The Sky Pilot in No Man's Land by Ralph Connor
Chapter III. A Question of Conscience
The Dunbars lived in a cottage on a back street, which had the distinction of being the only home on the street which possessed the adornment of a garden. A unique garden it was, too. Indeed, with the single exception of Judge Hepburn's garden, which was quite an elaborate affair, and which was said to have cost the Judge a "pile of money," there was none to compare with it in the village of Wapiti.
Any garden on that bare, wind-swept prairie meant toil and infinite pains, but a garden like that of the Dunbars represented in addition something of genius. In conception, in design, and in execution the Dunbars' garden was something apart. Visitors were taken 'round to the back street to get a glimpse of the Dunbars' cottage and garden.
The garden was in two sections. That at the back of the cottage, sheltered by a high, close board fence covered with Virginia creeper, was given over to vegetables, and it was quite marvellous how, under Richard Dunbar's care, a quarter of an acre of ground could grow such enormous quantities of vegetables of all kinds. Next to the vegetable garden came the plot for small fruits-- strawberries, raspberries, currants, of rare varieties.
The front garden was devoted to flowers. Here were to be found the old fashioned flowers dear to our grandmothers, and more particularly the old fashioned flowers native to English and Scottish soil. Between the two gardens a thick row of tall, splendid sunflowers made a stately hedge. Then came larkspur, peonies, stocks, and sweet-williams, verbenas and mignonette, with borders of lobelia and heliotrope. Along the fence were sweet peas, for which Alberta is famous.
But it was the part of the garden close about the front porch and verandah where the particular genius of Richard Dunbar showed itself. Here the flowers native to the prairie, the coulee, the canyon, were gathered; the early wind flower, the crowfoot and the buffalo bean, wild snowdrops and violets. Over trellises ran the tiny morning-glory, with vetch and trailing arbutus. A bed of wild roses grew to wonderful perfection. Later in the year would be seen the yellow and crimson lilies, daisies white and golden, and when other flowers had faded, golden rod and asters in gorgeous contrast. The approach to the door of the house was by a gravel walk bordered by these prairie flowers.
The house inside fulfilled the promise of the garden. The living room, simple in its plan, plain in its furnishing, revealed everywhere that touch in decorative adornment that spoke of the cultivated mind and refined taste. A group of rare etchings had their place over the mantel above a large, open fireplace. On the walls were to be seen really fine copies of the world's most famous pictures, and on the panels which ran 'round the walls were bits of pottery and china, relics of other days and of other homes.
But what was most likely to strike the eye of a stranger on entering the living room was the array of different kinds of musical instruments. At one end of the room stood a small upright piano, a 'cello held one corner, a guitar another; upon a table a cornet was deposited, and on the piano a violin case could be seen, while a banjo hung from a nail on the wall.
Near the fireplace a curiously carved pipe-rack hung, with some half dozen pipes of weird design, evidently the collection of years, while just under it a small table held the utensils sacred to the smoker.
When Barry entered he found the table set and everything in readiness for tea.
"Awfully sorry I'm too late to help you with tea, dad. I have had a long walk, and quite a deuce of a time getting home."
"All right, boy. Glad you are here. The toast is ready, tea waiting to be infused. But what happened? No, don't begin telling me till you get yourself ready. But hurry, your meeting hour will be on in no time."
"Right-o, dad! Shame to make a slavey of you in this way. I'll be out in a jiffy."
He threw off his coat and vest, shirt and collar, took a pail of water to a big block in the little shed at the back, soused his head and shoulders in it with loud snorting and puffing, and emerged in a few minutes looking refreshed, clean and wholesome, his handsome face shining with vigorous health.
Together they stood at the table while the son said a few words of reverent grace.
"I'm ravenous, dad. What! Fried potatoes! Oh, you are a brick."
"No. That reminds me of my thrilling tale, which I shall begin after my third slice of toast, and not before. You can occupy the precious minutes, dad, in telling me of your excitements in the office this afternoon."
