At the Mountain’s Edge
Liza ONE 1897
Liza’s laugh was out before she could stop it. No one else in the room made a sound. She glanced at her mother, wondering if perhaps she’d misheard her father’s words, but she looked as bewildered as Liza felt. Even Stan had been stunned into silence, and that was rare. Her brother usually had something to say about everything. She let her breath out slowly, timing it with the sober tick-tock of the old clock on the mantel behind her, waiting for her father to laugh and assure them he’d been joking.
Up until a minute ago, the evening had been like any other. Liza had been absorbed in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes—though if her brother would stop spouting trivia about the rubber forests of Nicaragua or whatever it was from his latest National Geographic Magazine she would have been even more engrossed in it. On the other side of the room, her mother had been quietly sewing in her armchair by the fire while Liza’s father set out his pipe and tobacco, the ledgers for the family’s general store spread in front of him.
Then, as calmly as one might announce they were going for a walk up the street, her father had declared his intention to move both the family and their business from Vancouver to
Dawson City, in the Yukon. That’s when Liza had laughed, and the choked sound had fallen flat in the ensuing silence.
“They call it the ‘Paris of the North,’?” he said.
To Liza’s bewilderment, he looked absolutely thrilled about the idea, and he was regarding his family as though they’d leap at the opportunity. Certainly she would, given the chance to see the real Paris. But this?
After an uncomfortable pause, Liza’s mother spoke. “Arthur, what on earth are you talking about?”
“An adventure the likes of which none of us have ever imagined, my dear.” He beamed, drawing out his answer as he drew out the lighting of his pipe. The aromatic smoke began curling above their heads, but its normal ability to soothe Liza was absent tonight. She was as impatient as her mother to know more.
“Just because the rest of the world is taking leave of its senses,” her mother said, lips tight, “that does not mean this family must do the same.”
“Think of the business, Agatha,” Liza’s father replied. “The Klondike Gold Rush is the opportunity of a lifetime. We shall build a future in which all our roads are, quite literally, paved in gold.”
“No, thank you,” she replied. “I am more than satisfied on our present muddy road. As far as the business is concerned, I am quite content. Thanks to this gold phenomenon, the depression is finally lifting, and while I’ll admit the past few years have been challenging, our store is already doing much better. The prospectors are buying their supplies from us, so there is no need for us to move to the distant wilds.”
As her parents spoke, Liza cast a glance at her brother. He appeared to have recovered from his shock, and from the eager
lean of his body Liza could practically see a pick and shovel already clenched in his hands.
“Father, I think this is a marvellous idea,” Stan said, sounding more like an excited little boy than a young man of twenty-two. “Besides, I’d love to ride a dogsled.”
“Don’t be absurd,” Liza said. “You don’t know the first thing about dogsledding. You’d end up in a snowdrift.”
“No, I wouldn’t. There was a dogsled display set up outside the Vancouver Hardware shop today, and the shopkeeper was demonstrating how to drive them. It didn’t look all that difficult.”
“I saw that display, too. The four raggedy mongrels they’d hitched to it hardly looked as if they were up to that type of journey.”
“So now you’re an expert?”
Liza closed her eyes. Once Stan had something on his mind, there was no way to get around it.
“Didn’t think so. Clubb and Stewart over on Cordova Street call themselves ‘Klondike Outfitters,’ so I imagine they’d know all about it. I could go ask them.”
Their father cleared his throat, interrupting their banter. “No doubt Mr. Clubb would be happy to sell you whatever your heart desires for four times the usual price.”
“If supplies are so expensive,” her mother interjected, “then I don’t see how we can afford this venture.”
Liza did. For the past three years, she’d peeked at the store ledgers when her father wasn’t looking, fascinated by the columns of figures, the rise and fall of sales. Last year, when the newspapers had announced the discovery of gold in the Yukon, she’d watched as the store’s numbers soared to a thrilling new height. But she never told her father she’d done that. Ever since they’d first set up
their store in Vancouver, Liza had worked behind the counter. She’d only been ten years old, and her father had quickly noticed the magnetic effect her bright smile had on customers. Now, at twenty, Liza still loved running the cash, but she longed to do more and had asked her father if she could work on the ledgers.
“Your job is to help the customers,” he’d replied.
“I can do more than count change,” she’d insisted.
“Leave the accounting to me. It’s a man’s job.”
The remark bothered her, but none of her attempts to change his mind worked, so she took matters into her own hands. She figured it wouldn’t do anyone any harm if she quietly taught herself how the shop’s finances worked, and one of the first things she discovered was that her father was an adept businessman. Now she realized she should have suspected something was brewing. He’d been studying the newspapers with more intensity of late, and she’d noticed him stockpiling snowshoes and other outdoor equipment. She just hadn’t imagined any of it might be for their personal use.
“We wouldn’t be mining, would we?” she asked. “We know nothing about mining.”
“Of course not,” her father replied. “We’d be mining the miners. Trust me, Liza. This is an incredible opportunity. We cannot lose.”
“But we could mine, right?” Stan pressed.
A tiny whistle sang through the room as her father drew on his pipe. “If you can find the time, I don’t see why not. But our priority will be in establishing the business, because in order to afford what we will need in Dawson City, I will be selling both the shop and this house.”
Liza caught her breath, and her fingers dug into the arms of her chair.
“Arthur,” her mother said carefully, “I know your heart is set on this, but it seems . . . irresponsible. To start with, the Yukon is not the place for a young lady.”
Liza’s thoughts touched on handsome Charles MacGillvray, the young man who stopped by to see her at the store every so often. Charles hadn’t done anything more than flirt over the counter, and Liza didn’t feel a terrible longing when he wasn’t around, but she did feel a tug of regret at being denied the opportunity to see how things might go between the two of them.
