Chapter 1. Courtship Complications
Towards the middle of the nineteenth century there was a flourishing school in St. John's Parish, Red River Settlement, which was named the McCallum Academy in honour of its scholarly principal, the Rev. John McCallum. It was renowned in its day for strict discipline, and for the remarkable success of many of the young men and young women who received their education there. These were mostly sons and daughters of Hudson's Bay officers, some of whom were retired and settled on the banks of the Red River, while others were still in active service in various parts of the interior.
Among the most successful graduates from this school was William Findlay, whose father was one of the most influential Chief Factors in the Company's service.
When the time came that young Findlay had to select his calling in life, he decided to follow in his father's footsteps by entering the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, giving as his reason for doing so, that it appealed to him as "the state of life in which he was called" in that he had been born and bred in it, and had acquired the art of driving dogs, besides a knowledge of the Cree and Ojibeway languages.
During Mr. Findlay's first four years in the service he was stationed at Upper Fort Garry, where he served as clerk in the saleshop and in the outfitting department. At the end of that period he had attained his full growth, being then only an inch under six feet; and he looked what he was--a strong and active man. He was also a man of fine presence, and adding to this an affable manner and kindly disposition, he became immensely popular not only with his brother officers, but with the people of the Settlement as well.
He showed consideration for all, whether Indian or White, and never allowed his attention to be so engrossed by a person of high degree, as to make him fail in due regard for one in a lowly position. Genuine sympathy, a pleasant smile and a genial laugh were natural to him. It was no trouble to keep the golden rule in dealing with him, because one could always feel that in the "come back" he was almost sure to go one better.
Among the other clerks who entered the Company's service the same year as Findlay was John Thomson, a young Scotsman from the Old Country. He, too, served the first years of his apprenticeship at Fort Garry, so that he and Mr. Findlay saw much of each other; and the acquaintance thus formed grew into a firm and life-long friendship. In qualities of head and heart the two young gentlemen were not unlike; but there the resemblance ceased, that is, the setting for these qualities was very defective in the case of Mr. Thomson. Physically he was not more than passable; and he had a laughable laugh and a nervous peculiarity, consequently he appeared to disadvantage among people generally, and became diffident and unduly sensitive.
Let it be known that the position of clerk in the Company's service served as a passport to the best society in the Red River Settlement, for a clerk who behaved himself was almost sure to be a Chief Factor some day, a position of very great honour, almost equal to that of the Hudson'a. Bay Governor or even the Protestant Bishop of the Hudson's Bay Territories. More than that the aforenamed great honour carried with it a comfortable little fortune. Therefore, as may be supposed, the young and fair sex of the Red River Settlement were disposed to regard Mr. Findlay and Mr. Thomson as belonging to the rising generation, and showed their perfect willingness to rise in their company.
One of the places where our two heroes had a chance to discover their affinities was at the "Balls," which were an important feature in the social life of the community. These balls or dances were of such general interest that they furnished interesting topics of conversation and subjects of lively and sometimes loving correspondence for a considerable time afterwards; and occasionally there would be a sort of aftermath and then some clergyman would feel called upon to voice his sentiments publicly with respect to dancing in general, while the members of his flock, however they might respect his opinions, would feel genuinely sorry for him, while they wondered which of the commandments "which are called moral" they had violated when they got up and thoroughly and conscientiously enjoyed the jolly old Red River Jig. Of the clergy in general it is, however, only fair to add that they made a prudent distinction between moderation and excess, both in the matter of dancing and in the use of ardent spirits. The trouble in regard to the latter is that we are not all as scared of them as we ought to be. And some there are who can't be satisfied until the cup which inebriates, fully charged with the said spirits, has several times been emptied, and what wonder if the "spirits which he hath taken unto himself" makes a man too ardent for his own good or for that of his friends.
