OLD MAN SAVARIN
And Other Stories

by Edward William Thomson



JOHN BEDELL, U.E. LOYALIST.
*


    “A renegade!  A rebel against his king!  A black-hearted traitor!  You dare to tell me that you love George Winthrop!  Son of canting, lying Ezra Winthrop!  By the Eternal, I’ll shoot him on sight if he comes this side!” 
    While old John Bedell was speaking, he tore and flung away a letter, reached for his long rifle on its pins above the chimney-place, [Page 251] dashed its butt angrily to the floor, and poured powder into his palm.
    “For Heaven’s sake, father!  You would not!  You could not!  The war is over.  It would be murder!” cried Ruth Bedell, sobbing.
    “Wouldn’t I?”  He poured the powder in.  “Yes, by gracious, quicker’n I’d kill a rattlesnake!”  He placed the round bullet on the little square of greased rag at the muzzle of his rifle.  “A rank traitor—bone and blood of those who drove out loyal men!”—he crowded the tight lead home, dashed the ramrod into place, looking to the flint.  “Rest there,—wake up for George Winthrop!” and the fierce old man replaced rifle and powder-horn on their pegs.
    Bedell’s hatred for the foes who had beaten down King George’s cause, and imposed the alternative of confiscation or the oath of allegiance on the vanquished, was considered intense, even by his brother Loyalists of the Niagara frontier. [Page 252]
    “The Squire kind o’ sees his boys’ blood when the sky’s red,” said they in explanation.  But Bedell was so much an enthusiast that he could almost rejoice because his three stark sons had gained the prize of death in battle.  He was too brave to hate the fighting-men he had so often confronted; but he abhorred the politicians, especially the intimate civic enemies on whom he had poured scorn before the armed struggle began.  More than any he hated Ezra Winthrop, the lawyer, arch-revolutionist of their native town, who had never used a weapon but his tongue.  And now his Ruth, the beloved and only child left to his exiled age, had confessed her love for Ezra Winthrop’s son!  They had been boy and girl, pretty maiden and bright stripling together, without the Squire suspecting— he could not, even now, conceive clearly so wild a thing as their affection!  The confession burned in his heart like veritable fire,—a raging anguish of mingled loathing and love.  He stood now gazing at Ruth dumbly, his [Page 253] hands clenched, head sometimes mechanically quivering, anger, hate, love, grief, tumultuous in his soul.  
    Ruth glanced up—her father seemed about to speak—she bowed again, shuddering as though the coming words might kill.  Still there was silence,—a long silence.  Bedell stood motionless, poised, breathing hard—the silence oppressed the girl—each moment her terror increased—expectant attention became suffering that demanded his voice—and still was silence—save for the dull roar of Niagara that more and more pervaded the air.  The torture of waiting for the words—a curse against her, she feared—overwore Ruth’s endurance.  She looked up suddenly, and John Bedell saw in hers the beloved eyes of his dead wife, shrinking with intolerable fear.  He groaned heavily, flung up his hands despairingly, and strode out toward the river.
    How crafty smooth the green Niagara sweeps toward the plunge beneath that perpetual [Page 254] white cloud above the Falls!  From Bedell’s clearing below Navy Island, two miles above the Falls, he could see the swaying and rolling of the mist, ever rushing up to expand and overhand.  The terrible stream had a profound fascination for him, with its racing eddies eating at the shore; its long weeds, visible through the clear water, trailing close down to the bottom; its inexorable, eternal, onward pouring.  Became it was so mighty and so threatening, he rejoiced grimly in the awful river.  To float, watching cracks and ledges of its flat bottom-rock drift quickly upward; to bend to his oars only when white crests of the rapids yelled for his life; to win escape by sheer strength from points so low down that he sometimes doubted but the greedy forces had been tempted too long; to stake his life, watching tree-tops for a sign that he could yet save it, was the dreadful pastime by which Bedell often quelled passionate promptings to revenge his exile.  “The Falls is bound to get the Squire [Page 255] some day,” said the banished settlers.  But the Squire’s skiff was clean built as a pickerel, and his old arms iron-strong.  Now when he had gone forth from the beloved child, who seemed to him so traitorous to his love and all loyalty, he went instinctively to spend his rage upon the river.
