is it like that, mamma?"

"Much better, ever so much better than you can think."

"Oh, mamma, I'm just awful hungry!"

"Come away, then; so am I. What have you got, Jessie, for two very hungry people?"

"Porridge and pancakes," said Jessie, the minister's "girl," who not only ruled in the kitchen, but using the kitchen as a base, controlled the interior economy of the manse.

"Oh, goody!" yelled Hughie; "just what I like." And from the plates of porridge and the piles of pancakes that vanished from his plate no one could doubt his word.

Their reading that night was about the city whose streets were of pure gold, and after a little talk, Hughie and his baby brother were tucked away safely for the night, and the mother sat down to her never-ending task of making and mending.

The minister was away at Presbytery meeting in Montreal, and for ten days his wife would stand in the breach. Of course the elders would take the meeting on the Sabbath day and on the Wednesday evening, but for all other ministerial duties when the minister was absent the congregation looked to the minister's wife. And soon it came that the sick and the sorrowing and the sin-burdened found in the minister's wife such help and comfort and guidance as made the absence of the minister seem no great trial after all. Eight years ago the minister had brought his wife from a home of gentle culture, from a life of intellectual and artistic pursuits, and from a circle of loving friends of which she was the pride and joy, to this home in the forest. There, isolated from all congenial companionship with her own kind, deprived of all the luxuries and of many of the comforts of her young days, and of the mental stimulus of that contact of minds without which few can maintain intellectual life, she gave herself without stint to her husband's people, with never a thought of self-pity or self-praise. By day and by night she labored for her husband and family and for her people, for she thought them hers. She taught the women how to adorn their rude homes, gathered them into Bible classes and sewing circles, where she read and talked and wrought and prayed with them till they grew to adore her as a saint, and to trust her as a leader and friend, and to be a little like her. And not the women only, but the men, too, loved and trusted her, and the big boys found it easier to talk to the minister's wife than to the minister or to any of his session. She made her own and her children's clothes, collars, hats, and caps, her husband's shirts and neckties, toiling late into the morning hours, and all without frown or shadow of complaint, and indeed without suspicion that any but the happiest lot was hers, or that she was, as her sisters said, "just buried alive in the backwoods." Not she! She lived to serve, and the where and how were not hers to determine. So, with bright face and brave heart, she met her days and faced the battle. And scores of women and men are living better and braver lives because they had her for their minister's wife.

But the day had been long, and the struggle with the March wind pulls hard upon the strength, and outside the pines were crooning softly, and gradually the brave head drooped till between the stitches she fell asleep. But not for many minutes, for a knock at the kitchen door startled her, and before long she heard Jessie's voice rise wrathful.

"Indeed, I'll do no such thing. This is no time to come to the minister's house."

For answer there was a mumble of words.

"Well, then, you can just wait until morning. She can go in the morning."

"What is it, Jessie?" The minister's wife came into the kitchen.

"Oh, Ranald, I'm glad to see you back. Hughie told me you had come. But your father is ill, he said. How is he?"

Ranald shook hands shyly, feeling much ashamed under Jessie's sharp reproof.

"Indeed, it was Aunt Kirsty that sent me," said Ranald, apologetically.

"Then she ought to have known better," said Jessie, sharply.

"Never mind, Jessie. Ranald, tell me about your father."

"He is very bad indeed, and my aunt is afraid that--" The boy's lip trembled. Then he went on: "And she thought perhaps you might have some medicine, and--"

"But what is the matter, Ranald?"

"He was hurted bad--and he is not right wise in his head."

"But how was he hurt?"

Ranald hesitated.

"I was not there--I am thinking it was something that struck him."

"Ah, a tree! But where did the tree strike him?"

"Here," pointing to his breast; "and it is sore in his breathing."

"Well, Ranald, if you put the saddle on Pony, I shall be ready in a minute."

Jessie was indignant.

"You will not stir a foot this night. You will send some medicine, and then you can go in the morning."

But the minister's wife heeded her not.

"You are not walking, Ranald?"

"No, I have the colt."

"Oh, that's splendid. We'll have a fine gallop--that is, if the moon is up."

"Yes, it is just coming up," said Ranald, hurrying away to the stable that he might escape Jessie's wrath and get the pony ready.

It was no unusual thing for the minister and his wife to be called upon to do duty for doctor and nurse. The doctor was twenty miles away. So Mrs. Murray got into her riding-habit, threw her knitted hood over her head, put some simple medicines into her hand-bag, and in ten minutes was waiting for Ranald at the door.