The Second Chance by Nellie L. McClung
Chapter XXXIII. The Correction Line
It's a purty good world, this is, old man, It's a purty good world this is; For all its follies and shows and lies, Its rainy weather, and cheeks likewise, And age, hard hearing, and rheumatiz; We're not a faultin' the Lord's own plan; All things jest At their best, It's a puny good world, old man.
----James Whitcomb Riley.
On the Sunday afternoon following the big storm, when the delayed passenger train on the C. P. R. slowly ploughed its way through snowbanks into the station at Newbank, there alighted from it a young man with bearded face. The line had been tied up since the storm on Thursday night, but early on Sunday afternoon the agent at Newbank, where the railway crosses the Souris on the long wooden bridge, gave out the glad word that "she" would be down "sometime soon," and the inhabitants--seventeen in number--congregated on the small platform without delay. They were expecting neither friends nor parcels. But there would be a newspaper or two, pretty old now, as some people reckon the age of newspapers, but in Newbank a newspaper is very wisely considered new until it has been read, and news is always news until you have heard it, no matter how long after the occurrence.
Another good reason for all the inhabitants putting in such a prompt appearance is that some one might get off, and hearing other people tell about an arrival is not quite the same thing as seeing it for one's self.
On this particular occasion, as old No. 182 came sweeping majestically into the station, everybody was glad that they were there to see it. There was snow on the engine, snow on the cars, and snow every place, that snow could possibly stick. While the train waited the conductor walked around the platform speaking genially to every one. Even the small boys called "Hello, Dave!" to him. "Dave" had run on this line since it had been built, three years before, and everybody knew him. He discussed the tie-up on the line with the postmaster, apparently taking no notice of the fact that the train was pulling out. However, as the last coach passed him, he swung himself up with easy grace, quite as an afterthought, much to the admiration of the small but appreciative band of spectators.
On the platform were left the mailbag, two Express parcels, and three milk cans. The people of Newbank stood watching the train as it ran slowly over the long bridge, shaking all the valley with its thunder, then they turned and walked over to the store to get their newspapers and discuss the news.
"Say, I'd hate to live in one of them out-of-the-way places where you never get to hear what's goin' on," said Joe McCaulay, sententiously. "It's purty nice, I tell ye, to get a newspaper every week, jest as reg'lar as the week comes."
This had been a particularly interesting arrival of the train, for there had been one passenger. He did not wait long enough for anyone to have a good look at him, but struck right across the drifts toward the river, as if he knew where he was going. There was only one person who claimed to have seen his face, and that was a very old lady who was unable to go to the station on account of rheumatism, but who always kept a small hole thawed in the frosting of her bedroom window, and managed in this way to see a good deal of what was going on outside. When the other members of her household came home, and told of the young man's coming off the train and hurriedly setting out across country without letting anyone see him or ask him where he came from, where he was going, who he was, what did he want, or any simple little thing like that, the aged grandmother triumphantly informed them that he was just a boy with his first crop of whiskers--he carried nothing in his hand--he wasn't even a pedlar or a book-agent--he didn't look around at all--he was sure of the road, but he must have some reason for not wanting to be known. Not many rheumatic old ladies, with only a small eye-hole in a frozen window, would have observed as much, and she was naturally quite elated over the fact that she had seen more than the people who went to the station, and the latter were treated to some scathing remarks about the race not always being to the swift, but the way she expressed it was that it is not "always them that runs the fastest that sees the most."
The young man whose coming had aroused this comment walked rapidly over the hard-packed drifts. There had been no teams on the road since the storm, and there was not much danger of meeting anyone, but in any event, he thought his crop of black whiskers would be a sufficient disguise. He did not want any-one to know him. Not that he cared, he told himself, recklessly, but it would be just as well not to see any of them. It seemed ages to the lad since he had left this place, though it was only six months since he had said good-bye to Libby Anne in the purple September twilight.
