The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XI. The House of Trouble
There! little girl--don't cry!
----James Whitcomb Riley.
A mile from the Chicken Hill School stood the little vermin-infested house in which the Cavers family lived after they abandoned the weed-choked farm on the river-bank. This unpretentious log house had been the first home of Mr. and Mrs. Steadman, and was part of the "improvements" specified by the Government to show that a homestead is entered in good faith. The land had been rich and productive, and from it George Steadman had made the money to buy the half-section of school land just across the road and to erect the magnificent brick house and splendid barns that were the pride of his heart.
George Steadman was so keen after money that he even overworked his farms, and now his old farm was so impoverished that it was unable to grow a heavy crop. This was the principal reason he had for letting it to such an undesirable tenant as Bill Cavers. No wide-awake tenant would take it, and, besides, if he had rented it to almost any person else, he would have had to spend some money fixing up the house, which was in a most dilapidated condition.
Bill Cavers had lost the ambition that he once had, and now did not care very much what sort of house he lived in. Bill was content to live the simple life, if the liquid refreshment were not simplified too much, and Mrs. Cavers never complained.
The Caverses had only one child living, Libby Anne, eleven years old; but there were several little unmarked mounds in the Millford cemetery that Libby Anne and Mrs. Cavers sometimes piled high with white cherry-blossoms or blue anemones. Little George had lived to be two years old, and Libby Anne remembered that when he died there was a funeral, with horses and buggies in the yard, and the minister prayed and there was singing, and Martha Perkins brought over little cookies with pink seeds on them, and it was fine!
But for days and days Libby Anne would steal up the narrow stairs, fully expecting to find her little brother sleeping under the pink quilt on his mother's bed, but there wasn't ever even the dint of him on the quilt, and Libby Anne at last went up with her eyes shut to feel around the bed, so as not to be disappointed so soon. Then her mother told her about the beautiful country that little George had gone to, and Libby Anne was glad to know that no one there was ever cold or hungry, and that nobody's father ever came home drunk. One day in school Libby Anne told the teacher what heaven was like, and when she mentioned this last and greatest advantage of living there he told her gently that she must not say such things.
For some time after coming to the Steadman farm things had gone better with the Caverses, for a strong influence was brought to bear on Bill, to keep him sober. Mr. Steadman had never taken any interest in the liquor question--he had no taste for whiskey himself, and, besides, it costs money--but now, with Bill Cavers for his tenant, he began to see things differently. If Bill Cavers drank he would not be able to pay the rent. So Mr. Steadman desired Bill to be a sober man, and to this end had a very straight talk with him on the subject of total abstinence.
Bill Cavers was a very poor farmer, as one look at his abandoned homestead would show; that he was not a success as a husband no one would doubt after seeing Mrs. Cavers; and that he was a conspicuous failure as a father, Elizabeth Anne Cavers, his daughter, with her frightened eyes and sad mouth, would abundantly testify. But there was one capacity in which William Cavers was a spectacular success, and that was in maintaining the country's revenue from malt and distilled liquors, for Bill was possessed of a thirst that never faltered.
Bill was quite different from the drunkard who consumes and never produces, for he would work and work hard; and he was strictly honest with every one except himself and his family. Sandy Braden was not afraid to trust Bill with all the whiskey he wanted, for Bill would surely pay. His wife might not have respectable clothes to come to town in, and Libby Anne knew what it was like more than once to go hungry to bed, but Bill always paid what was chalked up against him at the Grand Pacific without question. All the neighbours called Bill Cavers a good, straight fellow.
When Bill was sober, he bitterly regretted the way he had wasted his money, and he often made solemn protestations as to his future conduct, the strange part of it being that at such times he fully believed that he would never drink again, and his wife was always, sure that he would not.
In this way life was harder for her than it would have been for a less sanguine woman, who would have long ago given up all hope, but Mrs. Cavers always saw her husband as he had been in his good days; his drinking had never ceased to be a shock to her; she never could accept it as the inevitable, but constantly looked for better days to come.
Mrs. Cavers often told Libby Anne about the lovely home she had when she was a little girl, and showed her just how the flower-beds were laid out and how the seat was put in the big elm-tree outside her mother's window, where she often sat and read and dreamed; and so it was no wonder that her mother's old home in Ontario, where her grandmother and Aunt Edith still lived, became to Libby Anne a sort of Paradise Valley, the delectable country of her dreams, and through all her colourless childhood there ran a hope like a thread of gold that some time she and her mother would go back.
