The guests who were at table in the dining room stared through the doorway with interest. The new waitress, already on her job, gave the affair her amused attention. Especially absorbed was the sullen youth who halted in the middle of the room, holding a loaded tray above his head. In his abstraction he allowed the tray to tip, and the dishes rained down over Crowley, who was seated directly under the edge of the tray.
Latisan strode in and took his seat at the small table with the city stranger while Brophy was mopping the guest off; the city chap had received his food on his head and in his lap.
The waitress came and stood demurely at one side, meeting the flaming gaze of the Vose-Mern man with a look that eloquently expressed her emotions. "Shall I repeat the order?"
"Don't be fresh!" snarled Crowley.
Latisan rapped his knuckles on the table warningly. "Be careful how you talk to this lady!"
"What have you got to say about it?" The stout chap started to rise.
But Latisan was up first. He leaned over and set his big hand, fingers outspread like stiff prongs, upon the man's head, and twisted the caput to and fro; then he drove the operative down with a thump in his chair. "This is what I've got to say! Remember that she is a lady, and treat her accordingly, or I'll twist off your head and take it downstreet and sell it to the bowling-alley man."
It was plain that the girl was finding a piquant relish in the affair.
From the moment when she came down the stairs and took the white apron which Brophy handed to her she had ceased to be the city-wearied girl. It was homely adventure, to be sure, but the very plainness of it, in the free-and-easy environment of the north woods, appealed to her sense of novelty. There was especial zest for her in this bullyragging of Crowley by the man who was to be victim of the machinations by the Vose-Mern agency. Her eyes revealed her thoughts. The city man opened his mouth. He promptly shut it and turned sideways in his chair, his back to Latisan. Detective Crowley was enmeshed in a mystery which he could not solve just then. What was the confidential secretary doing up there?
The girl smiled down on her champion—an expansive, charming, warming smile. "I thank you! What will you have?"
She surveyed his face with concern; his countenance was working with emotion. In her new interest, she noted more particularly than in the New York cafeteria, that he apparently was, in spite of what Craig had said, a big, wholesome, naive chap who confessed to her by his eyes, then and there, that he was honestly and respectfully surrendering his heart to her, short though the acquaintance had been, and she was thrilled by that knowledge. She was not responding to this new appeal, she was sure, but she was gratified because the man was showing her by his eyes that he was her slave, not merely a presumptuous conquest of the moment, after the precipitate manner of more sophisticated males.
She repeated her question.
It was evident enough what Latisan wanted at that moment, but he had not the courage to voice his wishes in regard to her; he had not enough self-possession left to state his actual desires as to food, even. There was one staple dish of the drive; he was heartily sick of that food, but he could not think of anything else right then.
"Bub—bub—beans!" he stuttered.
She hurried away.
When she returned with her tray she did not interrupt any conversation between the two men at the little table; the Vose-Mern man still had his back turned on Latisan; the drive master sat bolt upright in a prim attitude which suggested a sort of juvenile desire to mind his manners.
The girl's eyes were still alight with the spirit of jest. She placed steak and potatoes and other edibles in front of Latisan. She gave the gentleman from the agency a big bowl of beans.
"I didn't order those!"
"I'm sorry, sir. I must have got my orders mixed."
"You have! You've given that"—he stopped short of applying any epithet to Latisan—"you've given him my order!"
"Won't you try our beans—just once? The cook tells me they were baked in the ground, woodman style."
"Then give 'em to the woodsmen—it's the kind of fodder that's fit for 'em."
Latisan leaned across the table and tugged Crowley's sleeve. "Look me in the eye, my friend!" The man who was exhorted found the narrowed, hard eyes very effective in a monitory way. "I don't care what you eat, as a general thing. But you have just slurred woodsmen and have stuck up your nose at the main grub stand-by of the drive. You're going to eat those beans this lady has very kindly brought. If you don't eat 'em, starting in mighty sudden, I'll pick up that bowl and tip it over and crown you with it, beans and all. Because I'm speaking low isn't any sign I don't mean what I say!"
The beans were steaming under the stout man's nose. He decided that the heat would be better in his stomach than on the top of his head; he had just had one meal served that way. He devoured the beans and marched out of the dining room, his way taking him past the sideboard where the new waitress was skillfully arranging glasses after methods entirely different from those of the sullen youth.
"Don't jazz the game any more—not with me," growled Crowley, fury in his manner. "And I want to see you in private."
She stiffened, facing him. She knew that Latisan's earnest eyes were on her. She assumed the demeanor of a girl who was resentfully able to take care of herself, playing a part for the benefit of the drive master. "Attend strictly to your end of the program, Crowley!"
"What do you mean—my end?"
"Protecting me from insults by these rough woodsmen. I suppose you are doing the same for Miss Elsham." Her irony was biting. He scowled and put his face close to hers.
"If you're up here on the job—it's not a lark. It's a case of he-men in these parts. If you're not careful you'll start something you can't stop."
"Keep away from me. They're watching us. You're bungling your part wretchedly. Can't you understand that I'm on the case, too?"
She had planned her action, forestalling possibilities as well as she was able. She was determined to be bold, trusting to events as they developed.
"You will kindly remember that I'm on this case along with you, and you can't make me jump through hoops!" Crowley, fresh from the city, narrow in his urban conceit, was seeing red because of a petty humiliation he had suffered in public.
Another man was seeing red for a different reason. Latisan strode across the room, nabbed Crowley by the ear, and led him into the tavern office, where the aching ear was twisted until the city man subsided into a chair.
The girl appraised at its full value the rancor that was developing in the Vose-Mern operative; his glaring eyes were accusing her.
But the adoring eyes of Latisan promised really more complicated trouble for her.
It was borne in on her that there were dangerous possibilities in the frank atmosphere of the north woods. Lida had the poignant feeling of being very much alone just then—and she was afraid!
Suppers were always over with early in Adonia. The red west was banded with half on hour's April daylight when the new waitress finished her work. She hurried up to her room; she locked her door with the panic-stricken air of one who desires to shut out danger.
She was in no mood to question the worthiness of the impulse which had sent her into the north, but she was realizing in fuller measure the difficulties with which she must deal. In the dining room she had felt recklessly intrepid and the utter mystification of Buck Crowley had amused her. But she had had plenty of opportunity in her Vose-Mern work to know the nature of Crowley—he had the shell of an alligator and the scruples of a viper and would double-cross a twin brother if the project could help the fortunes of Buck himself.
Once more she admitted that she was afraid. It was if she had touched levers and had started machinery which she could not stop; she had launched two men at each other and had observed the first ominous clinches—and Crowley had warned her that she was in the region of "he-men." But Crowley was not of a sort to use the manly weapons of the frank fighters of the north.
With the sense of hiding away from impending trouble, sorry for her share in starting it, she sat by the window, put her forehead on her arms, wept weakly, and told herself that she was a very poor article of a heroine.
However, the sunset soothed and invited her when she wiped her eyes. She beheld the honest outdoors of the forest country. She was hungry for those open places of earth. She knew that her resolution was ebbing the longer she hid herself in that hole of a room, like a terrified animal. She put on a hat and a wrap and started out.
She was perfectly well aware of the gantlet she must run.
Crowley was patrolling the porch; she issued from a side door of the tavern, but she was obliged to pass him in order to get into the street. His high sign to her was peremptory and unmistakable—Mr. Crowley had business with her! Right then, in spite of her planned intent to bluff out the situation just as long as she could at that distance from Mern, she was not in a state of mind to meet Crowley.
She heard steps behind her and was accosted, but her frown of apprehensiveness became a smile of welcome when she turned and beheld Latisan; the welcome was not so much from interest in Latisan as from the sense that she would have a respite from Crowley.
"If you're going to look the place over, won't you allow me to go along?" he pleaded. "I'll follow behind like a terrier, if you tell me to. I want to keep you from being bothered by anybody."
She showed concern and looked about her.
"Oh, by that cheap drummer, I mean. You needn't ever be afraid of woodsmen up here. I was watching him when you came out. If it wasn't for starting a lot of tattle I'd beat him up on the street."
"Really, you'd better come along with me, Mr. Latisan, out of the reach of any such temptation."
"Perhaps you'd like to get a view of the falls from the best point," he suggested, as they walked on.
When they turned into a path and disappeared from Crowley's ken the latter buttoned his coat and started leisurely on their trail.
On the edge of the gorge there was a niche in the cliff, a natural seat padded with moss. Latisan led her to the spot. He did not indulge his longing to sit beside her; he stood at a little distance, respectfully, and allowed her to think her thoughts. Those thoughts and her memories were very busy just then; she was glad because the everlasting diapason of the falls made conversation difficult.
