Then he remembered that he had only a few dollars and must find some work soon. Supper would not be served at the cheap hotels for an hour yet and he set off to look for an employment agent. The man charged a dollar and gave him a card with an address, remarking that Drummond ought to get a job, as business was good. Drummond went back up the avenue, and presenting the card at a big store, was engaged for a week and promised a post afterwards if the department boss was satisfied.
THE GRAND RAPID
Bright moonlight touched the river, streaking the angry water with a silver track, when Scott and Thirlwell poled against the stream in the gloom of the wooded bank. The Shadow, swollen by melted snow, rolled by in flood, swirling along the stony beach in lines of foam, and tossing about battered trunks brought down by winter storms. Farther down stream, a shimmering haze of spray indicated the Grand Rapid, and Thirlwell meant to stem the current until they were far enough from the foaming turmoil to paddle across. The gray trout were shy that evening and they had let the canoe drift farther than they thought. Presently somebody hailed them from the bank, and as they let the canoe swing round in an eddy a dark figure moved out from the gloom of the pines.
"Driscoll's voice, I think," said Scott. "Head her inshore; we'll see what he wants."
It transpired that Driscoll wanted them to take him across. He had left his small canoe some distance down stream, because he thought he might be drawn into the rapid before he could reach the other bank. Scott's canoe was larger, and with three men on board they could easily make head against the current.
"I guess we've got to take him," Scott remarked. "Give her a push and run her in behind the rock."
When the canoe grounded Driscoll got on board and picked up a pole. As there was not another, Thirlwell paddled in the stern while they pushed the craft through the slack. It was hard work and he noted how slowly the pines rolled past. By and by they reached an angry-white rush of current between an island and the bank, and as they could scarcely make progress Scott suggested putting down the poles and paddling across. Driscoll, however, grumbled that they were not far enough up stream, and getting out when they ran the canoe close to the driftwood that washed about the shingle, tracked her for some distance through the shallow water. While the fellow stumbled among the dead branches, Scott gave Thirlwell a meaning look that the latter thought he understood.
It was obvious that Driscoll was anxious to avoid being swept into the rapid and Thirlwell admitted the prudence of this, but did not think the danger great enough to account for his rather excessive caution. The Indians generally shot the rapid when the water was low, and although the river was now rolling down in flood, it was not impossible for men with steady nerves to take the canoe safely through to the tail-pool. He wondered whether Black Steve had been drinking, but on the whole did not think he had, and admitting that the fellow knew the streams and eddies best, let him have his way. At length, however, Scott threw down his pole.
"We're far enough and I want my supper," he said. "Get hold of the paddles and let her shoot across."
Driscoll grumbled half aloud, but made no determined protest, and paddling hard they headed obliquely for the opposite bank. As they forged through the glittering water the current swept them down and Thirlwell noted that it was running faster than he had thought. The river was wide and the ragged pines got indistinct as they rolled back up stream. It looked as if the canoe were standing still and the banks moving on, only that the gleaming spray-cloud got rapidly nearer. It stretched across from bank to bank, and a dull roar that rose and fell came out of the wavering mist. For the most part, the current was smooth, but here and there broken lines of foam streaked its surface, and sometimes the canoe swung round in revolving eddies.
Still the dark rocks ahead got nearer and at length Driscoll made a sign that they could stop paddling. He occupied the stern, where he could steer the craft. Thirlwell, feeling breathless after his efforts, was glad to stop, and looked about as he knelt in the middle. He had often thought it was from the river one best marked the savage austerity of the wilderness. In the bush, one's view was broken by rocks and trunks, but from the wide expanse of water one could look across the belt of forest that ran back, desolate and silent, to Hudson Bay. Here and there the hazy outline of a rocky height caught the eye, but for the most part, the landscape had no charm of varied beauty. It was monotonous, somber, and forbidding.
The canoe was now thirty or forty yards from the rough bank, and drifting fast. Driscoll obviously meant to land on a patch of shingle lower down, which was the only safe spot for some distance. At low-water one could run a canoe aground among the ledges that bordered the slack inner edge of the rapid, but when the Shadow rose in flood the current broke and boiled furiously among the rocks. One faces forward when paddling, and while Thirlwell watched the dark gaps in the pines open up and close he heard Driscoll shout. Next moment Scott leaned over the bow and plunged his arm into the water. It looked as if he had dropped his paddle and Thirlwell backed his in order to stop the craft.
The paddle floated past, too far off for Driscoll to reach, and signing to Thirlwell, he swung the canoe round, but the water was getting broken and they missed the paddle by a yard. Then they drove her ahead in a semi-circle, and a minute or two had gone when Scott, leaning over cautiously, seized the paddle-haft. In the meantime, they had drifted fast, and Thirlwell saw that that patch of shingle was now up stream.
"That's awkward," Scott remarked, and the canoe rocked as Driscoll dipped his paddle.
"Drive her! You have got to make the beach," he shouted in a hoarse voice.
There was something contagious in the man's alarm, and knowing his physical courage, Thirlwell made his best effort. The sweat ran down his face, he felt his muscles strain and his sinews crack, and the canoe's bow lifted as the paddle-blades beat the water. Driscoll leaned far forward to get a longer stroke and urged the others with breathless shouts, but the shingle they were heading for slowly slipped away.
"Try along the bank," Driscoll ordered, and Thirlwell, turning to pick up a pole, saw his face in the moonlight. It was strangely set, and he was not looking at the bank, but at the rapid. His gaze was fixed and horrified.
For some minutes they scarcely held the craft against the stream. Indeed, Thirlwell afterwards wondered why they kept it up, since it was obvious that they could not reach the landing, but imagined that Driscoll urged them. The fellow seemed resolved not to be drawn into the rapid.
"We can't make it; I've got to let up," Scott gasped at length, and Thirlwell, breathing hard, wiped his wet face as the canoe drove away.
It was galling to be beaten, and there was some danger unless the craft was handled well. Steadiness and skill were needed, but after all the risk was not greater than he had often run in the mine and on the frozen trail. The daunting thing was that Driscoll, whom they had expected to steer the canoe, looked afraid. He crouched astern, paddling in a slack, nerveless manner. There was no chance of landing now; they must run through the mad turmoil into the eddies of the tail-pool.
The roar of the flood rolled in confused echoes along the wall of pines. Angry waves broke upon the reefs near the bank, and a cloud of spray wavered and glittered above a tossing line of foam. They were drifting towards the line extraordinarily fast, and Thirlwell felt his nerves tingle as he tried to brace himself. There was ground for being daunted, but he thought he would not have felt much disturbed had Driscoll not looked afraid.
Then Scott, kneeling in the bow, turned, and after a quick glance at Driscoll said, "Keep as cool as you can, partner. Steve's badly rattled and can't be trusted."
A minute or two afterwards, they plunged over the edge of the rapid. The air got cold and the light got dim, for a wind blew against the rush of water and the spray hid the moon. Still, they could see for a distance, and Thirlwell frankly shrank as he glanced ahead. The river was broken by ridges of leaping foam that ran one behind the other with narrow gaps between. White-ringed eddies span along the bank and the tops of dark rocks rose out of the turmoil. Moreover, there were rocks in the channels, and one must strain one's eyes for the upheavals that marked sunken shoals. Driscoll knew the reefs and eddies, and while they plunged down like a toboggan Thirlwell risked a glance astern. The man's eyes were fixed on the river, but his pose was slack. It was plain that he had not recovered and they could expect no help from him. Thirlwell drew a deep breath and gripped his paddle hard.
He could never remember much about the next few minutes. Sometimes he shouted to Scott, and thought Scott called to him, as a wedge of stone suddenly split the rushing foam, and sometimes when the current boiled in fierce rebound from a hidden obstacle. The canoe plunged until the water stood up above her bows, and now and then leaped out half her length. When they dared, they checked her with a back-stroke as some danger loomed ahead, but oftener drove her faster than the current to steer her round a reef or dark, revolving pool. Yet, for the most part, she must be kept straight down stream, for if she swerved across a breaking wave its crest would curl on board and bear her down.
Thirlwell was vaguely conscious that his hand had galled and bled, but this did not matter. The trouble was, that the sweat ran into his eyes and he could not see distinctly. He felt his heart thump and his breath come hard, but braced himself against the lurching and tried not to miss a stroke. If he did so, Scott, paddling in the bow, would swing her round and next moment they would be in the water.
In the meantime, he was conscious of a curious, fierce excitement, but had braved danger too often to indulge the feeling. It led to hot rashness, and judgment and quick but calm decision were needed now. He must concentrate all the power of his mind as well as the strength of his body on taking the canoe down to the tail-pool.
She shipped some water on the way and they could not bail. It washed about their knees as the frail craft plunged, and Thirlwell wondered anxiously how much she would carry without capsizing. The rocks and pines ashore now streamed past, blurred and indistinct, but he had seldom an opportunity for glancing at the bank. He must look ahead, and every now and then his view was shortened by a ridge of tumbling foam.
Somehow she came through, half-swamped, and swung down the savage fan-shaped rush that spread in white turmoil across the tail-pool. Paddling hard, they drove her out of the eddies that circled along the bank, and finding a slack, ran her on to a shingle beach. Then they sat down, wet and exhausted, to recover breath. Driscoll helped to pull the canoe up, but when Thirlwell presently looked about he could not see him.
