And I wouldn't be put off or placated by a chance to fatten my own bank roll. I didn't care if I broke the Free Gold Mining Company and myself likewise. A dollar doesn't terrify nor yet fascinate me—I hope it never will. And while, perhaps, it was not what they would call good form for me to lose my temper and go at them with my fists, I was fighting mad when I thoroughly sensed their dirty project. Anyway, it helped bring them to time. When you take a man of that type and cuff him around with your two hands he's apt to listen serious to what you say. And they listened when I told them in dead earnest next day that Whitey Lewis and his partners must have what was due them, or I'd wreck the bunch of them if it took ten years and every dollar I had to do it. And I could have put them on the tramp, too—they'd already dipped their fingers in where they couldn't stand litigation. I'm sure of that—or they would never have come through; which they did.
But I'm sorry I ever got mixed up with them. I'm going to sell my stock and advise Lewis and the others to do the same while we can get full value for it. Lorimer and that bunch will manipulate the outfit to death, no matter how the mine produces. They'll have a quarter of a million to work on pretty soon, and they'll work it hard. They're shysters—but it's after all only a practical demonstration of the ethics of the type—"Do everybody you can—if you can do 'em so there's no come-back."
That's all of that. I don't care two whoops about the money. There is still gold in the Klappan Range and other corners of the North, whenever I need it. But it nauseated me. I can't stand that cutthroat game. And Granville, like most other cities of its kind, lives by and for that sort of thing. The pressure of modern life makes it inevitable. Anyway, a town is no place for me. I can stomach it about so long, and no longer. It's too cramped, too girded about with petty-larceny conventions. If once you slip and get down, every one walks on you. Everything's restricted, priced, tinkered with. There is no real freedom of body or spirit. I wouldn't trade a comfy log cabin in the woods with a big fireplace and a shelf of books for the finest home on Maple Drive—not if I had to stay there and stifle in the dust and smoke and smells. That would be a sordid and impoverished existence. I cannot live by the dog-eat-dog code that seems to prevail wherever folk get jammed together in an unwieldy social mass.
I have said the like to you before. By nature and training I'm unfitted to live in these crowded places. I love you, little person, I don't think you realize how much, but I can't make you happy by making myself utterly miserable. That would only produce the inevitable reaction. But I still think you are essentially enough like me to meet me on common ground. You loved me and you found contentment and joy at our little cabin once. Don't you think it might be waiting there again?
If you really care, if I and the old North still mean anything to you, a few days or weeks, or even months of separation won't matter. An affection that can't survive six months is too fragile to go through life on. I don't ask you to jump the next train and follow me. I don't ask you to wire me, "Come back, Bill." Though I would come quick enough if you called me. I merely want you to think it over soberly and let your heart decide. You know where I stand, don't you, Hazel, dear? I haven't changed—not a bit—I'm the same old Bill. But I'd rather hit the trail alone than with an unwilling partner. Don't flounder about in any quicksand of duty. There is no "I ought to" between us.
So it is up to you once more, little person. If my way is not to be your way I will abide by your decision without whining. And whenever you want to reach me, a message to Felix Courvoiseur, Fort George, will eventually find me. I'll fix it that way.
I don't know what I'll do after I make that Klappan trip. I'm too restless to make plans. What's the use of planning when there's nobody but myself to plan for?
So long, little person. I like you a heap, for all your cantankerous ways.
She laid aside the letter, with a lump in her throat. For a brief instant she was minded to telegraph the word that would bring him hurrying back. But—some of the truths he had set down in cold black and white cut her deep. Of a surety she had drawn her weapon on the wrong side in the mining trouble. Over-hasty?—yes. And shamefully disloyal. Perhaps there was something in it, after all; that is to say, it might be they had made a mistake. She saw plainly enough that unless she could get back some of the old enthusiasm for that wilderness life, unless the fascination of magnificent distances, of silent, breathless forests, of contented, quiet days on trail and stream, could lay fast hold of her again, they would only defer the day of reckoning, as Bill had said.
And she was not prepared to go that far. She still harbored a smoldering grudge against him for his volcanic outburst in Granville, and too precipitate departure. He had given her no time to think, to make a choice. The flesh-pots still seemed wholly desirable—or, rather, she shrank from the alternative. When she visualized the North it uprose always in its most threatening presentment, indescribably lonely, the playground of ruthless, elemental forces, terrifying in its vast emptinesses. It appalled her in retrospect, loomed unutterably desolate in contrast to her present surroundings.
