"WHAT do you think of it, Doctor?"
The Young Doctor had just stepped from his buggy in front of the drug store in the main street of Askatoon. The quizzical question was followed by a round of laughter from a half-dozen noon-timers.
“I think it’s mental deficiency,” satirically answered the Young Doctor who, dusty from his drive and weary of face and mind from a long vigil at a bedside and a twenty-mile journey, was cheerful and dryly playful as ever. He had no idea what they were talking about.
“Shure. it looks like it,” said old Patsy Kernaghan, “for what would he be doin' here?"
“What would who be doin’ here, Patsy, and what looking like what?” asked the Young Doctor, with the look of One who suffered fools gladly and for some reason suffered this fool more gladly than others.
Patsy bridled. “Bill Minden that’s who! An’ the top of his head must be gone on’ the inside of his-mind, that he’d be settlin’ here. What would he be doin’ here but watchin’ the wheat grow! Though to be sure there’s three trains a day an’ it’s a sight to see y’r honor busy in the lambin’ season.”
This last reference to the Young Doctor’s activity in shepherding the passage of new arrivals into the world and incidentally into Askatoon, produced a gale of laughter.
“Well, you’ll not be thinkin’ much of lambin’ yourself, Patsy,” responded the Young Doctor. “Whatever Mr. William Minden does, at your age and in your debased state of health yourself’ll be afther thinking of black horses with long tails and a carriage for one only.” He always put on a slight Irish brogue when talking to Patsy Kernaghan.
“Aw, no, Doctor dear,” drawled the old man, “let thim ride behind the black harses as never rode before. I’ll be gettin’ to me long home in a wheel-barra! There’s more than one of thim that’s got safe past you’ll be glad to help put out o’ sight what you’ve left of me.”
“No, no, I’ll keep you alive just to hear you talk in the foreign language you call your mother-tongue. Patsy,” smiled the Young Doctor, having tied the halter of his grey mare to the hitching-post by the sidewalk. “But who is Mr. William Minden, and where does he come from?”
Two or three of the group sniggered and winked at each other, for who had not heard of Bill Minden, the notorious train and stage-coach robber, who faithfully kept the Sabbath day holy, and as faithfully made unholy every other day of the week when it served his purpose so to do. They knew’ that the Young Doctor loved to hear Patsy Kernaghan talk, for they both had come from the Emerald Isle.
“Mr. William Minden!” remarked Patsy scornfully. “Is it ye want to insult a stranger in the place?-—I ask ye that. The wide wurruld knows Bill Minden as Bill Minden, without anny handle to his name and no William at all.”
“Never heard of him,” retorted the Young Doctor. “What’s he done? Who is he?"
“Never hard of him!” exclaimed Kernaghan. “Never hard of Bill Minden! Wasn’t it two years ago he stuck up the express down in Oregon? Didn't he rob the stage-coach a year ago at Lancy, and didn’t-’
“That wasn*t proved,” interjected a voice.
“An’ the express business wasn’t proved aither,” declared Kernaghan; “an’ after Bill left the court with tears in his beautiful eyes and not a stain on his character, didn’t he own up to it, and give five hundred dollars to an orphan children’s home! Always doin’ that kind of thing, isn’t he, Father Roche—I’ll say that of him, though he’s a Protis’ant,” he added with the air of doing a brave thing.
He had addressed his last words to a new arrival in the group round him—-a priest, the much beloved priest who guarded and guided his very small Catholic flock at Askatoon.
“Ah, yes, yes. Kernaghan. He also gave five hundred dollars to the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament for the poor of Portland at the same time,” responded Father Roche, who smilingly acknowledged the respectful salutations of the crowd.
“Thoughtful William,” remarked the Young Doctor, shaking hands with Father Roche. “We could find use for his sympathies at Askatoon if he came our way.”
PATSY threw up his hands. “Come our way! Aw, Doctor dear, what’ve I been savin’ all this time, but that Bill Minden’s here—here now in Askatoon ! Settled here—come to stay—brought his ox and his ass an’ everything that’s his.”
“Or not, as the case may be,” rejoined the Young Doctor. “Where is he camped?”
“Shure, he’s at the Sunbright Hotel— where else would a rich man like him be stayin’?”
The Young Doctor looked at Kernaghan quizzically. “Now how do you know he’s rich? Seen the inside of his till—eh?” Kernaghan grinned. “Aw, Doctor dear, does anyone think a man that’s opened as manny tills as Bill Minden wouldn’t have a full one of his own?”
“And what do you think he’s come here for?” continued the Young Doctor. “You have a great head, Patsy.. Now give it a chance. What is Bill Minden, the train robber, doing in Askatoon?”
Patsy reflected a minute scratching his head behind the ear. “Well, there’s manny a busy man that's never had time to look at himself, an’ he just steals away somewhere to a backwater to see his own face.” Father Roche smiled broadly. “Solitude and repentance, is that it, Kernaghan ?”