As the world grows better, which we expect it will, people are bound to drink less, and they will do so of their own free will; but as long as the sun and moon endure, healthy men and women and children will find pleasure in dancing, neither will there be lacking the auspices, if old traditions of proper chaperonage are maintained, which will serve as guardian angels to the innocent. And whatever may happen to dances which call for bodily contact or for gentle and graceful motion, there is no doubt that, according to the law of the survival of the fittest, Red River Jig and Highland Fling and kindred dances will continue to flourish. For one thing, they are in line with the times which with ever increasing insistence demand rapidity of motion. They are also well adapted as exercises in the now popular science of physical culture. There are not many joints or muscles in the human body which are not directly or indirectly affected by a well executed Red River Jig, for it calls for every possible combination of steps which an intellectual biped is capable of inventing and practising without tumbling over. It afforded to ambitious young men in those early days just the opportunity that was wanted of showing off some new steps--"capers" they were called--which they had discovered. And while they did so the other guests usually took a breathing spell, and with the air of connoisseurs appraised the merits of the various capers so as to arrive at a well-founded opinion as to who was the best dancer in the Red River Settlement.
Besides these balls there were small affairs--apparently impromptu--where friends and neighbours would meet as if by accident, and, before they parted were very liable to dance. One of the homes at which this not infrequently occurred, and at which Mr. Findlay and Mr. Thomson were always welcome guests, was that of Mr. Archibald Blain, a Scotsman who had risen to the much desired position of Chief Factor in the Hudson's Bay Company's service, and at the age of sixty had retired.
Mr. Blain and his comely wife were in themselves sufficiently interesting to furnish ample pretence for the frequent visits of our friendly disposed clerks; but when it is stated that the Blains had several lovely daughters who were in the full flush of lovely young maidenhood, and only lately returned from finishing their education, it will be readily believed that the said young ladies were entitled to a fair share of the credit for the frequency of the clerks' visits.
At the time the two clerks were entering upon their apprenticeship with the Company the Misses Blain were receiving flattering attention from several others of the young gentry of the Settlement. Opinions differed among their friends as to which was the most beautiful; but there was only one opinion as to which was the cleverest and most fascinating, that distinction being cheerfully accorded to Miss Nellie, even if her greatest admirers did have to admit that she had a few freckles, and that she was not striking either in height or form.
It was when engaged in animated conversation that one best realized her superiority, for then those with whom she conversed could sense the nature of the soul that looked at them through its windows, while upon her countenance there was written an expression of kindness and intelligence which was well supported both by her actions and her words. She sowed plenteously of the seeds of loving kindness, but she did it all so quietly, that what the world in general knew about it, they learned chiefly through the spontaneous affection and esteem of those with whom she had to do.
Shortly after Mr. Findlay and Mr. Thomson entered the employ of the Hudson's Bay Company, two young Canadians, Messrs. Buckingham and Coldwell, established the first newspaper in the Red River Settlement--the "Nor'-Wester." The information supplied through its columns to the people in Eastern Canada resulted in a few adventurous souls coming out to see the land of promise for themselves. Among those who did so, and who, after seeing were pleased to remain, were James Simpson and Alfred Mills, both of whom soon found openings for their respective lines of business. Mr. Mills had a grown-up family, and his eldest daughter, Miss Vernie Mills, was a well educated and very attractive young lady. She was more genteel and exclusive than the young ladies of the Settlement. As will appear later on, she had something to do in "shaping the ends" of some of the characters in this story. The other recent arrival, Mr. Simpson, was a young man and unmarried. One did not need to be a keen observer to notice that he was no common-place individual. It could be felt in his personal magnetism and seen in his splendid physique, and none were quicker to feel and see than the young ladies of the Settlement, including Miss Mills and Miss Blain.
The five young people so far mentioned in our story met from time to time at the balls and at the residence of Mr. Blain, and the acquaintance thus formed grew into friendship, and the friendship grew into love, and they all intended to marry, whatever any of them might have said to the contrary. And there was no just cause or impediment why they should not marry so far as they or their friends could tell. But there was an impediment. Be it now declared there was an impediment both legal and mathematical. Each within the circle of five having no conception of such a circle, selected his or her affinity within the circle, and did so, of course, without consulting the other four! The result? A complication. For the law of all Christian countries demands that the rule in Eden as to assortment and numbers must prevail, and five divided by two only goes twice and one must be left out in the cold.
It is easy for two people while they are being gently wafted towards the state of matrimony, or during the honeymoon, to endorse the fond belief that marriages are made in heaven, although a little later they may feel that heaven is to be exonerated from all responsibility for their having come together.
