Chapter XVIII. The Party at Slater's
 

"I wonder how we are going to get all the people in to-night," Edith Slater said gravely as the family sat at supper. "I am afraid the walls will be bulged out to-morrow."

"The new chicken-house and the cellar will do for the overflow meetings," George remarked.

"I borrow the pantry if it comes to a crush, you and I, Camilla," Peter Slater said, helping himself to another piece of pie. Camilla had come out in the afternoon to help with the preparations.

"No, Camilla is my partner," Fred said severely. "Peter is growing up too fast, don't you think so, mother? Since I lent him my razor to play with there's no end to the airs he gives himself. I think he should go to bed at eight o'clock to-night, same as other nights."

Peter laughed scornfully, but Nellie interposed.

"You boys needn't quarrel over Camilla for Jim Russell is coming, and when Camilla sees him, what chance do you suppose you'll have?"

"And when Jim sees Camilla, what chance will you have, Nell?" George asked.

"Not one in a hundred; but I am prepared for the worst," Nellie answered, good-naturedly.

"That means she has asked Tom Motherwell," Peter explained.

Then Mrs. Slater told them to hurry along with their supper for the people would soon be coming.

It was Mrs. Slater who had planned the party. Mrs. Slater was the leading spirit in everything in the household that required dash and daring. Hers was the dominant voice, though nothing louder than a whisper had been heard from her for years. She laughed in a whisper, she cried in a whisper. Yet in some way her laugh was contagious, and her tears brought comfort to those with whom she wept.

When she proposed the party the girls foresaw difficulties. The house was small--there were so many to ask--it was a busy time.

Mrs. Slater stood firm.

"Ask everybody," she whispered. "Nobody minds being crowded at a party. I was at a party once where we had to go outside to turn around, the house was so small. I'll never forget what a good time we had."

Mr. Slater was dressed and ready for anything long before the time had come for the guests to arrive. An hour before he had sat down resignedly and said, "Come, girls, do as you think best with the old man, scrub him, polish him, powder him, blacken his eyebrows, do not spare him, he's yours," and the girls had laughingly accepted the privilege.

George, whose duty it was to attend to the lamps for the occasion, came in with a worried look, on his usually placid face.

"The aristocratic parlour-lamp is indisposed," he said. "It has balked, refuses to turn up, and smells dreadfully."

"Bring in the plebeians, George," Fred cried gaily, "and never mind the patrician--the forty-cent plebs never fail. I told Jim Russell to bring his lantern, and Peter can stand in a corner and light matches if we are short."

"It's working now," Edith called from the parlour, "burning beautifully; mother drew her hand over it."

Soon the company began to arrive. Bashful, self-conscious girls, some of them were, old before their time with the marks of toil, heavy and unremitting, upon them, hard-handed, stoop-shouldered, dull-eyed and awkward. These were the daughters of rich farmers. Good girls they were, too, conscientious, careful, unselfish, thinking it a virtue to stifle every ambition, smother every craving for pleasure.

When they felt tired, they called it laziness and felt disgraced, and thus they had spent their days, working, working from the gray dawn, until the darkness came again, and all for what? When in after years these girls, broken in health and in spirits, slipped away to premature graves, or, worse still, settled into chronic invalidism, of what avail was the memory of the cows they milked, the mats they hooked, the number of pounds of butter they made.

Not all the girls were like these. Maud Murray was there. Maud Murray with the milkmaid cheeks and curly black hair, the typical country girl of bounding life aid spirits, the type so often seen upon the stage and so seldom elsewhere.

Mrs. Motherwell had warned Tom against Maud Murray as well as Nellie Slater. She had once seen Maud churning, and she had had a newspaper pinned to the wall in front of her, and was reading it as she worked, and Mrs. Motherwell knew that a girl who would do that would come to no good.

Martha Perkins was the one girl of whom Mrs. Motherwell approved. Martha's record on butter and quilts and mats stood high. Martha was a nice quiet girl. Mrs. Motherwell often said a "nice, quiet, unappearing girl." Martha certainly was quiet. Her conversational attainments did not run high. "Things is what they are, and what's the good of saying anything," Martha had once said in defence of her silent ways.

