"Sure. I knew you before you came along. We've a wireless out on the headland."
"I see. Father Adam warned you I was coming. He told you—"
"The whole darn yarn. Sure."
Bull laughed grimly.
"That he guessed to shoot me to small meat if I didn't do as he said?"
"If you didn't cut out homicide from your notions of—sport."
"Yes. It was tough," Bull regretted. "But I'm glad—now."
"Yep. Guess any straight sort of feller would feel that way—after."
The lumberman's regret was unnoticed by the other.
Suddenly Bull leant forward in his chair. A smile, half whimsical, half incredulous, lit his eyes. He thrust his elbows on the desk and supported his face in his hands.
"It just beats hell!" he cried. "It certainly does. Oh, I'm awake all right. Sure, I am. One time I wasn't sure. Two months back I was lying around a lousy summer camp getting ready to take a hand in the winter cut for the Skandinavia Corporation. I was within two seconds of breaking a man's life—the rotten camp boss. And now? Why, now I'm sitting around in dandy tweeds in the boss chair of a swell office, with a crazy notion back of my head I'm here to beat the game with the greatest groundwood mill in the world, and ten million dollars capital behind me. Maybe there's folks wouldn't guess I'm awake, but I allow I am. But the whole thing sets me thinking of the fairy stories I used to read when I was a kid, and never could see the horse sense in wasting time over."
Bat helped himself to a chew from a fragment of plug tobacco.
"Here, listen," Bull went on, after the briefest pause. "It's my 'show down.' I don't understand a thing. I'm mostly a kid from college with a yearning for fight. So far I've learned some of the things the forest can teach the feller who wants to learn. They're the rough things. And I like rough things. I've some grip on groundwood. And the making of groundwood's the main object of my life. That, and the notion of licking hell out of the other feller. That's me, and those are the things made Father Adam send me along down to Sachigo. Well, it's up to you." He spread out his hands, "Where do I stand? How do I stand? And why in the name of all that's crazy am I sitting in this boss chair—right now?"
Bat swung one trunk-like leg across the other. His movement suggested an easing of mind and a measure of enjoyment. He pointed at the window and nodded in its direction.
"Quite a place," he said, in a tone and with a pride that had no relation to the other's demands. "Makes you feel man ain't the bum sort of inseck in the scheme of things some highbrows ain't happy not tellin' you. There's folks who guess it's Nature the proposition that matters. It's her does it all, an' keeps on doin' it all the time. But Nature's most like one mighty foolish, extravagant female. That sort o' woman who don't care but to please the notion of the moment. And when that's done, goes right on to please the next. Wal, anyway I guess she's got her uses if it's only to hand chances to the guy that's lookin' on. Take a look right down there below," he went on. "That's the truck the guy lookin' on has sweppen up in Nature's trail. It's taken most of fifteen years collectin' it. We've had to push that broom hard. And now I guess you're going to boost your weight behind it too. There's other things to collect, and that's what we want from you. You got nerve. You got big muscle, and education, too. Well, you'll handle the biggest sweeper of us all. Does it scare you?"
"Not a thing." Bull was smiling confidently.
Bat chuckled. His eyes were sparkling as he ruthlessly masticated his tobacco. This man pleased him mightily.
"That's all right," he said. Then he went on after a silent moment while he gazed thoughtfully out of the window. "It's right here," he exclaimed. "Here's a mill, a swell mill that don't lack for a thing to make it well-nigh perfect. I'll tell you about it. Its capacity. Its present limit is six thousand tons dry weight groundwood pulp to the week. That's runnin' full. There's a hundred and twenty grinders feeding a hundred and eighty sheetin' machines. And they're figgered to use up fifty-five thousand horse power of the five hundred thousand we got harnessed on this great little old river that falls off the highlands. That power is ours winter an' summer. It don't matter a shuck the 'freeze up.' It's there for us all the darn time. Then we've forest limits to hand us the cordage for that output that could give us three times what we're needing for a thousand years. Labour? We got it plenty. And later, by closing in our system of foresting, I figger to cut out present costs on a sight bigger output. The plans for all that are fixed in my head. Then we come to the market for our stuff, an' I guess that's the syrup in the pie. The world's market's waitin' on us. It's ours before we start. Why? Our power don't cost us one cent a unit. We're able to hand our folks a standard of living through the nature of things that leaves wages easy. The river's wide, and full, and it's our own. Then our sea passage to Europe's just eighteen hundred miles instead of three thousand. An' these things mean our costs leave us cutting right under other folks, and Skandinavia beat. There it is," he cried, with a wide gesture of his knotted hands. "It's pie!"
Something of the lumberman's enthusiasm found reflection in Sternford's eyes.
"But Nature's handed us a lemon in the basket of oranges," Bat went on, with a shake of his head. "It's that woman in her again. Y'see, she gives us just four months in the year to get our stuff out. Oh, she don't freeze the cove right up. No. That's the tough of it. The channel's mostly open. But storm, and fog, and ice, beats the ocean-going skipper's power to navigate it with any sort o' safety. The headlands are desperate narrow, and—well, there it is. We've four months in the year to get our stuff out. It's a sum. Figger it yourself. Set us goin' full. Six thousand tons in the week. What is it? Three hundred thousand in the year. How many trips at ten thousand tons? Or put the average tonnage lower. Say eight thousand. Forty trips. Four months. A vessel making two trips on an average turn round. We need a fleet of twenty 'bottoms,' to do it in the time. And they'll need to be our own. You can't help yourself to the world's market, and fix prices, and all the while fight for shipping in the open market. See?"
Bat nodded approval.
"When we get that the rest can go through. Meanwhile there's sixty grinders idle, which leaves us workin' half capacity. As it stands it's a dandy enterprise. We're making a swell balance sheet. But profit ain't the whole purpose. There's the rest."
The super lumber-jack turned again to the window with that fascination that was almost pathetic.
"And the rest?"
Bull Sternford urged the other sharply, and Bat turned at once.
"Canada's groundwood for the Canadian, inside the Empire," he shot at him.
The other nodded.
"The world's market for the country that can and should supply it," he replied.
"The smashing of the darn Skandinavian ring," cried Bat, his deep-set eyes alight.
"And drive them—back over the sea."
Bat suddenly leant across the table.
"That's it, boy," he cried. "That's it! Hellbeam and all his gang. The Skandinavia Corporation. Smash 'em! Drive 'em to Hell! It ain't profit. It's the trade. The A'mighty made Canada an' built the Canadian. He set him right here to help himself to the things He gave him. It's being filched by these foreigners—his birthright. They're fat on it. Did we fight the world war for that? Not by a darn sight. We fought to hold a place on the map for ourselves. And that's a proposition we've all got to get our back teeth into."
"It sure is."
The mill manager sat back in his chair and chewed vigorously.
"That's it," he said. "How?" he went on. "Combination. Finance—and the interest of the little, great old country across the water. It's all planned and laid out by the feller that started up this proposition. It's scheduled for you. Guess you'll find the last word of it writ out in the locked book in this desk. It's clear and straight for the feller with the nerve. That's you. Wal?"
Bat was watching—searching. He was looking for that flicker of an eyelid he had learned to dread in the past. But he failed to discover it. The wide, clear eyes of the younger man returned his regard unwaveringly. The uncultured lumberman had stirred a responsive enthusiasm, and somehow the project no longer seemed the crazy thing it had once appeared to Bull Sternford.
"Guess my back teeth have got it," he said, with a smile. "You needn't worry I'll let go."
Bat drew a deep breath. He stood up and spat his mangled chew into the cuspidore.
"I'm glad. I'm real glad," he cried. "I'm a heap more glad you told me those words without askin' the other things you need to know. But you got to know 'em right away. Say, the day that fixes up the things we been talkin' sees you with me and another masters of this mill an' all it means. And while you're playin' your hand there's one big fat salary for you to draw. This house and office is yours, an' me an' the mill's ready to do all we know all the time, just the way you need it. Down in Abercrombie there's the attorney, Charles Nisson, who's got the outfit of papers that you're goin' to sign. And when you seen him, why you'll get busy. Shake, boy," he cried, thrusting out one knotted hand. "Father Adam sent you, and I don't guess he's made any mistake."
Bull had risen, and his height left him towering over the man across the table.
"Now for the mill," he cried, as their hands fell apart. "The Myra sails sundown to-morrow and I need to get a swift look around before then. Say, you folk have kind of taken me on a chance—well, that's all right. I'm glad."
DRAWING THE NET
Nathaniel Hellbeam was contemplating the spiral of smoke rising from his long cigar. He was dreaming pleasantly. He was dreaming of those successful manipulations of finance it was his purpose to achieve. He had lunched, so his dream was of the things which most appealed.
In the midst of his reflections the drub of the muffled telephone beat its insistent tattoo. His dream vanished, and his senses became alert. He leant forward in his chair and picked up the receiver.
"Yes," he said shortly. And it sounded more like the Teutonic, "Ja!"
Putting up the receiver again he leant his clumsy body back in his chair. His small eyes no longer contained their dreaming light. They were turned expectantly upon the polished mahogany door.
The door swung silently open.
"Mr. Idepski!" The announcement was made in a carefully modulated tone.
The agent passed into the great man's presence, slim, dark, confident. Then the door closed without a sound.