"He's gone," Scott remarked dryly. "Lit out while you were taking off your boots."
Thirlwell imagined that the roar of the river had drowned the fellow's steps, but he did not want to talk, about Driscoll yet, and when he put on his boots, which had been full of water, they started for the shack. After they had changed their clothes Scott sat down and lighted his pipe.
"What do you think was the matter with Black Steve?" he asked.
"It looked as if he'd taken some liquor, but I don't know," Thirlwell answered. "He was obviously scared."
"Sure," said Scott. "But he wasn't scared of getting drowned. Steve's a better canoe hand than either of us and has physical pluck."
"Then why was he afraid?"
Scott looked thoughtful. "I imagine he was afraid of the rapid and the dark. When he hailed us to take him over, I thought it an excuse; he could have got across in his own canoe if he had braced up. My notion is he didn't want to make the trip by himself." He paused and gave Thirlwell a keen glance. "Curious, isn't it?"
"He's a curious man," said Thirlwell, who had dark suspicions that he did not want to talk about. "When we were drifting into the rapid, I got a glimpse of his face and didn't look again. Thought I'd better not; the fellow's nerve had gone. Anyhow, if he hates the rapid, why does he stop here and live near the bank?"
"Steve is primitive; I guess you don't understand him yet. He's an old trapper and one gets superstitious in the bush. For all that, he's stubborn, and if he has an object, he'll persist until he carries it out."
"But what object has he got?"
Scott made a vague gesture. "I can't tell you that. Hadn't you better get out the plates? I want some food."
Thirlwell put a frying-pan on the stove and they talked about something else.
Driscoll was sorting pit-props, throwing them on to piles at the bottom of the shaft, when Thirlwell stopped to hook a small, flat lamp to his hat. The man sometimes worked in the mine for a few weeks when the trapping season was over, and Scott was generally willing to engage him because he was skilful with the axe and labor was scarce. He made no friends among the men, and gave Thirlwell a sour look without speaking when the latter picked up his lamp.
Thirlwell went on down the inclined gallery. Water splashed upon his slickers and trickled about his feet; the tunnel was narrow and the air was foul. Here and there a smoky light burned among the props lining the walls, and the dim illumination touched the beams that crossed the roof, but the gaps between the spots were dark. The timbers were numerous, and where one could see a short distance, ran on into the gloom in rows so closely spaced that they seemed continuous.
By and by Thirlwell found Scott looking up at a massive beam a few inches overhead. The beam was not quite level, and the prop beneath one end had bent, while a threatening crack extended across the roof.
"We may have a bad fall here," Scott remarked. "The prop's getting shaky and the pressure's pretty fierce. I reckon we'd better shore her up as quick as we can. It's lucky our lumber doesn't cost us much."
Thirlwell examined the crack and thought it dangerous. There were one or two transverse splits, which indicated a heavy mass of rock was ready to come down. None of the men were near the spot, and he knew they were occupied, but Driscoll had left a few props between the timbers, ready for use where the roof was weak. Thirlwell found one and dragged it to the spot.
"We'll put this up and then I think I'll get a fresh beam across."
Scott helped him to raise the timber. It was a few inches too long, and crossed the space between floor and roof with a small slant, but it was meant to do so, in order that when its lower end was driven forward until it stood upright it would wedge fast the beam above. Then Thirlwell brought an ax and struck the prop some heavy blows with its back while Scott steadied the top. It was almost in place, and the bent timber was getting loose, when the top slipped and shook the beam. There was an ominous crack and a few small stones broke away and fell on Scott's head.
"I've got her butted solid now," he shouted after a short breathless struggle with the timber. "Be quick! The roof's coming down!"
Thirlwell saw the danger. So long as the prop slanted, it would not support the beam, and if the beam gave way, the roof would fall and crush them before they could get from underneath. He thought he had a few moments to hammer the prop straight, and swung the ax savagely while the sweat ran down his face. He dared not look up again, but the ominous cracking went on and while he wondered what was happening, Driscoll ran past. A big stone fell beside the man as he seized another prop and with a tense effort jambed it under the beam.
"I'll take some weight off her while you shore her up," Driscoll gasped.
He had brought a heavy mallet, but before he used this he dragged the foot of the timber round, bending his body forward while his arms got stiff and hard, as if carved from wood. His sullen face was darkly flushed and the swollen veins stood out from his forehead. Thirlwell saw him for a moment as he lifted his ax, and remembering the scene afterwards, thought the fellow had looked a model of savage strength. It was obvious that he had no fear.
In the meantime, he was vaguely conscious that Driscoll had saved his life. He and Scott had stayed too long, and could not have fixed their prop before the beam gave way had not the other come to help. For that matter, they were not out of danger yet. Unless they could wedge the timber in the next few moments, the roof would come down. There was not room to swing the ax properly, his body was cramped from bending, and he could not lift his head. Stooping in the low tunnel, he nerved himself for a tense effort and struck several furious blows. The prop quivered, groaned as it felt the pressure from above, moved an inch or two, and stood upright. Then Thirlwell dropped his ax and staggered back. He felt limp and exhausted, and wanted to get away. The beam would hold the roof for some minutes and might do so for a time.
"You can let up now, Driscoll," Scott called out when they stopped a few yards off. "We'll see if the prop will stand before we do anything else."
"Guess I'll fix the other," Driscoll replied.
"Come out," Scott insisted. "You don't know if it's safe."
Driscoll glanced round for a moment. His hat had fallen off and the miner's lamp flared and smoked in the water at his feet. His hair was wet with the drops from the roof, and a thin streak of blood ran down his face from a cut a falling stone had made. But his heavy eyes had a fixed, obstinate look.
"You hired me to mind the timbers; it's my job."
Scott acquiesced with a gesture and he and Thirlwell watched. There was a risk that in wedging the extra prop the man might loosen the first; and then, if neither was able to bear the load, the rock above would fall and bury him. For all that, Driscoll looked undisturbed and did not stop until he had carefully driven the timber into its proper place. Then he turned to Scott and his glance was slow and dull.
"I want you to send two of the boys along."
"Why do you want them?"
"I've got to have some help. She won't hold up long unless we run another beam across."
"It would be prudent," Thirlwell agreed, and went down the gallery with Scott to the working face.
"What do you think of Black Steve?" Scott asked when they had sent the men and stood near a lamp. "He wasn't scared just now!"
"I'm puzzled," said Thirlwell thoughtfully. "The fellow was quite cool. If he hadn't come with the prop, I expect the roof would have buried us. But that's another thing. Why did he come?"
Scott smiled. "We were plainly in some danger, but I don't imagine Black Steve was moved by a generous impulse to save our lives. In fact, if it had promised him some advantage, I rather think he'd have seen us buried."
"You don't claim it was a sense of duty?"
"Not in a way; Steve's too primitive. On the whole, I think he explained the thing best when he said it was his job. A fellow of his kind doesn't reason like you; perhaps he did once, but lost the habit in the bush. He's, so to speak, atavistic; moved by instincts, like the Indians and animals."
"But I don't see—"
"Perhaps it isn't very obvious," Scott admitted. "For all that, the Indian's instinctive obstinacy carries him far. Steve had undertaken to look after our timbering, he's used to danger, and the risk didn't count. I expect he was moved by the feeling the bushman gets when he's up against Nature; he knows he'll be crushed if he can't make good. Anyhow, I've moralized long enough. Will you see what they're doing with that rock-borer?"
Thirlwell left him and went to the machine, which made a jarring noise. He spent some time adjusting the cutters, and afterwards stood for a few minutes thinking about what his comrade had said. Scott's argument was involved, but Thirlwell thought he saw what he meant. Driscoll's bemused mind could not grasp the thought of duty that demanded self-sacrifice, but he had animal courage and stubbornness. He would carry out what he had undertaken. Moreover, he might have animal cunning without having cultivated intelligence, and his strength and resolution made him dangerous. Thirlwell did not like Driscoll better than before, but it looked as if the fellow had saved his life, and although he might not have meant to do so, this counted for something. Going back to the shaft presently, he climbed up and sat down in the sun.
A warm wind blew across the pine woods, the sun was getting hot, and the wet grounds about the shaft-head was drying fast. The river had risen as the lakes in the wilds it came from overflowed with melted snow, and raged, level with its banks, in angry flood, rolling broken trees down stream and strewing ledges and shingle with battered branches. Its hoarse roar echoed across the bush, and Thirlwell felt that there was something daunting in the deep-toned sound. One could understand that a man like Driscoll, whose brain was dulled by liquor, might let it fill him with vague terrors when the woods were still at night.
But listening to the river presently led Thirlwell to think about Strange. There was something pathetic about the story of his life, for Agatha had made Thirlwell understand her father's long patience, gentleness, and self-sacrifice. His duty to his family had cost him much, but he had cheerfully paid. It looked as if he had done best at the task he most disliked—managing the humble store in the small wooden town. One could not think of him as having failed there. His wife and children loved him, though all but one had smiled when he talked about the lode.