Until then, in her reflections, she had been considering Ward Latisan merely as her stricken grandfather's staff of hope, an aid so essential that the Comas had determined to eliminate him. She surveyed him as he stood there in his own and fitting milieu and found him reassuringly stalwart as a dependable champion.
Alone with him, making estimate with her eyes and her understanding, she was conscious that her first surprise at sight of the real Latisan was giving way to deepening interest.
She reflected again on the character which had been given this man by Rufus Craig, and remembered more vividly what she had written about him for the guidance of the Vose-Mern agency.
There must be something wrong in Craig's estimate! She felt that she had an eye of her own for qualities in a man, and this man's clean sincerity had impressed her in their first meeting in the New York cafeteria.
He turned from his survey of the waters and met her gaze. "I was pretty much flustered that day in New York, Miss Jones. I was more so to-day at the railroad station. I don't know how to act with girls very well," he confessed naively. "I want to say something right here and now. There are mean stories going the rounds about me up in this country. I'm afraid you'll hear some of them. I don't want you—I don't want everybody to think I'm what they are trying to make out I am—they lied over Tomah way to hurt me in business. But perhaps you don't care one way or the other," he probed, wistfully.
He found encouragement in her expression and went on. "I was away at Tech, taking a special course, and they lied about me. I was trying to make something more of myself than just a lumberjack. And I thought there was a chance for me to help things on the Tomah after I learned something about engineering. I was doing my best, that's all, and the liars saw their opening and took it. If you hear the stories I hope you won't believe them."
Hastily she looked away from his earnest and imploring eyes and gave her attention to the turbid freshet flood, shredded into a yellow and yeasty riot of waters.
Her recollection of childhood became clearer now that she was back beside the cataract which was linked with all her early memories. He did not venture to disturb her with more talk.
She remained there until the chill from the air and the mist from the falling waters and the growing dusk warned her.
They were back at the edge of the village street before he spoke again. "The falls are pretty wild now; they're beautiful in the summer when the water is low. When I was a boy I footed it over here from the Tomah a few times and sat in that niche and listened to the song the waters seemed to sing. It was worth the long hike. Being there just now brought back something I'd almost forgotten. One day the waters sung me to sleep and when I woke up there was a little girl dancing in front of me and pointing her finger, and I looked at myself and saw she had made a chain of daisies and hung it around my neck and had stuck clover blooms all over me. And when she saw that I was awake she scampered off with some other children. Queer how the funny little thoughts like that pop up in a person's mind!"
Fresh from the scene, softened by her ponderings, Lida felt the surge of an impulse to tell him that the same memory had come to her while she sat in the niche. She was the child who had made the daisy chain—who had been bolder than the other children in approaching the sleeping stranger. And she was not ready to agree with him that the memory was "queer." She wished she could confess her identity to him right then, because the confession would enable her to bring up a topic which had been interesting her very much—how personalities, meeting as strangers, often prompt each other through subtle psychic qualities of past association; there were instances in the books she had read where persons claimed to have recognized each other from past incarnations; but Lida did not believe that stuff, she had told herself. As to the mutual remembrance of the daisy chain—that was different—it seemed quite natural. She could remember just how comically that boy's nose twitched when she was waking him up with a buttercup blossom.
Latisan was conscious of a queer unwillingness to have her leave him. He wondered what excuse he could offer to prolong the companionship of the evening. He wanted to link up her affairs with his in some way, if he could—that there might be something in common between them. To solicit her aid—her counsel; it is the first hankering of a man in his striving toward a woman's favor.
In this case, the drive master, desperately casting about for an excuse, was guilty of something like an enormity in venturesomeness. His own business was calling him to the big house on the ledges; in his new state of softened spirit he was dreading any run-in with Echford Flagg. Perhaps gossip had already carried to Flagg the reason why the drive master had not hastened to report about the dynamite victory. To exhibit the actual reason for the delay, in her own winning person, seemed a very proper thing to do according to Latisan's clouded judgment of the moment.
"Let me tell you!" he urged. "I've got to run up to Flagg's on business. You'll have something to talk to him about—those friends——"
"No, no!" She hurried on toward the tavern.
He ventured to clasp her arm, detaining her. "He's a poor, sick old man. A little talk with you will do him good."
Her memory was vivid. "But you told me in New York that he won't have a woman near his house."
"He's different nowadays," persisted Latisan. "He's sick and it will be a treat for him to have a girl say some kind words. I want him to meet you——"
But she shook off his hand and resolutely kept on her way. "I must go in. I'm tired after my long journey—and my work." There were loafers in front of the tavern. "I'm very much obliged to you, Mr. Latisan," she called so that all could hear, "for your kindness in showing me the way to the falls. Good night!" She disappeared.
There was nothing for Latisan to do but to brave the old tiger of the big house alone. Outside of his desire to keep her with him as long as possible, he had wanted her to go along into the presence of Flagg as a guaranty of the peace; he did not believe that Flagg would launch invective in the hearing of the girl; furthermore, Latisan was conscious of a proud anxiety to exhibit her.
Flagg tipped the shade of the lamp so that Latisan's face was illuminated when the drive master was in the room.
"Shaved!" snorted the tyrant. "All duded up and beauing around a table girl. I know all about it. Latisan, you——"
"Just a moment, Mr. Flagg!"
"Shaved, right in the start of the driving season! Shut up! I can see what's happening. I heard you had brought the dynamite. But somebody else told me. Yes, told me other news! I can't depend on you any longer to bring me reports. But you're planting something worse than dynamite under yourself. Parading a girl and keeping me waiting and——"
"Let me warn you, sir. Only my pride in doing a job I have set out to do is keeping me on with you. If you insult that young lady by another word I'll quit you cold, here and now!"
There was a moment of silence.
Rickety Dick, sitting on his stool with a cat in his arms, wriggled as uneasily as did the cat, who had been alarmed by the high voices.
"Talk about dynamite being dangerous!" muttered Flagg. "There's something else——"
But when he looked into Latisan's countenance he lowered the shade of the lamp and did not state what the something else was.
"If you know about the dynamite, sir, there's no need of my saying anything. It's on its way north. I shall start for headwaters at daybreak. I'll be down to report as soon as possible."
"When you get up on the drive, you stay there, Latisan."
"It's my pledged word that I must report to you in person. You insisted on it. I don't propose to give you any chance for come-backs. I shall report, Mr. Flagg."
He walked out.
Soon he heard the pattering of feet behind him on the ledges and he was hailed cautiously by the quavering voice of old Dick.
"Who is she, Mr. Latisan? Who is that girl?" panted Dick; "I saw her when she walked with you. I was side of the road."
"And ran and tattled to Flagg, eh?"
"No—no, sir! It was old Dempsey who came and gossiped. But what's her name?"
"Are you sure?"
"I'm sure because she told me so," retorted the drive master. "Her word goes with me."
"But what?" Latisan's manner was ominous.
"Of course she knows who she is," faltered old Dick. "And my eyesight ain't clear—and it was a long time ago—and my memory ain't good, of course, and——"
"And your wits don't seem to be of the best, either," snapped the young man. "You and Flagg better keep your tongues off that young lady. Do you understand?"
"Yes, Mr. Latisan. Yes, sir!"
Latisan stepped back and took hold of Dick by the sleeve of the ragged jacket. "Who did you think she was?"
"I guess I didn't really think—I only dreamed," was the old man's stammering reply. "If you say she's Patsy Jones that's enough for me."
"She says that she is—and that makes it so." Latisan strode on his way.
Rickety Dick lifted his arms, then he lowered them without his "Praise the Lord!"
Crowley, shrouded in the evening gloom, tapped on the parlor window the signal tattoo agreed upon between himself and Miss Elsham. The light in the parlor went out promptly and she came and replied to Crowley under the edge of the lifted sash. She had been apprised by her associate of the advent of Miss Kennard on the scene; Crowley had hastened to slip a note under her door.
"You saw 'em start for a walk, did you? Well, you saw me follow 'em, then. Chased 'em to the edge of the falls and hid."
"What sort of talk is she giving him?"
"Talk! I couldn't hear. I don't like water, anyway. I like it less when it bangs down over rocks and stops me from hearing what I want to hear."
"What does she tell you?"
"She has only shot a few words at me like beans out of an air gun. Claims she's here on the case."
"Do you believe that?"
"I don't dare to tell her that I don't believe it—considering the way she stands in with Mern. It may be his afterthought—he's a bird that flies funny sometimes, you know."
"Leave her to me; I'll dredge her to-morrow."