There was no cordiality in the greeting. That was not Hellbeam's way with a paid agent.
Idepski walked across to the chair always waiting to receive a visitor and sat down.
"May I sit?" he inquired coolly, after the operation had been performed.
"Well?" he repeated.
The agent laid his hat on the ornate desk, and removed his gloves with care and deliberation.
"I'm just back from Sachigo," he said.
The financier settled himself more comfortably in his chair, and returned his cigar to his gross mouth.
"Tell me," he demanded.
"Easy. Things are moving our way."
The dark eyes glanced over the table for the gold cigarette box that always stood there.
"Help yourself," the banker ordered rather than invited.
Idepski needed no second bidding.
"You got all my code messages?" he asked. "Good," as the Swede nodded. "Then you know the position of the mill. Say, that feller Harker needs a sort of apology from me—also from you. The mill's a wonder. And he's the guy that's fixed it that way. You haven't a thing in Skandinavia comparable. I'd say you haven't a feller on your side capable of touching the fringe of that tough's genius for organisation. It's him. Not Martin—I mean Standing."
But Idepski was not to be deflected from his purpose.
"That's all right," he said easily. "I'm coming to him presently. I gave you, at times, the whole length and breadth, and size, and capacity of the Sachigo of to-day. You got all that stuff. But I've saved up the plum. There's a new man come into it. His name's Sternford—Bull Sternford. Guess it's him I need to tell you about before I pass on to the other. It's taken me a while to locate all I needed. And I guess I had luck or I wouldn't have got it all yet."
For once the man's smile reached his eyes.
"What's his position—in Sachigo?" Hellbeam demanded.
"Right on top of the business side of it."
"A financial man?"
The banker's interest was obviously stirred. But Idepski shook his dark head.
"That's the queer of it," he said. "He's a youngster straight out of the forest with no sort of record except as a pretty tough fighting proposition. Here, let me hand it to you in my own way, and I'll answer any sort of question after. I got men chasing up the forest camps. You know that. Well, I get their reports right here in this city at my office. They're read carefully, and anything that looks good is coded, and sent on to me wherever I am. Well, right after I located this feller, Sternford, coming into Sachigo, I got word of some stuff reported from one of your own camps way out north-west of Lake St. Anac. Guess it's about the farthest north in that direction, and it's cut off from any other camp by a hundred miles. On the face of it the stuff didn't seem to need more than a single thought. It was to say my man was quitting the camp. He'd sifted it right through, but there wasn't a 'jack' in the camp with any sort of story worth wasting paper on. There wasn't a trace of our man that way, and he proposed drawing another cover. At the end of his report was one of those notes these boys never seem able to resist mixing up with their official work. It told me of one of those scraps that happened in the camps, and he seemed mighty struck by it. It was between the camp boss, Arden Laval, and a kid called Sternford. Say, when I read that name I jumped. I felt like handing my feller promotion right away. Well, his story was good anyway. It seems this camp boss is about the biggest bluff in the scrap way known to that country. The kid licked him. They fought nearly two hours, 'rough and tough.' And the kid would have killed his man, but for the interference of a missionary feller called Father Adam. He broke 'em loose with a gun, and when he got 'em loose he took the kid right away so he shouldn't hand out the homicide he reckoned to. This report was more than two months old when I got it. Anyway I got it after a feller called Bull Sternford, a queer name by the way, had jumped in on the Sachigo proposition."
The agent flung away his cigarette and helped himself afresh.
"Well," he went on, smiling, "I guess it didn't take me thinking five seconds. I set the wires humming asking a description of this fighting kid. I got it. It was my man. The feller at Sachigo. Well?"
Idepski's smiling interrogation was full of satisfaction.
"Go on." The watchful eyes of the financier seemed to have narrowed.
"Now, by what chance does this feller, Bull Sternford, come straight from one hell of a scrap in a far-off camp belonging to Skandinavia to run the business end of Sachigo? What happened after that fool missionary got him away? And—"
Idepski broke off, pondering. He flicked his cigarette ash without regard for the carpet.
Hellbeam stirred in his chair impatiently. His lips seemed to become more prominent. His small eyes seemed to become smaller.
"You ask that, yes? You?" he snorted. "A child may answer that thing. You think? Oh, yes, you think." The hand supporting his cigar made a gesture that implied everything disparaging. "Our man—this Martin—has gone out of Sachigo because—of you? I tell you, no! Does a man give up the money, the big plan he makes, at the sight of an—agent? He took you in his hand and sent you to the swine life of the forest where he could have crushed you like that." He gripped the empty air. "Then he goes—where? You say he fears and quits. What does he fear? You?" The man shook his head till his cheeks were shaken by the violence of his movement. "He goes somewhere. But he does not quit. That is clear. Oh, yes. The mill goes on. It grows and prospers. The man Harker remains. Where comes the money for Sachigo to grow? Trade? Yes, some. But not all. I know these things. The mill goes on—the same as with Martin there. So Martin does not quit. He—just goes. Then who sets this Bull Sternford in the mill? Why? He says, 'This man can do the things I need.' Well? Say quick to your man, 'Do not leave this camp of Skandinavia.' Martin is there, or near by. He must know this Father Adam, too. He must be in touch with him. Maybe he watches the Skandinavia work. Maybe he plays his game so. Maybe he goes from Sachigo for that reason. Yes?"
The financier's undisguised contempt left the agent apparently undisturbed.
"That's the simple horse sense of it," Idepski retorted promptly. "I get all that. But you're wrong when you say, Martin's playing any other game than lying low because of one hell of a scare. I know him. You think you know him because you can't get away from judging a man from your end. However, that don't matter a shuck. I've told that man of mine to stop around. Don't worry. I told him that right away. I told him to watch this missionary." He shook his head. "Nothing doing. The missionary has quit. As I said, I'm right back from Sachigo. I didn't come back just to hand you this stuff. I'm on my way up to this camp of yours. We've been hunting this guy eight years—blind. Now there's a streak of daylight. I'm going for that streak myself. Anyway, it's liable to be pleasanter work than lumbering in the booms at Sachigo, and wondering when that feller Bat Harker, was going to locate me through a lumber-jack's outfit. And while I'm up there I mean to learn all I can of this Father Adam. I don't look for much that way. He's just a missioner that every feller in the forest's got a good word for, and anyway, it don't seem to me the feller who jumped in on you, and touched your bank roll is the sort to pass his time handlin' out tracts to the bums of the forest. I came in on my way to pass you these things. I go north again to-night. I'll be away quite a while, and, shut off up there, you'll not be likely to get word easy. But you'll hear things when I've got anything to hand you."
A sardonic light crept into Hellbeam's eyes as he listened to the final assurance.
"So," he ejaculated with a nod.
The agent rose to go.
"Meanwhile," he said, leaning over the desk, "it might be well for you to get a grip on the fact that Sachigo's going right on. It's the greatest groundwood proposition in the world. I know enough of Harker to realise his capacity to make it do just what he needs. And as for that other—this Sternford kid—why, I gather he's a pretty live wire that's set there for a reason. The slogan up there's much what it was, only the words are changed."
Hellbeam sucked his cigar and removed it from his lips.
"Changed? How?" he demanded, without suspicion.
"It was 'Canadian trade for the Canadians,'" Idepski said, his dark eyes snapping maliciously. "It's more personal since the fighting kid came along. It reminds me of the German slogans of the war. It's 'To hell with the Swedes, we'll drive 'em into the sea.'"
The financier nodded. His armour was impenetrable.
"The Germans said much," he said.
"That's all right, these folks aren't Germans," came the prompt retort, as Idepski picked up his hat and gloves.
"No." Hellbeam remained seated. It was not his way to speed a departing visitor. "I'm glad. Oh, yes." He smiled into the other's face, and his meaning was obvious. "You go to this camp. You find this missionary. That's work for you. The other—" his eyes dropped to the papers on the desk before him—"this mill, this Sachigo is for me. It is much nearer to the sea than the Skandinavia. Oh, yes."
THE PROGRESS OF NANCY
The girl reached out a hand in response to the ring of the telephone. It was slim and white; and her finger nails displayed that care which suggests a healthy regard for the niceties of a woman's life.
She remained silently intent upon the rapidly spoken message coming down to her over the wire. Her deep, hazel eyes were soberly regarding the blotting pad, upon which an idle pencil was describing a number of meaningless diagrams.
"Yes," she replied, after a while. "Oh, yes. All reports are in. I've gone through them all, and my summary is being prepared now. They're a pretty bad story. Yes. What's that? How? Oh, yes. Some of the camps are in pretty bad shape, I'd say. Output's fallen badly. Output! Yes. All sorts of reasons and—" she laughed, "—to me, none quite satisfactory. I think I've my finger on the real trouble, and fancy I've seen all this coming quite a while back. Very well. I'll be right up. Yes, I'll bring my rough notes if the summary isn't ready."
Nancy McDonald thrust the receiver back in its place and sat for a moment gazing at it. She knew she had committed herself. She had intended to. She knew that she had reached one of the important milestones in her career. In her youth, in the springtime energy abounding in her, she meant to pit her opinion against the considered policy of those who formed the management of the great Skandinavia Corporation she served. She understood her temerity. A surge of nervous anticipation thrilled her. But she was resolved. Her ambition was great, and her youthful courage was no less.