His daughter, who knew him best, had inherited his confidence, and Thirlwell owned that this had some weight. She was perhaps influenced by tender sentiment, but there was nothing romantic about Driscoll and Stormont, and it looked as if they shared her belief that the lode could be found. Scott, too, thought it possible, and his judgment was often sound. Thirlwell had imagined the lode an illusion of Strange's, but his disbelief was giving way.
Then he forgot the others and thought about Agatha. In some ways she was like Strange, but she was made of finer and stronger stuff. She had his patience, but her brain was keener, and her resolution was backed by moral force. Moreover, she was a very charming girl and Thirlwell admitted that he looked forward with eagerness to their journey. She would come in summer, when the rivers and lakes were open and the woods were filled with resinous smells. The sun was hot in the North then, the days were often calm, and there was a wonderful bracing freshness when the lingering twilight glimmered behind the pines.
It would be strangely pleasant to listen to the girl's soft voice while the canoes glided smoothly across sparkling lakes, and perhaps to tell her stories of the wilds when the smoke of the camp-fire drifted by and the cry of the loon came out of the shadows. For all that, there was not much risk of his falling in love with her. He was not a sentimentalist, and she had told him that her vocation was science. Her journey was a duty, and when the duty was carried out she would concentrate on her studies, and as she had talent presently make her mark. He did not think she would find the lode, but when she was persuaded it could not be found he would no longer be useful and they would go their different ways. Well, he supposed he must acquiesce. He was a poor engineer, and such happiness as marriage could offer was not for him.
Then he glanced at his watch and got up with an impatient shrug. He had forgotten his work while he thought about the girl, and there was much to be done. For one thing, he had come up to see if the smith had tempered some boring tools; and then he must send the Metis river-jacks to float a raft of props down to the mine. Pulling himself together, he set about the work with characteristic energy, but as he walked through the murmuring woods he unconsciously began to sing a romantic ballad he had learned when a boy. Presently, however, he stopped and smiled. It looked as if he were getting sentimental, and one must guard against that kind of thing.
DRUMMOND OFFERS HELP
It was a calm evening and Thirlwell and Scott sat outside the shack, watching the river while the sunset faded across the woods. A few Metis freighters had gone to the settlements for supplies and mining tools, and although much depended on the condition of the portages, Scott expected them that night.
"Antoine will bring up our mail," he said. "It's some time since Miss Strange has written to you about her plans."
Thirlwell said it was nearly three months, and Scott resumed: "Well, I think if I'd had a part in the business, I'd have tried to find if the Hudson's Bay agent was alive. It's possible that he could tell you something about the location of the ore."
"I don't know that I have any part in the business," Thirlwell replied. "I promised to go with Miss Strange, but that's all."
"If she finds the lode, she'll need a mining engineer."
"She'll have no trouble in engaging one if the pay is good."
"But you wouldn't think you had first claim to the post? In fact, if you helped the girl to find the ore, you'd be satisfied to drop out and leave her alone?"
Thirlwell frowned. He had made no plans for the future and certainly did not mean to trade upon Agatha's gratitude, but he knew it would hurt him, so to speak, to drop out and let her look for other help.
"The lode isn't found yet," he rejoined.
"Anyhow, I feel that the girl or you ought to have got on the agent's track," Scott insisted. "He knew where Strange went, and saw him when he returned. It's possible that Strange confused his memory by his subsequent trips, but the agent heard his story when the matter was fresh."
Thirlwell did not answer, and Scott cut some tobacco. When he had finished he looked up the river.
"The bateaux! Antoine has made good time."
Two craft drew out of the shadow of the pines, slid down the swift current, and presently grounded on a gravel beach. They were of the canoe type, but larger, and their bottoms were flat, since they were rather built for carrying goods than paddling fast. There was a good water route to the rocky height of land, across which the cargo was brought on the freighters' backs from a river that joined the wagon trail to the settlements. As soon as they landed, the crews began to carry up boxes and packages, but a young man left the group and came towards the shack. He wore neat store-clothes that were not much the worse for the journey, and although his skin was somewhat dark, looked like a young business man from the cities.
"Which of you is Mr. Thirlwell?" he asked.
"I am," said Thirlwell. "Who are you?"
"Ian Drummond; the boys call me Jake. A son of Hector Drummond's of Longue Sault factory."
"Ah," said Scott, "this gets interesting! Did Hector Drummond send you?"
"No; he died nine years since."
Scott gave Thirlwell a meaning look, and turned to the young man.
"Then what do you want?"
"To begin with, I want a job."
"A job?" said Scott with some surprise. "What can you do?"
"I know nothing about mining, but I'm pretty strong," Drummond answered, giving Scott a deerskin bag. "Anyhow, Mr. Thirlwell had better read his letter before you hire me. Antoine, the patron, brought up your mail."
"Very well," said Scott. "The cook will give the boys supper soon and you had better go along. Come back afterwards."
When the lad had gone, Thirlwell felt pleasantly excited as he opened a letter Scott took out of the bag, for he saw it was from Agatha. She told him that Drummond had met her in Toronto and related how Stormont had victimized him. The young man stated that he wanted to see the North and would like to get work where he could watch for the prospecting party he thought Stormont would send up.
"I warned him that you may not be able to give him employment, but he is keen about going and willing to take the risk," she said. "We can, I think, trust him to some extent, and perhaps he knows enough about my father's journey to be useful; but I cannot tell if it would be prudent to offer him a reward. I am glad to feel I can leave this to you, and will, of course, agree to the line you think it proper to take."
Thirlwell read part of the letter to Scott, who said, "Miss Strange seems to have a flattering confidence in your judgment. Do you want me to hire the fellow?"
"I don't know yet. I wouldn't ask you to engage him unless he could be of use."
"You needn't hesitate on that ground, since we're two men short," Scott answered, smiling. "Well, suppose we wait until we have talked to him. I guess you know this silver-lode is getting hold of me."
"I wonder why!"
Scott laughed. "You understand machines and rocks; to some extent I understand men. Anyhow, I find them interesting, and perhaps other people's firm belief in the lode influences me."
By and by Drummond came back and Scott studied him as he advanced. He saw the lad had a strain of Indian blood, and he knew something about the half-breeds' character. They were marked by certain weaknesses, but as a rule inherited a slow tenacity from their Indian ancestors. He had known a man, shot through the body, walk four hundred miles to reach a doctor, and they made the revenging of serious injuries a duty. A Metis would wait the greater part of a lifetime for a chance of repaying in kind a man who had wronged him. Drummond looked somewhat dissipated and had a superficial smartness that young men without much education acquire in Canadian towns, but Scott thought him intelligent.
"Sit down," he said, indicating a short pine-stump. "You want a job. Is that all?"
"Yes," said Drummond coolly, "it's all I want now. If you and Mr. Thirlwell mean to look for the ore and take me along, you can give me what you think my help is worth. But I've already put Miss Strange wise."
"You seem to be pretty trustful! How did you find her?"
"My father knew where Strange, located after he left the factory, and I tried to get on the track of his folks when Stormont turned me down. Talked to packing-house drummers at a department store in Winnipeg where I was employed, and found a man who sold Strange canned goods when he ran a grocery business. The drummer had known him pretty well and told me Miss Strange was in Toronto. By and by, when trade was slack in Winnipeg, the firm sent some of the clerks to their Toronto store and I bothered the department boss until he let me go. Then I was 'most a month locating Miss Strange; couldn't find her in the directory and Toronto's a big town."
Scott noted the determination that had helped him in his search. "You knew about the lode for some time," he said. "Why did you wait so long?"
"I allowed there wasn't much use in my butting in, until I read in a newspaper that Strange was drowned. Besides, the drummer reckoned his own folks thought him a crank and there was nothing to his tale. All the same, when I got tired of keeping store I thought I'd see what I could do about the lode."
"I suppose it was because the drummer put you wise that you went to Miss Strange and not her brother? No doubt you tried to interest other people first. Still, as she promised you nothing, I don't see why you came here."
"Stormont played me for a sucker; found out all I knew and turned me down!" Drummond answered with a savage sparkle in his eyes.
Scott was silent for a few moments and then looked up. "You can begin work to-morrow and Mr. Thirlwell will pay you what you're worth. We'll make no further promise, but if you like, you can tell us anything you think important."
"Miss Strange knows," said Drummond with a curious smile. "You want to remember that I told Stormont the creek runs south. She does run south, for a piece, but she turns and goes down a valley to the east."
"Then it's hard to see your object for playing the crook with Stormont, though I don't suppose he'd have done the square thing if you had put him on the right track," Scott remarked. "However, that's not our business. You'll find room and some blankets in the bunk-house."
Drummond left them and Thirlwell said, thoughtfully, "It's plain that he deceived Stormont by telling him the creek flowed south. This would make the fellow think the ore was on our side of the last height of land, but if the water goes east, it must run into the James Bay basin on the other slope. That's something of a clue, but I see a risk in keeping Drummond here. Suppose he makes friends with Driscoll?"
"Driscoll doesn't make friends," Scott rejoined and added with a twinkle: "Then as you don't admit there is a lode, it's not worth while to wonder whether the lad could tell Black Steve anything useful."
