Read CHAPTER XXII of A Countess from Canada A Story of Life in the Backwoods, free online book, by Bessie Marchant, on ReadCentral.com.

A Business Offer

A fortnight slipped away.  August had come in, with lengthening nights, which sometimes had a touch of Arctic cold in them.  But it was glorious summer still, and although in those uncultivated wastes there was little harvest from the land, the harvest of the sea went merrily on.  Mary Selincourt was out and about again, limping a little at first, and leaning on a stick, but soon gaining strength enough to go about as usual; only now, made wise by experience, she took good care to avoid places of danger like the tideholes.

Since that evening of confidential talk with Katherine, Mary had honestly striven for the grace of self-forgetfulness; but the virtue is not learned in one lesson, nor yet in two, and she would probably have given up striving, through disgust at her own failures, if her pride had not been deeply stirred, and the obstinate part of her nature brought into full play.

Pleading hard work as an excuse, Katherine avoided her after that evening, from a secret dread of any more confidences.  This was easier than it otherwise would have been, owing to Mrs. Burton having taken the twins over to Fort Garry to spend a week with Mrs. M’Crawney, which left Katherine with the burden of housekeeping on her shoulders in addition to the business of the store.

Jervis Ferrars came up sometimes in the evening to sit and talk with the invalid on every subject under the sun, from lunar rainbows to earthquakes, but he got little chance of speech with Katherine, who was always feverishly busy over some task which absorbed her whole attention.

The day after Mrs. Burton came back from Fort Garry another vessel arrived from Liverpool to anchor off Seal Cove.  Only one more boat would be likely to get in before winter came again, and when an occasion is so rare it is likely to be made much of.  The captain held a sort of reception on board, to which everyone in Seal Cove was invited.  The M’Krees came down from the second portage with all their babies; Mrs. Jenkin appeared in finery which no one even dreamed she possessed; and Oily Dave was magnificent in a frock-coat of shiny black cloth, worn over a football sweater of outrageous pattern.

Katherine and her father were the only stay-at-homes, but ’Duke Radford was not fit for excursions of that sort, and if Katherine had gone Miles must have stayed at home, which would have been rather hard on a boy as fond of ships as he was.  But although everyone went to the reception, some of them did not stay long, and one of the first to leave was Mr. Selincourt, who had himself rowed up river and landed at the store to ask Katherine if she would give him a cup of tea.

“With great pleasure.  Please go in and talk to Father; I shall be free in a few minutes, and then I will come and make tea for you both,” Katherine answered, holding open the door between house and store, while she smiled upon the visitor, who was more welcome than he knew.  She was serving an Indian squaw, who demanded bright calico, ’bacco, and as much of anything else as she could get, for fourteen beaver skins partly dressed, and as soft as velvet.

Beaver, even in that district, was becoming very scarce.  Indeed, Katherine was sure that these skins must have come a long distance, probably seventy or eighty miles, from some part of unknown Keewatin, where no foot of white man ever trod, and where even the red man only went at trapping time.  She bought the skins, of course, adding to the purchase price a box of chocolates with a picture on the lid, a treasure which set the red woman in a state of the most complacent satisfaction.

When the squaw had departed, Katherine carefully locked away the skins before going in to make tea, for the Indians were adepts at roguery, and if by any means the woman could have stolen them, she would probably have returned to the store to offer them in barter again within the next hour.  Katherine had been caught like that often enough to have become exceedingly careful.  She was talking about the exceeding beauty of the skins as she watched the kettle beginning to boil, and Mr. Selincourt immediately said that he should like to see them.

“Will you wait until to-morrow or the next day?  Then I will show you all that we have got.  But it is rather dirty work pulling them out and unrolling them, and I have just put on a clean frock,” Katherine said, laughing at the idea of putting a possible customer off in such a fashion.

“I will wait certainly, and if the day after tomorrow will suit you, I will come then and see if you have anything which Mary might like me to buy for her.  By the way, my men are behind with the mail this time, a week late, and I am still uncertain whether or no we shall have to go down to Montreal for the winter,” Mr. Selincourt said, as he helped Katherine to put cups and saucers on the table.

“If they had come in time, would you have left by this boat?” Katherine asked.  The question of winter quarters had been constantly talked of during the last week or two, but nothing had as yet been decided upon, owing to the delay in the coming of the two men with the expected mail.

“No, this boat will go straight to Liverpool.  The next will come round from Quebec, and return there before going to England; and that must be our way south, I think, unless we decide to return as we came, by river and trail.”

“We shall all miss you very much,” Katherine said regretfully; for the pleasant, kindly man whom she had feared so greatly at first had been such a good neighbour that his absence would be keenly felt.