In the case of the union of the respective pairs that came out of the circle of five, it can be said that their life-long happy character favoured the idea that some marriages at any rate have their inception in heaven. Well it would be for humanity if all who enter upon that holy estate would do so with the conviction that it was so with them, and would bravely live up to that conviction right up to the divide, beyond which these unions will be on a higher plane, and the sweetness and beauty of earth will take on the sweetness and beauty of heaven, and, perfected thus, will continue forever.
Possibly these young people did not look so far ahead, and were for the present satisfied to work out the reasonable faith that "heaven helps those who help themselves." Unfortunately, however, in the endeavour to enact this faith, some of them at first tried to help themselves to the wrong party, which caused confusion not simply because of the odd person who would be left over, but also because an ordinary man, or for that reason an extraordinary one, can love two women honestly and truly at the same time, and a woman can do precisely the same thing manward. The ethereal notion of an affinity who so absorbs one's love that there is not enough left to satisfy a house-cat may be all very well in poetry and romance, but it does not work in actual life. It certainly did not do so in our little circle of five; for both Mr. Findlay and Mr. Simpson fell in love--or if you prefer it--rose in love, with both Miss Blain and Miss Mills, who severally reciprocated by falling in love with both the gentlemen named, while Mr. Thomson--poor Mr. Thomson!--unknown to anyone but himself was desperately in love with Nellie Blain. It must be admitted that it was a remarkable situation; but it had come about without any intent or premeditation--a number of young people had met together from time to time in a social way, and their mutual admiration had led to results which they had never anticipated.
The situation called for relief, and the initiative obviously lay with the gentlemen. Strange to say, the waking up to a sense of duty--privilege it might be called--was simultaneous to an extent. Mr. Simpson was the most expeditious, and being the one gentleman of the three who was in a position to marry at any time, he decided there was no time better than the present, and furthermore, for reasons best known to himself, he decided to marry Miss Mills. Accordingly, one fine evening in June he proposed or "popped the question," as the Settlement people would say, and was accepted.
When Mr. Simpson left Miss Mills after receiving her gratifying answer, that young lady walked in her queenly fashion to the window of her room which faced the river, and looking for a long time with unseeing eyes at the opposite bank, she whispered to herself while she wiped the tears from her lovely face, "I am so glad that he will have sweet Nellie Blain to make him happy."
Of the three young people, Miss Nellie Blain was the first to hear of this engagement, and although not very surprised nor yet very sorrowful, as might be expected, she was more perturbed than Miss Mills, forasmuch as the latter had her "bird in hand," 'whereas Miss Blain's chances were now cut down as far as she knew at the time, to a "bird in the bush." So she did feel pensive, and desired to be alone, or as one might say--in the company of the birds in the bush, in order that she might calmly take in the altered situation. To this end she quietly slipped out from the house early in the afternoon, and set out on her favourite walk, which was the path on the survey line marking the western boundary of her father's lot. This led her alternately through aspen groves and little prairies luxuriantly covered with grass and flowers. Following this path for about a mile, she came to a particularly inviting spot, where she had before rested in the shade, and she did so now. There she drank in the beauty of this little corner of the world which for the time being was all her own. The flowers were with her still, and their scent and shape and colour and shade were fine as ever; the birds sang no less happily; the bees worked no less steadily; the butterflies fluttered no less airily, and the aspen leaves still whispered soothingly and unceasingly according to their wont.
Let it be here understood that her concern was not solely on account of her loss of a man, who, to the best of her knowledge, could be replaced by another just as good. Her concern was as much due to the moral aspects of the question, for she was an honest and conscientious soul, thanks to a wholesome religious training both at home and at school, and she wanted to make sure now that she had been waked up as to whether in the dual character of the love-making in which she had been implicated she had not been guilty of inordinate affection; so in this secluded corner of the world, where the aspen leaves whispered suggestively of the sanctity of a temple, she took herself to task--but her life was in harmony with "all things bright and beautiful"; and having satisfied herself on this point, she rose to her feet smiling. There had been nothing wrong except that she and her friends had been excessively friendly, and their friendship had ripened into love, and twin-love at that. However, as one man and one woman had made their selection, the twin phase was simplified, and there was no reason why there should not be another engagement in the near future, and so while the birds sang, and the bees hummed and the leaves whispered, she wended her way homeward, singing in a subdued voice as she walked along.