“Our daughter is not a dainty flower,” her father said, appraising her. “She’s made of stronger stuff.”
“Am I?” Liza asked.
“Certainly. You’ve never shied away from hard work. Besides, you and your mother would always be with Stan and me, safe from any possible threats.”
“Oh, Stan would protect me, would he?” Liza gave her brother a sideways look.
Stan ignored her and turned to their mother. “Let’s go, Mother,” he urged. “Think of it! The Klondike Gold Fields! It’s a strike like no one has ever seen before, and it’s so close!”
“Close?” Liza said. “For someone who reads as much as you do, you might want to brush up on geography.”
“I mean as compared to the rest of the world, obviously. People are travelling to the Yukon from all over—America, Europe, England—and all of them are much farther away than we are. After a few weeks up there, they return home with boats full of gold. I read some have more than a hundred thousand dollars of gold with them! Think of that: a hundred thousand dollars!”
Her mother studied the three of them. “There will be no
more talk of the Yukon. The Petersons are not embarking on another wild goose chase, and that’s that.”
“Another wild goose chase?” Liza’s father asked, his smile fading.
“You know what I’m talking about, Arthur. Our life in Toronto was perfectly fine. Because of you, I bid my family goodbye and we uprooted everything so we could move to this rough, rainy place.” She kept her eyes on him as she stabbed her sewing needle through the coat she was mending. “Since then we’ve poured our lives and everything we have into the store—and now that business is finally starting to improve, you want to move us again. It’s not fair, Arthur.”
Silence descended over the room. Toronto meant little to Liza, since she and Stan had been very young when the family had come to Vancouver. The voyage had seemed like an adventure to them—no one else they knew had ever taken a train!—and they’d both settled in well. But Liza knew her mother still longed for the family she’d left behind. Especially her sister, to whom she still wrote weekly letters. While she did seem happier now that the store was doing well, whenever Liza made any passing mention of Toronto her mother drooped like a wilted flower, speaking wistfully of its bustling streets with their colourful shops and window displays, recalling the dances and parties she had attended regularly before she’d met her husband.
Liza’s father rose and crossed the room, surprising them all when he knelt at the side of his wife’s chair. He carefully pried her sewing needle from between her fingers, then took her hands in his own.
“You’ve sacrificed so much for our family, my dear,” he said gently, “and yet I am begging for more. Yes, our store is relatively successful, but we are still a small fish and the market here
is saturated. Because of that, I fear we may never reach our potential.” He kissed her knuckles. “I want more for you, Agatha. I want to give you the life I promised you when we married.”
Her expression eased. “Oh, Arthur. You have.”
His fingers skimmed along the faded upholstery on the arm of her chair, then paused over the worn patch near her elbow. “No,” he said. “This isn’t what I promised you. You deserve so much more. Do you remember the day I took you to the Crystal Palace? How you said you would love to see the original in London? I promised I would someday give you the world, and now I can take you to the top of it. From there, the sky is the limit.”
“We talked about a lot of things,” she replied. “Young people always have dreams they can’t fulfil.”
“And yet here we are, a quarter of a century later, and I still dream. We have been so busy these past few years with family and work that I fear we have discarded whatever youthful aspirations we once held. I confess this gold fever has lit a fire in my heart, a desire to explore the unexplored, a thirst for adventure, and it is my hope that I have only to ignite this passion within your own heart for you to feel a similar longing.”
“Is that right? Am I to be so easily swayed?”
Liza had never heard her father speak this way, of hearts and adventures, of promises and dreams, and though her mother appeared unmoved, her voice had softened.
“I see it not as swaying you so much as reminding you.”
After a moment, her mother spoke again. “How would we live, if we were to do this thing? How does it work?”
In that instant, Liza saw herself in the future, and her throat tightened. The Liza in her mind stepped out of her home, suitcase in hand, and the door closed behind her with a terrible
click of finality. Travel to the Yukon? She shuddered at the thought. Why, that was thousands of miles away. And wasn’t it buried in snow twelve months of the year? Vancouver at its worst was only ever inconvenienced by two inches of the stuff.
Everyone else might be fine with this plan, but Liza did not want to go. Absolutely not. No matter how much gold was buried up there, she had no interest in leaving Vancouver. Everything she knew was here. Of course she’d admired the sun blazing on the distant mountain peaks before, wondering what it might be like to stand up there and look down over the city, but those had never been more than passing, romantic thoughts. Never, ever had she dreamed of climbing a mountain. But now . . .
“Will it be a temporary thing?” she asked. “I mean, we would return to Vancouver afterwards, wouldn’t we?”
“It would last as long as it needs to.” The smile that spread across her father’s face was full of wonder. “The world will be stretched out before us, and the opportunities are boundless.”
She hesitated. “But we don’t have to leave right away, do we?”
“Oh yes,” he said, getting to his feet. Now that the matter was resolved, he had a bounce to his step. “As soon as possible, if we are to stay ahead of the pack.”
Liza looked to her mother, who had resumed her mending with new purpose, but she wouldn’t meet Liza’s eye. She would follow her husband without any further questions, Liza knew.
As her father left the room, Liza leaned back in her chair, her head spinning. How could they possibly travel to the wild frontiers of the Yukon? How would they know what to do? How would they look after themselves? The more she thought about it, the more frightened she became. She had no question that her father was a smart man, that he believed this move
was the right thing for all of them, but it sounded more than a little crazy to Liza. She let her breath out slowly, trying to ease the panic that had tightened her chest. Her father would take care of them, she reminded herself. He would do everything he could to prepare them for the road ahead. All Liza had to do was trust him. And she did. With all her heart.
The problem was that she didn’t trust the Yukon.