A clock chimed the hour, and the wife looked up from her letter. She turned a face that was still pretty for all her fifty odd years, in the direction of the man at the window.
"Ten o'clock, Charles," she reminded him. Then her enquiring look melted into a gentle smile. "The office has less attraction with the snow falling."
"It has less attraction to-day, anyway," the lawyer responded without turning. A short laugh punctuated his prompt reply.
"You mean the Nancy McDonald business?"
Sarah Nisson laid her mail aside.
"Yes." The lawyer sighed and turned from his contemplation of the snow. He moved across to the stove. "I'm a bit of a coward, Sally," he went on, holding out his hands to the warmth. "The lives of other people are nearly as interesting as they are exasperating. They seem just as foolishly ordered as we believe our own to be well and truly ordered. I don't know who it was said 'all men are fools,' or liars, or something, but I guess he was right. Yes, we're all fools. I really don't know how we manage to get through a day, let alone a lifetime, without absolute disaster. We spend most of our time abusing Providence for the result of our own shortcomings, when really we ought to be mighty polite and thankful to the blind good fortune that lets us dodge the results of our follies."
"All of which I suppose has to do with the way Leslie Martin, or Leslie Standing, as he calls himself now, is acting."
"Well, most of it."
The man's eyes had become seriously reflective again.
Sarah Nisson nodded her pretty head. She leant her ample proportions towards the stove and emulated her husband's attitude, warming her plump hands. Her brown eyes were twinkling, and her broad, unlined brow was calmly serene. Her iron-grey hair was as carefully dressed as though she were still in the twenties, moreover it was utterly untouched by any of the shams so beloved of the modern woman of advancing years.
"The death of his poor wife almost seems to have unhinged him," she said, with a troubled pucker of her brows. "But—but I don't wonder, I really don't. She was the sweetest girl. Poor soul. And that bonny wee boy. But there, I can't bear to think of it all. You mustn't blame him too much, Charles. I guess you don't in your heart. It's just as his attorney you feel mad about things. It's best to remember you were his friend first, and only his adviser, and man of business, after. The whole thing makes me feel I want to cry. And that poor girl coming to see you to-day. The other Nancy, I mean. I don't think I'd feel so bad about things if it wasn't for her. You know, I like Leslie. And I was as fond of his wife as I just could be, for all she made a fool of herself when she married that hateful James McDonald, who was no better than a revolutionary. Thank goodness he died and got out before he could do any harm. But I do think Leslie and poor Nancy were selfish about her child. I don't believe it was so much him as Nancy. From the moment Leslie came on the scene it was she who kept the poor child at college. She never even let him see her. And she's such a bonny girl, too. Do you know, I believe Nancy's death, and even the death of the baby boy, wouldn't have meant half so much to Leslie if he'd had Nancy's own girl with him. She'd have got herself right into his heart with her bonny ways, and her hazel eyes that look like great, big smiling flowers. Then her hair. She's a lovely, lovely child. I wish she was mine. I'd like to have her right here always. Couldn't you fix it that way?"
The man shook his head.
"I'd like to—but—"
"You see there's a whole lot to think about," the lawyer went on seriously. "Why, I don't even know how to get through my interview with her to-day without lying to her like a politician. Now just get a look at the position. Here's a girl, a beautiful, high-spirited girl of sixteen, straight out from college, at the beginning of life, with her, head full of 'whys,' and 'wherefores.' Sixteen's well-nigh grown up these days, mind you. Her mother's dead, and curiously the fact didn't seem to break her up as you'd have expected it to. Why?" The man shrugged. "It's not because she lacks feeling. Oh, no. Maybe it's because of the strength of those feelings. Remember her mother married Leslie when the child was thirteen. A good understanding age. She was never allowed to see her father. No. She was packed off to school and kept there—"
"Yes, I know," Sarah broke in, with impatient warmth. "And just at the time a girl most needs she never even saw her mother for over three years. God doesn't give us women our babies to treat them as if they weren't our own flesh and blood. Young Nancy was left to those maiden dames at college, who don't know more about a child than is laid down by highbrow officials in the text books they need to study to qualify for their posts. They haven't a notion beyond stuffing her poor wee head with the sort of view of life set down in fool history books. They say she's clever and bright. Well, that's all they care about. When they've done with her they'll have knocked all the girl out of her, and turned her adrift on the world behind a pair of disfiguring spectacles, with her beautiful hair all scratched back off her pretty face, and maybe 'bobbed,' and they'll fill her grips with pamphlets and literature enough to stock a patent med'cine factory, instead of the lawn, and lace, and silk a girl should think about, and leave her with as much chance of getting happily married as a queen mummy of the Egyptians. It's a shame, just a real shame. Why, if that poor, lonesome child came right along to me, I'd—"
"Teach her all the bright tricks of hunting down a husband and—hooking him." The lawyer shook his head and smiled. "You know, Sally, you're almost an outrage on the subject of marriage. Sometimes I wonder the sort of tricks I was up against when I—"
A plump warning finger and smiling threat interrupted the laughing charge.
"You were due at the office long ago, Charles," his wife admonished. "If you aren't careful I'll have to pack you off right away."
"That's all right, Sally," the man demurred. "I won't go further with that. I'll get back to the things I was saying before you interrupted." His pale blue eyes became serious again. "Do you think Nancy didn't understand why she was packed off to school—and kept there? Of course she did. She knew she wasn't wanted. She knew she was in the way. She must not be permitted to intrude on this stepfather, or her mother's new life. It was all a bit heartless, and if I know anything of the child, she understands it that way. I felt that when she came to see her mother, and went to her funeral. Now then, Nancy's coming to see me to-day. Remember she's sixteen. She's got to learn from me the settlement Leslie's made on her. She's got to learn further that she isn't likely to ever see her stepfather. She knows I'm his business man. She knows I'm his friend. Well, when she's financially independent, do you think she'll feel like rushing into our arms, here, for a home, feeling the way I believe she does about her parent? It's going to be difficult, and—damned unpleasant. And for all I'm ready to help Leslie anyway I know, I'd rather see anybody on his behalf than that kiddie, with her wide, honest, angry eyes and red hair. I'm not going to press our home on her, Sally, because, sooner or later, if she accepted it, which I don't believe she would, she'd have to learn things of Leslie, and—well, the affairs you know about. That must not be. She's not going to learn these things from us. I'm going to do the best I know for the child, and when it comes to the matter of a home she must choose for herself. There's always her mother's folk, or even James McDonald's folk—"
"God forbid! No. Oh, no." The woman's instant denial was horrified. "Not the McDonald lot. They're all revolutionaries. All of them. It's—it's unthinkable. It certainly is."
The man moved away.
"That's so," he agreed. "Well, anyway, I'll do the best I know for the child, Sally. You can trust me."
The woman's anxiety abated, and she rose from her chair.
"I know that, Charles," she said. "But the McDonalds! They're—"
"Sure they are." The man laughed. "Well, good-bye, my dear. I'll tell you all about it when I've fixed things. Thank goodness it's quit snowing and the sun's shining again. I wish I felt as good as it looks outside here."
* * * * *
Charles Nisson had become a lawyer without any marked inclination or enthusiasm for his profession. It had been simply a matter of following the father before him. It would have been much the same if his father had been a farmer, or a politician, or anything else. The son was patient, temperate, and of no great ambition. But he was also keenly intelligent. Without impulse, or striking originality, but with a tremendous capacity for hard work, he was bound to be moderately successful in any career. In his father's profession his temperament was particularly suited, and in spite of lacking enthusiasm he had become unquestionably a better lawyer than the country attorney he had succeeded.
Just now his mind was filled with unease. The matter of his forthcoming interview with a child of sixteen years had only small place in the affairs which disturbed him. His real concern was for his friend, Leslie Standing, and the disaster, which, in a seemingly overwhelming rush had befallen at far-off Sachigo. Again his trouble had no relation to these things as they affected his own worldly affairs. It was of the man himself he was thinking.
He knew it all now. He had painfully learned the complete story of disaster. And, to his sturdy mind, it was a deplorable example of almost unbelievable human weakness.
Standing had conveyed his final determination to abandon his Labrador enterprise in the correspondence which had passed between them during the three months which had elapsed since the funeral of his wife and stillborn child. And during that time their friendship had been sorely tested. There had been times when the lawyer's native patience had been unequal to the strain. There had been times when his temper had leapt from under the bonds which so strongly held it. But for all the ordeals of that prolonged correspondence, for all he deplored the pitiful weakness in the other, his friendship remained, and he finally accepted his instructions. But the whole thing left him very troubled.
As the hour of noon approached, his trouble showed no sign of abatement. It was the reverse. There were moments, as he sat in the generously upholstered chair before his desk, in the comfortable down-town office which overlooked Abercrombie's principal thoroughfare, that he felt like abandoning all responsibility in the chaos of his friend's affairs. But this was only the result of irritation, and had no relation to his intentions. He knew well enough that everything in his power would be done for the man who never so surely needed his help as now.
He refreshed his memory with the details of the deed of settlement for the abandoned stepdaughter. Then, as the hands of the clock approached the hour of his appointment, he sat back yielding his whole concentration upon those many problems confronting him.
