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A Countess from Canada A Story of Life in the Backwoods online

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scattered, which showed that the wolf had already started thieving
operations; so that even if Oily Dave and his companion had
contemplated no raid on the cache, there would not have been much
left later which was worth carrying away.

"I don't like you having to draw that sledge. Suppose it overruns
you, and you get hurt, like Father did this afternoon," Miles said
in a troubled tone, as Katherine prepared to go forward with the
hand sledge, while he followed behind with the dogs.

"I don't intend to let it overrun me, so there is no need to worry.
In fact there is much more danger for you if the dogs hear the
wolves and try to bolt. But let us get along as fast as we can, or
Nellie will be in a fine state of anxiety about us," Katherine
replied. Then, gathering the lines of the sledge round her arms,
as her father had taught her, she set out at a good pace, followed
by Miles and the dogs.

For a time little was to be heard save the creaking of the babiche
lacing of the snowshoes, for the dogs were running silently, and
Miles, saving his breath for the work of getting along, was
controlling them merely by dumb show, flourishing the whip to hold
them back when they took on a spurt, or beckoning them along when
they showed signs of lagging. They were less than a mile from
home, and going well, when suddenly a hideous uproar broke out near
at hand - the long-drawn howling of wolves, human shouts and cries,
and the crack of a revolver.


A Night of Rough Work

"Phil, where is Katherine?" asked Mrs. Burton, coming out of her
father's room about half an hour after the two had started to bring
home the stores.

"She has gone to help Miles to do some work outside, though what it
can be I'm sure I don't know," grumbled Phil, who was sleepy and
wanted to get to bed. He had washed the supper things after a
fashion, had cleared up the kitchen for the night, according to his
own ideas of tidiness, and now was sitting in the rocking-chair by
the stove, trying very hard to keep his eyes open.

"Oh dear, how unwise of her!" exclaimed Mrs. Burton in a plaintive
tone. "I am always so afraid for her to go outside at night when
it is freezing so sharply, for her face would be quite spoiled if
she were to get it frostbitten, and she is so pretty."

"Is she?" Phil's voice had a drowsy drawl, as if the subject of
Katherine's looks had very little interest for him, as indeed it
had. But an unexpected lurch of the chair, coming at that moment,
landed him in a squirming heap on the floor.

"Oh, Phil, I am so sorry that I upset you, dear, but I had to catch
at the chair to save myself from falling over the broom! What made
you leave it lying on the floor?" asked Mrs. Burton, who had been
the innocent cause of his collapse.

Phil rose to his feet and dusted the ashes from the sleeve of his
jacket with a rueful air. "Did I leave the broom there? Oh, I
suppose I forgot it! I remember I had it to sweep up the
fireplace, because I could not find a brush."

"There is the brush hanging close to the stove," remarked Mrs.
Burton. Then she broke out again: "I wonder what Katherine can be
doing out-of-doors at this time of the night, and Miles too?"

"Perhaps they are gone to a surprise party. Don't you remember
there was one at Astor M'Kree's last winter?" suggested Phil, whose
tumble had dispelled some of his sleepiness, although he still
talked in a drowsy tone, and rumpled his hair wildly all over his

"Katherine would not go to a surprise party with Father lying in
such a condition," replied Mrs. Burton severely. Then she went
on: "Besides, she must be pretty well worn out, poor girl, for she
has done thirty miles on snowshoes since the morning, with all the
worry and trouble of Father's accident thrown in."

"Perhaps she has gone to help Miles to look after his wolf traps.
I wanted to go instead, only she wouldn't let me. I told her that
girls ought to stay indoors to wash cups and things, while boys did
the outside work," Phil explained, in a rather injured tone.

Mrs. Burton laughed softly. "I'm glad Katherine did not let you
turn out to-night, laddie, though I am sorry she had to go herself.
Now make haste and get off to bed; I have put everything ready for
you. But you must be very quiet, because I think Father is
inclined to go to sleep."

"Katherine said I was not to go to bed until she came in, and I'm
not so very tired," replied Phil, choking back a yawn with a great

"I am, though. And if you are in Father's room I shall be able to
sit down here by the stove and rest without any worry. So run
along, laddie, and be sure that you come to rouse me if Father
wants me," Mrs. Burton said. Then, drawing a big shawl round her
shoulders, she sat down in the rocking-chair vacated by Phil to
wait for the return of her sister and brother.