"That'll be good dope; she'll have to bring in your meals as soon as you give orders to Brophy."
"They'll have to be snappy orders to make him stop bringing 'em himself," said Miss Elsham. "The old fool stood around while I was eating supper and told me how much money he has saved and how lonesome he is since his wife died. I have told him to send Latisan to me this evening on a matter of business, no matter how late Latisan comes in. He's too jealous to give the word, I do believe."
"I can't understand the hang of it—her grabbing him so quick," lamented Crowley. "It's a devil of a note when we have to take time off the main job to detect out a mystery right in our own concern! What are you going to say about her when you write up your report to-night?"
He was referring to the inviolable rule of the Vose-Mern office that a daily report must be made by each operative.
"Nothing, Buck. Let's tread easy. We may seem to be trying to tell Mern his business. She's here and he must be perfectly well aware that she's here. Don't you write anything in your report. Leave her to me."
"All right! You handle it."
Then Crowley departed and sat down in his room and put into his report a full statement about Miss Kennard's arrival and actions and his own activity in regard to her. Crowley had elaborate ideas about the art of double-crossing everybody, even his associates in the agency. He figured that it could not hurt anything to give Mern a full report on all matters; and if there was anything peculiar in Kennard's presence there, Crowley's assiduity would contrast to his credit and shame Elsham's negligence. He had frequently made good hits by cajoling fellow operatives to suppress certain matters which he had then reported to his advantage with Mern. And Elsham, in this case, was claiming to be in charge, making him only the watchdog of her safety.
Crowley growled derogatory comments on her temptress qualities when he peered past the edge of his curtain in the morning and looked down on Latisan mounting into his jumper seat. The young man did not seem to be in an amiable or a confident state of mind, and his plain dolor comforted Crowley somewhat, even though Latisan was going back to the drive.
The drive master had not been able to see Miss Patsy Jones that morning, as he had hoped; he had no excuse to hang around the tavern till she did appear. Brophy served the breakfast; he declared that he was going to hang on to that table girl if good treatment could prevail, and he was never going to ask her to wait on early breakfasters.
Crowley got additional comfort out of Latisan's loud proclamation that he would be down in Adonia again very soon. The drive master seemed to be striving to draw somebody's attention to that fact. He cast looks behind him at the upper windows of the tavern when he drove away.
That day, according to the plans he had made in New York, Mr. Crowley took pains to give himself an occupation in Adonia; loafers who were not bashful were quizzing him about the nature of his business up there.
The barber had one corner of the village pool room; Crowley made a trade to occupy another corner. He opened up a case of cheap jewelry and traded it by day and raffled it evenings; he was not molested in his sporting propositions, as he called the procedure, after he had arranged a private talk with the deputy sheriff. Crowley, with his fancy waistcoat and his tip-tilted hat, fitted the role he was playing. He was right in the path of all the gossip that traveled to and fro; therefore, the role suited his needs.
His nightly conferences with Miss Elsham at the parlor window were not pleasant; Miss Elsham was not in a state of mind which conduced to cordial relations.
She had not been able to "dredge" Miss Kennard. That young lady waited on Miss Elsham, but not with a tray. After a talk with Brophy, who agreed with her absolutely and placatingly, begging her to suit herself in all her acts provided she would stay on, Miss Kennard went into the parlor, closed the door carefully, and told Miss Elsham where that young woman got off as an exacting lady of leisure. "Mr. Mern would not allow it—one operative doing menial work for another. If you choose to come into the dining room, that's different."
Miss Kennard then turned and walked out. She refused to stay with Miss Elsham and have a talk. "We are ordered to be very careful up here," she reminded the operative. Miss Elsham was impressed. It was as if Mern were sending new cautions by this latest arrival.
Miss Kennard, in her dabblings in psychoanalysis, had secured some concrete aids for action in addition to the vague abstractions which had come into her mind when Latisan had so naively confessed on the cliff above the cataract. She understood fully the potency of a suggestion which left a lot to the imagination of the other party; only a bit of a suggestion is needed—and it must be left to itself, like yeast, to induce fermentation. For that reason Miss Kennard abruptly walked out and left Miss Elsham alone to reflect—not running away, but retiring with the air of one who had said a sufficient number of words to the wise.
Miss Elsham, in her conference at the window with Crowley that evening, revealed how actively her batch of ponderings had been set to working by that bit of suggestion. Crowley, listening, wished privately that he could call back that report to Mern; Mern had repeatedly warned him to keep to his place as a strong-arm operative, bluntly bearing down on the fact that Crowley's brains were not suited for the finer points of machination. According to Miss Elsham's figuring—and Crowley acknowledged her innate brightness—the plot had thickened and Kennard, known to all operatives as Mern's close confidant, was up there as chief performer.
Several days elapsed before Crowley—perspiring whenever his worries assailed him—got any word from Mern. The chief wrote guardedly, and Crowley read the letter over a dozen times without being exactly sure just what course he was to pursue. The truth was, Mr. Mern himself was doing so much guessing as to Miss Kennard that he was in no state of mind to give clean-cut commands.
Crowley's letter was the first intimation to the chief of the whereabouts of his confidential secretary. She had not resigned, nor had she asked for a leave of absence, nor had she bothered to write or telephone; she did not show up at the office—that was all!
Lida, having discarded ethics, had decided to play her game from an ambuscade, just as the Vose-Mern agency did its business.
To give any information to the foes of Echford Flagg would be giving odds—and she was working single-handed and deserved odds for herself. She resolved to make her game as peculiar as possible—to keep all of them guessing—to oblige them to take the initiative against her if they should find out the secret of her strange actions. The element of time entered largely into her calculations: every day on which she stood between them and Ward Latisan—every day that he devoted to the drive—was a day to be charged to her side of the ledger; and there are not many days in the driving season when the waters are high and the river is rushing.
A keener mind than Crowley's would have detected in Mern's letter all the chief's inability to understand. What Crowley did get from the letter was the conviction that Miss Kennard was not to be molested at that time. Mern made that clear, though he was vague on other points. The chief was wondering whether excess of zeal might be the reason for Miss Kennard's amazing performance. He remembered certain hints which she had dropped as to her financial needs, and she had not seemed averse when he had told her on occasions that he thought of giving her a commission when the right kind of a case came along. To turn a trick for a rich corporation—working alone so that she might claim full credit—undoubtedly had appealed to her as her great opportunity, Mern reflected, and she had set off on her own hook, fearful that he would not alter the arrangements he had made. He was angry; he muttered oaths as he weighed the situation. But he did not put any of his anger into his letter to Crowley. Miss Kennard knew too much about the general inner workings of the agency! In this new case there was specifically a five-thousand-dollar net fee in case Latisan could be eliminated and his crew left to the mercies of Comas bluster and cash. Miss Kennard, if unduly molested, could say two words in the north country and put that contingent fee into limbo.
Therefore, Chief Mern was treading softly at first.
But from the letter which treated the general situation so gingerly the strong-arm operative extracted one solid and convincing command. He was to watch Miss Kennard. The command seemed entirely natural. Had he not been sent up there to watch—or watch over—no matter which—Miss Elsham? His instructions in regard to Miss Kennard seemed to make her a particularly valuable person in the Vose-Mern plans. He was not to allow anything to interfere with his watching of Miss Kennard, not even for the sake of Miss Elsham. He was to observe every movement, catch every word, if possible, mark every detail of Miss Kennard's operations.
Crowley did not show the letter to Miss Elsham, nor did he speak of it. He would mortally offend her by revealing his double-crossing tactics; as a woman she would be more offended by being relegated to the background in favor of the newcomer.
Crowley found his espionage an easy job at first. All he had to report to Mern for three or four days was that "Patsy Jones" did her work in the hotel and remained in her room till after dark—and then went out and strolled aimlessly. She would not talk with Crowley when he grasped at opportunities to speak to her on her walks. She reminded him that fellow operatives must be careful; furthermore, scandal might oblige her to abandon her job; he would be responsible if he insisted on dogging her about the village.
However, Crowley was able, a few days later, to slip her a letter from Mern; the chief had inclosed it in a missive containing further instructions to the operative to make sure of every move of Lida. The inclosed letter was addressed to "Patsy Jones."
Lida read it when she was back in her room. She noted with satisfaction that Chief Mern was still guessing and that his detective mind was unable to solve the mystery except on the ground that she was so loyal to the agency and so ambitious for herself that she had tackled the job as a speculation. He chided her because she had not reported her intention. He asked for a full statement.
