Read CHAPTER XIII - A Visit, A Discovery and a Kiss of My Brave and Gallant Gentleman, free online book, by Robert Watson, on ReadCentral.com.

In the cool of the evening, I came to the conclusion that I had earned for myself the privilege of the enjoyment of a swim, so I threw my clothes on my bed, got into my costume, ran out on to the rocks, dived in and away.

I did not go out into the Bay this time, but kept leisurely along the beach fronting the neighbouring property, keeping at a safe distance from the tangle of seaweed, which, somehow, seemed to gather at that particular part of the Crescent.

I amused myself for half an hour, then I returned dripping and in splendid humour with myself, with my friends and even with Joe Clark.

I did not notice an extra boat moored alongside the miscellaneous small craft at the wharf, so, when I stepped noiselessly into my front room, I was more than surprised to find Rita Clark standing there, in the fading light, looking over my book shelves.

She turned with an exclamation, and her face lit up with a smile which was bewitching, although I fancied it just a little bit forced.

“Oh! it’s you,” she cried. “I knew you wouldn’t be very long away. Been having another try to see whether you’re a man or a fish? Guess the fish will win out if you’re not careful.”

She became solemn suddenly.

“Say! you go in there and get dressed. I just got to talk to you about something.”

“Gracious goodness! Is it as serious as all that, Miss Clark?” I quizzed.

“Serious enough. You go in and hurry, anyway.”

“I won’t be two minutes,” I cried, going into my bedroom and dressing as quickly as possible, puzzling all the while as to what the girl had on her mind. Something connected with Joe, I hadn’t a doubt.

“Well, what’s the trouble?” I asked, as I returned and sat down in a wicker chair opposite her.

She seemed more glum than ever.

“What did you want to go and scrap with Joe for?” she asked in a worried way.

“I’m very sorry, Miss Clark ”

“Oh! call me Rita,” she put in impatiently.

“Well, I’m very sorry, Rita, but I did not quarrel with Joe. He quarrelled with me.”

“It’s all the same,” she replied. “Takes two to do it. Couldn’t you find another way than that?”

Her eyes were bright and her bosom was disturbed.

“I thought, maybe, you and him might be friends; but I might have known,” she went on bitterly. “He only makes friends with the men who lay down to him. You ain’t that sort.”

I threw out my hands helplessly.

“Well, Rita, don’t you worry your little head over it. It is all right.”

“Oh, no, it ain’t! Don’t fool yourself. You don’t know Joe.”

“I reckoned him a man who could keep his own counsel. How did you come to hear there had been any words?”

“He was over home. He only comes once in a while now. He didn’t do anything but talk about you. Called you all kinds of things. Says he’ll fix you good; and he will, too, or he ain’t the Joe Clark everybody knows around here.”

Her eyes became tender and moist as she held out her hands to me with an involuntary movement. “Oh! what did you want to quarrel with him for, before you knew anything about him?”

I rose and laid my hand lightly on her shoulder, as I would with a little sister, had I had one, for she seemed only a slip of a girl and it hurt me to see her so upset.

“Look here! little maid,” I said, “you forget all about it. Joe came in here and asked me to do what the man who employed me particularly instructed me against doing. I declined, and Joe became foolish, losing his temper completely. This Joe likes to trample on men. He grew angry because I would not let him do any trampling on me. No! Rita, I am not a teeny-weeny little bit afraid of Joe Clark.”

She looked up at me in astonishment, then she sort of despaired again.

“Oh! that’s ’cause you don’t know him. Everybody’s got to do as Joe says, here and in the Camps and pretty near all along the coast.”

I laughed easily; for what did I care? Joe’s worst, whatever it might be, could not hurt me very badly. I was not so deeply into anything yet for that.

“He’s a big man, and can hurt, and he hurts everybody that runs up against him.”

I leaned over against the window ledge and surveyed Rita.

“Well, ” I said, “I’m not as big as Joe is, but I have been schooled to hold my own. Joe shall have a good run for his money when he starts.”

“Oh! I know you’re strong, and big, though not as big as him, and that you ain’t afraid. Maybe that’s why I like Joe sometimes, he’s never afraid.

“Still, I don’t like him half as much as I used to,” she sighed. “But I didn’t mean fighting when I talked of him being big and strong. Joe’s got influence, Joe’s got money, he’s got tugs and he’s superintendent of the Camps. He says he’s boss of the whole shootin’ match, and you’ll find it out soon.”