Before Patsy could reply Jonas Billings, the livery-stable keeper, intervened. “Say, you call Askatoon a backwater, do you? Nothin’ doin’, eh? You’ll get yourself disliked, Kernaghan, my friend.”
“Shure, wouldn’t it seem like a backwater to Minden,” answered Patsy. “A man that’s used to stoppin’ a train or holdin’ up a stage-coach’d think Askatoon was a cimetairy.”
“Has anyone seen him?” asked the Young Doctor. “What sort of a looking man is he?”
ONE OR two mouths opened, but Patsy was not to be denied.
“Seen him ! Isn’t his face as well known as that of the Pope! Hasn’t his forty-graf been in the papers for manny a year? Didn’t I see him meself step aff the train here, an’ didn't I look to see if he'd carry it away with him, ingine and all? Didn’t I see him in Vancouver? What’s he like? Well, his head’s as big as a cushion, as black as jet—not a grey hair annywhere. Did ye ivir see pictures of the Dook o’ Norfolk? Well, Bill Minden’s like him, with a big black, bushy beard, spread out more than the Dook’s, with beautiful black, bushy eyebrows that the Dook ’d have too if he let his grow—shure, I saw the Dook wance when he come to Maynooth. About five foot eleven Bill is— about the height of the Dook; but whin it comes to shoulders — aw well there -y’are, the Dook just draps away to nawthing at all, an’ he’s a fine chist too. Bill has a chist like a house and a head like the cupoly at the tap of St. Peter's at Rome. Shure, its a gran’ sight to look at him. None o’ your sky-scrapers, but somethin’ like the fellow they called Atlas that carried the wurruld on his back—a hell of a fine fellow!”
He could get no further. A gust of laughter shook the crowd.
Patsy waved a hand at them all contemptuously. “He’s a fine man that— whativir his past, he's a fine man. What was the wurrd he asked me afther he learned that I was Irish? ‘Which is the way to the Cat'lic church?’ he sez to me, an’ I told him. ‘Which is the way to the hotel?’ he sez to me—‘to the Sunbright Hotel?* he sez to me;—an’ I told him.”
“Yes, but which, way did he go?” asked the Young Doctor.
“He wint to the hotel—the man had to have a bed and a meal, hadn’t he? But it shows the heart of him whin he asks his way to the Cat-lic church first.”
“I have not noticed him in the vicinity,” interjected Father Roche with mild irony.
“Bill Minden isn’t a Catholic,” grunted Billings, the livery-stable proprietor. “Say, I remember him on the Siwash River ten years ago. He’s a Protes’ant, but he don’t hold by church goin’. I’ve seen him sit right out on the stoop in front of the Mosquito Hotel at Siwash Junction, on a Sunday mornin’, reading his Bible with a church not three hundred yards away, holdin’ his own meetings. He’d sit there all mornin’ readin’ the Bible—the Old Testament it was; and p’raps sometimes he’d let out some commentory on What he read — maybe about Elijah or Nebuchednozzar or Boaz or Daniel or Abr'm; an’ he wouldn’t have any argyment about it. He’d just lay down the law, an’ ye had to take it. He carries that little black Bible round with him wherever he goes. He’d read it on Sunday morning solemn and satisfied, an’ on a Monday night he’d stick up a train all alone—walk right through a car scoopin’ jewels and cash as he went. I suppose readin’ on a Sunday mornin’ about Saul and David havin’ killed their thousands and their tens of thousands, give him the courage to spoil the Philistines on a Monday night. Nobody ever laughed at Bill for doin’ what he done. It wasn’t pretendin’. It suited him; he gloated on it; it was wine and milk to him. When he was in jail at Portland the learned, holy doctors used to come to convert him. Say, what a massacre it was when Bill turned his guns on ’em from Deuteronomy to Malachi ! Start him on the Old Testament, get him in the gates of the holy places here in Askatoon, and see what he’ll do. Why, that Bill Minden, train robber and roadman, knows the Bible from Genesees to Luke, same as I know the road to Starwalt’s saloon. Ez fur ez I can make out, regardless of his religion, Bill’s real—all wool and two yards wide.”
“Then what’s he doin’ in Askatoon?” remarked Rigby, the chemist, in the doorway, at which there was further laughter.
"THE Young Doctor fanned himself with his straw hat and looked musingly at Kernaghan. “Patsy,” said he, “we’ve got a problem here; it’s the problem of sitting on both sides of the fence at once. From Bill Minden's past habits I gather that here at Askatoon well find him painting the town red on a Monday, and visiting the hospital, the jail, the prayer-meeting and the schools on a Tuesday. So far as I can see he’ll have two mottoes. One will be, ‘Licenesd to drink wine, beer and other spirituous and fermented liquors,’ and the other will be ‘Home, sweet home.’ Patsy, we shall have to keep an eye on this Minden.”
