The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXIV. True Greatness
A shipwrecked sailor, waiting for a sail; No sail from day to day, but every day The sunrise broken into scarlet shafts --A blaze upon the waters to the east, A blaze upon the waters to the west, --but no sail.
----From Enoch Arden.
Almost every person in the neighbourhood was interested in Arthur Wemyss's new home which he had built on the bank of Plover Creek, a small stream that dawdled aimlessly across the prairie from Lang's Lake to the Souris River. Plover Creek followed the line of least resistance all the way along, not seeming to care how often it changed its direction, but zigzagging and even turning around and doubling on itself sometimes. Its little dimpled banks, treeless save for clumps of silver willow, gave a pleasing variety to the prairie scenery.
It was on one of the highest of these banks that Arthur had built his house, and it was a pleasant outlook for any one who loves the long view that the prairie gives, where only the horizon obstructs the vision.
Behind the house, which faced the setting sun, was an old "buffalo run," a narrow path, grass-grown now, but beaten deep into the earth by the hoofs of innumerable buffalo that long ago came down to the little stream to drink. It had been a favourite killing-place, too, for the Indians, as the numerous buffalo bones, whitened by the sun and frost of many seasons, plainly showed.
Arthur had made a fantastic "rockery" of skulls and shanks and ribs, and filled it in with earth, enough to furnish growth for trailing nasturtiums, whose bright red and yellow blossoms were strangely at variance with their sombre setting.
Arthur had won for himself many friends among the people of the neighbourhood by his manly, upright ways and by his courteous manner, and every one in the neighbourhood, particularly the women, were interested in the coming of Thursa. Mrs. Motherwell, Mrs. Slater, and Mrs. Watson had each promised to set a hen on thirteen eggs--which number is supposed to lose its unluckiness when applied to eggs--to give Thursa a start in poultry. Arthur thanked them warmly, but just for a minute he found himself wondering how Thursa would look feeding chickens. He knew that she was adorable at tennis or golf, and although attending to fowl is not really more strenuous than these, still it is different. But everything looks rosy at twenty-five, and Arthur was supremely happy dreaming of the coming of Thursa.
His father and mother had sent him a phonograph for his Christmas present the previous year, and it had been an unending source of comfort and pleasure to him as well as to his neighbours and friends. There was one record that Arthur put on only when he was alone, for it was Thursa's own voice singing to him from across the sea--the song of all others he loved to hear, for every note, every word of it, throbbed with tenderness and love:
"The hours I spent with thee, dear heart, Are as a string of pearls to me; I count them over, every one apart, My rosary, my rosary."
Often when his day's work was over and he sat in his little house, as the velvet-footed dusk came creeping down the Plover Creek, Thursa's bird-like voice, so clear and precious and full of dearest memories, would fill the little room with heavenly sweetness and carry him back again to the dear days at home, when they wandered hand in hand beside the English hedges "white with laughing may."
There was only one person in the community with whom Arthur felt really at home and to whom he could speak freely, and that was Martha Perkins, for although Martha did not talk much she was a pleasant listener, and Arthur always came away rested and cheered. "She is a jolly good sort, Martha is," he often told himself, "a real comfortable sort of person." In return for Martha's kindness to him Arthur brought her books and magazines when he found that Martha now spent most of her time reading instead of working at the never-ending needlework.
All through the harvest Arthur had had working for him a stolid-faced son of toil, whose morose face began to "get on his nerves," and it was partly to get away from this depressing influence that Arthur went much oftener to see Martha than he had up to this time. His man was "no company and spoiled his solitude," he said. When the harvest was over and his farm hand had gone it seemed quite natural for him to keep up his visits regularly, and since Bud had gone the family were very glad of his cheery presence.
One Friday night Arthur did not come for his bread as was his custom, and when Martha took it over herself the next morning she found him suffering from a bad attack of la grippe. Then followed for Martha five sweet days of never-to-be-forgotten happiness, when Arthur, fevered and restless, would exclaim with joy when she came in. Martha was a born nurse, quiet, steady, and cheerful, and no matter how Arthur's head was aching when she came in, he always felt better just to have her near, and the touch of her hand, work-hardened though it was, on his forehead, always had the effect of soothing him.
