English Literature

Lady Merton, Colonist by Mrs. Humphry Ward

Lady Merton by Humphry Ward Mrs.


“I call this part of the line beastly depressing.”

The speaker tossed his cigarette-end away as he spoke. It fell on the railway line, and the tiny smoke from it curled up for a moment against the heavy background of spruce as the train receded.

“All the same, this is going to be one of the most exciting parts of Canada before long,” said Lady Merton, looking up from her guide-book. “I can tell you all about it.”

“For heaven’s sake, don’t!” said her companion hastily. “My dear Elizabeth, I really must warn you. You’re losing your head.”

“I lost it long ago. To-day I am a bore–to-morrow I shall be a nuisance. Make up your mind to it.”

“I thought you were a reasonable person!–you used to be. Now look at that view, Elizabeth. We’ve seen the same thing for twelve hours, and if it wasn’t soon going to be dark we should see the same thing for twelve hours more. What is there to go mad over in that?” Her brother waved his hand indignantly from right to left across the disappearing scene. “As for me, I am only sustained by the prospect of the good dinner that I know Yerkes means to give us in a quarter of an hour. I won’t be a minute late for it! Go and get ready, Elizabeth–“

“Another lake!” cried Lady Merton, with a jump. “Oh, what a darling! That’s the twentieth since tea. Look at the reflections–and that delicious island! And oh! what are those birds?”

She leant over the side of the observation platform, attached to the private car in which she and her brother were travelling, at the rear of the heavy Canadian Pacific train. To the left of the train a small blue lake had come into view, a lake much indented with small bays running up among the woods, and a couple of islands covered with scrub of beech and spruce, set sharply on the clear water. On one side of the lake, the forest was a hideous waste of burnt trunks, where the gaunt stems–charred or singed, snapped or twisted, or flayed–of the trees which remained standing rose dreadfully into the May sunshine, above a chaos of black ruin below. But except for this blemish–the only sign of man–the little lake was a gem of beauty. The spring green clothed its rocky sides; the white spring clouds floated above it, and within it; and small beaches of white pebbles seemed to invite the human feet which had scarcely yet come near them.

“What does it matter?” yawned her brother. “I don’t want to shoot them. And why you make such a fuss about the lakes, when, as you say yourself, there are about two a mile, and none of them has got a name to its back, and they’re all exactly alike, and all full of beastly mosquitoes in the summer–it beats me! I wish Yerkes would hurry up.” He leant back sleepily against the door of the car and closed his eyes.

“It’s because they haven’t got a name–and they’re so endless!–and the place is so big!–and the people so few!–and the chances are so many–and so queer!” said Elizabeth Merton laughing.

“What sort of chances?”

“Chances of the future.”

“Hasn’t got any chances!” said Philip Gaddesden, keeping his hands in his pockets.

“Hasn’t it? Owl!” Lady Merton neatly pinched the arm nearest to her. “As I’ve explained to you many times before, this is the Hinterland of Ontario–and it’s only been surveyed, except just along the railway, a few years ago–and it’s as rich as rich–“

“I say, I wish you wouldn’t reel out the guide-book like that!” grumbled the somnolent person beside her. “As if I didn’t know all about the Cobalt mines, and that kind of stuff.”

“Did you make any money out of them, Phil?”

“No–but the other fellows did. That’s my luck.”

“Never mind, there’ll be heaps more directly–hundreds.” She stretched out her hand vaguely towards an enchanting distance–hill beyond hill, wood beyond wood; everywhere the glimmer of water in the hollows; everywhere the sparkle of fresh leaf, the shining of the birch trunks among the firs, the greys and purples of limestone rock; everywhere, too, the disfiguring stain of fire, fire new or old, written, now on the mouldering stumps of trees felled thirty years ago when the railway was making, now on the young stems of yesterday.

“I want to see it all in a moment of time,” Elizabeth continued, still above herself. “An air-ship, you know, Philip–and we should see it all in a day, from here to James Bay. A thousand miles of it–stretched below us–just waiting for man! And we’d drop down into an undiscovered lake, and give it a name–one of our names–and leave a letter under a stone. And then in a hundred years, when the settlers come, they’d find it, and your name–or mine–would live forever.”

“I forbid you to take any liberties with my name, Elizabeth! I’ve something better to do with it than waste it on a lake in–what do you call it?–the ‘Hinterland of Ontario.'” The young man mocked his sister’s tone.