Patsy nodded. “Faith, that’s so. Now what was the first thing he done after he got to the hotel? The first thing he done was to march straight aff to the school— to the Central School. So you’re right, Doctor dear. An’ I wint with him—that’s to say I wint behind him, walkin’ in his wake. There he stood and watched the children comin’ out of school—shure, it was only an hour ago. An’ he smiled at thim an’ patted their heads an’ give away —aw, well he give away twenty or thirty five-cint pieces. Whin Miss Finley, the head teacher, come out—that’s a fine girl, Cora Finley, a beautiful, strappin’ girl, with handsome face an’ an eye that’d light up an underground cave—whin she passed him standin’ by the gate, he raised his hat aginst her, an’ as nice a word he spoke of good-day-to-ye as ivir was spoke annywhere. Thin he watched her and watched her after she’d laughed back an answer at him, till she was out of sight by turnin’ the carner. Now a man that’ll do that, that’ll just straight to a schoolhouse almost before he’s had time to take aff his boots in the town, well, that’s a man ye’ll have to think about twice. It’s my opinion he’ll be an outstandin’ figure in the place.”
“Let’s hope he won’t be a figure in an outstanding debt,” remarked Father Roche quietly.
“Aw, there’s manny a Protis’ant that’s a good man—savin’ your prisince,” replied Patsy turning to Father Roche and misreading his mind.
“Do you know, Father Roche,” said the Young Doctor musingly, ‘ if we only knew exactly why a man did some certain thing in his life — perhaps some very small thing—we would know his whole character? Now, perhaps, if we knew exactly why Bill Minden went to that school this afternoon we should have a book of revelations.”
“Well, there he is now. You can ask him,” declared Patsy. “That’s him on the other side of the street.”
SLOWLY, with a kind of loose dignity and yet with a smack of assertion, owing to a curious bending of the legs, Bill Minden was approaching across the way. There was something singularly self-contained and self-sufficient about the man, yet there was nothing repellent. Indeed, there was a unique kindliness—the kindliness of a chieftain or a patriarch—in the expression of his hard-bitten face. He took no notice of the crowd watching him, and appeared not to see them. On the other side of the street, almost opposite the group of gossips, were a horse and buggy. On the seat of the buggy was a dog of some size and a marked ferocity of appearance. While Minden was passing the buggy he stepped towards it, hold out his hand as though to stroke the dog. A voice behind him suddenly called out, “Don’t touch him ; he’ll bite," as the sullen brute raised its head. Without an instant’s hesitation. Minden’s hand went quietly out above the dog’s body as he murmured something, and then slowly found the head and ears. The action had been very swift yet , and the voice had been monotonously even, with a curious, rough melody. Presently the snarl left the dog’s mouth, the teeth ceased to show, and he wagged his tail as Minden turned with a smile to its terrified owner.
“Like a dog I had once,” he said, and moved on.
As he did so, Jonas Billings shouted, “Hooray!”
Minden turned and twenty hands were waved in greeting across the street towards him. He waved back nonchalantly and passed on his way.
THE REASON WHY.
THE good humor which marked Minden’s entrance into the life of Askatoon continued through the months that followed. His habits were commendable. He neither drank, nor chewed tobacco and even his enemies were forced to acknowledge that his outer conduct was above suspicion. He interested himself conspicuously in good works, though, in spite of his apparent honest sympathy, there was an inevitable feeling abroad that his entry into this field was like the invasion of a millinery shop by a buffalo. That, however, did not prevent every friend of every charity from “bleeding” him successfully. It was noted that never but once did he go to church or prayer-meeting. He had asked Patsy Kernaghan the way to the Catholic church on the day of his arrival, but there the matter ended, though Patsy still regarded the incident with almost superstitious reverence. Of a Sunday morning at the Sunbright Hotel, however, Minden sat on the verandah wearing his best coat and adorned by a collar; at other times, because of his heavy beard, he wore nothing so useless as a collar; and in the presence of all and sundry he read his black leather-bound Bible. There was no lurking irony or suggestive self-consciousness in his looks as he entered upon, or as he continued, his task. It was done as naturally as eating a meal, and he took no notice of those who gazed at him. If, however, some natural son of Adam engaged him in conversation on some scriptural topic—particularly of the Old Testament—he did not fail to lay down the sacred law according to William Minden. assisted by the prophets major and minor.
Once only a stranger ventured to scoff. He had come from the Border, had cheered himself with pregnant refreshment and had then begun to chaff the quiescent Bill. At last he asked Bill to give him a tip for the Heavenly race, and added that Jordan was a hard road to travel. Whereupon Bill rose, laid down his Bible gently and said, “You shall have the tip, my son,” and with his foot catching the feet and ankle of the scoffer, tipped him over the verandah-rail into a barrel of rainwater. As the scoffer scrambled out, raging and bedraggled, Bill, leaning over the verandah, said, “You poisonous pimp of the pampas, if it wasn’t the Sabbath I’d carve your cursed cuticle!”