She went every night and morning to Arthur's house, bringing with her enough tempting eatables to feed two healthy men; for Martha was strongly imbued with the idea that to eat well was a sure road to recovery. In Arthur's case her faith was justified, for on the morning of the sixth day she found him so much better that she realized the happy days were over. Arthur no longer needed her.
"My word, Martha," he said, "you have been a welcome sight to me this week. You are like the good fairy of the tales. I have been noticing how you have improved the house. Thursa will thank you when she comes: I am sure you and Thursa will be the greatest pals ever. I was just thinking, Martha, what a comfortable sort of person you are anyway. You do know how to make people feel easy in their minds. It is wonderful. I never saw any one like you in that way."
Any person looking at Martha then would not have called her a plain girl, so radiant did her face become at these words of praise.
"It's my only gift," she said with her slow smile. "I cannot sing or talk or look nice. I can only bake and scrub and sew and keep things tidy."
"Well, that is a gift, I tell you, a real good one. People who talk sometimes talk too much, and you can't live on singing, you know, though it is one of the greatest gifts." He was thinking of Thursa's chirrupy little treble, which to him was the sweetest music on earth. "Thursa will brighten us all when she comes. Just to hear her laugh, Martha, would chase away the blues any day. She has the most adorable little ways. You do not mind hearing me rave about her, do you, Martha? You know, you are the only person I can talk to about her, and when you see her you won't blame me at all."
Martha was putting on her wraps to go home, and fortunately he could not see her face.
"That's all right, Arthur," she said bravely. "I like to hear you talk--about her," which came as near to being a deliberate falsehood as Martha had ever told in all her honest life.
* * *
The arrangements for Arthur's wedding were all made. Thursa was coming the first week in December and would stay with Martha until Christmas Day. Arthur's house was not quite ready yet. Martha, glad to feel that she was of any service to him, made great preparations for the coming of Thursa.
Her own bedroom, which was to be used by Thursa, was re-papered and painted; the new rag carpet that Martha had put away in her cupboard "in case" was put on the floor; new lace curtains, bought out of the butter money, replaced the frilled art muslin that had been at the windows. Martha's best pin-cushion, her best stand-covers and pillow-shams were all brought out for Thursa's use. It seemed very fitting to her that her treasures should be used by Arthur's bride. She thought of it all sadly, but without bitterness.
One afternoon Aunt Kate and Pearl came over, and Martha invited them to come upstairs and see the room she had made ready for Thursa.
"Upon my word, Martha," Aunt Kate said, as she looked admiringly at Martha's tastefully arranged room, "you're fixin' up as if you were goin' to be married yerself, and I just hope this English girl of his is all he thinks she is, and not a useless tool like some of them are. I mind well one Englishwoman who lived neighbour to me down in Ontario, nice woman, too, but sakes alive, she was a dirty housekeeper. She was a cousin to the Duke of something, but she'd make a puddin' in the wash-basin just the same. I'd hate awful to see Arthur get a girl like that. I suppose you haven't heard him say whether she's been brought up thrifty. It means a lot, let me tell you. I've seen women that could throw out as much at the back door as their man could bring in the front. You don't know, do you, whether or not she's savin'?"
"I don't know, I'm sure," Martha said. "I don't think she has much experience, but she can learn. It's no trick to do housework."
"Well, now, Martha, you're wrong, for it is a trick," Aunt Kate said positively. "It's the finest thing a woman can know. A man will get tired of a pretty face, but he ain't likely to tire of good vittles and well-mended clothes; and if he came home hungry and found her playin' the piano and no dinner ready, it would make him swear, if anything would."
Aunt Kate went down-stairs then to help Mrs. Perkins do some sewing, and Pearl and Martha were left alone.
"It's awful good of you, Martha, to help Arthur's wedding along so well," Pearl said, "but I know you are glad to do it. People ought to be kind to any one that's gettin' married, I do think. They need flowers and kind things said about them far more than people do when they are gettin' buried. Pshaw! When a person's dead they're clean out of the bush and not needin' help from any one; but getting married is awful. Ma saved the lilacs she had when she was married, and put them in a gem-jar, and I've often heard her tell what a comfort they were to her when she came home all tired and couldn't get the stains out of some one's tablecloth. She had a piece of the cake, too, sealed up in a vaseline jar, and the very maddest I ever saw Ma was when she found Danny eatin' it--he et her clove apple the same day, and we couldn't do a thing to him because it was his birthday."