"Don't sniff at me. I had a few, though apparently you think it impossible in my humdrum grey life."
"Good!" said Barry, his mouth full of toast. "Go on."
"Young Neil Fraser is buying, or has just bought, the S.Q.R. ranch. Filed the transfer to-day."
"Neil Fraser? He's in my tale, too. Bought the S.Q.R.? Where did he get the stuff?"
"Dough, the dirt, the wherewithal, in short the currency, dad."
"Barry, you are ruining your English," said his father.
"Yum-yum. Bully! Did you notice that, dad? I'm coming on, eh? One thing I almost pray about, that I might become expert in slinging the modern jaw hash. I'm appallingly correct in my forms of speech. But go on, dad. I'm throwing too much vocalisation myself. You were telling me about Neil Fraser. Give us the chorus now."
"I don't like it, boy," said his father, shaking his head, "and especially in a clergyman."
"But that's where you are off, dad. The trouble is, when I come within range of any of my flock all my flip vocabulary absolutely vanishes, and I find myself talking like a professor of English or a maiden lady school ma'am of very certain age."
"I don't like it, boy. Correct English is the only English for a gentleman."
"I wonder," said the lad. "But I don't want to worry you, dad."
"Oh, as for me, that matters nothing at all, but I am thinking of you and of your profession, your standing."
"I know that, dad. I sometimes wish you would think a little more about yourself. But what of Neil Fraser?"
"He has come into some money. He has bought the ranch."
Barry's tone expressed doubtful approval. "Neil is a good sort, dad, awfully reckless, but I like him," said Barry. "He is up and up with it all."
"Now, what about your afternoon?" said his father.
"Well, to begin with, I had a dose of my old friend, the enemy."
"Barry, you don't tell me! Your asthma!" His father sat back from the table gazing at him in dismay. "And I thought that was all done with."
"So did I, dad. But it really didn't amount to much. Probably some stomach derangement, more likely some of that pollen which is floating around now. I passed through a beaver meadow where they were cutting hay, and away I went in a gale of sneezing, forty miles an hour. But I'm all right now, dad. I'm telling you the truth. You know I do."
"Yes, yes, I know," said his father, concern and relief mingling in his voice, "but you don't know how to take care of yourself, Barry. But go on with your tale."
"Well, as I was panting along like a 'heavey horse,' as Harry Hobbs would say,--not really too bad, dad,--along comes that big rancher, Stewart Duff, driving his team of pinto bronchos, and with him a chap named Bayne, from Red Pine Creek. He turned out to be an awfully decent sort. And Duff's dog, Slipper, ranging on ahead, a beautiful setter."
"Yes, I have seen him."
They discussed for a few moments the beauties and points of Duff's Slipper, for both were keen sportsmen, and both were devoted to dogs. Then Barry went back to his tale and gave an account of what had happened during the ride home.
"You see Slipper ranging about got 'on point' and beautiful work it was, too. Out jumped Duff with his gun, ready to shoot, though, of course, he knew it was out of season and that he was breaking the law. Well, just as Slipper flushed the birds, I shouted to Duff that he was shooting out of season. He missed."
"Oh, he was properly wrathful at my spoiling his shot," cried the young man.
"I don't know that I blame him, Barry," said his father thoughtfully. "It is an annoying thing to be shouted at with your gun on a bird, you know, extremely annoying."
"But he was breaking the law, dad!" cried Barry indignantly.
"I know, I know. But after all--"
"But, dad, you can't sit there and tell me that you don't condemn him for shooting out of season. You know nothing makes you more furious than hearing about chaps who pot chicken out of season."
"I know, I know, my boy." The father was apparently quite distressed. "You are quite right, but--"
"Now, dad, I won't have it! You are not to tell me that I had no business to stop him if I could. Besides, the law is the law, and sport is sport."