She wondered why they had gone out, but did not worry about it,
except on the score of Katherine's complexion. Even that ceased to
trouble her, as she swayed gently to and fro in the comfortable
warmth flung out by the stove, and very soon she was fast asleep.

'Duke Radford, who lay in restless discomfort from the pain of his
hurts, was the first to hear sounds of an arrival, and he tried to
rouse Phil to see what all the commotion was about. But the boy
always slept so heavily that it was next to impossible to wake him.
The dogs were barking. Katherine called out to Miles, who answered
back. Then there were other voices and a great banging at the door
of the store. That was when Mrs. Burton first became aware that
something was going on, and started up out of the rocking-chair
under the impression that she had been there the whole night and
that morning had come already.

A glance at the clock showed her, however, that it was not so very
late yet, and still a long way from midnight. Then, remembering
that Katherine and Miles were out, she guessed it was they who were
making such a clamour at the door of the store, and hurried to let
them in.

"I hope we haven't frightened Father with all the noise we have had
to make, but you seemed so dead asleep that we had to make a great
riot in order to get in," Katherine said, as she and Miles towed
the sledge inside the store to be unloaded at leisure when morning

"I will go and see to Father, but Phil is with him now. Where have
you been, Katherine? And oh, I do hope you have not frosted your
face!" Mrs. Burton said, with sisterly concern.

Katherine laughed, but even Mrs. Burton noticed that the sound was
strained and unmirthful. "My complexion has not suffered, I can
assure you. But Nellie, dear, could you get a cup of hot coffee
quickly for two men? They have been having a rather terrible time
of it, and are a good bit shaken."

"Bring them into the kitchen and I will have the coffee ready
directly," Mrs. Burton said promptly. But first of all she just
looked into her father's room to tell him there was nothing to
worry about. Then she hurried into the kitchen to rouse up the fire
and put the coffee pot on to boil.

Oily Dave and Stee Jenkin accepted Katherine's invitation to walk
in, following her through the dark store and into the lighted room
beyond with a sheepish expression on their faces, which certainly
no one had ever seen there before. Stee Jenkin had his outer
garments nearly torn off him, there was blood on his face, and he
sank on to the nearest bench as if his trembling limbs refused to
support him any longer.

"Why, your face is bleeding! What have you been doing - not
fighting, I hope?" There was a touch of severity in Mrs. Burton's
tone; for she knew the man did not bear a very good character, and
she was not disposed to give herself much trouble on account of
anyone who had brought his misfortunes upon his own head.

"Yes, ma'am, I have been fighting, and for my life too, which is a
very different thing from a round of fisticuffs with your
neighbour," growled Stee Jenkin in a shaken tone, and the hand with
which he tried to lift the steaming coffee to his lips shook so
violently that he spilled the hot liquid on his clothes.

Katherine and Miles had gone back to the store again, so it was
Oily Dave who explained the nature of the fight in which both men
had been involved.

"We'd a perticular bit of business on hand to-night," he said, in
response to the enquiring look which Mrs. Burton turned upon him,
for Stee was plainly too much upset to be coherent. "I'd got a
revolver certainly, but Stee had nothing but a knife, for we didn't
expect any trouble with wolves so early in the season, though it is
a fact we might have done, for everyone knows the place is just
about swarming with them this winter."

"Did the wolves attack you? Oh, how truly horrible!" exclaimed
Mrs. Burton, with so much genuine sympathy that both men winced
under it, hardened offenders though they were; for they knew very
well that they deserved the fate which had so nearly fallen upon

"About ten of the cowards closed in on us as we were going through
a patch of cotton woods, where we couldn't move fast because of
catching our snow-shoes," Oily Dave went on, winking and blinking
in a nervous fashion. "And we were fairly cornered before we knew
where we were. One great brute came at me straight in the face. I
knocked him off with my fist and fumbled for my barker, but shot
wild and did no more damage than to singe the hair off another
brute's back; but I managed to edge a bit closer to Stee, who was
getting it rough, and hadn't even a chance to draw his knife. But
we should have been down and done for to a dead certainty, if it
hadn't been for Miss Radford and Miles. They let the dogs loose
from the sledge when they heard the rumpus, and that turned the
scale in our favour. That great white dog with the black patch on
its back came tearing into the cotton woods roaring like a bull,
and then I can tell you there was a stampede among the brutes that
were baiting us." Oily Dave drew a long breath as he finished his
narration, but the other man groaned.