Martha looked at Pearl wonderingly. There were no dried lilacs or sealed vaseline jars in her family, but she understood vaguely what it might mean.
"You are going to be the bridesmaid, Pearl," Martha said. "Arthur told me so!"
"Oh, goody!" Pearl cried, but a sudden thought occurring to her, she said, "You should be it yourself, Martha. Why don't you?"
"I'll tell you why, Pearl," said Martha. "I would look awful beside Thursa. She is fair and fluffy-haired, and she'd make me look worse than usual. Arthur asked me, but I told him I couldn't very well. Anyway, there is the gravy to make and the pudding-sauce, and I'll have to be right there over it. You'll do it, won't you, Pearl?"
"Oh, yes, I'll do it," said Pearl. "Sure thing. Glad of the chance to wear the white dress Camilla made me and my bracelet--and--and all!" She was about to ask Martha, question, but changed her mind suddenly and went on: "I just hope there'll be a lovely blue sky and snow on the ground and a real glitterin' sunshine, like what Christmas ought to be, with everything so lovely that it just hurts, and so much Christmas in it that you're dead sure the air is full of angels. And, Martha, we'll put blue ribbons on the table to make them think of the blue sky that was over them on their weddin' day. I tell you, Martha, it's a great thing to have blue skies to think of, even if you haven't got blue skies over you. It heartens a person up wonderful to know that up through the clouds the sky is blue anyway. It's just like havin' on a clean shirt, Martha, even if your outside clothes are not very clean. So, if there's a blue sky we'll try to pin down some of it, so they can use it when they need it. When is she comin', Martha?"
"Next week, she is in Brandon now. She is staying there a few days to see the shops, Arthur said."
Pearl wrinkled her forehead. "Isn't it a wonder she don't come hustlin'? You'd think she'd be far more anxious to see him than any store. She's seen loads of stores, and she hasn't seen him for two years. Say, Martha, there was an English painter in Millford when we lived there who sent home for his girl, and comin' over on the boat didn't she meet another fellow she liked better and she up and married him. Wouldn't it be awful if Thursa was to do that after Arthur gettin' all ready, too?"
Martha did not answer, and Pearl, looking up, was startled at the expression of her face--it was like the face of a shipwrecked sailor who has been looking, looking, looking over a desolate waste of water, dreaming of hope, but never daring to hope, when suddenly, before his weary eyes, there flashes a sail! Of course, it may not be a sail at all, and even if it is a boat it may never, never see the shipwrecked sailor, but still a great hope leaps into his face!
Pearl saw it all in Martha's face in that moment; she remembered Martha's saying that often when she sat at her embroidery she imagined foolish things that could never come true.
"Isn't she a brick?" Pearl thought to herself. "Gettin' ready for this weddin' just as cheerful as if her heart wasn't breakin'!" Then Pearl, in her quick imagination, made a new application: "Just like if it was me gettin' ready for Miss Morrison to marry--" She stopped and thought, with a stern look on her face. Then she said to herself grimly: "I believe this is the greatest piece of True Greatness I've seen yet, and if it is, then I haven't got a smell of it."
"No word from Bud, is there, Martha?" asked after a while.
"Nothing, only the card from Calgary saying he was working on a horse-ranch west of there. It's lonely without him, I tell you, Pearl. I wonder will he ever come back?" said Martha wistfully.
"Sure he will!" cried Pearl. "Bud'll come back, and it'll all be cleared up, and don't you forget it."
"I don't know how, Pearl."
"Some way we don't expect, maybe, but it'll all come right. Everything will in time," Pearl answered cheerfully.
At tea-time the conversation naturally turned to weddings. Mr. Perkins had been in a doleful frame of mind until the visitors came, but under the stimulus of fresh listeners he brightened up wonderfully. Here were two people who had not heard any of his stories. He was full of reminiscences of strange weddings that he had been at or had heard of. One in particular, which came back to him now with great vividness, was when his friend, Ned Mullins, married the Spain girl down "the Ot'way."