The brazen clack of typewriters beyond the glass partitions of her little private office left her unaffected. It was incessant. She would have missed it had it not been there. She would have lost that sense of rush which the tuneless chorus of modern commercialism inspired. And, to a woman of her temperament, that would have been a very real loss.
The great offices of the Skandinavia Corporation, in the heart of the city of Quebec, with their machine-like precision of life, their soulless method, their passionless progress towards the purpose of their organisation, meant the open road towards the fulfilment of her desires for independence and achievement.
All the promise of her earlier youth had been abundantly fulfilled. Tall, gracious of figure, her beauty had a charm and dignity which owed almost as much to mentality as it did to physical form. Yet, for all she had already passed her twenty-fourth birthday, she was amazingly innocent of those things which are counted as the governing factors of a woman's life. Certainly she knew and loved the Titian hue of her wealth of hair; her mirror was constantly telling her of the hazel depths of her wide, intelligent eyes, with their fringes of dark, curling, Celtic lashes. Then the almost classic moulding of her features. She could not escape realising these things. But they meant no more to her than the fact that her nose was not awry, and her lips were not misshapen, and her even, white teeth were perfectly competent for their proper function.
She was a happy blending of soul and mentality. Heredity seemed to have done its best for her. The Gaelic fire and the brilliance and irresponsibility of her misguided father seemed to have been balanced and tempered by the gentle woman soul of her mother. And through the eyes of both she gazed out upon the world, inspired and supported by a tireless nervous energy.
Since the memorable day of her interview with her appointed trustee, Charles Nisson, her development had been rapid. The events which had suddenly been flung into her life at the interview seemed to have unloosed a hundred latent, unguessed emotions in her child heart, and translated her at once into a thinking, high-spirited woman.
She honestly strove to banish bitterness against the man who had deprived her of that mother love which had been her childhood's treasure, but always a shadow of it remained to colour her thought, and influence her impulse. She had studied the deed of settlement as she had promised. She had studied it coldly, dispassionately. She had looked upon it as a mere document aimed to benefit her, without regard for her feelings for the man who had made it. She had thought over it at night when passion was less to be controlled. She had consulted those she had been bidden to consult, and had listened to, and had weighed their kindly advice. And when all was done she took her own decision as she was bound to do. It was a decision that had no relation to reason, only to passionate impulse.
She would not accept the things the deed offered her. She would not accept this reparation so coldly held out. She would not live a leisured, vegetable life, with no greater ambition than to marry and bear children. The simple prospect of marriage and motherhood could never satisfy in itself. That would be a happy incident, but not the whole, and acceptance of that deed would surely have robbed her of the rest.
There were times when she felt the disabilities of her sex. She knew she was deprived of the physical strength which the battle of life seemed to demand. But to her the world was wide, and big, and, in her girl's imagination, teeming with appealing adventure. The world alone could not satisfy her.
Once her decision was taken all the kindly efforts of her mentors at Marypoint were rallied in her support. They had advised out of their wisdom, but acted from their hearts. And the day on which the principal of the college notified her that the Skandinavia Corporation of Quebec had signified its willingness to absorb her into its service as typist and stenographer, at one hundred dollars per month, was the happiest she had known since her well-loved mother had been taken out of her life.
Now, after three years of unwearying effort, there was still no shadow to mar her happiness, or temper her enthusiasm. On the contrary, there was much to stimulate both. In that brief period she had succeeded almost beyond her dreams. Was she not already the trusted, confidential secretary to the ruling power in the great offices of the Skandinavia Corporation? Had she not been taken out of the ranks of the many capable stenographers, and been given a private office, a doubled salary, and work to do which left her wide scope for the play of those gifts with which she was so liberally endowed? Yes. All these things had been showered upon her in three years. She was a figure of authority in the great establishment. And furthermore, the man she served—this man, Elas Peterman—had hinted, and even definitely talked of, further rapid promotion.
She had worked hard for it all. Oh, yes. She had worked morning, noon, and night. When other girls had been content to study fashions and styles, and chatter "beaus" and husbands, she had given herself up to the study of the wood-pulp trade, and the world's market of the material she was interested in. She had saturated herself with the whole scheme, and purpose, and methods of her employers, till, as Peterman himself had once told her in admiration at her grasp of the business, she knew as much of the trade as he did himself. And even after that her mirror, that oracle of a woman's life, failed to yield her the real truth it is always ready to tell to its devotees.
The pre-occupation suddenly passed out of the girl's eyes. She stirred. Then she stood up and collected a number of papers into a small leather attache case. A moment later she pressed the bell push on the desk.
Her summons was promptly answered by a slim figured girl, with fair hair, and "jumpered" in the latest style.
"I shall be away a while. See to the 'phone, Miss Webster," Nancy said, in a tone of quiet but definite authority. "I shall be with Mr. Peterman. Don't ring me unless it's something important. That summary. Is it ready?"
"It's being checked right now."
"Well, speed them up. You can send it up directly it's through. Mr. Peterman is needing it."
Nancy passed out of the room. Her discipline was strict. Sometimes it approached severity. But she understood its necessity for obtaining results. Her orders would be carried out.
* * * * *
Elas Peterman set the 'phone back in its place. His dark eyes were smiling. They were shining, too, in a curious, not altogether wholesome fashion. He had just finished talking to Nancy McDonald, and he was thinking of the vision of red hair, of the serious hazel eyes gazing out of their setting of fair, almost transparent complexion.
He took up his pen to continue the letter he had been writing. But he added no word. The girl he had been speaking with still occupied his thoughts to the exclusion of all else.
He was a good-looking man, clean cut and youthful. His profile was finely chiselled. But his Teutonic origin was clearly marked. It was in the straight square back of his head. It was in the prominent, heavily, rounded chin, and the squareness of his lower jaw. Furthermore, the high, mathematical forehead was quite unmistakable. There was power, force, in the personality of the man. But there was something else. It lay in his mouth, in his eyes. The former was gross, and definite sensuality looked out of the latter.
As the door opened to admit Nancy his pen promptly descended on his paper. But he did not write. He looked up with a smile.
"Come right in, my dear," he said cordially, with the patronising familiarity of a man conscious of his power. "Just sit right down while I finish this letter." Then he added gratuitously, "It's a rude letter to a feller I've no use for; and I don't guess to rob myself of the pleasure of passing it plenty to him—in my own handwriting."
Nancy smiled as she took the chair beside the desk which was usually assigned to her in her intercourse with her chief.
"I wish I felt that way writing a bad letter," she said. "But I don't. It just makes me madder with folks, and I go right on thinking things, and—and—it worries."
Elas Peterman shook his head.
"Guess you'll get over that, my dear," he said easily. "Sure you will. You're just a dandy-minded kid, learning the things of life. You feel good most all the time. That's how it is. You want to laff and see things happy all around you. Later you'll get so you see the other feller mostly thinks of himself, and don't care a hoot for the folks sitting around. Then you'll feel different; and you'll tell folks you don't like the things you feel about them."
He went on writing, smiling at his own cynicism.
Nancy leant back in her chair. His words left her unaffected. She was used to him. But, for a moment, she contemplated the dark head, supported on his hand, without any warmth of regard.
After awhile she glanced away, her gaze wandering over the luxurious furnishings of the room. And it occurred to her to wonder how much, if any, of the excellent taste of the decorations owed inception to the man at the desk. No. Not much. The cheque-book and the decorator's artist must have been responsible. This grossly Teutonic creature with his cynical, commercial mind, was something of an anachronism, and could never have inspired the perfect harmony of the palatial offices of his Corporation. It was rather a pity. He had been exceedingly good to her. She would have liked to think that he was the genius of the whole structure of the Skandinavia, even to the decorations of the office. But it was impossible.
The man blotted and folded his letter. He enclosed and sealed it. He even addressed it himself.
"I'm kind of sorry I had to break in on you while you were fixing those reports," he said, in his friendliest fashion. "But, you see, I'm just through with the Board, and we took a bunch of decisions that need handling right away. Tell me," he went on, an ironical light creeping into his smiling eyes, "you reckon you've set your finger on the real trouble with our dropping output. I want to know about it because the Board and I can't be sure we've located it right."
The sarcasm hurt. It was not intended to. Elas Peterman had no desire in the world to hurt this girl. A cleverer man would have avoided it. But this man had no refinement of thought or feeling. Cynicism and sarcasm were his substitutes for a humour he did not possess.
Nancy's cheeks flushed hotly. But she stifled her feelings. She was confident of herself, and despite the manner of the challenge, she knew the moment of her great opportunity had come.
With a quick movement she crossed her knees and leant forward. She smiled in response.
"Yet, it's easy," she said boldly, with bland retaliation. "The reports are not good. And the trouble stands out clear as daylight. I guess a big scale contour map is the key to it. We've 'hand-weeded' the Shagaunty Valley. It's picked bare to the bone. The folks have cleared the forests right away to the higher slopes of the river. We're moving farther and farther away from the river highway. Well, that's all right in its way. Ordinarily that would just mean our light railways are extending farther, and a few cents more are added to our transport costs. Owing to our concentration of organisation that wouldn't signify. No. It's Nature, it's the forest itself turning us down. And the map, and the reports show that. The camps are right out on the plateau surrounding the valley, which is unprotected from winter storms. The close, luxurious growth of the valley we have been accustomed to is gone. The standing cordage of lumber is no less, only in bulk, girth. The trees are mostly less than half the girth. The result? Why, they have to work farther out. Each camp cuts over four times the area. Instead of a proportion of, say, two trees in five, it's about one in, say, ten. It looks like a simple sum. I should say we've lumbered that valley at least one season too long."
