About the houses there were others engaged in homely chores. There were men, and women, too, clad heavily in the thick sheepskin clothing which alone could defeat the fierce breath of winter. Here again was silence and gloom, and even the children refrained from their accustomed pastimes.
A tall, fur-clad figure was moving through the settlement. His feet were encased in moccasins, and thick felt leggings reached up just below his knees. For the rest his nether garments were loose fur trousers, and his body was covered by a tunic reaching just below his middle, with a capacious hood attached to it almost completely enveloping his head.
He moved slowly and without any seeming object. He passed along, and paused when he encountered either man, woman, or child. With the men he spoke longest. But the women claimed him, too. And generally he left behind him a change of expression for the better in those with whom he talked.
He paused beside a small party of elderly men. They were at work upon a prone tree trunk of vast girth. They were cutting and splitting it, fresh feed for the fires which must never be permitted to die down.
The men had ceased work on his approach. But they went on almost immediately, all except one. He was a grizzled veteran, a man just past middle life. His face was deeply lined, and a scrub of whisker protected it from the cold. He had been seated on the log, but he stood up as the tall man addressed him by name.
"You'll be there, Michael," he said, brushing the frost from his darkly whiskered face, and breaking the icicles hanging from his fur hood where it almost closed over his mouth.
The man's grey eyes were smiling as they looked into the wide black eyes so mildly encouraging.
"Sure, Father," came his prompt reply. "We got to be ther' anyway. That don't matter. But we're for your lead, an' we'll stand by it, sure. There's going to be no sort of damn fool mistake this time."
The tall man nodded.
"There must be no mistake this time," he said keenly. "Say, how many years is it since I sent you along here with a promise of good work and better wages, and a square deal?"
"Nigh five years, Father."
"And you got all—those things?"
Father Adam nodded.
"And those are the things a man's entitled to. Just those," he said. "If a man wants more it's up to him. He must earn it in competition with the rest of his fellows. If he can't earn it he must do without, or quit the honesty that entitles him to hold his head up in the world. There's no honesty in the things these men propose."
"That's so, Father."
There was decision in the man's agreement. But even as he spoke his gaze wandered in the direction of two small children, like bundles of fur, playing in the snow.
"Poor little kids," he said. "Say, it's hell for them with heat cut off."
Again the tall man nodded as he followed the other's gaze.
"That's so. But I don't blame the mill-bosses. This gang is trying to steal from the men who've always handed out a straight deal. Do you blame them for defending themselves?"
Michael shook his head.
"I don't see I can. After all—"
"No. Listen. You boys have it in your own hands. These crooks from the Skandinavia got a strangle holt on the youngsters of this outfit who've no kiddies like those. You older boys let 'em get it. You weren't awake. Now you find yourselves caught in the tide. We've got to make a break for it. There'll be heat in plenty when you break free. Seven o'clock. That's the time your masters ordered the meeting for. Seven o'clock. That's the time they intend to commit their great crime—with you helping them."
Father Adam smiled as he drove his satire home.
"Not on your life!" The man's grey eyes were fierce. "Give us the lead, Father," he cried. "We—we just got to have that. Ther' ain't a real lumber-jack in these forests won't follow it. It'll be a scrap. A hell of a scrap. Oh, I know. Maybe some of us'll never see the light of another day. But sure it's got to be. We ought to've gone over from the start, and stood by our jobs. But I guess none of us with wives and kiddies had the guts. They threatened our women and children, an' we weakened. But it's different now, sure. We've learned our lesson. It's themselves they're out for, an' we'll be their dogs to be kicked and bullied as they see fit. We'll follow your lead, Father, an' it don't matter a cuss when the scrap comes."
Father Adam nodded. His dark eyes were alight with something more than the smile shining in them.
"Good," he said. "I shall be there."
He moved away and Michael rejoined his companions. They talked together for a moment or two while their eyes followed the receding figure. They saw it stop and speak to one of their wives. She had a small child with her. They saw it bend down into a squatting attitude and draw the child towards it. Then they saw a lean hand draw out of its mit and proceed to touch a swelling on the little mite's neck. They understood. And when the figure finally passed on out of sight, they returned to their work, each man absorbed in his own thought, each man with a surge of deep feeling for that lonely figure. For they were all men who knew, and understood the man who lived in the twilight of the forests.
* * * * *
The recreation room was packed to suffocation, packed from end to end with a human freight. The benches were crowded, and the tables groaned under the weight of as many rough-clad creatures as could crowd themselves thereon. Every inch of floor space was occupied, and even the recesses in the log walls which contained the windows were utilised as sitting places for the audience which had gathered at the imperative order of the Soviet of the Workers.
Kerosene lamps had replaced the brilliant electric light to which the men were accustomed. A haze of tobacco smoke created a sort of fog throughout the length of the building, and contrived to soften the harsh lines of the sea of human faces turned towards the raised platform whereon sat the members of the ruling Soviet. The temperature of the room was cold for all the warming influence of the human gathering, and every man wore his fur-lined pea-jacket closely buttoned.
Once, in a light moment, Bull Sternford had declared that male human nature in the "bunch" was the ugliest thing in the world. Had he witnessed that sea of faces, so intently, so anxiously turned towards the leaders they had presumably elected, he must have been well satisfied with the truth of his conviction.
Such was the ascendancy and power the Bolshevist leaders had gained in the brief month since the first rumble of industrial war had been heard in Sachigo, that there were few who had failed to obey their summons. Not only was the hall crowded but a gathering of many hundreds waited outside. It was the hour of Fate for all. They understood that. It was the hour of that Fate which had been decreed by men, who, under the guise of democratic selection had usurped a power over the rest of the community such as no elected parliament of the world had ever been entrusted with.
It was doubtful if the majority fully realised the significance of what was being done. It is certain that a feeling of deep regret stirred voicelessly in many hearts. But every man there was a simple wage earner whose horizon was bounded by that which his wage opened up. For the rest he was left guessing, but more often fearing. So, with his muscles of iron, his human desires, and his reluctance to apply such untrained reasoning as he possessed, he was ripe subject for fluent, unscrupulous, political agitators, and ready to sweep along with any tide that set in.
The leaders on the platform understood this well enough. It was their business to understand it. The others, the leaders' immediate supporters, were men of fiery youth, or those whose work it was to wreck at all costs, and snatch to themselves, in addition to pay for their fell work, such loot as the wreckage afforded them.
The hum of talk snuffed right out as the leader rose to address the meeting. It was Leo Murko, the same man, a hard-faced, foreign-looking Hebrew whom a month before Bull's great arms flung through the broken window into the snowdrift beyond. His position now, however, was far different from that which it had been when his endeavours had been concentrated upon enrolling a Communist following. All that had been achieved or sufficiently so. Now he was the dictator whose orders could be backed by an irresistible force. His whole manner had changed. The velvet glove of persuasion had been discarded, and he hurled his commands with deep-throated authority, and the smile of encouragement and persuasion was completely abandoned.
His preliminary was brief. A phrase or two of flattery and acknowledgment to those on the platform supporting him dismissed that. Then he passed on to the objects in view. In five minutes he had dismissed also the ultimate destiny of the mills, and the manner in which the Workers were to benefit by its administration. Then he flung himself into a fiery denunciation of all capitalists, and particularly those who had dared to employ his audience on good wages for something like fifteen years. That completed he passed on to the plans for taking over the mills forthwith.
During the earlier part of his address the audience listened with grave attention. Here and there little outbursts of applause punctuated his sentences. But when he came to the task which had been set for that night a deathly silence prevailed everywhere. The intensity was added to rather than broken by the harsh clearing of throats that came from almost every part of the hall.
"The whole thing needs cleaning up before daylight," he hurled at them. "Our organisation is complete. Here," and he indicated the table nearby littered with papers and surrounded by four or five men who were members of the elected Soviet, "we have the lists of the names of every comrade, and the numbers of men to be used in every detail of the work before us. They have been carefully drawn up with a view to the task required to be put through. Some tasks will be simple. Some will be less so." A grim light that was almost a smile shone in his black eyes. "But we have carefully discriminated in our personnel. That is as it should be. There will be certain bloodshed. Knowing the temperament and preparations of your late masters this seems to be inevitable. But again we have provided. Our greatest and most important task is the possession of the power station, and for the capture of that we have machine guns which will quickly reduce the enemy to capitulation. The strength of the enemy we know to the last fraction—"
The challenge came from the back of the hall. It came in a quiet, refined voice that swept through the hall with the cold cut of a knife. Someone had risen from a sitting position on a table. He stood up. It was the tall, dark figure of Father Adam clad in a garment which enveloped him from head to foot like the black cassock of a priest.