“I should not like it if I were not missed; but I am not going for long, remember.  With the opening of the waters I shall be back again, to settle for good, I hope.  England is a fine country to be born in, but Canada is the land of my choice, and I have never yet seen a part of it that I like better than these Keewatin wilds; it is unspoiled nature here,” Mr. Selincourt said, rubbing his hands with great enthusiasm.

“Wait until you have tried a winter here, before speaking too positively about it; you may find the isolation too dreadful to be borne.  We who are used to it do not mind so much, but a person accustomed to daily papers and frequent posts would seem entirely out of the world,” she said, thinking of the long, long nights, when the wolves howled in the woods, and the silent weeks when the falls were frozen; and she wondered how this man, who had been brought up in cities, could bear to think of such a life.

He laughed in a cheery, unconvinced fashion.  “I have thought of all that:  but I can live without daily papers, or letters either, if need be; although, if Roaring Water Portage develops as I believe it is going to do, without doubt we shall get a regular postal service of a sort.  If it can’t be done any other way, I will do it myself.  Only I must have a bigger house, for in winter we should be very much cramped in that little hut over the river.”

Katherine nodded thoughtfully.  “Yes, you would want a big room for giving parties and entertainments.  Mary would make a lovely hostess, and the fisher folk would feel as if they were living in a new world.  Oily Dave’s dreadful whisky would have no chance at all against the attractions offered by your big house.”

Mr. Selincourt frowned.  “That drink-selling of his is the thorn among my roses of content, and I don’t see how to put it down just at present.  I can’t, from sheer decency, send the man packing, just after he has helped to save my daughter from a dreadful death.  Of course I know that he only helped, and that you could and would have done it without him if he had not been there, still, he was there, and I must remember it in his favour, although he has charged pretty heavily for his services.”

“That is my fault, I fear,” Katherine said in laughing apology.  “But I know what Oily Dave is, and that the one thing to move him is money; so when Mrs. Jenkin told me he was the only man about, I told her to say to him he must come at once, for there was money in the work.”

“You were quite right, and if you had promised him a hundred dollars I would cheerfully have paid it,” Mr. Selincourt replied; and then he turned to talk to ’Duke Radford, who had been sitting all this time with his head resting on his hand, and taking no notice at all of what the others were talking about.

But when the tea-things were cleared away, and Katherine had gone back to the store again, Mr. Selincourt followed her and commenced talking afresh of what he meant and hoped to make of that particular part of the world in the course of the next two or three years.  He had a special purpose in coming up river that afternoon, for he wanted to consult Katherine on a business point, and did not feel very sure of his ground.

Being a straightforward man in all things, however, he stated bluntly what he had to say.  “I want to buy your land, if I can, Miss Katherine, and I am prepared to pay you any price in reason that you like to ask me for it.  I understand that your father owns the river frontage for about a mile on this side of the water, which is practically from here to the swamps, and it is land that I should very much like to possess.”

“But it is not mine to sell,” she said blankly, too much taken by surprise to know whether she felt pleased or offended by the suggestion.

“I know it is not.  But your father cannot be approached on any question of buying or selling, so I had to come to you to see how you felt about it, and I want you to think the matter over,” Mr. Selincourt replied.

“All the thinking in the world cannot alter the position so far as I am concerned,” said Katherine, with a little gesture of weariness.  “Our father is apparently a hopeless invalid, afflicted more in mind than in body, yet no really qualified doctor has seen him, to certify his unfitness for managing his own affairs.  We, his children, are all under age, except Nellie.  By the way, why did you not go to her? she is the eldest.  Though, even if you had, she could only have spoken as I have done.”

“I came to you because you stand in your father’s place, carrying on business in his name,” Mr. Selincourt said quietly.  “And if you felt that it would be for the good of yourself and the others to have some easier life than this, it would be very much my pleasure to help you in realizing your wishes.”

“But how?” asked Katherine, who failed to see how her father’s property could be disposed of without consulting him, while he was in life, and they, his children, were all under age save one.

Mr. Selincourt smiled.  “Things can mostly be managed when one wants them to be done.  If you and the others believed it would be for the good of the family to sell your father’s property, we could bring a doctor up here to certify to his unfitness for business.  Your sister would have to be made acting trustee for the rest of you, and so the thing would be done.”

Katherine shook her head in a dubious fashion, saying:  “I will talk to the others about it if you wish, but I do not think it will make any difference; we must just go on as we are doing, and make the best of things as they are.  Of course I don’t know much about business, except what I have picked up anyhow, for my profession is teaching; but we have done very well since the work has been dumped into our hands, and our profits this year are in excess of any preceding one’s.”

“That is very encouraging.  But then you would succeed in anything you undertook, because you put your whole heart into it, and that is the secret of success,” Mr. Selincourt said warmly.  After a momentary hesitation he went on:  “Mind you, this is a business offer that I am making you, and even though I might give you double or treble what your land would fetch in the open market at the present time, I should still look to get a fifty-per-cent return on my invested capital, although I suppose it is very unbusinesslike of me to tell you so.”

