There was a moment's silence, and at a nod from Graeme Mr. Craig rose and said:
"I don't know how you feel about it, men, but to me this looks good enough to be thankful for."
"Fire ahead, sir," called out a voice quite respectfully, and the minister bent his head and said:
"For Christ the Lord who came to save us, for all the love and goodness we have known, and for these Thy gifts to us this Christmas night, our Father, make us thankful. Amen."
"Bon! Dat's fuss rate," said Baptiste. "Seems lak dat's make me hit [eat] more better for sure." And then no word was spoken for a quarter of an hour. The occasion was far too solemn and moments too precious for anything so empty as words. But when the white piles of bread and the brown piles of turkey had for a second time vanished, and after the last pie had disappeared, there came a pause and a hush of expectancy, whereupon the cook and cookee, each bearing aloft a huge, blazing pudding, came forth.
"Hooray!" yelled Blaney; "up wid yez!" and grabbing the cook by the shoulders from behind, he faced him about.
Mr. Craig was the first to respond, and seizing the cookee in the same way, called out: "Squad, fall in! quick march!" In a moment every man was in the procession.
"Strike up, Batchees, ye little angel!" shouted Blaney, the appellation a concession to the minister's presence; and away went Baptiste in a rollicking French song with the English chorus—
Then blow, ye winds, in the morning, Blow, ye winds, ay oh! Blow, ye winds, in the morning, Blow, blow, blow.
And at each "blow" every boot came down with a thump on the plank floor that shook the solid roof. After the second round Mr. Craig jumped upon the bench and called out:
"Three cheers for Billy the cook!"
In the silence following the cheers Baptiste was heard to say:
"Bon! Dat's mak me feel lak hit dat puddin' all hup meself, me."
"Hear till the little baste!" said Blaney in disgust.
"Batchees," remonstrated Sandy gravely, "ye've more stomach than manners."
"Fu sure! but de more stomach, dat's more better for dis puddin'," replied the little Frenchman cheerfully.
After a time the tables were cleared and pushed back to the wall and pipes were produced. In all attitudes suggestive of comfort the men disposed themselves in a wide circle about the fire, which now roared and crackled up the great wooden chimney hanging from the roof. The lumberman's hour of bliss had arrived. Even old man Nelson looked a shade less melancholy than usual as he sat alone, well away from the fire, smoking steadily and silently. When the second pipes were well a-going one of the men took down a violin from the wall and handed it to Lachlan Campbell. There were two brothers Campbell just out from Argyll, typical Highlanders: Lachlan, dark, silent, melancholy, with the face of a mystic, and Angus, red-haired, quick, impulsive, and devoted to his brother, a devotion he thought proper to cover under biting, sarcastic speech.
Lachlan, after much protestation, interposed with gibes from his brother, took the violin, and in response to the call from all sides struck up "Lord Macdonald's Reel."
In a moment the floor was filled with dancers, whooping and cracking their fingers in the wildest manner. Then Baptiste did the "Red River Jig," a most intricate and difficult series of steps, the men keeping time to the music with hands and feet.
When the jig was finished Sandy called for "Lochaber No More," but Campbell said:
"No! no! I cannot play that to-night. Mr. Craig will play."
Craig took the violin, and at the first note I knew he was no ordinary player. I did not recognize the music, but it was soft and thrilling, and got in by the heart till every one was thinking his tenderest and saddest thoughts.
After he had played two or three exquisite bits he gave Campbell his violin, saying, "Now, 'Lochaber,' Lachlan."
Without a word Lachlan began, not "Lochaber"—he was not ready for that yet—but "The Flowers o' the Forest," and from that wandered through "Auld Robin Gray" and "The Land o' the Leal," and so got at last to that most soul-subduing of Scottish laments, "Lochaber No More." At the first strain his brother, who had thrown himself on some blankets behind the fire, turned over on his face feigning sleep. Sandy McNaughton took his pipe out of his mouth and sat up straight and stiff, staring into vacancy, and Graeme, beyond the fire, drew a short, sharp breath. We had often sat, Graeme and I, in our student days, in the drawing-room at home, listening to his father wailing out "Lochaber" upon the pipes, and I well knew that the awful minor strains were now eating their way into his soul.