"We'll let that go," Thirlwell replied, and when Scott strolled away read Agatha's letter again with keen satisfaction. It was a charming, frank letter, and he thrilled as he noted her trust in him.
Drummond went to work next morning and Thirlwell, allowing for some awkwardness at first, thought he would earn his pay, while a doubt he had felt about the prudence of engaging him was presently removed. Going to the smith's shop one afternoon, he heard angry voices and stopped to see what was going on. The smithy, which stood at the edge of the clearing round the mine, was a rude log shack without a door. It was generally rather dark, but just then a ray of sunshine struck in and the charcoal fire on the hearth glowed a dull red. The smith leaned on his hammer, watching Driscoll and Drummond, who confronted each other close by.
Driscoll was heavy and muscular, Drummond wiry and thin, but as they stood, highly strung, Thirlwell noted the athletic symmetry of both figures. Driscoll had, no doubt, acquired it by travel in the woods, and Drummond by inheritance from Indian forefathers. The older man's limbs and body had the fine proportions of a Greek statue, and since he did not move one could not see that he was lame. Their faces, although different in modeling, were somehow alike, for both had a curious, quiet watchful look. They disputed in low voices, but Thirlwell saw their mood was dangerous. He knew that noisy fury seldom marks a struggle in the North, where hunting animals and men strike in silence. There was something strangely like the stealthy alertness of the animals in their attitudes.
Waiting in the gloom among the pine-trunks, he gathered that the quarrel was about the sharpening of tools. Drummond had brought some cutters from the boring machine, and Driscoll wanted his ax ground.
"I came along first," Drummond declared. "Tom's going to fix my cutters; your ax has got to wait!" He glanced at the smith, sharply, as if reluctant to move his eyes from Driscoll. "Give the wheel a spin and let's get busy!"
"He certainly won't," said Driscoll; "I've unshipped the handle. You'll get your cutters quickest if you quit talking and wait until I'm through."
"That's not playing it like a white man. Don't know why they hired you at the mine. Your job's smuggling the Indians liquor."
"Your folks!" sneered Driscoll. "You're not white."
"Stop there!" said Drummond, with stern quietness, and Thirlwell saw him balance a cutter he held. It was a short but heavy piece of steel, curved at the point.
Driscoll's eyes glittered. "Your father was a squaw-man; your mother—"
He bent his body with the swift suppleness of an acrobat, and the cutter, flying past, rang upon the wall of the shack. Then he swung forward and the end of a pick-handle missed Drummond by an inch.
Another cutter shot from Drummond's hand and struck Driscoll's side. He stooped, and Thirlwell thought he was falling but saw that he had bent down to pick up his ax. Next moment the blade flashed in a long sweep and Drummond sprang behind the anvil, which occupied the middle of the floor. He had another cutter and held it back, with his arm bent, ready to launch it at Driscoll's head, but Thirlwell imagined he was pressed too hard to feel sure of his aim and wanted to get out of his antagonist's reach. It was plain that the situation was dangerous, but Thirlwell knew he could not stop the men by shouting, and the fight would probably be over before he reached the shack. He had, however, forgotten the smith, who pulled a glowing iron from the fire.
"You can quit now; I butt in here!" he said, holding the iron close to Driscoll's chest. Then he turned to Drummond. "Put that cutter down! I don't: want to see you killed in my smithy."
All were quite still for a moment, and then Driscoll moved, as if he meant to get round the anvil, but the smith held him back.
"Try it again and I'll surely singe your hide!" he shouted, and swung round as he heard Drummond's cautious step. "If you sling that cutter at him, I'll put you on the fire. Get out now; I'm coming to see you go!"
Drummond backed to the door, with the red iron a few inches from his face, and when he had gone the smith signed to Driscoll.
"You're not going yet! Sit down right there and take a smoke."
A few moments later Thirlwell joined Drummond, who was waiting near the smithy. "If you mean to make trouble, I'll pay you off," he said. "You're hired to work, not to fight."
"If I quit now, Steve will get after me again," Drummond grumbled.
"I think not. In fact, I'll see about that; but if you provoke the man, you'll be fired as soon as I know. It's worth while to remember that you're a long way from the settlements."
"I got him with the cutter, anyhow," Drummond rejoined, and when he went off Thirlwell entered the smithy.
He imagined what he said to Driscoll would prevent the quarrel beginning again, and presently went back to the mine, feeling satisfied. There was now not much risk of Drummond and Driscoll making friends and finding that both knew something about the lode. Thirlwell was persuaded that Driscoll did know something, more in fact than anybody else; he knew where Strange had expected to find the ore. Thirlwell had not admitted this to Scott, because he shrank from stating his suspicions, which were dark but vague. Now, however, he thought he would try to formulate them and see how they looked, since he might, after all, take Scott into his confidence.
To begin with, nobody knew why Strange's canoe capsized. Strange was clever with the paddle, and Driscoll's narrative, while plausible, left something to be accounted for. It was improbable that he had quarreled with his partner while they shot the rapid, because their minds would be occupied by the dangerous navigation. Then supposing that Driscoll had intentionally let the canoe swerve when they were threatened by a breaking wave, it was hard to see what he would gain. If he thought Strange had found the ore, it would obviously be impossible to learn anything about it after the man was drowned. The theory that Strange had already told him where the lode was, and Driscoll meant to get rid of a partner who would demand the largest share, must be rejected, since if Strange had told him, Driscoll would have gone away to register the claim. But he had not done so.
The thing was mysterious, and Thirlwell could see no light. He must wait and watch for a hint, and in the meantime resolved to talk to Scott about it. So far, he had rather avoided the subject of Strange's death, but it might be better to abandon his reserve. He did not think he could expect much help from Scott, but he was clever and Thirlwell had known him to solve some awkward puzzles.
THE HAND IN THE WATER
Scott lying among the pine-needles after work had stopped, lighted his pipe and glanced at Thirlwell, who had been talking for some minutes.
"On the whole, it was lucky the smith had an iron hot," he said. "Black Steve's a dangerous man and we know something about the Metis temper. Drummond, of course, is hardly a Metis, but he has a drop of Indian blood that must be reckoned on. It's a remarkably virile strain."
"I was rather glad they quarreled. I'd been afraid Driscoll might learn he knew something about the lode and persuade him to join the gang. I wouldn't trust him far."
"You can trust his Indian instincts," Scott replied. "No doubt he's greedy, but he hates Stormont, and I imagine he'd sooner punish the fellow than find the silver." He paused, and looked thoughtful when he went on: "The other matter's difficult; but, like Father Lucien, I don't see what we can do. It's possible that Steve drowned his partner, or anyhow, took advantage of an accident to let him drown; but we're not detectives, and you can't move against a man without something besides suspicion to go upon. Then we were under the cracking beam when he fixed the prop that stopped the roof coming down."
"I suppose, if he's guilty, that oughtn't to count?"
"It's an awkward question," Scott replied. "However, we don't know if he is guilty, and I don't see much chance of our finding out. But there's something else. Miss Strange had the shock of hearing about her father's sudden death, and it would not be kind to harrow her again."
"Certainly not," said Thirlwell, who felt annoyed because his comrade had guessed his thoughts.
A week later, Thirlwell was walking down the tunnel when he saw one or two of the men and Driscoll shoring up the roof. Drummond was helping, but a stone fell on him and he sat down. There was no light except the flicker of the lamps in the men's hats and they did not see Thirlwell.
"Are you hurt, kid?" one asked Drummond.
"He's scared," Driscoll growled. "Let him get out; this is a man's job."
Drummond sprang to his feet, although Thirlwell noted an ugly bruise on his forehead.
"Talk about being scared!" he cried. "Why you're 'most scared to death of the rapid! What d'you reckon lives there that's going to get you in the dark?"
Driscoll stepped forward. His face looked gray, but his mouth was hard and his eyes shone with savage rage. Thirlwell thought the man's passion was dangerous, and running up, got in front of him and sent Drummond to the shaft.
"Load up that broken rock," he said. "If you leave the job and come back here, I'll fire you out."
He was disturbed by the quarrel, because he understood something of Driscoll's feelings when stung by the taunt. Then he was curious about Drummond's object for making it, and wondered how much he knew. He kept them apart and when they stopped at noon Driscoll came up to him.
"I want to quit when the week's up," he said.
"Why?" Thirlwell asked, looking hard at him.
"For one thing, I've put up most of the new timbers and guess she'll hold for a while. Then I sure don't like that Metis kid. Reckon I'll kill him if I stop."
"Do what you think best," said Thirlwell, who saw he must get rid of one and would sooner keep Drummond. "If you come back later, we may find you a job."
At the end of the week, Driscoll went off into the bush, and after supper Thirlwell sent for Drummond. Scott was sitting near him outside the shack when the young man came up.
"If you make any fresh trouble here, you know what's coming to you," Scott remarked. "Steve is a good miner and it won't pay us to keep you and let him go."
"I guess you won't find the boys are sorry he lit out. There's something wrong about the man."
"If that's so, it's not your business," Thirlwell rejoined. "But why did you tell him he was scared of the rapid?"
