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- Northern Lights, Volume 3. - 3/10 -
now two ladies came forward to the chancel steps, and one with her hands clasped before her, began to sing:
"When the swallows homeward fly, And the roses' bloom is o'er, And the nightingale's sweet song In the woods is heard no more--"
It was Alice--Alice the daughter--and presently the mother, the other Alice, joined in the refrain. At sight of them Bickersteth's eyes had filled, not with tears, but with a cloud of feeling, so that he went blind. There she was, the girl he loved. Her voice was ringing in his ears. In his own joy for one instant he had forgotten the old man beside him, and the great test that was now upon him. He turned quickly, however, as the old man got to his feet. For an instant the lost exile of the North stood as though transfixed. The blood slowly drained from his face, and in his eyes was an agony of struggle and desire. For a moment an awful confusion had the mastery, and then suddenly a clear light broke into his eyes, his face flushed healthily and shone, his arms went up, and there rang in his ears the words:
"Then I think with bitter pain, Shall we ever meet again? When the swallows homeward fly--"
"Alice--Alice!" he called, and tottered forward up the aisle, followed by John Bickersteth.
"Alice, I have come back!" he cried again.
"She's come, and she can go back. No one asked her, no one wants her, and she's got no rights here. She thinks she'll come it over me, but she'll get nothing, and there's no place for her here."
The old, grey-bearded man, gnarled and angular, with overhanging brows and a harsh face, made this little speech of malice and unfriendliness, looking out on the snow-covered prairie through the window. Far in the distance were a sleigh and horses like a spot in the snow, growing larger from minute to minute.
It was a day of days. Overhead, the sun was pouring out a flood of light and warmth, and though it was bitterly cold, life was beating hard in the bosom of the West. Men walked lightly, breathed quickly, and their eyes were bright with the brightness of vitality and content. Even the old man at the window of this lonely house, in a great lonely stretch of country, with the cedar hills behind it, had a living force which defied his seventy odd years, though the light in his face was hard and his voice was harder still. Under the shelter of the foothills, cold as the day was, his cattle were feeding in the open, scratching away the thin layer of snow, and browsing on the tender grass underneath. An arctic world in appearance, it had an abounding life which made it friendly and generous--the harshness belonged to the surface. So, perhaps, it was with the old man who watched the sleigh in the distance coming nearer, but that in his nature on which any one could feed was not so easily reached as the fresh young grass under the protecting snow.
"She'll get nothing out of me," he repeated, as the others in the room behind him made no remark, and his eyes ranged gloatingly over the cattle under the foothills and the buildings which he had gathered together to proclaim his substantial greatness in the West. "Not a sous markee," he added, clinking some coins in his pocket. "She's got no rights."
"Cassy's got as much right here as any of us, Abel, and she's coming to say it, I guess."
The voice which spoke was unlike a Western voice. It was deep and full and slow, with an organ-like quality. It was in good keeping with the tall, spare body and large, fine rugged face of the woman to whom it belonged. She sat in a rocking-chair, but did not rock, her fingers busy with the knitting-needles, her feet planted squarely on the home-made hassock at her feet.
The old man waited for a minute in a painful silence, then he turned slowly round, and, with tight-pressed lips, looked at the woman in the rocking-chair. If it had been anyone else who had "talked back" at him, he would have made quick work of them, for he was of that class of tyrant who pride themselves on being self-made, and have an undue respect for their own judgment and importance. But the woman who had ventured to challenge his cold-blooded remarks about his dead son's wife, now hastening over the snow to the house her husband had left under a cloud eight years before, had no fear of him, and, maybe, no deep regard for him. He respected her, as did all who knew her--a very reticent, thoughtful, busy being, who had been like a well of comfort to so many that had drunk and passed on out of her life, out of time and time's experiences. Seventy-nine years saw her still upstanding, strong, full of work, and fuller of life's knowledge. It was she who had sent the horses and sleigh for "Gassy," when the old man, having read the letter that Cassy had written him, said that she could "freeze at the station" for all of him. Aunt Kate had said nothing then, but, when the time came, by her orders the sleigh and horses were at the station; and the old man had made no direct protest, for she was the one person he had never dominated nor bullied. If she had only talked, he would have worn her down, for he was fond of talking, and it was said by those who were cynical and incredulous about him that he had gone to prayer-meetings, had been a local preacher, only to hear his own voice. Probably if there had been any politics in the West in his day, he would have been a politician, though it would have been too costly for his taste, and religion was very cheap; it enabled him to refuse to join in many forms of expenditure, on the ground that he "did not hold by such things."