"Do you?" he cried again, as the startled leader stared stupidly at the interrupter.
Every eye turned to the back of the hall on the instant. The men on the platform looked up from their work to witness the daring of one who could interrupt the elected leader of the people. One man, slight, foreign-looking, who had been seated at the back of the platform stood up and leant against the wall.
"You know nothing of these people you are determined to destroy with machine guns," Father Adam went on. "You know nothing of the men with whom you are dealing, either the owners of the mill, or the men who have found an ample livelihood under their organisation. How can you know them? You are dastardly agents of an alien company, sent and paid to wreck a wholly Canadian enterprise. This is your first object. Your second is even more sinister, for you are the agents of that mad Leninism which has destroyed a whole race of workers in a vast country like Russia. You are a supreme pestilence seeking to destroy such human nature as will listen to your vile doctrines. It is I, I, Father Adam, tell you so. The men here to-night, whom you are inciting to theft and brutal murder, know me. They know me as their servant, as their loyal comrade and helper, ready to answer their call when trouble overtakes them, ready to yield them of my best service in the day of prosperity or the night of their woe. And as it is with them so it is with their women and their babes. That's the reason I am here to-night, the black night of their woe. And so I ask them to listen to me now as they have listened many times before in the woods and the mills, which is the world to which we all belong. If they do that, if only reason asserts itself, they'll here and now turn on you, and rend you, you and your wretched gang. They'll cast you out of their midst, and fling off a foreign yoke, as they would cast out any other unclean pestilence for the purification of their homes. They'll pack you out into the northern night where no foul germs can exist. Are they to become thieves at your bidding? Are they to become murderers because your foreign money has bought them machine guns? Would they go back to their women, and their innocent babes, wiping their blood-stained hands to ask them to rejoice in the brutal crime committed in the name of brotherhood and fellowship? No, sir. I know them. You don't—"
The Bolshevist flung out a denouncing hand and bellowed in his seething wrath:
"Traitor! He is of the Cap—"
But immediate uproar drowned his denunciation and a great voice shouted in the din.
"Let him speak."
A dozen other voices strove to make themselves heard, and a wild pandemonium was rising when clear and sharp Father Adam's voice rang out again above it.
"I tell you they'll have no more of you," he cried as the leader dropped back to his seat, and the dark man at the back of the platform further bestirred himself. "Order them now to man your machine guns and murder the men in the power house! Give your orders here and now! Read out your list of names and see—"
A shot rang out. The flame of a gun leapt somewhere at the back of the platform, to be followed by complete, utter silence.
Then came a sound. It was a hardly-suppressed moan. Father Adam reeled slowly. He half turned about. Then he crumpled and dropped to his knees and fell forward into hands outstretched to catch him.
Paralysis seemed to grip that dense-packed human throng. But it was only for a second. Then the avalanche leapt for the abyss.
"Father! Father Adam!"
The cry went up seemingly from a thousand throats. And with a roar the crowd surged forward. It hurled itself at the platform.
* * * * *
Bull stared up at the house. He moved away and glanced over the windows. Then his eyes turned to the valley below, and his gaze settled itself on the great fires burning on the northern foreshore of the Cove.
For some moments he stood contemplating the thing he beheld. Then, at last, he turned back to the locked door of his office. Without a word he raised one foot, and, with all his force, crashed its sole against the lock.
The lock gave and the door fell back into the pitch darkness beyond. He passed within. After a while a light appeared in the office window. It passed. Then it reappeared in each window of the building in succession. Presently it remained stationary and fresh lights appeared in several of the windows. Minutes later he reappeared in the doorway.
He stepped out into the snow and came over to the waiting dog train.
"It's a cold sort of welcome," he said quietly. "But—will you please come right in, and I'll see how I can fix you up for comfort. I guess things have happened since I've been away. They've turned off heat. However—"
Nancy McDonald rose from her place in the sled. She flung back the wealth of furs under which she had been well-nigh buried and stepped out. She made no reply, but stood waiting while Bull gave orders to his driver.
"Get those dogs fixed, Gouter," he said. "Then come right along back here. You'll need to gather fuel and set those stoves going."
* * * * *
A great fire was roaring in the wood stove in the office. Nancy and Bull were standing before it seeking to drive out the cold which seemed to have eaten into their bones. Bull had drawn up his own rocker-chair for the girl but she had not availed herself of it.
"You are not going to keep me here, prisoner in—your house?"
The girl spoke in a low, hushed tone. In the indifferent lamp-light she looked ghastly pale and utterly weary-eyed. She had removed her furs, revealing herself clad in the heavy clothing which alone could have served on her desperate journey through the camps. It robbed her figure of much of its usual grace.
"I'm afraid I am." Bull smiled gently, for all the decision of his words. "You see, Nancy, we're still at war. Still fighting the battle that others have forced on us."
Nancy inclined her head.
"I'd forgotten," she said almost humbly. "But you have no women folk around you," she went on urgently a moment later. "Does war mean that—that I must submit even—to that?"
It was the woman in her that had taken alarm. Her hands were pressed together as she held them over the stove. The man understood. She moved away to the window, over which the curtains had not been drawn, and Bull watched her.
"Every respect will be paid you," he said. "You've nothing to fear. When Gouter returns he'll get food, and we'll make the best preparations we can. I've to consider others with more at stake than even I."
The girl had turned. Her eyes were wide with terror. She was pointing at the window, and Bull hurried to her side.
A great fire was raging on the north shore of the Cove. It was the recreation room, that room which Bat had so bitterly come to hate. It was ablaze from end to end, and lit up its neighbourhood so that the scene was of daylight clearness. A horde of human figures were gathered about it, in a struggling, seething mass, and the man realised that a battle was raging, a human battle, whilst the demon of fire was left to work its will.
He stood there, held speechless by the thing he beheld.
"What is it? What does it mean?"
Panic drove the questions to the girl's lips. And she turned in an agony of appeal to the man beside her.
"It means the work of the Skandinavia has been well and truly done."
The hush of dawn was unbroken. The shadows of night receded slowly, reluctantly renouncing their long reign in favour of the brief winter daylight. The shores of the Cove lay hidden under a haze of fog.
There were no sounds of life. The world was desperately still. No cry of wild fowl rose to greet the day. There was not even the doleful cry of belated wolf, or the snapping bark of foraging coyote to indicate those conditions of life which never change in the northern wilderness. It was as if the world of snow and ice were waking to a day of complete mourning, a day of bitter reckoning for the tumult of furious human passions, which, under the cloak of night, had been loosed to work the evil of men's will.
With the first gleam of the rising sun a breeze leapt out of the east. It came with an edge like the keenest knife, and ripped the fog to ribbons. It churned and tangled it. Then it flung it clear of its path, leaving bare the scene of wreckage which the rage of battle had produced.
It was a scene for pity and regret. Gone was the building which had been set up for the workers' recreation. Only a smoking ruin remained in its place. A dozen other buildings in the neighbourhood bore the scars of fire, which they would doubtless carry for all time of their service. The mill, however, was safe. The work of more than fifteen years remaining intact. But it had been so near, so very near to complete destruction.
With the passing of the fog further disaster was revealed. It was the wreck of human life which the night had produced. Daylight had made it possible to deal with the injured and those beyond all human aid. And the work was going forward in the almost voiceless fashion which the presence of death ever imposes on the living.
Viewed even from a distance there could be no mistaking the meaning, the hideous significance of it all. And Nancy, gazing from a window in the house on the hill, shrank in terror before that which she believed to be the result of the cruel work to which she had lent herself.
It had been a dreary, heartbreaking night of sleepless watching and poignant feeling. Nancy was alone in her prison, a beautiful apartment, the best in the house. Bull Sternford had conducted her thither personally, and, in doing so, had told her the thing he was doing, and of his real desire to save her unnecessary distress.
"You see," he had explained, with a gentleness which Nancy felt she had no right to expect, "there's just about the best of everything right here. It's as it was left by the feller who designed and decorated it for the woman he loved better than anything in life. No one's ever used it since. I'd be glad for you to have it. We've only a Chink servant to wait around on us, and a rough choreman, and I guess they don't know a thing about fixing things for a woman. But they've kept it clean and wholesome, and that's all I can say. Can you make out in it to-night?"