The last summer that they had been on their own farm this hope had been very real, for her father had said one day, when he was in his best mood, that if the crop turned out well they would all go down east for three months.
Then what a busy, hopeful time began for Libby Anne and her mother. Everything was bent toward this one end. Mrs. Cavers made butter and sold it. Libby Anne looked faithfully after the eggs, and made every old hen give an account of herself each night. By getting the neighbours to subscribe to a magazine, Mrs. Cavers was able to add a few dollars to her savings. The kind-hearted neighbours, who knew of the projected visit, were all ready to help.
Martha Perkins gave Libby Anne ten fine young turkeys, half-grown, to help to buy new clothes for herself, and the thought of the lovely red curly cloth coat that she would be able to buy when she sold her turkeys comforted her not a little when, tired out with her other work, she came to gather them in for the night, and they obstinately would scamper away into the trees; as unconcerned as if there was never a wolf or a mink or a weasel in the world.
No crop was ever watched with greater hope and fear than that one. Every bank of cloud that gathered in the west seemed to sit like a dead weight on Libby Anne's heart, for it might bring hail, and a hailed-out crop meant that they could not go home, and that was--outer darkness. Perhaps it was the child's wordless prayers that stayed the hail and the frost and the rust, for certain it is that none came, and the crop was most abundant.
Libby Anne and Mrs. Cavers worked in the field to save a hired man's wages. Libby Anne was a tireless little worker, and though many, many times her thin arms must have ached, she never complained, because every sheaf that she carried brought her nearer the Promised Land.
People driving past looked with pity at the tired-looking woman and the little girl in the faded derry dress carrying sheaves almost as big as herself, and one day Mrs. Burrell, the minister's wife, spoke to them sympathizingly. Libby Anne flashed back at her almost scornfully. "Don't you know we are going home?" she said, her tired face kindling.
At last the grain was harvested and threshed, the neighbours kindly assisting, and Bill began to sell his grain. He paid his store bills, his binder-twine bill, his blacksmithing, and made the payment on his binder. Libby Anne sold her turkeys and got her coat, and the day was set for them to go east--December the first, the first excursion!
The day before they were to start, Bill went to town to cast his vote; the Provincial elections were held that year on the last day of November. There was a good deal of excitement over the election, for Sandy Braden, the popular proprietor of the Grand Pacific Hotel, was running against a Brandon man, and Millford was standing solid for their own man. The bar could not be opened until after five o'clock, when the voting was over, but after that there was nothing to prevent good-fellowship abounding.
It did abound all night. There was a bonfire in front of the hotel when the returns began to come in, for Sandy was winning easily, and Sandy certainly showed his gratitude for the way the boys had stood by him.
Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne waited all that long night. They tried to keep up each other's courage, making all sorts of excuses for Mr. Cavers's absence. Mrs. Cavers knew, but she did not tell Libby Anne, that he was going to cash the wheat-tickets that he had saved for the trip, for the train went so early in the morning he was afraid he might not have time then.
Libby Anne went again and again into the little bedroom to look at the trunk already strapped. Surely people always went if the trunk was strapped, and she tried and tried to feel what it was like yesterday.
Just as the sun was rising on the first day of December ushering in the first day of the winter excursions, they heard him coming. He was coming with the Thomas boys, who were often his companions on similar occasions. Some one had loaded them up and started them for home, trusting to a drunken man's luck not to get killed.
Round the turn of the road they came singing, and Libby Anne and her mother listened with sinking hearts as the sound came nearer and nearer:
"Who's the best man in this town? Sandy Braden, Sandy Braden."
they sang, putting the words to that good old rollicking Scotch tune of "Highland Laddie."
Bill fell out of the waggon at the door. He was covered with dirt, his clothes were torn, and one eye was blackened, but he was in a genial mood, and tried to dance on the door-step. They got him in at last and put him to bed, where he slept profoundly until the next afternoon. He brought home out of his wheat-tickets thirty-five cents and the half of a dollar bill--the other half was torn away!
Libby Anne did not shed a tear until she saw her mother unstrap the trunk to get out something, and then suddenly all the strength went out of the lithe little arms that had carried the sheaves so bravely, and she fell in a little heap on the floor, sobbing out strangely.
Her mother gathered her up in her arms and rocked her for a long time in the rocking-chair, crooning over her queer little rambling tunes without meaning; only once she spoke, and then what she said was this: "Libby Anne, I hope you will never be as lonely to see me as I am right now to see my mother."
Just then a still later consignment of Mr. Braden's supporters drove past the house gaily singing the same refrain:
"Who's the best man in this town? Sandy Braden, Sandy Braden."