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Big John Wallace
Chapter 1

“The meadow brook, which seemeth to stand still, Quickens its current as it nears the mill; So doth the stream of life, which lingereth In shallow places, and so dull appears, Quicken its current—as it nears The gloomy mills of death.”

IT may be that because I am nearing those rapids which in due time carry us all over the dam of oblivion into the peaceful waters beyond, that certain events which mark my seventy-eight years of life in a country I have seen transformed from a veritable wilderness into the smiling agricultural district it is to-day, stand out clear-limned in my memory. At any rate they are there, fresh as the memories of yesterday; events which mark the war of brawn and muscle against stubborn odds— strong lives shaped by circumstance to fit their rugged environment. Of the struggles of the early pioneers I build my story, and if it be uncouth, be patient with the maker whose calloused hands are better fitted to hold the plow than the pen.

And if at times I obtrude myself into my tale, remember it is difficult for a narrator to speak of things in which he has played even an unimportant part without seeming to speak much of himself. But one cannot fell the tree without felling also the vine which entwines it: and because I am grafted into the lives of the men and women of whom I write, you must bear with plain John Wallace as he unfolds his story.

To-night I am alone in the big room whose oaken rafters, stained sumach-brown by time, throw back the ruddy glow from the stone fire-place. The log is eaten through and the flames slumber. Seated in my old hickory chair, my favorite pipe alight, the half-lights and the stillness remind me of the smoky twilights of those grand yesterdays, when these fair farms about me were forest, and above the misty marshes the fireflies twinkled as those guttering candles—ninety of them—twinkle now adown the shadowed length of this empty banqueting hall.

For you must know to-night was held a birthday feast in my honor; me, John Wallace, seventy-eight years of whose ripe life has been spent under God’s open sky the while he followed the grandest vocation the wide world holds—farming.

What a feast it was with its flow of wit and song, and many compliments paid me, which I in no way deserved. I sat at the head of the long table and before my dim eyes and the bright ones turned to me swam a mist like that the hoar frost gives forth in the warmth of the sun; so that the ruddy heads of the McDonalds and the dark heads of the Camerons drew together and held like cloud-rifts bound by sunlight.

Not one of those who honored me but I had held on my knee; and some of them were great, fully-bearded men with greying hair and faces lined with the scars of life’s conflict.

It was when the feast was done, and one by one the Camerons and the McDonalds had shaken my hand and stolen away, that she came to me, Sweet Ruth Cameron.

To me she came as I sat before the glowing grate, and stood before me, straight and tall with God’s sunlight in her waving hair and the sky’s softest tint in her eyes. And old age swept back from me, and I was a youth again, with the soft, wood-scented breeze on my cheek and a mad riot in my heart. For before me was Flora McDonald’s face, grave and sweet, with glass-grey eyes looking into mine, Flora McDonald, dead these many years, but whose memory is a shrine at which my heart will kneel until the trail I walk ends in the meadow of forgetfulness—and the bars are down.

Sometimes those we lose are given back to us thus, in form, face and features, as sweet Flora was given back to me in gentle Ruth Cameron, her grand-daughter. Why, God only knows perhaps to keep the worth-while memories of life the greener and more fragrant.

I was but a growing lad of eight or nine, with a calf’s awkwardness and a puppy’s fondness for play, and a love for the heather steeps and craigs strong as the life that swayed me, when happened that thing which drove Red McDonald from the hills of Scotland into a far alien country, and with him John Wallace, my father, my mother and myself. For the Wallaces had always been the servants of the McDonalds, loyal and true, and proud of the position; and though Red McDonald would have had my father remain in the Highlands he so loved, John Wallace refused to be left behind.

I remember that last night we spent in our native land; the mare’s tails in the sky mauve-lined by the glow from our great fire kindled in the glen, and the droning heart-hunger of the pipes as they sang of the great parting.

Red McDonald and my father were the pipers; tall, deepchested men they walked the heath side by side, the red of their plaidies lifting from the green like tongues of war-fire through the hill-scraigs; McDonald’s tawny hair and beard streaming and his blue eyes agleam with a strange light, my father’s raven locks sweeping his shoulders, his swarthy face emotionless, his brooding eyes fixed straight before him.

Even my own boy’s heart felt the plaint of the pipes’ wild song that night; and next day the shores of our country receded into mist as our little wooden vessel winged bravely outward over the big ocean, carrying us to a new land of adventure and endeavour.

On the tedious many weeks’ voyage I shall not dwell, neither will I speak at length of the strange, forested gulf into which our little vessel entered one close of a Summer’s day; nor of the long, trying journey through wild and swampy country to the place wherein we were to found our settlement.

I remember well my first sight of the sweeping hardwood forest into which we had come to make a home; and I can see— as though three-quarters of a century’s curtain lifted, leaving me a boy again—the soft stain of twilight on sky and leafy canopy, and the faces of Red McDonald and my father—sad with the pangs of homesickness, yet set with purpose—looking across the wilderness they and theirs, with the help of God, were to subdue.

Beside them stood Anne McDonald, daughter, sh» of one of Scotland’s proudest Lairds, pale, beautiful and gentle; while a little apart stood my dear mother, her brown ey;$ misty with the tears her brave heart strove to fight back.

Beside me, on a grassy knoll, sat Flora McDonald and Robert, her brother, on their faces the awe of a sweep and silence they could not understand; Flora with one slim hand gripping the tawny mane of Laddy, the collie, the other shading eyes which looked beyond the barred skies into an unreadable infinity.

And so we waited there in silence while the shadows lengthened and the mauve tint was swallowed up in the west, and from the marshy wastes came the boom of frogs and the weird cries of water birds. Then, just between the dying whisper of the day-wind and the dewy stir of the night-breeze, came Red McDonalds voice, deep and vibrant, in prayer.

“God, we thank Thee for guiding us safely to this our new home. May we always remember Thy mercy in true humbleness. Give us, God, the strength and patience to do our part well. Amen.”

So did we enter into the new life, eight families of us, for others had joined us on the journey from the gulf here, and the days that followed the measuring of the timber-lands into squares, the erecting of the crude log cabins and the shaping gradually of the rough wilderness, were busy days indeed.

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