John Trenton, artist, put the finishing touches to the letter he was writing, and then read it over to himself. It ran as follows:—
“My Dear Ed.,
“I sail for England on the 27th. But before I leave I want to have another look at the Shawenegan Falls. Their roar has been in my ears ever since I left there. That tremendous hillside of foam is before my eyes night and day. The sketches I took are not at all satisfactory, so this time I will bring my camera with me, and try to get some snapshots at the falls.
“Now, what I ask is this. I want you to hold that canoe for me against all comers for Tuesday. Also, those two expert half-breeds. Tell them I am coming, and that there is money in it if they take me up and back as safely as they did before. I don’t suppose there will be much demand for the canoe on that day; in fact, it astonishes me that Americans, who appreciate the good things of our country better than we do ourselves, practically know nothing of this superb cataract right at their own doors. I suppose your new canoe is not finished yet, and as the others are up in the woods I write so that you will keep this particular craft for me. I do not wish to take any risks, as I leave so soon. Please drop me a note to this hotel at Quebec, and I will meet you in Le Gres on Tuesday morning at daybreak.
Mason was a millionaire and a lumber king, but every one called him Ed. He owned baronial estates in the pine woods, and saw-mills without number. Trenton had brought a letter of introduction to him from a mutual friend in Quebec, who had urged the artist to visit the Shawenegan Falls. He heard the Englishman inquire about the cataract, and told him that he knew the man who would give him every facility for reaching the falls. Trenton’s acquaintance with Mason was about a fortnight old, but already they were the firmest of friends. Any one who appreciated the Shawenegan Falls found a ready path to the heart of the big lumberman. It was almost impossible to reach the falls without the assistance of Mr. Mason. However, he was no monopolist. Any person wishing to visit the cataract got a canoe from the lumber king free of all cost, except a tip to the two boatmen who acted as guides and watermen. The artist had not long to wait for his answer. It was—
“My Dear John,
“The canoe is yours; the boatmen are yours: and the Shawenegan is yours for Tuesday. Also,
“I am yours,
On Monday evening John Trenton stepped off the C. P. R. train at Three Rivers. With a roughing-it suit on, and his camera slung over his shoulders, no one would have taken him for the successful landscape artist who on Piccadilly was somewhat particular about his attire.
John Trenton was not yet R. A., nor even A. R. A., but all his friends would tell you that, if the Royal Academy was not governed by a clique, he would have been admitted long ago, and that anyhow it was only a question of time. In fact, John admitted this to himself, but to no one else.
He entered the ramshackle ‘bus, and was driven a long distance through very sandy streets to the hotel on the St. Lawrence, and, securing a room, made arrangements to be called before daybreak. He engaged the same driver who had taken him out to “The Greys,” as it was locally called, on the occasion of his former visit.
The morning was cold and dark. Trenton found the buckboard at the door, and he put his camera under the one seat—a kind of a box for the holding of bits of harness and other odds and ends. As he buttoned up his overcoat he noticed that a great white steamer had come in the night, and was tied up in front of the hotel.
“The Montreal boat,” explained the driver.
As they drove along the silent streets of Three Rivers, Trenton called to mind how, on the former occasion, he thought the Lower Canada buckboard by all odds, the most uncomfortable vehicle he had ever ridden in, and he felt that his present experience was going to corroborate this first impression. The seat was set in the centre, between the front and back wheels, on springy boards, and every time the conveyance jolted over a log—a not unfrequent occurrence—the seat went down and the back bent forward, as if to throw him over on the heels of the patient horse.
The road at first was long and straight and sandy, but during the latter part of the ride there were plenty of hills, up many of which a plank roadway ran; so that loads which it would be impossible to take through the deep sand, might be hauled up the steep incline.
At first the houses they passed had a dark and deserted look; then a light twinkled here and there. The early habitant was making his fire. As daylight began gradually to bring out the landscape, the sharp sound of the distant axe was heard. The early habitant was laying in his day’s supply of firewood.