"Katherine, what were you doing so far away from home at this time
of night?" gasped Mrs. Burton, in a shocked tone, as her sister
came into the room. "Why, the wolves might have attacked you."

"Not likely; we had the dogs with us, you see. But we had to go
about three miles along the trail to bring home the things I had to
leave behind when Father had his accident," said Katherine, as she
stood beside the stove slowly unwinding her wraps. Now that the
strain and excitement were over, she looked white and tired, but
her face was set in hard, stern lines, which for the time seemed to
add years to her age.

"It is dreadful that you should have to go out at night like that.
Wouldn't to-morrow have done as well?" asked Mrs. Burton in a tone
of distress.

"No," replied Katherine slowly, as she wrestled with an obstinate
fastening of her coat, keeping her gaze carefully on the ground the
while. "We were almost too late as it was. A wolf had found out
the cache and was beginning to tear the packages to pieces, in
spite of my care in turning the hand sledge upside down on the top
of them."

Oily Dave rose to his feet with a jerky movement. "I think we had
best be moving now," he said gruffly. "Perhaps you'd lend us a
couple of the dogs to help us down to Seal Cove; we'll give 'em a
good feed when we get there. But neither Stee nor I can face three
miles' tramp without something to protect us."

"Yes, you can have two of the dogs on leash; but remember they are
dreadfully tired, poor things, for they have had a long, hard day.
You had better leave your sledge here to-night, then there will be
no temptation for you to let the dogs draw you," Katherine said, in
a hard tone.

Mrs. Burton looked at her in surprise, even meditated a word of
excuse, because her attitude was so unfriendly towards these
neighbours who had been in such direful peril. But the word was
not spoken, for Katherine's face was too stern for the elder sister
to even suggest any change in her manner. Miles tied two of the
dogs on a leash while the men put on their snowshoes, then he
carefully drew their sledge inside the door of the store, which was
afterwards securely barred.

"Katherine, what is the matter? Why did you and Miles go stealing
off in that fashion to bring the stores home without telling me?
And why, oh! why, did you treat those men as if they were the dirt
beneath your feet?" demanded Mrs. Burton, as she plied her sister
and brother with hot coffee and comforting food, to make up to them
for all the toil and hardship which had gone before.

"Because I regard them as the scum of the earth," Katherine
answered with a yawn, as she stretched out her feet to the glowing
warmth of the fire.

"They are not very noble characters certainly, but when men have
been face to face with such a terrible death, one feels it is a
duty to be kind to them," Mrs. Burton said, in gentle reproof.

Miles burst out laughing, but Katherine shook her head at him and
proceeded to explain. "It was because I was afraid those two were
going to steal our stores that we started off in such a hurry to
get the lot home, and we were on our way back when we heard the
wolves, then cries and shots. We let the first two dogs go then,
and had to hold on to the others with all our might to keep them
from going too. I wish you could have seen how silly those men
looked, when they discovered to whom they owed their lives. I
could have laughed at the spectacle if I had not been so angry."

"It suits you to be angry, I think," broke in Miles. "You ordered
those two round just as if you had been a duchess, and they simply
squirmed before you, like the worms that they are."

"Silly boy, you have never seen a duchess, so you can't know how
she would order people about. Indeed she might be mild as milk,
which I am not. But I hate to feel as angry as I have been doing
to-night, so I am going to creep in and have a look at Father.
That will make me feel better and more amiable, I hope."

"Don't disturb him if he is at all sleepy. I am so afraid he will
be feverish to-morrow if he does not get a good night," Mrs. Burton
said, in a warning tone.

"I shan't disturb him," answered Katherine; then, taking a lamp,
she stole across the dark store to the little room at the other
end, where her father was lying.