Things looked odd to him as he walked quickly over the drifts toward the old Cavers house. The schoolhouse was more dingy and desolate-looking; the houses and barns all seemed smaller; there was the same old mound on the Tiger Hills on the southern horizon,--the one that people said had been built by the Mound Builders, but when you came up to it, is just an ordinary hill with a hay-meadow at the foot; the sandhills, too, were there still, with their sentinel spruce-trees, scattered and lonesome. Looking over at the schoolhouse, Bud remembered the day he thrashed Tom Steadman there--it came back to him with a thrill of pleasure; and then came the memory of that other day at the school, when he had told Mr. Burrell that he was going to try to let the good seed grow in his heart, and when he had been so full of high resolves. Small good it had done him, though, and Mr. Burrell had been quick to believe evil of him. Bud's face burned with anger even now. But he could get along without any of them!
Since leaving home six months before, Bud had had a varied experience. He went to Calgary first, and got a job on a horse-ranch, but only stayed a month; then he worked in a livery stable in Calgary for a while, but a restless mood was on him, and he left it, too, when his first month was served. He then came to Brandon and found work in a livery stable there. The boy was really homesick, though he did not let himself admit the fact. His employer was a shrewd old horse-man, and recognizing in Bud a thoroughly reliable driver, soon raised his wages and gave him a large share of the responsibility. He had in his stable a fine young pacer, three years old, for which he was anxious to secure a mate. Bud told him about his pacing colt at home, and the liveryman suggested that Bud go home and bring back the colt, and they would have a team then that would make the other fellows "sit up and take notice."
"I've surely earned that colt," Bud was thinking bitterly when he came near the Cavers' house. "If the old man won't give him to me, there are other ways of getting him."
He noticed with alarm that there were no signs of life around the Cavers house, but then remembered that this being Sunday, Mrs. Cavers and Libby Anne would be at church in the schoolhouse. He would go in and wait for them; he knew just how Libby Ann's eyes would sparkle when she, saw him--and what would she say when she saw what he had in the little box in his pocket?
The day had grown dull and chilly, and a few snowflakes came wandering listlessly down--as if the big storm had not entirely cleared the air. No barking dog heralded Bud's approach; no column of smoke rose into the air. The unfrosted windows stared coldly at him, and when he turned around the corner of the house he started back with an exclamation of alarm, for one of the panels of the door had been blown in and a hard snowdrift blocked the entrance.
He went to the curtainless window and looked in. The stove was there, red with rust; two packing-boxes stood on the floor, and from one of those protruded Libby Anne's plaid dress. Through the open bedroom door he could see Libby Anne's muslin hat hanging on the opposite wall. It looked appealingly at him through the cold silence of the deserted house. His first thought was that Libby Anne and her mother had gone East, but as the furniture was still in the house, and the boxes of clothing, this thought had to be abandoned. But where were they? Why were Libby Anne's clothes here?
Just then Bud noticed the little hand-sleigh that he had made for Libby Anne, standing idly behind the stove, and it brought to his eyes a sudden rush of tears--his little girl was dead; the little girl who had loved him. He remembered how she had clung to him that night he came to say good-bye, and begged him to come back, and now, when he came back, there was only the muslin hat and the sleigh and the plaid dress to tell him that he was too late!
Bud retraced his steps sadly to the road and made his way to the schoolhouse, which lay straight on his road home. In his anxiety for Libby Anne, he forgot about it being the hour for service. The schoolyard was blown clean and bare. In the woodpile he noticed "shinney-sticks" where their owners had put them for safe-keeping--he knew all the "hidie-holes," though it was years and years since he had played "shinney" here. His boyhood seemed separated from him by a wide gulf. Since leaving home he had been to church but seldom, for Bud made the discovery that many another young man makes, that the people who go to church and young people's meetings are not always as friendly as the crowd who frequent the pool-rooms and bars. Bud had been hungry for companionship, and he had found it, but in places that did not benefit him morally.
The minister's cutter, in front of the shed, called to his remembrance the fact that this was the hour for service, which no doubt was going on now. "It's a wonder they still keep it up," he thought, rather contemptuously.
It seemed the most natural thing in the world for him to go into the porch--he, would hear what was going on, anyway, and perhaps he could see if Mrs. Cavers were there. Suddenly some one began to sing--the voice was strange, and yet familiar, like something had heard long, long, ago. When he realized that it was Mrs. Cavers he was listening to, a sudden impulse seized him to rush in. Libby Anne must be there beside her mother--she was always beside her.