No, she would not attempt to call him back. She doubted if he would come. And she would not go—not yet. She must have time to think.
One thing pricked her sorely. She could not reconcile the roguery of Brooks and Lorimer with the men as she knew them. Not that she doubted Bill's word. But there must be a mistake somewhere. Ruthless competition in business she knew and understood. Only the fit survived—just as in her husband's chosen field only the peculiarly fit could hope to survive. But she rather resented the idea that pleasant, well-bred people could be guilty of coarse, forthright fraud. Surely not!
Altogether, as the first impression of Bill's letter grew less vivid to her she considered her grievances more. And she was minded to act as she had set out to do—to live her life as seemed best to her, rather than pocket her pride and rejoin Bill. The feminine instinct to compel the man to capitulate asserted itself more and more strongly.
Wherefore, she dressed carefully and prepared to meet a luncheon engagement which she recalled as being down for that day. No matter that her head ached woefully. Thought maddened her. She required distraction, craved change. The chatter over the tea-cups, the cheerful nonsense of that pleasure-seeking crowd might be a tonic. Anything was better than to sit at home and brood.
A month passed.
During that thirty-day period she received a brief note from Bill. Just a few lines to say:
Hit the ranch yesterday, little person. Looks good to me. Have had Lauer do some work on it this summer. Went fishing last night about sundown. Trout were rising fine. Nailed a two-pounder. He jumped a foot clear of the water after my fly, and gave me a hot time for about ten minutes. Woke up this morning at daylight and found a buck deer with two lady friends standing in the middle of the clearing. I loafed a fews days in Fort George, sort of thinking I might hear from you. Am sending this out by Jake. Will start for the Klappan about day after to-morrow.
She had not answered his first letter. She had tried to. But somehow when she tried to set pen to paper the right words would not come. She lacked his facility of expression. There was so much she wanted to say, so little she seemed able to say. As the days passed she felt less sure of her ground, less sure that she had not sacrificed something precious to a vagary of self, an obsession of her own ego.
Many things took on a different complexion now that she stood alone. No concrete evidence of change stood forth preeminent. It was largely subjective, atmospheric, intangible impressions.
Always with a heart sinking she came back to the empty apartment, knowing that it would be empty. During Bill's transient absence of the spring she had missed him scarcely at all. She could not say that now.
And slowly but surely she began to view all her activities of her circle with a critical eye. She was brought to this partly in self-defense. Certain of her friends had become tentative enemies. Kitty Brooks and the Bray womenfolk, who were a numerous and influential tribe, not only turned silent faces when they met, but they made war on her in the peculiar fashion of women. A word here, a suggestive phrase there, a shrug of the shoulders. It all bore fruit. Other friends conveyed the avid gossip. Hazel smiled and ignored it. But in her own rooms she raged unavailingly.
Her husband had left her. There was a man in the case. They had lost everything. The first count was sufficiently maddening because it was a half truth. And any of it was irritating—even if few believed—since it made a choice morsel to digest in gossipy corners, and brought sundry curious stares on Hazel at certain times. Also Mr. Wagstaff had caused the stockholders of Free Gold a heavy loss—which was only offset by the fact that the Free Gold properties were producing richly. None of this was even openly flung at her. She gathered it piecemeal. And it galled her. She could not openly defend either Bill or herself against the shadowy scandalmongers.
Slowly it dawned upon her, with a bitterness born of her former experience with Granville, that she had lost something of the standing that certain circles had accorded her as the wife of a successful mining man. It made her ponder. Was Bill so far wrong, after all, in his estimate of them? It was a disheartening conclusion. She had come of a family that stood well in Granville; she had grown up there; if life-time friends blew hot and cold like that, was the game worth playing?
In so far as she could she gave the lie to some of the petty gossip. Whereas at first she had looked dubiously on spending Bill's money to maintain the standard of living they had set up, she now welcomed that deposit of five thousand dollars as a means to demonstrate that even in his absence he stood behind her financially—which she began to perceive counted more than anything else. So long as she could dress in the best, while she could ride where others walked, so long as she betrayed no limitation of resources, the doors stood wide. Not what you are, but what you've got—she remembered Bill saying that was their holiest creed.
It repelled her. And sometimes she was tempted to sit down and pour it all out in a letter to him. But she could not quite bring herself to the point. Always behind Bill loomed the vast and dreary Northland, and she shrank from that.