In Aunt Kate, the sister of his wife, dead so many years ago, he had found a spirit stronger than his own. He valued her; he had said more than once, to those who he thought would never repeat it to her, that she was a "great woman"; but self-interest was the mainspring of his appreciation. Since she had come again to his house--she had lived with him once before for two years when his wife was slowly dying--it had been a different place. Housekeeping had cost less than before, yet the cooking was better, the place was beautifully clean, and discipline without rigidity reigned everywhere. One by one the old woman's boys and girls had died--four of them--and she was now alone, with not a single grandchild left to cheer her; and the life out here with Abel Baragar had been unrelieved by much that was heartening to a woman; for Black Andy, Abel's son, was not an inspiring figure, though even his moroseness gave way under her influence. So it was that when Cassy's letter came, her breast seemed to grow warmer, and swell with longing to see the wife of her nephew, who had such a bad reputation in Abel's eyes, and to see George's little boy, who was coming too. After all, whatever Cassy was, she was the mother of Abel's son's son; and Aunt Kate was too old and wise to be frightened by tales told of Cassy or any one else. So, having had her own way so far regarding Cassy's coming, she looked Abel calmly in the eyes, over the gold-rimmed spectacles which were her dearest possession--almost the only thing of value she had. She was not afraid of Abel's anger, and he knew it; but his eldest son, Black Andy, was present, and he must make a show of being master of the situation.
"Aunt Kate," he said, "I didn't make a fuss about you sending the horses and sleigh for her, because women do fool things sometimes. I suppose curiosity got the best of you. Anyhow, mebbe it's right Cassy should find out, once for all, how things stand, and that they haven't altered since she took George away, and ruined his life, and sent him to his grave. That's why I didn't order Mick back when I saw him going out with the team."
"Cassy Mavor," interjected a third voice from a corner behind the great stove--"Cassy Mavor, of the variety-dance-and-song, and a talk with the gallery between!"
Aunt Kate looked over at Black Andy, and stopped knitting, for there was that in the tone of the sullen ranchman which stirred in her a sudden anger, and anger was a rare and uncomfortable sensation to her. A flush crept slowly over her face, then it died away, and she said quietly to Black Andy--for she had ever prayed to be master of the demon of temper down deep in her, and she was praying now:
"She earnt her living by singing and dancing, and she's brought up George's boy by it, and singing and dancing isn't a crime. David danced before the Lord. I danced myself when I was a young girl, and before I joined the church. 'Twas about the only pleasure I ever had; 'bout the only one I like to remember. There's no difference to me 'twixt making your feet handy and clever and full of music, and playing with your fingers on the piano or on a melodeon at a meeting. As for singing, it's God's gift; and many a time I wisht I had it. I'd have sung the blackness out of your face and heart, Andy." She leaned back again and began to knit very fast. "I'd like to hear Cassy sing, and see her dance too."
Black Andy chuckled coarsely, "I often heard her sing and saw her dance down at Lumley's before she took George away East. You wouldn't have guessed she had consumption. She knocked the boys over down to Lumley's. The first night at Lumley's done for George."
Black Andy's face showed no lightening of its gloom as he spoke, but there was a firing up of the black eyes, and the woman with the knitting felt that--for whatever reason--he was purposely irritating his father.
"The devil was in her heels and in her tongue," Andy continued. "With her big mouth, red hair, and little eyes, she'd have made anybody laugh. I laughed."
"You laughed!" snapped out his father with a sneer.
Black Andy's eyes half closed with a morose look, then he went on. "Yes, I laughed at Cassy. While she was out here at Lumley's getting cured, accordin' to the doctor's orders, things seemed to get a move on in the West. But it didn't suit professing Christians like you, dad." He jerked his head towards the old man and drew the spittoon near with his feet.
"The West hasn't been any worse off since she left," snarled the old man.
"Well, she took George with her," grimly retorted Black Andy.
Abel Baragar's heart had been warmer towards his dead son George than to any one else in the world. George had been as fair of face and hair as Andrew was dark; as cheerful and amusing as Andrew was gloomy and dispiriting; as agile and dexterous of mind and body as his brother was slow and angular; as emotional and warm-hearted as the other was phlegmatic and sour--or so it seemed to the father and to nearly all others.
In those old days they had not been very well off. The railway was not completed, and the West had not begun "to move." The old man had bought and sold land and cattle and horses, always living on a narrow margin of
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