As it chanced it was only the evening before this that Mr. Findlay and Mr. Thomson, sitting in the clerks' quarters after having had their tea, were enjoying their pipes and talking about their friends, and they mentioned especially the Blains and Mr. Simpson and Miss Mills, quite unaware that only the day before the two last named had become engaged; and not being mind readers, each was also unaware of what the other was fully resolved to do the very next day, that is to say, Mr. Findlay did not know that Mr. Thomson would propose to Miss Blain, and Mr. Thomson did not know that Mr. Findlay intended to propose to Miss Mills, so they spoke in general terms about their business expectations, while each fondly hoped that within the next twenty-four hours he would have something definite to confide about his matrimonial affairs.
They both admitted that their ages would permit of their going some years longer before marrying; and that in any case it would be some years before they could secure the consent of their superior officers.
"However," said Mr. Findlay, "I do not suppose it matters much to the Company whether a clerk of theirs is engaged or not so long as there is a thousand miles or so between the said clerk and his intended."
"Pretty safe distance," said Mr. Thomson, laughing jjulpingly, which seemed to be the only way he could laugh, and for which reason he did not laugh oftener than he was obliged to. Then he added, "I should think that when the Honourable Hudson's Bay Company induced a clerk to go out for service in the lonely regions of the North, it might prefer his being engaged, so that being able to sing 'The Girl I Left Behind Me,' he would the more resignedly endure his years of banishment." Then, being a communicative individual, he confided to his friend that he had a great admiration for Miss Blain, whom he considered a most wonderful girl, and the "most charming girl of a charming bunch of sisters."
Mr. Findlay perfectly understood that his friend was maneuvering for a clear field, and assured him that he had it so far as he was concerned; then he enthusiastically agreed with him as to Miss Blain being a "wonderful girl"; and he furthermore added, "I believe that Fred Simpson also is of that opinion; and the man who wants to get ahead of that magnetic customer does not want to lose any time." Then the friends wished each other good-night and proceeded to get the beauty sleep they would need to enable them to pass successfully through the ordeal of the coming day.
Luck, at the start, seemed to be with Mr. Thomson, for his orders next day from the officer in charge were to take the officer's horse and buggy, and convey some light articles to the Lower Fort, and at the same time to make an examination of a certain account. "Fortune favours the bold," said Mr. Thomson to himself as he turned his smiling face in the direction whither he would go.
Behold him then, at about eight a.m., setting out on his momentous journey. With forethought and honesty which did himself and his nationality credit, he attended to the Company's business first; but in addition to his honesty there was a conviction under his hat and beneath his waistcoat that after he had had his interview with Miss Blain, whatever the results might be, he was not likely to care about any more business for the rest of the day. For these reasons the Company's business came first. And now he is approaching the point where the western survey line of Mr. Blain's lot intersected the public highway. Miss Nellie was also approaching that point after having gone through the searching self examination under the whispering leaves of an aspen grove as already described, and she and Mr. Thomson reached the point of intersection at precisely the same moment.
"Holloa!" said the girl.
"Well! Well! Isn't this fortunate?" said the man, to which she replied, "I hope so!" f
In an instant he sprung to the ground and warmly shook her extended hand. He then offered her a seat in the buggy, which she accepted, and then he proposed that they should go for a little turn before driving her home. To this she assented, stipulating, however, that it should be indeed only a "little turn."
In the course of enquiries about their mutual friends, Miss Blain was surprised to learn that Mr. Thomson had not heard of the engagement of Miss Mills to Mr. Simpson. The news was a surprise, and his comments made on the spur of the moment seemed to the fair listener by his side, to contain a quintuple reference in which she herself was not ignored. He said, "I am not personally concerned; but it may make a difference to Mr. Findlay, for, unless I am mistaken, he was greatly interested in Miss Mills, and I feel pretty sure that had he only moved a little faster, it is the now lucky man who would have been left in the cold."
"I am inclined to agree with you, Mr. Thomson; but it may be that Mr. Findlay has some other lady in view. One can never tell what you gentlemen are up to."