On top of this, she began to suffer a queer upset of her physical condition. All her life she had been splendidly healthy; her body a perfect-working machine, afflicted with no weaknesses. Now odd spasmodic pains recurred without rhyme or reason in her head, her back, her limbs, striking her with sudden poignancy, disappearing as suddenly.
She was stretched on the lounge one afternoon wrestling nervously with a particularly acute attack, when Vesta Lorimer was ushered in.
"You're almost a stranger," Hazel remarked, after the first greetings. "Your outing must have been pleasant, to hold you so long."
"It would have held me longer," Vesta returned, "if I didn't have to be in touch with my market. I could live quite happily on my island eight months in the year. But one can't get people to come several hundred miles to a sitting. And I feel inclined to acquire a living income while my vogue lasts."
"You're rather a wilderness lover, aren't you?" Hazel commented. "I don't think you'd love it as dearly if you were buried alive in it."
"That would all depend on the circumstances," Vesta replied. "One escapes many disheartening things in a country that is still comparatively primitive. The continual grind of keeping one's end up in town gets terribly wearisome. I'm always glad to go to the woods, and sorry when I have to leave. But I suppose it's largely in one's point of view."
They chatted of sundry matters for a few minutes.
"By the way, is there any truth in the statement that this Free Gold row has created trouble between you and your husband?" Vesta asked abruptly. "I dare say it's quite an impertinent question, and you'd be well within your rights to tell me it's none of my business. But I should like to confound some of these petty tattlers. I haven't been home forty-eight hours; yet I've heard tongues wagging. I hope there's nothing in it. I warned Mr. Wagstaff against Paul."
"Warned him? Why?" Hazel neglected the question entirely. The bluntness of it took her by surprise. Frank speech was not a characteristic of Vesta Lorimer's set.
The girl shrugged her shoulders.
"He is my brother, but that doesn't veil my eyes," she said coolly. "Paul is too crooked to lie straight in bed. I'm glad Mr. Wagstaff brought the lot of them up with a round turn—which he seems to have done. If he had used a club instead of his fists it would have been only their deserts. I suppose the fuss quite upset you?"
"It did," Hazel admitted grudgingly. "It did more than upset me."
"I thought as much," Vesta said slowly. "It made you inflict an undeserved hurt on a man who should have had better treatment at your hands; not only because he loves you, but because he is one of the few men who deserve the best that you or any woman can give."
Hazel straightened up angrily.
"Where do you get your astonishing information, pray?" she asked hotly. "And where do you get your authority to say such things to me?"
Vesta tucked back a vagrant strand of her tawny hair. Her blue eyes snapped, and a red spot glowed on each smooth, fair cheek.
"I don't get it; I'm taking it," she flung back. "I have eyes and ears, and I have used them for months. Since you inquire, I happened to be going over the Lake Division on the same train that carried your husband back to the North. You can't knife a man without him bearing the marks of it; and I learned in part why he was going back alone. The rest I guessed, by putting two and two together. You're a silly, selfish, shortsighted little fool, if my opinion is worth having."
"You've said quite enough," Hazel cried. "If you have any more insults, please get rid of them elsewhere. I think you are—"
"Oh, I don't care what you think of me," the girl interrupted recklessly. "If I did I wouldn't be here. I'd hide behind the conventional rules of the game and let you blunder along. But I can't. I'm not gifted with your blind egotism. Whatever you are, that Bill of yours loves you, and if you care anything for him, you should be with him. I would, if I were lucky enough to stand in your shoes. I'd go with him down into hell itself gladly if he wanted me to!"
"Oh!" Hazel gasped. "Are you clean mad?"
"Shocked to death, aren't you?" Vesta fleered. "You can't understand, can you? I love him—yes. I'm not ashamed to own it. I'm no sentimental prude to throw up my hands in horror at a perfectly natural emotion. But he is not for me. I dare say I couldn't give him an added heartbeat if I tried. And I have a little too much pride—strange as it may seem to you—to try, so long as he is chained hand and foot to your chariot. But you're making him suffer. And I care enough to want him to live all his days happily. He is a man, and there are so few of them, real men. If you can make him happy I'd compel you to do so, if I had the power. You couldn't understand that kind of a love. Oh, I could choke you for your stupid disloyalty. I could do almost anything that would spur you to action. I can't rid myself of the hopeless, reckless mood he was in. There are so few of his kind, the patient, strong, loyal, square-dealing men, with a woman's tenderness and a lion's courage. Any woman should be proud and glad to be his mate, to mother his children. And you—"
She threw out her hands with a sudden, despairing gesture. The blue eyes grew misty, and she hid her face in her palms. Before that passionate outburst Hazel sat dumbly amazed, staring, uncertain. In a second Vesta lifted her head defiantly.