He smiled. Then his steady eyes had turned away to the window where the light of the raging fire could be seen. And after a moment he went on.
"You're a prisoner. I can't help that. That's got to be. But no lock or bolt will be set to keep you here. You're free to come and go as you choose. You can make the doors of the room fast against intrusion, if you feel that way. But there'll be none. To-night you'll just be dead alone in the place. You see, I've got to get out and pull my weight down there."
So he had left her. He had left her to a punishment more desperate than anything he could have designed. Her windows looked out over the mill. And a subtle force attracted her thereto, and held her sleepless and despairing the whole night long. She had been forced to sit there watching the tragedy being enacted. A tragedy with which she knew she was connected, and for which, in her exaggerated self-condemnation, she believed herself responsible.
The agony of that prolonged vigil would never be forgotten. Fascinated, dreading, every act of it seared the girl's soul as with a red hot brand. It was the Skandinavia's work. The agents of the Skandinavia. And she knew that she, perhaps, was their principal agent. The rattle of machine guns. The human slaughter. She had witnessed the terror of it all in the fierce light of the conflagration which looked to be devouring the whole world of the mills. She could never forget it. She could never forgive herself her share in the ghastly plans for that hideous destruction. But more than all she knew she could never forgive, or again associate herself with those who had designed the inhuman work of it all and plunged her into the maelstrom of its execution.
Now, in the daylight, she was still at the window. There was no relief. On the contrary. With the smoke cleared from the smouldering ruins she saw the full extent of the wreckage. It was sprawling everywhere, human and material. An army of men, it seemed, was searching the battlefield. It was searching and collecting amongst the ruins. And she watched the bearing away on improvised stretchers, of still, helpless, human burdens which none could mistake. She could bear no more of it. She shut out the sight and fled from the window, covering her eyes with her hands.
But she was recalled almost instantly. The sound of men's rough voices startled her. Whence came the sound she could not judge. But it seemed to her it was from somewhere outside. So she stealthily peered out. It was a small group of fur-clad figures. They were approaching the house over the snowy trail that came up from the mill.
New terror leapt. They were supporting a prone, human body! They were bringing it up to the house! Who—who could they be bringing up to that house, which was the home and the office of the master of the mill? In that supreme moment all that which had gone before was completely forgotten. She stood clutching at the window casing, in a desperate effort to steady herself.
She knew. Oh, yes, it could be no other. It must be Bull Sternford they were bringing up. Bull Sternford—the man who—The agents of the Skandinavia had done him to death! The agents of the Skandinavia!
* * * * *
Bat Harker was standing at the window of the office on the hill. His hard, grey eyes were searching the distance below, and his square jaws were busy on their usual occupation. Bull was sitting in a rocker-chair. He was leaning forward, gazing down at the thickly carpeted floor, and his hands were clasped between his outspread knees. Both men were dishevelled. Their clothing was stained, and their hands and faces were begrimed as a result of the fierce work of the night.
Bat suddenly turned from his silent scrutiny.
"He'll pull around? You think so?" he demanded.
There was an appeal in his harsh voice such as Bull had never heard in it before, and he looked up with a start.
"That's how Jason reckoned," he said.
"Oh, to hell with Jason!" Bat's retort was fiercely uncompromising. "Who's Jason anyway? A medical student who hadn't the guts for his job. Leastways he got on the crook. It's the thing you reckon I want to know."
"I reckon he'll pull around," Bull returned quietly. Then he stirred wearily. "But you're hard on young Jason, Bat. He's bright enough. I like the way he handles his job. And anyway he's the only feller around this layout with any knowledge of a sick man. He's qualified you know. He wasn't just a student. He practised before he went down and out and took to the forests. We've got to rely on him till we get a man up from Montreal, which won't be for weeks. He'll be through along from fixing him in a while. Then we can hear the thing he's got to say. Maybe we'll be able to judge better then."
"I wired Montreal," Bat said sharply.
The lumberman turned again to his window, and Bull continued to regard the carpet which had no interest for him. Both were weary, utterly weary in body as well as mind.
It was full, broad daylight now, with the low, northern sun gleaming athwart the scene which these men had so recently left. They were conscious of the victory gained. They rejoiced in the complete defeat of an enemy who had come so near to defeating all their plans. But the cost appalled them. They had both faced the play of machine guns. They had seen their men fall to the scythe-like mowing of a cruel weapon of which its victims had no understanding. Then, when the machine guns had been silenced, they had witnessed the rage with which these hard-living jacks had meted out their ideas of just punishment upon the murderers of their comrades.
The wanton inhumanity of the whole thing had sickened them both. Both knew and were indifferent to the roughness of the fierce northland. But the ordeal through which they had passed was something far beyond the darkest vision of conflict they had ever contemplated.
Neither had been present to witness the shooting of Father Adam. But both had been there within minutes of the beginning of the battle which it had started. From the power house Bat had discovered the thing happening, just as Bull had seen from the window of his office the leaping flames which had threatened the mill. It had been largely due to their timely leadership that ultimate victory had been snatched. But the work of it had been terrible.
Now they had returned to their quarters, their night's work completed. Down below comrade was attending to comrade in such fashion as lay to hand, and those beyond earthly aid were being disposed to their last rest. Thus these men had been left free to succour the wounded creature whose timely lead had made possible the defeat that had been inflicted.
Bat had but one concern just now. Father Adam. The man whose secret he held. The man who counted for everything in his rugged life. He raised his blood-shot eyes to his companion's face.
"If—Father Adam—passes, I'm done with Sachigo, Bull," he declared almost desperately. "It 'ud break me to death. You can't know the thing that feller means to me. You know him for the sort of missioner all these folks guess he is. That's how he'd have you know him. And it goes with me all the time. But I know him just as he is."
Bull nodded. He made no reply. He knew the lumberman was well-nigh beside himself, and he gazed back into the hot eyes and wondered.
But Bat had nothing more to say. He even felt he had said more than he had any right to say. So he turned again to the window.
A few moments later the door communicating with the house was unceremoniously thrust open. The two men looked round. It was a youngish man dressed in the overalls of an engineer who hurried in. He was alert and full of business; a condition which he seemed to appreciate.
"It's all right, boss," he cried cheerfully, addressing himself to Bat. "Guess the good Father'll get away with it. He's out of his dope an' smiling plenty. I jerked that darn plug that holed him right out, an' it's a soft-nosed swine. I left it back there for you to see. The feller who dropped him deserves rat poison. I hope to God they got him. Anyway I got the wound cleaned up and fixed things. Now we just got to keep it clean and open, and watch his temperature. Then we don't need to worry a thing. I'll do that. But someone'll have to sit around and nurse him. I'll have to get along down. There's nigh a hundred needin' me. Gee I An' after all these years, too. It makes me wonder."
There was a smile of keen appreciation in the eyes that looked into those of the lumberman. And the look deepened when Bat thrust out a large and dirty hand at him.
"Thanks, boy," he said, in obvious relief. "I'm goin' to nurse that pore feller. Maybe I ain't much in that line. But I'll promise he don't lack a thing I can hand him. Here, shake. You'll be along to fix him again?"
"Right on time," was the quick rejoinder.
Jason had readily enough gripped the outstretched hand. Then he hurried away. And neither of the men begrudged him the obvious vanity which his momentary importance had inflamed.
With the man's going Bull passed a hand back over his ample hair.
"God!" he exclaimed wearily. "It's been a tough night."
Bat's response spoke a whole world of feeling. He moved from his window and flung himself into a chair.
"He saved us," he went on. "Father Adam. He saved the whole of our darn outfit. How he did it I don't just know. Maybe I'll never know. He don't talk a lot. I gathered something of it from the boys. But there wasn't time for talk." He shook his grizzled head. "You see, I didn't even know he was around. And you never told me it was him brought you word from the camps. He must have been at work around from the start. He must have got hold of a bunch of the boys he knew. And when he got 'em right, why—Say, I'd have given a thousand dollars to have heard him fire his dope at that lousy gang. It must have been pretty. But they got him. And I guess that was the craziest thing they did. The fool man who could shoot up Father Adam in face of the forest-boys could only be fit for the bughouse."
He sighed. It was not for the man's madness in shooting, but for the hurt inflicted. Then a grim, vengeful smile lit his eyes.
