Elizabeth made a sound of horror.
“Oh, there was no intention to murder,” said Anderson bitterly. “He merely sat up drinking one winter night with a couple of whisky bottles beside him. Then in the morning he was awakened by the cold; the fire had gone out. He stumbled out to get the can of coal-oil from the stable, still dazed with drink, brought it in and poured some on the wood. Some more wood was wanted. He went out to fetch it, leaving his candle alight, a broken end in a rickety candlestick, on the floor beside the coal-oil. When he got to the stable it was warm and comfortable; he forgot what he had come for, fell down on a bundle of straw, and went into a dead sleep. The candle must have fallen over into the oil, the oil exploded, and in a few seconds the wooden house was in flames. By the time I came rushing back from the slough where I had been breaking the ice for water, the roof had already fallen in. My poor mother and two of the children had evidently tried to escape by the stairway and had perished there; the two others were burnt in their beds.”
“And your father?” murmured Elizabeth, unable to take her eyes from the speaker.
“I woke him in the stable, and told him what had happened. Bit by bit I got out of him what he’d done. And then I said to him, ’Now choose!—either you go, or we. After the funeral, the boys and I have done with you. You can’t force us to go on living with you. We will kill ourselves first. Either you stay here, and we go into Winnipeg; or you can sell the stock, take the money, and go. We’ll work the farm.’ He swore at me, but I told him he’d find we’d made up our minds. And a week later, he disappeared. He had sold the stock, and left us the burnt walls and the land.”
“And you’ve never seen him since?”
“You believe him dead?”
“I know that he died—in the first Yukon rush of ten years ago. I tracked him there, shortly afterwards. He was probably killed in a scuffle with some miners as drunken as himself.”
There was a silence, which he broke very humbly.
“Do you forgive me? I know I am not sane on this point. I believe I have spoilt your day.”
She looked up, her eyes swimming in tears, and held out her hand.
“It’s nothing, you know,” she said, trying to smile—“in our case. Philip is such a baby.”
“I know; but look after him!” he said earnestly, as he grasped it.
The trees thinned, and voices approached. They emerged from the forest, and found themselves hailed by the Chief Justice.