She was small and sallow-skinned and was dressed in an anaemic gray; her thin hay-coloured hair was combed straight back from a rather fine forehead. She stooped a little when she walked, and even when not employed her hands picked nervously at each other. Martha's shyness, the "unappearing" quality, was another of her virtues in the eyes of Tom's mother. Martha rarely left home even to go to Millford. Martha did not go to the Agricultural Fair when her mats and quilts and butter and darning and buttonholes on cotton got their red tickets. Martha stayed at home and dug potatoes--a nice, quiet, unappearing girl.

When they played games at the Slaters that evening, Martha would not play. She never cared for games she said, they tired a person so. She would just watch the others, and she wished again that she had her knitting.

Then the kitchen floor was cleared; table, chairs and lounge were set outside to make room for the dancing, and when the violins rang out with the "Arkansaw Traveller," and big John Kennedy in his official voice of caller-off announced, "Select your partners," every person felt that the real business of the evening had begun.

Tom had learned to dance, though his parents would have been surprised had they known it. Out in the granary on rainy days hired men had obligingly instructed him in the mysteries of the two-step and waltz. He sat in a corner and watched the first dance. When Jim Russell came into the hall, after receiving a warm welcome from Mr. and Mrs. Slater, who stood at the door, he was conscious of a sudden thrill of pleasure. It was the vision of Camilla, at the farther end of the dining-room, as she helped the Slater girls to receive their guests. Camilla wore a red dress that brought out the blue-black of her eyes, and it seemed to Jim as he watched her graceful movements that he had never seen anyone so beautiful. She was piloting a bevy of bashful girls to the stairway, and as she passed him she gave him a little nod and smile that set his heart dancing.

He heard the caller-off calling for partners for a quadrille. The fiddlers had already tuned their instruments. From where he stood he could see the figures forming, but Jim watched the stairway. At last she came, with a company of other girls, none of whom he saw, and he asked her for the first dance. Jim was not a conceited young man, but he felt that she would not refuse him. Nor did she.

Camilla danced well and so did Jim, and many an eye followed them as they wound in and out through the other dancers. When the dance was over he led her to a seat and sat beside her. They had much to talk of. Camilla was anxious to hear of Pearl, and it seemed all at once that they had become very good friends indeed.

The second dance was a waltz. Tom did not know that it was the music that stirred his soul with a sudden tenderness, a longing indefinite, that was full of pain and yet was all sweetness. Martha who sat near him looked at him half expectantly. But her little gray face and twitching hands repelled him. On the other side of the room, Nellie Slater, flushed and smiling was tapping her foot to the music.

He found himself on his feet. "Who cares for mats?" he muttered. He was beside Nellie in an instant.

"Nellie, will you dance with me?" he faltered, wondering at his own temerity.

"I will, Tom, with pleasure," she said, smiling.

His arm was around her now and they were off, one, two, three; one, two, three; yes, he had the step. "Over the foam we glide," in and out through the other dancers, the violins weaving that story of love never ending. "What though the world be wide"--Nellie's head was just below his face--"Love's golden star will guide." Nellie's hand was in his as they floated on the rainbow-sea. "Drifting along, glad is our song"--her hair blew against his cheek as they swept past the open door. What did he care what his mother would say. He was Egbert now. Edythe was in his arms. "While we are side by side" the violins sang, glad, triumphant, that old story that runs like a thread of gold through all life's patterns; that old song, old yet ever new, deathless, unchangeable, which maketh the poor man rich and without which the richest becomes poor!

When the music stopped, Tom awoke from his idolatrous dream. He brought Nellie to a seat and sat awkwardly beside her. His old self-complacency had left him. Nellie was talking to him, but he did not hear what she said. He was not looking at her, but at himself. Before he knew it she had left him and was dancing with Jim Russell. Tom looked after them, miserable. She was looking into Jim's face, smiling and talking. What the mischief were they saying? He tried to tell himself that he could buy and sell Jim Russell; Jim had not anything in the world but a quarter of scrub land. They passed him again, still smiling and talking. "Nellie Slater is making herself mighty cheap," he thought angrily. Then the thought came home to him with sudden bitterness--how handsome Jim was, so straight and tall, so well-dressed, so clever, and, bitterest of all, how different from him.

When Jim and Camilla were sitting out the second dance he told her about Arthur, the Englishman, who sat in a corner, shy and uncomfortable. Camilla became interested at once, and when he brought Arthur over and introduced him, Camilla's friendly smile set him at his ease. Then Jim generously vacated his seat and went to find Nellie Slater.

