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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesBlack Rock: A Tale Of The Selkirks - Chapter 13. How Nelson Came Home
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Black Rock: A Tale Of The Selkirks - Chapter 13. How Nelson Came Home Post by :andyisbrilliant Category :Long Stories Author :Ralph Connor Date :May 2012 Read :2056

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Black Rock: A Tale Of The Selkirks - Chapter 13. How Nelson Came Home


Through the long summer the mountains and the pines were with me. And through the winter, too, busy as I was filling in my Black Rock sketches for the railway people who would still persist in ordering them by the dozen, the memory of that stirring life would come over me, and once more I would be among the silent pines and the mighty snow-peaked mountains. And before me would appear the red-shirted shantymen or dark-faced miners, great, free, bold fellows, driving me almost mad with the desire to seize and fix those swiftly changing groups of picturesque figures. At such times I would drop my sketch, and with eager brush seize a group, a face, a figure, and that is how my studio comes to be filled with the men of Black Rock. There they are all about me. Graeme and the men from the woods, Sandy, Baptiste, the Campbells, and in many attitudes and groups old man Nelson; Craig, too, and his miners, Shaw, Geordie, Nixon, and poor old Billy and the keeper of the League saloon.

It seemed as if I lived among them, and the illusion was greatly helped by the vivid letters Graeme sent me from time to time. Brief notes came now and then from Craig too, to whom I had sent a faithful account of how I had brought Mrs. Mavor to her ship, and of how I had watched her sail away with none too brave a face, as she held up her hand that bore the miners' ring, and smiled with that deep light in her eyes. Ah! those eyes have driven me to despair and made me fear that I am no great painter after all, in spite of what my friends tell me who come in to smoke my good cigars and praise my brush. I can get the brow and hair, and mouth and pose, but the eyes! the eyes elude me--and the faces of Mrs. Mavor on my wall, that the men praise and rave over, are not such as I could show to any of the men from the mountains.

Graeme's letters tell me chiefly about Craig and his doings, and about old man Nelson; while from Craig I hear about Graeme, and how he and Nelson are standing at his back, and doing what they can to fill the gap that never can be filled. The three are much together, I can see, and I am glad for them all, but chiefly for Craig, whose face, grief-stricken but resolute, and often gentle as a woman's, will not leave me nor let me rest in peace.

The note of thanks he sent me was entirely characteristic. There were no heroics, much less pining or self-pity. It was simple and manly, not ignoring the pain but making much of the joy. And then they had their work to do. That note, so clear, so manly, so nobly sensible, stiffens my back yet at times.

In the spring came the startling news that Black Rock would soon be no more. The mines were to close down on April 1. The company, having allured the confiding public with enticing descriptions of marvellous drifts, veins, assays, and prospects, and having expended vast sums of the public's money in developing the mines till the assurance of their reliability was absolutely final, calmly shut down and vanished. With their vanishing vanishes Black Rock, not without loss and much deep cursing on the part of the men brought some hundreds of miles to aid the company in its extraordinary and wholly inexplicable game.

Personally it grieved me to think that my plan of returning to Black Rock could never be carried out. It was a great compensation, however, that the three men most representative to me of that life were soon to visit me actually in my own home and den. Graeme's letter said that in one month they might be expected to appear. At least he and Nelson were soon to come, and Craig would soon follow.

On receiving the great news, I at once looked up young Nelson and his sister, and we proceeded to celebrate the joyful prospect with a specially good dinner. I found the greatest delight in picturing the joy and pride of the old man in his children, whom he had not seen for fifteen or sixteen years. The mother had died some five years before, then the farm was sold, and the brother and sister came into the city; and any father might be proud of them. The son was a well-made young fellow, handsome enough, thoughtful, and solid-looking. The girl reminded me of her father. The same resolution was seen in mouth and jaw, and the same passion slumbered in the dark grey eyes. She was not beautiful, but she carried herself well, and one would always look at her twice. It would be worth something to see the meeting between father and daughter.

