Outwardly the years went easily enough. The father railed and stormed, then relapsed into a manner of silent contempt; but he did not drive his son from the plain, comfortable home which he kept. Bart would not work, but he took some interest in reading. Paper-covered infidel books, and popular books on modern science, were his choice rather than fiction. The choice might have been worse, for the fiction to which he had access was more enervating. Outside his father’s house he neglected the better class of his neighbours, and fraternised with the men and women that lived by the lowest bank of the river; but his life there was still one into which the fresh air and the sunshine of the Canadian climate entered largely. If he lounged all day, it was on the benches in the open air; if he played cards all night, he was not given much money to waste; and there were few women to lend their companionship to the many drunkards of whom he was only one. Then, also, Bart did not do even all the evil that he might. What was the result of that long struggle of his which always ended in failure? The failure was only apparent; the success was this mighty one—that he did not go lower, he did not leave Fentown Falls for the next town upon the river, a place called The Mills, where his life could have been much worse. He fell in love with Ann Markham; and although she was the daughter of the wickedest man in Fentown, she was—according to the phraseology of the place—“a lady.” She kept a small beer-shop that was neat and clean; she lived so that no man dared to say an uncivil word to her or to the sister whom she protected. She did for her father very much what Bart’s father did for him: she kept a decent house over his head and decent clothes upon his back, and threw a mantle of thrifty respectability over him.
Ann was no prude, and she certainly was no saint. Twice a week there was the sound of fiddling and dancing feet in a certain wooden hall that stood near the river; and there, with the men and women of the worldly sort, Ann and her sister danced. It was their amusement; they had no other except the idle talking and laughing that went on over the table at which Ann sold her home-brewed beer. Ann’s end in life was just the ordinary one—respectability, or a moderate righteousness, first, and after that, pleasure. She was a strong, vigorous, sunbrowned maiden; she worked hard to brew her beer and to sell it. She ruled her sister with an inflexible will. She had much to say to men whom she liked and admired. She neither liked nor admired Bart Toyner, never threw him a word unless in scorn; yet he loved her. She was the star by which he steered his ship in those intervals in which his eyes were clear enough to steer at all; and the ship did not go so far out of the track as it would otherwise have gone. When a man is in the right course, with a good hope of the port, rowing and steering, however toilsome, is a cheerful thing; but when the track is so far lost that the sailor scarcely hopes to regain it—then perhaps (God only knows) it requires more virtue to row and steer at all, even though it be done fitfully.