Over and over again the Highlander played his lament. He had long since forgotten us, and was seeing visions of the hills and lochs and glens of his far-away native land, and making us, too, see strange things out of the dim past. I glanced at old man Nelson, and was startled at the eager, almost piteous look in his eyes, and I wished Campbell would stop. Mr. Craig caught my eye, and stepping over to Campbell held out his hand for the violin. Lingeringly and lovingly the Highlander drew out the last strain and silently gave the minister his instrument.
Without a moment's pause, and while the spell of "Lochaber" was still upon us, the minister, with exquisite skill, fell into the refrain of that simple and beautiful camp-meeting hymn, "The Sweet By-and-By." After playing the verse through once he sang softly the refrain. After the first verse the men joined in the chorus; at first timidly, but by the time the third verse was reached they were shouting with throats full open, "We shall meet on that beautiful shore." When I looked at Nelson the eager light had gone out of his eyes, and in its place was a kind of determined hopelessness, as if in this new music he had no part.
After the voices had ceased Mr. Craig played again the refrain, more and more softly and slowly; then laying the violin on Campbell's knees, he drew from his pocket his little Bible and said:
"Men, with Mr. Graeme's permission I want to read you something this Christmas eve. You will all have heard it before, but you will like it none the less for that."
His voice was soft, but clear and penetrating, as he read the eternal story of the angels and the shepherds and the Babe. And as he read, a slight motion of the hand or a glance of an eye made us see, as he was seeing, that whole radiant drama. The wonder, the timid joy, the tenderness, the mystery of it all, were borne in upon us with overpowering effect. He closed the book, and in the same low, clear voice went on to tell us how, in his home years ago, he used to stand on Christmas eve listening in thrilling delight to his mother telling him the story, and how she used to make him see the shepherds and hear the sheep bleating near by, and how the sudden burst of glory used to make his heart jump.
"I used to be a little afraid of the angels, because a boy told me they were ghosts; but my mother told me better, and I didn't fear them any more. And the Baby, the dear little Baby—we all love a baby." There was a quick, dry sob; it was from Nelson. "I used to peek through under to see the little one in the straw, and wonder what things swaddling clothes were. Oh, it was so real and so beautiful!" He paused, and I could hear the men breathing.
"But one Christmas eve," he went on in a lower, sweeter tone, "there was no one to tell me the story, and I grew to forget it and went away to college, and learned to think that it was only a child's tale and was not for men. Then bad days came to me and worse, and I began to lose my grip of myself, of life, of hope, of goodness, till one black Christmas, in the slums of a far-away city, when I had given up all and the devil's arms were about me, I heard the story again. And as I listened, with a bitter ache in my heart—for I had put it all behind me—I suddenly found myself peeking under the shepherds' arms with a child's wonder at the Baby in the straw. Then it came over me like great waves that His name was Jesus, because it was He that should save men from their sins. Save! Save! The waves kept beating upon my ears, and before I knew I had called out, 'Oh! can He save me?' It was in a little mission meeting on one of the side streets, and they seemed to be used to that sort of thing there, for no one was surprised; and a young fellow leaned across the aisle to me and said: 'Why, you just bet He can!' His surprise that I should doubt, his bright face and confident tone, gave me hope that perhaps it might be so. I held to that hope with all my soul, and"—stretching up his arms, and with a quick glow in his face and a little break in his voice—"He hasn't failed me yet; not once, not once!"
He stopped quite short, and I felt a good deal like making a fool of myself, for in those days I had not made up my mind about these things. Graeme, poor old chap, was gazing at him with a sad yearning in his dark eyes; big Sandy was sitting very stiff and staring harder than ever into the fire; Baptiste was trembling with excitement; Blaney was openly wiping the tears away, but the face that held my eyes was that of old man Nelson. It was white, fierce, hungry-looking, his sunken eyes burning, his lips parted as if to cry. The minister went on.
"I didn't mean to tell you this, men; it all came over me with a rush; but it is true, every word, and not a word will I take back. And, what's more, I can tell you this: what He did for me He can do for any man, and it doesn't make any difference what's behind him, and"—leaning slightly forward, and with a little thrill of pathos vibrating in his voice—"oh, boys, why don't you give Him a chance at you? Without Him you'll never be the men you want to be, and you'll never get the better of that that's keeping some of you now from going back home. You know you'll never go back till you're the men you want to be." Then, lifting up his face and throwing back his head, he said, as if to himself, "Jesus! He shall save His people from their sins," and then, "Let us pray."
Graeme leaned forward with his face in his hands; Baptiste and Blaney dropped on their knees; Sandy, the Campbells, and some others stood up. Old man Nelson held his eye steadily on the minister.