"Ned had intended to marry the youngest one," he said, "but when we got there, by jinks, there was Jane, the oldest one, all decked out with ribbons and smilin' like a basket of chips, while the pretty one, Rosie, that Ned wanted, was sittin' in a corner holdin' a handkerchief to her eyes. Old man Spain said he'd let no man cull the family--he'd have to take them as they come, by George! Poor Ned was all broke up. They wouldn't let him say a word to Rosie--they seemed to know which way her evidence would run. The timber-boss took Ned aside; I can hear him yet the way he said, 'Marry the girl, Ned, me boy; the Spaniards are too numerous for us! We mustn't make bad blood wid them!' Father Welsh was there all ready, kinda tapping his foot impatient-like, waiting to earn his money. Old Geordie Hodgins was there; he was one of the oldest river-drivers on the Ot'way, a sly old dog with a big wad o' money hid away some place, some said it was in the linin' of his cap. Old Geordie never looked at a girl--Scotch, you know, they're careful. Well, old Geordie began kinda snuffin' like he always did when he got excited. Well, sir, he got up and began to walk around, slappin' his hands together, and all the clatter stopped, for every one was wonderin' what was wrong with Geordie; and old man Spain, he says: 'What's wrong, Geordie? Sit down, blame you, and let's get on wid the weddin'.' And then old Georgie straightens up and says, 'I'll take the old one, if ye like, and let Ned have the wan he wants,' and with that the little one with the red eyes bounces right out of her corner and she slaps a kiss on Geordie that you could hear for the brea'th of an acre. Old Geordie wiped it off with the back of his hand and says he, 'Look out, young Miss, don't you do that again or Ned'll have to take the old one after all.' And by jinks, as soon as she heard that the old one, who wasn't so slow after all, she bounced up and landed one on Geordie that sounded like an ox pullin' his foot out of the mud, and, then Ned he came to himself and says he, 'See here, Geordie's gettin' more'n his share; where do I come in?' and then John McNeish, the piper, struck up his pipes, and we were all off into an eight-hand reel before you could wink. There wasn't enough girls to go round, and I had to swing around Bill Fraser with the wooden leg, and Bill was kinda topply around the corners, but we got the two couples married and they both done well."
Mrs. Perkins was something of a raconteur herself, and she, too, was ready with a story on the same subject. She and her husband never interfered with each other's story-telling. Each chose his or her own story and proceeded with it quite independent of the other one. But it was confusing to the audience when the two stories ran concurrently, as they did to-day.
Mrs. Perkins's story was about her youngest sister's husband's brother, who was the "biggest cut-up you ever saw." He'd keep a whole room full of people "in stitches, and he was engaged to a girl called Sally Gibson--she was one of the Garafraxa Gibsons that ran the mill at 'the Soble'--well, anyway, this Sally Gibson gave him the slip and married a fellow from Owen Sound, and some say even kept the ring," though Mrs. Perkins was not prepared to say for sure; but, anyway, this was pretty hard on her youngest sister's husband's brother. Henry Hall was his name and he had bought the license and all. "He was terrible cut up and vowed he'd marry some one and not lose his license altogether, so he came over to where Bessie Collins lived, and he came in at the back door, and there was Bessie scrubbin' the floor, and he says: 'Bessie, will you marry me?' and she says, knowin' what a cut-up he was, she says, 'Go on, Hank, you're foolin',' and he says: 'I'm not foolin', Bessie,' and he told her what Sally Gibson had went and done, and then Bessie says: 'Well, wait till I've finished this floor and do off the door-step, and I don't care if I do.' So she went and primped herself some and they were married and they done well, too!"
* * *
When Pearl and her aunt were walking home that night Aunt Kate said: "I like them people better one at a time. I never did like a two-ring circus. I never could watch the monkey trundlin' a barrel up a gangway when the clown was jumpin' through rings; it always annoyed me to be losin' either one or the other. Did you get any sense of it, Pearlie?"
But Pearl's thoughts were on an entirely different theme. "Miss Morrison ain't what you'd call a real pretty girl, not like Mary Barner or Camilla," she said absently.