"was it for crimes that I have done, He groaned upon the tree?"
Mrs. Cavers was singing alone, it seemed, in her sweet thin voice.
"Oh, no," Bud said to himself, "I guess it was not for any crimes she ever did."
The day had grown darker and colder, biting wind began to whirl hard little around the porch. Mrs. Cavers sang on:
"Well may the sun in darkness hide, And shut his glories in. When Christ, the mightly Saviour died For man, the creatures sin."
Then he heard Mr. Burrell say, quite distinctly: "Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sins and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life ... draw near with faith and take this holy sacrament to your comfort ... meekly kneeling upon your knees."
Bud heard a few moving forward--he knew who they were, just the same few--he had gone with them once, more fool he was--what was the use of that man talking about love and charity when the very first chance he got he would turn a fellow down?
"... Who in the same night that he was betrayed took bread and brake it, saying: 'Take, eat; this is my body which was broken for you this is my blood of the New Testament, which was shed for you ....'"
This one sentence came out to him clearly, fastening itself on his mind, and though in a vague way he heard the service through, his mind was busy with the thought that the Saviour of men had been betrayed by a friend, betrayed to his death, and had died blessing and forgiving his enemies.
" ... the same night that he was betrayed."
The solemnity of it all fell on the boy's heart. He had knelt there once, and heard those words and taken these tokens of the Lord's death, with his heart swelling with love for Him who had not even refused to die. It had been a glorious day of June sunshine, when through the open windows came the robin's song and the prairie breeze laden with the perfume of wolf-willow blossoms and sweet-grass. He remembered how the tears had risen unbidden to his eyes--happy tears of love and loyalty--and he had felt that nothing could ever separate him from the Master whom he loved. But now he stood on the outside of the door--he was an outsider--he had no part in this. He made a step backward--he would go away--he would hear no more--he had come back for the pacing colt--he was done with this neighbourhood and home--he was done with religion!
"Drink ye this in remembrance that Christ's blood was shed for you."
The voice sounded at Bud's elbow, as if calling him to stay. He hesitated--they were not nearly done yet--there was no danger of anyone coming out--everyone stayed for the whole service, he knew, even if they didn't take part.
"Our Father, who art in heaven," he heard them all repeat, and quite unconsciously he began to follow the words with them. It was like an old friend coming out to meet him.
"Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them who trespass against us."
Bud stopped abruptly, he couldn't say that--he would not forgive--he had been bitterly wronged, and he would never forgive--he had done what was right, and what had he got for it? He tried to summon back to him the anger that had kept alive his resolve to stay away from home. Instead of anger and bitterness he found his, heart swelling with the old love for the One who, the same night that he was betrayed, took bread and broke it, saying: "Take, eat; this is my body, which was broken for you."
Some one was praying--it was Mr. Burrell--every word came to Bud clearly.
"Dear Lord," the minister prayed, "be one with us to-day, and grant that the great appeal which Thou dost make in the broken body and the shed blood may find an answer in every heart that hears. Compel us with it to consecrate our lives to Thee. If there is any root of bitterness in our lives, let us bring it to where the shadow of the Cross may fall upon it. Oh, dear Lord, bless all those who have wandered from Thee. Bless the dear boy of our prayers who may have wandered far, but who, we believe, will never be deaf to the call of the Spirit. We praise Thee for prayers answered--for sick ones healed--for lives redeemed--and we humbly crave Thy mercy for us all. Amen."
What strange power was in these words to make Bud Perkins suddenly realize that only one thing mattered? He opened the door and walked in. The people heard the door open and some one come quickly toward the front. They saw the minister step down from the platform and into the aisle, where he clasped a black-bearded youth in his arms. For a full minute no one spoke; then Roderick Ray, the Scottish Covenanter, broke into singing:
"O dying Lamb, Thy precious blood Shall never lose its power Till all the ransomed church of God Be saved to sin no more."
What a scene of rejoicing was in the schoolhouse that dark March day! Roderick Ray slapped Bud on the back again and again, crying: "Wonderful! Wonderful!" Mr. Perkins hung on to Bud's arm as if he were afraid he might lose him again, and told him over and over again what a time he had been having with hired help. "There's nothing like your own you bet." Even George Steadman shook hands with Bud, and told him he was glad to see him back again.