She hid the letter carefully in her bureau. Having put it away for further reference in case she did make up her mind to answer the questions when forced to do so, she delayed replying. She did not want to lie needlessly to Mern—she was willing to let him do imagining, too, seeing how well it was working, to all appearances, in the cases of Elsham and Crowley.
She had her own reasons for keeping withindoors in the daytime. The matter of Rickety Dick was worrying her. He had seen her as a girl of sixteen, worn with her vigils beside a sick mother; the light through the area windows had been dim, and he had stumbled against chairs in the room as if his vision were poor.
However, she discovered at the outset of her stay in Adonia that she had become the object of old Dick's intent regard whenever he found opportunity. He often trudged past the tavern on his errands; he dragged slow steps and squinted and peered. Once she caught him peeping at her through the open door of the dining room. She had feared some such closer inspection and had drawn back her hair and twisted its waviness into an unsightly pug; the moment she saw him she slipped into her mouth a piece of spruce gum which an admiring woodsman had presented, and then she chewed vigorously and slatted herself about in a tough manner. He sighed and went away muttering.
He ventured another and a last sortie, as if he wanted to make an end of his doubts. He also made a sensation.
Rickety Dick came to take dinner at the tavern!
He was in his best rig, with which he was accustomed to outfit himself for the funerals of his old friends. There was a faded tail coat which flapped against baggy gray trousers. A celluloid collar on a flannel shirt propped up his wrinkled chin.
Martin Brophy stared at old Dick and then cast a look up at the office clock, whose hands, like Dick's in the moment of mental stress, were upraised on the stroke of twelve.
"Flagg dead?" inquired Brophy, unable otherwise to account for Dick's absence from the big house at the dinner hour.
"No! Toothache! Can't eat to-day. He let me off to go to a burying."
Old Dick shook his head and passed on into the dining room, peering hard into the face of the waitress as he plodded toward her. "Burying!" he muttered. "May as well make sure it's dead—and put it away."
Lida met him as she was meeting her other problems up there—boldly.
She leaned over him when he was seated and recited the daily bill of fare. He did not take his eyes off her face, now close to his.
"Lida Kennard," he whispered, hoarsely, panting, pulling the hard collar away from his throat with trembling fingers, "why ain't ye home with your poor old grandfather, where ye belong? Lida Kennard, why ain't ye home?"
Her eyes did not waver. Brophy had followed, to be better informed as to the funeral, and stood in the doorway.
"Who's the nut?" inquired Patsy Jones, acridly, turning her gaze to the landlord. "He's calling me names." Her hard tones made the old man wince.
"He's all right—safe—only a little crazier than usual," returned Brophy. "If you want to eat, Dick, go ahead and eat—but don't bother Miss Jones. I don't allow anybody to bother her. And where's that funeral, I ask you again?"
"Here!" said the old man, rapping his knuckles on his breast. "It's buried. I guess I am crazy. Oh yes, I'll admit it. I see things that ain't so."
"Well, go ahead and eat," commanded Brophy.
"I don't want to eat—I can't, now." He pushed back his chair and rose.
"What names did he call you?" demanded the landlord, truculently. "I won't have your feelings hurt, you know!"
"Oh, only made some funny noises," retorted Miss Jones, flippantly. "Let him go. I don't mind."
Rickety Dick plodded out as he had plodded in; he was shaking his head, dismissing all his hopes and his dreams.
Miss Jones went to another guest. "The world is full of 'em," she said. "We have lamb, beef, and pork."
Brophy retired, entertaining no further curiosity.
The surge of homesickness that swept through the girl choked her—its spray blurred her eyes as she gazed after old Dick, pitying his bent shoulders under the sun-faded coat. But even in her sorrow, because she had been obliged to deny his wistful plaint so heartlessly, she was conscious of relief. She had been afraid of his recognition of her; after this she would be more free to come and go.
That evening at supper there was a guest who troubled her thoughts more than had Rickety Dick, but in another way. Ward Latisan was down again from the drive, still adoring her frankly and unabashed with his eyes, following all her movements; it was plain that he had taken counsel with himself while he had been away from her and that his love had been made acute by separation. She was of a mind to hide away from him in her room after her work was done. But there was the cultivation of his friendship to consider! She must keep up that friendship in order to be able to influence him.
Timorously, wondering what was to come from the coil of events as she saw them shaping in that region of barehanded conflict, she put on her hat and went forth. Latisan stepped off the porch and joined her, plainly no longer concerned with what the gossipers of Adonia might say or think.
As on a previous occasion, when the gloom of the night had settled, they were again at the side of the village street, at the mouth of the path by which they had returned from the cliff above the falls.
She had sought the falls that evening because the din of the waters would keep him from talking too much. She was afraid of the light in his eyes and of the repressed feeling in his tones. She knew that she must repulse him if he wooed. Her emotions were mixed, but she was sure there was no love in her heart—all her thoughts were concerned with her quest. If love should by any possibility develop in her and she should allow him to see it, what would become of his man's appetite for fight and danger? She felt obliged to view surrender to him in that light. On the other hand, she could not afford to offend him deeply by allowing matters to come to a climax between them right then; the climax must disclose her lack of affection. She had been estimating that hale man of the woods—she was certain that what she felt toward him was only friendly respect for his character, and she could not lie to him or fawn falsely for her purposes.
"I must go up now and face the usual music," he said, sourly. "I'm getting to be afraid of myself with Flagg."
"I've heard he's afflicted with the toothache to-day. You must make all allowances," she entreated, with a dash of jest in her earnestness.
"Then I especially need a protector. I'm going to ask you again to go along with me. Really, you're needed if I'm expected to stay on my job. Why," he went on, jest mingling with seriousness in his own case, "if the Flagg drive comes down all right through my efforts, you can take the credit of the victory because you were present to-night and smoothed things; he'll just have to be decent, with a strange young lady in the room."
She was not ready with peremptory refusal, as she had been on the other occasion; she had met the bugbear of Rickety Dick and had prevailed over the old man's suspicions. As Latisan averred, her presence might help matters; she would entertain strange and acute regrets if her absence should allow the split that Latisan seemed to apprehend.
He timidly put his hand on her arm. "Please!"
"I'll be intruding on a business talk. I may make him all the more touchy." She was hesitating, weighing the hazards of each plan—to go or to stay away.
"There's no private business to be talked. I'm simply going to tell him that I have blown the ice and have the logs in the river and I want to have his orders about how many splash dams I can blow up if I need to do it for a head o' water to beat the Three C's drive to Skulltree. Really, he needs to talk with somebody who is gentle," he went on, and she responded to the touch on her arm and walked slowly with him up the hill. "He sits there day by day and reads the tooth-for-tooth part of the Old Testament, and it keeps hardening his heart. I've thought of a plan. Suppose you get friendly with him! You can take some soothing books up to him in your off hours and read aloud. Let's try to make a different man of Eck Flagg, you and I."
So, over the ledges where her childish feet had stumbled, Lida Kennard, trembling, anxious, yearning for her kin, went again to the door of the big mansion on the hill.
Latisan's words had opened a vista of hope to her; she might be able, after all, to render the service to which old Dick had exhorted her, hiding her identity behind a woman's desire to cheer an invalid.
It was the same square, bleak house of her early memories, now dark except for a dim glow through two dingy windows in the lower part; the yee-yawed curtains were eloquent evidence of the housekeeping methods.
"He won't have any women around, as I told you." Latisan was not tactful in his excuse for the slack aspect of the house.
"I'm afraid it isn't best for me to go in," she said, making a final stand.
"If you go with me you're all right," declared the drive boss, with pride of power where the Flagg interests were concerned. "It'll do him good to be jumped out of himself—to see a young lady from the city."
Latisan did not knock; he walked in, escorting the girl.
In the middle of the sitting room, in a wheel chair that was draped with a moosehide tanned with the hair on it, she beheld an old man with a fleece of white mane and beard. A shaded oil lamp shed a circle of radiance on a big book which lay on his knees. The girl noted that the book was the Bible. Outside that circle of radiance the room was in darkness and the old man heard footsteps without being able to see who had entered; in the shadows was old Dick on his stool.
"That you, Latisan?" demanded the master.
"Yes, sir!" Ward was about to say more, introducing the girl, but Flagg broke in, paying no attention to what his drive master might have on his mind.
"Here's the stuff for real men in this book! You ought to take time to read it. I'm sorry I didn't read it regular when I was going about on two legs." He pounded his hand on the opened pages. "The parsons are now preaching too much New Testament stuff. When my folks dragged me to the meetinghouse in the pod-auger days we got Old Testament—red hot. I've been hoping I remembered it right—I've been looking it up. Listen!"