Though the phrases Bill used were so sensationally picturesque and gave evidence of finished preparation, they were, on the contrary, impromptu. They represented a natural gift, developed by long practice, for manufacturing strange phrases and oaths. This gift had been a real asset in his life at Askatoon. It had been used at first privately, but it ultimately achieved him a reputation at a public meeting called in the interest of cheaper freight rates on the railway. There, his choice of phrases, happily emphasized by a little polite profanity, started him on a popular career as a public man. There were those who opposed his progress, but they were highly religious people, mostly newcomers from the east, who regarded his criminal career “with horror, and who disbelieved that a man with such a past could be trusted until he had been officially saved by Divine Grace. Joined with them in this feeling was the mother of Cora Finley, the young teacher to whom Minden had spoken on the day of his arrival.
MRS. FINLEY had set her face against Minden ever since Cora came home telling of the strange but interesting man who had watched her and the school children leave the school, the day’s work done. Mrs. Finley’s agitation when she afterwards saw Minden, and her subsequent marked antipathy, might reasonably have been due to the fact that she was very religious and resented the interest he took in the schools, and, incidentally, in her popular offspring.
There was nothing pronounced in Minden’s interest in the girl. He was always respectful to her, indeed almost ostentatiously so; and though he visited other schools regularly, he visited the Central School, at which she taught, far more often than any other. Recitations were part of each Friday’s programme in the schools, and he not only listened to these recitations, but at last told stories himself—yarns of his own life, expurgated and edited for the occasion. They were adventures of surprising interest—sensational incidents clothed in his own vernacular, decorated by his alliterative facility. A close observer would have noticed that while he was thus engaged, though he appeared not to look at Cora (who welcomed his coming each week with almost unreasonable pleasure) he seemed yet to be conscious when her eyes were on him. or when her attention was diverted, apprehending all she did by feeling rather than by sight.
There were parents who objected to these visitations, but the majority were tickled, as they colloquially said, at an ex-criminal and notorious adventurer playing the part of school visitor, cheerfully supported him and put to rout his critics.
One day, however, something made him more than ever the talk of the town. It was the announcement that he would stand for the office of school-trustee. It was made only a few days before the election for trustees, and not in all the days that Askatoon had known was there such a day as that in which the election occurred. He was determined to have the right to visit the schools with or without the approval of the “pious pedantics,” as he called them.
“I see what’s in his mind,” said Patsy Kernaghan to the Young Doctor.
“You have a wonderful eye, Patsy, responded the other. “There’s no good of us wearing clothes at all; you see right through folks.”
Patsy scratched the top of his head with his thumb. "Aw, Doctor, it’s only a fleabite to what Bill Minden means to do. If he gets in as trustee—an’ he will— for there’s not twenty women in the place ’ll go agin him, an’ iviry man as is a man will go for him, then he’ll stand for mayor an’ run the dam place like a switchman at a junction. He won’t talk; he’ll just pull the lever, and there it'll all be done what he wants to be done, as aisy as aisy. He'll want the Education Committee to go on this track ; he'll want the Lightin’ Committee to go on that track; an’ the Sanitary Committee on another track; an’ he won’t talk; he’ll switch the lot of thim where he wants thim. He'll be Mayor—that’s what he’ll be; but man alive, won’t it be fun whin, mebbe, the Judge that thried him for stickin’ up a coach 'll visit the place, an’ the Governor that signed his pardon 'll be here to pay us a visit! Who'll be receivin’ thim— who’ll be receivin’ thim? Why, the new school-trustee, the man that’s goin’ to be Mayor—Bill Minden, who’s stuck up as many trains an’ coaches as he’s got fingers an’ toes; Bill Minden, thats got money in more banks than wan, and God help thim if they don’t take care of his monney!”
The Young Doctor smiled and patted Kemaghan’s shoulder. “You’re a wonderful little fellow, Kernaghan. You’ve got a long eye, and see far ahead; and Minden wouldn’t make a bad Mayor either. I think he'll make a good school-trustee, too; but have you forgotten they’re going to elect a Bishop when the Diocesan Synod of the English church meets here next month? Come now, Patsy, why shouldn’t he stand for Bishop?”
Patsy scratched his head again. “Aw well, for a Protis’ant Bishop that ’d be all right It doesn’t require anny larnin’ to be a Protis’ant Bishop. There’s no layin’ on of hands for wan av thim. They just talk of grace of Hivin an’ the outpourin’ of the spirit. Then the women weep and the men cough in their hands when they’re lectured—an’ why not Bill Minden? I’d as leave see him a Bishop as a Mayor.”