“Do you notice how the dawn slowly materialises the landscape?” said the artist to the boy beside him.
The boy saw nothing wonderful about that. Daylight always did it.
“Then it is not unusual in these parts? You see, I am very seldom up at this hour.”
The boy wished that was his case.
“Does it not remind you of a photographer in a dark room carefully developing a landscape plate? Not one of those rapid plates, you know, but a slow, deliberate plate.”
No, it didn’t remind him of anything of the kind. He had never seen either a slow or a rapid plate developed.
“Then you have no prejudices as to which is the best developer, pyrogallic acid or ferrous oxalate, not to mention such recent decoctions as eikonogen, quinol, and others?”
No, the boy had none.
“Well, that’s what I like. I like a young man whose mind is open to conviction.”
The boy was not a conversational success. He evidently did not enter into the spirit of the artist’s remarks. He said most people got off at that point and walked to warm up, and asked Trenton if he would not like to follow their example.
“No, my boy,” said the Englishman, “I don’t think I shall. You see, I have paid for this ride, and I want to get all I can out of it. I shall shiver here and try to get the worth of my money. But with you it is different. If you want to get down, do so. I will drive.”
The boy willingly handed over the reins, and sprang out on the road. Trenton, who was a boy himself that morning, at once whipped up the horse and dashed down the hill to get away from the driver. When a good half-mile had been worried out of the astonished animal, Trenton looked back to see the driver come panting after. The young man was calmly sitting on the back part of the buckboard, and when the horse began to walk again, the boy slid off, and, without a smile on his face, trotted along at the side.
“That fellow has evidently a quiet sense of humour, although he is so careful not to show it,” said Trenton to himself.
On reaching the hilltop, they caught a glimpse of the rim of the sun rising gloriously over the treetops on the other side of the St. Maurice River. Trenton stopped the horse, and the boy looked up to see what was wrong. He could not imagine any one stopping merely to look at the sun.
“Isn’t that splendid?” cried Trenton, with a deep breath, as he watched the great globe slowly ascend into the sky. The distant branches of the trees were delicately etched against its glowing surface, and seemed to cling to it like tendrils, slipping further and further down as the sun leisurely disentangled itself, and at last stood in its incomparable grandeur full above the forest.
The woods all around had on their marvellous autumn tints, and now the sun added a living lustre to them that made the landscape more brilliant than anything the artist had ever seen before.
“Ye gods!” he cried enthusiastically, “that scene is worth coming from England to have one glimpse of.”
“See here,” said the driver, “if you want to catch Ed. Mason before he’s gone to the woods you’ll have to hurry up. It’s getting late.”
“True, O driver. You have brought me from the sun to the earth. Have you ever heard of the person who fell from the sun to the earth?”
No, he hadn’t.
“Well, that was before your time. You will never take such a tumble. I—I suppose they don’t worship the sun in these parts?”
No, they didn’t.
“When you come to think of it, that is very strange. Have you ever reflected that it is always in warm countries they worship the sun? Now, I should think it ought to be just the other way about. Do you know that when I got on with you this morning I was eighty years old, every day of it. What do you think my age is now?”
“Eighty years, sir.”
“Not a bit of it. I’m eighteen. The sun did it. And yet they claim there is no fountain of youth. What fools people are, my boy!”
The young man looked at his fare slyly, and cordially agreed with him.
“You certainly have a concealed sense of humour,” said the artist.
They wound down a deep cut in the hill, and got a view of the lumber village—their destination. The roar of the waters tumbling over the granite rocks—the rocks from which the village takes its name—came up the ravine. The broad river swept in a great semicircle to their right, and its dark waters were flecked with the foam of the small falls near the village, and the great cataract miles up the river. It promised to be a perfect autumn day. The sky, which had seemed to Trenton overcast when they started, was now one deep dome of blue without even the suggestion of a cloud.