"I had no notion of breaking out like this when I came up," she said quietly. "I was going to be very adroit. I intended to give you a friendly boost along the right road, if I could. But it has all been bubbling inside me for a long time. You perhaps think it very unwomanly—but I don't care much what you think. My little heartache is incidental, one of the things life deals us whether we will or not. But if you care in the least for your husband, for God's sake make some effort, some sacrifice of your own petty little desires, to make his road a little pleasanter, a little less gray than it must be now. You'll be well repaid—if you are the kind that must always be paid in full. Don't be a stiff-necked idiot. That's all I wanted to say. Good-by!"
She was at the door when she finished. The click of the closing catch stirred Hazel to speech and action.
"Vesta, Vesta!" she cried, and ran out into the corridor.
But Vesta Lorimer neither heeded nor halted. And Hazel went back to her room, quivering. Sometimes the truth is bitter and stirs to wrath. And mingled with other emotions was a dull pang of jealousy—the first she had ever known. For Vesta Lorimer was beautiful beyond most women; and she had but given ample evidence of the bigness of her soul. With shamed tears creeping to her eyes, Hazel wondered if she could love even Bill so intensely that she would drive another woman to his arms that he might win happiness.
But one thing stood out clear above that painful meeting. She was done fighting against the blankness that seemed to surround her since Bill went away. Slowly but steadily it had been forced upon her that much which she deemed desirable, even necessary, was of little weight in the balance with him. Day and night she longed for him, for his cheery voice, the whimsical good humor of him, his kiss and his smile. Indubitably Vesta Lorimer was right to term her a stiff-necked, selfish fool. But if all folk were saturated with the essence of wisdom—well, there was but one thing to be done. Silly pride had to go by the board. If to face gayly a land she dreaded were the price of easing his heartache—and her own—that price she would pay, and pay with a grace but lately learned.
She lay down on the lounge again. The old pains were back. And as she endured, a sudden startling thought flashed across her mind. A possibility?—Yes. She hurried to dress, wondering why it had not before occurred to her, and, phoning up a taxi, rolled downtown to the office of Doctor Hart. An hour or so later she returned. A picture of her man stood on the mantel. She took it down and stared at it with a tremulous smile.
"Oh, Billy-boy, Billy-boy, I wish you knew," she whispered. "But I was coming, anyway, Bill!"
That evening, stirring about her preparations for the journey, she paused, and wondered why, for the first time since Bill left, she felt so utterly at peace.
Twelve months works many a change on a changing frontier. Hazel found this so. When she came to plan her route she found the G. T. P. bridging the last gap in a transcontinental system, its trains westbound already within striking distance of Fort George. She could board a sleeping car at Granville and detrain within a hundred miles of the ancient trading post—with a fast river boat to carry her the remaining distance.
Fort George loomed up a jumbled area of houses and tents, log buildings, frame structures yellow in their newness, strangers to paint as yet. On every hand others stood in varying stages of erection. Folks hurried about the sturdy beginning of a future greatness. And as she left the boat and followed a new-laid walk of planks toward a hotel, Jake Lauer stepped out of a store, squarely into her path.
His round face lit up with a smile of recognition. And Hazel, fresh from the long and lonesome journey, was equally glad to set eyes on a familiar, a genuinely friendly face.
"I am pleased to welgome you back to Gott's country, Mrs. Vagstaff," he said. "Und let me carry dot suid case alretty."
They walked two blocks to the King's Hotel, where Lauer's family was housed. He was in for supplies, he told her, and, of course, his wife and children accompanied him.
"Not dat Gredda iss afraid. She iss so goot a man as I on der ranch ven I am gone," he explained. "But for dem it iss a change. Und I bring by der town a vaigonloat off bodadoes. By cosh, dem bodadoes iss sell high."
It flashed into Hazel's mind that here was a Heaven-sent opportunity to reach the cabin without facing that hundred miles in the company of chance-hired strangers. But she did not broach the subject at once. Instead, she asked eagerly of Bill. Lauer told her that Bill had tarried a few days at the cabin, and then struck out alone for the mines. And he had not said when he would be back.
Mrs. Lauer, unchanged from a year earlier, welcomed her with pleased friendliness. And Jake left the two of them and the chubby kiddies in the King's office while he betook himself about his business. Hazel haled his wife and the children to her room as soon as one was assigned to her. And there, almost before she knew it, she was murmuring brokenly her story into an ear that listened with sympathy and understanding. Only a woman can grasp some of a woman's needs. Gretta Lauer patted Hazel's shoulder with a motherly hand, and bade her cheer up.