The Young Doctor’s eyes twinkled. “Well, so would I, Kernaghan. I wouldn’t draw much distinction. I’d trust Minden just as much in one office as the other.”
“Well, y’r honor, that’s not saying how much ye' trust him, is it?
The Young Doctor’s lips gave a quirk. “Do you hear anything against him, Patsy; anything you can lay your hands on since he came to Askatoon?”
“That’s it, that’s it,” answered the little —from Cork; “there’s nawthin’ that aanybody can lay hands on. Wipin’ out his n»T*i what he’s doin’ now needs no pinince; hut leadin’ the life that he’s
leadin’ now, isn’t it a burnin’ shame they won’t take him as he is—I mean the Methodies, the Protis’ants and the new comers! They won’t believe in him till he’s been saved at the ‘marcy seat,’ as the\ callit.”
THE TWINKLE quickened in the Young Doctor’s eye. “Well, but won’t there be a chance for that? Doesn’t the big Methodist Camp-meeting begin soon out at Mayo—Nolan Doyle’s place? What are all the big tents for? Isn’t the Rev. Ephraim Masterman, the great revivalist, coming to save our souls and put Father Roche’s nose out of joint?”
Kernaghan sniffed. “D’ye think Bill Minden d'bellow out his pinitince at what they call a ’prothracted meetin’? Aw no, Doctor dear. We’ll just go back to the idee I started with, and it’s this; Bill Minden ’ll be elected school trustee and when that's done he’ll be elected Mayor, and whin that's done-”
“Whin the town's done—brown, goodbye to William Ecclesiasticus Minden,” remarked the Young Doctor provokingly.
Kernaghan protested with hands and head. “D’ye think Minden’ll go back to the ould ways of him—to the train robbin’ and sticking up the coach? D’ye think he hasn’t enough money to live on without that? I’ve hard he has a hundred thousand dollars in the bank. That’s a lot o’ money. Can’t a man stay honest on a hundred thousand dollars?”
At that moment several wagons went trailing past, carrying great piles of tent cloth, stakes and ropes. Kernaghan stared at them with swiftly-rising color. In religion he was a fanatic, and would have gone to the stake to defend the doctrine of transubstantiation or papal infallibility. The usual course of religious life in the town did not disturb him, but there was something so aggressive in this special spectacular effort of the heretics to advance their cause that a sudden anger flamed up in him.
“Look at it—look at It!” he snarled, “makin’ a circus of the Christian religion, doin’ the heavenly acrobatic!”
His color deepened, his fingers opened and shut convulsively; then opened again. “Aw, look. Doctor dear, there’s Minden now on his way to the school—to the Central School! It’s a Friday afthernoon, an’ he’ll be lettin’ himself go to the boys an’ gurls.”
The Young Doctor looked quizzically at Kernaghan. “And showing off before Miss Finley, eh?” he remarked.
“Aw, that! There’s no showin’ aff about it. Shure he drops his eyes whin he looks at her, like a bit of a boy tin years old.”
The Young Doctor laughed inwardly. “Oh, Patsy Kernaghan, what Irish bulls you make and what an Irish calf you are! ‘He drops his eyes when he looks at her!”’
THE Young Doctor was, however, thinking of what he himself said on the very first day of Minden’s arrival in Askatoon, when the crowd gossiped about the notorious one in front of Rigby’s drug store. He had said to Father Roche then, “If we only knew exactly why a man did some certain thing in his life, perhaps some very small thing, we would know his whole character. Now perhaps if we knew exactly why Bill Minden went to that school this afternoon we should have a Book of Revelations.”
The Young Doctor was a man of insight and understanding, and he had never ceased to wonder why the ex-bandit interested himself so in the Central School, or why he had come to Askatoon. Somehow the two things seemed one in his mind, as though each depended on the other. That Minden should show such interest in the town itself, and that he should become school trustee, seemed one piece in which Cora Finley was part of the mosaic. He was sure there was an association with a mystery in the background. Bill Minden, the ex-criminal, the notorious highwayman, turned peaceful, pious citizen, dropping his eyes when he looked at a girl, could only be explained by a law at work and not as one of life’s vagaries.
The Young Doctor had seen and heard nothing which gave him a clue, and the fact that Mrs. Finley was tin; most implacable of Bill Minden’s critics added another twist to the knot.
MRS. FINLEY was sitting alone in her little parlor, looking out of the window into the increasing, darkness, through which faint stars twinkled, when she was startled by a heavy footfall on the gravel path without. Rising, she stood for a moment hesitating what to do, possessed by fear, though she was alone, Cora having gone to choir practice. She had the sense of safety of the elect who believe in the foreordained, for the footstep had an ominous sound, she knew not why. It was the particular nature of the footstep that startled her, for somehow it recalled a night twenty-two years before, when her life took a turn in a new direction and had so continued. Now her brain cleared and she hastened into the hallway as the heavy footstep stopped, and a hand knocked on the lintel of the open door.