Drummond sat down on a fir-stump and grinned with frank amusement. He had finished his duty until the next shift went under ground and in the meantime his employers had no authority over him. Indeed, he felt that he had conceded something by coming when he was sent for, and he might not have done so had he not liked Thirlwell.
"Because Steve certainly was scared," he replied.
"How do you know this?"
"Well, I s'pose I've got to put you wise. I go fishing evenings, when the trout are on the feed just before it's dusk, and I'd seen Steve prospecting round the pools among the reefs. Struck me as kind of curious, because if he was looking for something, he'd do better in daylight."
Scott glanced at Thirlwell, who remembered having come upon Driscoll when he was apparently engaged in searching the pools. It was obvious to him, and he thought to Scott, that the fellow had chosen the twilight in order to avoid being seen.
"Did Driscoll see you?" Thirlwell asked.
"I don't know; the boys tell me he's a trapper," Drummond answered with a smile.
"I suppose that means you kept out of sight and watched? But go on with your tale."
"One evening I was sitting among the rocks. It was very calm and getting dark when I heard a rattle and a splash. I reckoned Steve was looking hard for something if he trod on a loose stone."
Thirlwell nodded. Driscoll was a skilful trapper and a trapper does not disturb loose stones. Since he had made a noise, it was obvious that he was very much occupied, and thought himself alone. In a way, it was curious that he imagined there was nobody about; but although Driscoll had studied wood-craft, Drummond had, no doubt, inherited the ability to lurk unseen in the bush. Thirlwell could picture the lad crouching in the gloom of the dark pines.
"After a piece," Drummond resumed, "I got his figure against the sky, and reckoned, because he looked short, he was wading in a pool. Felt I had to see what he was looking for, but knew I couldn't get near him along the bank. There are patches of gravel among the rocks, and the brush grows pretty thick where it gets the light at the edge of a wood."
"Willows, for the most part; they're green, and soft, just now," Scott remarked.
"You can't crawl through green brush without making some noise. If you watch your arms and shoulders, you can't watch your feet."
"How'd you know that? Gone hunting often?"
"Never owned a gun," said Drummond "Still I did know."
"It doesn't matter. Go on," said Scott, who looked at Thirlwell meaningly.
"For a while, I couldn't see what I'd better do, and then I looked at the water. It was glimmering a few yards out, but there was a dark piece where the stream runs slack beside the rocks, and I took off my jacket and my boots."
"Why didn't you take off all your clothes?" Scott asked.
Drummond looked at him with surprise. "I knew my skin would shine in the water."
"Yes, of course," said Scott. "Well, it was a risky swim. If you had been washed into the main stream you'd have gone much farther than you meant. Did you get near Driscoll?"
"Sure I did. An eddy swung me out and I reckoned I was going down the main rush, but I caught the back-swirl and after that kept very close along the bank. Got a knock from a boulder, but, just paddling enough to keep on top, I drifted down to where Steve stood. He was on a ledge now, and I could hardly see him against the pines, but his head was bent, as if he was looking into the water. Then I allowed I'd been a fool. I couldn't stop unless I crawled out almost at his feet; you can't swim against that stream. Steve doesn't like me and there were some hefty rocks around."
Drummond paused, and Thirlwell imagined the lad had run some risk. A blow from a heavy stone would have stopped his swimming, without leaving a tell-tale mark, since his body would bear many bruises when the rapid threw it out among the eddies in the tail-pool. Thirlwell could picture the scene—the dark pines standing against the pale sky, and the dim reflection from the river; the unsuspecting man bending over the ledge; and the lad drifting noiselessly down stream, with only his head above water and his rather long hair streaking his dark face.
"Well," continued Drummond, "you see how I was fixed! I couldn't pull out from the bank because the slack was narrow, and, if I kept on, I must pass Steve very close. I surely didn't like it, but saw what I'd better do. He was facing down stream, turned half away from me, and I reckoned the water was about four feet deep. I'd grab his foot and pull him in. Then I'd get away while he was floundering about, while if he was too quick and gripped me, we'd be equal in the water and he'd have no rocks to throw.
"I drifted on until I could reach him and seized his foot, but the rest didn't work out as I thought. Steve didn't slip into the water; he kept on his feet and screamed."
"I suppose you mean he shouted," Thirlwell suggested.
"No, sir—I mean screamed; like a jack-rabbit in a trap. The ledge slanted awkwardly; he couldn't turn to see what had got hold of him, and had hard work to keep his balance when an eddy swung me off the bank. I saw him stiffen as he braced himself, and guess he felt my grip get tighter through his boot, because he gave another scream, as if he was mad afraid. Then he got his other foot against something that steadied him and I saw I couldn't pull him off. I let go and swam under water as long as I could. When I came up Steve wasn't there, but I heard him push through the willows up the bank. He was running as if he thought he had to go for his life. Well, I got out at the next slack and went for my boots and jacket. Steve wasn't watching; I guess he'd had enough!"
"It's possible," Scott agreed dryly. "Do you think he saw you just before you dived?"
"He might have seen my hand; it would look whiter than my gray shirt. He certainly didn't see my face; I didn't mean him to."
"Well," said Scott, "it's an amusing tale, but you had better not tell it to anybody else. Now you can go along, but see you keep out of trouble in future. If I find you talking about Driscoll, or quarreling with the boys, I'll butt in."
Drummond went away, and when he vanished into the shadow of the pines Thirlwell remarked: "I don't imagine Driscoll found the thing amusing!"
"Do you think he afterwards guessed it was Drummond who got hold of him? The young idiot gave him a hint when he taunted him with being scared."
"It's likely," said Thirlwell. "If he did guess, it would account for his anger; the man was carried away by a rage. He looked as if he'd have killed the lad if there had been nobody about, and perhaps he had some excuse. He's afraid of the river, and we have seen his imagination get the better of his pluck. I'm not surprised he got a nasty jar. Try to picture it! The growing dark; the roar of the rapid that we know he hates; and the wet hand that rose from the eddy and seized his foot."
Scott nodded. "Just so! Whose hand do you imagine he thought it was?"
"I think we both suspect. But we agreed that suspicion was not enough."
"It is not enough," said Scott, who took his fishing rod from the pegs in the wall of the shack. "Well, shall we go down to the river? The trout ought to rise to-night."
A LOST OPPORTUNITY
The class-room was very hot and a ray of dazzling sunshine quivered upon the diagrams on the yellow wall. An electric fan hummed monotonously and buzzing flies hovered about Agatha's head. Her face and hands were damp as she stood with knitted brows beside a tall blackboard, looking at the drowsy girls whom she was teaching inorganic chemistry. One or two fixed their eyes on the symbols she had written; the rest had obviously given up the effort to understand the complicated formula. In fact, they did not seem to notice that she had stopped her lecture.
For a few moments she looked about and mused. With one or two exceptions, she liked her pupils, and had led them patiently along the uphill road to knowledge. They had made some progress, but she had lost her delight in leading. For one thing, few would go far, and when they left her the rest would turn aside from the laborious pursuit of science into pleasant human paths and forget all that she had taught while they occupied themselves with the care of husband and children. Moreover, she herself could not follow the climbing road to the heights where the light of knowledge burns brightest, as she once had hoped. When the school term was finished she must turn back and begin again, at the bottom, to direct the faltering steps of another band. But she sometimes wondered whether the beckoning light was not austere and cold.
She glanced at her dress. It was a neutral color and like a uniform. After all, she had physical charm and it was sometimes irksome to wear unbecoming clothes. Then the lofty room, with its varnished desks and benches, looked bleak; her life was passed in bare class-rooms and echoing stone corridors. This would not have mattered had she been able to follow her bent and take the line she had once marked out; but she could not. She must give up the thought of independent research and teach for a living, cramping her talents to meet her pupils' intelligence, until, in time, she sank to their level.
She roused herself with an effort and mechanically resumed her lecture, for her wandering thoughts now dwelt upon the foaming rivers and cool forests of the North. The class-rooms smelt of varnish and throbbed with the monotonous rattle of the fan; in the wilds one breathed the resinous fragrance of the pines and heard the splash of running water. For all that, she must not shirk her duty and she tried to make the meaning of the symbols on the board plainer to the languid girls.
By and by she remarked that they were more alert. Some were making notes, and one or two looked past her with frank curiosity. The door was behind the board, and Agatha had heard nobody come in, but when she looked round she saw a gray-haired gentleman standing near the lady principal. He seemed to be listening to what she said and she thought his eyes twinkled as if he understood the difficulty of rousing her pupils' interest. This was somewhat embarrassing; but the school was famous and visitors were now and then shown round.
She paused, and the stranger turned to the principal. "If you will allow me—"
The principal smiled and he came up to Agatha, holding out his hand for the chalk.
"Suppose we alter the formula this way?" he said and wiped out the letters and figures.
Agatha studied him as he wrote fresh symbols. He was plainly dressed and about sixty years of age. There was nothing else worth noting, but he obviously knew his subject and she liked his face. She saw that the girls could follow his explanation, but while suited to their understanding, it was, in one respect, not quite accurate.
"I don't know if I've made it much plainer," he said deprecatingly when he stopped.