"Select your partners for a square dance!" big John, the caller-off announced, when the floor was cleared. This was the dance that Mr. and Mrs. Slater would have to dance. It was in vain that Mrs. Slater whispered that she had not danced for years, that she was a Methodist bred and born. That did not matter. Her son Peter declared that his mother could dance beautifully, jigs and hornpipes and things like that. He had often seen her at it when she was down in the milkhouse alone.

Mrs. Slater whispered dreadful threats; but her son Peter insisted, and when big John's voice rang out "Honors all," "Corners the same," Mrs. Slater yielded to the tide of public opinion.

Puffing and blowing she got through the "First four right and left," "Right and left back and ladies' chain"; but when it came to "Right hand to partner" and "Grand right and left," it was good-bye to mother! Peter dashed into the set to put his mother right, but mother was always pointing the wrong way. "Swing the feller that stole the sheep," big John sang to the music; "Dance to the one that drawed it home," "Whoop 'er up there, you Bud," "Salute the one that et the beef" and "Swing the dog, that gnawed the bone." "First couple lead to the right," and mother and father went forward again and "Balance all!" Tonald McKenzie was opposite mother; Tonald McKenzie did steps--Highland fling steps they were. Tonald was a Crofter from the hills, and had a secret still of his own which made him a sort of uncrowned king among the Crofters. It was a tight race for popularity between mother and Tonald in that set, and when the two stars met face to face in the "Balance all!" Tonald surpassed all former efforts. He cracked his heels together, he snapped his fingers; he threaded the needle; he wrung the dishcloth--oh you should have seen Tonald!

Then big John clapped his hands together, and the first figure was over.

In the second figure for which the violins played "My Love Is but a Lassie Yet," Mrs. Slater's memory began to revive, and the dust of twenty years fell from her dancing experience. She went down the centre and back again, right and left on the side, ladies' chain on the head, right hand to partner and grand right and left, as neat as you please, and best of all, when all the ladies circled to the left, and all the gentlemen circled to the right, no one was quicker to see what was the upshot of it all; and before big John told them to "Form the basket," mother whispered to father that she knew what was coming, and father told mother she was a wonderful woman for a Methodist. "Turn the basket inside out," "Circle to the left--to the centre and back, circle to the right," "Swing the girl with the hole in her sock," "Promenade once and a half around on the head, once and a half around on the side," "Turn 'em around to place again and balance all!" "Clap! Clap! Clap!"

Mother wanted to quit then, but dear me no! no one would let her, they would dance the "Break-down" now, and leave out the third figure, and as a special inducement, they would dance "Dan Tucker." She would stay for "Dan Tucker." Peter came in for "Tucker," an extra man being necessary, and then off they went into

   Clear the way for old Dan Tucker,
   He's too late to come to supper.

Two by two they circled around, Peter in the centre singing--

   Old Dan Tucker
   Was a fine old man--

Then back to the right--

   He washed his face
   In the frying-pan.

Then around in a circle hand in hand--

   He combed his hair
      On a wagon-wheel,
   And died with the tooth-ache
      In his heel!

As they let go of their partners' hands and went right and left, Peter made his grand dash into the circle, and when the turn of the tune came he was swinging his mother, his father had Tonald's partner, and Tonald was in the centre in the title roll of Tucker, executing some of the most intricate steps that had ever been seen outside of the Isle of Skye.

Then the tune changed into the skirling bag-pipe lilt all Highlanders love--and which we who know not the Gaelic profanely call "Weel may the keel row"--and Tonald got down to his finest work.

He was in the byre now at home beyond the sea, and it is not strange faces he will be seein', but the lads and lassies of the Glen, and it is John McNeash who holds the drone under his arm and the chanter in his hands, and the salty tang of the sea comes up to him and the peat-smoke is in his nostrils, and the pipes skirl higher and higher as Tonald McKenzie dances the dance of his forbears in a strange land. They had seen Tonald dance before, but this was different, for it was not Tonald McKenzie alone who danced before them, but the incarnate spirit of the Highlands, the unconquerable, dauntless, lawless Highlands, with its purple hills and treacherous caverns that fling defiance at the world and fear not man nor devil.