“Come in,” she said. “What do you want?” she added quickly in slight agitation.
“It’s Bill Minden,” was the reply.
“What do you want?” she persisted, her voice a little querulous now.
“A word with you—just a word or two,” was the answer.
“There were to be no more words forever,” she rejoined.
“It’s twenty-two years, and I want you to let me break my promise. We’re getting old and you never can tell what’ll happen,” Minden urged.
She gave a great sigh. “Then wait till I pull down the blinds and light up,” was her response.
“No, don’t light up,” he pleaded, stepping inside the hallway. “I haven’t come here to do any harm, as you know. It’s quieter in the dusk; the mind keeps steady-like when there’s no light. It’s like a blanket. Blind people are always quiet, and I’ve had to keep my eyes so wide open, and I’ve been going so hard for so long, that I can stand more dark than light. Eighteen hours dark in a day wouldn’t be too much for me now.”
“You talk like a poetry-book,” Mrs. Finley replied with hardness in her tone. “Seems like Askatoon makes you a bit childish.”
An almost animal-like grunt came from Bill Minden’s lips. It had protest, agreement, anger and friendliness all in one; but he did not retort in words.
“I’m going to light up,” she repeated. and went quickly into the room from which she had come.
From the hallway Minden heard the blinds pulled down, and presently a lighted lamp was placed on the round centre-table which held a Bible and a photograph album.
"She'll scratch--maybe bite," he said to himself, "but she's all right. She only wants handling. I've got to get what I come for."
Presently the set, assertive figure of the woman made its appearance again. “You can come in now,” she said with no kindness in her voice.
DETERMINED goodness was written in her face. Her forehead was a little too high for generosity, a little too narrow for benevolence, yet from the somewhat peaked crown to the watchful brown eyes there were veneration and will quietly enthroned. Precision, routine, sober neatness marked everything she was and everything she did. Her hair carefully crimped and partially covering her ears showed some acute strain of vanity still actively alive. The big cameo brooch at her throat suggested an acquired social position which lay between, say, the seamstress and the druggist or perhaps the girl clerk and the big storekeeper. She was dressed as though “prepared for company,” as the Askatoon people called it; yet it was only part of her regular life and custom. She was always “prepared for company.” She washed dishes with a cloth tied to the end of a stick, she made fires with gloves on. She was the very pattern of precision.
There was something forbidding about her and yet something also which made Minden’s eyes light up with satisfaction. He had seen her several times since he came to Askatoon, but nearly always at a distance. Once or twice he had passed her in the street, but she had given him no chance of addressing her. Once he went to the Methodist meeting-house on the chance of seeing her. She had. however, only come for the prayer-meeting, not for the regular service beforehand; and as it was not for him to stay to the prayer-meeting he had had only a glimpse of her as she went softly yet austerely to her pew, the position of which accurately defined her social status in Askatoon.
Bill had never till now got her absolutely into his eye since his arrival in Askatoon. A wonderful shining look of approval came into his face, as he took her all in with the trained eye of one who had so much lived by its training, by the deftness of the hand and the courage of the mind.
“What do you want?” she asked, looking at him steadfastly now.
He shrugged his huge shoulders good-humoredly. “You know, when you say that in the light like this it sounds sharper than when you said it in the dark. Couldn't you turn down the lamp a bit? I’d like to hear you talk,” he added. “I haven’t heard your voice for twenty-two years. I don’t think it’s changed any; but if you wasn’t so religious and so particular, I’d say you’d more bones in your stays than you used to—a bit stiff, Missus, a bit stiff to an old friend.”
A slight flush passed over her face. She resented the reference to her stays, but she waved her hand vaguely into the space around her, as it were, and said “Where be you goin’ to sit?”
HE LOOKED at the horse-hair sofa which had as little attraction for him as it had for the pretty schoolteacher, Cora, whose clothes and the wearing of whose clothes suggested taste, and he shook his head.
“I’d like the rocker, if I could take the lace curtin off it,” he said pointing to the crochet-work antimacassar covering the back of the rocking-chair.
“Oh, it washes,” she answered drily, “and I see you don’t oil your hair! Leave it be.”
He beamed over her, grinned broadly, and lowered himself comfortably into the capacious rocker. “Say, you’ve kep’ your word ’Liza Finley,” he said presently. “My gracious goodness, yes, you’ve kep’ your word. You earned them three thousand dollars—you earned them, and three times three thousand dollars you earned. My, what you’ve gone and done and been to that girl—to that blessed babe I put into your arms twenty-two years ago!”
“It wasn’t hard to do my duty by her. If you have a daughter you do your duty by her,” said the other with a face that relaxed somewhat, but with underlying antagonism in her tone.