Agatha indicated a group of letters. "It is plainer, thank you! But does the combination of the two elements take place exactly as you have shown? At a normal temperature, the metal's affinity for oxygen—"
"Ah," he said, "you know that? It looks as if you had studied the new Austrian theory. But perhaps one may make a small concession, for the sake of clearness."
"Science is exact," Agatha replied.
"It's a bold claim for us to make," he rejoined, smiling. "Our symbols are guess measures; our elements split up into two or three. But I gather that you refuse to compromise about what, in the meantime, we think is the truth?"
"I think one must adhere to it, as far as one knows."
"Well, no doubt, that is the proper line. But I've stopped your lecture and perhaps bored your pupils."
"No," said Agatha. "You have helped me over awkward ground, and I expect they would sooner listen to a stranger."
He went away with the principal, and Agatha wondered about him as she resumed her task. It was plain that he knew something about science, but this was not strange, since geologists and chemists sometimes visited the school. After she dismissed her class the principal sent for her.
"I suppose you don't know who that man is?" she asked.
Agatha admitted that she did not know and colored when the other told her. The man was a famous scientist who had recently simplified the smelting of some refractory British Columbian ores, and was now understood to be occupied with the problem of utilizing certain barren alkali belts in the West.
"Oh!" she said, "I talked to him as if he were one of the girls. In fact, I believe I was gently patronizing."
"I don't think he was much hurt."
"Then he must have been amused and that is nearly as bad. After he had gone I imagined I'd seen his portrait somewhere."
"He hasn't gone yet," the principal answered with a twinkle. "He's waiting to see you in the managers' room, and I must confess to something of a plot when I brought him in quietly to hear your lecture."
"But what does he want?" Agatha asked with excited curiosity.
"I imagine he wants to offer you a post, but he will tell you about this. You have half an hour before the next class."
Agatha went out, trying to preserve her calm. The man had made his mark by the application of science to industry and the thought that she might help him gave her a thrill. This was different work from teaching beginners; taking them so far and then going over the ground again. If she got the post, she could go on, farther perhaps than she had hoped, and when she had learned enough embark on a career of independent research. She thought she had the necessary tenacity and brains. There was an obstacle, but she would not hurry to meet it and it might be removed.
When she entered the room the man got up and indicated a chair. He asked a few questions, rather carelessly, and afterwards remarked: "Miss Southern had already told me what I most wanted to know. You may have heard about the work in which I am engaged."
"Yes," said Agatha, with a touch of color, "I know what it is now."
He smiled. "Perhaps it would have been better had I asked Miss Southern to present me, but I'm not very formal. Well, I was asked by the Provincial Government and the railroad to find the best way of developing the alkali wastes, and the subject is extraordinarily interesting. If I can solve the problem, it will make important changes in our irrigation system and enable us to cultivate wide belts of barren soil. However, I must have help and want a lady who can take the charge of my correspondence with scientific people and assist in my experiments. After talking to Miss Southern, I feel I can offer you the post."
Agatha thrilled, but used some self-control.
"But you might not need me long, and I must give up the school."
He smiled. "If you wished to resume teaching, I daresay your having helped in my investigations would be an advantage."
"Then do you expect me to help much in that way?" Agatha asked with growing excitement.
"Yes; as far as you are able. I am told that you are used to laboratory work. Would this suit you?"
Agatha's eyes sparkled. "It would realize my pet ambition."
"Very well. We had better talk about the salary. My notion is—"
Agatha thought the offer generous. She would be richer than she had been yet and there was an object for which she needed money. She felt flattered and almost overjoyed. The work she was asked to do might start her well on the road she had long wished to take.
"There is another matter," the man resumed when she declared that she was satisfied. "It will be necessary for you to come to Europe. My wife will take care of you."
"Then you are going to Europe?" Agatha said with a curious sinking of her heart.
"Yes. I must consult an eminent Frenchman and two or three Austrians. They have studied some of the problems I am up against."
"When do you start?" Agatha asked with forced quietness.
"In about three weeks, if I can get ready."
Agatha tried to brace herself. The disappointment was hard to bear, and for a few moments she engaged in a bitter struggle. If she took the post and went to Europe, she could not go North for a year, and Thirlwell might not be able to help her then. She knew that she had counted on his help, and that without it she could not penetrate far into the wilds. Indeed, it was possible that she could not start at all.
Yet, if she went North, she must refuse an alluring offer and throw away an opportunity for making her mark. Her ambition must be abandoned, and if she failed to find the silver, she would have to resume her monotonous duties at the school. She was beginning to find them strangely dreary. Then George had warned her against sacrificing her youth, and perhaps all her life, to the pursuit of a shadow. Her friends did not believe in the silver, and she doubted if she could find the vein. Failure might leave her sour and the hardships break her health; she would come back with her savings exhausted to toil and deny herself again. Yet the lode was waiting to be found somewhere in the North, and the duty she had accepted long since must come first.
"Then I'm sorry I cannot go," she said with an effort.
The man looked surprised. "The voyage is short and comfortable if one travels by a big, fast boat. I expect to work hard, but you would have some leisure and opportunities for seeing famous pictures, statues, and laboratories. Then you would meet eminent chemists and learn something from their talk. In fact, the visit ought to be of help in many ways, and, if you afterwards left my employment, make it easy for you to get another post."
Agatha struggled for calm. He had rather understated than exaggerated the reasons why she ought to go. Then Toronto and Montreal were the only cities she knew, and she was offered a chance of seeing some of the capitals of Europe, with their treasures of art, and meeting men who had made famous scientific discoveries. It would help her more than many certificates if later on she resumed her work of teaching.
"Ah," she said in a strained voice, "please don't try to show me all that I shall miss! I want to go so very much, but it's impossible. If I went, I should neglect a duty that has a stronger claim."
He bowed. "Then, although I'm sorry, there's nothing to be said. Would it be an impertinence if I asked about the duty?"
Agatha was silent for a moment or two. Her refusal had cost her much; indeed, she was afraid to think what she had lost and felt she must do something to banish the crushing sense of disappointment.
"No," she said impulsively; "I cannot resent anything you ask. I must start North soon to look for a vein of ore my father told me about, I'm forced to make the search, but it would be a long story if I told you why." She hesitated and then went on: "I wonder whether you would look at this analysis and tell me what you think—I mean if you think there is ore of that kind on the Northern slope of the Ontario watershed."
He took the paper she had long carried about and studied it for a time. Then he said: "It is not the ore a practical miner would expect to strike, but practical miners are sometimes deceived. As a rule, they know more about shafts and adits than scientific geology."
"Would you expect to find the ore where I have told you?"
"Well," he said thoughtfully, "the Laurentian rocks are very old, and our miners have so far dealt with newer formations. On the whole, I think it possible that ore like this has been forced up from unusual depths."
"But would the silver be easily refined?"
He smiled. "There would be no trouble about its reduction. If you can locate the vein, you will be rich."
Agatha thanked him and went out, feeling somewhat comforted. She had given up much, but she saw a ray of light in the gloom ahead. The way she had chosen was difficult, but after all it was the right way, and, if she were resolute, might lead to success. Then she remembered with a strange satisfaction that for a time she need not walk alone: Thirlwell would be her guide when she plunged into the trackless wilds and she knew that one could trust him.
Supper was over at the Farnam homestead and Agatha enjoyed the cool of the evening on the veranda with her hosts and George. The school had closed for the holidays, and George had arrived as the meal from which they had just got up was served. Although he had not stated his object yet, Agatha knew why he had come and shrank from the vigorous protest she expected him to make. In the meantime, she had something else to think about and listened for the noise of wheels.
Farnam's hired man had driven across to the settlement in the afternoon and she wondered, rather anxiously, whether he would bring her a telegram. She had written to Thirlwell, telling him when she would be ready to begin her search for the ore, and now waited his reply. Her letter might take some time to reach him, and she must allow for his messenger's journey to the railroad from the mine; but she knew she would feel restless until the answer came.
The evening was calm, the air was fresher than in the city, and she found the quiet soothing. A field of timothy grass near the house rippled languidly, the dark heads rising stiffly upright when the faint breeze dropped. Sometimes there was a movement among the tall blades and feathery plumes of the Indian corn, and then the rustle stopped and everything was still. Beyond the zig-zag fence, the fruit trees ran back in rows that converged and melted into a blurred mass at the edge of the bush. The narrow landscape had no prominent feature. It was smooth and calm, and Agatha found it rested her eyes and brain. She wanted to be tranquil, but must shortly rouse herself when Mrs. Farnam and George began their joint attack. George had an ominously determined look, and she knew Mabel would give him her support.
"Why didn't you come and stop with us? Florence expected you," he said by and by.
Agatha saw he was feeling for an opening, and since it was hard to put him off, answered with a smile: "You are a persistent fellow, and I'm not fond of argument. I wanted to be quiet."
"You mean you were afraid I'd get after you about your crank notion of finding the old man's lode? As you haven't talked about it for some time, I'd begun to hope you had given that folly up. Are you going?"
"Some time; I may go very soon. Perhaps I shall know to-night."
"Then I'll wait," George said grimly. "If you get a message from the miner fellow, I may have some remarks to make!"
