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From The Week (1893-may-12), 560c-564b.
The following is a Gaslight etext....
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The place is the city of Rexborough. The time is the first of April, 1885.
It was a bright fair day of a late spring. Snow lay on the ground, but the warmth of the sun and the feet of passengers had transformed its purity into slush and mire. Of passers there were many, for the fine old city wore an aspect very different from its normal quiet; streams of people, with anxious and excited faces, tended all one way; there was gloom on some men's brows, there were grave, stern words on some men's tongues; here and there a woman was in tears; at the corners watching listening groups were gathered; the oft-repeated names of certain men and places were even in the children's mouths; there was a breath of expectation in the very
Among the passengers who alighted from the stage that made the daily trip from the village of Woodburn was a young woman, who looked about her in some wonder at the unusual stir. She had a grave and sweet, if not a beautiful face, wearing now a slight expression of anxiety foreign to its accustomed calm. She asked no questions, but, avoiding the throngs that filled the thoroughfares, proceeded without delay to a quiet house in a quiet part of the town.
She was expected, for the woman who opened the door expressed no surprise, but broke at once into exclamation. "Oh, Miss Thorpe! What a day for you to come! And why? I hope there's no trouble with the doctor, as well as the trouble that's come on us all."
"I hope not," said the girl quietly. "But what do you mean? What is the stir in town for?"
"Why, don't you know? Haven't you heard, or read the papers? There's extras out--"
"We only get a weekly paper," said Miss Thorpe. "What is the matter?"
"You've not heard? Why, there's more trouble in the North West. There was a fight last Thursday, and nine men killed."
"Never!" exclaimed Miss Thorpe, in no slightest degree realizing the meaning of the words.
"Yes: the same man has raised it that was at the bottom of the '70 trouble, when my son was out; but they say this is worse. Anyway the soldiers are on their way to the West; they're to be here to-day, and there's great excitement over it. My boys are down to the station now to see them come in."
"But I can't believe it!" said Miss Thorpe, incredulously. How is it we had no warning--that we've heard nothing about it before?"
"Ah, that's the wonder!" said her hostess, shaking her head. "Some people must have known, of course, but folks like you and me have been left in the dark. Why, even last week the papers said there was no fear. But now tell me about yourself--you expect the doctor?"
"Yes; I got a card from him to be here to-day."
"And I got one to say that
"No, Mrs. Gould, I don't know why I'm here, any more than you do."
"Well, if the doctor fixed it, it's all right; he never does anything without a reason, and a good one, doesn't Mr.
Miss Thorpe did not answer, and a thought seemed to occur to her hostess. "Why, you must be tired!
So Miss Thorpe sat down to "study up the rebellion," a study in which she had many fellow-scholars that spring. The word had startled her. She had read some history and knew what it had sometimes meant, what, wherever it is breathed, it may mean. At first in her reading she was perplexed; events of which she had never heard were spoken of as being of deep significance--places whose names were unknown to her (as indeed they were unknown to many of us Canadians until a fierce necessity compelled a new study of geography) were referred to as being centres of vital interest; but as her attention became more fixed, as she by degrees disentangled facts from its wrappings of heated discussion, she learned what is now history--in our history, alas! a black-bordered page. She learned that the country was threatened--no, not threatened--but quivering under the shock of an insurrection of which no one at that time knew the extent or could foresee the end; she learned that battle, murder, and sudden death had startled the land like a lightning flash from a summer sky; that sedition had lifted its serpent head and that patriotism had arisen to crush the reptile under its heel; that the menaced nation had appealed to her children to sustain her majesty and her authority; and that throughout her length and breadth they had responded to the call.
It had not entered her mind that events of such importance could concern so humble a person as herself; her interest was entirely impersonal, but as she read, something woke in her breast that had never before stirred there; and her pulse quickened at the story how a few days before the Queen City had poured forth her sons on that loyal errand from which alas!--alas? yes, but also to their eternal
She was of course, incapable, as were many others, of judging of the merits of the case; the oft-repeated phrases "Half-breed claims," "Bill of Rights," "Misgovernment avenged" etc., were to her but words; but accurate knowledge is seldom necessary to strength of feeling, and Miss Thorpe threw all the strength of hers on the side of existing law. The very name rebellion presupposed a system of order against which to rebel, and which, however far from perfect, must be preferable to the chaos resulting from its rash and violent overthrow. Time has taught us that then, as on other occasions, there was right, as there were faults, on both sides; but it needed time to teach the lesson, and to Miss Thorpe the fact that five days before the northern snow had been stained with the blood of nine brave and loyal men who had laid down their lives in obedience to, and in defence of, law and country, was sufficient to rouse a passion which left little room for discussion as to where the greater share of the blame might lie.