"Home's the place for you, dear," she said smilingly. "You just come right along with us. Your man will come quick enough when he gets word. And we'll take good care of you in the meantime. La, I'm all excited over it. It's the finest thing could happen for you both. Take it from me, dearie. I know. We've had our troubles, Jake and I. And, seeing I'm only six months short of being a graduate nurse, you needn't fear. Well, well!"
"I'll need to have food hauled in," Hazel reflected. "And some things I brought with me. I wish Bill were here. I'm afraid I'll be a lot of bother. Won't you be heavily loaded, as it is?"
She recalled swiftly the odd, makeshift team that Lauer depended on—the mule, lop-eared and solemn, "und Gretchen, der cow." She had cash and drafts for over three thousand dollars on her person. She wondered if it would offend the sturdy independence of these simple, kindly neighbors, if she offered to supply a four-horse team and wagon for their mutual use? But she had been forestalled there, she learned in the next breath.
"Oh, bother nothing," Mrs. Lauer declared. "Why, we'd be ashamed if we couldn't help a little. And far's the load goes, you ought to see the four beautiful horses your husband let Jake have. You don't know how much Jake appreciates it, nor what a fine man he thinks your husband is. We needed horses so bad, and didn't have the money to buy. So Mr. Wagstaff didn't say a thing but got the team for us, and Jake's paying for them in clearing and plowing and making improvements on your land. Honest, they could pull twice the load we'll have. There's a good wagon road most of the way now. Quite a lot of settlers, too, as much as fifty or sixty miles out. And we've got the finest garden you ever saw. Vegetables enough to feed four families all winter. Oh, your old cities! I never want to live in one again. Never a day have the kiddies been sick. Suppose it is a bit out of the world? You're all the more pleased when somebody does happen along. Folks is so different in a new country like this. There's plenty for everybody—and everybody helps, like neighbors ought to."
Lauer came up after a time, and Hazel found herself unequivocally in their hands. With the matter of transporting herself and supplies thus solved, she set out to find Felix Courvoiseur—who would know how to get word to Bill. He might come back to the cabin in a month or so; he might not come back at all unless he heard from her. She was smitten with a great fear that he might give her up as lost to him, and plunge deeper into the wilderness in some mood of recklessness. And she wanted him, longed for him, if only so that she could make amends.
She easily found Courvoiseur, a tall, spare Frenchman, past middle age. Yes, he could deliver a message to Bill Wagstaff; that is, he could send a man. Bill Wagstaff was in the Klappan Range.
"But if he should have left there?" Hazel suggested uneasily.
"'E weel leave weeth W'itey Lewees word of w'ere 'e go," Courvoiseur reassured her. "An' my man, w'ich ees my bruzzer-law, w'ich I can mos' fully trus', 'e weel follow 'eem. So Beel 'e ees arrange. 'E ees say mos' parteecular if madame ees come or weesh for forward message, geet heem to me queeck. Oui. Long tam Beel ees know me. I am for depend always."
Courvoiseur kept a trader's stock of goods in a weather-beaten old log house which sprawled a hundred feet back from the street. Thirty years, he told her, he had kept that store in Fort George. She guessed that Bill had selected him because he was a fixture. She sat down at his counter and wrote her message. Just a few terse lines. And when she had delivered it to Courvoiseur she went back to the hotel. There was nothing now to do but wait. And with the message under way she found herself impatient to reach the cabin, to spend the waiting days where she had first found happiness. She could set her house in order against her man's coming. And if the days dragged, and the great, lone land seemed to close in and press inexorably upon her, she would have to be patient, very patient.
Jake was held up, waiting for supplies. Fort George suffered a sugar famine. Two days later, the belated freight arrived. He loaded his wagon, a ton of goods for himself, a like weight of Hazel's supplies and belongings. A goodly load, but he drove out of Fort George with four strapping bays arching their powerful necks, and champing on the bit.
"Four days ve vill make it by der ranch," Jake chuckled. "Mit der mule und Gretchen, der cow, von veek it take me, mit half der loat."