Only once before had I seen that look on a human face. A young fellow had broken through the ice on the river at home, and as the black water was dragging his fingers one by one from the slippery edges, there came over his face that same look. I used to wake up for many a night after in a sweat of horror, seeing the white face with its parting lips and its piteous, dumb appeal, and the black water slowly sucking it down.
Nelson's face brought it all back; but during the prayer the face changed and seemed to settle into resolve of some sort, stern, almost gloomy, as of a man with his last chance before him.
After the prayer Mr. Craig invited the men to a Christmas dinner next day in Black Rock. "And because you are an independent lot, we'll charge you half a dollar for dinner and the evening show." Then leaving a bundle of magazines and illustrated papers on the table—a godsend to the men—he said good-by and went out.
I was to go with the minister, so I jumped into the sleigh first and waited while he said good-by to Graeme, who had been hard hit by the whole service and seemed to want to say something. I heard Mr. Craig say cheerfully and confidently: "It's a true bill: try Him."
Sandy, who had been steadying Dandy while that interesting broncho was attempting with great success to balance himself on his hind legs, came to say good-by.
"Come and see me first thing, Sandy."
"Aye! I know; I'll see ye, Mr. Craig," said Sandy earnestly as Dandy dashed off at a full gallop across the clearing and over the bridge, steadying down when he reached the hill.
"Steady, you idiot!"
This was to Dandy, who had taken a sudden side spring into the deep snow, almost upsetting us. A man stepped out from the shadow. It was old man Nelson. He came straight to the sleigh and, ignoring my presence completely, said:
"Mr. Craig, are you dead sure of this? Will it work?"
"Do you mean," said Craig, taking him up promptly, "can Jesus Christ save you from your sins and make a man of you?"
The old man nodded, keeping his hungry eyes on the other's face.
"Well, here's His message to you: 'The Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.'"
"To me? To me?" said the old man eagerly.
"Listen; this, too, is His word: 'Him that cometh unto Me I will in no wise cast out.' That's for you, for here you are, coming."
"You don't know me, Mr. Craig. I left my baby fifteen years ago because——"
"Stop!" said the minister. "Don't tell me, at least not to-night; perhaps never. Tell Him who knows it all now and who never betrays a secret. Have it out with Him. Don't be afraid to trust Him."
Nelson looked at him, with his face quivering, and said in a husky voice:
"If this is no good, it's hell for me."
"If it is no good," replied Craig almost sternly, "it's hell for all of us."
The old man straightened himself up, looked up at the stars, then back at Mr. Craig, then at me, and drawing a deep breath said:
"I'll try Him." As he was turning away the minister touched him on the arm and said quietly:
"Keep an eye on Sandy to-morrow."
Nelson nodded and we went on; but before we took the next turn I looked back and saw what brought a lump into my throat. It was old man Nelson on his knees in the snow, with his hands spread upward to the stars, and I wondered if there was any One above the stars and nearer than the stars who could see. And then the trees hid him from my sight.
 From Black Rock. Reprinted by special permission of publisher, The Fleming H. Revell Company.
XII.—The Story That the Keg Told Me
By Adirondack (W. H. H.) Murray
The author is "Adirondack Murray" because he, more than any other man, rediscovered for the past and present generation the wonderful Adirondack Woods. We are grateful to Mr. Archibald Rutledge for having shortened the story, and to Mr. Murray's publishers, De Wolfe and Fiske Company, for permission to print it in the abbreviated form.—THE EDITOR.
IT was near the close of a sultry day in midsummer, which I had spent in exploring a part of the shore line of the lake where I was camping, and wearied with the trip I had made, I was returning toward the camp.
The lake was a very secluded sheet of water hidden away between the mountains, not marked on the map, whose very existence was unsuspected by me until I had a few days before accidentally stumbled upon it. Indeed, in all the world there is hardly another sheet of water so likely to escape the eye, not only of the tourist and the sportsman, but also of the hunter and the trapper. Day by day as I paddled over the lake or explored its shores the conviction grew upon me that the place had never before been visited by any human being. The more I examined and explored, the more this belief grew upon me. The thought was ever with me. But on this afternoon as I was paddling leisurely along, my paddle struck some curious object in the water. I reached down and lifted it into the boat. It was a Keg!
Amazed, I sat looking at this proof that my lake was not so unknown as I had supposed it to be. Where had it come from? How did it get here? Who brought it, and for what purpose? These and similar questions I put to myself as I paddled onward toward my camp.