While she studied and pondered the day waned and the dusk fell. She was in a gloomy reverie, her thoughts far away with the dead at Duck Lake and the living who wept them, when one of the children of the house came and said to her in an awe-struck whisper, "There's a soldier here that says he's Dr. Thorold."
She could hear the beating of her heart as she went to meet him, and paused a moment with her hand upon the door. The opaque lamp left the room partly in shadow, and she hesitated as the unfamiliar figure advanced to greet her.
"Grace, darling--" and in an instant she was in his arms.
"Forgive me, dear, for having left you waiting so. As you see--my time is no longer my own."
She looked up quickly; there was no need of questions. The dress he wore told her all.
"Oh, Paul--I did not think--I did not know--"
"You did not know, dear, because there was never need to tell you; but the need has come."
Again she could say nothing but, "Oh, Paul!"
On their further words let us not intrude for a while. There were many such spoken in those days.
"So you see," he said, after an interval, "the country doctor is no more exempt from the call of duty than the business man or the workman. And I hope he is no less willing to obey."
As she looked at him the expression on his face caused her to exclaim: "Oh, Paul, do you think it so serious?" She spoke imploringly, as if his opinion must with her outweigh all others.
"I fear so," he returned. "There are those, I know, who profess to make light of it, and I hope they may be right; but I am afraid it will be no play."
She drew a long sigh.
"Therefore--I could not go without seeing you again. You know--sometimes--people--when those men went out from Prince Albert last week they did not come back, Gracie, dear."
"But, Paul--you don't seem sorry--I believe you are glad to go!"
"Glad?" he repeated, "that is hardly the word. I don't know how others may feel at a time like this, but it seems to me that I have only just begun to live. Glad? If the surrender of my own breath would bring back the lives that are lost--if my own blood would efface from the country the stain of that which was shed last week--it is little to say that I would gladly give them; but as it is--Grace, you know my heart; to you I have confessed what it has been to me never to know my parents; can you think what it must be to me to have found in my country a mother at last?"
He smiled, while a light, half fierce, half tender, shone in his eyes. His fervour struck an answering spark in Grace, even while she felt a momentary pang of womanly jealousy of the patriotic enthusiasm that rose above and beyond even the thought of her.
"And you must do your part," he said, kissing her; but she remained silent. "Grace, can you be brave--for yourself and others?"
"I will try," she said; but as she spoke she clung closer to his arm.
"Now," he resumed after a pause, "let us think of others; there is much to say and my time is short. How is Annis?"
"Very ill. Her grandfather is going to send her here with me for advice, attendance and care."
"He is going to do something sensible at last? Grace--was it that business with Norman Wright that has made Annis so much worse?"
"I am sure of it. She was very fond of him, and never being strong the worry and grief overcame her."
"Tell me, Grace, how was it?"
"There's little to tell. You know Norman was--well, not quite steady; not much amiss, but still--and uncle spoke to him--seriously--and he took it in bad part. He wanted Annis to promise him, but she took her grandfather's advice--and the end was that Norman got very angry--he would listen to nothing, and at last he broke it off and went away. We don't know where he is now."
"Grace, he is here now--with me."
"Paul, you don't mean it!"
"I do. He's sorry enough he ever left. I met him in L---- and proposed to him to come and he jumped at the chance of going as substitute for one of my men who met with an accident. He was too likely a fellow and too well drilled to be refused. I'll look after him."
"How will Annis bear to have him go?"
"She must bear it as others do, sweetheart. He is at all events more worthy of her now than ever before, and maybe her grandfather will think so too, when we get back."
"And we must stay here--and do nothing--while you are fighting!" said Grace, sadly.