"Why, I guess there ain't a single agent of the Skandinavia down there left with a puff of wind in his rotten carcase. The boys were plumb crazed for their blood an' got right up to their necks in it. I'm glad. I'm—"
"Oh, forget it, man." Bull spoke sharply. "There's things we can take a joy in remembering. But this isn't one of 'em. No. The thing for us now is work. Plenty of work. The mill needs to be in full work inside a week. We haven't an hour to lose, with young Birchall coming along over. Skert's promised us power in twenty-four hours. He's at it right now. The camps on the river'll be working full, and making up lost time. The rest's up to us right here. But—but," he added, passing a hand nervously across his forehead, "I've got to get sleep or I'll go stark crazy."
Bat eyed the younger man seriously. It was the first time he had realised his condition. His sympathy found the rough expression of a nod.
"You had a hell of a time up there," he said.
Bull laughed. There was no mirth in his laugh.
"It was tough all right. I wonder if you'd guess how tough." He shook his head. "No. You wouldn't. You reckon Father Adam's a pretty good man, but I tell you right here you don't know how good, or the thing he did for us single-handed. I know—now. He set me wise to it all, and didn't leave me a thing to do but make the trail he'd set for me. It was an easy play dealing with the fool forest-jacks who'd swallowed the Skandinavia's dope. Yes. That was easy," he added thoughtfully. "But that was just the start of the game. Father Adam had located the trail of the outfit the Skandinavia had sent and it was my job to come right up with 'em and silence 'em."
He broke off and sat staring straight in front of him. His fine eyes were half smiling for all the weariness he complained of. He yawned.
"Well, I hit that trail," he went on presently. "I hit it, and hung to it like a she-wolf out for offal. I just never quit. It was that way I forgot sleep. It wasn't till between No. 10 and 11 Camps we got sight. We were out in the open, up on the high land. We'd a run of fifty mile ahead of the dogs. When we got sight that boy Gouter was after 'em like a red-hot devil. Drive? Gee, how he drove!"
Again came the man's mirthless laugh.
"There's things in life seem mighty queer at times. It was that way then. There was a man I wanted to kill once bad. Guess I've never quit wanting to kill him, though I'm glad Father Adam saved me from doing it. He was Laval—Arden Laval, one of the Skandinavia's camp-bosses. Well, I saw him killed on that trip, and I helped bury him in the snow. Gouter drew on him on the dead run at fifty yards. He dropped him cold, and wrecked the outfit the feller was driving. There were two in the bunch that the Skandinavia sent there to raise trouble for us. Laval and another. Laval's dead, and the other we brought right along as prisoner. That other's here in this—"
A light knock interrupted the story. Bull turned with a start. Then he sprang to his feet, every sign of weariness gone. He stood for a moment as though in doubt. And the lumberman, watching him, remarked the complete transformation that had taken place. He was smiling. His straining eyes had softened to a tenderness the onlooker failed to understand.
He moved swiftly across the room and flung open the door.
"Will you come right in?"
The lumberman heard the invitation. The tone was deep with a gentleness he had never before discovered in it. And in his wonder he craned to see who it was who had inspired it.
Bull moved aside.
It was then that Bat started up from his chair, and a sharp ejaculation broke from him. Nancy McDonald was standing framed in the doorway.
Bat was hurrying down the woodland trail. For once in his hard life he knew the meaning of rank cowardice. The sight of Nancy McDonald had completely robbed him of the last vestige of courage. The atmosphere of the office, that room so crowded with absorbing memories for him, had suddenly seemed to threaten suffocation. He felt he must get out. He must seek the cold, crisp air of the world he knew and understood. So he had fled.
Now he was alone with a riot of thought that was almost chaotic. There was only one thing that stood out clearly, definitely, in his mind. It was the Nemesis of the thing that had happened. It was Nemesis with a vengeance.
His busy jaws worked furiously under his emotion. He spat, and spat again, into the soft white snow. Once he stopped abruptly and gazed back over the circuitous trail. It was as though he must look again upon the thing that had so deeply stirred him, as though he must look upon it to reassure himself that he was not dreaming. That the thing had driven him headlong was real, and not some troublesome hallucination.
Nancy McDonald! The beautiful stepdaughter of Leslie Standing, with her red hair and pretty eyes, was the agent of the Skandinavia, paid to wreck the great work he and Leslie had set up. She was paid to achieve the destruction at—any cost.
It was amazing. It was overwhelming. It was even—terrible.
He pursued his way with hurried steps. And as he went his mind leapt back to the time when he had made his great appeal for the poor, deserted child shut up in the coldly correct halls of Marypoint College. What an irony it all seemed now. Then he remembered her first coming to Sachigo, and the mystery of the letter from Father Adam heralding her arrival. He had understood the moment Nancy had announced her name to him on the quay. He had understood the thought, the hope which had inspired the letter.
In his rugged heart he had welcomed the letter which Father Adam had written. He had welcomed the girl's first coming to the place he felt should be her inheritance. He had seen in those things the promise of the belated justice for which years ago he had appealed. Father Adam had asked Bull to receive her well. Why? There was only one answer to that in the lumberman's mind. Father Adam had seen her. He understood her beauty, and had fallen for it. What more reasonable then that Bull should do the same.
But that was all past and done with now. All the things he had dreamed of, and so ardently desired, had been lost through a mischievous Fate. The neglected stepdaughter of Leslie Standing was body and soul part of their enemy's armament of offence. It was all too crazy. It was all too devilish for calm contemplation.
The sight of the girl's pathetic eyes, so weary, so troubled, had been sufficient. Bat could not have remained in that room another minute. No. Down at the mill were the things he understood. They were the things he was bred to, and could deal with. These others were something that left him hopeless and helpless. So he went, determined to lay the ghost of the thing behind him in the tremendous effort the necessities of the mill demanded he should put forth.
* * * * *
Bull's emotions were deeply stirred. He gazed into the tired eyes of the girl, so beautiful for all their complete dejection. He marked the cold pallor of her cheeks, and realised the dishevelled condition of her glorious masses of hair. An intense pity left him gravely troubled.
As Nancy stood gazing up at the man, complete hopelessness oppressed her. She remembered well enough the declaration of war between them. She remembered, too, that it had meant nothing personal when it was made. At the time she had had no inkling of the terrible thing it could mean, or how nearly it could bring them into real, personal conflict.
She had been wholly unprepared for the demand that had been thrust upon her by the man, Peterman. It had frightened her at first. She had shrunk from it. Then, finally, she had accepted it as her duty, under pressure. Peterman had made it appear so trifling. A journey, a trying journey, perhaps, but one to be made with all the comfort he could provide. And then to preach to those ignorant forest-men the disaster towards which their employers were heading. As Peterman had put it, it had almost seemed a legitimate thing to do. Convinced as she had been of the disaster about to fall on Sachigo, it had seemed as if she were even doing them a service.
Had she been able to search Peterman's mind she would never have taken part in the dastardly thing he had planned. Had she been able to read him she would have quickly discovered the real motive he had in sending her. She would have discovered the furious jealousy and wounded vanity which meant her to be a prime instrument in the wrecking of Bull Sternford and his mills. She would have realised the devilish ingenuity with which he intended to wreck her friendship with another man so that he might the more truly claim her for himself. But she had no suspicion, and had blindly yielded herself to the duty she believed to be hers.
After Bat's hurried departure Bull cast about in his mind for the thing to say to her. And somehow, without realising it, the right words sprang to his lips.
"We won!" he said. And the smile accompanying his words was one of gentle raillery, and suggested nothing of the real tragedy of the thing that had happened.
The girl's eyes widened. She strove to understand the dreadful lightness with which Bull spoke. Victory? Defeat? At that moment they were the two things furthest from her mind.
Bull drew forward a chair, and gently insisted. And Nancy, accepting it, realised in a dull sort of way that it was the chair she had occupied at the time of her first visit, which now seemed so far, far back in her memory. Bull sat again in his rocker. He leant forward.
"Sure," he went on, "we've won out. Your Skandinavia's beaten. Beaten a mile. We've won, too, at less cost than I hoped. Does it grieve you?"
There was no softness or yielding in his tone. It was as he intended; the tone of a man who cares only that victory has been won. Nancy shook her head.
"I'm—I'm glad," she said desperately.
"Glad?" Bull was startled.