    Ruth Bedell, gazing at the loaded rifle, shuddered, not with dread only, but a sense of having been treacherous to her father.  She had not told him all the truth.  George Winthrop himself, having made his way secretly through the forest from Lake Ontario, had given her his own letter asking leave from the Squire to visit his newly made cabin.  From the moment of arrival her lover had implored her to fly with him.  But filial love was strong in Ruth to give hope that her father would yield to the yet stronger affection freshened in her heart.  Believing their union might be permitted, she had pledged herself to escape with her love if it were forbidden.  Now he waited [Page 256] by the hickory wood for a signal to conceal himself or come forward.
    When Ruth saw her father far down the river, she stepped to the flagstaff he had raised before building the cabin—his first duty being to hoist the Union Jack!  It was the largest flag he could procure; he could see it flying defiantly all day long; at night he could hear its glorious folds whipping in the wind; the hot old Loyalist loved to fancy his foeman cursing at it from the other side, nearly three miles away.  Ruth hauled the flag down a little, then ran it up to the mast-head again.
    At that, a tall young fellow came springing into the clearing, jumping exultantly over brush-heaps and tree-trunks, his queue waggling, his eyes bright, glad, under his three-cornered hat.  Joying that her father had yielded, he ran forward till he saw Ruth’s tears.
    “What, sweetheart!—crying?  It was the signal to come on,” cried he.
    “Yes; to see you sooner, George.  Father [Page 257] is out yonder.  But no, he will never, never consent.”
    “Then you will come with me, love,” he said, taking her hands.
    “No, no; I dare not,” sobbed Ruth.  “Father would overtake us.  He swears to shoot you on sight!  Go, George!  Escape while you can!  Oh, if he should find you here!”
    “But, darling love, we need not fear.  We can escape easily.  I know the forest path.  But—”  Then he thought how weak her pace.
    “We might cross here before he could come up!” cried Winthrop, looking toward where the Squire’s boat was now a distant blotch.
    “No, no,” wailed Ruth, yet yielding to his embrace.  “This is the last time I shall see you forever and forever.  Go, dear,—good-bye, my love, my love.”
    But he clasped her in his strong arms, kissing, imploring, cheering her,—and how should true love choose hopeless renunciation? [Page 258]

     .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .      .     

    Tempting, defying, regaining his lost ground, drifting down again, trying hard to tire out and subdue his heart-pangs, Bedell dallied with death more closely than ever.  He had let his skiff drift far down toward the Falls.  Often he could see the wide smooth curve where the green volume first lapses vastly on a lazy slope, to shoulder up below as a huge calm billow, before pitching into the madness of waves whose confusion of tossing and tortured crests hurries to the abyss.  The afternoon grew toward evening before he pulled steadily home, crawling away from the roarers against the cruel green, watching the ominous cloud with some such grim humor as if under observation by an overpowering but baffled enemy.
    Approaching his landing, a shout drew Bedell’s glance ashore to a group of men excitedly gesticulating.  They seemed motioning him to watch the American shore.  Turning, he saw a boat in midstream, where no craft then on the river, except his own skiff, could be safe, unless [Page 259] manned by several good men.  Only two oars were flashing.  Bedell could make out two figures indistinctly.  It was clear they were doomed,—though still a full mile above the point whence he had come, they were much farther out than he when near the rapids.  Yet one life might be saved!  Instantly Bedell’s bow turned outward, and cheers flung to him from ashore.
    At that moment he looked to his own landing-place, and saw that his larger boat was gone.  Turning again, he angrily recognized it, but kept right on—he must try to rescue even a thief.  He wondered Ruth had not prevented the theft, but had no suspicion of the truth.  Always he had refused to let her go out upon the river—mortally fearing it for her.
    Thrusting his skiff mightily forward,—often it glanced, half-whirled by up-whelming and spreading spaces of water,—the old Loyalist’s heart was quit of his pangs, and sore only with certainty that he must abandon one human soul [Page 260] to death.  By the time he could reach the larger boat his would be too near the rapids for escape with three!