The good-natured smile died away from Minden’s lips. “You needn’t rub it in,” he said huskily. “’Course she’s your daughter. I give her to you twenty-two years ago, because I was a law-breaker, an’ her mother was dead, an’ I knew I never could run straight, an’ I couldn’t bring her up proper. I give her to you because I couldn’t bear that when she grew up she’d know that her father was what he was going to be—a jail-bird. I knew it had to come, an’ it did. So I give her to you an’ your Steve with the last money I had—three thousand it was —for you to love her an’ bring her up to be yours evermore. An’ you done it because you had no child of your own, an’ you wanted one an’ Steve wanted one. an’ you couldn’t give him one. It looked as if my wife died just to give you hers. Mebbe that’s how it was, for though she had a wide mind she couldn’t have lived with me without having her pride hurt. An’ I’ve kep’ away from you, an’ I’ve kep’ my word for twenty-two years — now, haven’t I?' An’ ain’t she a flower of the prairie? Ain’t she worth all you’ve done for her, ’Liza Finley? You look like a graven image, but you’ve got the heart the mother of Moses didn’t have; you’ve got the heart of Pharaoh’s daughter.” She made a sharp effort to stand him off. “You had no business to come; you’ve broken your word; you’ve got no rights here. Cora believes she's my child, and mebbe I love her better than any child I might have had, just because she had no mother of her own, and my duty said I must be more partic’ler for her because she was a trust. When she come back from school and told about a strange man speaking to her the first day you come to Askatoon, I knew it was you. You can make up your mind”— again her lips became set, her face hardened, her figure stiffened—“you can make up your mind you’re not going to have her.”
MINDEN half rose from his seat, but fell back with a helpless outward gesture. “What are you talkin’ about?” he protested. “D’you think I don’t know what’s good for her?' I’ve been in jail three times since I handed her over to you. You’ve brought her up like a lady—like a' lady; you’ve give her a good schoolin’, you’ve made her the choice and special fruit of this here garden. D’you think I'm not proud of it an’ of her an’ of what you’ve done? Do you think I don’t sit right down and say, ‘Bill Minden, you done the right thing when, bein’ sure you was goin’ to the devil, you put your little gal on the heavenly path’?”
“What have you come here for, then?” persisted the apprehensive woman, not relaxing her rigidity.
He waved an ingratiating hand to her. “Haven’t I told you? Just to look at her an’ be near her; just to see what Bill Minden himself might ha’ been if he’d took it in his head to go right at the start. ’Liza Finley, I’ve got a good heart an’ I’ve got a good head, an’ my feelings belong to the holy way, but my tastes and habits get loose en route an’-”
“On the broad path that leadeth to destruction,” she interjected in dull and broken accents.
He would not be provoked. “I tell you. ’Liza Finley, I understand every holy feeling you’ve got an’ that my girl’s got.”
Again she protested. “Not your girl, but my girl, that for twenty-two years I’ve cared for, from the day I unpinned her and put her in her cot till now when I tuck her in at night, and she says ‘Bless you, mammy’!”
MINDEN’S eyes blinked. As he himself said, he had a good heart. “I know all that,” he remarked. “You don’t need to say it. But I’m getting old and lonely an’ sick of the broad, stony highway. I want peace. I’ve got enough money to keep me till the end of the trail, an’-”
“But how did you get the money?” she interjected scornfully; “How did you come by it? Do you think an honest girl or any honest man or woman would share your stealings?”
“Don’t be so hard,” Bill replied soothingly. “You don’t know how I got it; and anyway your own Methodis’ church took two hundred dollars of it the other day for the new organ, an’ the Baptists an’ the Presbyterians an’ the Holy Romans have took what I give them, to say nothing of the hospitals an’ the charity plants. They all grab it, however I got it; an’ anyway ain’t it right they should? If it was got dishonest, why not give it to honest people, to the good people, to the prayer-people? See here, ’Liza Finley, what I’ve got I’ve got, an’ it can’t be give back. What’s the good of trying to give back a lot of money to a lot of people that robbed a lot of other people, that stole from their bosom friends, that burgled their grandmothers! Don’t you see you can’t trace back the origin of what I’ve got?”
Mrs. Finley shook her head in repudiation. “Suppose they all were thieves way back to Adam, that’s no excuse why you should be a thief in the sight o’ the Lord.”
Minden scratched his head, smacked his lips, then grinned broadly. “Say, you've got me—like a piece of toast on a fork; but don’t you see that’s a bill I’ve got to settle myself, and don’t you see that s a bill that I am settlin’ myself! Because of what I done, it ain’t for me to have the one thing that’s worth living for, the one thing that I’ve got pride in, the one thing that’d make my old age peaceable if not pious—my little darlin’ girl. That’s what I pay, Missus, and by gosh!—I beg your pardon, I ain’t goin’ to swear—that's what I pay an’ have got to keep on paying’.”