After having built my camp fire I seated myself with my back against a pine; it was then that my gaze again fell on the Keg, which I had brought up from the boat and had set on the ground across the fire from me. I sat wondering where it had come from, and what had become of him who must once have handled it. . . . It may be that I was awake; it may be that I was asleep; but as I was thus looking steadily and curiously at the Keg, it seemed to change its appearance. It was no longer a Keg: it was a man! A queer little man he was, with strange little legs, and the funniest little body, and the tiniest little face! Then, standing bold upright, and looking at me with eyes that glistened like black beads, the miraculous Keg-Man opened his mouth and began to talk!
"I desire to tell you my story," it said; "the story of the man who brought me here; why he did it, and what became of him; how he lived and died.
"The earliest remembrance I have of myself is of the cooper's shop where I was made. Although I look worn now, I can recall the time when all my staves were smooth and clean, so that the oak-grain showed clearly from the top to the bottom of me, and my steel hoops were strong and bright. The cooper made me on his honor and took a deal of honest pride in putting me together, as every workman should in doing his work. I remember that when I was finished and the cooper had sanded me off and oiled me, he set me up on a bench and said to his apprentice boy: 'There, that Keg will last till the Judgment Day, and well on toward night at that.' I wondered at that.
"One day a few weeks later a man came into the shop and said, 'Have you a good strong keg for sale?'
"He put the question in such a half-spiteful, half-suspicious way that I eyed him curiously. And a very peculiar man I saw. He was not more than forty years old, of good height and strongly built. He was a gentleman, evidently, although his face was darkly tanned and his clothes were old and threadbare. His mouth was small. His lips were thin, and had a look of being drawn tightly over his teeth. His chin was long, his jaws large and strong. His hair was thin and brown. But the remarkable feature of his face was his eyes. They were blue-gray in color, small, and deeply set under his arching eye-brows. How hard and steel-like they were, and restless as a rat's! And what an intense look of suspicion there was in them; a half-scared, defiant look, as if their owner felt every one to be his enemy. Ah, what eyes they were! I came to know them well afterward, and to know what the wild, strange light in them meant; but of that by and by.
"'Have you a good strong keg for sale?' he shouted to my master, who turned round and looked squarely at the questioner.
"'Yes, I have, Mr. Roberts. Do you want one?'
"'Yes!' returned the other; 'but I want a strong one—strong, do you hear?'
"'Here's a keg,' said my master, tapping me with his mallet, 'that I made with my own hands from the very best stuff. It will last as long as steel and white oak staves will last.'
"The price was paid with a muttered protest and Roberts hoisted me under his arm and bore me from the shop.
"As we hurried along, I noticed that my new master spoke to no one, and that people looked at him coldly or wonderingly. At last we came to a common-looking house set back from the road, with a very high fence built around it and a heavy padlock on the front gate. There were great strong wooden shutters at every window. My master entered the house and set me down on the floor, then went to the door and locked it, drawing two large iron bars across it. He went to every window to see if it was fastened.
Carrying a candle in one hand and a great bludgeon in the other, he examined every room, every closet, the attic, and the cellar. After this he came back to me, set me on a table, started one of my hoops, and took out one of my heads. From a cupboard he got a large sheepskin, and with a pair of shears fitted me with a lining of it. I must say that he did it with cleverness, and he seemed well pleased with his work.
"When he had done all this, he brought his bludgeon and laid it on the table beside me; also he laid there a large knife. Then he went to the chimney and brought the ash-pail, which was full of ashes; from the cupboard he brought an earthen jar; from under the bed he fetched a bag; from the cellar he returned with a sack, all damp and moldy. When he had all these side by side near the table, he sat down. Then out of the ash-pail he took a small pot, and having carefully blown the ashes off, he turned it bottom-upward on the table. And what do you think was in it?
"Gold coins! Some red and some yellow, but all gold!
"He emptied each of the other receptacles, and out there flowed heaps of gold coins almost without number! How they gleamed and glistened! How they clinked and jingled! And how the deep and narrow eyes of my master glittered, but how the lips drew apart in a wild smile!
"It was a fearful sight to see him playing with the gold and to hear him laugh over his treasure. It was dreadful to think that a human soul could love money so. And he did love it—madly, with all the strength of his nature.