“He may be nearly all you say, but he has nothing to do with George Bremner running this little Trading Company any more than being under the necessity of buying his supplies here. I was put in by Mr. Horsfal himself, to be under no one, and with the appointment of superintendent of his Golden Crescent property. So, here I am like to stay as long as I want to, or until Mr. Horsfal says differently.”

Rita glanced up at me and her eyes brightened with a ray of hope.

“And Joe ain’t got nothing to say about it?”

“Not a particle. If he had had, I would not be here now. He would have sacked me on the spot.”

“Really and truly, he ain’t?” she cried, with fresh anxiety.

“Really and truly,” I repeated.

“Oh! goody, goody, ”

Poor little Rita; all sunshine and shower. She was as merry as a kitten for a time, then she dropped back into her serious mood.

“What! haven’t all your worries gone yet?” I asked.

“Some,” she said, “but not them all. Do you know what Joe is, George? He’s a bully.”

“He is, undoubtedly,” I agreed.

“Ya! he is, all right. Still, it ain’t all his fault either. He’s handling rough men, and men that are bullies same as he is. He’s got to get the work done and done quick.

“Joe ain’t bad. No, siree. Ask Josh Doogan, who was down and out with something in his inside last year. When the doctor told him an operation by a specialist in Philadelphia was the only thing that would save him, and he hadn’t a cent, Joe fixed him up and Josh is back working in the Camps to-day. Yes! ask Jem Sullivan, who got into trouble with the police in Vancouver. He’s working for Joe and he’s making good, too. Ask Jenny Daykin who it was that took care of her for a year, after her Sam was drowned out at The Ghoul there, until her young Sam finished for a school teacher. Ask, Oh! ask most anybody; grand-dad even, though he won’t take a nickel from Joe or anybody else except what he works for, ask him. He’s queer, is Joe, and I ain’t a bit struck on him, not now, I ’most hate him. But he ain’t got a bad heart, all the same.”

“Rita,” I put in, “I believe every word of it, and, what is more, I am mighty glad to hear you say it, for the first impression I had of him was, ’Here’s a man with a good, open, honest face, and his body is a perfect working machine, a real man after my own heart.’ But he jumped on me with both hands and feet, as I might say; I jumped back, and, there we are.

“I know what’s wrong with him, Rita. As far as I can see, he has been lucky, luckier than most men. He has not had a single set-back. He has been what they call a success. He is younger than I am by a year or two, and he owns tugs and superintends camps, while I, well, I am just starting in. But he has got to putting down all this progress to his own superior ability absolutely. He does not think that, maybe, circumstances have been kind to him.”

Rita looked guardedly at me.

“Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not saying that he has not been clever and has not grasped every opportunity that came his way, worked hard and all that; Oh! you know what I mean. But he has got to thinking that Joe Clark is everything and no one else is anything. It is bad for any man when he gets that way. Give Joe Clark a set-back or two and he will come out a bigger and a better man.

“He is glutted and bloated with too much of his own way, that’s his trouble.”

Rita sighed.

“I guess you’re right, Joe used to be good friends with me. When we were kids, Joe said he was going to marry me when he got big. He don’t say that any more though. Guess he’s got too big. Tells me all about the fine ladies he meets in Vancouver and Victoria and up the coast. Wouldn’t ever give me a chance, though, to get to know how to talk good, and all that. Oh! I know I ain’t good at grammar. I wanted to be. Joe said schooling just spoiled girls, and I was best at home. Still, he talks about the ones that has the schooling.

“He started in telling me about his lady friends again, to-day. I didn’t want to know about them, so I just told him. I was mad, anyway; about him and you, I guess. He was mad, too. Said I was fresh. Grand-dad took your part against Joe. Said he liked you anyway. Then he took my part. He knows Joe, you bet.

“He says, ’That’ll do, Joe. You leave Rita be. She’s a good lass and you ain’t playin’ the game fair.’

“I didn’t hear any more, for I ran out. Didn’t go back either, till Joe cleared out.”

“What relation is Joe to the others, Rita?” I asked in puzzlement.

“Joe’s an orphan, same as me. His dad was grand-dad’s only son, who got killed in a blasting accident up the coast. Joe’s mother was a Swede. She died two months after Joe was born. Since Joe got moving for himself, he don’t stay around home very much. Sleeps mostly at the Camps or on the tugs. Says grandmother and grand-dad make him tired; says they’re silly fools, because, because, ”

Tears gathered in Rita’s eyes and she did not finish.