What, he asked himself, was going to become of Standing now that he had cut himself adrift from that anchorage which had held him safe for the past seven years? He strove to follow the driving of the man's curiously haunted mind. He had declared his intention of going away. Where? Definite information had been withheld. He was going to devote himself to some purpose he claimed to have always lain at the back of his mind. What was that purpose? Again there had been no information forthcoming. Was it good, or—bad? The man who was endeavouring to solve the riddle of it all dared not trust himself to a decision. He felt that his friend's unstable soul might drive him in almost any direction after the shock it had sustained.
No. Speculation was useless. The crude facts were like a brick wall he had to face. Standing's wealth and the great mill at Sachigo were left to his administration with the trusting confidence of a child. The responsibility for the neglected stepdaughter had similarly been flung upon his shoulders. And, satisfied with this manner of disposing of his worldly concerns, Standing intended to fare forth, shorn of any possession but a bare pittance for his daily needs, to lose himself, and all the shadows of a haunted mind, in the dim, remote interior of the unexplored forests of Northern Quebec. The whole thing was mad—utterly—
The muffled electric bell on his table drubbed out its summons. One swift glance at the clock and the lawyer yielded to professional instinct. He became absorbed in the papers neatly spread out on his table as a bespectacled clerk thrust open the door.
"Miss McDonald to see you," he announced, in the modulated tone which was part of his professional make-up.
The lawyer rose at once. He moved toward the door with a smiling welcome. The sex and personality of his visitor demanded this departure from his custom.
Nancy McDonald stood just inside the doorway through which the clerk had departed. She was tall, beautifully tall, for all she was only sixteen. In her simple college girl's overcoat, with its muffling of fur about the neck, it was impossible to detect the graces of the youthful figure concealed. Her carriage was upright, and her bearing full of that confidence which is so earnestly taught in the schools of the newer countries.
But these things passed unnoticed by the white-haired lawyer. He was smiling into the radiant face under the low-pressed fur cap. It was the wide, hazel eyes, so deeply fringed with a wealth of curling, dark lashes, that inspired his smiling interest. It was the level brows, so delicately pencilled, and dark as were the eyelashes. It was the perfect nose, and lips, and chin, and the chiselled beauty of oval cheeks, all in such classic harmony with the girl's wealth of vivid hair.
Nancy returned his gaze without the shadow of a smile. She had come at this man's call from the coldly correct halls of Marypoint College, which was also the soulless home she had been condemned to for the three or four most impressionable years of her life. And she knew the purpose of the summons.
There was a deep abiding resentment in her heart. It was not against this man or his wife. From these two she had received only kindness and affection. It was directed against the stepfather whom she believed to be the cause of the banishment she had had to endure. Furthermore, she could never forget that her banishment was only terminated that she might gaze at last upon the dead features of her dearly loved mother before the cold earth hid them from view forever.
The lawyer understood. He had understood from her reply to his letter summoning her. There was no need for the confirmation he read now in her unsmiling eyes.
"You sent for me?" she said.
Nancy's voice was deep and rich for all her youth. Then with a display of some slight confusion, she suddenly realised the welcoming hand outheld. She took it hurriedly, and the brief hand clasp completely broke down the barrier she had deliberately set up.
"Oh, it's a shame, Uncle Charles," she cried, almost tearfully. "It's—it's a shame. I know. I'm just a kid—a fool kid who hasn't a notion, or a feeling, or—or anything. I'm to be treated that way. When he says 'listen,' why, I've just got to listen. And when he says 'obey,' I've got to obey, because the law says he's my stepfather. He's robbed me of my mother. Oh, it's cruel. Now he's going to rob me of everything else I s'pose. Who is he? What is he that he has the power to—to make me a sort of slave to his wishes? I've never seen him. I hate him, and he hates me, and yet—oh—I'm kind of sorry," she said, in swift contrition at the sight of the old man's evident distress. "I—I—didn't think. I—oh, I know it's not your fault, uncle. It's just nothing to do with you. You've always been so kind and good to me—you and Aunt Sally. You've got to send for me and tell me the things he says, because—"
"Because I'm his 'hired man.' But also because I'm his friend."
The lawyer spoke kindly, but very firmly. He knew the impulsive nature of this passionate child. He knew her unusual mentality. He realised, none better, that he was dealing with a strong woman's mind in a girl of childhood's years. He knew that Nancy had inherited largely from her father, that headstrong, headlong creature whose mentality had driven him to every length in a wild endeavour to upset civilisation that he might witness the birth of a millennium in the ashes of a world saturated with the blood of countless, helpless creatures. So he checked the impulsive flow of the child's protest. He held out his hands.
"You'd best let me take your coat, my dear," he said, with a smile the girl found it impossible to resist. "Maybe you'd like to remove your overshoes, too. There's a big talk to make, and I want to get things fixed so you can come right along up home and take food with us before you go back to Marypoint."
The child capitulated. But she needed no assistance. Her coat was removed in a moment and flung across a chair, and she stood before him, the slim, slightly angular schoolgirl she really was.
"Guess I'll keep my rubbers on," she said. Then she added with a laugh which a moment before must have been impossible. "That way I'll feel I can run away when I want to. What next?"
"Why, just sit right here."
The lawyer drew up a chair and set it beside his desk. His movements were swift now. He had no desire to lose the girl's change of mood.
And Nancy submitted. She took the chair set for her while the man she loved to call "Uncle Charlie" passed round to his. He gave her no time for further reflection, but plunged into his talk at once.
"Now, my dear," he said earnestly, "you came here feeling pretty bad about things, and maybe I don't blame you. But there isn't the sort of thing waiting on you you're guessing. Before we get to the real business I just want to tell you the things in my mind. Of course, as you say, you're a 'kid' yet—a school-kid, eh? That's all right. But I know you can get a grip of things that many much older girls could never hope to. That's why I want to tell you the things I'm going to. Now you've worked it out in your mind that your stepfather is just a heartless, selfish creature who has no sort of use for you, and just wants to forget your existence. He married your mother, but had no idea of taking on her burdens—that's you. It isn't so. It wasn't so. I know, because this man is my friend, and I know all there is to know about him. The whole thing has been deplorable. You've been the victim of circumstances that I may not explain even to you. But I promise you this, your stepfather is not the man to have desired to cut you out of your mother's life."
"Who did then? Mother?"
The girl's beautiful face flushed under her stirring emotions. The man shook his head.
"Circumstances. Yes, those circumstances I told you of. Those circumstances I can't explain." Charles Nisson picked up a typescript and held it out to the child.
"I want you to take this. It's not the deed, but a true copy. I want you to read it over and think about it, and when you get back to Marypoint, and feel like talking to those teachers you trust there, you can tell them what it contains, and hear what they have to say about it, and see if they won't think better of your stepfather than you do. You needn't read it now," as the girl turned the pages and glanced down the confusion of legal phraseology. "I'm going to tell you what it contains in plain words. But I want you to have it, and read it, and think over it, because I want you to try and get a real understanding of the man whose signature is set to the original deed."
"Yes," he went on, meditatively, and in a tone of real regret. "I'd be pretty glad to have you think better of him. I think just now he needs the kind thought of anyone who belongs to him. He's in pretty bad trouble—someways."
The girl looked up. A curious anxiety was shining in her eyes.
"Trouble?" she demanded. "You mean he's done wrong? What d'you mean? What sort of—trouble?"
The man shook his head.
"No. It's not that. It's—your mother. You know, Nancy, he loved your mother in a way that leaves a good man broken to pieces when he loses the object of his love. Every good thought he ever had was bound up in your mother. And your mother was his strong support, and literally his guiding star. You've lost your mother. You know how you felt. Well, I can't tell you, but think, try and think what it would be if you'd lost just every hope in life, too—the same as he has."
"I'd—I'd want to die," the girl cried impulsively.
"Yes. So would anyone. So does he. Just as far as the world's concerned he's dead now. You'll never see him, or hear from him. Nor will anyone else—except me. He'll never come into your life after this. He'll never claim his legal guardianship of you, beyond that document. To you he's dead, leaving you heir to what is contained in that deed. He's just a poor devil of a man hunted and haunted through the rest of his existence by the memory of a love that was more than life to him. Try and think better of him, Nancy, my dear. He's got enough to bear. I think he deserves far better than he's ever likely to get handed to him. I tell you solemnly, my dear, whatever sins he may have committed, and most of us have committed plenty," he added, with a gentle smile, "he's done you no real hurt. And now he's only doing that good by you I would expect from him."
Nancy sighed deeply, and it needed no words of hers to tell the man of law how well he had fought his friend's battle. A deep wave of childish pity had swept away the last of a resentment which had seemed so bitter, so implacable. It was the generous heart of the child, shorn, for the moment, of its inheritance from her father. Her even brows had puckered, and the man knew that tears, real tears of sympathy, were not far off.
"Tell me," she said, in a low voice. "Tell me some more."
But the man shook his head. "I can't tell you more," he said gently. "Where your stepfather is, or where he will be to-morrow, I may not tell you. Even when your mother was alive you were not permitted to know these things. That was due to the 'circumstances' I told you of. It just remains for me to tell you the contents of that document. They're as generous as only your stepfather knows how to make them. He's appointed me your trustee. And he's settled on you a life annuity of $10,000. There are a few simple conditions. You will remain at college till your education is complete, and, until you are twenty-one I shall have control of your income. That is," he explained, "I shall see that you don't handle it recklessly. During that time, subject to my approval, you can make your home with whom you like. After you've passed your twenty-first birthday you are as free as air to go or come, to live where you choose, and how you choose. And your income will be forthcoming from this office—every quarter. Do you understand all that, my dear? It's so very simple. Your stepfather has gone to the limit to show you how well he desires for you, and how free of his authority he wants you to be. There is another generous act of his that will be made clear to you when the time comes. But that is for the future—not now. His last word to me," he went on, picking up a letter, "when he sent me the deed duly signed, was: 'Tell this little girl when you hand her these things, it isn't my wish to trouble her with an authority which can have little enough appeal for her. Tell her that her mother was my whole world, and it is my earnest desire that her daughter should have all the good and comfort this world can bestow. If ever she needs further help she can have it without question, and that she only has to appeal to my friend and adviser, Charles Nisson, for anything she requires.'"