Mr. Thompson noticed that this last remark was accompanied by a deepening of colour; but just as he opened his mouth to inform her of what a certain gentleman was up to with respect to herself, she opened her pretty little mouth and complimented him on his fine prospects in the Company's service, which she supposed must be pretty good in that he was already enjoying the use of a Chief Factor's horse and buggy.
The said horse was a tractable creature of considerable experience in the varying moods of the humans who occupied the seat behind him, and, sensing in the relaxed reins permission to be guided for a time by his own desires, he presently dropped his nose to the ground and commenced to enjoy the succulent grass which grew by the way.
In the meantime, Mr. Thomson, defying his physical disabilities, made connection with Miss Blain's playful remark about his prospects. "My prospects," he said, "are all right, and whatever good things the future may have in store for me, I would very much like to share with you. Nellie, I have come here today in the hope that you will make me the happiest man on earth by consenting to become my wife."
Very much startled, she exclaimed, "Oh! Oh! Mr. Thomson! You and I have always been such good friends. Please let it go at that, if you would make me happy!"
"I would make you happy, but in the better way. Nellie, I have loved you since the first hour that we met, and for a long time I fought against it because I could see that you were sought after by worthier than I; but the struggle against my feelings, as you see, has been a failure. Yield to my honest desire if you can. I have to leave soon for the North. Can you not say the word which would make life out there very pleasant for me, and would encourage me to efforts which might lead to my being worthier of you than I feel myself to be at the present?"
Kind hearted Nellie Blain was deeply moved, and with tears in her eyes and in her voice, too, she put up a hand to her throat as if in distress, and replied, "Oh, Mr. Thomson, I am so sorry! because I may be somewhat to blame, although I cannot remember having ever said anything that was misleading. And you were always so good and quiet that I had no suspicion of anything like this."
With no intention of acting the hero, poor Thomson just at this juncture showed that he was one, for he said, "Don't blame yourself, Miss Blain. You could not help being an angel any more than I could help being an ass, and if ever-r-r, that is, when ever-r-r I get over this, perhaps I shall be none the worse for having known and loved one so good and kind as you."
Need it be said, that the conversation during the rest of the drive as well as during Mr. Thomson's brief call at Mr. Blain's was rather perfunctory, and the lone driver was glad to be enshrouded in darkness long before he got back to Fort Garry.
The chief hero of this story, Mr. Findlay, devoted the greater part of the day to business, and early in the afternoon started for his decisive interview with Miss Mills, whom he knew to be visiting with the Lewins some distance westward from Fort Garry. He owned a beautiful horse, and when he had mounted this animal, which was tastefully caparisoned with a bead-work saddle-cloth, upon which was placed a saddle similarly ornamented, and with a coloured woollen tassel dangling from each of its four corners, he presented a fine manly appearance which anyone endowed with an aesthetic taste could not fail to admire.
Allowing his horse to amble along, he came to what was a common and interesting sight in those days--a large herd of cattle grazing by the wayside--and stopping for a moment to watch them, he noticed that there was in the breath of evening a suspicion of crushed strawberries, as well as the grass and flowers at which the bovines were greedily munching. And there was also music in the air. The prairie plover poising stationary overhead, uttered its little scream, "o-week-w-e-e-e"; another plover announced its presence by giving out its name repeatedly, "tildee, tildee, tildee"; a grey-bird contributed its cricket-like song, and a meadow lark perched on a snake fence sang most sweetly of all, tempting Mr. Findlay to purse up his lips and join in its song as his contribution to the concert of the birds; all of which goes to show that besides loving two women almost equally well, he had still left, love enough and to spare, for the other beauties of creation.
As good fortune would have it, before Mr. Findlay reached the lane leading to Mr. Lewin's residence, he met that gentleman himself driving in a buggy in the direction of the Fort. Being old friends, they stopped for a chat, in the course of which Mr. Findlay learned of the engagement of Miss Mills to Mr. Simpson.
Were this a sensational novel instead of a story written with a reasonable regard for truth, it would be in order to state here, that on learning the foregoing news, Mr. Findlay made a desperate but unavailing effort to conceal his extreme agitation. Probably Mr. Lewin, who was a tease, was watching him with a keen eye for some display of feeling; but Mr. Findlay's cool and cheerful manner gave away no secret. He actually contrived to laugh and say, "Well, in this case, the expected has happened."
