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Beyond the Second Portage

“Oh dear, how I should love to go out!”

Katherine Radford stretched her arms wearily above her head as she spoke.  There had been five days of persistent snowfall; but this morning the clouds had broken, showing strips and patches of blue sky, and there was bright sunshine flooding the world again, with hard and sparkling frost.

“Why don’t you go?” demanded Phil, who was the youngest.  “Miles and me don’t mind having a holiday at all.”

“Speak for yourself if you like,” growled Miles, who was thirteen; “but I want to get this schooling business over and done with, so that I can start doing something useful.”

“And speak grammatically, please, or else keep silent.  You should have said, ’Miles and I’,” remarked Katherine with quite crushing dignity, as she turned from the window to take her place at the table once more.  Phil thrust his tongue in his cheek, after the manner beloved of small boys, and subsided into silence and an abstracted study of his spelling book.

The schoolroom was a small chamber, partitioned off from the store by a wall of boards so thin that all conversation about buying and selling, with the gossip of the countryside thrown in, was plainly audible to the pupils, whose studies suffered in consequence.  The stovepipe from the store went through this room, keeping it comfortably warm, and in winter ’Duke Radford and the boys slept there, because it was so terribly cold in the loft.

Katherine had come home from college in July, determined to teach school all winter, and to make a success of it, too, in a most unpromising part of the world.  But even the most enthusiastic teacher must fail to get on if there are no scholars to teach, and at present she had only Miles and Phil, her two brothers, as pupils.  This was most trying to Katherine’s patience, for, of course, if there had only been pupils enough, she could have had a properly constituted school, and a salary also.  She might even have had a regular schoolhouse to teach in, instead of being compelled to use a makeshift such as this.  But everything must have a beginning, and so she had worked on bravely through the autumn, hoping against hope for more pupils.  In the intervals between teaching the boys she kept the books for her father, and even attended to the wants of an occasional customer when ’Duke Radford was busy or absent.

The store at Roaring Water Portage was awkwardly placed for business.  It stood on a high bank overlooking the rapids, and when it was built, five years before, had been the centre of a mining village.  But the mining village had been abandoned for three years now, because the vein of copper had ended in a thick seam of coal, which, under present circumstances, was not worth working.  Now the nearest approach to a village was at Seal Cove, at the mouth of the river, nearly three miles away, where there were about half a dozen wooden huts, and the liquor saloon kept by Oily Dave when he was at home, and shut up when he was absent on fishing expeditions.

Although houses were so scarce, there was no lack of trade for the lonely store in the woods.  All through the summer there was a procession of birchbark canoes, filled with red men and white, coming down the river to the bay, laden with skins of wolf, fox, beaver, wolverine, squirrel, and skunk, the harvest of the winter’s trapping.  Then in winter the cove and the river were often crowded with boats, driven to anchorage there by the ice, and to escape the fearful storms sweeping over the bay.  The river was more favoured as an anchorage than the cove, because it was more sheltered, and also because there was open water at the foot of the rapids even in the severest winter, and had been so long as anyone could remember.

As the morning wore on, Katherine’s mood became even more restless, and she simply yearned for the fresh air and the sunshine.  She was usually free to go out-of-doors in the afternoons, because the boys only worked until noon, and then again in the evening, when it was night school, and Katherine did her best with such of the fisher folk as preferred learning to loafing and gambling in Oily Dave’s saloon.

Even Miles seemed stupid this morning, for he was usually such a good worker; while Phil was quite hopeless.  Both boys were bitten with the snow mania, and longing to be out-of-doors, in all the exhilarating brilliancy of sunshine, frost, and snow.  Noon came at last, books were packed away; the boys rushed off like mad things, while Katherine went more soberly across the store and entered the living-room, which was sitting-room and kitchen combined.

An older girl was there, looking too young to be called a woman, but who nevertheless was a widow, and the mother of the twin girls who were rolling on the floor and playing with a big, shaggy wolfhound.  She was Nellie, Mrs. Burton, whose husband had been drowned while sealing when the twins were twelve months old.  Mrs. Burton had come home to live then, and keep house for her father, so that Katherine might go to Montreal to finish her education.

“Did you see Father as you came through the store?” Mrs. Burton asked, as she rapidly spread the dinner on the table in the centre of the room, while Katherine joined in the frolic that was going on with the twins and the dog.

“No, he was not there,” Katherine answered.

“He wants you to go up to the second portage with him this afternoon.  Another boat got in this morning with some mails on board, and there are stores to be taken for Astor M’Kree,” said Mrs. Burton.