The girl made a little involuntary movement. She averted her gaze to the window through which the wintry sunlight was pouring.
"Oh, don't you understand? Can't you? Is the victory so much to you that you have no thought, no feeling, for the suffering it has brought? Are you so hard set on your purpose of achievement that nothing else matters? Oh, it's all dreadful. I used to feel that way. I counted no cost. Achievement? It was everything to me. And now, now that I know the thing it means I feel I—I want to die."
Bull took a strong hold upon himself.
"I know," he said slowly. "You see, Nancy, you're just a woman. You're just as tender and gentle—and—womanly, as God made you to be. He gave you a beautiful woman's heart, and a courage that was quite wonderful till it came into conflict with your heart. You had no right to be flung into this thing. And only a man of Peterman's lack of scruple could have done such a thing. Well, I'm not going to preach a long sermon, but I want to tell you some of the things I've got in my mind before I get the sleep I need. God knows that none of this thing you're blaming yourself for lies at your door. It would all have happened without you. Peterman designed it, and put it through for all he was worth. Now I want to say I'm glad—glad of it all. I've no pity for the Bolshevic dregs of Europe he employed. They were out for loot, they were out to grab the things and the power that other folks set up. Any old death that hit them they amply deserved. As for our folk who've gone under—well, we mustn't think too deeply that way. We all took our chances, and some had to go. I was ready to go. So was Bat. So were we all. We wanted victory, and we wanted it for those who survived. We honour our dead, but our lives must not be clouded by their going. It's war—human war. And just as long as the world lasts that war will always be. Good and bad men will die, and good and bad women will suffer at the sight. But for God's sake have done with the notion that you—you have anything to take to yourself, except that you've fought a good fight, and—lost. It sounds like the devil talking, doesn't it? Maybe you'll think me a monster of heartlessness. I'm not."
"Oh, I wish I could feel all that," Nancy exclaimed with an impulse which a few moments before must have been impossible.
"You can." Bull nodded. "You will."
"You think so?" Nancy sighed. "I wish I could." Suddenly she spread out her hands in a little pathetic gesture. "Oh, it all seems wrong. Everything. What am I to do? What can I do? I—I can't even think. Whichever way I look it all seems so black and hopeless. You think I can—will?"
Bull's sympathy would no longer be denied. He rose from his chair and moved to the window. His face was hidden from the troubled eyes that watched him. But his voice came back infinite in its gentleness.
"You want to do something," he said. "You want to give expression to the woman in you. And when that has happened it'll make you feel—better. I know."
He nodded. Suddenly he turned back to her, and stood smiling down into her anxious eyes.
"Tell me," he went on, "what is it you want to do? You're no prisoner now. The war's finished. You're just as free as air to come and go as you please. You can return to Quebec the moment you desire, and the Myra comes along up. And everything I can possibly arrange shall be done for your happiness and comfort. When would you like to go?"
The girl shook her head.
"I wasn't thinking of that."
"I knew that," Bull smiled.
"Father Adam. He's in the house there sick and wounded," Nancy hurried on. "I know him. I—may I nurse him back to health and strength. May I try that way to teach myself I'm not the thing I think and feel. Oh, let me be of use. Let me help to undo the thing I've done so much to bring about."
The girl's hands were thrust out, and her eyes were shining. Never in his life had Bull experienced such an appeal. Never in his life had he been so near to reckless disregard for all restraint. He came nearer to her.
"Surely you may do that," he said. "And I just want to thank you from the bottom of my unfeeling heart for the thought that prompts you. We haven't a soul here to do it right—to do it as you can. And Father Adam is a mighty precious life to us all—in Sachigo."
THE COMING OF SPRING
It had been a hard day. Bull Sternford had spent it dealing with complicated financial schedules, an amazing, turbulent sea of figures, until his powers and patience had temporarily exhausted themselves.
In a final fit of irritation he had flung his work aside, and risen from his desk. The insufferable heat of the room, and the reek of his own pipe disgusted him. So he had moved over to the window where the cold air of early spring drifted in through the open ventilating slot in the storm sash.
His gaze was on the Cove below, where the snow-laden ice was discoloured by the moist slush of thaw, and the open waters, far down towards the distant headlands, had so deeply encroached upon the claims of winter.
A great, premature thaw had set in. It was the real spring thaw a month or more early. Skert Lawton, who controlled the water power of the mill, had warned him of its coming. Bat too had spoken out of his years of experience of the moods of Labrador's seasons. But somehow the sight of it all gave him none of the joy with which it had inspired the others.
The evil night of threatened disaster had become only a memory. Nearly six weeks had passed since Nancy McDonald had craved the privilege of caring for the man who had so nearly given his life in the saving of the mill and all the great purpose it represented. Now he was mercifully returned to health and strength under the devoted care that had been bestowed upon him. The mill was again in full work. And the human army it employed had returned to their peace-time labours in the full determination to undo the grievous hurt which the mischief of the Skandinavia's agents and their own folly had inflicted. In the relief of reaction, they, no less than their employers, had redoubled their efforts.
All outward sign of the trouble through which the mill had passed had long since been cleared away under the driving power of the forceful Bat Harker. The scars of fire remained here and there. But they were no more than a reminder for those who were ready to forget the folly they had once committed.
Everything was moving on now as Bull and his comrades would have had it. Only that morning word had come through that Ray Birchall was on his way from London for the purpose of his report, and expected to reach Sachigo in three weeks' time. Could anything, then, be better than this early thaw? It was a veritable act of Providence that the London man's inspection of the mills, and all the property involved would take place under the most active conditions.
It should have been a time of rejoicing and mental ease. It should have been a time of stirring hope. A moment for complaisant contemplation of a great purpose achieved. But the man at the window regarded the thing he looked upon without any display of pleasurable feeling. The sight of it literally seemed to deepen the unease which looked out of his eyes.
In the midst of Bull's pre-occupation the door from the outer office was thrust open, and Bat Harker's harsh voice jarred the silence of the room.
"Gettin' a peek at things," he cried, stumping heavily across the thick carpet. "Well, it looks good to me, too. Say, if this lasts just one week we'll be as clear of snow as hell's sidewalks." Then he flung open his rough pea-jacket and pushed his cap back from his lined forehead. "Gee, it's hot!"
The lumberman was standing at Bull's side, and his deep-set eyes were following the other's gaze with twinkling satisfaction. Bull nodded and moved away.
"Yep," he ejaculated. "It should be good for us."
He passed over to the radiators and shut them off. Then he went over to the wood-stove and closed down the dampers. Then, with a curious absent-mindedness, he stood up and held out his hands to the warmth radiating from the stove.
Bat was watching him interestedly. And at sight of his final attitude he broke into one of his infrequent chuckles and flung himself into a chair.
"Say, what in—? Feeling cold?" he demanded.
Bull's hands were promptly withdrawn, and, in spite of his mood, a half smile at his own expense lit his troubled eyes.
"That's all right," he said. "It's on me, sure. I guess my head must be full of those figures still."
He returned to the window and stood with his back to his companion. Bat watched him for some moments.
Bull had changed considerably in the last few weeks. The lumberman had been swift to observe it. Somehow the old enthusiasm had faded out. The keen fighting nature he had become accustomed to, with its tendency to swift, almost reckless action, had become less marked. The man was altogether less buoyant.
At first it had seemed to Bat's searching mind as if the effects of that desperate trip through the forests, and the subsequent battle down at the mill, had left its mark upon him, had somehow wrought one of those curious, weakening changes in the spirit of the man which seemed so unaccountable. Later, however, he dismissed the idea for a shrewder and better understanding.
He helped himself to a chew of tobacco and kicked a cuspidore within his reach.
"The fire-bugs are out," he said. "The last of 'em. I jest got word through. It's the seventh. An' it's the tally."
It was a sharp, matter-of-fact statement. He was telling of a human killing, and there was no softening.
Bull nodded. He glanced over his shoulder.
"They shot five of 'em to death. The last two they hanged." A grim set of the jaws, as Bat made the announcement, was his only expression of feeling.