I let her pent-up emotion have free run for a while; probably because I was ill at ease and knew I should look an idiot and talk like an imbecile if I tried to console her, although I recalled having heard somewhere that it is generally best to let a woman have her cry out once she gets started.

At last Rita wiped her eyes and looked over at me.

“Guess you think me a baby, guess I am, too,” she said. “Never cried before that I have mind. Never had anybody to cry to.”

I smiled. And Rita smiled, a moist and trembling sort of smile in return.

“Joe Clark has been taking me, same as he takes most things, too much for granted. Thinks I don’t know nothing, because I’m up here at the Crescent and not been educated any more’n grandmother and grand-dad could teach me. But I’ve got feelings and I ain’t going to have anything more to do with him. Well, not till he knows how to treat me, same as I should be treated. Guess not then either. I don’t care now. I might not want him later, might hate him. I believe I shall, too.”

There was nothing of the soft, weepy baby about this young lady, and I could see from the flash in her dark eyes and the set of her mouth that she meant every word of what she said.

She was a dainty, pretty, and alluring little piece of femininity; and I could have taken her in my arms and hugged her, only I did not dare, for like as not she would have boxed my ears. All I could say was:

“Good for you, little girl. That’s the way to talk.”

She smiled, and in little more than no time at all she was back into her merry mood.

We chatted and laughed together at the window until the dusk had crept into darkness and Rita’s Isle had become merely a heavy shadow among the mists.

“I got to be getting back,” she said at last. “Can you fix up my groceries for me, if you please?”

I went into the store and packed together the few humble necessities which had been Rita’s excuse for coming over, although, I discovered later, that Rita was pretty much of a free agent and did not require an excuse to satisfy either her grandmother or her grandfather, both of whom trusted her implicitly.

Time went past quickly in there.

“Rita, it is almost dark. Will you let me accompany you across the Bay? I can fix a tow line behind for your little boat.”

“That would be nice,” she answered simply. “But I can see in the dark near as well as in the day time. I could row across there blindfold.”

As I paddled her over, I thought what a pity it was she could not talk more correctly than she did. It was the one, the only jarring, note in her entire make-up. But for that, she was as perfect a little lady as I had ever met.

Why not offer to teach her English? came the question to me; and I decided I would some day, but not just then. I would wait until I knew her a little better; I would wait until I had become better acquainted with her people; until the edge of my quarrel with Joe had worn off.

As we grounded on the shore, in front of Rita’s home, old Andrew Clark, short and sturdy in appearance and dour as any Scot could ever be, was on the beach. He came down to meet us and invited me up for a cup of tea.

I accepted the invitation, as I had a business project to discuss with the old man, something that should prove a benefit to the store and a financial benefit to him.

He led me into the kitchen, where his wife, a quiet, white-haired old lady with a loving face and great sad eyes, was sitting in an armchair darning.

She looked up as we entered.

Andrew Clark did not seek to introduce me, which I thought unmannerly. I turned round for Rita, but Rita had not followed us in; so I went forward and held out my hand. The dear old woman took it and smiled as if to say, “How sensible of you.”

“Sit down and make yourself at home,” she said kindly.

She spoke with the accent of an Eastern Canadian, although it was evident she had spent many years in the West.

Andrew Clark still held to his mother tongue, Lowland Scots. But his speech was also punctuated with Western slang and dialect.

Every article of furniture in that kitchen was home-made: chairs, table, picture frames, washstands, everything, and good solid furniture it was too.

The table was already set for tea. Mrs. Clark busied herself infusing the refreshment, then Rita came in and we all sat down together.

Andrew Clark’s grace was quite an event, as long as the ten commandments, sonorous, impressive and flowery.

I found he could talk, and talk well; and of many out-of-the-common subjects he displayed considerably more than a passing knowledge.

Margaret Clark, for that was the lady’s name, was quiet and seemed docile and careworn. She impressed me as being the patient bearer of a hidden burden.

There was something in the manner in which our conversation was conducted that I could not fathom. And I was set wondering wherein its strangeness lay. But, try as I liked, I could not reason it out. Everybody was agreeable and pleasant; Rita was almost gay. But at the back of it all, time and again it recurred to me, what is wrong here?

Not until the tea was over and I was seated between Andrew Clark and Margaret before the fire, did the mystery solve itself.