One look at his face showed her how little chance of sleep there
was for him at present; and guessing that it was anxiety as well as
pain which kept him awake, she sat down beside him and related
again the story of that night's adventures. He laughed, in spite
of his pain, at her description of how the precious pair had looked
when they found to whom they owed their lives.

"But I don't like you having such hard, rough things to do,
Katherine. I wish you and Miles could change places in age," he
said, with a sigh.

"I don't," she answered with a shrug. "But you must go to sleep
now, Father, or you will be feverish to-morrow. Do the bruises
hurt much?" she asked tenderly.

"The bed is full of sore places," he answered, with a whimsical
transposition of terms. "But I shall go to sleep presently, I

"And wake up in the morning feeling better, I hope," she forced
herself to say brightly, though it worried her to see how ill he
was looking.

"I don't know about that," he said gravely. "When a man has lived
a hard life like mine, a knock-down blow, such as I have had
to-day, very often sets a lot of mischief in motion; but there is
no need to fear disaster until it actually comes. Get away to your
bed now, child. I shan't want anything more until the morning."

Katherine bent and kissed him. With all the strength of her heart
she loved her father. In her early girlhood he had been her hero.
Since her mother's death he had been her good comrade, and never
had there been a shadow between them until that day when they had
taken the last mail of the season up to the second portage, and
heard the news about the change in the ownership of the fishing
fleet from Astor M'Kree. Perhaps he had been taken with some
feeling of illness that day, and this continuing ever since had led
to his altered ways and gloomy looks. But even with this idea to
comfort her Katherine went to her bed with a heavy heart that
night, and a dread of the morning to which before she had been a
stranger. Her father had said that it was of no use to fear
disaster until it really came, but her heart quailed that night as
she lay sleepless, thinking of the days which stretched in front of
her. Until her father grew strong again she would have to let the
day teaching go, even though it might be possible to keep the night
school together. Her days would have to be spent in buying and
selling, in bartering barrels of flour and pork for skins of wolf,
of ermine, and of beaver. She would have to stand between home and
the difficulties that menaced from the outside, and if her heart
failed her who could wonder at it?


A Sacred Confidence

'Duke Radford was very ill. For a week he hovered between life and
death, and Mrs. Burton's skill was taxed to the uttermost. There
was no doctor within at least a hundred miles. One of the fishers
at Seal Cove had set the broken collar bone, the work being very
well done too, although the man was only an amateur in the art of
bone-setting. But it was not the broken bone, nor any of his
bruises and abrasions, which made 'Duke Radford's peril during that
black week of care and anxiety. He was ill in himself, so ill in
fact that Mrs. Burton lost heart, declaring that her father's
constitution had broken up, and that half a dozen doctors could not
pull him through if his time had come.

Katherine would not share this gloomy view, and was always hoping
against hope. If only the waters had been open, a doctor might
have been procured from somewhere; but in winter time, when the
small lakes and many of the lesser rivers were all frozen, nothing
in the way of outside help was available, and the dwellers in
remote places had to depend upon their own skill, making up in
nursing what was lacking in medicine.

By the time the second Sunday came, the sick man showed signs of
mending. Mrs. Burton grew hopeful again, while Katherine was
nearly beside herself with joy. It had been a fearfully hard week
for them all, though the neighbours had been as kind as possible.
Stee Jenkin's wife came up from Seal Cove one day, and, after doing
as much work as she could find to do, carried the twins off with
her to her little house at the Cove, which was a great relief to
Mrs. Burton and Katherine. Mrs. M'Kree was ill herself, so could
do no more than send a kindly message; but even that was better
than nothing, for sympathy is one of the sweetest things on earth
when one is in trouble.

Sunday was a blessed relief to them at the end of their troubled
week. Finding her father so much better, Mrs. Burton betook
herself to bed at noon for the first real untroubled rest she had
enjoyed for many days. The boys were stretched in luxurious
idleness before the glowing fire in the kitchen, and Katherine was
in charge of the sickroom. She was half-asleep herself; the place
was so warm and her father lay in such a restful quiet. It had
been so terrible all the week because no rest had seemed possible
to him. But since last night his symptoms had changed, and now he
lay quietly dozing, only rousing to take nourishment. Presently he
stirred uneasily, as if the old restlessness were coming back, then
asked in a feeble tone:

"Are you there, Nellie?"