The man's smile had passed. There was no longer derision in his keen eyes. He had invited this girl's talk for the sake of hearing it. Now he was caught in admiration of her clear perception.
"Do the reports bear out those facts?"
His question was sharp, and Nancy realised she had done well.
She shook her head.
"No. They do just the thing you'd expect them to do," she said. "They make every sort of excuse that couldn't possibly account for the drop. And avoid the real cause which their writers are perfectly aware of." She shrugged her pretty shoulders. "You wouldn't expect it otherwise. You want to remember those reports are written by bosses who're more interested in their own comfort than in the affairs of the Skandinavia."
Again the girl's expressive shrug.
"To quit the Shagaunty and break new ground means the break up of those amenities and comforts they've accumulated in years. It means work, real hard work, and discomfort for at least two seasons. You see, we need to get into the skin of these folk. They can keep the booms full from these forests, and the kick only comes when the grinders get to work. Output falls automatically with the girth of the lumber sent down. It's a close calculation; but on the year it means a lot. I learned that from Mr. Osbert, at the mills on the Shagaunty. Well, so long as the booms are kept full, the camp bosses are satisfied. There's a limit below which the girth of logs may not go. They watch that limit, and are careful not to go below it. Well, our big output has been made up always, not by the minimum logs, but the maximum to which we have been hitherto accustomed. These boys know all about that; but they're satisfied with such bulk as doesn't fall below the minimum. And when asked, suggest fire, storm and sickness, anything rather than the real cause which drops our output. They'll not willingly face the discomfort and added work of opening a new territory. There's just one decision needed."
The girl laughed. It was a low, pleasant, happy laugh. She felt glad. Her chief was serious. He was in deadly earnest, and it represented her revenge for his sarcasm.
"We've five other rivers running down to the lake. The Shagaunty isn't even the largest. Well, these boys will have to be shaken out of their dream. We ought to quit the Shagaunty right away and make a break for fresh 'limits.' It's simple."
The man had no responsive smile. He shook his head.
"That's what it isn't, my dear," he said.
For the time the girl's beauty, her personality were quite forgotten. Peterman was absorbed.
"It means the complete dislocation of our forest organisation," he went on. "Here, I'll tell you something. We've done a very great thing in the past. And it's been easy. Years ago we decided by concentration of all our forest work on a limited area we could cut costs to the lowest. That way we could jump in on the market cheaper than all the rest. Our forest limits were the finest in Canada. We had standing stuff practically inexhaustible, and of a size almost unheard of. What was the result? Why, one by one we've absorbed competitors at our own price till the Skandinavia stands head and shoulders above the world's groundwood industry. That's all right. That's fine," he went on, after a pause. "But like most easy trails, you're liable to keep on 'em longer than is good for you. We haven't had to worry a thing up to now. You see, we'd stifled competition, and we'd paid a steady thirty per cent dividend. Which left our Board in an unholy state of dope. I've tried to wake 'em. Oh, yes. I tried when that guy started up his outfit on Labrador. The Sachigo outfit. Then he seemed to fade away, and I couldn't rouse 'em again." He shook his head—"Nothing doing. Well, for something like fifteen years those guys of Sachigo have been doing and working; and now, to-day, they've jumped into the market with both feet. I haven't the full measure of things yet. But the play's a big thing. They're out for the game we've been playing. Say, they're combining every old mill we've left over. All the derelicts and moth-bounds. Their hands are out grabbing all over the country. Well, that wouldn't scare me worth a cent, only they've never let up in fifteen years, and there's talk about big British finance getting behind 'em."
The man broke off. His serious eyes remained steadily regarding the girl's interested face.
"You reckon this change is easy," he went on again. "I guess it would be easy if these folk hadn't jumped into the market. That makes all the difference. While we're changing they're busy. Their stuff's coming down in thousands of tons. And it's better groundwood than ours. If we change over we're going to leave the market short and these folk will get big contracts. You're right. We've been working the Shagaunty too long. But it's been by three or four seasons. Not one. The time's coming, if it hasn't already come, when we've got to fight these folks and smash 'em; or get right out of business."
Something of the girl's joy had passed in face of the man's statement.
"There's been talk of these Sachigo folk in the trade," she said thoughtfully, "but I didn't know it was as big as you say. Of course—"
"Sure you didn't. You haven't had to handle our stuff on the market." The man laughed. And something of his seriousness passed. "But you're a bright kid. And the Skandinavia's looking for bright kids all the time. It needs 'em to counter a doped Board. It's taken you five minutes to locate a trouble the Board's taken years to realise. And you've been talking one of the bunch of decisions we've taken. I mean quitting the Shagaunty. We didn't have your argument, but we had the 'drop.' So the decision was taken. We've got to move like hell. Sachigo has our measure, and it's going to be a big fight. How'd you fancy a trip up country? I mean up the Shagaunty?"
There was a change in the man's voice and manner as he put his demand. He was leaning forward in his chair. A hot light had suddenly leapt into his eyes, which left them shining unwholesomely. Nancy was startled at his words. And his attitude shocked her not a little out of her self-satisfaction.
"I don't know—. How do you mean?" she demanded awkwardly.
The man realised her astonishment and laughed. Then he reached out, and his hand patted the rounded shoulder nearest him. It was a touch that lingered unnecessarily, and the girl stirred restlessly under it.
"Why, it's the chance of a life—for you," he said boisterously. "You'll go right up through the camps. You'll take your notions with you and investigate. I'll hand you a written commission, and the folk'll lay their 'hands' down for you to see. When you've seen it all you'll get right back here, and I'll set you before the Board to tell your story. I don't need to tell a bright girl like you what that means to you. You'll get one dandy summer trip, and I'll lose one dandy secretary. But I'm not kicking. No. You see, Nancy, I'm out to help you all you need. Well?"
It was crude, clumsy. It was all so blatantly vulgar. It was not the thing he said. It was the manner of it and all that which was lying unspoken behind.
For the first time Nancy experienced a curious uncertainty in dealing with him. But here was real opportunity. She had dreamed of such. And she must take it. The touch of the man's hand upon her shoulder had disturbed her. But she smiled her gratitude at him.
"It's too good," she exclaimed, with apparent impulse. "It's just too good of you. Will I go? Why, yes. Surely. And I'll make good for you. I believe it's the best thing. Someone to go who'll bring back a dead right story. I'd be real glad."
"That's bully!" The man beamed as he leant back in his chair more than satisfied with himself. "But I don't fancy losing my dandy secretary," he went on. "No, sir. I'm going to hate this summer bad. I surely am. Still, there's next winter. Winter's not too bad with us. And a feller needs consolation in winter. There's theatres, and ice parties, and dances, and things. And I guess when the Board's fixed a big jump up for you, you'll feel like getting around some. Well, I'm mostly vacant. A feller can't live all the time at home with his wife and kids. I guess I could show you Quebec at night better than most—"
The telephone saved Nancy the rest of the man's rendering of his account and she breathed deeply her relief. But the interruption was by no means welcome to the man. And his irritation was promptly displayed by the vindictive "Well?" he flung at the unyielding receiver.
"Oh! What's that? Who? Hellbeam? Oh. Sure. Yes. Send him right up. Don't keep him waiting. Right up now. Yes."
He thrust up the instrument and sat back in his chair.
"Curse the man!"
Nancy had risen from her chair at the mention of Hellbeam's name. She was glad enough of the excuse. She understood Hellbeam was the great outstanding figure in the concern of the Skandinavia. His was the one personality that dwarfed everybody. He was the moving power of the whole concern.
"You'll let me know later?" she said. "I mean, just when I'm to start out. I'm ready when you like. I'll just go and see why those reports have not been sent up."
"Oh, don't worry with the reports. You've told me the things that matter."
The man's irritation was as swift as it was violent. But it passed as quickly as it came. He laughed.
"That's all right, my dear. Be off now. I'll let you know about things this afternoon."
Nancy gladly accepted her dismissal. She wanted to think. She wanted to get things into their proper focus. As she closed the door behind her her beautiful eyes had no joy in them. She had realised two things as a result of her interview. The opportunity she had looked forward to had materialised, and she had seized it with both hands. But the goodness of Elas Peterman to herself possessed none of that disinterested kindliness she had hitherto believed. Furthermore, there was dawning upon her that which her mirror should have told her long ago. She was beginning to understand that her work, her capacity, her application, counted far less in the favour of her chief than did those things with which nature had equipped her. She was shocked out of her youthful dream. And it left her so troubled, that, had she not been passing down the carpeted corridor of the Skandinavia offices, she would have burst into a flood of tears.
* * * * *
It was a different Elas Peterman who confronted the squat figure of Nathaniel Hellbeam. The master in the younger man was completely submerged. He possessed all the Teutonic capacity for self-abnegation in the presence of the power it is necessary to woo. There was only one master when the great financier was present. Elas Peterman knew that his part was to listen and obey with just that humility which he would have demanded had the position been reversed.