“But how would you do it?” demanded Katherine.

“My dear young lady, I believe there is a fortune in every acre of ground on either side of the river,” said Mr. Selincourt excitedly.  “Mary is keen on geology, as you know, and I have studied minerals pretty closely.  We have found abundant traces of iron, of copper, and of coal.  Now, the last is more important than the other two, for without it they would be practically useless, so far from civilization; but with it they may be worked to immense advantage.”

“Would not the working be rather costly at the first?” Katherine asked, with a sensation as if her breath were being taken away.

“Doubtless!  It has already been proved, over and over again, that if you want to get a fortune from under the earth you must first put a fortune in it,” he replied.

“But suppose, after you had put it in, you found yourself disappointed in your returns discovered, perhaps, that there was no fortune awaiting you in the ground after all?  What would you do then? for of course you could not get back what you had spent,” said Katherine, with an air of amusement, for to her the statement of there being a fortune in every acre of that barren ground sounded like fiction pure and simple.

“In that case I should probably have to take off my coat, roll up my sleeves, and go to work to earn a living for myself and Mary; but I am not afraid of having to do it just yet,” he answered, laughing.  Then as a customer entered the store he went off to talk to ’Duke Radford, who was sitting outside in the sun, and Katherine did not see him again that evening.

As in duty bound, she decided to take counsel with the others, although her own mind was fully made up with regard to Mr. Selincourt’s offer.  Life in some other more civilized place would probably be easier and pleasanter for herself.  Such work as she had to do now was labour for men, and by no means suitable for women or girls.  But it was not herself she had to think of first in this case; Miles and Phil were the ones to be considered here, and she determined that the light in which Miles regarded the question should be the standpoint from which she would view it too.  By this time she was quite satisfied in her own mind of her ability to keep the business working in a profitable manner; but if she were to venture upon earning a living for the six who were dependent upon her efforts in some other way, she would not be so sure of herself, and to doubt might be to fail.

It was not easy to get time to confer all together in that busy household, but by good fortune a chance occurred that very evening, and Katherine took it thankfully enough, knowing that it might be long before such an opportunity came again.  Her father had gone to bed, tired out with his day of sitting and walking in the sunshine, and was sleeping peacefully.  The twins had also been put to rest, and were droning themselves to sleep in a drowsy sing-song duet with which they always filled the house before subsiding into their nightly slumber.

“Don’t go to bed for a few minutes, Phil; I want to talk to you.  We have got to have a family conclave,” said Katherine, as Phil, with a mighty yawn, was turning his steps to the ladder which led to the loft.

“What’s a conclave?  And it is no use going on at me about that bucket of water I tilted over down the ladder on to Nick Jones; it stood so handy, and wanted such a little push, that I just could not help doing it,” the boy answered in a sullen tone.  He had been in mischief on board the steamer, escaping with a warning from the captain and a lecture from Mrs. Burton; but he was by no means repentant yet, although perhaps a trifle apprehensive of the form of reprisal which Nick Jones might choose to take.

Katherine laughed.  She had been in mischief herself too often when at Phil’s age not to feel sympathy with him on the score of the prank he had played that afternoon.  It was this same sympathetic understanding of their moods and actions which gave her so much influence with the boys, enabling her to twist them round her little finger, as Miles expressed it.

“A conclave is a talk, discussion, or argument, but it has nothing to do with your getting into mischief, Phil.  It was a great temptation, as you say, and I expect that in your place I should have longed to do the same.  Only there is another side from which to view the business, and that is the side of Nick Jones.  No doubt he feels a bit ruffled, and if he thrashes you for your impudence, or ducks you in the river, why, you will just have to take it lying down.”

“He has got to catch me first,” said Phil, with that disposition to swagger in which he delighted to indulge.  Then he burst out eagerly, as he slid his arm round her waist and leaned his head back against her arm:  “It was truly lovely, Katherine, and you would have laughed until you choked if you had been there.  Nick was just setting his foot on the bottom of the ladder, and his face was all smuts and smudges, so that he looked as if he had not washed for a fortnight; he had got his mouth open too, wide open, and I guess that was the first mouthful of clean water that he has swallowed for a good long while past.”

“You are really a shocking boy, and if you get a ducking it will be only what you deserve,” said Katherine, who was laughing at this picture of the discomfiture of Nick Jones.  “But sit down here and let us get our business settled, because we are all tired and longing for bed.”

“I’m not tired,” said Miles, shutting the book he had been reading with a sigh.  It always seemed to be time to go to bed when he wanted to sit up, just as it was always morning and time to get up when he was in the full enjoyment of being in bed.

“But you will be tired to-morrow, and no one who is weary can do the best that is in him,” said Katherine gently.