"You'll have plenty to do, dearest. You have Annis to care for, and me to think of and write to. And-who knows?--there may be no fighting after all. Some people laugh at the thought."
But Grace drew no comfort from this. She saw he did not think so.
"Now I must go," he said, gently disengaging her clinging hand. "Thanks, dear, for what you have not said; you are my own brave girl. Take care of the weaker one for poor Norman's sake. We go on Friday, and I will see you again if I can, but if I can't--you will trust me, Grace?"
She looked at him with brimming eyes. It would be scarcely fair to listen to their last good-bye.
This short tale, is in one sense, not history. Abler pens have already recorded those events which made the spring of 1885 a landmark of our time, and this is but the simple chronicle of the way in which they moulded and affected a few unimportant lives. But events do not constitute the whole of history; it is also written in the lives of those who make it; and as the industry or sloth of each individual unit adds to or takes from the material of prosperity of a nation, so is her inner life reflected in the discipline, joy or sorrow of each separate soul.
Among those who awoke to a new existence was Grace Thorpe. Never selfish, in the whirl of emotion and sensations never hitherto dreamed of, her own grief was almost lost sight of. Those who remember that Good Friday,
remember also the snow that late as the season was, fell in blinding masses, blocking traffic, and detaining the troops concentrated at Rexborough till the icy Easter dawn. Grace never confessed it, but in the dusk of that Friday she took her way, wrapped from recognition, past the crowded barrack square where the men were exchanging farewells and
anticipations of return, and over the deserted bridge where the snow lay piled unbroken. Her one hasty glance past the pacing sentry and through the gate was her farewell to Paul, her last weakness and self-indulgence. With the next day she returned to the duties that took her out of self; and in the removal to the city of the invalid girl who filled to her the
Then there came a harder trial, the waiting for news; the hardest indeed, of all trials, as those who have borne it know well.
Alternating between the quiet of the sick room and the scarcely less quiet of her daily walk Grace's life yet held much busy thought. She heard from Paul--short accounts, written where and how he could, of tiresome marches, unaccustomed duties, and conjectured movements to a doubtful end--letters which in their spirit of loyalty and
Then came a day when all thought of peace was ended, and the dream of those who had preached it was rudely broken; when the crack of the rifle on the far Saskatchewan was echoed in the hearts that throbbed by the St. Lawrence, and the news came that a fresh harvest of young lives had been cut down like the grass; when the beautiful old city was stirred as never before in the memory of living man; when in street, and home, and market, there was but one cry--for news; when the bulletin was besieged and amusement forsaken; and when people coming even from the house of God thought less of the holy words still sounding in their ears than those of the yet wet "extras" that met them at the door.
On Grace and Annis the tidings of the skirmish of that eventful 26th of April wrought very differently, though neither found the loved name in the lists that brought grief to so many. To the one, lifted above self by an agony of sympathy, not the least strange sensation was that of the unreality of surrounding things, the triviality which seemed suddenly to invest the items that made up the sum of daily life, and the feeling by which the distant and unknown became the essence of existence. That life should go on as usual and all the pageantry of Nature remain unchanged--that roses should bloom and birds nest and sing while blood was flowing, groans were drawn, and hearts were aching--seemed to Grace an unpermissible anomaly; that business cares should engage and youthful gaieties be indulged in while pain, danger, privation and death were the lot of companion, comrade and friend, appeared unfathomable in its depth of pettiness; and the consciousness of a double self, of the contrast between the outward contact with the world of sense and the inner life that pulsed and throbbed with unspoken and unshared emotions, remains with Grace as the most ineffaceable memory of that never-to-be-forgotten time.
The interest of Annis on the contrary was but a kind of sublimated selfishness. "It toucheth thee and thou faintest," are words not applicable to Job alone. To the sick girl, prostrated anew by the fresh excitement, and shut in upon herself and from all outward intercourse, the North West Force soon came to mean Norman Wright alone, and every incident of the struggle, success or failure, shame or triumph, to be only thought of as it regarded him. Annis had known that sorrow was the common lot, but when brought face to face with the truth in her own experience she found it harder than she could endure. No doubt the Dispenser of causes has known how to apportion each to the work it is to perform, and if to the mother or mistress the welfare of son or lover outweigh the obliteration of battalions we are bound to believe that that force was needed to preserve the balance of creation; but to eyes that have opened on a wider horizon it looks incredible that others should have less range of vision--that personal joy or pains should engross the mind is wonderful to the soul touched and awakened by patriotic fire.