"I quite agree, Barry. Believe me, I quite agree. Yet all the same, a chap does hate to have his shot spoiled, and to shout at a fellow with his gun on a bird,--well, you'll excuse me, Barry, but it is hardly the sporting thing."
"Sporting! Sporting!" said Barry. "I know that I hated to do it, but it was right. Besides talk about 'sporting'--what about shooting out of season?"
"Yes, yes. Well, we won't discuss it. Go on, Barry."
"But I don't like it, dad. I don't like to think that you don't approve of what I do. It was a beastly hard thing to do, anyway. I had to make myself do it. It was my duty." The young man sat looking anxiously at his father.
"Well, my boy," said his father, "I may be wrong, but do you think you are always called upon to remonstrate with every law breaker? No, listen to me," he continued hurriedly. "What I mean is, must you or any of us assume responsibility for every criminal in the land?"
Barry sat silent a moment, considering this proposition.
"I wish I knew, dad. You know, I have often said that to excuse myself after I have funked a thing, and let something go by without speaking up against it."
"Yes. Funked standing up for the right thing, you know."
"Funked it!" said his father again. "You wouldn't do that, Barry?"
"Oh, wouldn't I, though? I am afraid you don't know me very well, dad. However, I rather think I had started him up before that, you know. You won't like this either. But I may as well go through with it. You know, he was swearing and cursing most awfully, just in his ordinary talk you know, and that is a thing I can't stand, so I up and told him he was using too many 'damns.'"
"You did, eh?" In spite of himself the father could not keep the surprise out of his voice. "Well, that took some nerve, at any rate."
"There you are again, dad! You think I had no right to speak. But somehow I can't help feeling I was right. For don't you see, it would have seemed a bit like lowering the flag to have kept silent."
"Then for God's sake speak out, lad! I do not feel quite the same way as you, but it is what you think yourself that must guide you. But go on, go on."
"Well, I assure you he was in a proper rage, and if it hadn't been for Bayne I believe he would have trimmed me to a peak, administered a fitting castigation, I mean."
"He would, eh?" said the father with a grim smile. "I should like to see him try."
"So should I, dad, if you were around. I think I see you--feint with the right, then left, right, left! bing! bang! bung! All over but the shiver, eh, dad? It would be sweet! But," he added regretfully, "that's the very thing a fellow cannot do."
"Cannot do? And why not, pray? It is what every fellow is in duty bound to do to a bully of that sort."
"Yes, but to be quite fair, dad, you could hardly call Duff a bully. At least, he wasn't bullying me. As a matter of fact, I was bullying him. Oh, I think he had reason to be angry. When a chap undertakes to pull another chap up for law breaking, perhaps he should be prepared to take the consequences. But to go on. Bayne stepped in--awfully decent of him, too,--when just at that moment, as novelists say, with startling suddenness occurred an event that averted the impending calamity. Along came Neil Fraser, no less, in that new car of his, in a whirlwind of noise and dust, honking like a flock of wild geese. Well, you should have seen those bronchos. One lurch, and we were on the ground, a beautiful upset, and the bronchos in an incipient runaway, fortunately checked by your humble servant. Duff, in a new and real rage this time, up with his gun and banged off both barrels after the motor car, by this time honking down the trail."
"By Jove! he deserved it," said the father. "Those motor fellows make me long to do murder at times."
"That's because you have no car, Dad, of course."
"Did he hit him, do you think?"
"No. My arm happened to fly up, the gun banged toward the zenith. Nothing doing!"
"Well, Barry, you do seem to have run foul of Mr. Duff."
"Three times, dad. But each time prevented him from breaking the law and doing himself and others injury. Would you have let him off this last time, dad?"
"No, no, boy. Human life has the first claim upon our care. You did quite right, quite right. Ungovernable fool he must be! Shouldn't be allowed to carry a gun."
"So Bayne declared," said Barry.
"Well, you have had quite an exciting afternoon. But finish your tea and get ready for the meeting. I will wash up."