The man laid the letter aside and looked up.
"That's the last paragraph of the last communication I had from him. And they're not the words of a monstrous tyrant who is utterly heartless, eh?"
The girl made no answer. Her emotion was too strong for her. Two great tears rolled slowly down her beautiful cheeks.
The lawyer rose from his chair. He came round the desk and laid a gentle hand on the heaving shoulder, while Nancy strove to wipe her tears away with a wholly inadequate handkerchief.
"That's right, my dear," he said very gently. "Wipe them away. There's no need to cry. Leslie's done all a man in his peculiar position can do for you. You've got the whole wide world before you, and everything you can need for comfort—thanks to him. Now let's forget about it all. Just take that paper back to school with you. And maybe you'll write, or come and let me know what you think about it. If you feel like making your home with us, why, that way you'll just complete our happiness. If you feel like going to your mother's sister, Anna Scholes, I shan't refuse you. Anyway, think about it all. That's my big talk and it's finished. Just get your overcoat on, and we'll get right along home to food."
The room was furnished with extreme modern luxury. The man standing over against the window with his broad back turned, somehow looked to be in perfect keeping with the setting his personal tastes had inspired. He was broad, squat, fat. His head and neck were set low upon his shoulders, and the hair oil was obvious on the longish dark hair which seemed to grow low down under his shirt collar.
The other man, seated in one of the many easy chairs, was in strong contrast. His was the familiar face of the agent, Idepski, dark, keen, watchful. He was smoking the cigarette to which he had helped himself from the gold box standing near him on the ornate desk.
"You seem to have made a bad mess of things."
Nathaniel Hellbeam turned from the window and came back to his desk with quick, short, energetic strides.
He presented a picture of inflamed wrath. His fleshy, square face was flushed and almost purple. His small eyes were hot with anger. They snapped as he launched his harshly spoken verdict. His whole manner bristled with merciless intolerance.
He was enormously fat, and breathed heavily through clean shaven lips that protruded sensually. His age was doubtful, but suggested something under middle life. It was the gross bulk of the man that made it almost impossible to estimate closely. The only real youth about him was his dark, well oiled hair which possessed not a sign of greying in it.
He flung himself into the wide chair which gaped to receive him, and glared at the dark face of his visitor.
"What in the hell do I pay you for?" he cried brutally, lapsing, in his anger, into that gutteral Teutonic accent which it was his life's object to avoid. "A wild cat's scheme it was I tell you from the first. You go to this Sachigo with your men. You think to get this 'sharp' asleep, or what? You find him wide awake waiting for you to arrive. What then? He jumps quick. So quick you can't think. You a prisoner are. You go where he sends you. You live like a swine in the woods. You are made to work for your food. And a year is gone. A year! Serve you darn right. Oh, yes. Bah! You quit. You understand? I pay you no more. You are a fool, a blundering fool. I wash my hands with you."
Idepski sat still, patient, as once before he had sat under the whip lash of a man's tongue. And he continued smoking till the great banker's last word was spoken.
Then he stirred, and removed his cigarette from his thin lips.
"That's all right, Mr. Hellbeam," he said coldly. "It seems like you've a right to all you've said. It seems, I said. But the 'fool' talk." He shook his head. "My best enemies don't reckon me that—generally. The game I'm playing has room enough for things that look like blunders. I allow that. It doesn't matter. You see, I know more of this feller Martin maybe than you do. I guess he's a mighty big coward, except when he's got the drop on a feller. I've given him the scare of a lifetime, and I've unshipped him from his safe anchorage on that darn Labrador coast. Do you know what's happened? I'll tell you. He's quit Sachigo. From what I can learn he's sold out his mill to that uncouth hoodlum, Harker, who was sort of his partner, and quit. Where? I don't know yet. Why has he quit? Why, because he knows we've located his hiding, and will get him if he remains. You reckon I've mussed things up." He shook his head. "He was well-nigh safe up there on Labrador—and I knew it. We had to get him out of it. Well, I've got him out. He's bolted like a gopher, and it's up to me to locate him. I shall locate him. I'm glad he's quit that hellish country. I've had a year of it, and it's put the fear of God into me. You needn't worry. I'm quite ready to quit your pay. But I'm going on with this thing, sure. You see, I owe him quite a piece for myself—now. I've been through the hell he intended me to go through when he sent me along up to be held prisoner by that skunk, Ole Porson. I'm going to pay him for that—good. I don't want your pay—now. One day I'll hand that feller over to you—and when you've doped him plenty—you'll have paid me." He rose leisurely from his comfortable chair. "May I take another of your good cigarettes?" he went on, with a half smile in his cold eyes. "You see, I won't get another, seeing I'm quitting you."
He deliberately helped himself without waiting for permission, while his eyes dwelt on the gold box containing them.
But the financier's mood had changed. The keen mind was busy behind his narrow eyes. Perhaps Idepski understood the man. Perhaps the coolness of the agent appealed to the implacable nature of the Swede. Whatever it was the hot eyes had cooled, and the fleshy cheeks had returned to their normal pasty hue. He raised a hand pointing.
"Sit down and smoke all you need," he said, in the sharp, autocratic fashion that was his habit. "We aren't through yet." Then, for a few moments, he regarded the slim figure as it lay back once more in the armchair. "Say," he began, abruptly, "you reckon to go on for—yourself? Yes? You're a good hater."
He went on as the other inclined his head.
"I like a good hater. Yes. Well, just cut out all I said. We'll go on. I guess you'll need to blunder some before we get this swine. You're bound to. But I want him. I want him bad. If it's good for you to go on for yourself, that's good for me. There's a lifetime ahead yet, and I don't care so I see him down—right down where I need him. Maybe I won't get the money, but we'll get him, and that'll do. Yes, cut out what I said, and go ahead. Tell me about it."
Idepski displayed neither enthusiasm nor added interest. He accepted the position with seeming indifference. Hellbeam to him was just an employer. A means to those ends which he had in view. If Hellbeam turned him down it would mean a setback, but not a disaster, and Idepski appraised setbacks at their simple value, without exaggeration. Besides, he knew that this Swede, powerful, wealthy as he was, could not afford to do without him in this matter. His intolerant, hectic temper mattered nothing at all. He paid for the privilege of its display, and he paid well. So—
"There's nothing much to tell," the agent returned, with a shrug. "I'm going to get him—that's all. See here, Mr. Hellbeam," he went on after a pause, with a sudden change to keen energy, "you're a mighty big power in the financial world, and to be that I guess you've had to be some judge of the other feller. That's so. You most generally know when he's beat before you begin. And when he squeals it don't come as a surprise. Well, that's how it is with me, only it's a bigger thing to me because it sometimes happens to mean the difference between life and death. Say, when you put up your bluff at a feller, and watch him square in the eyes, and you see 'em flicker and shift, do you reckon you've lit on the 'yellow streak,' that lies somewhere in most folk? I guess so. Well, that's how I know my man. I've seen it in this bum, Leslie Standing as he calls himself now. And when I saw it I knew he was beat, for all he'd the drop on me. Since then my notion's proved itself. He's lit out. He's cut from his gopher hole at Sachigo. An' when a gopher gets away from his hole, the man with the gun has him dead set. But say, that muss up you reckon I made doesn't look that way when you know the things it's taught me. While I was way up at that penitentiary camp on the Beaver River I kept all my ears and eyes wide, and I learned most of the things a feller's liable to learn in this world when he acts that way. I learned something of the notions lying back of this feller's work up there. Say, he hadn't finished with you when he took that ten millions out of you." An ironical smile lit the man's dark eyes as he thrust home his retaliation for the financier's insults. "Not by a lot," he went on, with a smiling display of teeth that conveyed nothing pleasant. "They've a slogan up there that means a whole heap, and it comes from him, and runs through the whole work going on, right down to the Chink camp cooks. Guess that mill is only beginning. It's the ground work of a mighty big notion. And the notion is to drive the Skandinavians out of Canada's pulp trade, and very particularly the Swedes, as represented by the interests of Nathaniel Hellbeam. Guess you sit right here in New York, but up there they've got you measured up to the last pant's button."
"They that think?"
The financier's bloated cheeks purpled as he put his clumsy interrogation.
"Oh, yes. This feller Standing reckons he's made a big start, and there are mighty big plans out. When he and that clownish partner of his, Harker, are through, Sachigo'll be the biggest proposition in the way of groundwood pulp in the world. They've forests such as you in Skandinavia dream about when your digestion's feeling good. They've a water power that leaves Niagara a summer trickle. They've got it all with a sea journey of less than eighteen hundred miles to Europe. But there's more than that. When Sachigo's complete it's to be the parent company of a mighty combine that's going to take in all the mills of Canada outside Nathaniel Hellbeam's group. And then—then, sir, the squeeze'll start right in. And it isn't going to stop till the sponge—that's Nathaniel Hellbeam—is wrung dry."