Grace was sadly ignorant; she knew nothing of that noble art of the politician by which the interests and sufferings of others are made the means of self-aggrandizement, and to her the accusations and recriminations which form the missiles of the wordy war of faction were worse than idle sounds. Many times was her indignation roused by the squabbles of opposing cliques and the
Then on the morning of the 10th of May, a wild tempestuous Sunday, suspense came to an end. It might not be well to inquire how many of those who worshipped that day in Rexborough, with the knowledge of what was at that moment passing at Batoche's Crossing filling their thoughts, profited greatly by their devotional exercises; we remember but the rapid emptying of the churches, the crowding of the people to the newspaper offices, the eager watching through the windy afternoons for the tardy news, the demand for the "extras" which when news did arrive were seized upon faster than the presses could give them out, the thrill that struck us when we knew that the end was come; but not yet the end of the end. We remember the days that followed, with their watching, their doubt and dread, their scanty, untrustworthy tidings, the wavering balance of victory or defeat, the angry mourning for those gone, the anguish of anxiety for those whose turn it might be next to go--all this Grace remembers and will never forget.
And all this Annis knew, and the knowledge wrought her to fever, which, fading, left a weakness from which there was no rally. Letters of course, there were none; the message of life or death must be looked for in the public prints, whose terse phrases added bitterness to their bitter tidings; but to Grace and Annis came no tidings, either of pain or consolation. Never did days appear so long as that 11th and 12th of May; never did Grace find it so difficult to utter the words of hope and cheer her heart denied; and never was relief greater or thanksgiving deeper than when the wires flashed the message that, whatever might be the individual loss, victory had declared itself on the side of authority, and that further strife was stayed.
That individual loss! oh, how it tarnished the satisfaction given by the triumph of law! What eagerness of search of the dreadful lists! What heart-break were they right, what terror lest they should be wrong!
For two days Grace searched those lists with shrinking eyes, but met no sorrow, and was fain to hope that they were spared. But on the Wednesday afternoon, a warm, still shining day, that seemed made for life and joy, she came upon her hostess with a newspaper spread before her and tears dropping on the page. She gathered up her courage and scanned the lines, and this was what she read, in letters that seemed to turn to fire. "Wounded; Severely: Private Norman Wright." And Grace laid her head down upon her arms, and wept as in all her life she had never wept before. After that her hands and heart were full. She could scarcely be glad of her own immunity in face of the sick girl's agony and swift decay, and Paul's safety seemed a blessing to which she had no right while others mourned. She hardly heeded the public interest of the events which followed, in the knowledge that no peace now could bring back to young limbs or happiness to young hearts again: that page was folded down.
Then the victorious troops went on their further march to the north, and began the long, weary search for the retreating Indians; invalided men began to return with their heart-stirring tales, and rejoicing friends to welcome them; but to the two women in the quiet room in Rexborough life consisted only in watching and waiting--for tidings from the woods and swamps of Saskatchewan and bulletins from the hospital at Saskatoon.
It was the 6th of June. Long weeks of anxious suspense and uncertainty had succeeded the fever of expectation and the excited reception of startling news. Those whose friends had disappeared into an unknown northern wilderness, whence tidings could scarcely come, felt that they had changed little for the better from the knowledge of risk and privation to conjecture of greater evils still; too often the words "Wires down" took the place of the news looked for more eagerly each day, and it was difficult, in the face of the doubtful future to find as much satisfaction as before in the work already accomplished, the honour already won.
Grace was growing very weary. The strain of the constant care of the invalid, the ceaseless anxiety as to the effect upon her of the daily news from the north, and the worse result of no news at all, the thought of poor Norman which could scarcely be called suspense when hope there was none, the endless fretting of the old man over what he had deemed he had brought about and what was yet to come, all this had so wrought upon her that she no longer dared to let her mind dwell upon her own troubles, or strive to penetrate the darkness that now hung over the wanderings of the soldiers--for with her Paul was not all. She tried to concentrate her thoughts upon the present, to lighten as she best could the burdens of others, and not yet face the dread that she might have to share it with them later on.