"Not if I know it, dad. You take your saw-horse and do me a little Handel or Schubert. Do, please," entreated his son. "I want that before meeting more than anything else. I want a change of mood. I confess I am slightly rattled. My address is all prepared, but I must have atmosphere before I go into the meeting."
His father took the 'cello, and after a few moments spent in carefully tuning up, began with Handel's immortal Largo, then he wandered into the Adagio Movement in Haydn's third Sonata, from thence to Schubert's Impromptu in C Minor, after which he began the Serenade, when he was checked by his son.
"No, not that, dad, that's sickening. I consider that the most morally relaxing bit of music that I know. It frays the whole moral fibre. Give us one of Chopin's Ballades, or better still a bit of that posthumous Fantasie Impromptu, the largo movement. Ah! fine! fine!"
He flung his dish-cloth aside, ran to the piano and began an accompaniment to his father's playing.
"Now, dad, the Largo once more before we close." They did the Largo once and again, then springing from the piano Barry cried: "That Largo is a means of grace to me. There could be no better preparation for a religious meeting than that. If you would only come in and play for them, it would do them much more good than all my preaching."
"If you would only take your music seriously, Barry," replied his father, somewhat sadly, "you would become a good player, perhaps even a great player."
"And then what, dad?"
His father waved him aside, putting up his 'cello.
"No use going into that again, boy."
"Well, I couldn't have been a great player, at any rate, dad."
"Perhaps not, boy, perhaps not," said his father. "Great players are very rare. But it is time for your meeting."
"So it is, dad. Awfully sorry I didn't finish up those dishes. Let them go till I return. I wish you would, dad, and come along with me." His voice had a wistful note in it.
"Not to-night, boy, I think. We will have some talk after. You will only be an hour, you know."
"All right, dad," said Barry. "Some time you may come." He could not hide the wistful regret of his tone.
"Perhaps I shall, boy," replied his father.
It was the one point upon which there was a lack of perfect harmony between father and son. When the boy went to college it was with the intention of entering the profession of law, for which his father had been reading in his young manhood when the lure of Canada and her broad, free acres caught him, and he had abandoned the law and with his wife and baby boy had emigrated to become a land owner in the great Canadian west.
Alas! death, that rude spoiler of so many plans, broke in upon the sanctity and perfect peace of that happy ranch home and ravished it of its treasure, leaving a broken hearted man and a little boy, orphaned and sickly, to be cared for. The ranch was sold, the rancher moved to the city of Edmonton, thence in a few years to a little village some twenty-five miles nearer to the Foothills, where he became the Registrar and Homestead Inspector for the district.
Here he had lived ever since, training the torn tendrils of his heart about the lad, till peace came back again, though never the perfect joy of the earlier days. Every May Day the two were wont to go upon an expedition many miles into the Foothills, to a little, sunny spot, where a strong, palisaded enclosure held a little grave. So little it looked, and so lonely amid the great hills. There, not in an abandonment of grief, but in loving and grateful remembrance of her whose dust the little grave now held, of what she had been to them, and had done for them, they spent the day, returning to take up again with hearts solemn, tender and chastened, the daily routine of life.
That his son should grow to take up the profession of law had been the father's dream, but during his university course the boy had come under the compelling influence of a spiritual awakening that swept him into a world filled with new impressions and other desires. Obeying what he felt to be an imperative call, the boy chose the church as his profession, and after completing his theological course in the city of Winnipeg, and spending a year in study in Germany, while still a mere youth he had been appointed as missionary to the district of which his own village was the centre.