"You heard all this—when you were held prisoner and working like a swine in Martin's forests?"
The smile in Hellbeam's eyes was no less ironical than the agent's.
"When I was working like a swine."
"These lumber-jacks. They knew all that in Standing's mind is?"
"No. But I learned it all."
The demand was instant, and a surge of force lay behind it.
"Because some I saw. Some I picked up from general talk. And the rest I pieced together because it's my job to think hard when the game's against me. But it don't matter. You know that the things I've told you are right. It's news to you, but you know it's right, because you're thinking hard, and the game's against—you."
The financier's admission was the act of a man who has no hesitation in looking facts in the face and acknowledging them. Idepski's deductions were irrefutable, because the Swede was a shrewd business man with a full appreciation of the man who had lightened his finances by ten million dollars.
For some moments the fleshy face was turned towards the window which yielded the hum of busy traffic many stories below them. His narrow eyes were earnestly reflective, but there was no concern in them. To the waiting man he was simply measuring the threat against him, and probing its possibilities for mischief.
"Yet this fellow. He on the run is—Yes?"
The eyes were smiling as they came back again to Idepski's face. The agent nodded, flinging his cigarette end into the porcelain cuspidore beside the desk.
"Which makes me all the more sure of the game," he said confidently. "He's rattled. He's so scared to death for himself, and for his purpose, he's getting out. It's as clear as daylight to me. He feels he's plumb against it if he stops around. He knows we've located him. He knows what he's done to me. He knows all he wants to know of you. Well, he reckons there's no sort of chance for him at Sachigo. And if he stops there's no sort of chance for this purpose of his. He reckons to call off the hounds on his own trail, while the feller Harker carries on the good work of squeezing the Swedes. That's how I see it. And I guess I'm right. Remember I had a year of hell up there to think in, and when I finally got clear away I had two months' solitary chasing of those woods to think in, and then, when I made the coast, I had the trip down with the folks on the boat to listen to. He's scared for his life, and of anything you hope to hand him. But he's more scared for the purpose that made him set up that mill at Sachigo."
Hellbeam leant back in his chair. His great paunch protruded invitingly and he clasped his hands over it.
"Maybe you're right," he said, with an air intended to conciliate. "Anyway you've picked up some pieces and set them together so they make a fancy shape. But—it isn't good. No. Here, I think, too. I see another, way from you. Without this fellow Sachigo is—nothing. See? I care nothing because of this Harker. No. The other—that's different. Yes. He the brain has. All this piece you make. He is capable of it. But he is on the run. Good. I still sleep well while he runs. Sachigo? Bah! It is nothing without Leslie Martin. Now, go you. Hunt this man. Maybe your year of the woods will help you," he said, with biting emphasis. "You know the woods? Well, don't quit his trail. Get him. Get him alive."
"Oh, I shall get him. Your urging ain't needed. I'll get him as you say—alive. And he knows it."
Idepski's cold eyes hardened with a frigid hatred as he spoke. He had only been paid for the work hitherto. Now he was implacable.
"But it's Sachigo I mean to watch," he went on, after a brief pause. "I mean to play in that direction. It's the home burrow where you lay your traps once your quarry's on the run."
"That's good sense."
"Sure it is," retorted the agent. "I'm glad you see it that way," he added with a smile under which the financier grew restive once more.
"Yes. Well, see you get him. Money? It doesn't matter. Get him! Get him!" he reiterated fiercely. "You understand me? It doesn't matter how you get him. I can deal with the rest."
Suddenly he raised a clenched fist, fat, and strong, and white, and extended his thumb. He turned it downwards and pressed its extremity on the gold mounted blotting pad before him with a force that bent the knuckle backwards. "Get him so I can crush him—like that," he cried. "Get him alive. I want him alive. See?"
"I see. I'll get him—sure. You needn't worry a thing."
And as Walter Idepski rose to take his departure, for all his nerve, he felt glad that the passion of this Swede's hate was not directed against him.
EIGHT YEARS LATER
A great gathering thronged the heart of the clearing. There were men of every shade of colour, men of well-nigh every type. They stood about in a wide circle, whose regularity remained definite even under the stirring of fierce excitement. They had gathered for a fight, a great fight between two creatures, full human in shape and splendid manhood, but bestial in the method of the battle demanded. It was a battle with muscles of iron, and hearts that knew no mercy, and body and mind tuned only to endure and conquer. It was a battle that belonged to the savage out-world, acknowledging only the vicious laws of "rough and tough."
The rough creatures stood voiceless and well-nigh breathless. The combatants were well matched and redoubtable, even in a community whose only deity was physical might and courage and the skill of the wielded axe. The lust of it all was burning fiercely in every heart.
The sun poured out its flood of summer upon a world of virgin forest. The sky was without blemish. A dome of perfect azure roofed in the length and breadth of Nature's kingdom. Nevertheless the fairness of the summer day, with its ravishing accompaniment of soft, mystery sounds from an unseen world and the lavish beauty of shadowed woods were fit setting for the pulsing of savage emotions. It was far out in the lost world of Northern Quebec. It was far, far beyond the widest-flung frontiers of civilisation. It was out there where man soon learns to forget his birthright, and readily yields to the animal in him.
It was a scene of mighty slaughter amongst the giants of the forest. Hundreds sprawled in the path of man's gleaming axe. Giants they were, hoary with age, and gnarled with the sinews built up by Nature to resist her fiercest storms. They lay there, in every direction, reaching up with tattered arms outstretched, as though appealing for the light, the warmth, and the sweetness of life they would know no more.
Amidst this carnage a great camp was growing up. There were huts completed. There were huts only in the skeleton. They were dotted about in a fashion apparently without order or purpose. Yet long before the falling of the first snow, order would reign everywhere and man's purpose would be achieved.
The bunkhouses, the stores, the offices, the stables, they must all be ready before the coming of the "freeze-up." Summer is the time of preparation. Winter is the season when the lumber-jack's work must go forward without cessation or break of any sort. Not even the excuse of sickness can be accepted. There is no excuse. The lumber-jack must work, or sink to the dregs of a life that has already created in him a spirit of indifference to the laws of God and man. So the life of the forest is hard and fierce, and the battle of it all is long.
But the men who seek it are more than equal to the task. They are of all sorts, and all races. They drift to the forest from all ranks of life by reason of the spirit driving them. They come from the universities of the world. They come straight from the gates of the penitentiary. They come from the land, the sea, the office. They come from all countries, and they come for every reason. The call of the forest is deep with significance. Its appeal is profound. Its life is free, and shadowed, and afar.
For long moments the clinch of the fighting men remained unbroken. They lay there upon the ground locked in a deadly embrace. A spasmodic jolt, a violent, muscular heave. The result was changed position, while the clinch remained unrelaxed. There were movements of gripping hands. There were changes of position in the intertwined legs clad in their hard cord trousers. The heavily-booted feet stirred and stirred again in response to the impulse of the searching brains of the fighters, and every slight movement had deep meaning for the onlookers.
Yet none of these movements revealed the inspiration of passion. They were calculated and full of purpose. It was devilish purpose driving towards the objects of the fight. The stirring fingers yearned to reach the eyes of the adversary to blind him, and leave his organs of vision gouged from their sockets. The bared, strong teeth were only awaiting that dire chance to close upon the enemy's flesh, whether ear, or nose, or throat. Then the knee and foot. They were striving under ardent will for that inhuman maiming which would leave the victim crippled for life.
Each movement of the fighters was estimated by the onlookers at its due worth. They understood it all, the skill, the chance of it. Not one of them but had fought just such a battle in his time, and not a few carried the scars of it, and would continue to carry the scars of it for the rest of their days.
The moments of quiescence yielded to a spasmodic violence. There was a wild rolling, and the unlocking of mighty, clinging legs. One dishevelled head was raised threateningly. It remained poised for a fraction of time over the upturned face of the man lying in a position of disadvantage. Then it lunged downwards. And as it descended, a sound like the clipping of teeth came back to the taut strung senses of the onlookers. A sigh escaped from a hundred throats.
"Bull missed it that time."
Abe Kristin whispered his comment. The two men beside him had nothing to add at the moment. Their eyes were intent for the next development.
Suddenly the fair-haired giant who had missed his attack seemed to disengage himself from the under man's desperate hold. It was impossible to ascertain the means he employed. But he clearly released himself and one hammer fist swung up. It crashed sickeningly down on the upturned face, and a whistling breath escaped the emotional Abe.
"Gee! He's takin' a chance! That ain't the play in a 'rough and tough,'" he muttered.
"Nope. You're right, Abe," Luke Gats agreed without turning. "He's crazy. Gee! It's a chance. But he's maybe rattled. Bull's been fightin' over an hour."
"Here get it!" Tug Burke was pointing with a cant-hook in his excitement. "Get it quick. See? He's—"
The man's excitement found reflection in the whole concourse of onlookers. There was a furious movement in the human body crushed on the ground beneath the man they called Bull. Its knees came up under his adversary's body with a terrific jolt. The purpose of maiming was obvious.
"Gee! I'm glad."
Tug's relief found an echo in the sigh that escaped his companions. The intended victim had promptly swung his body clear and the threatened injury was averted. But his retaliation was instant. His great open hand spread over the man's face, smothering it; and it seemed the sought-for goal had been reached.