Another type than Hellbeam's would have despised the attitude. But the financier had no scruple. Nature had denied him qualities for inspiring affectionate regard, or even respect. But she had bestowed on him a lust for power, and a great vanity, and these he satisfied to the uttermost.
The financier drove straight to the object of his visit.
"I come for an important purpose," he said, in his guttural fashion. "There must be a special Board assemble. Skandinavia will buy the mill on Labrador. The Sachigo mill. I come on the night train, which is the worst thing I can think to do, to say this thing. If we do not buy this mill, then—" He broke off with an expressive gesture.
Elas nodded. He was startled, but his powers of dissimulation were profound.
"I understand," he said. "They have been approached?"
Hellbeam stirred his bulk in the chair Nancy had so recently occupied. It was a movement of irritation.
"That is for you. You represent Skandinavia. I—I say this thing. I the money find."
The face of Peterman was a study. His eyes were serious, his manner calmly considering. Amazement was struggling with a desire to laugh outright in the face of this grossly insolent money power.
"Nothing could suit us better, sir," he said, deferentially. "They've been handing us more trouble than I fancy talking about. And they look like handing us still more. These people have grown slowly, but very deliberately. There's something very like genius in their management. And seemingly they possess unlimited capital or credit. I guess I know something of their contemplated manoeuvres. They're assembling all the free mills outside our ring. I see a great big scrap coming. May I ask the price you're considering?"
Hellbeam produced a gold cigar case. A greater man would have been content with a certain modesty of appointment. His case was comparable in vulgarity with the size of his cigars. He thrust the pierced end of the cigar between his gross lips and spoke with the huge thing lolling.
"It does not matter. I say buy."
The tone, the snapping of the man's eyes forbade further probing in this direction. He lit his cigar.
"It will need careful handling," ventured Peterman.
"It careful handling always needs. Eh?"
"Surely. I was thinking."
"So. You will think. Then you will act. You will communicate forthwith. See? You listen. I buy this Sachigo, yes. The price matters nothing. There is a reason. This fight. It is not that. Who is the head? I would know. I fancy this man to meet. He is what you call—bright. So."
Elas shook his head—
"There are two men in it we recognise. A man named Harker and another called Sternford—Bull Sternford. We know little of either. You see, it's kind of far away. Anyway, between them they're pretty—bright. I don't think they built the mill. I'm sure that's so. It was a man called Standing. But he seems to have gone out of active management. I might start by writing them and feel the way."
"Ach no!" Hellbeam shook his head in violent protest. "You write—no. You have your confidential man, yes? You send him. I give you the outline of terms. I give you alternative terms. Big terms. He will go. He will talk. He will hear. Then we will later come to terms. All men will sell—on terms. Your man. Where is he? I must see him. Then the Board. It meets. I will address it. I show them how this thing will serve."
"That's all right, sir," Elas was smiling. "You couldn't offer the Board a more welcome proposition than the purchase of Sachigo just now. We're changing our forest organisation right now, and that means temporary delays and drop in output. Sachigo's our worry while we're doing it. But with your permission I won't send a man up there. I think," he added deliberately, "I'd like to send a—woman."
Hellbeam's face was a study. His little eyes opened to their widest extent. His heavy lips parted, and he snatched his cigar into the safety of his white fingers.
"A—woman—for this thing? You crazy are!"
There was no restraint or pretence of restraint. The other's smile was more confident than might have been expected before such an intolerant outburst.
"Guess a woman has her limitations, sir. Maybe this one hasn't a wide experience. But she's clever. She's loyal to us, and she's got that which counts a whole heap when it comes to getting a man on her side. You reckon to buy Sachigo. If you send a man to deal he'll get short shrift. If there's anyone to put through this deal for Skandinavia it's the woman I'm thinking of. And she'll put it through because she's the woman she is, and not because of any talents. Your pardon, sir, if I speak frankly. But from all I know of Sachigo, if you—perhaps the king of financiers on this continent—went to these folk and offered them double what their enterprise is worth, I guess they'd chase you out of Labrador so quick you wouldn't have time to think the blasphemy suitable to the occasion."
Peterman's explanation caught the humour of his countryman. The bulk of the visitor shook under a suppressed laugh.
"Well," he retorted, "I do not go. This woman. A good-looker, eh? She is pleasant—to men? Where is she? Who is she?"
"She's my secretary, sir." Elas jumped at the change of his visitor's humour. "She's not much more than a kid. But she's quite a 'looker,' I'll send for her, if you'll permit me. She's getting some reports for me. I'll ask her to bring them up. You can see her then, sir, and, if you'll forgive me, I won't present her to you. If I do she'll guess something, and it's best she knows nothing of this contemplated deal—as regards you."
For a moment the banker made no reply. He sat, an adipose mass, breathing heavily, and sucking at his cigar. Then quite suddenly, he nodded.
"Send for her," he said sharply.
Elas reached the telephone and rang down.
"Hello! That you? Oh, will you step up a moment, Miss McDonald? Yes. Are they ready? Good. That's just what I want. Please. All of them."
* * * * *
Nancy knocked at the door and stepped into the room. She was carrying a large typescript of many pages. It represented many days and evenings of concentrated labour. It had been a labour not so much of love as of ambition. It was an exhaustive summary of the position of the Skandinavia's forestry in the Shagaunty Valley.
She missed the squat figure in the chair she usually occupied. She saw nothing of the stare of the narrow eyes concentrated upon her. She saw only the tall figure of Peterman, standing waiting for her beyond his desk in such a position that, to reach him, she must pass herself in review before the devouring gaze of the great banker.
She walked briskly towards him, her short skirt yielding the seductive rustle of the silk beneath it. Her movements were beyond words in grace. Her tall figure, so beautifully proportioned, and so daintily rounded, displayed the becoming coat-frock she usually wore in business to absolute perfection.
The banker's searching eyes realised all this to the last detail. He realised much more. For his was the regard that sought beneath the surface of things. It was that regard which every wholesome, good woman resents. But ultimately it was the girl's face and hair that held him. The rare beauty of the latter's colour sent a surge of appreciation running through his sensual veins. And the perfect beauty, and delicate charm of her pretty features, stirred him no less. Only her eyes, those pretty, confident, intelligent, hazel depths he missed. But he waited.
"These are the papers, Mr. Peterman."
Nancy held out the typescript to the waiting man whose eyes had none of the smiling welcome they would have had in Hellbeam's absence.
"Thank you." Elas glanced down at the neatly bound script.
"It's all complete?"
"Oh, yes. It's the whole story. It's in tabloid form. You will be able to take the whole close in half an hour."
A rough clearing of the throat interrupted her, and Nancy discovered the banker beside the desk. In something of a hurry she promptly turned to depart. But Elas claimed her.
"Will you come to me after lunch?" he said pleasantly.
"I want to go into the details of that trip I explained to you. You must get away as soon as possible."
"Directly after lunch?"
"Yes. Say three o'clock."
The girl again turned to go, but the banker anticipated her. As she reached the door he stood beside it, and opened it for her to pass out. He was holding something in his hand. It was an exquisitely formed gold fountain-pen.
"This yours is, I think," he said heavily, while his eyes searched those depths of hazel he had missed before.
The girl smiled as she gazed at the beautiful pen. She shook her head.
"No," she said. "I never possessed anything so beautiful in my life."
"But you drop it as you come, I think, yes?" The man's eyes were levelled at her devouringly. Quick as thought he turned to Elas watching the scene. "Is it yours? I see it on the carpet, yes?"
The manager was prompt to take his cue.
"It's not mine," he said. "It must be yours, Miss McDonald. If it isn't I guess you'd best have it till we find its owner."
The girl smiled from one to the other.
"Thanks ever so much," she said, with frank pleasure. "I'll keep it till we find the owner. It's a lovely thing."
She took the glittering pen from the fleshy fingers holding it. And just for an instant her hand encountered the banker's. It was only for an instant, however. A moment later the door was closed carefully behind her by the man who had thought Elas crazy to employ a woman.
Elas Peterman was seated behind his desk again. His challenging smile was directed at the heavily breathing figure of the banker who had hurried back to his chair.
The great man laughed. It was a curious, unpleasant laugh. His heavy cheeks were flushed, and his eyes glittered curiously.
"You're a judge, Elas, my boy," he exclaimed, with clumsy geniality. "Oh, yes. But you are a young man. There is power in that young woman's eyes." He laughed again. "Oh, no, I think of the young woman. It not her capability is. See you look to your place in Skandinavia. Let her go. She may not buy this Sachigo as I think to buy it. She will buy the men we would drive from our path."
THE LONELY FIGURE
The girl was leaning against the storm-ripped bole of a fallen tree. The great figure of her companion was silhouetted against the brilliant sky-line. He was contemplating the distance at the brink of a sheer-cut ravine, which dropped away at his feet to giddying depths.
Nancy gazed out beyond him. For the moment he held no interest for her. She only had eyes for the splendid picture of Nature. They were on high ground, a great shoulder lifted them clear above their surroundings. Far as the eye could see was a lustreless green world of unbroken forest. It seemed to have neither beginning nor end. To the girl's imagination there could be no break in it until the eternal snows of the Arctic were reached.
The breadth of it all was a little overwhelming. Nancy was gazing upon just one portion of the Skandinavia's untouched forest limits, and somehow it left her with a feeling of protest.