Four altogether pleasant and satisfying days they were to Hazel. The worst of the fly pests were vanished for the season. A crisp touch of frost sharpened the night winds. Indian summer hung its mellow haze over the land. The clean, pungent air that sifted through the forests seemed doubly sweet after the vitiated atmosphere of town. Fresh from a gridiron of dusty streets and stone pavements, and but stepped, as one might say, from days of imprisonment in the narrow confines of a railway coach, she drank the winey air in hungry gulps, and joyed in the soft yielding of the turf beneath her feet, the fern and pea-vine carpet of the forest floor.
It was her pleasure at night to sleep as she and Bill had slept, with her face bared to the stars. She would draw her bed a little aside from the camp fire and from the low seclusion of a thicket lie watching the nimble flames at their merry dance, smiling lazily at the grotesque shadows cast by Jake and his frau as they moved about the blaze. And she would wake in the morning clear-headed, alert, grateful for the pleasant woodland smells arising wholesomely from the fecund bosom of the earth.
Lauer pulled up before his own cabin at mid-afternoon of the fourth day, unloaded his own stuff, and drove to his neighbor's with the rest.
"I'll walk back after a little," Hazel told him, when he had piled her goods in one corner of the kitchen.
The rattle of the wagon died away. She was alone—at home. Her eyes filled as she roved restlessly from kitchen to living-room and on into the bedroom at the end. Bill had unpacked. The rugs were down, the books stowed in familiar disarray upon their shelves, the bedding spread in semi-disorder where he had last slept and gone away without troubling to smooth it out in housewifely fashion.
She came back to the living-room and seated herself in the big chair. She had expected to be lonely, very lonely. But she was not. Perhaps that would come later. For the present it seemed as if she had reached the end of something, as if she were very tired, and had gratefully come to a welcome resting place. She turned her gaze out the open door where the forest fell away in vast undulations to a range of snow-capped mountains purple in the autumn haze, and a verse that Bill had once quoted came back to her:
"Oh, to feel the Wind grow strong Where the Trail leaps down. I could never learn the way And wisdom of the Town."
She blinked. The town—it seemed to have grown remote, a fantasy in which she had played a puppet part. But she was home again. If only the gladness of it endured strong enough to carry her through whatever black days might come to her there alone.
She would gladly have cooked her supper in the kitchen fireplace, and laid down to sleep under her own roof. It seemed the natural thing to do. But she had not expected to find the cabin livably arranged, and she had promised the Lauers to spend the night with them. So presently she closed the door and walked away through the woods.
AFTER MANY DAYS
September and October trooped past, and as they marched the willow thickets and poplar groves grew yellow and brown, and carpeted the floor of the woods with fallen leaves. Shrub and tree bared gaunt limbs to every autumn wind. Only the spruce and pine stood forth in their year-round habiliments of green. The days shortened steadily. The nights grew long, and bitter with frost. Snow fell, blanketing softly the dead leaves. Old Winter cracked his whip masterfully over all the North.
Day by day, between tasks, and often while she worked, Hazel's eyes would linger on the edges of the clearing. Often at night she would lift herself on elbow at some unexpected sound, her heart leaping wild with expectation. And always she would lie down again, and sometimes press her clenched hand to her lips to keep back the despairing cry. Always she adjured herself to be patient, to wait doggedly as Bill would have waited, to make due allowance for immensity of distance for the manifold delays which might overtake a messenger faring across those silent miles or a man hurrying to his home. Many things might hold him back. But he would come. It was inconceivable that he might not come.
Meantime, with only a dim consciousness of the fact, she underwent a marvelous schooling in adaptation, self-restraint. She had work of a sort, tasks such as every housewife finds self-imposed in her own home. She was seldom lonely. She marveled at that. It was unique in her experience. All her old dread of the profound silence, the pathless forests which infolded like a prison wall, distances which seemed impossible of span, had vanished. In its place had fallen over her an abiding sense of peace, of security. The lusty storm winds whistling about the cabin sang a restful lullaby. When the wolves lifted their weird, melancholy plaint to the cold, star-jeweled skies, she listened without the old shudder. These things, which were wont to oppress her, to send her imagination reeling along morbid ways, seemed but a natural aspect of life, of which she herself was a part.
Often, sitting before her glowing fireplace, watching a flame kindled with her own hands with wood she herself had carried from the pile outside, she pondered this. It defied her powers of self-analysis. She could only accept it as a fact, and be glad. Granville and all that Granville stood for had withdrawn to a more or less remote background. She could look out over the frost-spangled forests and feel that she lacked nothing—nothing save her mate. There was no impression of transient abiding; no chafing to be elsewhere, to do otherwise. It was home, she reflected; perhaps that was why.