The cry roared in hoarse, excited tones from every direction. Unanimity displayed the general feeling. The man whose face had been smothered was Arden Laval, the camp boss, the man they hated as only forest-men can hate. The other was a giant youngster, not long a member of the camp, the usual object for victimisation by such a man as the French Canadian boss.
The demand remained unsatisfied. The fingers remained spread out over the man's eyes, but the foul act was never perpetrated. The younger man's efforts were directed towards a deeper, more significant purpose, and perhaps less cruel. He could have blinded in a twinkling. But he refrained. Instead, he pressed up mightily with a fore-arm crooked under the back of the man's neck, his smothering hand pressed down with all his enormous strength.
"The darn fool! Why in hell don't he—?"
Abe was interrupted by the excited voice of the man with the cant-hook.
"God A'mighty!" Tug cried. "Do you get it? Gouge? It ain't good enough fer Master Bull. He's playin' bigger. He's playin' fer dollars while we was reck'nin' cents. Look! It'll crack sure! His gorl-darn neck! He means—!"
Luke Gat's jubilation was dreadful to witness. His hard, be-whiskered features were alight with fiendish joy. This youngster had gone beyond all expectations. No less than the life of the greatest bully in the lumber world would satisfy him.
"Say, the nerve! He'll break the life out o' the skunk," he exulted. "The kid means crackin' his neck, sure as God!"
"Ken he do it?" Tug had thrust forward.
"Laval ain't the feller he was," mused Abe. "He shouldn't a let the boy get that holt. It's goin' back. It certainly is."
The men stood hushed before the terrible significance of what they beheld. In the abstract, a life-and-death struggle meant little enough to them. Witnessing it, however, violently stirred their deepest emotions. They hated the camp boss, the libertine, drunkard, bully, Arden Laval, who only held his position by reason of his fighting powers. They would be infinitely pleased to witness his end. All the more sure was their delight that it should come at the hands of this pleasant-voiced young giant, who had come amongst them out of the very lap of civilisation. Later on they would laugh at the thought of the redoubtable Laval in the hands of this "kid," as they considered him. But for the moment they were held enthralled by the excitement of it all.
The moments prolonged. The thrusting hand, and the crushing arm were forcing, forcing slowly, in their terrible strangle hold. The face of the camp boss was hidden from the spectators under the smothering hand. But the perilous angle at which his dark head was thrust back was there for all to see. His struggles, in that merciless hold, were becoming less violent. There was despair in their impotence.
The man called Bull was fighting with no less desperation. His youthful, resilient muscles were extended to the last ounce of their power, and an active, steely-tempered brain lay behind his every effort. The memory of months of brutal injustice and bullying, the bitterness of which had galled beyond endurance, supported this last mighty effort. Yes, for all he was bred in the gentle life of civilisation, for all ruthless cruelty had no place in his normal temper, his one desire now was to kill, to slay this brute-man who had made his life unendurable.
It was an awful moment. It was terrible even to these hardy men of the forests. The spectacle of a slow, deliberate killing was incomparable with the blood feuds to which they were used. There were those whose nerves prompted them to shout for haste. There were some even who welcomed the prolonged agony of the victim. But none shouted, none spoke or stirred. Furthermore, not one pair of shining eyes revealed the quality of mercy. Bull's right was his own. If he demanded death it was his due. Certainly it was the due of the bully, Laval.
On the far side of the circle a sudden commotion broke up the tense expectancy of the onlookers. Every eye responded, and the unanimity of the change of interest suggested the desire for relief. The commotion continued. There was some sort of struggle going on. Then, in a moment, it ceased. A tall, lean, dark-clad figure leapt into the arena and flung itself upon the combatants.
The circle had re-formed. Again were eyes fastened upon the point of fascination which had held them so long. But now a buzz of talk hummed on the summer air.
"What in hell!" demanded Luke, in the bitterness of disappointment.
Tug Burke made a move to break into the arena. But the powerful hand of Abe was fastened about one of his arms in a grip of iron.
"Say, quit, kid!" he cried hoarsely.
The man's harsh tones were stirred out of their usual quiet.
"Stop right here," he went on. "There's just one feller on this earth has a right to butt in when Death's flappin' his wings around. That's Father Adam. Maybe you're feeling sick to think Laval's going to get clear with his life. Maybe I am. Father Adam ain't buttin' in ordinary. He's savin' that hothead kid the blood of a killin' on his hands. Guess I'm glad."
The next moments were abounding with amazing incident. It seemed as though a flying, priestly figure had been absorbed in the life-and-death struggle. He seemed to become part of it. Then, with kaleidoscopic suddenness, the men lay apart, and the death strangle hold of Bull Sternford was broken. And the magic of it all lay in the fact that the stranger was standing over the prone combatants, his dark, bearded face, and wide, shining black eyes turned upon the living fury gazing up out of the eyes of the man who had been robbed of his prey.
"There's going to be no killing, Bull." Father Adam spoke quietly, deliberately, but with cold decision.
There was no yielding in his pale, ascetic features. One hand slipped quickly into a pocket of his short, black, semi-clerical coat, as he allowed his eyes to glance down at the still prostrate camp boss.
"And you, Laval," he cried, with more urgency, "get out quick. Get right out to your shanty and stop there. Later I'll come along and fix up your hurts."
Young Bull Sternford leapt to his feet. His youthful figure towered. His handsome blue eyes were ablaze with almost demoniac fury. His purpose was obvious. A voiceless passion surged as he started to rush again upon his victim.
But the priestly figure, with purpose no less, instantly barred the way.
"Quit," he cried sharply. "What I say, goes."
Bull halted. He halted within a yard of the automatic pistol whose muzzle was covering him. He stood for a second staring stupidly. And something of his madness seemed to pass out of his eyes. Then, in a moment, his voice rang out harshly.
"Get away. Let me get at him. Oh, God, I'll smash him! I'll—!"
"You'll quit right now!" Father Adam still barred the way with the threatening gun. He raised the muzzle the least shade. "There's this gun says you're not going to have murder on your hands, boy; and there's a man behind it knows how to make it stop your mad attempt. That's better," he went on, as, even in his fury the younger man drew back in face of the threat. "Say, you've done enough, boy. You've done all you need. He's deserved everything he's got, the same as most of us deserve the bad times we get. You've licked him like the good man you are. You've licked him without any filthy maiming, or unnecessary cruelty. Now leave him his life. He'll never trouble you again. Let it go at that."
The calm of the man, the gentleness of his tones were irresistible. The fury of the youth died hard, but it so lessened in face of the simple exhortation that it had passed below the point where insanity rules.
Suddenly a great, bleeding hand was raised to his mane of fair hair, and he smoothed it back off his forehead helplessly.
"Why? Why?" he demanded. Then spasmodically: "Why should—he—get away with it? He's handed me a dog's life He's—"
He broke off. His emotions were overwhelming.
Father Adam's dark eyes never wavered. They squarely held their grip on the stormy light shining in the other's. Laval had not stirred. He still lay sprawled on the ground. Quite abruptly the hand gripping the automatic pistol was thrust into the pocket of the black coat. When it was removed it was empty. The man took a quick step towards the half-dazed Bull.
"Come along, boy," he said persuasively, taking him by the arm. "Come right over to my shanty," he went on. "You'll feel better in a while. You'll feel better all ways, and glad you—didn't." Then he paused, holding the man's unresisting arm. He looked down at Laval who displayed belated signs of movement. "Get up, Laval," he ordered, returning to a coldness that displayed his inner feeling. "Get up, and—get out. Get away right now, and thank God your neck's still whole."
He waited for the obedience he demanded, and waiting he realised by the quiescence of the man beside him that all danger had passed.
Laval staggered to his feet. He stood up, a giant in the prime of early manhood, but bowed under the weight of physical hurt, and the knowledge of his first defeat. He stood for a moment as though uncertain. Then he moved slowly towards the crowding onlookers, finally passing through them on his way to his quarters pursued by a hundred contemptuous, unpitying glances, while busy tongues expressed regret at his escape. It was the scowl of the wolf pack in its merciless regard for a fallen leader.
Very different was the general attitude when Father Adam led the victor away. Hard faces were a-grin. The tongues that cursed the defeated camp boss hurled jubilant laudations at the unresponsive youth, who towered even amongst these great creatures. But for the presence of Father Adam, who seemed to exercise a miraculous restraining influence, these lumber-jacks would have crowded in and forcibly borne their champion to the suttler's store for those copious libations, which, in their estimate, was the only fitting conclusion to the scene they had witnessed. As it was they made way. They stood aside in spontaneous and real respect, and the two men passed on in silence leaving the crowd to disperse to its labours.
The hush of the forest was profound. For all the proximity of the busy lumber camp its calm was unbroken.
It was a break in the endless canopy of foliage, a narrow rift in the dark breadth of the shadowed woods.
It was one of those infinitesimal veins through which flows the life-blood of the forest.
A tiny streamlet trickled its way over a bed of decayed vegetation often meandering through a dense growth of wiry reeds in a channel set well below the general level. Banks of attenuated grass and rank foliage lined its course, and the welcome sunlight poured down upon its water in sharp contrast with the twilight of the forest.
Clear of the crowding trees a rough shanty stood out in the sunlight. It was a crazy affair constructed of logs laterally laid and held in place by uprights, with walls that looked to be just able to hold together while suffering under the constant threat of collapse. The place was roofed with a thatch of reeds taken from the adjacent stream-bed, and its doorway was protected by a sheet of tattered sacking. There was also a window covered with cotton, and a length of iron stove-pipe protruding through the thatch of the roof seemed to threaten the whole place with fire at its first use.