She pointed with one gauntleted hand, stirred to an impulse she could not deny.
"It's too beautiful," she said. "It isn't fair: it's not right. To think it's all ours, and we have the right to destroy it."
The man turned. He gazed back at this unusual vision of a beautiful, well-gowned woman in the heart of the forests. He grinned ironically, this great, rough-bearded creature, in hard cord clothing, and with his well-worn fur cap pressed low over his lank hair that reached well-nigh to his shoulders.
"Why not?" he demanded roughly. "Oh, yes. It's Skandinavia's, every mile of it. An' I guess there's hundreds an' hundreds of 'em. Ain't that what Canada's forests are for? To feed us the stuff we're needin'? But you don't need to worry any. We ain't cuttin' that stuff for years. Guess the waterways out there are mostly a mean outfit that wouldn't raft a bunch of lucifers. We need to wait permanent railroad for haulage."
Nancy accepted the statement without reply. It was impossible to stir a man like Arden Laval to any sort of sympathy. He was hardened, crude, first, last and all the time. He was big and brutal. His limbs were like to the trees his men were accustomed to fell, and his hands reminded her of the hind limbs of the mutton. She felt he had a mind that matched his physical development.
Nancy McDonald was nearing the end of her third month of forest travel. The Shagaunty valley lay behind her, desolated by the fierce axe of the men who lived by their slaughter. She had seen it all. She had studied the re-afforestation which followed on the heels of the axemen. And the seeming puerility of this effort to salve the wounds inflicted upon Nature had filled her with pitying contempt.
She knew the whole process of the forest industry by heart now. It fascinated her. Oh, yes. It was picturesque, it was real, vital. The men on the river driving down to the booms had stirred her greatest admiration. These supermen with their muscles of iron, with the hearts of lions, and the tongues and habits of beasts of the forest. But they were men, wonderful men for all their savage crudity. So, too, with the transporters and freighters handling sixty-foot logs as though dealing with matchwood. But above all, and before all, the axemen made their appeal.
There was nothing comparable with the rough skill of these creatures. She had watched the flash and swing of the axe, with its edge like the finest razor. She had seen the standing muscles like whipcord writhing under sunburnt flesh as they served the lethal weapon. She had noted every blow, how it was calculated to a hair's-breadth, and fell without waste of one single ounce of power. And then the amazing result. The fallen tree stretched out on the exact spot and in the exact direction ready for the hauliers to bear straight away to the final transport station.
The summer days had been filled with vital interest. And at night, weary in body, Nancy still had time, lying in the amply, if crudely blanketed bed provided for her in some lumber-built shanty, to contemplate the lives of this strangely assorted race. She knew the pay of the forest men, from the haulier to the princely axeman and river-jack. She had seen their food, and their dwelling accommodation. She had heard such details as were possible of telling of their recreations, and had guessed the rest. And for all her admiration of their manhood she pitied, in her woman's way, and felt shame for the slavery of it all.
Oh, yes. She had no illusions. She was not weakly sentimental. She looked at it all with wide-open eyes. It was a well-paid animal life. It was a life of eating well, of sleeping well, of gambling, and drinking, and licence. But it was a life of such labour that only perfect physical creatures could face.
She felt that these folks were wage slaves in the crudest meaning of the words. There was nothing for them beyond their daily life, which was wholly animal. Of spirituality there was none. Of future there was none. Their leisure was given over to their pastimes, while ahead the future lay always threatening. Stiffening muscles, disease, age. The king of them all in his youth, in age would be abandoned and driven forth, weary in body, aching in limbs, a derelict in the ranks of the world's labour.
She was gravely impressed by the things she saw, by the men she met.
Her summer had been an education which had stirred feelings and sympathies almost unguessed. It was the father, she could scarcely remember, making himself known to her. For all the ambitions firing her, the long, fascinating days in the forests of the Shagaunty had taught her of the existence of an "underdog," who, in himself, was the foundation upon which the personal ambition of the more fortunate was achieved. Without him to support the whole edifice of civilisation must crash to the ground, and life would go back again to the bosom of that Nature from which it sprang.
Her realisation inspired her with an added desire. It was a desire coming straight from an honest, unsophisticated heart. She registered a vow that whithersoever her ambitions might lead her, she would always remember the "underdog," and work for his betterment and greater happiness.
"So you can only cut the stuff here within reach of our light haulage system?" Nancy demanded at last. "The rest's gone. The real big stuff, I mean, down below in the valley. We're just driven to the plateau where the cut looks to me more like one in twenty than any better?"
Arden Laval left his position at the brink of the ravine. He came back to the girl in her modish costume that seemed so out of place beside the rough clothing that Covered his body.
"Why, I guess that's so," he said. "Still, it's a deal better than one in twenty." He laughed. "Sure. If it wasn't the darn booms 'ud need to go hungry."
The man's French temperament left him more than appreciative of the beauty he beheld. But he was wondering. He was searching his shrewd mind for the real explanation of Nancy's presence in these forests. To him it was amazing that the Skandinavia should send this girl, this good-looker, on a journey through their forests alone. He would willingly have asked the question. But he remembered her written commission, signed by Elas Peterman. So he was left with no alternative but to yield the utmost respect.
"Y'see, mam," he went on easily. "I guess I could talk quite a piece on this thing, but maybe you won't fancy my dope. Skandinavia's been badly spoilt by the cut in the Shagaunty Valley. You've seen it all. Guess you've come right through. Well, that being so, you'll understand the Shagaunty cut's been far above average. Now we're down to average. That's all. That's how the Skandinavia's been spoilt."
He thrust his cap back from his forehead. It was a movement of irritation. Then he produced a plug of tobacco from his hip-pocket, and bit off a chew.
"I've been twenty odd years lumbering," he went on a moment later. "I've lumbered most every forest in Ontario and Quebec. There ain't more'n one bunch of plums like the Shagaunty. Mostly the forest's full of the sort of stuff we're handling here. These forests are average and I'd like to say to the Skandinavia, 'you've got to figger results on the average.' We're cutting down to the minimum because we've got to, to feed the booms right. Well, that's goin' on if I know my job. There's patch stuff better. I daresay there's new ground on our limits liable to hand us Shagaunty stuff. But that's just as I say, patch stuff, an' not average. If they want Shagaunty quality right through let 'em get out and get limits up on Labrador. I reckon there's a hundred years cutting up there that 'ud leave Shagaunty a bunch of weed grass. They say the folks out on the coast are worried to death there's so much stuff, an' so big, an' good, an' soft, an' long-fibred. The jacks out that way are up to the neck in a hell of a good time, sure. I get it they've time to sleep half the year, it's so easy. Well, it ain't that way here. We've no time singing hymns around this lay-out. It's hell, here, keeping the darn booms fed. Speakin' for my outfit I'd say they're a pretty bright lot of boys. What a feller can do they can do, I guess. But there are times I get mighty sick chasing to get even the minimum. An' it's all the time kick. The Skandinavia seems to have got a grouch about now you couldn't beat with a tank of rye whisky. You've seen it all as far as I can show you, mam, and I'd be glad to know if you're satisfied I've done the things you want. If I have, and you feel good about it, I'd be thankful if you'd report the way we're workin' this camp. And if you've a spare moment to talk other things, you might say that the boys of my camp are mighty hard put to get the stuff, and they're as tough a gang of jacks as ever heard tell of the dog's life of the forest."
The man spoke with the fluency of real protest. He somehow felt he was on his defence in the presence of this woman representative of his employers. This girl was not there enduring the discomforts of the forests for amusement. She came with authority, and she seemed to possess great understanding. Arden Laval knew his own value. His record was one of long service with his company. Furthermore, his outfit was trusted with the pioneering work of the forest where judgment and enterprise, and great experience were needed. He felt it was the moment to talk, and to talk straight to this woman with the red hair who had invaded his domain. So he gave full rope to his feelings.
It was some moments before the girl replied, and the man waited expectantly. He was studying the far-off gaze of the pretty hazel eyes, and wondering at the thought moving behind them. At length Nancy withdrew her gaze from the forest.
"I shall certainly report the things I've seen," she said with a smile that found prompt response in the man's dark eyes. "You've certainly done your best to show me, and tell me, the exact position. I shall make a point of reporting all that. Yes, I've seen it all, thank you very much."
Then her smile suddenly vanished. The shrewd gaze of commercial interest replaced it.
"But these Labrador folk?" she demanded. "Is that stuff just—hearsay?"
The man shook his head. He was feeling easier.
"It's God's truth, mam." He spat out a stream of tobacco juice. "I know them forests. Say," his eyes had lost their smile, "I don't guess I figger to know the business side of things, I don't calculate to know if the folks on Labrador work with, or against the Skandinavia. But I do know that if they're up against us they've got us plumb beat before we start. They got the sort of lumber the jacks dream about when they got their bellies full on a Saturday night, and they're going to wake up to find it Sunday mornin'. I'm just a lumberman, and if I hadn't fifteen years' record with the Skandinavia, and wasn't pouching two hundred and fifty bucks, and what I can make besides, a month, why, it 'ud be me for the coast where you can jamb the rivers in a three months' cut, and souse rye the rest of the year till the bugs look as big as mountains. Guess it's the summer rose garden of the lumber-jack, for all it's under snow eight months in the year, when you can't tell your guts from an iceflow, and the skitters, in summer, mostly reach the size of a gasoline tank. It's a dog's life, mam, lumberin' anywhere. But they're lap-dogs out that way."