A simple routine served to fill her days. She kept her house shining, she cooked her food, carried in her fuel. Except on days of forthright storm she put on her snowshoes, and with a little rifle in the crook of her arm prowled at random through the woods—partly because it gave her pleasure to range sturdily afield, partly for the physical brace of exertion in the crisp air. Otherwise she curled comfortably before the fire-place, and sewed, or read something out of Bill's catholic assortment of books.
It was given her, also, to learn the true meaning of neighborliness, that kindliness of spirit which is stifled by stress in the crowded places, and stimulated by like stress amid surroundings where life is noncomplex, direct, where cause and effect tread on each other's heels. Every day, if she failed to drop into their cabin, came one of her neighbors to see if all were well with her. Quite as a matter of course Jake kept steadily replenished for her a great pile of firewood. Or they would come, babies and all, bundled in furs of Jake's trapping, jingling up of an evening behind the frisky bays. And while the bays munched hay in Roaring Bill Wagstaff's stable, they would cluster about the open hearth, popping corn for the children, talking, always with cheerful optimism.
Behind Lauer's mild blue eyes lurked a mind that burrowed incessantly to the roots of things. He had lived and worked and read, and, pondering it all, he had summed up a few of the verities.
"Life, it iss giffen us, und ve must off it make der best ve can," he said once to Hazel, fondling a few books he had borrowed to read at home. "Life iss goot, yust der liffing off life, if only ve go not astray afder der voolish dings—und if der self-breservation struggle vears us not out so dot ve gannot enjoy being alife. So many iss struggle und slave under terrible conditions. Und it iss largely because off ignorance. Ve know not vot ve can do—und ve shrink vrom der unknown. Here iss acres by der dousand vree to der man vot can off it make use—und dousands vot liffs und dies und neffer hass a home. Here iss goot, glean air—und in der shmoke und shmells und dirty streets iss a ravage of tuberculosis. Der balance iss not true. Und in der own vay der rich iss full off drouble—drunk mit eggcitement, veary mit bleasures. Ach, der voods und mountains und streams, blenty off food, und a kindly neighbor—iss not dot enough? Only der abnormal vants more as dot. Und I dink der drouble iss largely dot der modern, high-bressure cifilization makes for der abnormal, vedder a man iss a millionaire or vorks in der brewery, contentment iss a state off der mind—und if der mind vorks mit logic it vill content find in der simple dings."
It sounded like a pronouncement of Bill's. But Lauer did not often grow serious. Mostly he was jovially cheerful, and his wife likewise. The North had emancipated them, and they were loyal to the source of their deliverance. And Hazel understood, because she herself had found the wild land a benefactor, kindly in its silence, restful in its forested peace, a cure for sickness of soul. Twice now it had rescued her from herself.
November and December went their appointed way—and still no word of Bill. If now and then her pillow was wet she struggled mightily against depression. She was not lonely in the dire significance of the word—but she longed passionately for him. And she held fast to her faith that he would come.
The last of the old year she went little abroad, ventured seldom beyond the clearing. And on New Year's Eve Jake Lauer's wife came to the cabin to stay.
Hazel sat up, wide awake, on the instant. There was not the slightest sound. She had been deep in sleep. Nevertheless she felt, rather than knew, that some one was in the living-room. Perhaps the sound of the door opening had filtered through her slumber. She hesitated an instant, not through fear, because in the months of living alone fear had utterly forsaken her; but hope had leaped so often, only to fall sickeningly, that she was half persuaded it must be a dream. Still the impression strengthened. She slipped out of bed. The door of the bedroom stood slightly ajar.
Bill stood before the fireplace, his shaggy fur cap pushed far back on his head, his gauntlets swinging from the cord about his neck. She had left a great bed of coals on the hearth, and the glow shone redly on his frost-scabbed face. But the marks of bitter trail bucking, the marks of frostbite, the stubby beard, the tiny icicles that still clustered on his eyebrows; while these traces of hardship tugged at her heart they were forgotten when she saw the expression that overshadowed his face. Wonder and unbelief and longing were all mirrored there. She took a shy step forward to see what riveted his gaze. And despite the choking sensation in her throat she smiled—for she had taken off her little, beaded house moccasins and left them lying on the bearskin before the fire, and he was staring down at them like a man fresh-wakened from a dream, unbelieving and bewildered.
With that she opened the door and ran to him. He started, as if she had been a ghost. Then he opened his arms and drew her close to him.
"Bill, Bill, what made you so long?" she whispered. "I guess it served me right, but it seemed a never-ending time."