Tonald finished with a leap as nimble as that with which a cat springs on its victim while the company watched spellbound. He slipped away into a corner and would dance no more that night.

When twelve o'clock came, the dancing was over, and with the smell of coffee and the rattle of dishes in the kitchen it was not hard to persuade big John Kennedy to sing.

Big John lived alone in a little shanty in the hills, and the prospect of a good square meal was a pleasant one to the lonely fellow who had been his own cook so long. Big John lived among the Crofters, whose methods of cooking were simple in the extreme, and from them he had picked up strange ways of housekeeping. He ate out of the frying pan; he milked the cow in the porridge pot, and only took what he needed for each meal, reasoning that she had a better way of keeping it than he had. Big John had departed almost entirely from "white man's ways," and lived a wild life free from the demands of society. His ability to "call off" at dances was the one tie that bound him to the Canadian people on the plain.

"Oh, I can't sing," John said sheepishly, when they urged him.

"Tell us how it happened any way John," Bud Perkins said. "Give us the story of it."

"Go on John. Sing about the cowboy," Peter Slater coaxed.

"It iss a teffle of a good song, that," chuckled Tonald.

"Well," John began, clearing his throat, "here it's for you. I've ruined me voice drivin' oxen though, but here's the song."

It was a song of the plains, weird and wistful, with an uncouth plaintiveness that fascinated these lonely hill-dwellers.

   As I was a-walkin' one beautiful morning,
      As I was a-walkin' one morning in May,
   I saw a poor cowboy rolled up in his blanket,
      Rolled up in his blanket as cold as the clay!

The listener would naturally suppose that the cowboy was dead in his blanket that lovely May morning; but that idea had to be abandoned as the song went on, because the cowboy was very much alive in the succeeding verses, when--

   Round the bar bummin' where bullets were hummin'
      He snuffed out the candle to show why he come!

Then his way of giving directions for his funeral was somewhat out of the usual procedure but no one seemed to notice these little discrepancies--

   Beat the drum slowly boys, beat the drum lowly boys,
      Beat the dead march as we hurry along.
   To show that ye love me, boys, write up above me, boys,
      "Here lies a poor cowboy who knows he done wrong."

In accordance with a popular custom, John SPOKE the last two words in a very slow and distinct voice. This was considered a very fine thing to do--it served the purpose of the "Finis" at the end of the book, or the "Let us pray," at the end of the sermon.

The applause was very loud and very genuine.

Bud Perkins, who was the wit of the Perkins family, and called by his mother a "regular cut-up," was at last induced to sing. Bud's "Come-all-ye" contained twenty-three verses, and in it was set forth the wanderings of one, young Willie, who left his home and native land at a very tender age, and "left a good home when he left." His mother tied a kerchief of blue around his neck. "God bless you, son," she said. "Remember I will watch for you, till life itself is fled!" The song went on to tell how long the mother watched in vain. Young Willie roamed afar, but after he had been scalped by savage bands and left for dead upon the sands, and otherwise maltreated by the world at large, he began to think of home, and after shipwrecks, and dangers and hair-breadth escapes, he reached his mother's cottage door, from which he had gone long years before.

Then of course he tried to deceive his mother, after the manner of all boys returning after a protracted absence--

   Oh, can you tell me, ma'm, he said,
   How far to Edinboro' town.

But he could not fool his mother, no, no! She knew him by the kerchief blue, still tied around his neck.

When the applause, which was very generous, had been given, Jim Russell wanted to know how young Willie got his neck washed in all his long meanderings, or if he did not wash, how did he dodge the health officers.

George Slater gravely suggested that perhaps young Willie used a dry-cleaning process--French chalk or brown paper and a hot iron.

Peter Slater said he did not believe it was the same handkerchief at all. No handkerchief could stand the pace young Willie went. It was another one very like the one he had started off with. He noticed them in the window as he passed, that day, going cheap for cash.

The young Englishman looked more and more puzzled. It was strange how Canadians took things. He turned to Camilla.

"It is only a song, don't you know," he said with a distressed look. "It is really impossible to say how he had the kerchief still tied around his neck."

The evening would not have been complete without a song from Billy McLean. Little Billy was a consumptive, playing a losing game against a relentless foe; but playing like a man with unfailing cheerfulness, and eyes that smiled ever.