But fate, the greatest artist of us all, takes little count of the careful drawing and the bright colouring of our fancy's pictures, but with rude hand deranges all, and with one swift sweep paints out the bright and paints in the dark. And this trick he served me when, one June night, after long and anxious waiting for some word from the west, my door suddenly opened and Graeme walked in upon me like a spectre, grey and voiceless. My shout of welcome was choked back by the look in his face, and I could only gaze at him and wait for his word. He gripped my hand, tried to speak, but failed to make words come.

'Sit down, old man,' I said, pushing, him into my chair, 'and take your time.'

He obeyed, looking up at me with burning, sleepless eyes. My heart was sore for his misery, and I said: 'Don't mind, old chap; it can't be so awfully bad. You're here safe and sound at any rate,' and so I went on to give him time. But he shuddered and looked round and groaned.

'Now look here, Graeme, let's have it. When did you land here? Where is Nelson? Why didn't you bring him up?'

'He is at the station in his coffin,' he answered slowly.

'In his coffin?' I echoed, my beautiful pictures all vanishing. 'How was it?'

'Through my cursed folly,' he groaned bitterly.

'What happened?' I asked. But ignoring my question, he said: 'I must see his children. I have not slept for four nights. I hardly know what I am doing; but I can't rest till I see his children. I promised him. Get them for me.'

'To-morrow will do. Go to sleep now, and we shall arrange everything to-morrow,' I urged.

'No!' he said fiercely; 'to-night--now!'

In half an hour they were listening, pale and grief-stricken, to the story of their father's death.

Poor Graeme was relentless in his self-condemnation as he told how, through his 'cursed folly,' old Nelson was killed. The three, Craig, Graeme, and Nelson, had come as far as Victoria together. There they left Craig, and came on to San Francisco. In an evil hour Graeme met a companion of other and evil days, and it was not long till the old fever came upon him.

In vain Nelson warned and pleaded. The reaction from the monotony and poverty of camp life to the excitement and luxury of the San Francisco gaming palaces swung Graeme quite off his feet, and all that Nelson could do was to follow from place to place and keep watch.

'And there he would sit,' said Graeme in a hard, bitter voice, 'waiting and watching often till the grey morning light, while my madness held me fast to the table. One night,' here he paused a moment, put his face in his hands and shuddered; but quickly he was master of himself again, and went on in the same hard voice--'One night my partner and I were playing two men who had done us up before. I knew they were cheating, but could not detect them. Game after game they won, till I was furious at my stupidity in not being able to catch them. Happening to glance at Nelson in the corner, I caught a meaning look, and looking again, he threw me a signal. I knew at once what the fraud was, and next game charged the fellow with it. He gave me the lie; I struck his mouth, but before I could draw my gun, his partner had me by the arms. What followed I hardly know. While I was struggling to get free, I saw him reach for his weapon; but, as he drew it, Nelson sprang across the table, and bore him down. When the row was ever, three men lay on the floor. One was Nelson; he took the shot meant for me.'

Again the story paused.

'And the man that shot him?'

I started at the intense fierceness in the voice, and, looking upon the girl, saw her eyes blazing with a terrible light.

'He is dead,' answered Graeme indifferently.

'You killed him?' she asked eagerly.

Graeme looked at her curiously, and answered slowly--

'I did not mean to. He came at me. I struck him harder than I knew. He never moved.'

She drew a sigh of satisfaction, and waited.

'I got him to a private ward, had the best doctor in the city, and sent for Craig to Victoria. For three days we thought he would live--he was keen to get home; but by the time Craig came we had given up hope. Oh, but I was thankful to see Craig come in, and the joy in the old man's eyes was beautiful to see. There was no pain at last, and no fear. He would not allow me to reproach myself, saying over and over, "You would have done the same for me"--as I would, fast enough--"and it is better me than you. I am old and done; you will do much good yet for the boys." And he kept looking at me till I could only promise to do my best.