“That will be lovely!” cried Katherine, giving Lotta a toss up in the air, after which Beth had to be treated in a similar fashion to prevent jealousy.  “I am simply yearning to be outside in the sunshine and the cold.  I have been wishing all the morning that I were a man; then I could go off hunting, trapping, or even lumbering, and so breathe fresh air all day long.”

Mrs. Burton smiled.  “I expect if you were a man you would just do as other men do; that is, smoke a dirty little pipe all day long, and so never breathe fresh air at all.”

“That is not the sort of man I would be,” retorted Katherine, with a toss of her head.

Then she put the twins into their high chairs:  her father and the boys came in, and dinner began.  It was a hasty meal, as early dinner has to be when half of the day’s work lies beyond it, and in less than half an hour Katherine was getting into a thick pilot coat, fur cap, mittens, and a big muffler; for, although the sun was so bright, the cold was not to be trifled with.

’Duke Radford, short for Marmaduke, was a sombre-looking man of fifty.  Twenty-five years of pioneer life in the Keewatin country had worn him considerably, and he looked older than his years.  But he was a strong man still, and to-day he had loaded a sledge with stores to draw himself, while Katherine looked after the four great dogs which drew the other sledge.

The track for the first three miles was as bad as a track could be.  ’Duke Radford went first, to beat or pack the snow a little firmer for Katherine and the dogs; but even then every movement of her snowshoes sent the white powdery dust flying in clouds.  The dogs followed close behind, so close that she had often to show a whip to keep them back, from fear that they would tread on her snowshoes and fling her down.

It was five good long miles to the abode of Astor M’Kree, beyond the second portage, but the last two miles were easy travelling, over a firm level track.  “Astor M’Kree has been hauling timber or something over here to-day.  I wonder how he managed it?” called out Katherine, as her father’s pace on the well-packed snow quickened, while she flew after him and the dogs came racing on behind.  He shouted back some answer that was inaudible, then raced on at a great pace.  Those last two miles were pure enjoyment all round, and when they drew up before the little brown house of the boatbuilder, Katherine was sparkling, glowing, and rosy, with a life and animation which she never showed indoors.

Mrs. M’Kree was a worn-looking little woman, with three babies toddling about her feet, and she welcomed her visitors with great effusiveness.

“Well, now, I must say it is right down good of you to get through all this way on the very first fine day.  My word, what weather we’ve been having!” she exclaimed.  “I was telling Astor only last night that if we had much more of that sort I’d have to keep him on sawdust puddings and pine-cone soup.  That fetched a long face on to him, I can tell you; for it is downright fond of his food he is, and a rare trencherman too.”

“It is bad to run short of stores in keen weather like this,” said ’Duke Radford, who with the help of his daughter was bringing bags, barrels, and bundles of goods into the house from the two sledges, while the dogs rested with an air of enjoyment delightful to behold.

When the stores were all safely housed, Mrs. M’Kree insisted on their drinking a cup of hot coffee before they returned; and just as she was lifting the coffee pot from the stove her husband came in.  He was tall, thin, and sombre of face, as men who live in the woods are apt to be, but he had a genial manner, and that he was no tyrant could be seen from the way his children clung about his legs.

“Dear me, these youngsters!” he exclaimed, sitting down on the nearest bench with a child on each knee.  “I wish they were old enough to go to your school, Miss Radford, then I’d get some peace for part of the day at least.”

“I wish they were old enough, too,” sighed Katherine.  “It is really quite dreadful to think what a long time I have got to wait before all the small children in the neighbourhood are of an age to need school.”

“By which time I expect you won’t be wanting to keep school at all,” said Mrs. M’Kree with a laugh.  Then to her husband she said:  “Mr. Radford brought some letters, Astor; perhaps you’ll want to read them before he goes back.”

“Ah! yes, I’d better perhaps, though there will be no hurry about the answers, I guess, for this will be the last mail that will get through the Strait before the spring.”  He stood up as he spoke, sliding the babies on to the ground at his feet, for he could not read his letters with the small people clutching and clawing at his hands.  The others went on talking, to be interrupted a few minutes later by a surprised exclamation from the master of the house.

“Now, would you believe it!  The Company has been bought out!”

“What company?” asked ’Duke Radford.

“Why, the fishing-fleet owners, Barton and Skinner and that lot,” rejoined Astor M’Kree abstractedly, being again buried in his letter.  He was a boat-builder by trade, and this change in things might make a considerable difference to him.

“Who is it that has bought the company out?” demanded Mrs. M’Kree anxiously.  Life was quite hard enough for her already; she did not want it to become more difficult still.