   There is a bright ship on the ocean,
      Bedecked in silver and gold;
   They say that my Willie is sailing,
      Yes, sailing afar I am told,

was little Billy's song, known and loved in many a thresher's caboose, but heard no more for many a long day, for little Billy gave up the struggle the next spring when the snow was leaving the fields and the trickle of water was heard in the air. But he and his songs are still lovingly remembered by the boys who "follow the mill," when their thoughts run upon old times.

Peter and Fred Slater came in with the coffee. Jim Russell with a white apron around his neck followed with a basket of sandwiches, and Tom Motherwell with a heaping plate of cake.

"Did you make this cake, Nell?" Tom whispered to Nellie in the pantry as she filled the plate for him.

"Me!" she laughed. "Bless you no! I can't make anything but pancakes."

Martha Perkins still sat by the window. She looked older and more careworn--she was thinking of how late it was getting. Martha could make cakes, Tom knew that. Martha could do everything.

"Go along Tom," Nellie was saying, "give a piece to big John. Don't you see how hungry he looks." Their eyes met. Hers were bright and smiling. He smiled back.

Oh pshaw! pancakes are not so bad.

Jim Russell whispered to Camilla, as he passed near where she and Arthur sat, "Will you please come and help Nellie in the pantry? We need you badly."

Camilla called Maud Murray to take her seat. She knew Maud would be kind to the young Englishman.

When Camilla reached the pantry she found Nellie and Tom Motherwell happily engaged in eating lemon tarts, and evidently not needing her at all. Jim was ready with an explanation. "I was thinking of poor Thursa, far across the sea," he said, "what a shock it would be to her if Arthur was compelled to write home that he had changed his mind," and Camilla did not look nearly so angry as she should have, either.

After supper there was another song from Arthur Wemyss, the young Englishman. He played his own accompaniment, his fingers, stiffened though they were with hard work, ran lightly over the keys. Every person sat still to listen. Even Martha Perkins forgot to twirl her fingers and leaned forward. It was a simple little English ballad he sang:

   Where'er I wander over land or foam,
   There is a place so dear the heart calls home.

Perhaps it was because the ocean rolled between him and his home that he sang with such a wistful longing in his voice, that even his dullest listener felt the heart-cry in it. It was a song of one who reaches longing arms across the sea to the old home and the old friends, whom he sees only in his dreams.

In the silence that followed the song, his fingers unconsciously began to play Mendelssohn's beautiful air, "We Would See Jesus, for the Shadows Lengthen." Closely linked with the young man's love of home was his religious devotion. The quiet Sabbath morning with its silvery chimes calling men to prayer; the soft footfalls in the aisle; the white-robed choir, his father's voice in the church service, so full of divine significance; the many-voiced responses and the swelling notes of the "Te Deum"--he missed it so. All the longing for the life he had left, all the spiritual hunger and thirst that was in his heart sobbed in his voice as he sang:

   We would see Jesus,
      For the shadows lengthen
   O'er this little landscape of our life.
      We would see Jesus,
   Our weak faith to strengthen,
      For the last weariness, the final strife.
   We would see Jesus, other lights are paling,
      Which for long years we have rejoiced to see,
   The blessings of our pilgrimage are failing,
      We would not mourn them for we go to Thee.

He sang on with growing tenderness through all that divinely tender hymn, and the longing of it, the prayer of it was not his alone, but arose from every heart that listened.

Perhaps they were in a responsive mood, easily swayed by emotion. Perhaps that is why there was in every heart that listened a desire to be good and follow righteousness, a reaching up of feeble hands to God. The Reverend Hugh Grantley would have said that it was the Spirit of God that stands at the door of every man's heart and knocks.

The young man left the organ, and the company broke up soon after. Before they parted, Mr. Slater in whom the Englishman's singing had revived the spiritual hunger of his Methodist heart, requested them to sing "God be with you till we meet again." Every one stood up and joined hands. Martha, with her thoughts on the butter and eggs; Tonald McKenzie and big John with the vision of their lonely dwellings in the hills looming over them; Jim and Camilla; Tom and Nellie, hand in hand; little Billy, face to face with the long struggle and its certain ending. Little Billy's voice rang sweet and clear above the others--

   God be with you till we meet again,
      Keep love's banner floating o'er you,
      Smite death's threatening wave before you;
   God be with you till we meet again!