"He would take up a coin and look at it as a father might look upon the face of a favorite child. Ah, me, 'twas dreadful! He would take up a piece and say to it, 'Thou art better to me than a wife'; and to another, 'Thou art dearer than father or mother!' Ah, such blasphemy as I heard that night! How the sweet and blessed things of human life were derided, and the things that are divine and holy sneered at!
"At length he fell to counting his gold; and for a long, long time he counted, until his hands shook, and his eyes gleamed as if he were mad. When he had counted all, he jumped from his seat, shouting like a maniac, 'Sixteen thousand, six hundred and sixty-six dollars!' Again and again he shouted this in wild triumph.
"After a while he sobered down, and inside of me he began to pack away his treasures—carefully, caressingly, as a mother might lay her children to sleep. When I was full to the brim with shining gold, he put my head on, fitted the upper hoop on snugly, and then put me in the bed. The great knife he slipped under the pillow. Then, blowing out the light, he lay down beside me with one arm thrown about me. So the miser, clasping me to his heart, fell asleep.
"Day after day, night after night, this selfsame performance was repeated. My master did little work; indeed, he did not seem eager to increase his store, but merely to hold it safely. But about this he was so anxious that he was in a fever of excitement all the time. For days he would not leave the house. Never was he free from the fear of losing his money. And this suspicion had poisoned his whole life, had made him hate his kind and lose all belief in the love and the goodness of God, that he had once professed.
"One day in summer he left the front door open. I was drowsing, when suddenly I heard him give a frightened yell. In the doorway stood a man and a woman. The man was the village pastor, and the woman, I soon learned, was my master's wife. For a moment my master stood looking angrily at them. Then he said abruptly, 'Why did you come here?'
"'John,' said the woman, 'your child Mary is dying; and I thought that you, her father, would want to see her before she passed away.' Her voice choked, and her breast heaved with sobs.
"'Dying, is she?' said my master brutally. 'I don't believe it. You are simply after my gold. You might as well get away from here,' he added with a threatening look.
"'John,' returned the woman, great tears coming to her eyes, 'I never in my life lied to you. Mary is dying, and I could not let her go without giving you a chance to see her. Last night in her delirium she begged for you. She wants you, John; she wants to say good-by to you!'
"But my master remained unmoved. The sinister look in the eyes, the doggedness of the face did not change. He stared at them; then he shouted in frenzy: 'You lie! You want my money! Everybody wants it! Everybody loves it! There isn't an honest man in the world! All are thieves! All are lovers of gold! I know by your looks that you love it,' he went on; 'and you can't fool me by your tears and your preaching. You get out of this house!' he suddenly shrieked, 'or I will kill you,—both of you!' He swore a terrible oath and stepped back to seize the heavy bludgeon on the table. The woman cried out in fear and turned away weeping. But the parson stood his ground.
"'John Roberts,' he said, 'thou art a doomed man. The lust of gold that destroys so many is in thee strong and mighty, and only God can save thee, nor He against thy will. Repent, or thou shalt perish in a lonely place, on a dark night, with none to help thee or hear thy cries; and all thy gold shall perish with thee.' So saying, he turned and slowly left the house.
"For a moment my master stood glaring at the retreating forms of those who had come to him as friends, but whom he had treated as enemies; then he rushed for the door and locked it. After that he lifted me tenderly upon the table, laughed softly, patted me with his hands, and stroked me caressingly. 'My gold,' he kept repeating, 'my precious, precious gold!' And as night came on, he poured out the gold and counted the glittering pieces. Again and again he counted his treasure until deep midnight had settled over all.
"But when he awoke in the morning he was very nervous. All day long he neither opened the door nor unbarred the shutters. All the while he kept muttering to himself as if planning some crafty plot. I could not know what all this might mean, but I caught enough of his talk to understand that he was more than ever suspicious of losing his money, was fearing all man-kind more and more, and was trying to devise some scheme whereby he could find a place where no one could molest him or try to steal his gold. 'They will get it yet,' he kept saying, 'unless I can go where no one can find me.' Then he would curse his kind.
"At last, after hours of muttering and tramping back and forth in the darkened house, he suddenly seemed to find his decision. I shall never forget the terrible expression of evil triumph on his face as he paused before me and shouted:
"'I'll go! Go where they can never find me! I want to be alone with my money, where I can spread it out and see it shine! I will go where there is not a man!'