While Mrs. Cavers, in answer to his eager inquiry, was telling Bud all about Libby Anne's illness, and the great kindness of his father and mother and Martha Pearl Watson whispered to Mr. Perkins: "Now's the time to clear up Bud's name about that wheat plugging. Tell them who did it." In the excitement of the moment there did not seem anything odd in the suggestion. Pearl was shrewd enough to know that the psychological moment had come.
Mr. Burrell was still standing with his hand on Bud's shoulder, as if he could never let go of him. Pearl whispered to the minister to ask the people to sit down for a few minutes, for Mr. Perkins had something to say to them. Mr. Burrell did as Pearl had asked him. Then Mr. Perkins addressed a few words to the congregation which were probably as strange a closing as any sacramental service has ever had.
"Well, friends," he said, "I believe I have a few words to say. I should have said them before, I guess. In fact, I should have said them when the thing happened, but I'm a terrible man to put off things that I don't like to do. But I'm so glad to get Buddie home that I don't mind tellin' ye that he didn't have nothin' to do with that wheat pluggin'--that was my idea entirely--in fact, Bud raised Cain about us ever pluggin' grain, and said he'd not stand for it any more. I ain't much used to speakin' in church, as you know. I've always kept my religion in my wife's name, and I may not be talking in a suitable way at all. I'm a good deal like old Jimmie Miller was at a funeral one time. Jimmie had took a glass or two too much, and just when the minister asked them to walk around and view the remains, old Jimmie jumped up and proposed the health of the bride and groom. Well, of course, someone grabbed him and pulled him down, and says: 'Sit down, man, this is a funeral!' 'Well,' says Jimmie, speakin' pretty thick, 'I don't care what it is, but it's a very successful event any way.' That's the way I feel--it's the happiest day I've known for quite a while." Thomas Perkins suddenly stopped speaking and blew his nose noisily on a red handkerchief. The neighbours, looking at him in surprise, realized that there was strong emotion behind his lightly spoken words.
It seemed to be quite a natural thing for them to sing "Praise God, from whom all blessings flow," and for the hand-shaking to begin all over again. They were only a handful of very ordinary people in a desolate-looking, unpainted schoolhouse that dark Sunday afternoon, but a new spirit seemed suddenly to have come over them, a new spirit that made them forget their worries and cares, their sordid jealousies and little meannesses, the spirit of love and neighbourly kindness, and there were some there who remembered that old promise about the other One who will come wherever "two or three are gathered together," and thought they felt the Unseen Presence.
A few hours later Bud was sitting in the cushioned rocking-chair of the tent before a cheerful fire that blazed in the Klondike heater. On the lounge sat his father, mother and Mrs. Cavers.
Libby Anne, in a pale blue kimono, and wrapped in a warm shawl, was on Bud's knee, holding in her hands a gold locket and a chain, and saying over and over to herself in an ecstasy: "Bud did come back and I'm Bud's girl."
Mr. Perkins was in radiant good-humour. "By George, it's great to have Buddie home!" he said, "and our kid here gettin' better. Let me tell you, Buddie, we've had a pretty dull, damp time around here; things have been pretty blue, and with no one to help me with the stock since Ted left. I was tellin' ye about Ted, wasn't I? Well, sir, we've been up against it all right, but now I'm feelin' so good I could whoop and yell, and still, I kinda feel I shouldn't. I'm a good deal like old Bill Mills, down at the Portage, the time the boys 'shivaried' him. You see, just the day after the first woman was buried old Bill started in to paint up his buckboard, and as soon as the paint was dry he was off huntin' up another woman; and he got her, too, a strappin' fine big Crofter girl--by George! you should see her milkin' a cow--I passed there one day when she was milkin', and I can tell you she had a big black-and-white Holstein cow shakin' to the horns! Well, anyway, when Bill and the girl got married, the boys came to 'shivaree' them. The old woman was just dead two months, and when the noise started Bill came out, mad as hops, and told them they should be ashamed of themselves making such a racket at a house where there had so lately been a funeral! That's how it is with us, eh, what? By George, it's great altogether to have Buddie home."