"Nellie has gone to lie down, Father; but I will call her if you
want her," Katherine said, coming forward to where the sick man
could see her.

"No, I don't want her; it is you I want to talk to, only I didn't
know whether she was here," he replied.

"I don't think you ought to talk at all," she said, in a doubtful
tone. "Drink this broth, dear, and then try to sleep again."

"I will drink the broth, but I don't want to go to sleep again just
yet," he said, in a stronger voice.

Katherine fed him as if he were a baby, and indeed he was almost as
weak as an infant. But she did not encourage his talking, although
she could not prevent it, as he seemed so much better.

"There is something that has been troubling me a great deal, and I
want to tell you about it," he said. "I could not speak of it to
anyone else, and I don't want you to do so either. But it will be
a certain comfort to me that you know it, for you are strong and
more fitted for bearing burdens than Nellie, who has had more than
her share of sorrow already."

Katherine shivered. There was a longing in her heart to tell her
father that she wanted no more burdens, that life was already so
hard as to make her shrink from any more responsibility. But,
looking at him as he lay there in his weakness, she could not say
such words as these.

"What is it you want to tell me, Father?" she asked. Her voice was
tender and caressing; he should never have to guess how she shrank
from the confidence he wanted to give her, because her instinct
told her that it was something which she would not want to hear.

"Do you remember the day we went up to Astor M'Kree's with the last
mail which came through before the waters closed?" he said
abruptly, and again Katherine shivered, knowing for a certainty
that her father's trouble was proving too big for him alone.

"Yes, I remember," she replied very softly,

"That was a black day for me, for it brought dead things to life in
a way that I had thought impossible. I used to know that Oswald
Selincourt who has bought the fishing fleet."

"That one? Are you sure it is the same?" she asked in surprise.
"The name is uncommon, still it is within the bounds of probability
that there might be two, and you said the one you knew was a poor

"I fancy there is no manner of doubt that it is the same," 'Duke
Radford said slowly. "The day we went to Fort Garry, M'Crawney
told me he had a letter from Mr. Selincourt too, in which the new
owner said he was a Bristol man, and that he had known what it was
to be poor, so did not mean to risk money on ventures he had no
chance of controlling, and that was why he was coming here next
summer to boss the fleet."

"Poor Father!" Katherine murmured softly. "Ah, you may well say
poor!" he answered bitterly. "If it were not for you, the boys,
poor Nellie, and her babies, I'd just be thankful to know that I'd
never get up from this bed again, for I don't feel that I have
courage to face life now."

"Father, you must not talk nor think like that, indeed you must
not!" she exclaimed, in an imploring tone. "Think how we need you
and how we love you. Think, too, how desolate we should be without

"That is what I tell myself every hour in the twenty-four, and I
shall make as brave a fight for it as I can for your sakes," he
said in a regretful tone, as if his family cares were holding him
to life against his will. Then he went on: "Oswald Selincourt and
I were in the same business house in Bristol years ago, and I did
him a great wrong."

Katherine had a sensation that was almost akin to what she would
have felt if someone had dashed a bucket of ice-cold water in her
face. But she did not move nor cry out, did not even gasp, only
sat still with the dumb horror of it all filling her heart, until
she felt as if she would never feel happy again. Her father had
always seemed to her the noblest of men, and she had revered him
so, because he always stood for what was right and true. Then some
instinct told her that he must be suffering horribly too, and
because she could not speak she slid her warm fingers into his
trembling hand and held it fast.

"Thank you, dear, I felt I could trust you," he said simply, and
the words braced Katherine for bearing what had to come, more than
anything else could have done.

"What is it you want me to know?" she asked, for he had lain for
some minutes without speech, as if the task he had set himself was
harder than he could perform.

"I wanted to tell you about the wrong I did Selincourt," the sick
man said in a reluctant tone. He had brought himself to the point
of confiding in his daughter, yet even now he shrank from it as if
fearing to lower himself in her eyes. "We were clerks in one
business house, only Selincourt was above me, and taking a much
higher salary; but if anything happened to move him, I knew that
his desk would be offered to me. I was poor, but he in a sense was

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