Inside there was no attempt to better the impression. There was no furnishing. A spread of blankets on a waterproof sheet laid on a bed of reeds formed the bed of its owner, with a canvas kit-bag stuffed with his limited wardrobe serving as a pillow. There were several upturned boxes to be used as seats, and a larger box served the purpose of a table and supported a tiny oil lamp. There was not even the usual wood stove connected up to the protruding stove-pipe. A smouldering fire was burning between two large sandstone blocks, which, in turn, supported a cooking pot. An uncultured Indian of the forests would have demanded greater comfort for his resting moments.
But Father Adam had no concern for comfort of body. He needed his blankets and his fire solely to support life against the bitterness of the night air. For the rest the barest, hardest food kept the fire of life burning in his lean body.
Squatting on his upturned box he gazed out upon the sunlit stream below him. His dark eyes were full of a pensive calm. His body was inclining forward, supported by arms folded across his knees. An unlit pipe thrust in the corner of his mouth was the one touch that defeated the efforts of his flowing hair and dark beard to suggest a youthful hermit meditating in the doorway of his retreat.
Bull Sternford was seated on another box at the opposite side of the doorway. He, too, had a pipe thrust between his strong jaws. But he was smoking. Beyond the dressings applied to a few abrasions he bore no signs of his recent battle. But there still burned a curiously fierce light in his handsome blue eyes.
"You shouldn't have butted in, Father," he said, in a tone which betrayed the emotion under which he was still labouring. "You just shouldn't." Then with a movement of irritation: "Oh, I'm not a feller yearning for homicide. No. It's not that. You know Arden Laval," he went on, his brows depressing. "Of course you do. You must know him a whole heap better than I do. Well? Say, I guess that feller hasn't a right to walk this earth. He boasts the boys he's smashed the life clean out of. He's killed more fool lumber-jacks than you could count on the fingers of two hands. He wanted my scalp to hang on his belt. That man's a murderer before God. But he's beyond the recall of law up here. And he stops around on the fringe looking for the poor fool suckers who don't know better than to get within his reach. Gee, it was tough! I'd a holt on him I wouldn't get in a thousand years, and I'd nearly got the life out of him. I'd stood for all his dirt weeks on end. He made his set at me because I'm green and college-bred. But he called me a 'son-of-a-bitch!' Think of it! Oh, I can't rest with that hitting my brain. It's no use. I'll have to break him. God, I'll break him yet. And I'll see you aren't around when I do it."
The man's voice had risen almost to a shout. His bandaged hands clenched into fists like limbs of mutton. He held them out at the man opposite, and in his agony of rage, it gave the impression he was threatening.
Father Adam stirred. He reached down into the box under him and picked up a pannikin. Then he produced a flask from an inner pocket. He unscrewed the top and poured out some of its contents. He held it out to the other.
"Drink it," he said quietly.
The blue eyes searched the dark face before them. In a moment excitement had begun to pass.
"What is it?" Bull demanded roughly.
"It's brandy, and there's dope in it."
"Yes. Bromide. You'll feel better after you've swallowed it. You see I want to make a big talk with you. That's why I brought you here. That's why I stopped you killing that feller—that, and other reasons. But I can't talk with you acting like—like I'd guess Arden Laval would act. Drink that right up. And you needn't be scared of it. It'll just do you the good you need."
Father Adam watched while the other took the pannikin. He watched him raise it, and sniff suspiciously at its contents. And a shadowy smile lit his dark eyes.
"It's as I said," he prompted. Then he added: "I'm not a—Caesar."
The youth glanced across at him, and for the first time since his battle a smile broke through the angry gleam of his eyes. He put the pannikin to his lips and gulped down the contents.
Father Adam drew a deep sigh. It was curious how this act of obedience and faith affected him. The weight of his responsibility seemed suddenly to have become enormous.
It was always the same. This man accepted him as did every other lumber-jack throughout the forests of Quebec. He was a father whose patient affection for his lawless children was never failing, a man of healing, with something of the gentleness of a woman. An adviser and spiritual guide who never worried them, and yet contrived, perhaps all unknown to themselves, to leave them better men for their knowledge of him. He came, and he departed. Whence he came and whither he went no one enquired, no one seemed to know. He just moved through the twilight forests like a ghostly, beneficent shadow, supreme in his command of their rugged hearts.
Bull set the pannikin on the ground beside him. His smile had deepened.
"You needn't to tell me that, Father," he said, almost humbly. "There isn't a feller back there in the camp," he added with a jerk of his head, "that would have hesitated like me when you handed him your dope. Thanks. Say, that darn stuff's made me feel easier."
The missionary removed his empty pipe, and Bull hastily dragged his pouch from a pocket in his buckskin shirt. He held it out.
"Help yourself," he invited. And the other took it. For a moment Bull looked on at the thoughtful manner in which Father Adam filled his pipe. Then a curiosity he could no longer restrain prompted him.
"This big talk," he said. "What's it about?"
The missionary's preoccupation vanished. His eyes lit and he passed back the pouch.
"Thanks, boy," he said in his amiable way. "Guess I'll need to smoke, too—you see our talk needs some hard thinking. Pass me a stick from that fire."
Bull did as he was bid. And the missionary's eyes were on the fair head of the man as he leant down over the smouldering embers stewing his own meagre midday meal.
Bull Sternford was a creature of vast stature and muscular bulk. It was no wonder that the redoubtable Laval had run up against defeat. The camp boss had lived for twenty years the hard life of the forests. His body was no less great than this man's. His experience in physical battle was well-nigh unlimited. But so, too, was his debauchery.
Bull Sternford was younger. He was clean and fresh from one of the finest colleges of the world. He was an athlete by training and nature. Then, too, his mentality was of that amazing fighting quality which stirs youth to go out and seek the world rather than vegetate in the nursery of childhood. It was all there written in his keen, blue eyes, in the set of his jaws of even white teeth. It was all there in the muscular set of his great neck, and in the poise of his handsome head, and in the upright carriage of his breadth of shoulder. Even his walk was a thing to mark him out from his fellows. It was bold, perhaps even there was a suggestion of arrogance in it. But it was only the result of the military straightness of his body.
Little wonder, then, a man of Arden Laval's brutal nature should mark him down as desired victim. This man was "green." He was educated. He possessed a spirit worth breaking. Later he would learn. Later he would become a force in the calling of the woods. Now he would be easy.
The brute had sought every opportunity to bait and goad the man to his undoing. For months he had "camped on his trail," and Bull had endured. Then came that moment of the filthy epithet, and Bull's spirit broke through the bonds of will that held it. The insult had been hurled at the moment and at the spot where the battle had been fought. Bull had flung himself forthwith at the throat of the French Canadian almost before the last syllable of the insult had passed the man's lips. And the end of nearly a two hours' battle had been the downfall of the bully, with the name of Bull Sternford hailed as a fighting man in his place.
The firebrand was passed to the waiting missionary. He sucked in the pleasant fumes of a lumberman's tobacco. Then the stick was flung back to its place in the fire.
Father Adam nursed one long leg, which he flung across the other, while his wide, intelligent eyes gazed squarely into the eyes of the man opposite.
"Tell me," he said. "What brought you into the life of the woods? What left you quitting the things I can see civilisation handed you? This is the life of the wastrel, the fallen, the man who knows no better. It's not for men starting out in possession of all those things—you have."
Bull sat for a moment without replying. Father Adam's "dope" had done its work. His passionate moments had vanished like an ugly dream. His turbulent spirit had attained peace. Suddenly he looked up with a frank laugh.
"Now, why in hell should I tell you?"
It was an irresistible challenge. The missionary nodded his approval.
"Yes. Why—in hell—should you?"
He, too, laughed. And his laugh miraculously lit up his ascetic features.
Instantly Bull flung out one bandaged hand in a sweeping gesture.
"Why shouldn't I—anyway?" he cried, with the abandon of a man impatient of all subterfuge. "Guess I ought to turn right around and ask who the devil you are to look into my affairs? Who are you to assume the right of inquisitor?" He shook his head. "But I'm not going to. Now I'm sane again I know just how much you did for me. I meant killing Laval. Oh, yes, there wasn't a thing going to break my hold until he was dead—dead. You got me in time to save me from wrecking my whole life. And you got in at—the risk of your own. If I'd killed him all the things and purposes I've worried with since I left college would have been just so much junk; and I'd have drifted into the life of a bum lumber-jack without any sort of notion beyond rye whiskey, and the camp women, and a well swung axe. You saved me from that. You saved me from myself. Well, you're real welcome to ask me any old thing, and I'll hand you all the truth there is in me. I'm an 'illegitimate.' I'm one of the world's friendless. I'm a product of a wealthy man's licence and unscruple. I'm an outcast amongst the world's honest born. But it's no matter. I'm not on the squeal. Those who're responsible for my being did their best to hand me the things a man most needs. Mind, and body, and will. Further, they gave me all that education, books, and college can hand a feller. More than that, my father, who seems to have had more honesty than you'd expect, handed me a settlement of a hundred thousand dollars the day I became twenty-one. I never knew him, and I never knew my mother. The circumstances of my birth were simply told me on my twenty-first birthday. I know no more. And I care nothing to hunt out those spectres that don't figger to hand a feller much comfort. The rest is easy. I hope I'm a feller of some guts—"
Father Adam nodded, and his eyes lit.