The man's words brought the return of the girl's smile. "Yes, I spose it's—tough," she observed thoughtfully. Then quite suddenly she spread out her hands. "Oh, yes," she exclaimed, with a sudden vehemence, "it's worse than tough. It's hopeless. Utterly hopeless. I've seen it. I've watched it. I had to. I couldn't escape it. It's so desperately patent. But it's not the life as these folk live it. It's the future I'm thinking of. It's middle life and old age. These boys. They're wonders—now. How long does it last, and then—what happens? I'm here on business, hard business. But I guess this thing's got hold of me so I can't sometimes sleep at nights. Tell me about them."
Arden Laval, one of the hardest specimens of the lumber boss, turned away. His understanding of women was built up out of intimacy with the poor creatures who peopled the camps he knew. This girl's burst of feeling only stirred him to a cynical humour.
"Mam," he said, with a grin that was almost hateful, "if I was to start in to hand you the life history of a lumber-jack you'd feel like throwing up your kind heart, and any other old thing you hadn't use for in your stummick. But I guess I can say right here, a lumber-jack's a most disgustin' sort of vermin who hasn't more right than a louse to figger in your reckonin'. I guess he was born wrong, and he'll mostly die as he was born. And meanwhile he's lived a life that's mostly dirt, and no account anyway. There's a few things we ask of a lumber-jack, and if he fulfils 'em right he can go right on living. When he can't fulfil 'em, why, it's up to him to hit the trail for the pay box, an' get out. Guess you feel good when you see a boy swingin' an axe, or handlin' a peavy. Sure. That sort of thing don't come your way often. Neither does it come your way to see the rest. He's mostly a sink of filth in mind and body, and if he ain't all that at the start he gets it quick. He's a waster of God's pure air, and is mostly in his right surroundings when the forest does its best to hide him up from the eyes of the rest of the world. Guess he's the best man I know—dead."
For all his grin Arden Laval was in deadly earnest. Nancy stared at the broad back he had turned on her with his final word. And her indignation surged.
"I don't believe it," she cried. "I can't believe it. You're just talking out of years of experience of a life you've probably learned to hate. Man, if that's your opinion of your fellows, then it's you who ought never to leave the forest you claim does its best to hide up folk from the eyes of the rest of the world. You're a camp boss. You're our head man in these forests. You're trusted, and we know your skill. Well, it seems to me you've a duty that goes further than just feeding the booms right. You've a moral duty towards these men you condemn. You can help them. It should surely be your pride to lift them out of the desperate mire you claim they are floundering in. I'll not believe you mean it all."
The man turned away as a black-clothed figure emerged from the trees, and came to a stand at the brink of the ravine some hundred and more yards to the east of them. Nancy, too, beheld the lonely figure and she, too, became interested in its movements.
The lumber boss laughed shortly, roughly, and raised an arm, pointing as he turned a grinning face to the girl.
"See him, there?" he cried. "Say, mam, with all respect, I'd say to you, if you're feeling the way you talk, and look to get the sort of stuff you'd maybe fancy hearing, that's the guy you need to open out to. As you say, I'm the head camp-boss on the Skandinavia's limits. I've had nigh twenty years an' more experience of the lumber-jack. An' I'm tellin' you the things any camp-boss speakin' truth'll tell you. That's all, I don't hate the boys. I don't pity 'em. But I don't love 'em. They're just part of a machine to cut lumber, and it don't matter a hoot in hell to me what they are, or who they are, or what becomes of 'em. I ain't shepherdin' souls like that guy. It ain't in me, anyway. I just got to make good so that some day I ken quit these cursed forests and live easy the way I'd fancy. When that time comes maybe I'll change. Maybe I'll feel like that guy standin' doping over that spread of forest scene. I don't know. And just now I don't care—a curse."
But Nancy was no longer listening. The lonely, black-coated figure Laval had pointed out absorbed all her interest. His allusion to the man's calling had created in her an irresistible desire.
"Who is he? That man?" she demanded abruptly.
"Why, Father Adam," he replied. There was a curious softening in his harsh voice, which brought the girl's eyes swiftly back to him.
"Father Adam? A priest?" she questioned.
Laval shook his head. He had turned again, regarding the stranger. His face was hidden from the searching eyes of the girl.
"I just can't rightly say," he demurred. "Maybe he is, an' maybe he ain't. But," he added reflectively "he's just one hell of a good man. Makes me laff sometimes. Sometimes it makes me want to cry like a kid when I think of the things he's up against. He's out for the boys. He's out to hand 'em dope to make 'em better. Oh, it ain't Sunday School dope. No. He's the kind o' missioner who does things. He don't tell 'em they're a bum lot o' toughs who oughter to be in penitentiary. But he makes 'em feel that way—the way he acts. He's just a lone creature, sort of livin' in twilight, who comes along, an' we don't know when he's comin'. He passes out like a shadow in the forests, an' we don't see him again till he fancies. He's after the boys the whole darn time. It don't matter if they're sick in body or mind. He helps 'em the way he knows. An', mam, they just love him to death. There's just one man in these forests I wouldn't dare blaspheme, if I felt like it—which I don't. No, mam, my life wouldn't be worth a two seconds buy if I blasphemed—Father Adam. He's one of God's good men, an' I'd be mighty thankful to be like him—some. Gee, and I owe him a piece myself."
Nancy's interest was consuming.
"Why, only he jumped in once when I was being scrapped to death. He jumped right in, when he looked like gettin' killed for it. And," he laughed cynically, "he gave me a few more years of the dog's life of the forest."
The girl moved away from her support.
"I want to thank you, Mr. Laval, for the trouble you've taken, and the time you've given up to me." The hazel eyes were smiling up into the man's hard face. "I don't agree with some of the things you've just been telling me; I should hate to, anyway. I don't even believe you feel the way you say about your men. Still, that's no account in the matters I came about. The things I've got to say when I get back are all to your credit. I'm going over now to talk to—Father Adam. And you needn't come along with me. You see, you've fired my curiosity. Yes, I want to hear the stuff I fancy about the—boys. So I'll go and talk to your—shepherd of souls. Good-bye."
Nancy's eyes were bright and smiling as she gazed up into the lean, ascetic face of the man in the black, semi-clerical coat. His garments were worn and almost threadbare. At close quarters she realised an even deeper interest in the man whose presence had wrought such a magical change in the harsh tones of the camp-boss. He was in the heyday of middle life, surely. His hair was long and black. His beard was of a similar hue, and it covered his mouth and chin in a long, but patchy mass. His eyes were keen but gentle. They, too, were very dark, and the whole cast of his pale face was curiously reminiscent.
"I just had to come along over, sir," she said. "I was with Mr. Laval, and he told me of the work—the great work you do in these camps. Maybe you'll forgive me intruding. But you see, I've come from our headquarters on business, and the folk of these camps interest me. I kind of feel the life the boys live around these forests is a pretty mean life. There's nothing much to it but work. And it seems to me that those employing them ought to be made to realise they've a greater responsibility than just handing them out a wage for work done. So when I saw you come out of the forest and stand here, and Mr. Laval told me about you, I made up my mind right away to come along and—speak to you. My name's McDonald—Nancy McDonald."
It was all a little hasty, a little timidly spoken. The dark eyes thoughtfully regarding the wonder of red hair under the close fitting hat were disconcerting, for all there was cordiality in their depths.
At Nancy's mention of her name, Father Adam instantly averted his gaze, and dropped the hand which he had taken possession of in greeting. It was almost as if the pronouncement had caused him to start. But the change, the movement, were unobserved by the girl.
"And you are—Father Adam?" she asked.
The man's gaze came quickly back.
"That's how I'm known. It—was kind of you to come along over."
In a moment all the girl's timidity was gone. If the man had been startled when she had announced her name, he displayed perfect ease now.
"Do you know," Nancy went on, with a happy laugh, "I almost got mad with Laval for his cynicism at the expense of the poor boys who work under his orders. But I think I understand him. He's a product of a life that moulds in pretty harsh form. He doesn't mean half he says."
"I'd say few of us do—when we let our feelings go." Father Adam smiled back into the eyes which seemed to hold him fascinated. "You see, Laval's much what we all are. He's got a tough job to put through, and he does his utmost. He's a big man, a brave man, a—yes, perhaps—a harsh man. But he couldn't do his job as he's paid to do it if he weren't all those things." He shook his head. "No, I guess we can't play with fire long without getting a heap of scars." He shrugged. "But after all I suppose it's just—life. We've got to eat, and we want to live. We don't need to judge too harshly."
"No. That's how I feel about the boys—he so condemned."
The girl turned away gazing pensively over the forest. Father Adam was free to regard her without restraint. With her turning the whole expression of his eyes had changed. Incredulous amazement had replaced his smiling ease.
"Would you care to come along through the woods to my shanty, Miss McDonald?" he said, almost diffidently, at last. "Maybe I've a cup of coffee there. And I'd say coffee's the most welcome thing on earth in these forests. It's a pretty humble shanty but, if you feel like talking things, why, I guess we can sit around there awhile."
The girl snatched at the invitation.