"'If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is thine soul, entice thee secretly, saying, "Let us go and serve other gods," which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him; but thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shalt be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.'"
Again the old man beat his hand upon the book. "There are the orders for you, Latisan!"
"I don't know as I just get you, sir!"
"You don't expect to find the Three C's mentioned by name in Holy Writ, do you? But the case is covered. They're asking you and me to serve other gods. They're asking us to go into their combine. If we do so it means that the sawmills on this river will be closed and the homes deserted. They're taking all the timber down to the paper mills. To hell with their paper! The folks need lumber for houses. The Three C's shan't control the market and boost prices so that folks can't buy. Latisan! I tell you again, you've got your orders, backed by the Scripture. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth! Families or corporations, it's all the same! Why don't you say something?"
"I'm waiting to introduce a young lady, sir. This is Miss Jones who has just come to town."
Flagg tipped the shade of the lamp and deflected the light upon the couple. He bawled an ugly oath. "Clean shaved, again! Making a dude of yourself! Sapgagging with a girl?"
Latisan stepped forward and broke in on the tirade. "I'll have to ask you to trig that kind of talk, Mr. Flagg. Miss Jones has come here to cheer you up."
"When I want any girl to come here and cheer me up I'll drop her a line and give her thirty days' notice."
The caller who had been snubbed so bluntly turned on her heel. She pleaded, faintly, "I'm sorry, sir. I'll leave you and Mr. Latisan to talk over your business."
"I can't blame you for going," said Latisan. He followed her, and to her profound amazement she discovered that a woodsman could be as temperamental as a prima donna. "I'm going, too, Mr. Flagg," he called over his shoulder. "I'm going for good and all where you're concerned. I'm done with you. I gave you your fair warning. Send another man north to the drive."
"Just one minute, there, Latisan!" called the master, harshly. "Unless you're afraid to stay here that length of time or can't spare the minute away from your wench!"
The drive master stopped at the door and spun around on his heel.
There had been but one flash of the light's rays on Lida—the old man had immediately allowed the shade to drop; standing just beyond the doorway in the hall, she was safely in the shadows.
"If you expect to hear me whinny like a sick horse you're mistaken," went on Flagg, with the staccato of ire. "Now I know what you're worth. You have appraised yourself. A girl's grin has bought you. I don't know what sort she is, nor care I. But unless she's a fool she can see what you're worth, too. Go along, now!"
There was compunction in Latisan, and he realized it. But there was that untamed spirit of old John, as well, and it made for rancor and rebellion.
In that room at the moment old John's spirit was veritably present in the grandson, reviving the ancient north-country duello of unconquered wills with old Echford in the flesh—and a Latisan had never lowered the crest before a Flagg.
"It's a cheap hired man you want!" Compromise was offered no opportunity by young Latisan's manner and tone. "Hire one—of your picking! And a devilish fine boss that kind will make for you!"
"I'll hire nobody," roared Flagg. "I'll ride to the head of the drive in this chair. Even with both sides of me paralyzed I'll be worth more than you are, you lallygagging, love-cracked loon! Get out of here!"
When the two were outside in the night the girl faced Latisan. "I insist on going alone, sir. You have no right to leave a helpless man as you're doing. I cannot believe that you mean what you said just now!"
"I'm through! I have let him curse me out all along and I took it whence it came. But this time it's different."
"Please go back to him."
"I will not. I'm done!"
The grim thought came to her that she had ineluctably become a valuable operative in the interests of the Vose-Mern agency. According to appearances the work was finished. However, she promptly blazed into indignation which rang true. "I'm only a stranger to that poor old man. He did not understand. I had no right to rush in on him as I did."
"I had the right to invite you."
"I won't have it on my conscience that I have been a party to this break between you two. If it were not so dreadful it would be silly, sir."
"I have the right to be silly about my own business, if you're bound to call it silly, what I have done."
"Go back, I tell you!"
"I will not!"
"You shall not walk away with me."
"I invited you to come up here. I shall see you to the door of that tavern. You may never speak to me again, but you won't be able to say about me that I deserted you in the dark night."
"Will you come back here after you have escorted me to the tavern?"
"No! It's settled into a stand-off between Flagg and me."
"Don't you want to please me?"
"Yes, even to lying down here in the mud and letting you walk on me," he declared, his fervor breaking from the repression he had been maintaining with difficulty. "And it's because he has insulted somebody that I feel like that toward—that's why I'm done with him. I'm not putting it very smoothly. But it's in here!" He pounded his fist on his breast.
"Mr. Latisan, this is folly. I'm only a waitress."
"I'm thanking God that you are and that you aren't too high above me, as I was afraid you were when I met you in New York. You're down where I can talk to you."
She started to walk away, but he leaped and seized both her arms. "This is going mighty fast," he gasped. "I never talked to a girl in this way in all my life. I'll probably never dare to talk to you if I wait for daylight to-morrow—I'll be too scared of my thoughts overnight."
She did not try to twist herself free from his grasp; she was more self-possessed than he was—he was trembling in all his frame.
"It's like dynamite," he stammered. "I reckon it was in me all the time! The first flash of your eyes lighted the fuse! I've blown up." He pulled her close to him, flung his arms about her, and kissed her. But immediately he loosed her and stepped back. "I didn't intend to do that! My feelings got away from me."
"And now may I go along?" she inquired, coldly, after he had remained silent for a time.
"I'm sorry I have made you angry. I don't know how to go at a thing like this one I'm tackling," he said contritely. "But I feel that talking out straight and man fashion is the only way. Will you marry me?"
"Certainly not, sir!"
He did not attempt to stay her when she walked on. He trod humbly by her side.
"I was afraid you wouldn't. But I couldn't keep back the asking any more than I can push back that flood you can hear down in the gorge. It just had to pour along, that asking!"
"Mr. Latisan, you astonish me. You desert your employer on account of a mere whim——"
"Don't you call my standing up for you any whim, if you please!" The change in his tone from humility to stern and masterful command caused her to catch her breath. She was not accustomed to dominance by men.
"At any rate, sir, you have proposed marriage to a stranger, a mere come-by-chance into this place, not knowing who or what I am. I have a right to be astonished."
"Probably! But you aren't any more so than I was in New York when I realized what had happened to me."
"So, now you can forget all about me and go back to your work on the drive!"
"You have said I did not know much about you. It's plain you don't know me! I have told Eck Flagg I am done. And I am! You don't understand. I'm a Latisan and——" he faltered then; it sounded like boyish boasting and he was a bit ashamed.
"Somehow that helpless old man has stirred all my sympathy. Why won't you do as I ask?"
"Because a girl who throws a man down as you have hasn't any right to ask him to do this or that."
They were near the tavern before either spoke again.
"I'm not saying that I'm not sorry for Eck Flagg," the drive master stated. "I don't want you to leave me to-night with the idea that I'm a quitter or a coward or a sneak about what's my duty. I'll be honest with you. You think I'm a fool because I've fallen in love with you so suddenly. A man who has tussled with drives and log jams for as many years as I have needs to think quickly, make up his mind about what it's right to do, and then stick to it. I'm not going to sacrifice myself for Flagg—a man with the hard heart that's in him." He caught his breath and plunged on: "You say to-night that you won't marry me. I'm going to stay close by and see if you won't change your mind. A roaring fire is in me right now!" His demeanor terrified her. The primitive man was blazing. "I don't dare to take the chances on what would be in me if I should go back to the drive and leave you here to be smirked at by every cheap man who comes along. I have dreamed too much about you!" He was wooing with the avatar of old John. "By the gods! you're my girl! I'm going to have you! I'll stay on that job!"
"I shall leave this place to-morrow. It will be very—well, very unwise for you to annoy me."
"I'm going to follow you."
"Mr. Latisan, I have listened to you; you shall listen to me!" She spoke sharply. Now she displayed the equipoise of one who had learned much from self-reliant contact with men. "I'll not argue with you about what you call love. But there's something which love must have, and that's self-respect. If your folly on account of me takes you away from your honest duty you'll despise me when you come to yourself. You have been honest with me. I'll be honest with you. I like you. I can see that you're a big, true man—much different from most of the men I have met before this. But I shall lose all my good opinion of you if you desert your job. And, as I have said, you'll hate me if I allow you to do so. Can we afford to take chances?"
While he pondered she made hurried mental account of stock in her own case.
She was not admitting that she felt any especial consideration for this man as a lover; she was protecting her grandfather and striving for her own peace of mind as a payer of a debt of honor. He followed her when she walked on toward the tavern.
"May I ask what you mean by taking chances? Chances on being something more to each other than we are now?" he asked, wistfully.