On this evening she was especially overwrought. The announcement "Wires down" had thrown Annis into an excitement only allayed as darkness fell. She had sunk into a troubled sleep, then Grace felt the jarring of her own nerves. The silence oppressed her, and when the clock tolled eight and she realized how long the night would yet be she dreaded lest her own strength might fail when needed. She left the old man on watch and wrapping a shawl around her went out alone under the trees of the path that bordered the river.
The June night was moonless and cool. The air was damp with a promise of rain, and heavy with the scent of lilac blossoms that tossed aloft their purple plumes. Grace leaned over the water, looked at the lights reflected in the dark stream and at the grey walls of the fort on the other bank whence came a faint bugle call, and listened to a man's deep voice singing near by. Then for a short season she allowed her thoughts to stray.
"A pretty town of about forty houses, arranged in a square." She recalled thus the only description she had then seen of Saskatoon, that place where so many thoughts were then centred, for which so many prayers went up, and tried to picture to herself how it must look. There rose before her a vision of the wide plain, the rapid rolling river, the starlit northern sky. She felt the fall of the dew, the sigh of the breeze. Fancy played her part only too well; as the dusk deepened Grace forgot her actual surroundings, and her mind, straying from the sick-bed she had left and mingling remembrance with imagination, was filled with confused images of dimly lighted rooms, of silence broken only by whispers and soft tread, of pallid, pain-drawn faces, languid limbs, faint, fluttering breathings, powerless hands, and weary eyes. She could hear the checked groan and muttered exclamation as the wrench of agony wrung the strong man's frame, she imagined the gentle voices that spoke hope and courage and the fierce hopelessness that rejected comfort. All the suffering and the sorrow, all the vain longing for the sound of a home-tone or the touch of a loved hand by those who would never again know or feel them, all the present misery and the future dread seemed to take bodily shape and weight and to crush her heart. Her very ignorance of the reality intensified the imaginary picture, and she put her hands before her eyes to shut it out.
Only a woman's foolish fancies, altogether wide of the truth? Maybe: but the fancies of those days stung deep and sore. They have left some scars that will never be effaced--some wounds that will never be healed.
Grace recovered herself with a start of self-reproach. In the silence the clock tolled nine, and the bugle rang out its call from the hill. With a sudden impulse she turned and looked upward to the North-western heavens; Corona hung trembling in the blue vault, and with her eyes Grace's thoughts rose, and the words came to her mind, "Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we--" she shivered a little, as though a breath from another world had chilled her, and returned to her watch.
Her uncle was waiting for her at the door.
"She was awake, Grace, and better, I do believe; her eyes are so bright and her voice so strong. She must have been dreaming, for she laughed in her sleep, and woke calling out "Wait! I am ready!" Grace made no answer, but went to Annis with a fresh and sudden fear. She did not like the news.
"I've had a lovely dream," Annis said, as Grace stooped over her. A kiss was the only reply--no need to ask the subject of the dream.
"Isn't it a good sign, Gracie? May I take it to mean that I shall live to see him come back?"
"I--don't want more than that--now. I did once--then--I was going to leave a message for him with you, but now--if I can just see him--and tell him I never mistrusted him, and hear him speak--and leave him safe with you--"
"Hush, dear, you must not talk," said Grace, as the groan the old man could not stifle came to her ears. She did not dare to tell him what she feared; but her heart was very heavy as she watched the sleeping girl through the long night. She longed for tidings, but this unearthly communion disquieted her; and the next day was Sunday when no news could come.
The weary Sunday dragged itself out, spent by Annis in a lethargic patience; perhaps the memory of her dream stood as a shield between her and the worst--that dream which to Grace, with the recollection of her own vision at the same hour was only a haunting presage of ill. The long warm still hours were laden with suspense, and fear and anxiety were as the breath Grace drew.
The morning brought neither letter nor telegram; there was nothing to do but wait for the public news of the afternoon. When her uncle went to obtain it, Grace concealed his departure from Annis, and waited during a time that seemed both leaden-footed and to fly with wings. Annis appeared asleep when the returning footstep sounded, and Grace went down feeling that the worst that could be told would be a release compared with the tension of a moment such as this.