"I was just hoping you'd say something that way," she laughed readily. "I'd give worlds for a cup of coffee, and I guess the folks in the forests of Quebec know more about coffee in half a second than we city folk know in a year. Which way?"
"It's only a few yards. You'd best follow me."
* * * * *
The girl stood amazed. She was even horrified. She was gazing in through the opening of the merest shelter, a shelter built of green boughs with roof and sides of interlaced foliage. True it was densely interlaced, but no sort of distorted imagination could have translated the result into anything but a shelter. Habitation was out of the question. She stared at the primitive, less than aboriginal home, of the priestly man. She stared round her at the undergrowth upon which were spread his brown coarse blankets airing. She looked down at the smouldering fire between two granite stones upon which a tin of coffee was simmering and emitting its pleasant aroma upon the woodland air. It was too crude, too utterly lacking in comfort and even the bare necessites of existence.
The man emerged from the interior bearing two enamelled tin cups. He realised the amazement with which Nancy was regarding his home, and shook his head with a pleasant laugh as he indicated two upturned boxes beside the fire.
"You'd best sit, and I'll tell you about it," he said. "It's not exactly a swell hotel, is it? But it's sufficient."
The girl silently took her seat on one of the boxes. Father Adam took the other. Then he poured out two cups of coffee, and passed a tin of preserved milk across to the girl. There was a spoon in it. After that he produced a small tin of sugar and offered that.
"You see, it's all I need," he said, in simple explanation. "When the rain comes I mostly get wet, except at nights when I get under my rubber sheet. But, anyway, there's plenty of sun to dry me. Oh, winter's different. I cut out a dug-out then, and burrow like the rest of the forest creatures. But, you see, this thing suits me well. I'm never long in one place. I've been here two weeks, and I pull out to-morrow."
"You pull out? Where to?"
"Why, I just pass on to some other camp. The boys are pretty widely scattered in these forests. You'd never guess the distances I sometimes make. Even Labrador. But it doesn't much matter. I've a good smattering of physic, and the boys are always getting hurt one way and another. I'd hate to feel I couldn't go to them wherever they are. Maybe if I built a better house I'd not want to leave it. It would be hard getting on the move. You see, I get their call any old time. Maybe it comes along on the forest breezes," he said whimsically. "Then I have to be quick to locate it, and read it right."
The girl had helped herself to milk and sugar, and sipped the steaming coffee. But she was listening with all her ears and thinking feverishly. This strange creature, with his deprecating manner, and smiling, sane eyes, filled her with a sense of shame at his utter selflessness.
"You mean they—always want help?"
"Sure. Same as we all do."
Father Adam sipped his coffee appreciatively.
"But tell me," he said. "It's kind of new the Skandinavia sending a woman along up here. It's your first trip?"
Nancy set her cup down.
"They're a great firm," Father Adam went on, reflectively. "I mean the—extent of their operations."
"I like the distinction. Yes, they're big. You don't like their—methods?"
It was the man's turn for a smiling retort.
"Their methods?" he shook his head. "I don't know, I guess they pay well. And their boys are no worse treated than in other camps. They employ thousands. And that's all to the good."
"But you don't like them," Nancy persisted. "I can hear it in your voice. It's in your smile. Few people like the Skandinavia," she added regretfully.
Like a shot the challenge came, and Nancy found herself replying almost before she was aware of it.
"Yes. Why shouldn't I? They've been good to me. More than good, when those who had a right to be completely deserted me. No. I mustn't say just that," she hurried on in some contrition. "They provided for me, but cut me out of their lives. Maybe you won't understand what that means to a girl. It meant so much to me that I wouldn't accept their charity. I wouldn't accept a thing. I'd make my own way with the small powers Providence handed me. So I went to the Skandinavia who have only shown me the best of kindness. Well, I'm frankly out for the Skandinavia and all their schemes and methods in consequence. It's not for me to look into the things that make folks hate them. That's theirs. My loyalty and gratitude are all for them for the thing they've done for me. Isn't that right?"
"Surely," the man concurred. "But your coffee. It's getting cold," he added.
Nancy hastily picked up her cup.
"Why am I telling you all this?" she laughed. "We were going to talk of the—boys."
"We surely were." Father Adam laughed responsively. "But personal interest I guess doesn't figure to be denied for long. We sort of get the notion we can shut it out. But we can't. We try to guess there's other things. Things more important. Things that matter a whole lot more." He shook his head. "It's no use. There aren't. I guess it doesn't matter where we look. Self's pushing out at every angle, and won't be denied. It would be hypocrisy to deny it, wouldn't it? It's the biggest thing in life. It's the whole thing."
"And it's such a pity," Nancy agreed slyly. "Just think," she went on, "I've got a hundred notions for the good of the world. These boys for instance. I'd like to make their lives what they ought to be. Full of comfort and security and—and everything to make it worth while. Instead of that my first and whole concern is to make good for Nancy McDonald. To do all those things for her. It's dreadful when you think of it, isn't it?" She sighed. "I want to do good to the—the 'underdog,' and all the time I'm planning for myself. I want to fight all the time for those who hold opportunity out to me. It doesn't really matter to me why the Skandinavia is disliked. They give me opportunity. I reckon they've been good to me. So I'm their slave to fight for them, and work for them, whatever their methods. Yes. It's too bad," she laughed frankly. "I can't deny it. I'd like to, but—I can't."
Father Adam set down his empty cup, and sat with his arms resting on his parted knees. His hands were clasped.
"You remind me of someone," he said, in his simple disarming fashion. "Queerly enough it's a man. A strong, hard, kindly, good-natured man. I found him without a thought but to make good. And I knew he would make good. Then it came my way to show him how. I offered him a notion. The notion was fine. Oh, yes—though I say it. It was the sort of thing if it were carried to success would hand the fellow working it down to posterity as one of his country's benefactors. The notion appealed to him. It stirred something in him, and set fire to his enthusiasm. He jumped for it. Why? Was it the thought of doing a great act for his country? Was it for that something that was all good stirring in him? No. I guess it was because he was a strong, physical, and spiritual, and mental force concentrated on big things, primarily inspired by Self. Personal achievement. It seems to me the good man always does what's real and worth while in the way of helping himself."
"Yes. I think I understand." The girl nodded. "And this strong physical, and spiritual, and mental force? Have I heard of him? Is he known? Has he achieved?"
"He's carrying on. Oh, yes." Father Adam paused. Then he went on quickly. "You don't know him yet. But I think you will. He's out on the coast of Labrador. He's driving his great purpose with all his force through the agency of a groundwood mill that would fill your Skandinavia folk with envy and alarm if they saw it. He's master of forests such as would break your heart when compared with these of your Skandinavia. His name's Sternford. Bull Sternford, of Sachigo."
At the mention of Sachigo, Nancy's eyes widened. Then she laughed. It was a laugh of real amusement.
"Why, that's queer. It's—I'm going right on there from here. I'm going to meet this very man, Sternford. They tell me I've just time to get there and pull out again for home before winter freezes them up solid. So he is this great man, with this great—notion. Tell me, what is he like?"
"Oh, he's a big, strong man, as ready to laugh as to fight."
Father Adam smiled, and stooped over the fire to push the attenuated sticks of it together.
"May I ask why you're going to Sachigo?" he asked, without looking up.
Just for a moment Nancy hesitated. Then she laughed happily.
"I don't see why you shouldn't," she cried. "There's no secret. Skandinavia intends to buy him, or crush him."
The man sat up.
"And you—a girl—are the emissary?"
Incredulity robbed the man of the even calmness of' his manner.
"Yes. Why not?"
The challenge in the girls's eyes was unmistakable.
"You won't buy him," Father Adam said quietly. "And you certainly won't crush him."
"Because I'm a girl?"
"Oh, no. I was thinking of the Skandinavia." The man shook his head. "If I'm a judge of men, the crushing will be done from the other end of the line."
"This man will crush Skandinavia?"
The idea that Skandinavia could be crushed was quite unthinkable to Nancy. It was the great monopoly of the country. It was—but she felt that this lonely creature could have no real understanding of the power of her people.
"Surely," he returned quietly. "But that," he added, with a return of his pleasant smile, "is just the notion of one man. I should say it's no real account. Yes, you go there. You see this man. The battle of your people with him matters little. It will be good for you to see him. It—may help you. Who can tell? He's a white man, and a fighter. He's honest and clean. It's—in the meeting of kindred spirits that the great events of life are brought about. It should be good for you both."
"I wonder?" Nancy rose from her chair.
The man rose also.
"I think so," he said, very decidedly.
The girl laughed.
"I hope so. But—" She held out her hand. "Thank you, Father," she said. "I'll never be able to think of the things I'm set on achieving without remembering our talk—and the man I met in the forest. I wish—but what's the use? I've got to make good. I must. I must go on, and—do the thing I see. Good-bye."
Father Adam was holding the small gauntleted hand, and he seemed loth to release it. His eyes were very gentle, very earnest.
"Don't worry to remember, child. Don't ever think about—this time. It won't help you. You've set your goal. Make it. You will do the good things you fancy to do, though maybe not the way you think them. It seems to me that 'good' mostly has its own way all the time. You can't drive it. And the best of it is I don't think there's a human creature so bad in this world, but that in some way God's work has been furthered through his life. Good-bye."