Elizabeth laughed and was silent.

The train sped on, at its steady pace of some thirty miles an hour. The spring day was alternately sunny and cloudy; the temperature was warm, and the leaves were rushing out. Elizabeth Merton felt the spring in her veins, an indefinable joyousness and expectancy; but she was conscious also of another intoxication–a heat of romantic perception kindled in her by this vast new country through which she was passing. She was a person of much travel, and many experiences; and had it been prophesied to her a year before this date that she could feel as she was now feeling, she would not have believed it. She was then in Rome, steeped in, ravished by the past–assisted by what is, in its way, the most agreeable society in Europe. Here she was absorbed in a rushing present; held by the vision of a colossal future; and society had dropped out of her ken. Quebec, Montreal and Ottawa had indeed made themselves pleasant to her; she had enjoyed them all. But it was in the wilderness that the spell had come upon her; in these vast spaces, some day to be the home of a new race; in these lakes, the playground of the Canada of the future; in these fur stations and scattered log cabins; above all in the great railway linking east and west, that she and her brother had come out to see.

For they had a peculiar relation to it. Their father had been one of its earliest and largest shareholders, might indeed be reckoned among its founders. He had been one, also, of a small group of very rich men who had stood by the line in one of the many crises of its early history, when there was often not enough money in the coffers of the company to pay the weekly wages of the navvies working on the great iron road. He was dead now, and his property in the line had been divided among his children. But his name and services were not forgotten at Montreal, and when his son and widowed daughter let it be known that they desired to cross from Quebec to Vancouver, and inquired what the cost of a private car might be for the journey, the authorities at Montreal insisted on placing one of the official cars at their disposal. So that they were now travelling as the guests of the C.P.R.; and the good will of one of the most powerful of modern corporations went with them.

They had left Toronto, on a May evening, when the orchards ran, one flush of white and pink, from the great lake to the gorge of Niagara, and all along the line northwards the white trilliums shone on the grassy banks in the shadow of the woods; while the pleasant Ontario farms flitted by, so mellowed and homelike already, midway between the old life of Quebec, and this new, raw West to which they were going. They had passed, also–but at night and under the moon–through the lake country which is the playground of Toronto, as well known, and as plentifully be-named as Westmoreland; and then at North Bay with the sunrise they had plunged into the wilderness,–into the thousand miles of forest and lake that lie between Old Ontario and Winnipeg.

And here it was that Elizabeth’s enthusiasm had become in her brother’s eyes a folly; that something wild had stirred in her blood, and sitting there in her shady hat at the rear of the train, her eyes pursuing the great track which her father had helped to bring into being, she shook Europe from her, and felt through her pulses the tremor of one who watches at a birth, and looks forward to a life to be–

“Dinner is ready, my lady.”

“Thank Heaven!” cried Philip Gaddesden, springing up. “Get some champagne, please, Yerkes.”

“Philip!” said his sister reprovingly, “it is not good for you to have champagne every night.”

Philip threw back his curly head, and grinned.

“I’ll see if I can do without it to-morrow. Come along, Elizabeth.”

They passed through the outer saloon, with its chintz-covered sofas and chairs, past the two little bedrooms of the car, and the tiny kitchen to the dining-room at the further end. Here stood a man in steward’s livery ready to serve, while from the door of the kitchen another older man, thin and tanned, in a cook’s white cap and apron, looked benevolently out.

“Smells good, Yerkes!” said Gaddesden as he passed.

The cook nodded.

“If only her ladyship’ll find something she likes,” he said, not without a slight tone of reproach.

“You hear that, Elizabeth?” said her brother as they sat down to the well-spread board.

Elizabeth looked plaintive. It was one of her chief weaknesses to wish to be liked–adored, perhaps, is the better word–by her servants and she generally accomplished it. But the price of Yerkes’s affections was too high.

“It seems to me that we have only just finished luncheon, not to speak of tea,” she said, looking in dismay at the menu before her. “Phil, do you wish to see me return home like Mrs. Melhuish?”

Phil surveyed his sister. Mrs. Melhuish was the wife of their local clergyman in Hampshire; a poor lady plagued by abnormal weight, and a heart disease.

“You might borrow pounds from Mrs. Melhuish, and nobody would ever know. You really are too thin, Lisa–a perfect scarecrow. Of course Yerkes sees that he could do a lot for you. All the same, that’s a pretty gown you’ve got on–an awfully pretty gown,” he repeated with emphasis, adding immediately afterwards in another tone–“Lisa!–I say!–you’re not going to wear black any more?”