"Sure," was all he commented.
"Anyway, I feel like it," Bull laughed. "When I learned all these things I started right in to think. I thought like hell. I said to myself something like this: 'There's nothing to hold me where I am. There's no one around to care a curse. There's that feeling right inside the pit of my stomach makes me feel I want to make good. I want to build up around me all that my birth has refused me. A name, a life circle, a power, a—anyway, get right out and do things! Well, what was I going to do? It needed thinking. Then I hit the notion."
He laughed again. He was gazing in at himself and laughing at the conceits he knew were real, and strong, and vital.
"Say." He nodded at the prospect through the doorway. "There it is. This country's beginning. We don't know half it means to the world yet. Well, I hadn't enough capital to play with, so I resolved right away to start in and learn a trade from its first step to its topmost rung, and to earn my keep right through. Meanwhile my capital's lying invested against the time I open out. I'm going to jump right into the groundwood pulp business when the time comes. And out of that I mean to build a name that folks won't easily forget. Well, I guess you won't find much that's interesting in all this. It don't sound anything particularly bright or new. But for what it is it's my notion, and—I'm going to put it through. That's why I'm here. I'm learning my job from the bottom."
The decision and force of the man were remarkable. The conciseness of his story, and his indifference to the tragedy of his birth, indicated a level mind under powerful control. And Father Adam knew he had made no mistake.
"It's the best story I've heard in years," he replied, a whimsical smile lighting his dark eyes.
Bull's smile was no less whimsical.
"Yes. You've guts of iron, boy. And I've been looking years for just such a man."
"That sounds—tough," Bull laughed, but he was interested. "What's the job you want him for? Are you yearning to hand out a killing? Is it a trip—a trip to some waste space of God's earth that 'ud freeze up a normal heart? Do you want a feller to beat the laws of God and man? Guts of iron! It certainly sounds tough, and I'm not sure you've found the feller you're needing."
Father Adam was no longer smiling. The gravity of his expression gave emphasis to his words.
Bull was impressed. His laugh died out.
"I don't know I'm yearning," he said deliberately. "Anyway I don't quit the track I've marked out. That way there's nothing doing. It's a crank with me; I can't quit a notion."
"You don't have to."
They were regarding each other steadily.
"Here, it's not my way to beat around," the missionary exclaimed suddenly. "When you find the thing you need you've got to act quick and straight. Just listen a while, while I make a talk. Ask all you need as I go along. And when I've done I'd thank you for a straight answer and quick. An answer that'll hold you, and bind you the way your own notions do."
Bull nodded appreciatively. The missionary let his gaze wander to the pleasant sunlight through the doorway, where the flies and mosquitoes were basking.
"There was a fellow who started up a groundwood mill 'way out on the Labrador coast. He was bright enough, and a mighty rich man. And he'd got a notion—a big notion. Well, I know him. I know him intimately. I don't know if he's a friend to me or not. Sometimes I think he isn't. Anyway, that doesn't matter to you. The thing that does matter is, he set out to do something big. His notions were always big. Maybe too big. This notion was no less than to drive the Skandinavians out of the groundwood trade of this country. He figured his great mill was to be the nucleus of an all-Canadian and British combination, embracing the entire groundwood industry of this country. It was to be Canadian trade for Canada with the British Empire."
Bull emitted a low whistle.
"An elegant slogan," he commented.
He shifted his position. In his interest his pipe had gone out, and he leant forward on his upturned box.
"Yes," Father Adam went on. "And, like your notion, it was something not easily shifted from his mind. It was planned and figured to the last detail. It was so planned it could not fail. So he thought. So all concerned thought. You see, he had ten million dollars capital of his own; and he was something of a genius at figures and finance—his people reckoned. He was a man of some purpose, and enthusiasm, and—something else."
Bull's alert brain was prompt to seize upon the reservation. But denial was instant.
"No. It wasn't drink, or women, or any foolishness of that sort," the missionary said. "The whole edifice of his purpose came tumbling about his ears from a totally unexpected cause. Something happened. Something happened to the man himself. It was disaster—personal disaster. And when it came a queer sort of weakness tripped him, a weakness he had always hitherto had strength to keep under, to stifle. His courage failed him, and the bottom of his purpose fell out like—that."
Father Adam clipped his fingers in the air and his regretful eyes conveyed the rest. Then, after a moment, he smiled.
"He'd no—iron guts," he said, with a sigh. "He had no stomach for battle in face of this—this disaster that hit him."
"It has no relation to his—undertaking?"
"None whatever. I know the whole thing. We were 'intimates.' I know his whole life story. It was a disaster to shake any man."
The missionary sighed profoundly.
"Yes, I knew him intimately," he went on. "I deplored his weakness. I censured it. Perhaps I went far beyond any right of mine to condemn. I don't know. I argued with him. I did all I could to support him. You see, I appreciated the splendid notion of the thing he contemplated. More than that, I knew it could be carried out."
He shook his head.
"It was useless. This taint—this yellow streak—was part of the man. He could no more help it than you could help fighting to the death."
A sort of pitying contempt shone in the younger man's eyes.
"Queer?" Father Adam nodded. "It was—crazy."
"It surely was."
The missionary turned back to the prospect beyond the doorway. But it was only for a moment. He turned again and went on with added urgency.
"But the scheme wasn't wholly to be abandoned. It was—say, here was the crazy proposition he put up. You see I was his most intimate friend. He said: 'The forests are wide. They're peopled with men of our craft. There must be a hundred and more men capable of doing this thing. Of putting it through. Well, the forests must provide the man, or the idea must die.' He said: 'We must find a man!' He said: 'You—you whose mission it is to roam the length and breadth of these forests—you may find such a man. If you do—when you do—if it's years hence—send him along here, and there's ten million dollars waiting for him, and all this great mill, and these timber limits inexhaustible waiting for him to go right ahead. It doesn't matter a thing who he is, or what he is, or where he comes from, so long as he gets this idea—sticks to it faithfully—and puts it through. I want nothing out of it for myself. And the day he succeeds in the great idea all that would have been mine shall be his.'"
As Father Adam finished, he looked into the earnest, wonder-filled eyes of the other.
"Well?" he demanded.
Bull cleared his throat.
"The mill? Where is it?" He demanded.
"Sachigo. Farewell Cove."
"Sachigo! Why it's—"
"The greatest groundwood mill in the world."
There was a note of pride and triumph in the missionary's tone. But it passed unheeded. Bull was struggling with recollection.
"This man? Wasn't it Leslie Standing who built it? Didn't it break him or something? That's the story going round. There was something—"
Father Adam shook his head.
"There's ten million dollars says it didn't. Ten millions you can handle yourself."
Bull drew a sharp breath. Strong, forceful as he was the figure was overwhelming.
"This—all this you're saying—offering? It's all real, true?" Bull demanded at last.
"All of it."
"You want me to go and take possession of Sachigo, and ten—Say, where's the catch?"
"There's no 'catch'—anywhere."
The denial was cold. It was almost in the tone of affronted dignity. The missionary had thrust his hand in a pocket. Now he produced a large, sealed envelope. Bull's eyes watched the movement, but bewilderment was still apparent in them. Suddenly he raised a bandaged hand, and smoothed back his hair.
Father Adam held out the sealed letter. It was addressed to "Bat Harker," at Sachigo Mill.
"Here," he said quietly. "You're the man with iron guts Leslie Standing wants for his purpose. Take this. Go right off to Sachigo and take charge of the greatest enterprise in the world's paper industry. You're looking to make good. It's your set purpose to make good in the groundwood industry. Opportunities don't come twice in a lifetime. If you've the iron courage I believe, you'll grab this chance. You'll grab it right away. Will you? Can you do it? Have you the nerve?"
There was a taunt in the challenge. It was calculated. There was something else. The missionary's dark eyes were almost pleading.
Bull seized the letter. He almost snatched it.
"Will I do it? Can I do it? Have I the nerve?" he cried, in a tone of fierce exulting. "If there's a feller crazy enough to hand me ten million dollars and trust me with a job—if it was as big as a war between nations—I'd never squeal. Can I? Will I? Sure I will. And time'll answer the other for you. Iron guts, eh! I tell you in this thing they're chilled steel."
Father Adam was smiling. A great relief, a great happiness stirred his pulses as he stood up and moved over to the miserable fire with its burden of stewing food.
"Now we'll eat," he said. And he stooped down and stirred the contents of the pot.
BULL LEARNS CONDITIONS
The Myra ploughed her leisurely way up the cove. There was dignity in the steadiness with which she glided through the still waters. The cockleshell of the Atlantic billows had become a thing of pride in the shelter of Farewell Cove. Her predecessor, the Lizzie, had never risen above her humble station.
Her decks were wide and clean. Her smoke-stack had something purposeful in its proportions. The bridge was set high and possessed a spacious chart house. She had an air of importance not usual to the humble coasting packet.
"Old man" Hardy was at his post now. One of his officers occupied the starboard side of the bridge, while he and another looked out over the port bow.
"It's a deep water channel," the skipper said, with all a sailor's appreciation. "That's the merricle that makes this place. It'ud take a ten-thousand tonner with fathoms to spare right away up to the mooring berth. Guess Nature meant Sachigo for a real port, but got mussed fixing the climate."