"What made me so long?" he echoed, bending his rough cheek down against the warm smoothness of hers. "Lord, I didn't know you wanted me. I ain't no telepathist, hon. You never yeeped one little word since I left. How long you been here?"
"Since last September." She smiled up at him. "Didn't Courvoiseur's man deliver a message from me to the mine? Didn't you come in answer to my note?"
"Great Caesar's ghost—since September—alone! You poor little girl!" he murmured. "No, if you sent word to me through Courvoiseur I never got it. Maybe something happened his man. I left the Klappan with the first snow. Went poking aimlessly over around the Finlay River with a couple of trappers. Couldn't settle down. Never heard a word from you. I'd given you up. I just blew in this way by sheer accident. Girl, girl, you don't know how good it is to see you again, to have this warm body of yours cuddled up to me again. And you came right here and planted yourself to wait till I turned up?"
"Sure!" She laughed happily. "But I sent you word, even if you never got it. Oh, well, it doesn't matter. Nothing matters now. You're here, and I'm here, and— Oh, Billy-boy, I was an awful pig-headed idiot. Do you think you can take another chance with me?"
"Say"—he held her off at arm's length admiringly—"do you want to know how strong I am for taking a chance with you? Well, I was on my way out to flag the next train East, just to see—just to see if you still cared two pins; to see if you still thought your game was better than mine."
"Well, you don't have to take any eastbound train to find that out," she cried gayly. "I'm here to tell you I care a lot more than any number of pins. Oh, I've learned a lot in the last six months, Bill. I had to hurt myself, and you, too. I had to get a jolt to jar me out of my self-centered little orbit. I got it, and it did me good. And it's funny. I came back here because I thought I ought to, because it was our home, but rather dreading it. And I've been quite contented and happy—only hungry, oh, so dreadfully hungry, for you."
Bill kissed her.
"I didn't make any mistake in you, after all," he said. "You're a real partner. You're the right stuff. I love you more than ever. If you made a mistake you paid for it, like a dead-game sport. What's a few months? We've all our life before us, and it's plain sailing now we've got our bearings again."
"Amen!" she whispered. "I—but, say, man of mine, you've been on the trail, and I know what the trail is. You must be hungry. I've got all kinds of goodies cooked in the kitchen. Take off your clothes, and I'll get you something to eat."
"I'll go you," he said. "I am hungry. Made a long mush to get here for the night. I got six huskies running loose outside, so if you hear 'em scuffing around you'll know it's not the wolves. Say, it was some welcome surprise to find a fire when I came in. Thought first somebody traveling through had put up. Then I saw those slippers lying there. That was sure making me take notice when you stepped out."
He chuckled at the recollection. Hazel lit the lamp, and stirred up the fire, plying it with wood. Then she slipped a heavy bath-robe over her nightgown and went into the chilly kitchen, emerging therefrom presently with a tray of food and a kettle of water to make coffee. This she set on the fire. Wherever she moved Bill's eyes followed her with a gleam of joy, tinctured with smiling incredulousness. When the kettle was safely bestowed on the coals, he drew her on his knee. There for a minute she perched in rich content. Then she rose.
"Come very quietly with me, Bill," she whispered, with a fine air of mystery. "I want to show you something."
"Sure! What is it?" he asked.
"Come and see," she smiled, and took up the lamp. Bill followed obediently.
Close up beside her bed stood a small, square crib. Hazel set the lamp on a table, and turning to the bundle of blankets which filled this new piece of furniture, drew back one corner, revealing a round, puckered-up infant face.
"For the love of Mike!" Bill muttered. "Is it—is it—"
"It's our son," she whispered proudly. "Born the tenth of January—three weeks ago to-day. Don't, don't—you great bear—you'll wake him."
For Bill was bending down to peer at the tiny morsel of humanity, with a strange, abashed smile on his face, his big, clumsy fingers touching the soft, pink cheeks. And when he stood up he drew a long breath, and laid one arm across her shoulders.
"Us two and the kid," he said whimsically. "It should be the hardest combination in the world to bust. Are you happy, little person?"
She nodded, clinging to him, wordlessly happy. And presently she covered the baby's face, and they went back to sit before the great fireplace, where the kettle bubbled cheerfully and the crackling blaze sent forth its challenge to the bevy of frost sprites that held high revel outside.
And, after a time, the blaze died to a heap of glowing embers, and the forerunning wind of a northeast storm soughed and whistled about a house deep wrapped in contented slumber, a house no longer divided against itself.