"Makes you wonder," he went on, after a pause. "Makes you think of the days when locomotives didn't run. Makes you think of the days when life was just a pretty mean gamble with most of the odds dead against you. It don't sound like these Sunday School days when the world sits around, framed in a fancy-coloured halo, that couldn't stand for any wash-tub, talkin' brotherhood an' human sympathy. It's tough when you think of the bunch that sent those boys to fire our limits. They knew the full crime of it, and knew the thing it would mean if we got hands on 'em. Well, there it is. We got 'em. An' now ther' ain't a mother's son of 'em left alive to tell the yarn of it all. It's been just cold, bloody murder. An' the murder ain't on us. No, I guess the darn savage eatin' hashed missioner ain't as bad a proposition as the civilised guys who paid the price to get those toughs killed up in our forests. I can't feel no sort of regret. It won't hand me a half-hour nightmare. But it makes me wonder. It surely does."
He spat accurately into the cuspidore.
"Does the report hand you anything else?" Bull asked, without turning. The other noticed the complete lack of real interest. He shrugged.
"The camps are all in full cut. They're not a cord behind."
Bat looked for a word, the lighting of an eye. There was none. And he stirred in his chair, and exasperation drove him.
"Don't it make you feel good?" he demanded sharply. "It's the last guess answered, unless there's a guess when that boy, Birchall, comes along. Anyway, you don't figger ther's much guess to that, with the mill runnin' full, an' every boom crashed full of logs. No. Here, Bull!" he cried, with sudden vehemence. "Turn around, man. Turn right around an' get a grip on it all. The game's won to the last detail. Can't you feel good? Can't you feel like a feller gettin' out into the light after years of the darkest hell? Don't it make you want to holler? Ain't there a thing I can say to boost you? The boys down at the mill are hoggin' work. The groundwood's on the quays like mountains. The mills are roaring like blast furnaces. Can you beat it? Spring. The flies an' skitters, an' shipping. Why, in a week I guess Father Adam'll be hittin the trail for the forests, an'—"
"Nancy McDonald will be sailing for Quebec."
Bat was no longer gazing on the other's broad back and the mane of hair which did its best to conceal his massive neck. Bull had turned. His strong face was flushed. His fine eyes were hot. There could be no mistaking the passionate emotion which the other had stirred.
The two men gazed into each other's eyes. Then with a curiously expressive gesture of his great hands Bull turned to the chair standing near, and flung himself into it.
The lumberman's eyes twinkled. He had done the thing he desired. "An' you don't want her to?" he said deliberately.
Just for a moment it looked as though a headlong outburst was about to reply to him. Then, quite suddenly, the hot light in Bull's eyes died out and he smiled. He shook his head.
"No," he said in simple denial. "If she goes it means the end of Sachigo for me."
"You reckon you'll quit?"
In a moment the lumberman remembered a scene which had been enacted years ago on the high ground on the north shore of the Cove. He would never forget it. It had been the final decision of another to quit Sachigo. And the reason had been not dissimilar.
There was no reply. Bull sat staring blankly in front of him. His eyes were on the wintry sky which was still broad with the light of day beyond the window.
Presently his gaze lost its abstraction and came again to the strong, lined face of the older man. "Yes, Bat," he said calmly, almost coldly, "I'd have to quit. I just couldn't stand for it. Nancy's got right into my life. She's the only thing I can see—now."
"Fer all she's a kind of prisoner right here, caught red-hand doin' the damnedest she knows to break us in favour of the outfit that pays her?"
Bat smiled as he flung his challenge. But his tone, his words, were no indication of his mood, or of the rapid thought passing behind his shrewd eyes. A great sense of pleasure was asurge within him. He wanted to tell of it. He wanted to reach out and grip the other's hand, and tell him all that his words meant to him. But he refrained. Another man's secret was involved, and that was sufficient. His lips were sealed.
Bull stirred restlessly.
"Oh, psha!" he cried at last, with a force that displayed the tremendous feeling he could no longer deny. "I know what you think, Bat. I'm crazy. Well, maybe I am. Most men get crazy one time in their lives when a woman gets around. It's no use. I just can't help it. I know all you're thinking. Nancy McDonald belongs to our enemies. As you say she's done her damnedest to break us. Maybe you reckon I ought to feel for her like the devil does about holy water. Well, I don't. I'm plumb crazy for her, and when spring clears up the waters of the Cove, and the Myra comes alongside, she's going right aboard, and will pass out of Labrador and out of my life. I'm never going to get another sight of her. I'm never going to get another sound of her dandy voice, or a sight of her pretty eyes, and—Hell! What's the use. Oh, I know it all. You've no need to tell me. We've made good. We've fought and won out. My contract's complete, and everything's looking just as good for us as it knows how—now. This mill. It's ours. Yours, and mine, and that other's, who I don't know about. All I've to do is to sit around with the plums lying in my lap. Well, I don't want those plums without Nancy. That's all. I don't want a thing—without Nancy. All the dollars in America can burn in hell for all I care, and as for groundwood pulp it's a damp mess of fool stuff that don't signify to me if it finds its way to the bottom of the North Atlantic. An added month of open season? What does it mean to me? Work. Only work, and flies, and skitters. An added month of 'em. Father Adam's a whole man again now, thanks to that dandy child. He'll pull right out to the forests again, and—she'll pull out too. I—"
"That's all right," Bat broke in drily. "I get all that. But why not marry the gal? Marry her an' quit all this darn argument. I guess this mill's goin' to hand you all you need to keep a wife on. That seems to me the natural answer to the stuff that's worryin' you."
His eyes twinkled as he regarded the other's troubled face.
Bull was on his feet. Hot, desperate irritation lay behind the retort which Bat's gentle sarcasm had drawn forth. His eyes were alight, and he passed an unsteady hand across his forehead in a superlatively impatient gesture.
"Marry her?" he exploded. "Say, are you every sort of darn fool on God's earth, man? How can I hope to marry her? What sort of use can a girl like that have for the man who's beat her right out of everything she ever hoped to achieve? I've had to treat her like any old criminal, and hold her prisoner. I've brought her right down here leaving her in a man's household without another woman in sight. Say, these cursed mills have made it so I've had to commit every sort of rotten act a man can commit against a high-spirited girl. And you ask me why I don't marry her? You've been too long in the forests, Bat. Guess you've lost your perspective. Nancy McDonald's no sort of chattel to be dealt with any way we fancy. Get sense, man, an' talk it."
Bat's regard was unwavering before the other's angry eyes.
"Sense is a hell of a good thing to have an' talk," he said quietly. "I most generally notice the feller yearnin' for someone else to get it an' talk that way, mostly has least use for the thing he's preachin'. Maybe Nancy feels the way you reckon. But that don't seem to me to worry a deal. Still, maybe things have changed around since the days when I hadn't sense to keep out of gunshot of a pair of dandy eyes. And anyway I don't seem to remember the boys bein' worried with the sort of argument you're handing out. If my memory's as good as I reckon, the boys most gener'ly married the gal first, an' got busy wonderin' about things after. All of which seems like so much hoss sense, seem' the natur' of things is that most gals needs their minds made up for 'em. You see, Bull, I kind o' fancy womenfolk ain't just ord'nary. They got a bug that makes 'em think queer wher' men are concerned. Now Nancy's all sorts of a gal, an' that bein' so I don't reckon she sees the hell-fire crimes you've committed against her just the way you see 'em. I allow they're pretty darn tough. Shootin' up her outfit an' dumpin' her into a snowdrift up on Labrador's mighty hard sort of courtin'. Grabbin' her up an' settin' her hospital nurse to her enemies, in a house full of a bunch of tough men don't seem the surest way to make her smile on the feller that did it. Then most generally beatin' the game she set out to play looks like makin' fer trouble plenty. It sure seems that way. But you never can tell with a woman, Bull. You just can't."
Bat shook his grizzled head in solemn denial, but his eyes were laughing. Bull smothered his resentment. He, too, shook his head, and somehow caught the infection of the other's smile.
"But she's ambitious," he said. "And she isn't the sort of girl to take that easily. No."
Bat nodded and rose from his chair. Something of his purpose had been achieved and he was satisfied. He felt he had said all that was needed for the moment. So he prepared to take his departure.
"Maybe that's so, boy," he agreed readily. "But ambition's a thing that changes with most every wind. That don't worry me a thing. Say, you've sort of opened out about this thing to me, an' I ain't sure why. But I kind of feel good about it. You're younger than me by years I don't fancy reckonin'. I feel like I was an elder brother, an' I'm glad. Well, that bein' so, I'd like to say right here ther's just one ambition in a woman's life that counts. And she mostly gits it when she hits up against the feller that's got the guts to make her think his way. When that happens I guess you can roll up every other old schedule, an' pass it into the beater to make new paper. It's the only use for it. See? But I 'low I don't know women like I do groundwood, which was the stuff that fetched me here right now. You see, I was feelin' good about things, an' I fancied handin' you the news of them 'fire-bugs' myself. Guess it hasn't handed you any sort of delirium so far, Bull, but it will later. I allow ther' ain't room for two fevers at the same time in a man's body. When you've set Nancy McDonald figgerin' your way, your temperature's liable to go up on the other. So long, boy."