"I think we have gone quite far enough for one evening, sir."
He pulled off his cap. "Before I go to sleep I shall say my little prayer. I shall ask that you won't be thinking I have gone too far. I'm sure it won't be a prayer to the God of the Old Testament, such as Eck Flagg was reading about. I'll whisper up to Mother Mary. She understands women. I don't."
He bowed in silence when she gave him a hasty "good night!"
Latisan whirled suddenly after the girl closed the door behind her—came about on his heels so quickly that he nearly bumped into the assiduous operative Crowley, who had been taking desperate chances that evening.
But Latisan's gaze was directed downward in deep thought as he walked slowly away, and he did not perceive the eavesdropper.
Mr. Crowley had heard aplenty, so he informed himself; he had followed them all the way from the big house down to the tavern, treading close behind, depending on their absorption in each other, his shoes in his hand, not minding the ledges and the mud; and he was in his mental stocking feet, too, treading on the bedrock of the obvious, as he figured on the proposition.
He had been told many times, Mr. Crowley had, that he possessed a single-track mind and was not fitted to deal with the subtleties of criminal investigation and had not the expansive wit to comprehend the roundabout ways of steering victims to their doom. But Mr. Crowley was indubitably fitted by training to write a handbook on the art of double-crossing—and he reckoned he knew an out-and-out job of that sort after what he had heard that evening. For his own peace of mind, and to save himself from going crazy by reason of any more puzzlement over Miss Kennard's alleged mysterious methods in her work, he kept insisting to himself that she was merely double-crossing the Vose-Mern agency in the good old-fashioned way. Not his the task to wonder why!
He rushed up to his room and started in on his report. It had stuck in Crowley's crop—seemed humiliating—to be made a subaltern in the case of women operatives. He believed that at last he was in right and proper on the grand opportunity of his career; he would come down from the bush with the bacon; Elsham had fallen down and Kennard was double-crossing—and Crowley, good old reliable Crowley, would show Chief Mern where the credit should go! He set his little, cheap typewriter on his sturdy knees and pecked away stolidly with his forefingers.
Latisan remained outdoors a long time, for the night matched the gloom of his thoughts. And once more, in spite of himself, his dark ponderings concerned themselves with suspicions as to what and who this girl really was.
In his early deference to her he had been ready and willing to believe all she said about herself, and his suspicion had seemed to be extinguished; he realized that it merely had been smoldering. Why would not a waitress marry him, one of the Latisans of the Tomah? Was he what old Flagg had so inelegantly stated—a sapgag where a girl was concerned? He began to distrust his strength as a man; he had wasted a day in New York; he was ready to give up his man's job on the Noda because he could not get his thoughts away from her and on his work. His last stay at headwaters had been hours of torture. He had gone to sleep dreaming of the girl instead of putting his attention on the problems of the morrow—and the details of the drive that spring needed all sorts of judgment and foresight.
While he was in that state of mind, trying to excuse defection, he told himself, as he trudged to and fro, that he was not a fit man for Flagg. Nevertheless he cursed himself for being so weak. He had read stories of woman's subjugation of the famous and the strong and had wondered what sort of lunacy had overtaken such men. Here he was making an invalid's tantrums an excuse to give up his work and dangle at the skirts of an unknown girl; and he knew it was because of the mystery of her real identity and because his jealousy was afire on account of an uncertainty which was now aggravated by her refusal to marry him.
Latisan had not been in the village ten minutes that afternoon before Gossip Dempsey had giggled and told him he'd better keep sharp watch on his girl, because the jewelry man was everlastingly after her like a puppy chasing the butcher's cart; the simile was not nice, but Latisan was impressed by its suggestion of assiduity.
In the tumult of his thought, grudgingly conscious that he was ashamed of the real reason for giving up his work, Latisan evasively decided that the thing was now up to Echford Flagg. He had warned Flagg man fashion. He had given his word to Flagg as to what would happen if Flagg persisted in treating him like a lackey. Flagg had persisted. Latisan had kept his word. He could not retreat from that stand; he could not crawl back to Flagg and still maintain the self-respect that a drive master must have in the fight that was ahead.
Therefore, Latisan decided to stay in Adonia and let Flagg make overtures; for their future relations the drive master would be able to lay down some rules to govern Flagg's language and conduct. Under that decision persisted the nagging consciousness that he wanted to be with the girl instead of on the drive and he was more and more ashamed of the new weakness in his character. And he was also ashamed of the feeling that he wanted to find out more about her. In the past his manliness had despised prying and peering. He had been able to bluster loyally to old Dick; he was more truthful to himself. What was she, anyway? He would not admit that he had been so completely tipped upside down in all his hale resolves, aims, and objects by a mere nonentity who looked no higher than a job as waitress at Brophy's tavern.
Then he went into the tavern out of the darkness and blinked at the landlord, who called him to the desk and gave a letter into his hands. It was sealed, but there was no stamp on it.
"Ordered by Mrs. Everett to hand it to you," reported Brophy, sourly. "She wanted to see you last time you were down, but it slipped my mind to tell you."
Latisan read the note. The lady of the parlor entreated him to come to her on a matter of business, no matter how late the hour might be. He tore up the paper on his way to the fireplace and tossed the bits on the embers.
"Same room for me?" he asked Brophy.
"Yes, but Mrs. Everett said for me——"
"Damn Mrs. Everett! I'm going to bed."
It consoled him a little, as he walked upstairs, to reflect that he was not dominated by all the women in the world, even if he was in the way of making himself a fool over one.
Latisan, going to sleep, hoped that he would awake with a saner viewpoint.
He did admit to himself in the morning that if Echford Flagg should show the right spirit of compromise the thing could be patched up on terms which would allow the drive master to be his own man instead of being a spanked youngster.
The girl seized an opportunity to speak to him when she brought his breakfast. "Things look better this morning—I'm sure they do. Tell me. I worried half the night. I must not be the cause of trouble."
"Yes, they look better."
"And you're starting back to-day for the drive?" Her voice was low but eager. "Tell me that you are!"
His smouldering suspicion! Red tongues of fire darted up from it!
"I'm afraid you won't be able to get rid of me to-day. Business is keeping me here."
Her entreating smile faded; she backed way from him as if she had received a rude thrust, and then she went about her work.
There was a real sensation in the tavern that morning! The exclusive star boarder of the parlor came into the public room to eat her breakfast. Her charms were enhanced by a becoming morning wrap, and, following out her liberal code governing the relations of sex in modern days, she seated herself at Latisan's table, greeting him with a mingling of bright good humor and gentle rebuke.
"Give me a good reason why you have not been the advising friend you promised to be, and I may not be too angry, Mr. Latisan."
"I—I thought I'd wait till this morning——"
"Thank you! Then I'm welcome at your table."
She lowered her voice after that. She was engrossed with ordinary topics whenever the waitress's duties brought Lida to the table. If there was to be rivalry between the operatives of Vose-Mern, Miss Elsham decided that her tactics with the Flagg drive master should not be known. She did the talking and Latisan gave the appearance of being an earnest listener. At a matter of fact, he played up strongly his affectation of devoted interest. Ingenuous amateur that he was in the subtleties of love, he was trying out a method which he had heard commended; he was wondering how much an aroused jealousy might accomplish in the case of Miss Patsy Jones.
He cast side glances and saw that she seemed to be disturbed. He bestowed on Mrs. Everett more profound attention. He even allowed himself to say when the waitress was within earshot, "I think I'll know by to-morrow whether I'm to keep on at the head of the drive. If I don't and if matters allow, I'll be glad to take charge of your trip into the north country."
Latisan, boyishly crude in his methods, felt that Miss Jones would have an interpretation of her own for "matters" and would do some earnest thinking before she turned him over to the companionship of a rich young widow, even in the humble role of a chief guide.
In spite of Brophy's sign, "No Smoking in This Dining Room"—a restriction intended for woodsmen—Miss Elsham lighted a cigarette in her satisfaction; her failure to interest the man of the woods even to the extent of a second interview had been worrying the seductress de luxe of the Vose-Mern establishment after her unbroken successes with the men of the city.
She went out of the room chatting with Latisan, and found an opportunity to sweep Miss Kennard with a patronizing glance.
Latisan spent the forenoon on the tavern porch, smoking his pipe and waiting—even hoping—for a message from Echford Flagg. Rickety Dick passed the place several times on his usual errands. Flagg, therefore, would be informed that the drive master was loafing in the village. But old Dick did not bring any word from the big house to Latisan.