'But I am glad I told him how much good he had done me during the last year, for he seemed to think that too good to be true. And when Craig told him how he had helped the boys in the camp, and how Sandy and Baptiste and the Campbells would always be better men for his life among them, the old man's face actually shone, as if light were coming through. And with surprise and joy he kept on saying, "Do you think so? Do you think so? Perhaps so, perhaps so." At the last he talked of Christmas night at the camp. You were there, you remember. Craig had been holding a service, and something happened, I don't know what, but they both knew.'

'I know,' I said, and I saw again the picture of the old man under the pine, upon his knees in the snow, with his face turned up to the stars.

'Whatever it was, it was in his mind at the very last, and I can never forget his face as he turned it to Craig. One hears of such things: I had often, but had never put much faith in them; but joy, rapture, triumph, these are what were in his face, as he said, his breath coming short, "You said--He wouldn't--fail me--you were right--not once--not once--He stuck to me--I'm glad he told me--thank God--for you--you showed--me--I'll see Him--and--tell Him--" And Craig, kneeling beside him so steady--I was behaving like a fool--smiled down through his streaming tears into the dim eyes so brightly, till they could see no more. Thank him for that! He helped the old man through, and he helped me too, that night, thank God!' And Graeme's voice, hard till now, broke in a sob.

He had forgotten us, and was back beside his passing friend, and all his self-control could not keep back the flowing tears.

'It was his life for mine,' he said huskily.

The brother and sister were quietly weeping, but spoke no word, though I knew Graeme was waiting for them.

I took up the word, and told of what I had known of Nelson, and his influence upon the men of Black Rock. They listened eagerly enough, but still without speaking. There seemed nothing to say, till I suggested to Graeme that he must get some rest. Then the girl turned to him, and, impulsively putting out her hand, said--

'Oh, it is all so sad; but how can we ever thank you?'

'Thank me!' gasped Graeme. 'Can you forgive me? I brought him to his death.'

'No, no! You must not say so,' she answered hurriedly. 'You would have done the same for him.'

'God knows I would,' said Graeme earnestly; 'and God bless you for your words!' And I was thankful to see the tears start in his dry, burning eyes.

We carried him to the old home in the country, that he might lie by the side of the wife he had loved and wronged. A few friends met us at the wayside station, and followed in sad procession along the country road, that wound past farms and through woods, and at last up to the ascent where the quaint, old wooden church, black with the rains and snows of many years, stood among its silent graves. The little graveyard sloped gently towards the setting sun, and from it one could see, far on every side, the fields of grain and meadowland that wandered off over softly undulating hills to meet the maple woods at the horizon, dark, green, and cool. Here and there white farmhouses, with great barns standing near, looked out from clustering orchards.

Up the grass-grown walk, and through the crowding mounds, over which waves, uncut, the long, tangling grass, we bear our friend, and let him gently down into the kindly bosom of mother earth, dark, moist, and warm. The sound of a distant cowbell mingles with the voice of the last prayer; the clods drop heavily with heart-startling echo; the mound is heaped and shaped by kindly friends, sharing with one another the task; the long rough sods are laid over and patted into place; the old minister takes farewell in a few words of gentle sympathy; the brother and sister, with lingering looks at the two graves side by side, the old and the new, step into the farmer's carriage, and drive away; the sexton locks the gate and goes home, and we are left outside alone.

Then we went back and stood by Nelson's grave.

After a long silence Graeme spoke.

'Connor, he did not grudge his life to me--and I think'--and here the words came slowly--'I understand now what that means, "Who loved me and gave Himself for me."'

Then taking off his hat, he said reverently, 'By God's help Nelson's life shall not end, but shall go on. Yes, old man!' looking down upon the grave, 'I'm with you'; and lifting up his face to the calm sky, 'God help me to be true.'

Then he turned and walked briskly away, as one might who had pressing business, or as soldiers march from a comrade's grave to a merry tune, not that they have forgotten, but they have still to fight.

And this was the way old man Nelson came home.

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