With the lengthening days the world of Labrador was already donning its brief, annual smile. But the passing of winter was no easy thing. There had been rain and "freeze-up," and rain again. And the whole countryside was a dripping, melting sea of wintry slush. The sun was rising higher in the steely heavens with each passing day, but winter was still reluctant. It passed on to its dissolution only under irresistible pressure.
Nancy, no less than Father Adam and those others, to whom the early thaw meant so much, watched the passing of winter with the closest interest. But her interest owed its origin to a far different inspiration. She knew it meant that her time at Sachigo was nearing its end, and the future with all its barrenness was staring at her.
She moved restlessly about the large kitchen while the Chinaman, Won-Li, was preparing toast over the cook stove. She stood awhile at the window and watched the winging of a seemingly endless flight of early geese passing up from the South. Then she turned away and glanced about the scrupulously clean and neat apartment. It was so very different from the place she had first discovered weeks ago.
After awhile she took up her position against the kitchen table, and stood there with her gaze upon the bent figure of the cook in its long, blue blouse. But she was scarcely interested in the man's labours. She was not even waiting for him to complete them. She was just thinking, filled with apprehension and without confidence. Her mind was made up to a definite purpose whose seeming immensity left her staggered.
Nancy was no longer the distraught creature who had witnessed the terrible night of fire and battle down at the mill. Many weeks had passed since then. Weeks full of mental, bodily, and spiritual effort. From the first dark moments when she had begged the privilege of nursing the wounded missionary, broken in spirit, a beautiful creature well-nigh demented with the horror of the thing she believed herself to be, the woman soul of her had found a measure of peace.
It had been slow in coming. There had been moments when she had nearly broken under the burden of conscience. There had been moments when the weight of unutterable depression, and the sense of guilt, had come near to robbing her of her last shred of mental balance. But the woman's mission of nursing had saved her in the end. That, and the physical effort to which she had applied herself.
It was all so single-minded and simple. It was all so beautifully pathetic. Nancy had found a careless household rapidly decaying through mannish indifference to comfort. She understood. These men were completely absorbed in the service of the great mills, and nothing else mattered to them. Oh, yes, that was understandable. She knew the feeling. She knew how it robbed its victim of every other consideration in life. So she had flung herself into the task of re-ordering the household of which she had been forced to become a part, that she might yield them comfort in their labours and help herself in her own effort to obtain peace of mind.
She had transformed an untidy, uncared-for bachelor habitation into a wholesome, clean establishment of well-ordered life. She had lifted a lazy Chinaman into a reasonable specimen of comparative energy, and saw to it that meals were well and carefully served, and partaken of at regular hours by men who quickly discovered the futility of protest.
But her work by no means ended there. From one end to the other the house was swept and garnished, and the neglect of years disposed of. Bedrooms were transformed from mere sleeping places to luxury. Linen was duly laundered, and clothing was brushed, and folded, and mended in a fashion such as its owners had never thought possible. She was utterly untiring in her labours, and in the process of them she steadily moved on towards the thing she craved for herself.
The men realised the tremendous effort of it all. And Bull Sternford, for all his absorption in his work, had watched with troubled feelings. His love for Nancy had perhaps robbed him of that vision which should have told him of the necessity, in her own interests, for that which the girl was doing. So there were times when he had protested, times when he felt that simple humanity demanded that she should not be permitted to submit herself to so rough a slavery. But Nancy had countered every protest with an irresistible appeal.
"Please, please don't stop me," she had cried, almost tearfully. "It's just all I can do. It's my only hope. Always, till now, I've lived for myself and ambitions. You know where they have led me—Ah, no. Let me go on in my own way. Let me nurse him back to health. Let me do these things. However little I'm able to do there's some measure of peace in the doing of it."
So the days and weeks had dragged on, and now the time of Nancy's imprisonment was drawing to its inevitable close. With Spring, and the coming of the Myra, she would have to accept her freedom and all it meant. She would be expected to return to her home in Quebec, and to those who had employed her and sent her on her godless mission. She understood that. But she had no intention of returning to Quebec. She had no intention of returning to the Skandinavia.
During the long hours of her labours she had searched deeply for the thing the future must hold for her. It was the old process over again. That great searching she had once done at Marypoint. But now it was all different. There had been no sense of guilt then, and the only man who had been concerned in her life had been that unknown stepfather, whom, in her child's heart, she had learned to hate. It had been simple enough then. Now—now—
But she had faced the task with all the splendid, impetuous courage that was hers. There was no shrinking. Her mind was swiftly and irrevocably made up. She would abandon the Skandinavia for ever. She would abandon everything and follow those dictates which had prompted her so often in the past. Father Adam's self-sacrificing example was always before her. The forests. Those submerged legions which peopled them. Was there not some means by which she could join in the work of rescue? She would talk to Father Adam. She felt he would help her. She wanted nothing for herself. If only the rest of her life could be translated into some small imitation of the life of that good man, then, indeed, she felt her atonement might be counted as something commensurate.
It was not until her decision had been taken that she permitted herself to seek beyond it. But once it was taken the crushing sense of added desolation well-nigh paralysed her. Somehow, never before had she understood. But now—now the sacrifice of it all swept upon her with an overwhelming rush. Bull Sternford. Bull Sternford, the man whom with all her power she had striven to defeat, the man whose strength and force of character had so appealed to her, the man who must hate her as any clean-minded man must hate a loathsome reptile, she would never see him again.
Oh, she knew now. She made no attempt at denial. It would have been quite useless. She loved him. From the moment she had looked into his honest eyes, and realised his kindly purpose on her behalf at their first meeting, she had loved him. She must cut him out of her life. It was the penalty she must pay for her crimes.
And now the moment had arrived when she must put her plans into operation. Time was pressing. The season was advancing. So she had chosen the hour at which she served tea to Father Adam as the best in which to seek his advice and support.
* * * * *
The light tap on Father Adam's door was answered instantly. Nancy passed into the room with trepidation in her heart, but the hand bearing the tea tray was without a tremor.
The man whose life belonged to the twilight of the northern forests was seated in a deep rocker-chair under the window through which the setting sun was pouring its pleasant spring light. He had been reading. But his book was laid aside instantly, and he stood up and smiled the thanks which his words hastily poured forth.
"You know, Nancy, you're completely spoiling me," he said. "I'm going to hate my forest coffee out of a rusty pannikin. I don't know how I'm going on when I pull my freight out of here."
The girl's responsive smile faded abruptly as she set the tray on the table beside the chair.
"When are you going to—pull your freight?" she asked, with a curious, nervous abruptness.
For a moment the man's eyes were averted. Then he straightened up his tall, somewhat stooping figure. He flung his lean shoulders back, and opened his arms wide. And as he did so he laughed in the pleasant fashion which Nancy had grown accustomed to.
He was the picture of complete health. His dark face was pale. His black hair and sparse beard were untouched by any sign of the passage of years. There was not an ounce of superfluous flesh under the curiously clerical garments he lived in.
"Why, right away, child," he said, with simple confidence. "I'll just need to wait for a brief 'freeze-up' to get through the mud around Sachigo. Once on the highlands inside there'll be snow and ice for six weeks or more. I told Sternford this morning I was ready to pull out. You see, thanks to you I've cheated the folk who reckoned to silence me. I'm well, and strong, and the boys of the forest are—needing me. Every day I remain now I'll be getting soft under the unfailing kindness of my nurse."
Nancy poured out the tea. There were two cups on the tray and the man was swift to notice it. She smiled up at him.
"Won't you sit down?" she urged. "You see, I've brought a cup for myself. I—I want to have a long talk with you. I, too, have got to 'pull my freight.'"
Father Adam obeyed. His dark eyes were deeply observant as he surveyed the pretty face with its red glory of hair. That which was passing in his mind found no betrayal. But his thought had suddenly leapt, and he waited.