Farnam began to talk about the fruit crop, and it was half an hour later when Agatha heard a rattle of wheels. Then a rig lurched along the uneven road in a cloud of dust and soon after it vanished among the trees Farnam's hired man walked up to the veranda.
"A wire for Miss Strange! There was no mail," he said.
Agatha's nerve tingled as she opened the envelope, and then the restless feeling left her and she felt very calm. The telegram was from Thirlwell, who stated where he would meet her and that the sum she named would be enough. This was a relief, because she had insisted that the journey should be made at her cost and traveling is expensive in the wilds.
One needed tents, clothes, and prospecting tools; canoes must be bought and experienced voyageurs engaged, since the craft and stores would have to be carried across rugged divides. Agatha had for a long time practised stern economy, doubting if her savings would cover the expense, and now when she had met all demands she would have very few dollars left. This did not matter; the money would go round, and she felt recklessly satisfied. After a moment or two she gave the telegram to George.
"I start in three days!"
George said nothing, although his face got red, and Agatha studied him with sympathetic amusement. It was obvious that he was using some self-control while he mustered his forces for an attack. He had begun to get fat and looked rather aggressively prosperous. In fact, George was a typical business man and it was ridiculous to think he could understand.
"But what about your clothes?" Mrs. Farnam asked. "You must have a special outfit for the bush."
"They're all bought! Before I left Toronto I ordered what I would need to be got ready and properly packed. The things will be sent as soon as the people get my telegram. You see, I've been thinking about my outfit. One can't take much when it must be carried across the portages."
George frowned savagely. "You ought to know my sister, Mrs. Farnam! When she undertakes a job she leaves nothing to chance, and I guess she's had it all fixed some time since." He turned to Agatha. "I've got to relieve my feelings, if I do nothing else! Well, I suppose you understand what this adventure means? Unless you get back before the new term begins, you'll lose your post, and you take steep chances of ruining your health. You're not used to sleeping on wet ground and going without food. Then you'll have to live with half-tamed voyageurs and perhaps help them track the canoes. They'll upset you in the rapids and the bush will tear your clothes. I hate to think of my sister going about, draggled and ragged, with a bunch of strange men. But that, while bad enough, is certainly not the worst!"
He stopped to get his breath and then resumed: "You won't find the lode, and you'll come back feeling sick and sore. If they keep you on at the school, you won't want to teach; you'll think of nothing but saving all you can and pulling out again. You're like father, and when he took the lone trail the blamed foolishness got such a grip of him that he never broke loose. Well, you'll lose your job and the next you get; in fact, you'll come to hate any work that keeps you from the North. But a girl can't let herself down until she turns into a hobo. It's frankly unthinkable. Pull up and cut out the crazy program before it ruins you!"
"It's too late," said Agatha. "I knew what I might have to pay when I resolved to go."
"I wonder whether you do know. There's something George hasn't mentioned," Mrs. Farnam remarked. "I don't think I'm prudish, but you can't keep your adventure secret, and school managers are censorious people. Have you thought what it may mean if they hear about your traveling through the woods with a man who's not a relative and a band of wild half-breeds?"
"Yes," said Agatha, coloring, "I have thought of that."
"But it didn't count?"
"It counted for much," said Agatha, in a rather strained voice.
George clenched his fist. "If you're turned out, people will talk. I'll engage to stop the men, but the women are dangerous and I can't get after them. For my sake, drop your fool plan!"
"I can't. I know the risks, but I must go on."
"Well," said George with a gesture of helpless indignation, "I allow I'm beaten and there's not much comfort in feeling I've done my duty! I didn't expect you'd bother about my views when I began. Looks as if we gave young women a dangerous freedom."
"Women have won their freedom; you didn't give it," Mrs. Farnam rejoined, and then turned to Agatha. "After all, something depends on the man's character. You haven't told us much about Mr. Thirlwell!"
Agatha did not reply and George said grudgingly: "In a sense, the fellow's all right. I made some inquiries and must admit that I was satisfied with what I learned."
"You both take it for granted that Agatha will not locate the vein," Farnam interposed. "Since Thirlwell manages a mine, he must know something about prospecting, and if he reckons the chances are pretty good—"
"Mr. Thirlwell does not really believe I will find the ore," Agatha said with incautious frankness.
George laughed ironically and Farnam looked surprised, while his wife asked: "Then why is he going?"
Agatha felt embarrassed. "I don't know—He made me promise I would let him come. I think prospecting has a charm for miners—"
She stopped as she saw Mrs. Farnam's smile, but it was some relief to note that George did not seem to remark her hesitation.
"Well," he said, "your statement's, so to speak, the climax! The only person who knows anything about the matter thinks you won't find the vein! The blamed proposition's ridiculous from the beginning." He got up and filled his pipe with an unsteady hand. "I'm too mad to sit still. Guess I'll walk round the orchard and take a smoke."
Farnam presently went after him, and Mrs. Farnam put her hand on Agatha's arm.
"My dear, you have pluck, but you have chosen a hard road and given your friends a jar. But we are your friends; don't forget that!"
Agatha smiled gratefully, though she found it difficult. "I didn't really choose. Sometimes I was afraid; but I knew I had to go."
"Very well," said Mrs. Farnam. "We won't talk about it. Tell me about your clothes."
Next day George left the homestead and Agatha walked across the orchard with him while Farnam harnessed his team. When a rattle of wheels warned them that the rig was coming George stopped and said, "This trip will cost you something and your pay's not high. How much do you reckon to have left when you get back?"
"About ten dollars," Agatha answered with a twinkle.
"I knew you had grit. But I want you to understand! I wouldn't give you five cents to help you find the lode, but you'll go broke on ten dollars long before your next pay's due. Better take this; it may help you out."
Agatha took the envelope, but as she began to open it the rig stopped at the gate, and George put his hand on her shoulder.
"We mustn't keep Farnam; wait until I've gone," he said and kissed her. "I'm not going to wish you good luck, but if you have trouble with the school people when you get back, come along and stop with Florence. I'll interview the managers, and, if needful, find you another job."
He hurried off, and when the rattle of wheels died away Agatha opened the envelope and found a check for a hundred dollars. She felt moved, but smiled. The gift was generous, but the way he had made it was very like George.
Three days afterwards, Farnam and his wife drove her to the railroad and she felt a pang at leaving them when the cars rolled in. The excitement of starting, however, helped her over an awkward few minutes, and she found a girl on the train who wanted to talk. Besides, it was evening, and after an hour or two the colored porter lighted the lamps and told her her berth was ready. She slept well, for it was too late to give way to misgivings now, and soon after she rose next morning the train stopped at the station where she must get down.
The conductor threw her baggage out upon the line. The locomotive bell tolled, the cars went on, and Agatha's heart sank as she glanced about. It was early morning and thin mist drifted among the pines. There was no platform, but a small wooden shack with an iron roof stood beside the rails, which ran into the forest a hundred yards off. The agent, after gruffly asking for her checks, vanished into his office and banged the door. There was nobody else about, and the place was very quiet except for the murmur of running water.
A narrow clearing, strewn with ashes and dotted by blackened stumps, ran along the track, and at its end were three or four shabby frame houses. A rudely painted board on one stated that the building was the Strathcona Hotel. Agatha felt very forlorn. Except for a week or two with Thirlwell, and once with a band of merry companions at a summer camp she had not seen the rugged bush, and now it daunted her. She was not going on a pleasure excursion, from which she could return when she liked, but to push far into the lonely wilds. She had done with civilization until she came back; it could not help her when she left the railroad. She must live and struggle with savage Nature as the prospectors and half-breeds did. But this was not all; she had, perhaps, cut herself off from other things than the comfort and security that civilization offered.
Mabel Farnam's warning was, no doubt, justified. It was possible that the school managers would dismiss her and she would be unable to get another scholastic post. She might have to give up her occupation and although she disliked business earn a frugal living as a clerk. Her face got hot as she remembered Mabel's statement that her rashness had given her friends a jar; but in one sense Mabel was wrong. She had not been rash; she knew she could trust Thirlwell and the men he hired. There was nothing to fear from them. Still she had made a bold plunge that might cost her much, and now the reaction had begun she felt slack and dispirited. The plunge, however, was made; she must carry out what she had undertaken, and it was foolish to indulge her doubts. She tried to pull herself together and in a few minutes a man led a team out of the hotel stable.
He leisurely harnessed the lean horses to a very dirty wagon and then drove them across the clearing to the track, where he stopped in front of Agatha's baggage. She noted that his skin was very brown and he had coarse black hair. The overalls he wore were very ragged.
"Mees Strange?" he said. "Dat your truck?"
Agatha said it was, and jumping down he threw her bag and some rough wooden boxes into the wagon. Then he climbed back up the wheel and held out his hand.
"Montez. Allons, en route!"
Agatha got up with some trouble and when she sat down on a board that crossed the vehicle he cracked his whip and the wagon, rocking wildly, rolled away among the stumps and plunged into a narrow trail chopped out of the bush.
"Eet is long way; we mak' breakfast by and by," he said. "Thirlwell wait at portage. We arrive to-night, si tout va bien."
Agatha said nothing, but felt somewhat comforted as they jolted along the uneven trail.