“If you was only a good man,” she remarked, her features relaxing now, “if you only had religion, if you’d only found grace and the Spirit had entered into you, why then-”
BUT now he interrupted with a swift wave of his capacious hand. “No, no, no! What you say now makes me see I care for her ten times as much as you do. D’you think that if I riz’ up from the anxious seat to-morrow, an’ said, ''‘I’ve found it, I’ve found it, I’ve got religion, I’m saved!’—do you think that’d make any difference? No, no. not any. My gal, my little gal, gosh Almighty!— I beg your pardon twice—no, she ain’t never to know that Bill Minden that’s done time, that Bill Minden who’s plenty notorious, is her father. She’s got to think always that Steve, and ’Liza Finley was her father and her mother; she’s got to have a clean family history. She’s too good to be tarred by me. I know my place. I tell you I know my place, an’ I’m up against the everlastin’ fact that I got to die without her saying to me once, even once, ‘Father!’ Don’t you be so hard. You’re good, but don’t you be so shy about givin’ the glad hand to them that can’t never say, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd and I shall not want.’ I b’long to them that’ll have to go on wantin’ and not gettin’.”
Now there was a faint tremor of the woman’s lips. She was suddenly lost in the atmosphere of a bigger world than she had ever known. “If you don’t want to take her away, what is it you do want?” she asked helplessly.
He leaned forward towards her eagerly. “I’d like to be able to come here sometimes to make friends with you and her—not bosom friends, not like peas in the same social pod, but a bad man with a good heart that you was bein’ kind to. That would be enough for me—just to be near her, to watch her, to see her look this way and that, an’ speak this how an’ that how, an’ doin’ the little things that show a woman off. That’s why I’m goin’ to be school trustee, that’s why I’m goin’ to be mayor, if I can. just to make me look a bit all right in her eyes. ’Liza Finley. I’ve talked to you more to-night than I’ve ever talked for thirty years, an’ Ive let myself go because I couldn’t hold in any longer. Now what are you going to do about it?”
He looked round the room with almost hungry eyes. “I ain’t had a home for twenty-two years,” he went on. “I’ve lived inside any old house an’ in any old room without reg’lar standin’ anywhere; just payin’, payin’, payin’ for anythin’ I ever got; payin’ for kindness just as I paid for a corn-husk bed, or milk, or old Rye, or a week’s washin’. I’d like a home same as this—well, maybe not the same as this every way, for I don’t need carpets and antimacassars; but still just a pleasant place same’s this, where I’d sit down an’ spread out my feet an’ look round an’ say, ‘Now, girls, anything you want to make this home happy is yours.’ ”
MRS. FINLEY rose to her feet in an agitation she could not conceal. “I’ve got to think it over,” she said, “and I can’t think right with you sittin’ there talking. The way you talk you could almost make the mountains get up and walk; but I’ve got to do my duty. I’m a Christian, I’m a class-leader, I’ve got religion, and I don’t want any traffic in unrighteousness.”
“The world wouldn’t be saved if the good people didn’t look after the bad,” remarked Minden shrewdly.
The woman picked at her skirt nervously — it was strange how this man moved her. “Cora’Il be back in a minute,” she said anxiously. “It’s almost her time, and I don’t want you here when she comes.”
Minden nodded, and rose slowly from the rocking-chair, the antimacassar clinging to his shoulders. Mrs. Finley stepped quickly to him and relieved him of the ludicrous burden. As she did so, Bill caught her hand, and spoke quickly “You saw your duty clear when you took my gal from me an’ made your bond, which you’ve kept like a Christian of the caticombs. Well, you’ll see your duty again just as I saw it for you twenty-two years ago. You know that dandy hymn, ‘For I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies?’ Well, you’ve got a clear title for that sky-gal that once was mine. She’s yours forever; she loves you; an’ all I want is a little reservation on the prairie-land your title covers. You can dole out the rations—an’ don’t be stingy, ’Liza Finley.”
“I have got to pray over it—that’s a fact.” she answered“I’ve got to take it to the throne of grace.”
Bill shrugged his shoulders. “Well, in these days the Throne stoops kindly to democracy an’ I’ll take my chance,” he said as he put on his hat.
It sounded as though he were making light of sacred things, but Mrs. Finley did not misunderstand; it was only “the manner-o’ speakin’” of the country.
“You must go.” she urged. “Cora’Il be here any minute now; but I’ll let you know, I'll truly let you know what the Lord tells me to do.”
Three minutes later, on opposite sides of the street. Bill Minden and his daughter passed each other; but, unlike ships that pass in the night, they, did not speak each other in passing. It was too dark for Cora to see who it was, though her father knew, and he listened to her footsteps till he could hear them no longer.
To be continued.