"After my master had said that, he made no further remarks; but he began with eager haste to pack a few things for his journey. He put me in a sack in which I could neither see nor hear what was happening; and that was all I knew for many a day. But all the while I felt myself being carried, carried, carried! One day I realized that I had been put in a boat; then we went on and on, day after day. Finally the boat was stopped and I was carried ashore. Then for the first time in many a long day I was taken from the bag. Again I saw the world about me. But how different were my surroundings from those of my old home! Where was I? I was on the very point of land off which you found me this evening.
"For the first few weeks of our stay on the shores of this lonely lake, things continued almost as they had been at home. The gold was my master's single thought. He seemed happy, almost joyous, in the thought that he and I were at last out of the reach of men. Most of his time was spent looking at his gold. Every morning and every evening he would take me down to that point yonder where the sun shines clearly, and there would pour the treasure out in a great pile. He always did this exultingly. And his greatest pleasure was to play with the yellow coins, to count them over and over, and to laugh to himself in a satisfied way.
"But after a time I could see that a change was coming over my master. He grew grave and quiet. No, more, as he poured out his gold, did he chuckle and laugh to himself. All his movements seemed listless. He counted his money less frequently, and when he did so it was in a half-hearted manner. One day I even saw him go away and leave the yellow heap lying on the sands. At last one day he came, packed the gold in me, and put in my head with the greatest care. Moreover, when he went back to the camp, he left me there on the beach! I felt very strange and lonely, and the night seemed long indeed.
"At last the daybreak came, and glad I was to see it. But it was not until near sunset that my master came down to the point where I was. His face was as I had never seen it before. It was the countenance of a man who had suffered much, and who was still suffering. He came to me, paused before me, and said: 'For thee, thou cursed gold, I have wasted my life and ruined my soul!'
"For some time he stood thus looking at me; then he began to walk up and down the strip of beach, wringing his hands and beating his breast. 'Oh, if I could only do it!' he kept saying; 'if I could only do it! If I could, there might be hope, even for me. Lord, help me to do it! Lord, help me!'
"After many hours of this, which I knew to be mental torment for my poor wretched master, when he was exhausted in body and in mind, he came back along the sands toward me. To my astonishment he knelt down beside me, he placed his hands together, he lifted his face skyward. My master prayed!
"'Lord of the great world,' he said, 'come to my aid or I am lost. In Thy great mercy, save me! Hear where no man may hear, hear Thou my cry; Thou Lord of heavenly mercy, lend me thine aid!'
"He paused, and over his face I seemed to see the dawning of a deep peace. He rose to his feet, lifted me, and bore me down to the boat. Then he slowly paddled away toward the center of the lake, repeating his prayer. At last he checked the boat; then, having looked toward the sky, he said in a low, sweet voice, 'Lord, Thou hast given me grace and strength.' At that he lifted me high above his head——"
There was a crash as if pieces of wood were falling together and my eyes opened with a snap. My fire had smoldered down. The Keg, heated by the fire, had tumbled inward, and lay there in a confused heap.
"What a queer dream," I said to myself. I was really beginning to believe that these things had happened. I rose to my feet and stepped down to the edge of the lonely water. I am not ashamed to say that my blood was chilled at what I saw. As I looked across the lake, within twenty feet of where I had found the Keg, there was a boat with a man sitting motionless in it!
When that mysterious canoe appeared on the bosom of the lonely lake, I thought that I was looking upon a vision of a spectral nature. In spite of all my belief that I was alone on this remote beach, there sat the man in the boat, only a few rods off shore. He was as a mirage, as silent as the very lake itself. A few eerie moments passed; then the boat began to move slowly toward me, gently propelled by a skillful paddle. As it approached, the light of the full moon streaming upon it made it easy for me to study its occupants. Near the bow I could discern a hound crouching. In the stern sat the paddler, his rifle across his knees.
"Hello, the camp there!" shouted the man in the boat.
"Hello!" I called, glad enough to find that my strange visitor was no apparition.
The canoe came ashore, I greeted the boatman, and together we walked up toward the camp, the hound following us in a leisurely fashion. There I replenished the fire. Then for a moment the stranger and I stood and looked at each other. He was over six feet in height, but so symmetrically proportioned in his physical stature that, great as it was, he was neither awkward nor ungainly. But for the fact that his eye had lost its earlier brightness and that his hair was sprinkled with threads of gray, it would have been impossible to believe that he had reached three-score years and ten, for his form was still erect, his step elastic, and his voice clear and strong. His features were regular and strong, giving proof of the man's self-reliant and indomitable character. Years, perhaps a lifetime of activity in the woods and on the lakes, had bronzed the man. From beneath heavy eyebrows looked eyes gray in color and baffling in depth. The man's whole appearance attracted me singularly.