“An Englishman named Oswald Selincourt,” replied Astor.  “He is rich, too, and means to put money into the business.  He wants me to have four more boats ready by the time the waters are open, and says he is coming himself next summer to see into matters a bit.  Now that looks hopeful.”

Katherine chanced at that moment to glance across at her father, and was startled by the look on his face; it was just as if something had made him desperately afraid.  But it was only for a moment, and then he had got his features into control, so she hastily averted her head lest he should see her looking, and think that she was trying to pry into what did not concern her.  He swallowed down the rest of his coffee at a gulp and rose to go.  But his manner now was so changed and uneasy that Katherine must have wondered at it, even if she had not caught a glimpse of that dreadful look on his face when Astor M’Kree announced the change in the ownership of the fishing fleet.

The journey home was taken in a different style from the journey out:  the two sledges were tied together, and both pairs of snowshoes piled on the hindmost; then, Katherine and her father taking their places on the first, the dogs started off at a tearing gallop, which made short work of the two miles of level track, and gave Katherine and her father plenty of occupation in holding on.  But when they reached the broken ground the pace grew steadier, and conversation became possible once more.

’Duke Radford began to talk then with almost feverish haste, but he carefully avoided any mention of the news contained in the boatbuilder’s letter, and a sickening fear of something, she knew not what, crept into the heart of Katherine and spoiled for her the glory of that winter afternoon.  The sun went down in flaming splendours of crimson and gold, a young moon hung like a sickle of silver above the dark pine forest, and everywhere below was the white purity of the fresh-fallen snow.

Supper was nearly ready when they got back to Roaring Water Portage, but there were two or three customers in the store, and Katherine went to help her father with them, while Miles unharnessed and fed the four dogs.  Oily Dave was one of the people gathered round the stove waiting to be served with flour and bacon, and it was his voice raised in eager talk which Katherine heard when she came back from the sitting-room into the store.

“If it’s true what they are saying, that Barton, Skinner, & Co. are in liquidation, then things is going to look queer for some of us when the spring comes, and the question will be as to who can claim the boats, though some of them ain’t much good.”

“I suppose that you’ll stick to your’n, seeing that it is by far the best in the fleet,” said another man, who had a deep, rumbling laugh.

Katherine looked at her father in dumb surprise.  She had been expecting him to announce the news of the fishing boats having been bought by the Englishman with the remarkable name, instead of which he was just going on with his work, and looking as if he had no more information than the others.

Lifting his head at that moment he caught his daughter’s perplexed glance, and, after a moment, said hastily:  “I wouldn’t be in too much hurry about appropriating the boats if I were you.”

“Why not?” chorused the listeners.

“Barton & Skinner have been bought out, and the new owner might not approve of his property being made off with in that fashion,” ’Duke Radford replied.

“Who’s bought it?  Who told you?  Look here, we want to know,” one man burst out impatiently.

“Then you had better go up to the second portage and ask Astor M’Kree,” rejoined ’Duke Radford slowly.  “It was he who told me about it, and he has got the order to build four more boats.”

“Now that looks like business, anyhow.  Who is the man?” demanded Rick Portus, who was younger than the others, and meant “to make things hum” when he got a chance.

’Duke Radford fumbled with the head of a flour barrel, and for a moment did not answer.  It was an agonizing moment for Katherine, who was entering items in the ledger, and had to be blind and deaf to what was passing round her, yet all the time was acutely conscious that something was wrong somewhere.

The head of the barrel came off with a jerk, and then ’Duke answered with an air of studied indifference:  “An Englishman, Astor M’Kree said he was; Selincourt or some such name, I think.”

A burst of eager talk followed this announcement, but, her entries made in the ledger, Katherine slipped away from it all and hurried into the sitting-room, where supper was already beginning.  But the food had lost its flavour for her, and she might have been feeding on the sawdust and pine cones of which Mrs. M’Kree had spoken for all the taste her supper possessed.  She had to talk, however, and to seem cheerful, yet all the time she was shrinking and shivering because of this mysterious mood displayed by her father at the mention of a strange man’s name.

’Duke Radford did not come in from the store until it was nearly time for night school, so Katherine saw very little more of him, except at a distance, for that evening; but he was so quiet and absorbed that Mrs. Burton asked more than once if he were feeling unwell.  She even insisted on his taking a basin of onion gruel before he went to bed, because she thought he had caught a chill.  He swallowed the gruel obediently enough, yet knew all the time that the chill was at his heart, where no comforting food nor drink could relieve him.