“No”–said Lady Merton, “no–I am not going to wear black any more.” The words came lingeringly out, and as the servant removed her plate, Elizabeth turned to look out of the window at the endless woods, a shadow on her beautiful eyes.

She was slenderly made, with a small face and head round which the abundant hair was very smoothly and closely wound. The hair was of a delicate brown, the complexion clear, but rather colourless. Among other young and handsome women, Elizabeth Merton made little effect; like a fine pencil drawing, she required an attentive eye. The modelling of the features, of the brow, the cheeks, the throat, was singularly refined, though without a touch of severity; her hands, with their very long and slender fingers, conveyed the same impression. Her dress, though dainty, was simple and inconspicuous, and her movements, light, graceful, self-controlled, seemed to show a person of equable temperament, without any strong emotions. In her light cheerfulness, her perpetual interest in the things about her, she might have reminded a spectator of some of the smaller sea-birds that flit endlessly from wave to wave, for whom the business of life appears to be summed up in flitting and poising.

The comparison would have been an inadequate one. But Elizabeth Merton’s secrets were not easily known. She could rave of Canada; she rarely talked of herself. She had married, at the age of nineteen, a young Cavalry officer, Sir Francis Merton, who had died of fever within a year of their wedding, on a small West African expedition for which he had eagerly offered himself. Out of the ten months of their marriage, they had spent four together. Elizabeth was now twenty-seven, and her married life had become to her an insubstantial memory. She had been happy, but in the depths of the mind she knew that she might not have been happy very long. Her husband’s piteous death had stamped upon her, indeed, a few sharp memories; she saw him always,–as the report of a brother officer, present at his funeral, had described him–wrapped in the Flag, and so lowered to his grave, in a desert land. This image effaced everything else; the weaknesses she knew, and those she had begun to guess at. But at the same time she had not been crushed by the tragedy; she had often scourged herself in secret for the rapidity with which, after it, life had once more become agreeable to her. She knew that many people thought her incapable of deep feeling. She supposed it must be true. And yet there were moments when a self within herself surprised and startled her; not so much, as yet, in connection with persons, as with ideas, causes–oppressions, injustices, helpless suffering; or, as now, with a new nation, visibly striking its “being into bounds.”

During her widowhood she had lived much with her mother, and had devoted herself particularly to this only brother, a delicate lad–lovable, self-indulgent and provoking–for whom the unquestioning devotion of two women had not been the best of schools. An attack of rheumatic fever which had seized him on leaving Christchurch had scared both mother and sister. He had recovered, but his health was not yet what it had been; and as at home it was impossible to keep him from playing golf all day, and bridge all night, the family doctor, in despair, recommended travel, and Elizabeth had offered to take charge of him. It was not an easy task, for although Philip was extremely fond of his sister, as the male head of the family since his father’s death he held strong convictions with regard to the natural supremacy of man, and would probably never “double Cape Turk.” In another year’s time, at the age of four and twenty, he would inherit the family estate, and his mother’s guardianship would come to an end. He then intended to be done with petticoat government, and to show these two dear women a thing or two.

The dinner was good, as usual; in Elizabeth’s eyes, monstrously good. There was to her something repellent in such luxurious fare enjoyed by strangers, on this tourist-flight through a country so eloquent of man’s hard wrestle with rock and soil, with winter and the wilderness. The blinds of the car towards the next carriage were rigorously closed, that no one might interfere with the privacy of the rich; but Elizabeth had drawn up the blind beside her, and looked occasionally into the evening, and that endless medley of rock and forest and lake which lay there outside, under the sunset. Once she gazed out upon a great gorge, through which ran a noble river, bathed in crimson light; on its way, no doubt, to Lake Superior, the vast, crescent-shaped lake she had dreamed of in her school-room days, over her geography lessons, and was soon to see with her own eyes. She thought of the uncompanioned beauty of the streams, as it would be when the thunder of the train had gone by, of its distant sources in the wild, and the loneliness of its long, long journey. A little shiver stole upon her, the old tremor of man in presence of a nature not yet tamed to his needs, not yet identified with his feelings, still full therefore of stealthy and hostile powers, creeping unawares upon his life.

“This champagne is not nearly as good as last night,” said Philip discontentedly. “Yerkes must really try for something better at Winnipeg. When do we arrive?”