"Thank ye for your welcome, mister," he began. "I shouldn't have dropped in on ye at this onseemly hour, but the line of your smoke caught my eye as I was turning the point yonder. I didn't expect to find a human being on these shores. I ax your pardon for comin' in on ye, but I have memories of this spot that made me think strange things when I saw your camp. I am John Norton, the trapper. And who might you be, young man?"
"I am Henry Herbert," I replied; "but just call me plain Henry."
"Well, Henry," began the old trapper, "I am going to call you that. When men meet in the woods they don't put on any airs. I have been in these woods sixty-two years, and they have been a home for me, for my father and mother are gone, and I have never had wife nor child of my own. And I have heard of you, Henry. Ye be no stranger to me. For ten years back I have heard how you like to travel the woods and the waters by yourself, larning things that Nature does not tell about in crowds. I have heard, too, that you be a good shot, and that you know the ways of outwitting the trout and the pickerel. Hearing about you this way, I knew some day that I would come across your trail; but I never thought to run agin you to-night, for I'd no idee that mortal man knowed this lake, save me—save me and that other. . . ."
The old man paused, seated himself on the end of a log, and gazed into the fire with a solemn look on his face.
I did not feel like breaking in on his meditations, whatever they might be. I was silent out of deference to his memories.
"This lake," John Norton said at length, "this lake is a strange place. I have been here for eleven years. No other place in all this wide country makes me feel as this place does."
Again he fell into a reverie. I, meanwhile, busied myself with supper; and as soon as this was prepared, the two of us enjoyed it as only woodmen can.
"If you know me," I said, "we are no strangers to each other, for I know you. Who draws the steadiest bead with a rifle; who is the best boatman who ever feathered paddle, and who is as honest a man as ever drew breath?—who, but John Norton, whom I have always been wanting to meet. No man could be as welcome to my camp."
"Well, well," laughed the old man, "when you're at home you must be one of them detective fellows. I see we aren't no strangers to each other. And if while in these woods old John Norton can teach you any trick of huntin' or of fishin' or of trappin', be sure he will do so for the welcome you have give him."
So we sat on either side of the fire, silent for a few moments. Then the old trapper said:
"I am thinking of the things that happened here long years agone. Strange things have come to pass on this very point. It is eleven year this very night that me and the hound slept here, and a solemn night it was, too. . . . God of heaven, man, what is that?"
The old man's startled ejaculation brought me to my feet as if a panther were upon me. Glancing at the spot he had indicated by look and gesture, I beheld only the shattered portion of the Keg. Not knowing what to make of the trapper's excited action, I said: "That? That is only a Keg I picked up in the lake this evening."
John Norton rose in silence to his feet and went over to where the staves lay. One of these he picked up and held contemplatively in his hand.
"The ways of the Lord are past the knowing of mortals," he said. "But perhaps in the long run He brings the wrong to the right, and so makes the evil in the world to praise him. Henry," said the Old Trapper, looking keenly at me, "I have a mind to tell you the story of the man who owned that Keg. A strange tale it be, but a true one, and the teachings of it be solemn."
Eagerly I urged him to give me the story, a part of which, at least, I felt that I already knew.
"It was eleven year agone, in this very month, that I came down the inlet yonder into the lake. The moon was nigh her full, and everything looked solemn and white just as it do now. Lord knows I little thought to meet a man in these solitudes when I run agin what I am telling ye of.
"I was paddling down this side of the lake when I heard the strangest sounds I ever heard coming out of a bird or beast. Ye better believe, Henry, that I sot and listened until I was nothing but ears. But nary a thing could I make out of it. After awhile I said I would try to ambush the creetur and find out what mouth had a language that old John Norton couldn't understand. As I got nearer the shore, my boat just drifting in the moonlight, I heerd a kind of crawling sound as if the brute was a-trailing himself on the ground. The shake of a bush give me the line on him, and I felt sure that in a minute I could let the lead drive where it ought to go. I had my rifle to my face, when by the Lord of marcy, Henry, I diskivered I had ambushed a man!
"And, Henry," he continued, "the words of the man was words of prayer. Never in my life was I taken so unawares or was so unbalanced as when I heard the voice of that man I had mistook for an animal break out in prayer. For a minute the blood stopped in my heart and my hair moved in my scalp; then I shook like a man with the chills. I had come that nigh being a murderer, Henry!