    When George Winthrop saw Bedell in pursuit, he bent to his ash-blades more strongly, and Ruth, trembling to remember her father’s threats, urged her lover to speed.  They feared the pursuer only, quite unconscious that they were in the remorseless grasp of the river.  Ruth had so often seen her father far lower down than they had yet drifted that she did not realize the truth, and George, a stranger in the Niagara district, was unaware of the length of the cataracts above the Falls.  He was also deceived by the stream’s treacherous smoothness, and instead of half-upward, pulled straight across, as if certainly able to land anywhere he might touch the American shore.
    Bedell looked over his shoulder often.  When he distinguished a woman, he put on more force, but slackened soon—the pull home would tax his endurance, he reflected.  In [Page 261] some sort it was a relief to know that one was a woman; he had been anticipating trouble with two men equally bent on being saved.  That the man would abandon himself bravely, the Squire took as a matter of course.  For a while he thought of pulling with the woman to the American shore, more easily to be gained from the point where the rescue must occur.  But he rejected the plan, confident he could win back, for he had sworn never to set foot on the soil unless in war.  Had it been possible to save both, he would have been forced to disregard that vow; but the Squire knew that it was impossible for him to reach the New York Shore with two passengers—two would overload his boat beyond escape.  Man or woman—one must go over the Falls.
    Having carefully studied landmarks for his position, Bedell turned to look again at the doomed boat, and a well-known ribbon caught his attention!  The old man dropped his oars, confused with horror.  “My God, my God!  it’s [Page 262] Ruth!” he cried, and the whole truth came with another look, for he had not forgotten George Winthrop.
    “Your father stops, Ruth.  Perhaps he is in pain,” said George to the quaking girl.
    She looked back.  “What can it be?” she cried, filial love returning overmasteringly.
    “Perhaps he is only tired.”  George affected carelessness,—his first wish was to secure his bride,—and pulled hard away to get all advantage from Bedell’s halt.
    “Tired!  He is in danger of the Falls, then!” screamed Ruth.  “Stop!  Turn!  Back to him!”
    Winthrop instantly prepared to obey.  “Yes, darling,” he said, “we must not think of ourselves.  We must go back to save him!”  Yet his was a sore groan at turning; what Duty ordered was so hard,—he must give up his love for the sake of his enemy.
    But while Winthrop was still pulling round, the old Loyalist resumed rowing, with a more rapid stroke that soon brought him alongside. [Page 263]
    In those moments of waiting, all Bedell’s life, his personal hatreds, his loves, his sorrows, had been reviewed before his soul.  He had seen again his sons, the slain in battle, in the pride of their young might; and the gentle eyes of Ruth had pleaded with him beneath his dead wife’s brow.  Into those beloved, unforgotten, visionary eyes he looked with an encouraging, strengthening gaze,—now that the deed to be done was as clear before him as the face of Almighty God.  In accepting it the darker passions that had swayed his stormy life fell suddenly away from their hold on his soul.  How trivial had been old disputes!  how good at heart old well-known civic enemies!  how poor seemed hate!  how mean and poor seemed all but Love and Loyalty!
    Resolution and deep peace had come upon the man.
    The lovers wondered at his look.  No wrath was there.  The old eyes were calm and cheerful, a gentle smile flickered about his lips. [Page 264] Only that he was very pale, Ruth would have been wholly glad for the happy change.
    “Forgive me, father,” she cried, as he laid hand on their boat.
    “I do, my child,” he answered.  “Come now without an instant’s delay to me.”
    “Oh, father, if you would let us be happy!” cried Ruth, heart-torn by two loves.
    “Dear, you shall be happy.  I was wrong, child; I did not understand how you loved him.  But come!  You hesitate!  Winthrop, my son, you are in some danger.  Into this boat instantly!  both of you!  Take the oars, George.  Kiss me, dear, my Ruth, once more.  Good-bye, my little girl.  Winthrop, be good to her.  And may God bless you both forever!”
    As the old Squire spoke, he stepped into the larger boat, instantly releasing the skiff.  His imperative gentleness has secured his object without loss of time, and the boats were apart with Winthrop’s readiness to pull.