To be sure, the split of the evening before had seemed discouragingly final. But after the girl's rebuke and appeal Ward was ashamed of the persisting stubbornness which was making him an idler in that exacting period when the thunderous Noda waters were sounding a call to duty. He did not want her to think of him as vindictive in his spirit, and still less did he desire her to consider him petty in his motives and notions.
On the other hand, the proposition was strictly a man-to-man affair, and Echford Flagg had made relations unendurable.
Ward wished devoutly that he could clear his thoughts; they were muddled. Back of the inertia which was hiding him in Adonia there seemed to be reasons other than the new animosity toward his employer. Really, he confessed to himself, he would like to go to Flagg and win to a manlike and mutual understanding which would serve both of them. But he muttered when he looked up at the big house, and he kept on waiting for the master to offer an opening.
He confessed that his was a childish attitude toward an employer. Had he allowed his infatuation to twist him into this being who was putting the burden of an offer of compromise upon a poor old stricken man who ought to be protected from his own intolerance?
However, the drive master was aware of a certain satisfaction in being on hand to watch and weigh affairs in Adonia that day.
The raffle man, as the villagers called Crowley, seemed to have a great deal on his mind, Latisan reflected. Crowley made several trips to the telegraph office at the railroad station.
At dinner Miss Jones averted her eyes from Latisan and there was no talk between them. Latisan tried to comfort himself, by the thought that jealousy was operating. He saw her go out in the afternoon for a walk, but he did not offer to accompany her. His naive conviction was that his indifference and the threat of interest in Mrs. Everett would suffice to bring Miss Patsy Jones down from her coquette's pedestal.
He was tempted to leap up and follow when he saw Crowley trailing after the waitress; but Crowley went only a little distance, and then he came back and went into the tavern and upstairs.
Again in midafternoon old Dick passed, but he brought no word to the waiting drive master.
This insulting indifference, as Latisan considered it, indicated that Echford Flagg was no longer depending on Ward as champion. There had been no misunderstanding of language. Latisan had quit—and Flagg was contented to let him stay quit.
The young man felt more acutely cheap and small. He had been setting himself up as the one man who could drive down the Flagg logs. The fact that he could not bring himself to break away instanter and go north to his duty—without orders from Flagg and without considering further his entanglement with a girl—was a fact that steadily lessened his self-esteem. He had been able to go straightforwardly in all matters till then; this new inability to handle complex affairs and to untangle the situation made him distrust himself and wonder whether he was much of a man, anyway!
Then came night—and he went to his room to brood.
At supper the girl of his thoughts had been conspicuously rude in the manner with which she banged down dishes in front of him.
Lida had been doing some pondering of her own. She would not admit that she had been piqued by his attentions to Elsham and by his partial promise to that complacent young lady. But she was finding him to be very much of a child, she told herself. He needed to be protected from himself at that juncture. And he needed to be convinced that he was wasting his time just then by staying away from duty and playing the lover. Lida's first thought was that if he found no profit in lovemaking he would go back to his work in spite of what he had told her. She could not bring herself to believe that a man like Latisan would succumb to Elsham's wiles.
In that mood, both as protectress and as stanch believer in his uprightness, she found that her interest in him was becoming more vivid than she had realized. Her warming heart sent a flush into her cheeks when she remembered the passionate embrace. She noted that flush when she looked into her mirror. She was making herself ready for slumber.
"Don't be a fool!" she warned the reflection in the mirror.
Having clarified the situation to that extent in her thoughts before going to sleep, she awoke and began the new day with better confidence. The spirit of the Open Places certainly did make folks honest, she told herself! She felt that the morning must have brought common sense to Latisan, as it had to her.
From her window she saw him walking to and fro in front of the tavern. The early dawn was flushing the east. His being abroad at that hour suggested that he was going back to his work instead of playing the idling lover. She decided to be frank with him; she dressed in haste, hurried down and faced him, and told him how glad she was that he had come into his right senses; she had determined that her best course was to take his reformed mental state for granted.
"Yes, I'm sensible enough to quit being a boss bulldog for a man like Eck Flagg." He was sorry after he said it. But there was no word from Flagg—and her insistence, as if she wanted to be rid of him, rasped his raw temper.
"But you're going back to the drive!" she gasped.
"I am not."
"Don't you value your reputation among men?"
"They'll say you're a quitter." She spoke boldly and sharply.
"Let me tell you something! When you told me that you wouldn't marry me I came nigh quitting where you're concerned. But I am back in my right senses, as you say! You're mine! I have told you so. I tell you again this morning. It's something of a fix you've got yourself into, eh?"
She grew pale and her wide eyes were filled with startled protest; he was placid enough, but his calmness made the thing more grim and threatening when she reflected on the suggestiveness of that word "fix." She was unable to endure his scrutiny. He did not try to restrain her when she turned away, hastening into the tavern.
Brophy came into the dining room when he heard her setting the tables. "Well, by swanny! You're up without being called! You ain't much like the others I've had here!"
He was silent for some time, and when she turned she found him surveying her with curious intentness. "It ain't none of my business, of course, but I hope you ain't of a marrying notion, just yet awhile."
"That remark seems a little uncalled for, Mr. Brophy."
"I'm speaking out because Ward Latisan doesn't seem to be the flirting kind, miss. You can't fool with him."
"I thank you. I shall avoid Mr. Latisan from now on. I have thoughtlessly taken walks with him."
"If it's such a thing as you're intending to get married I'd rather lose you to Latisan than to anybody else in this region. He's solid goods, miss! Solid!"
She was seeking confirmation to strengthen her resolves. "I hear that his employer is an invalid. I suppose that makes Mr. Latisan pretty nigh indispensable, doesn't it?"
"There'll be no Flagg drive down this spring without Ward on the job—I'll say that much," declared Brophy, with vigor. "I can't afford to make any loud talk about the Three C's, miss," he went on, lowering his voice cautiously, "because I cater to all comers. But I don't know another boss driver who couldn't be scared off or bought off at the present time, considering the hold the big corporation has got on things up this way. They're bound to monopolize the river—the Three C's gang. But they can't freeze out the independents this year if Ward Latisan stays on the job for Eck Flagg. The death clinch comes this season!"
"Where's your law up this way, Mr. Brophy?" she demanded.
"I guess neither side dares to call on the law right now. Law might tie up everything. Logs have got to come along with the spring driving pitch, and high water won't wait till lawyers get done arguing."
He took down a gong and pounded on it with a padded mallet while he marched through the office to the porch and back again. It was the breakfast call.
"I'll say about Eck Flagg," he stated, when he hung the gong back on its hook, "that he ain't so much to blame for his sour temper as some folks are bound to have it. Old Job of the Bible had nothing on Eck for troubles. No matter what he has done, Eck has been a square fighter. Probably you ain't interested, even to the extent of a hoot, in gossip about the neighbors. But Eck had a bad one put over on him years ago. He hasn't been right since that time. Square dealing is his religion. But to get his worst trimming right in his own family, it was awful. Son-in-law done it. But I reckon I'd better hang up on that subject, miss. Here comes Latisan for breakfast."
The landlord plodded out.
This man who seated himself, waiting to be served by her, who was determined to possess her, had been unwittingly alienated by her from the duty which was owed to that helpless grandfather in his extremity.
The reminder which Brophy had tossed at her carelessly had served to rouse her to desperation. She clung to a service table to keep from falling. She staggered when she started to cross the room to Latisan; her hands and feet were prickling as the blood resumed its course in her veins.
"You're sick," he suggested, solicitously.
She shook her head. She turned her face from him, afraid of his questioning gaze. "Give your order, please!"
She started away, but turned and hurried back to his table, her face hard with resolution. She feared that the resolution would be weakened by delay; in a few moments others would come into the room.
"I have changed my mind about that offer of marriage. This morning I say, 'Yes!'"
He gaped at her and started to rise.
"Don't leave that chair!" she commanded, her low tones tense. "There are men in the office looking this way. I'll marry you when the Flagg drive is down, with you at the head of it, doing your duty. You may think that over while I'm in the kitchen."
When she returned with food, Latisan, flushed, eager, only partially assured, looked her in the eye, challenging her candor. "That's straight talk, is it?"
"I thank God! But why—right here in the open—where I can't——"
"I'll answer no questions."
"I'd like to know why you picked out this place to tell me. I can't be shut away from all the glory in the grandest moment of my life! I want to get up and yell for joy. I want to take you in my arms."
"I'll not allow that. Furthermore, you are to leave for the drive immediately after you have eaten your breakfast." Her manner cowed him.
"Very well!" he returned, meekly. "When I looked into your eyes I knew that your word to me was good!"