"How that man prayed! He prayed for help as one calls to a comrade when his boat has gone down under him in the rapids, and he knows he must have help or die. This man's soul was struggling hard, I tell ye. The words of his cry come out of his mouth like the words of one who is surely lost unless somebody saves him. It's dreadful for a man to live in such a way that he has to pray in that fashion; for we ought to live, Henry, so that it is cheerful-like to meet the Lord, and pleasant to hold converse with Him.
"I sot in my boat till his praying was done; then I hugged myself close in under the bushes, for I heard him coming down toward the shore. And he did come, and come close to me; and in his arms he carried something very heavy. In a moment I heard him shove a boat out from the bushes; then, getting in, he pushed off into the lake. He held for the center of it; and when he had come nigh to the middle of it, he laid his paddle down, and lifted something into the air. This he turned upside down, and out streamed into the water something that glinted in the moonlight. After that, he come paddling back for the shore. Myself—I kept shy of the man that night, but the next morning I went to the stranger's camp.
"There was nothing in sight but an old ragged tent, sagging at every seam. I called aloud so that mayhap the man would answer me. But no answer came. I walked up to the tent and drew aside the rotten flap. And, Henry, there lay the man senseless before me! I thought he was dead, and I onkivered my head. But the hound here knowed better, for he began to wag his tail. I went in, and found that the man was still breathing. I lifted him in my arms, Henry, and bore him out of the foul air of that tent, taking him down to the warm sunshine on the point.
"For a long while I thought he was going to die in my arms. He just lay there lifeless-like, a-looking across the lake with eyes half-shut. But the sun and air revived him; and after a long while he stirs and says:
"'Old man, who are you who are so kind to me?'
"I tells him I was John Norton, the trapper.
"'I am John Roberts,' he says, 'and I haven't a friend on the earth, nor do I deserve one. Old man, you cannot understand, because you have lived an innocent life, but I am a sinner—a wretched sinner. And my moments here are numbered. I will tell you of my crimes; I will confess them, for they lie heavy on my heart.
"'John Norton, I was a miser; I had a heart with a passion for gold. For the evil love of money I turned my face away from my kind. My wife I deserted. My only child I refused, with curses, to see, even when she sent for me as she lay dying. John Norton, I gave all for gold. And the more I loved it, the more I hated man. With my dreadful lust there grew suspicion of every one. All ties of affection were severed. I lived alone, hoarding my gold and gloating over it.
"'At last I fled from the habitations of men, bringing my gold, my god, with me in a Keg. Here on this lonely shore I thought to be happy, far from my own kind, far from any danger that my precious treasure be stolen. But, John Norton—and a dying man is speaking—for all my counting of the bright gold on the sands here, and my dancing about it as a devil might, laughing and singing—I was unhappy. I knew that God was watching me and was disapproving. I could not but think of my wife and child. The thought of them began to make the gold hateful to me. Ah, then, old man, I began to pray the Lord to deliver me! It was a bitter struggle I fought, but at length He rescued me. He gave me strength, John Norton, to overcome the Wicked One; He gave me strength to break away from my sin; He gave me strength last night to pour every piece of gold that had been for me both love and life, into the lake there. I shall never see it more, and I am happy.'
"After that, he lay silent-like, looking up at the blue sky. Then his eyes closed, and I thought him sleeping. But suddenly he started up, 'A light, a light! I see a light!' Then, Henry, he sank back into my arms and spoke no more. I hope my passing may be as peaceful as his, and my face as calm as was his after his battle of life was over.
"The next day I buried him up yonder under them hemlocks—having no one to help me, but doing it respectful-like, as all such should be done. There he lies, Henry, the man who was the owner of that Keg—John Roberts—the miser who repented before it was too late. Nor do I doubt," he added, in his kindly tone, "but he's been forgiven by those he wronged."
* * * * *
Obvious punctuation errors repaired.
Words that have varied hyphenation: a-way, clean-cut, camp-fire, east-bound, round-house.
Page 32, "Naggar" changed to "Nagger" (to find Nagger)
Page 200, "Skinney" changed to "Skinny" (Skinny soon returned)
Page 237, "Toodles" changed to "Toddles" (Toddles swung from)
Page 243, "pur" changed to "purr" (began to purr)
Page 270, "But" changed to "but" (but the face)