    “Now row!  Row for her life to yonder [Page 265] shore!  Bow well up!  Away, or the Falls will have her!” shouted Bedell.
    “But you!” cried Winthrop, bending for his stroke.  Yet he did not comprehend Bedell’s meaning.  Till the last old man had spoken without strong excitement.  Dread of the river was not on George; his bliss was supreme in his thought, and he took the Squire’s order for one of exaggerated alarm.
    “Row, I say, with all your strength!” cried Bedell, with a flash of anger that sent the young fellow away instantly.  “Row!”  Concern yourself not for me.  I am going home.  Row!  for her life, Winthrop!  God will deliver you yet.  Good-bye, children.  Remember always my blessing is freely given you.”
    “God bless and keep you forever, father!” cried Ruth, from the distance, as her lover pulled away.
    They landed, conscious of having passed a swift current, indeed, but quite unthinking of the price paid for their safety.  Looking back [Page 266] on the darkling river, they saw nothing of the old man. 
    “Poor father!” sighed Ruth, “how kind he was!  I’m sore-hearted for thinking of him at home, so lonely.”
    Left alone in the clumsy boat, Bedell stretched with the long, heavy oars for his own shore, making appearance of strong exertion.  But when he no longer feared that his children might turn back with sudden understanding, and vainly, to his aid, he dragged the boat slowly, watching her swift drift down—down toward the towering mist.  Then as he gazed at the cloud, rising in two distinct volumes, came a thought spurring the Loyalist spirit in an instant.  He was not yet out of American water!  Thereafter he pulled steadily, powerfully, noting landmarks anxiously, studying currents, considering always their trend to or from his own shore.  Half an hour had gone when he again dropped into slower motion.  Then he could see Goat Island’s upper end between him and the mist of the American Fall. [Page 267]
    Now the old man gave himself up to intense curiosity, looking over into the water with fascinated inquiry.  He had never been so far down the river.  Darting beside their shadows, deep in the clear flood, were now larger fishes than he had ever taken, and all moved up as if hurrying to escape.  How fast the long trailing, swaying, single weeds, and the crevices in flat rock whence they so strangely grew, went up stream and away as if drawn backward.  The sameness of the bottom to that higher up interested him—where then did the current begin to sweep clean?  He should certainly know that soon, he thought, without a touch of fear, having utterly accepted death when he determined it were base to carry his weary old life a little longer, and let Ruth’s young love die.  Now the Falls’ heavy monotone was overborne by terrible sounds—a mingled clashing, shrieking, groaning, and rumbling, as of great bowlders churned in their beds.
    Bedell was nearing the first long swoop downward [Page 268] at the rapids’ head when those watching him from the high bank below the Chippewa River’s mouth saw him put his boat stern with the current and cease rowing entirely, facing fairly the up-rushing mist to which he was being hurried.  Then they observed him stooping, as if writing, for a time.  Something flashed in his hands, and then he knelt with head bowed down.  Kneeling, they prayed, too.
    Now he was almost on the brink of the cascades.  Then he arose, and, glancing backward to his home, caught sight of his friends on the high shore.  Calmly he waved a farewell.  What then?  Thrice round he flung his hat, with a gesture they knew full well.  Some had seen that exultant waving in front of ranks of battle.  As clearly as though the roar of waters had not drowned his ringing voice, they knew that old John Bedell, at the poise of death, cheered thrice, “Hurrah!  Hurrah!  Hurrah for the King!”
    They found his body a week afterward, floating [Page 269] with the heaving water in the gorge below the Falls.  Though beaten almost out of recognition, portions of clothing still adhered to it, and in a waistcoat pocket they found the old Loyalist’s metal snuff-box, with this inscription scratched by knife-point on the cover: “God be praised, I die in British waters!  JOHN BEDELL.” [Page 270]


* The United Empire Loyalists were American Tories who forsook their homes and property after the Revolution in order to live in Canada under the British Flag.  It is impossible to understand Canadian feeling for the Crown at the present day without understanding the U.E. Loyalist spirit, which, though Canadians are not now unfriendly to the United States, is still the most important political force in the Dominion, and holds it firmly in allegiance to the Queen. [back]