But though widely separate from each other in the matter of religion, there were many points of contact between them. They were both men of the great out-of-doors, and under his father's inspiration and direction the boy had come to love athletic exercises of all kinds. They were both music-mad, the father having had in early youth a thorough musical education, the boy possessing musical talent of a high order. Such training as was his he had received from his father, but it was confined to one single instrument, the violin. To this instrument, upon which his father had received the tuition of a really excellent master, the son devoted long hours of study and practice during his boyhood years, and his attainments were such as to give promise of something more than an amateur's mastery of his instrument. His college work, however, interfered with his music, and to his father's great disappointment and regret he was forced to lay aside his study of the violin. On the piano, however, the boy developed an extraordinary power of improvisation and of sight reading, and while his technique was faulty his insight, his power of interpretation were far in excess of many artists who were his superiors in musical knowledge and power of execution. Many were the hours the father and son spent together through the long evenings of the western winter, and among the many bonds that held them in close comradeship, none was stronger than their common devotion to music.
Long after his son had departed to his meeting the father sat dreaming over his 'cello, wandering among the familiar bits from the old masters as fancy led him, nor was he aware of the lapse of time till his son returned.
"Hello! Nine-thirty?" he exclaimed, looking at his watch. "You have given them an extra dose to-night."
"Business meeting afterwards, which didn't come off after all," said his son. "Postponed till next Sunday." With this curt announcement, and without further comment he sat down at his desk.
But after a few moments he rose quickly, saying, "Let us do some real work, dad."
He took up his violin. His father, who was used to his moods, without question or remark proceeded to tune up. An hour's hard practice followed, without word from either except as regarded the work in hand.
"I feel better now, dad," said the young man when they had finished. "And now for a round with you."
"But what about your wind, boy? I don't like that asthma of yours this afternoon."
"I am quite all right. It's quite gone. I feel sure it was the pollen from the beaver meadow."
They cleared back the table and chairs from the centre of the room, stripped to their shirts, put on the gloves and went at each other with vim. Their style was similar, for the father had taught the son all he knew, except that the father's was the fighting and the son's the sparring style. To-night the roles appeared to be reversed, the son pressing hard at the in-fighting, the father trusting to his foot work and countering with the light touch of a man making points.
"You only boring in, aren't you?" said the father, stopping a fierce rally.
"You are not playing up, dad," said his son. "I don't feel like soft work to-night. Come to me!"
"As you say," replied the father, and for the next five minutes Barry had no reason to complain of soft work, for his father went after him with all the fight that was in him, so that in spite of a vigorous defence the son was forced to take refuge in a runaway game.
"Now you're going!" shouted the son, making a fierce counter with his right to a hard driven left, which he side-stepped. It was a fatal exposure. Like the dart of a snake the right hand hook got him below the jaw, and he was hurled breathless on the couch at the side of the room.
"Got you now!" said his father.
"Not quite yet," cried Barry. Like a cat he was on his feet, breathing deep breaths, dodging about, fighting for time.
"Enough!" cried his father, putting down his hands.
"Play up!" shouted Barry, who was rapidly recovering his wind. "No soft work. Watch out!"
Again the father was on guard, while Barry, who seemed to have drawn upon some secret source of strength, came at him with a whirlwind attack, feinting, jabbing, swinging, hooking, till finally he landed a short half arm on the jaw, which staggered his father against the wall.
"Pax!" cried the young man. "I have all I want."
"Great!" said his father. "I believe you could fight, boy, if you were forced to."
In the shed they sluiced each other with pails of water, had a rub down and got into their dressing gowns.
"I feel fine, now, dad, and ready for anything," said Barry, glowing with his exercise and his tub. "I was feeling like a quitter. I guess that asthma got at my nerve. But I believe I will see it through some way."
"Yes?" said his father, and waited.
"Yes. They were talking blue ruin in there to-night. Finances are behind, congregation is running down, therefore the preacher is a failure."
"Well, lad, remember this," said his father, "never let your liver decide any course of action for you. Some good stiff work, a turn with the gloves, for instance, is the best preparation I know for any important decision. A man cannot decide wisely when he feels grubby. Your asthma this afternoon is a symptom of liver."
"It is humiliating to a creature endowed with conscience and intellect to discover how small a part these play at times in his decisions. The ancients were not far wrong who made the liver the seat of the emotions."