Bull Sternford was leaning over the rail. For all summer was at its height the thick pea-jacket he was wearing was welcome enough. His keen eyes were searching, and no detail of the prospect escaped them. He was filled with something akin to amazement.
"It compares with the big harbours of the world," he replied. "And I'd say it's not without advantages many of the finest of 'em lack. Those headlands we passed away back. Why, the Atlantic couldn't blow a storm big enough to more than ripple the surface here inside." He laughed. "What a place to fortify. Think of this in war time, eh?"
The grizzled skipper grinned responsively.
"It's all you reckon," he said. "But she needs humouring. You need to get this place in winter when ice and snow make it tough. This cove freezes right around its shores. You'd maybe lay off days to get inside, only to find yourself snow or fog bound for weeks on end. We make it because we have to with mails. But you can't run cargo bottoms in winter. It's a coasting master's job in snow time. It's a life study. You can get in, and you can get out—if you've nerve. If you're short that way you'll pile up sure as hell."
He turned away to the chart room, and a moment later the engine-room telegraph chimed his orders to those below.
Bull was left with his busy thoughts.
It was a remarkable scene. The forest slopes came right down almost to the water's edge on either hand. They came down from heights that rose mountainously. And there, all along the foreshore were dotted timber-built habitations sufficient to shelter hundreds of workers. Their quality was staunch and picturesque, and pointed much of the climate rigour they were called upon to endure. But they only formed a background to, perhaps, the most wonderful sight of all. A road and trolley car line skirted each foreshore, and the mind behind the searching eyes was filled with admiration for the skill and enterprise that had transplanted one of civilisation's most advanced products here on the desperate coast of Labrador. Many of the forest whispers of Sachigo had been incredible. But this left the onlooker ready to believe anything of it.
The mill, and the township surrounding it, were already within view, a wide-scattered world of buildings, occupying all the lower levels of the territory on both sides of the mouth of the Beaver River before it rose to the heights from which its water power fell.
Bull was amazed. And as he gazed, his wonder and admiration were intensified a hundredfold by his self-interest. This place was to be in his control, possibly his possession if he made good. He thrust back the fur cap pressed low on his forehead.
His thought leapt back on the instant to the man who had sent him down to this Sachigo. Father Adam, with his thin, ascetic features, his long, dark hair and beard, his tall, spare figure. His patient kindliness and sympathy, and yet with the will and force behind it which could fling the muzzle of a gun into a man's face and force obedience. He had sent him. Why? Because—oh, it was all absurd, unreal. And yet here he was on the steamer; and there ahead lay the wonders of Sachigo. Well, time would prove the craziness of it all.
"Makes you wonder, eh?" The coasting skipper was at his side again. "You know these folks needed big nerve to set up this enterprise. It keeps me guessing at the limits where man has to quit. I've spent my life on this darn coast, an' never guessed to see the day when trolley cars 'ud run on Labrador, and the working folk 'ud sit around in their dandy houses, with electric light making things comfortable for them, and electric heat takin' the place of the cordwood stove it seemed to me folk never could do without. Can you beat it? No. You can't. Nor anyone else."
"Who is it? A corporation?" Bull asked, knowing full well the answer. He wanted to hear, he wanted to learn all that this man could tell him.
Hardy shook his head.
"Standing," he said. "That was the guy's name who started it all up. But," he added thoughtfully, "I never rightly knew which feller it was. If it was Standing, or that tough hoboe feller who calls himself Bat Harker. They never talk a heap. But since Leslie Standing passed out o' things eight years back—the time I was first handed command of this kettle—the mill's jumped out of all notion. Those trolleys," he pointed at the foreshore of the cove: "They started in to haul the 'hands' to their work only two years back. I'd say it's Bat Harker. But he looks more like a longshore tough than a—genius."
He shrugged expressively. Then he shook his head.
"No," he went on. "I don't know a thing but what any guy can learn who comes along up this coast. I've thought a heap. An', like you, I've ast questions all the time. But you don't learn a thing of this enterprise but the things you see. Bat Harker don't ever talk." He laughed in quiet enjoyment. "He's most like a clam mussed up in a cement bar'l. There don't seem any clear reason either. The only thing queer to me was Standing's 'get out.' There was talk then when that happened along. But it was jest talk. Canteen talk. Something sort of happened. No one seemed rightly to know. They guessed Bat was a tough guy who'd boosted him out—some way. Then I heard his wife had quit and he was all broke up. Then they said he'd made losses of millions on stock market gambles. But the yarns don't fit. You see, the mill's gone right ahead. The capital's there, sure. They've just built and built. There's more than twice the 'hands' there was eight years back. And get a look at the 'bottoms' loading at the wharves. No. Say, when I came aboard the Myra and they scrapped the Lizzie, I never guessed to get a full cargo. Well, I can load right down to the water line for this place alone all the time. No. Sachigo's a mighty big fixture in the trade of this coast. It's a swell proposition for us sea folk. It keeps our propellers moving all the time. They're bright folk, sure."
The old seaman laughed and moved off again to his telegraphs. The business of running in to the quayside was beginning in earnest.
* * * * *
The hawsers creaked and strained at the bollards. The vessel yawed. Then she settled at her berth. The engine-room telegraph chimed its final order, and the vessel's busy heart came to rest. Instantly activity reigned upon the deck, and the discharge of cargo was in full swing.
Bull Sternford was one of the first to pass down the gangway. Clad in the pleasant tweeds of civilisation, part hidden under a close-buttoned pea-jacket, he bulked enormously. His more than six feet of height was lost against his massive breadth of shoulder. Then, too, his keen face under a beaver cap, and his shapely head with its mane of hair, were things to deny his body that attention it might otherwise have attracted.
For all that, at least one pair of critical eyes lost no detail of his personality. Bat Harker was unobtrusively standing amongst the piled bales of groundwood that stacked the wharf from end to end. There was nothing about him to single him out from those who stood on the quay. The rough clothing of his original calling was very dear to him, and he clung to it tenaciously. He seemed to have aged not one whit in the added eight years. His iron-grey hair was just as thick and colourful as before. There was no added line in his hard face. His girth was no less and no more. And his eyes, penetrating, steady, had the same spirit shining in them.
He had laboured something desperately in the past eight years. With the passing of Leslie Standing from the life of Sachigo he had realized a terrible loss. His loss had more than embarrassed him. There was even a moment when it shook his purpose. But with him Sachigo was a religion, and his faith saved him. For a while, in both letter and spirit, he obeyed his orders, and Sachigo stood still. Then his philosophy carried the day. It was his dictum that no one could stand still on Labrador without freezing to death. He saw the application of it to his beloved mill. It must be "forward" or decay. So he scrapped his original orders, and drove with all his force.
Bull stared about him for the fascination of his journey up the cove was still on him. His pre-occupation left him watching the hurried, orderly movement going on about him.
"That all your baggage?"
The demand was harsh, and Bull swung round with a start. He was gazing down into the upturned face of Bat Harker, who was pointing at the suit case he was carrying.
"Guess I've a trunk back there in the hold somewhere," Bull replied indifferently, taking his interrogator for a quayside porter.
"That's all right. I'll have one of the boys tote it up. Best come right along. It's quite a piece up to the office. You've a letter for me?"
"I've a letter for Mr. Bat Harker."
The doubt in Bull's tone set a genuine grin in the other's eyes.
"Sure. That's me. Bat Harker. Maybe you don't guess I look it. Don't worry. Just pass it over."
Bull groped in an inner pocket, surprise affording him some amusement. His interest in Sachigo had abruptly focussed itself on this man.
"I'm kind of sorry," he said. "I surely took you for some sort of—porter."
Bat laughed outright, and glanced down at his work-stained clothing.
"Wal, that ain't new," he said. Then his eyes resumed their keen regard. "We don't need to wait around though. The skitters are mighty thick down here. Sachigo's gettin' a special breed I kind o' hate. That letter, an'—we'll get along."
Bull drew out Father Adam's letter and waited while the other tore it open. Bat glanced at the contents and jumped to the signature. Then he thrust out a gnarled and powerful hand.
"Shake," he cried. And there could be no doubting his good will. "Glad to have you around, Mr. Bull Sternford."
* * * * *
Bull Sternford was seated in the luxurious chair that had once known Leslie Standing. His pea-jacket was removed and his cap was gone. The room was warm, and the sun beyond the window was radiant. Beyond the desk Bat was seated, where his wandering gaze could drift to the one object of which it never tired. He was at the window which looked out upon the mill below.
He was reading Father Adam's letter. Sternford was silently regarding his squat figure. He was waiting and wondering, speculating as to the hard-faced, uncultured creature who had built up all the amazing details that made up an industrial city in a territory that was outlawed by Nature.
Bat thrust the letter away and looked up.
"Father Adam didn't write that letter for you? He just handed it out to you to bring along?"
"That's how," Bull nodded.
"Sure." Bat's tone became reflective. "He must have wrote that letter years, and held it against the time he located you. He's queer."
"Maybe he is," he said, "I don't know about that. But he's one hell of a good man," he went on warmly. "Do you know him? But of course you do. Say, he's just father and mother to every darn lumber-jack that haunts the forests of Quebec, and it don't worry him if his children are hellhound or honest. There's that to him sets me just crazy. I'd like to see his thin, tired face, always smiling." He stirred. And the warmth died abruptly out of his manner. "Say, you knew me—at the wharf?"