The old man's hand trembled as he held a paper towards her. "No letter," he said, hoarsely, "but there may be something here--"
Grace took it and scanned the lines over which so many hearts had sunk, so many tears had fallen. If for one moment her eyes went to that spot where news of Paul might be looked for, let it be forgiven her; she resolutely averted her attention to that quarter where she must learn what was now alas! an oft-told tale. The search was short; her uncle, watching her, saw a little start; then she held the paper out to him without a word. He followed where she pointed, and read the form familiar enough in its terseness, but charged for each who sought it with new and keen-edged meaning. "Clarke's Crossing, June 7th. Private Norman Wright, wounded at Batoche's, died last night in the hospital at Saskatoon."
That was all. Of the young vigorous life gone out-of hopes quenched and promise blighted--of the long vain struggle with pain and death--that was all the world would ever know. Nor the world only. Of the self-sacrifice that had concealed the suffering of the fever-flush of hope and the gloom of the dark valley--of the yearnings never to be satisfied--of the last thoughts and prayers of the heart whose faint final throb had fluttered into silence alone in the far-off desert--there could come no whisper to the hearts that craved it, the voice had passed "where beyond these voices there is peace."
"One more gone for honour's sake
Where so many go,"
And those few words, over which few eyes would glance with more than indifference, or at least a half-careless pity, his only record and reward--too often the soldier's sentence, epitaph, and eulogy, all in one.
"Who shall tell her?" whispered Grace with white lips, and without a tear. Then she covered up her face as the old man held up a shaking finger and left the room.
It was over--over. If words were needed they had been spoken--if tears had fallen they were dried. The majesty of death might reign here, but the monarch had laid aside his frown. The glory of the sunset streamed through the open window, shed a halo round the head of the dying girl, and fell on the joined hands laid lovingly on the grey head bowed upon her knees; outside the leaves rustled softly, and a bird carolled its even song; the scent of flowers hung on the air like incense; the stillness was as deep as the hush of prayer; and the smile on the lips of Annis "filled the silence like a speech."
Grace hesitated on the threshold; the place seemed to her holy ground. But Annis saw her, and at a look she came and knelt beside her.
"I need leave no message with you now," said Annis, softly.
Grace kissed the slender hands--they were quite steady--but she could not speak.
"I am very selfish, Gracie. I am so glad for myself that I cannot be sorry for him--or you."
Grace glanced at the old man; but he did not seem to hear, and did not move.
"It shocked me--for a minute--to think he could be--dead--he was so strong--but now--it would be hard to live on--and think so--and I am so glad to know that he will never--have to--miss me." She drew a little fluttering sigh. Grace leant her head on the heart whose faint beat she could hear in the stillness, and her tears fell unchecked and uncontrolled.
"Don't cry Gracie. Do you think I am worthy of him now?
"Who can ever be worthy--" began Grace.
"And yet--will you say that verse for me--about being faithful over a few things? I can't quite--remember--"
With a mighty effort Grace steadied her voice. "Well done, good and faithful--"
But the verse was never finished to mortal ears. There was a trembling of the hand Grace held, then the two were clasped together and flung upward, and there rang out a joyful agonized cry--"Wait for me Norman! I am ready!" Grace started up with a scream--to see the strained eyes close softly, the pale lips quiver into silence, and the head fall back.
"Oh my God! she has fainted!" cried the old man, even now refusing to accept the truth.
But Grace knew better. She knew that in that last-or first--glimpse of recognition the eyes had seen no mortal vision; that in that parting cry of passionate appeal the lips had uttered their last words on earth.
The past history of Canada is already recorded in many places in her monuments and the homes of her dead; but there is a fair city towards the sun-setting where the prophecy of her future may be read by those who have eyes and hearts. Paul and Grace Thorold believe they have so read it; in the sculptured stone above the flower-wreathed graves of those who laid down their lives at her call is the assurance that lasting as marble shall be the unity they died to save; in the weed-grown resting-place, by which the utmost that the heart can do is to pity and endeavour to forgive, lies the shadowing forth of their success, who, like him who lies below, are troublers of their country's peace.