The buckboard drew up at the gate of the house in which Mr. Mason lived when he was in the lumber village, although his home was at Three Rivers. The old Frenchwoman, Mason’s housekeeper, opened the door for Trenton, and he remembered as he went in how the exquisite cleanliness of everything had impressed him during his former visit. She smiled as she recognised the genial Englishman. She had not forgotten his compliments in her own language on her housekeeping some months before, and perhaps she also remembered his liberality. Mr. Mason, she said, had gone to the river to see after the canoe, leaving word that he would return in a few minutes. Trenton, who knew the house, opened the door at his right, to enter the sitting-room and leave there his morning wraps, which the increasing warmth rendered no longer necessary. As he burst into the room in his impetuous way, he was taken aback to see standing at the window, looking out towards the river, a tall young woman. Without changing her position, she looked slowly around at the intruder. Trenton’s first thought was a hasty wish that he were better dressed. His roughing-it costume, which up to that time had seemed so comfortable, now appeared uncouth and out of place. He felt as if he had suddenly found himself in a London drawing-room with a shooting-jacket on. But this sensation was quickly effaced by the look which the beauty gave him over her shoulder. Trenton, in all his experience, had never encountered such a glance of indignant scorn. It was a look of resentment and contempt, with just a dash of feminine reproach in it.
“What have I done?” thought the unhappy man; then he stammered aloud, “I—I—really—I beg your pardon. I thought the—ah—room was empty.”
The imperious young woman made no reply. She turned to the window again, and Trenton backed out of the room as best he could.
“Well!” he said to himself, as he breathed with relief the outside air again, “that was the rudest thing I ever knew a lady to do. She is a lady, there is no doubt of that. There is nothing of the backwoods about her. But she might at least have answered me. What have I done, I wonder? It must be something terrible and utterly unforgivable, whatever it is. Great heavens!” he murmured, aghast at the thought, “I hope that girl isn’t going up to the Shawenegan Falls.”
Trenton was no ladies’ man. The presence of women always disconcerted him, and made him feel awkward and boorish. He had been too much of a student in higher art to acquire the smaller art of the drawing-room. He felt ill at ease in society, and seemed to have a fatal predilection for saying the wrong thing, and suffered the torture afterwards of remembering what the right thing would have been.
Trenton stood at the gate for a moment, hoping Mason would come. Suddenly he remembered with confusion that he was directly in range of those disdainful eyes in the parlour, and he beat a hasty retreat toward the old mill that stood by the falls. The roar of the turbulent water over the granite rocks had a soothing effect on the soul of the man who knew he was a criminal, yet could not for the life of him tell what his crime had been. Then he wandered up the river-bank toward where he saw the two half-breeds placing the canoe in the still water at the further end of the village. Half-way there he was relieved to meet the genial Ed. Mason, who greeted him, as Trenton thought, with a somewhat overwrought effusion. There evidently was something on the genial Ed.‘s mind.
“Hello, old man,” he cried, shaking Trenton warmly by the hand. “Been here long? Well, I declare, I’m glad to see you. Going to have a splendid day for it, aren’t you? Yes, sir, I am glad to see you.”
“When a man says that twice in one breath, a fellow begins to doubt him. Now, you good-natured humbug, what’s the matter? What have I done? How did you find me out? Who turned Queen’s evidence? Look here, Edward Mason, why are you not glad to see me?”
“Nonsense; you know I am. No one could be more welcome. By the way, my wife’s here. You never met her, I think?”
“I saw a young lady remarkably—”
“No, no; that is Miss —. By the way, Trenton, I want you to do me a favour, now that I think of it. Of course the canoe is yours for to-day, but that young woman wants to go up to the Shawenegan. You wouldn’t mind her going up with you, would you? You see, I have no other canoe to-day, and she can’t stay till to-morrow.”
“I shall be delighted, I’m sure,” answered Trenton. But he didn’t look it.
Categories: English Literature