I approached the business part of my visit.

“Mr. Clark, you have two or three hundred chickens on the ranch here.”

“Ay,” he nodded reflectively, puffing at his pipe.

“You send all your eggs to Vancouver?”

“Ay!”

“How many do you send per week, on an average?”

“Ask Margaret, she’ll tell you.”

I turned and addressed Mrs. Clark, who looked over at her husband sadly.

“When the season is good, maybe fifty dozen a week; sometimes more, sometimes not so many, Mr. Bremner. Of course, in the winter, there’s a falling off.”

“I understand, Mrs. Clark.

“I have a big demand from the Camps for eggs,” I explained. “What I get, I have to order from Vancouver. Now, it costs you money to send your eggs to the market there, and it costs me money to bring mine from the market. Why cannot we create a home exchange? I could afford to pay you at least five cents a dozen more than you are getting from the city dealers, save you and myself the freight charges, and still I could be money ahead and I would always be sure of having absolutely fresh stock. Besides, I would pay cash for what I got.”

Andrew Clark nodded his head. “A capital plan, my boy, a capital plan. Man,” he exclaimed testily, “Joe, wi’ all his smartness, would never have thought o’ that in a thousand years.”

I laughed. “Why! there is no thinking to it, Andrew. It is simply the A.B.C. of arithmetic.

“What do you say to the arrangement then?” I asked.

“Better ask Margaret, she looks after the chickens. That’s her affair.”

I turned to the quiet old woman, and she heartily agreed with the plan.

“Would you ask Andrew, Mr. Bremner, if we had better not take supplies from your store in part payment for the eggs?” she inquired.

I put the question to Andrew as things began to dawn in my mind.

“Tell her it’ll suit me all right,” he agreed.

And so I acting as spokesman and go-between, the arrangement was made that I should use all the output of the chicken-farm and pay a price of five cents per dozen in advance of the Vancouver market price on the day of each delivery.

I rose to go, bidding good-night to the old people. Rita came down to the boat. Her face was anxious and she was searching mine for something she feared to find.

“Poor little girl,” I exclaimed, as I laid my hand on her head. “How long has this been going on between your grandmother and grand-dad?”

Her eyes filled.

“Oh! George, it ain’t grandmother’s fault. She’d give her soul if grand-dad would only speak to her. It’s killing her gradual, like a dry rot.”

“How long has it been going on?” I asked again.

“Oh! long’s I can remember; near about ten years. There was a quarrel about something. Grandmother wanted to visit some one in Vancouver. Grand-dad didn’t want her to go. At last he swore by the Word of God if she went he’d never speak to her again. Grandmother cried all night, and next day she went. When she came back, grand-dad wouldn’t speak to her; and he ain’t ever spoken to her since.”

“My God!” I exclaimed with a shudder.

“That’s why Joe ain’t struck on staying at the ranch. Says it’s like a deaf and dumb asylum.”

I didn’t blame Joe.

Good God! I thought. What a life! What an existence for this poor woman! What a hell on earth!

I became madly enraged at that dour old rascal, who would dare to sour a home for ten years because of a vow made in a moment of temper.

If any one deserved to be stricken dumb forever, surely he was that one! And saying a grace at the tea-table that would put a bishop to scorn, all on top of this: oh! the devilish hypocrisy of it!

Rita came close to me and laid her head lightly on my shoulder.

“Don’t be cross at grand-dad, George. He’s a mighty good grand-dad. There ain’t a better anywhere. In everything, but speaking to grandmother, he’s a good grand-dad.”

I could not trust myself to say much. I climbed into the boat and made to push off.

“A good grand-dad,” I exclaimed bitterly; “good mule, you mean.

“Rita, I know what would cure him.”

“No! you don’t, George, for you don’t know grand-dad.”

“Yes! I know what would cure him, Rita.”

“What?”

“A rope-end, well applied.” And I pushed off.

She ran into the water up to her knees and caught hold of the stern of my boat.

“You ain’t mad with me, George,” she cried anxiously.

“No, no! Rita. Poor little woman, why should I be?”

She pouted.

“Thought maybe you was.

“Well, if you ain’t, won’t you kiss me before you go, George?”

I leaned forward. She held up her face innocently and I kissed her lightly on the lips.

And to me, the kiss was as sweet and fresh as a mountain dew-drop.

She sighed as if satisfied that our friendship had held good, then she ran out of the water, up the beach and into the house.