"No," said Mr. Lewin. "What I expected as a man who still feels a pride in the old Company and the old blood, was, that you would have stepped in and cut out that red-headed Canuck, and what makes me mad is that I know you could have done it."
"Thank you! But perhaps as a former Hudson's Bay officer you are not unacquainted with the law, 'Never allow your private feelings to interfere with your public duty.'"
"O! You have got on to that old Hudson's Bay saw already, have you?" And the two laughed, wished each other good-evening, and parted. Once left to himself, Mr. Findlay followed the highway only a little farther, and then resolved to circle homeward by the prairie while he thought over the strange thing that had happened unto him.
And this is what he thought: "How fortunate! Saved by the skin of my teeth from painful humiliation. And I suppose that I should be glad that Miss Mills has been saved from the temptation of accepting me, or the necessity of rejecting me. At any rate, I am lucky in having this joke all to myself; but I must be careful in future not to love so effusively and ambiguously."
Just then a wolf, of the kind now called a coyote, but at that time a togany, sprang up from a hollow and raced away in the direction he was going, and his horse, showing an eagerness to follow, he gave it the rein and went in pursuit, as a means of diverting his thoughts from a none too pleasant subject. The togany made for a bush about a mile away, and by the time it got under cover there were only a few feet between its tail and the horse's front hoofs. The sun had set by this time and as he went onward amid the gathering shades of night, there suddenly issued from a bluff that he was passing, the lusty call of a whip-poor-will, causing him to say mentally to the songster, "Desist! Surely Will has been whipped enough for one day."
Mr. Findlay and Mr. Thomson returned from their equally unsuccessful ventures within a few minutes of each other, and sat down to tea together. These sensible young men did not reject their food because they had been rejected--they ate it. Their example is recommended to anyone who might find himself in a similar situation, and may be tempted to act as if the end of all things were at hand. These practical young men remembered that whatever they might have to do with in the future, for the time being theirs were bodies terrestrial, and they did not so much as have recourse to spirituous relief, although the famous Hudson's Bay rum was easy of access. Instead of that they comforted themselves with venison steak and fried onions, Red River bannock and strawberries and cream.
Naturally, after that they felt much better, and tilting back their chairs, were enjoying their smoke as usual, when the woman who cooked for the unmarried clerks came in to clear away the dishes. Finding out by enquiry that she had picked the strawberries herself, they thanked her and made her happy by telling her that she treated them as if she were their mother.
Left to themselves they discussed the day's proceedings. Mr. Thomson was of the communicative sort who always feel the happier for having unburdened their minds to a faithful friend, and he lost no time in giving Mr. Findlay a full account of his proposal to Miss Blain, and of the feeling manner in which she had turned down his offer, finishing off with a severe stricture on his own unintelligence in having supposed that she would accept him.
Notwithstanding Mr. Findlay's sympathetic nature, and the good reason he had for being particularly sympathetic that day, he failed to be reciprocally confidential. However, he helped his friend to preserve his self-respect by telling him, "You are just as good a man as you were before, and that's pretty good; and, another thing, remember that there are at least five hundred girls in the Red River Settlement who would be precious glad to get the chance which you gave Miss Blain today. Think of that, me-boy, and forget her."
"Forget her! Yes, Will, in one sense, but in the better sense, never! A man should be the better and happier for having loved so good a woman, even though she may not have been able to requite his love with anything more than her friendship."
"There spoke the man and the philosopher," said Mr. Findlay; then he changed the subject, telling of his ride that evening, of his meeting with Mr. Lewin and of having learned from him of the engagement of Miss Mills to Mr. Simpson.
After a brief discussion of that subject, Mr. Findlay gave a vivid description of his race after the togany, saying he had entered on the chase chiefly to please his horse, which seemed anxious to show him what he could do. And he did not forget the whip-poor-will and its usual cruel advice. Then the two righted their chairs, and after shaking the ashes from their pipes on to the ash tray, they placed them on the mantel-piece, and wishing each other good-night, retired to their respective rooms.