Dusk was falling and the tired horses plodded slowly past the rows of shadowy trunks when the sound of running water came out of the gloom. Agatha ached from the jolting and felt cramped and sleepy, but she roused herself when a light began to flicker among the trees. The driver urged his team, the light got brighter as the rig lurched down a rough incline, and Agatha saw a man standing in the trail. His figure was indistinct and she could not see his face, but she no longer felt jaded and lonely, for she knew who he was.
"Tired?" he said in a sympathetic voice as he gave her his hand to get down when the rig stopped in an opening. "It's a long ride from the railroad, but after all it was better for you to make it in the day. Besides, we must pull out to-morrow."
Agatha said she was not excessively tired. She liked his matter-of-fact manner and thought he had struck the right note.
"Have you got the tent I recommended?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "It's in the small box."
"Then as the poles are cut, the boys will soon put it up. In the meantime, supper's ready."
He took her across the narrow open space, and when near the fire she stopped and looked about. It was after ten o'clock, but a pale-green glow shone above the pines, whose ragged tops cut against it in a black saw-edge. Below, a river brawled among dark rocks, catching a reflection here and there, and then plunging into shadow. It was not dark; she could see the brush and the wild-berry vines that crawled between the trunks. Then she turned towards the fire that burned at the foot of a ledge. Two or three figures moved about the rocks behind it; sometimes picked out with hard distinctness so that she could see their brown faces and travel-stained overalls, and sometimes fading into gloom.
The smoke went nearly straight up and then spread slowly across the river; the flames leaped among the snapping branches and sank. Strong lights and puzzling shadows played about the camp; there was an aromatic smell, and the air was keen and bracing. The turmoil of the river rather emphasized than disturbed the quietness. It was different from the noisy city where the big arc-lights burned above the hurrying crowds, but Agatha did not find it strange. She felt as if she were revisiting a scene she had known before, and thought this was an inheritance from her father, who had loved the wilds. But perhaps she might go further back; it was, relatively, not long since all Ontario was a wilderness, and she sprang from pioneering stock.
Then Thirlwell indicated a folding chair and she sat down beside two logs, rolled close together to make a cooking hearth. A kettle and two frying-pans stood on the logs, supported by both, and the space between was filled with glowing embers, about which flickered little blue and orange flames. Thirlwell gave her a plate and a tin mug, and she found the fresh trout and hot bannocks appetizing. Then she liked the acid wild-berries he brought on a bark tray, and the strong, smoke-flavored tea. She smiled as she remembered that in Toronto she had been fastidious about her meals and sometimes could not eat food that was roughly-served.
When supper was over Thirlwell sat on one of the hearth-logs and lighted his pipe. Agatha was pleased that he did so. While they were in the bush their relations must be marked by an informal friendliness, as if she were a comrade and partner and not a girl. Anything that hinted at the difference in their sex must be avoided.
"You'll get used to camp-life in a few days," he remarked by and by. "At first I expect you'll find it a change from, the cities. Things are rudimentary in the bush."
"Nothing jars, except the mosquitoes," Agatha replied. "I have no sense of strangeness; in fact, I feel as if I had been here before and belonged to the woods."
"After, all, you do know something about them. I think you said you had camped in the timber."
"That was different. It was a summer camp, organized by the railroad, and supplied with modern comforts. You bought a ticket and a gasolene launch took you up the lake. Then the men wore smart flannels and the girls new summer clothes. In the evenings one sang and played a banjo, another a mandolin."
Thirlwell laughed. "You don't like music?"
"I love it; but not ragtime and modern coon songs in the bush. No doubt the people who went there had earned a holiday, but it would have been different had they gone to fish or hunt. They went to loaf, play noisy games, and flirt. Indeed, I used to think we jarred as much as the horrible dump of old fruit and meat cans among the willows."
"I think I know what you mean. Man makes ugly marks on the wilderness unless he goes to farm. A mine, for example, is remarkably unpicturesque."
"But it stands for endeavor, for something useful done."
"Not all mines. A number stand for wasted money."
"And vanished hopes," said Agatha. "Do you think I shall find the lode? I want you to be frank."
Thirlwell hesitated. "On the whole, I don't think so, but my judgment mayn't be sound and my employer, Scott, does not agree. Anyway, I'll help you all I can."
For a moment or two Agatha studied him. His face was brown and rather thin and had a hint of quiet force; his easy pose was graceful but virile. Somehow he did not clash with the austerity of the woods; nor did the other men, who now sat, smoking, round the larger fire. Agatha liked their quietness, their slow, drawling speech and tranquil movements. She knew she could trust Thirlwell, but remembering a remark of Mabel Farnam's, she asked herself why he had offered his help. She could find no satisfactory answer and thought it better to leave the puzzle alone.
"But you are doubtful," she said. "Confidence is a strong driving force."
"In a way, that's true," he agreed. "Still it sometimes drives you into mistakes, and when you get to work in the right way it doesn't matter much if you're confident or not. Your feelings can't alter Nature's laws. If you know how the vein dips, you can strike the ore; if you sink the shot-hole right, and use enough powder, you split the rock."
"It's obvious that you are a materialist."
"I'm a mining engineer," Thirlwell rejoined with a smile.
Agatha gave him a quiet, friendly look. "It's lucky I have you to help, because I could not have gone far alone. I've studied Nature's laws in the laboratory, but in the bush she works on another scale. There's a difference between a blow-pipe flame and the subterranean fires. Now if I don't find the ore, it will be some comfort to know that I have properly tried." She glanced at her wrist-watch and got up. "It is later than I thought!"
"Your tent is ready," Thirlwell replied.
She turned and saw a light shining through the V-shaped canvas on the edge of the trees, but although she was tired, felt reluctant to leave the fire. It had burned low between the logs, but it gave the lonely spot a comfortable home-like look, and the bush was dark. Thirlwell, sitting where the faint light touched him, somehow added to the charm by a hint of human fellowship. He looked as if he were resting by his hearth, and she had spent a happy hour with him in quiet, half-confidential talk.
"Thank you. Good-night," she said, and went away.
When she reached the tent she looked about with surprise. The earth floor was beaten smooth and sprinkled with pine-sprays that gave out an aromatic smell; a bed had been cleverly made of thin branches and packed twigs. Her blankets were neatly folded and the small canvas bucket was filled. All she was likely to need was ready, and the boxes that had held her outfit were arranged to make a seat and wash-stand. She felt grateful for this thought for her comfort, and putting out the miner's lamp, sat down on the twig-bed and hooked the canvas door back.
Although there was no moon, she could distinguish the black pine-trunks across the river, the lines of foam where the current broke upon the reefs, and the canoes drawn up on the bank. Thirlwell and his Metis packers had gone, and as hers was the only tent she wondered where they slept. The fires were nearly out, and except for the noise of the river a solemn quietness brooded over the camp.
She began to muse. She had liked Thirlwell when she met him at the summer hotel, but she liked him better in the bush. He harmonized with his surroundings; he was, so to speak, natural, but not at all uncouth. The woods had made him quiet, thoughtful, and vigilant. She had noted his quick, searching glance, and although there was nothing aggressive about him, he had force. Yet she did not think him clever; she had met men whose mental powers were much more obvious, but when she tried to contrast them with him, he came out best. After all, character took one further than intellectual subtlety.
Agatha blushed as she admitted that had she wanted a lover she might have been satisfied with a man of Thirlwell's type; but she did not want a lover. She had inherited a duty and must concentrate on finding the silver vein; the task in a manner set her apart from other women, who could follow their bent. Sometimes she envied them their freedom and gave way to bitterness, but her austere sense of duty returned. It was strong just now, but the picture of Thirlwell sitting opposite by the fire had a happy domestic touch that made her dissatisfied.
Then she remembered that if she found the vein she would be rich. So far, she had not dwelt much on this, because it was not a longing for money that animated her. All the same, she saw that success in the search would give her power and freedom to choose the life she would lead. Not long since, she had thought to find happiness in the pursuit of science; and with wealth at her command she could make costly experiments and build laboratories. The thought still pleased her, but it had lost something of its charm. Besides, it was too soon for such speculations and she must be practical.
Suppose she did find the ore? The claim must be recorded and developed as the mining laws required, and she would need a man who understood such matters to help her; but it must be a man she could trust. She could trust Thirlwell and admitted that she had half-consciously allotted him the supposititious post; for one thing, if he were manager, they would not be separated by her success. But this was going too far, and she resolutely pulled herself up. She had not found the vein and was perhaps thinking about Thirlwell oftener than she ought. Feeling for the hooks, she fastened the tent door and soon afterwards went to sleep.
They launched the canoes in the cool of the morning, while the mist drifted among the pines and the sun came up behind the forest. The stream ran fast and as they toiled up river a brawny half-breed waded through the shallows with the tracking line. Thirlwell stood in the stern, using the pole, and Agatha noted the smooth precision of his movements. He wasted no effort and did not seem to be working hard, but he did what he meant and the hint of force was plainer than when he talked. Two Metis were occupied with the canoe behind and as they poled and tracked they sang old songs made by the early French voyageurs. Although the river had shrunk far down the bank, there was water enough for the canoes, and Agatha remarked how skilfully the men avoided the rocks in the channel and drove the craft up angry rapids.