"Well," said his father, "it is a good thing to remember that most of our bad hours come from our livers. So the preacher is a failure? Who said so?"
"Oh, a number of them, principally Hayes."
"Thank God, and go to sleep," said his father. "If Hayes were pleased with my preaching I should greatly suspect my call to the ministry."
"But seriously, I am certainly not a great preacher, and perhaps not a preacher at all. They say I have no 'pep,' which with some of them appears to be the distinctive and altogether necessary characteristic of a popular preacher."
"What said Innes?" enquired his father.
"Did you ever hear Innes say much? From his silence one would judge that he must possess the accumulated wisdom of the ages."
"When he does talk, however, he generally says something. What was his contribution?"
"'Ah, weel,' said the silent one, 'Ah doot he's no a Spurgeon, not yet a Billy Sunday, but ye'll hardly be expectin' thae fowk at Wapiti for nine hundred dollars a year.' Then, bless his old heart, he added, 'But the bairns tak to him like ducks to water, so you'd better bide a bit.' So they decided to 'bide a bit' till next Sunday. Dad, at first I wanted to throw their job in their faces, only I always know that it is the old Adam in me that feels like that, so I decided to 'bide a bit' too."
"It is a poor job, after all, my boy," said his father. "It's no gentleman's job the way it is carried on in this country. To think of your being at the bidding of a creature like Hayes!"
He could have said no better word. The boy's face cleared like the sudden shining of the sun after rain. He lifted his head and said,
"Thank God, not at his bidding, dad. 'One is your Master,'" he quoted. "But after all, Hayes has something good in him. Do you know, I rather like him. He's--"
"Oh, come now, we'll drop it right there," said his father, in a disgusted tone. "When you come to finding something to like in that rat, I surrender."
"Who knows?" said the boy, as if to himself. "Poor Hayes. He may be quite a wonderful man, considering all things, his heredity and his environment. What would I have been, dad, but for you?"
His father grunted, pulled hard at his pipe, coughed a bit, then looked his son straight in the face, saying, "God knows what any of us owe to our past." He fell into silence. His mind was far away, following his heart to the palisaded plot of ground among the Foothills and the little grave there in which he had covered from his sight her that had been the inspiration to his best and finest things, and his defence against the things low and base that had once hounded his soul, howling hard upon his trail.
The son, knowing his mood, sat in silence with him, then rising suddenly he sat himself on the arm of his father's chair, threw his arm around his shoulder and said, "Dear old dad! Good old boy you are, too. Good stuff! What would I have been but for you? A puny, puling, wretched little crock, afraid of anything that could spit at me. Do you remember the old gander? I was near my eternal damnation that day."
"But you won out, my boy," said his father in a croaking voice, putting his arm round his son.
"Yes, because you made me stick it, just as you have often made me stick it since. May God forget me if I ever forget what you have done for me. Shall we read now?"
He took the big Bible from its place upon the table, and turning the leaves read aloud from the teachings of the world's greatest Master. It was the parable of the talents.
"Rather hard on the failure," he said as he closed the book.
"No, not the failure," said his father, "the slacker, the quitter. It is nature's law. There is no place in God's universe for a quitter."
"You are right, dad," said Barry. "Good-night."
He kissed his father, as he had ever done since his earliest infancy. Their prayers were said in private, the son, clergyman though he was, could never bring himself to offer to lead the devotions of him at whose knee he had kneeled every night of his life, as a boy, for his evening prayer.
"Good-night, boy," said his father, holding him by the hand for a moment or so. "We do not know what is before us, defeat, loss, suffering. That part is not in our hands altogether, but the shame of the quitter never need, and never shall be ours."
The little man stepped into his bedroom with his shoulders squared and his head erect.
"By Jove! He's no quitter," said his son to himself, as his eyes followed him. "When he quits he'll be dead. God keep me from shaming him!"