She was finding the fixity of his gaze disconcerting and leaned above the table, arranging the dishes which contained his food. She was grateful for the protection the public room was affording; she would not have been able to declare herself in the privacy which love, in most circumstances, demands.
"Who are you?" he asked, in a half whisper, taking advantage of her nearness. "You are more than you seem to be. You are, I say! You are not silly and selfish like most girls in a time like this. You are able to make me do anything you ask. I'll go north and fight because you want me to. But an ordinary girl wouldn't take a big view of things, as you do."
"Yes—for the sake of having a man be what he ought to be."
He wagged his head doubtfully. "But if you'll tell me the honest truth about——"
"Hush! Here comes a man."
It was Crowley. He had looked from his chamber window and had seen the two in conversation in front of the tavern. He was strictly on the job that day; he had dressed in such a hurry that he was tying his necktie as he entered the room. He sat down at a table and glared grimly at Latisan and the girl; provided with ammunition that fortified his courage, Crowley had resolved to make his bigness in the matter, unafraid.
His appearance at that moment and the manner of his espionage and the memory of what had been said concerning his pursuit of the girl stirred Latisan to the depths. His emotions had been in a tumult ever since the girl had declared her promise. He was in no mood to reason calmly. He could not control himself. He purposed to go to what he thought was his duty as her accepted champion. Therefore, he leaped from his chair, put his arm about her waist, and pulled her across the room, in spite of her resistance.
"Listen to me, you sneak!" he adjured Crowley. "This young lady and I are engaged to be married."
"Hush!" she cried, in mingled fright and fury. "You promised——It isn't——"
"I made no promise except to go north because you have asked me to go. I'm going back to my job, and I'll have the Flagg logs down if I have to smash the bottom out of the river," he boasted, in his new pride. "Crowley—as I believe your name is—you have heard me announce the engagement. If you give this young lady another twisted look or crooked word while I'm away, may God have mercy on your soul!"
He was talking to the one man who ought to hear that news, so the lover felt, but his voice was raised in his emotion and Brophy and the loungers in the office heard, too.
Latisan kissed her once, swiftly and rapturously.
According to the code of social procedure in Adonia, as the office onlookers viewed the matter of congratulation, the occasion called for three cheers; they were proposed and given and even Brophy joined, but with sour grace.
She had endeavored ineffectually to check Latisan's outburst, understanding fully the interlocking perils involved in the promulgation to Crowley that the drive master was going back to his work. It had become her own personal, vital affair, this thing! She was far from admitting even then that love was urging her to the promise she had made so precipitately. The wild spirit of sacrifice had surged in her. She was able to pay—to redeem! It was all for the sake of the family! But this love-cracked idiot, babbling his triumph, had thrown wide the gate of caution—had exposed all to the enemy; she feared Crowley in his surly, new mood!
Poor Ward turned to her a radiant, humid stare of devotion; she responded by flashing fury at him from her eyes. Her cheeks were crimson. "Haven't you any wit in you?" she raged, holding her tones in leash with effort, her convulsed face close to his amazed countenance.
"It was to put you right——" he stammered.
"It has made everything all wrong!"
Men had come into the room. She hurried away from the dumfounded lover.
While she went about her work, sedulously keeping her gaze from Latisan, she heard the men jocosely canvassing the matter. They called to the drive master, giving him clumsy congratulation. There were timber cruisers who were going into the north country; they declared with hilarity that they would spread the news. They ate and went stamping away, news bureaus afoot.
She marched to the pathetic incarnation of doubt and dolor after a time; he was lingering at table in a condition that was near to stupefaction.
"Why aren't you on your way?" she demanded, with ireful impatience.
"You'll have to tell me what the matter is with you!"
"I'll tell you nothing—not now! But you have something to tell Mr. Flagg, haven't you?"
"You're right! I'll go and tell him that I'm starting for the drive. If I have to smash the hinges off the door of Tophet I'll put our logs——"
"That's it!" she cried, eagerly. "Our logs! We'll call them our logs. Don't mind because I seemed strange a little while ago. You'll understand, some day. But now hurry! Hurry!" She forced herself to smile. She was eagerly in earnest, almost hysterical. She spoke his name, though with effort. "Remember, Ward! Our logs! Bring them through!"
He leaped out of his chair. The other breakfasters were gone. She stood on tiptoe and kissed his cheek.
Immediately after Latisan had left on his way to assure Echford Flagg, the girl was reminded of her putative Vose-Mern affiliations. Crowley lounged back into the room, taking advantage of the fact that she was alone. "Put me wise as to why you're playing this shot with the reverse English."
"Hands off, Crowley! You're only a watchdog, paid to guard me."
"I don't propose to have our folks double-crossed. You have started that drive boss back onto his job, and you and he announce an engagement this morning! You're cagy or crazy! I won't have anything put over! If you're straight, come through to me and I'll back you. Otherwise——" He tossed his hands in an eloquent gesture.
"I'll wire to have you pulled down to the city."
"I have done some wiring ahead of you. It's up to our folks to find out what's the big idea."
"Crowley, won't you leave it all to me?" she pleaded, fighting to the last ditch for her secret and for time. "Can't you see that I'm placing a double-crosser in the enemy's camp?"
He looked at her hard and long and his lips curled into a sardonic grin. "You're a good one. I'll admit that. But you can't stand there and give me the straight eye and make me believe you have made over Latisan to that extent. I've got him sized. It can't be done!"
Crowley was right—she could not meet his sophisticated gaze.
"What do you expect me to do?" she asked, lamely.
"Keep him off the drive. If he starts to leave this village to-day I'm going to grab in."
She knew Crowley's obstinacy in his single-track methods. There was no telling what he would undertake nor what damage might be wrought by his interference. She tried to force from him his intentions; he paid no heed to her appeals or her threats.
She was fighting for her own with all the wit and power that were in her; she was standing in the path by which the enemies must advance, resolved to battle as long as her strength might last, serving as best she could to distract attention from the main fight to herself, willing to sacrifice herself utterly.
Crowley walked with a bit of a swagger from the room, lighted a cigarette in the office, puttered for a few moments with some old newspapers on a table, and then went out of doors and strolled along the road in the direction of the big house on the hill. She observed his course from a side window. She felt the impulse to run after him and beat her fists against that broad and stubborn back.
She saw Latisan come striding down from the Flagg mansion, determination in his manner.
The two men met. They halted.
Her apprehension became agony, but she did not dare to interfere between them.
Crowley, standing in front of Latisan, twisted his countenance into an expression of deprecatory, appealing remorse.
"I have taken the liberty of apologizing to the young lady, sir! Now that I know how matters stand, I want to beg your pardon very humbly. I haven't meant anything wrong, but a man of my style gets cheeky without realizing it."
Latisan had come off well in his interview with Echford Flagg. The old man seemed to be in a chastened mood. When he had been informed of the part the girl was playing, the master had admitted that the right kind of a woman can influence a man to his own good.
Therefore, when the drive master strode down the hill, the radiance of his expansive joy had cleared out all the shadows. He was willing to meet a penitent halfway. He put out his hand frankly. Crowley held to the hand for a moment and put his other palm upon Latisan's shoulder. "Congratulations! I know my place, now that it has become a man-to-man matter between us. But before—well, I'll tell you, Mr. Latisan, I had met Miss Jones in New York in a sort of a business way and I was probably a little fresh in trying to keep up the acquaintance."
Latisan had extricated his hand, intending to hurry on about his affairs. But here was a person who seemed to be in a way to tell him something more definite about one who was baffling his wild anxiety to fathom her real identity. However, Latisan did not dare to ask questions. His own pride and the spirit of protecting her reasons for reticence, if she had any, fettered his tongue; he was ashamed to admit to this man, whom he had so recently hated, that the real character of a fiancee was a closed book.
"Honestly, she ought to have told you that she knew me," complained Crowley. "It would have saved all that trouble between you and me." He rubbed his ear reminiscently. "But perhaps she did," he pursued, affecting to misinterpret the hardness which had come into Latisan's face. "But how she could say anything against me, as far as she and I are concerned, I can't understand."
"She has not mentioned you to me," returned Latisan, curtly.
"That's queer, too," said Crowley, wrinkling his brow, his demeanor adding to the young man's conviction that the whole situation was decidedly queer. Once more the smoldering embers were showing red flames! "Mr. Latisan, get me right, now! I don't propose to discuss the young lady, seeing what she is to you. But perhaps you'll allow me to refer back to what you said to me, personally, in the tavern a little while ago. We can make that our own business, can't we?"
Crowley accepted a stiff nod as his answer and went on. "You told me that you are going back to the drive because the young lady has insisted on your doing so. That right?"