“Oh, some time to-morrow evening.”

“What a blessing we’re going to bed!” said the boy, lighting his cigarette. “You won’t be able to bother me about lakes, Lisa.”

But he smiled at her as he spoke, and Elizabeth was so enchanted to notice the gradual passing away of the look of illness, the brightening of the eye, and slight filling out of the face, that he might tease her as he pleased.

Within an hour Philip Gaddesden was stretched on a comfortable bed sound asleep. The two servants had made up berths in the dining-room; Elizabeth’s maid slept in the saloon. Elizabeth herself, wrapped in a large cloak, sat awhile outside, waiting for the first sight of Lake Superior.

It came at last. A gleam of silver on the left–a line of purple islands–frowning headlands in front–and out of the interminable shadow of the forests, they swept into a broad moonlight. Over high bridges and the roar of rivers, threading innumerable bays, burrowing through headlands and peninsulas, now hanging over the cold shining of the water, now lost again in the woods, the train sped on its wonderful way. Elizabeth on her platform at its rear was conscious of no other living creature. She seemed to be alone with the night and the vastness of the lake, the awfulness of its black and purple coast. As far as she could see, the trees on its shores were still bare; they had temporarily left the spring behind; the North seemed to have rushed upon her in its terror and desolation. She found herself imagining the storms that sweep the lake in winter, measuring her frail life against the loneliness and boundlessness around her. No sign of man, save in the few lights of these scattered stations; and yet, for long, her main impression was one of exultation in man’s power and skill, which bore her on and on, safe, through the conquered wilderness.

Gradually, however, this note of feeling slid down into something much softer and sadder. She became conscious of herself, and her personal life; and little by little her exultation passed into yearning; her eyes grew wet. For she had no one beside her with whom to share these secret thoughts and passions–these fresh contacts with life and nature. Was it always to be so? There was in her a longing, a “sehnsucht,” for she knew not what.

She could marry, of course, if she wished. There was a possibility in front of her, of which she sometimes thought. She thought of it now, wistfully and kindly; but it scarcely availed against the sudden melancholy, the passion of indefinite yearning which had assailed her.

The night began to cloud rapidly. The moonlight died from the lake and the coast. Soon a wind sprang up, lashing the young spruce and birch growing among the charred wreck of the older forest, through which the railway had been driven. Elizabeth went within, and she was no sooner in bed than the rain came pelting on her window.

She lay sleepless for a long time, thinking now, not of the world outside, or of herself, but of the long train in front of her, and its freight of lives; especially of the two emigrant cars, full, as she had seen at North Bay, of Galicians and Russian Poles. She remembered the women’s faces, and the babies at their breasts. Were they all asleep, tired out perhaps by long journeying, and soothed by the noise of the train? Or were there hearts among them aching for some poor hovel left behind, for a dead child in a Carpathian graveyard?–for a lover?–a father?–some bowed and wrinkled Galician peasant whom the next winter would kill? And were the strong, swarthy men dreaming of wealth, of the broad land waiting, the free country, and the equal laws?

Elizabeth awoke. It was light in her little room. The train was at a standstill. Winnipeg?

A subtle sense of something wrong stole upon her. Why this murmur of voices round the train? She pushed aside a corner of the blind beside her. Outside a railway cutting, filled with misty rain–many persons walking up and down, and a babel of talk–

Bewildered, she rang for her maid, an elderly and precise person who had accompanied her on many wanderings.

“Simpson, what’s the matter? Are we near Winnipeg?”

“We’ve been standing here for the last two hours, my lady. I’ve been expecting to hear you ring long ago.”

Simpson’s tone implied that her mistress had been somewhat crassly sleeping while more sensitive persons had been awake and suffering.

Elizabeth rubbed her eyes. “But what’s wrong, Simpson, and where are we?”

“Goodness knows, my lady. We’re hours away from Winnipeg–that’s all I know–and we’re likely to stay here, by what Yerkes says.”

“Has there been an accident?”

Simpson replied–sombrely–that something had happened, she didn’t know what–that Yerkes put it down to “the sink-hole,” which according to him was “always doing it”–that there were two trains in front of them at a standstill, and trains coming up every minute behind them.

“My dear Simpson!–that must be an exaggeration. There aren’t trains every minute on the C.P.R. Is Mr. Philip awake?”

“Not yet, my lady.”

“And what on earth is a sink-hole?” asked Elizabeth.



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