Nancy passed him his cup and set the toast within his reach. Then she pulled up a chair for herself and sat down before the tea tray.
"Yes," she went on, "that's why I brought my cup. I must get away." She smiled a little wistfully. "My imprisonment is over. Mr. Sternford set me free long ago, but—well, anyway I'm going now, and that's why I wanted to talk to you."
She seemed to find the whole thing an effort. But as the man's dark eyes remained regarding her, and no word of his came to help her, she was forced to go on.
"You know my story," she said. "You've heard it all from Mr. Sternford. I know that. You told me so, didn't you?"
The man inclined his dark head.
"Yes," he said. "I know your story—all of it."
"Yes." The girl's tea remained untouched. Suddenly she raised one delicate hand and passed her finger tips across her forehead. It was a gesture of uncertainty. Then, quite suddenly, it fell back into her lap, and, in a moment, her hands were tightly clasped. "Oh, I best tell you at once. Never, never, never as long as I live can I go back to the Skandinavia. All the years I've been with them I've just been lost in a sort of dream world of ambition. I haven't seen a thing outside it. I've just been a blind, selfish woman who believed in everybody, and most of all in herself and her selfish aims. Can you understand? Will you? Oh, now I know all it meant. Now I know the crime of it. And the horror of the thing I've done, and been, has well-nigh broken my heart. Oh, I'm not really bad, indeed I'm not. I didn't know. I didn't understand. I can never forgive myself. Never, never! And when I think of the blood that has been shed as the result of my work—"
"No." The man's voice broke in sharply. "Put that right out of your mind, child. None of the blood shed is your doing. None of it lies at your door. It lies at the door of others. It lies at the door of two men only. The man who first set up this great mill at Sachigo, and the man whose hate of him desired its destruction. The rest, you, those others, Bull Sternford and Harker, here, are simply the pawns in the battle which owes its inception to those things that happened years ago. I tell you solemnly, child, no living soul but those two, and chiefly the first of the two, are to blame for the things that have happened to-day. Set your mind easy. No one blames you. No one ever will blame you. Not even the great God to whom we all have to answer. I know the whole story of it. It is my life to know the story of these forests. Set your mind at rest."
"Oh, I wish I could think so. I wish I could believe. I feel, I feel you are telling me this to comfort me. But you wouldn't just do that?"
The man shook his head.
"It's the simple truth," he said. Then he reached for his tea and drank it quickly. "But tell me. You will never go back to the Skandinavia? I—am glad. What will you do?"
"That's why I've come to you now."
The tension had eased. Nancy's distress gave way before the man's strong words of comfort. She, too, drank her tea. Then she went on.
"You know, Father—"
The man stirred in his chair. It was a movement of sudden restlessness as if that appellation on her lips disturbed him.
"—I want to—I want to—Oh, how can I tell you? You are doing the thing I want to help in. All my life I felt the time would come when I must devote myself to the service and welfare of others. I think it's bred in me. My father, my real father, he, too, gave up his life to those who could not help themselves. Well, I want to do the same in however humble fashion. These men, these wonderful men of the forests whom you spend your life in succouring. Can I not serve them, too? Is there no place for me under your leadership? Can I not go out into the forests? I am strong. I am strong to face anything, any hardship. I have no fear. The call of these forests has got right into my blood. Don't deny me," she appealed. "Don't tell me I'm just a woman with no strength to withstand the rigours of the winter. I couldn't stand that. I have the strength, and I have the will. Can you? Will you help me?"
The girl's appeal was spoken with all the ardour of youthful passion. There was no sham in it. No hysterical impulse. It was irresistibly real.
The man's eyes were deeply regarding her. But he was thinking far less of her words than of the girl herself. Her amazing beauty, the passionate youth and strength. The perfection of her splendid womanhood. These things held him, and his mind travelled swiftly back over years to other scenes and other emotions.
When at last he spoke his words came slowly and were carefully considered.
"I think, perhaps, I can help you," he said. "You are determined? You want to help those who need help? The men of the forests?" He shook his head. "I don't see why you shouldn't help the men of these forests who—need your help."
Nancy drew a deep breath. A wonderful smile sprang into her pretty eyes. It was a glad smile of thanks such as no words of hers could have expressed.
"Oh, thank you, Father—thank you."
Again came the man's restless movement at the word "Father." He abruptly leant forward and held his cup out for replenishment.
"May I?" he asked. Then his smile broke out again. "But tell me," he went on. "What have you done about the Skandinavia?"
Nancy returned him his cup with an unsteady hand.
"Nothing? But you must communicate with them. You should write and tell them of your decision. You should tell them you don't intend to return to them."
Father Adam sipped his tea. He was watching intently but unobtrusively the transparent display of emotions which his words had conjured.
"I hadn't thought about it," Nancy said at last, not without some disappointment. "Do you really think I should write? But it will take so long to reach them. I can't wait for that. It—"
"Yes. I suppose I could—wire."
"Sternford will have it sent for you."
In a moment the light of hope died out of the girl's eyes. The excited flush on her cheeks paled. And the man saw, and read the sign he beheld.
He waited. But Nancy remained silent, crushed under the feeling of utter desolation to which the mention of Bull Sternford's name had reduced her.
Father Adam set his cup down.
"Don't let the sending of that message worry, child," he said quickly. "These people deserve no better treatment after the thing they've done to you. All you need say is, 'You will accept my resignation forthwith.' Write that out on a piece of paper, and sign it. Then take it along to Mr. Sternford. Tell him of your decision, and ask him to have it sent by the wireless. He'll do it, my dear. And after that—why, after that, if you still feel the same about things, and want to turn missionary in the lumber camps, come right back to me here, and I'll do for you as you ask. It's a great thought, Nancy, and I honour you for it. It's a hard, desperate sort of life, without comfort or earthly reward. Once the twilight of the forest claims you, and its people know you, there's nothing to do but to go on and on to the end. Will you go—and send just that message?"
Nancy inclined her head.
"Yes. I'll go right away, just as soon as I've taken this tray back."
She rose abruptly. She gathered the remains of the meal on to the tray and picked it up. And the manner of her movements betrayed her. She stood for a moment, and the man saw the struggle for composure that was going on behind her pretty eyes.
"Father," she said at last, and the man abruptly rose from his chair and moved away, "I just can't thank you—for this. It's given me fresh hope. A hope I never thought would be mine. Some day—"
Her voice broke and the man turned at once. He was smiling again.
"Don't say a word, my dear. Not a word. Go and write that message, and take it to Sternford. And then—why—"
He moved over to the door and held it open for her. As she passed out he nodded kindly, and looked after her till she vanished into the kitchen at the end of the passage.
* * * * *
Father Adam was alone again in the room that had been his for so many weeks. The door was closed and he stood at the window gazing out at the dreary world beyond. But he saw nothing of it. He was thinking with the speed of a mind chafing at delay. He was wondering and hoping, and—fearing.
It was a woman of desperately fortified resolve who turned the handle of the office door in response to Bull Sternford's peremptory summons. The thought of the coming interview terrified Nancy, and her terror had nothing whatever to do with the sending of her message.
Bull failed to look up from the mass of papers that littered his desk. His sharp "Well," as Nancy approached him, was utterly impatient at the interruption. And its effect was crushing upon the girl in her present dispirited mood. She felt like headlong flight. She stood her ground, however, and the sound of her little nervous clearing of the throat came to the man at the table.
Bull looked up. In an instant his whole attitude underwent a complete change. His eyes lit, and he sprang from his seat behind the desk. He came towards the shrinking girl, eager and smiling with the welcome his love inspired.
"Why, say, Nancy," he cried. "I just hadn't a notion it was you. I was up to my neck in all this stuff," he said, indicating the litter on his desk, "and I hadn't a thought but it was the darn Chink come to worry with food." He laughed. "You certainly have handed me some scare since you got a grip on our crazy household. I've got a nightmare all the time I've got to eat. And the trouble is I'd hate to miss any of it. Will you come right over to the window and sit? There's daylight enough still. We don't need to use Skert's electric juice till we have to. I'm real glad you came along."
The man's delight was transparent. Nancy remained unresponsive, however. She was blind to everything but the thing she had come to do, and the hopelessness that weighed so heavily upon her.
"I'm sorry," she said simply, accepting the chair he set for her. "I didn't think you'd—you see, I waited till I guessed you'd be through. But I won't keep you. It's just a small favour, that's all."
Bull observed her closely. She was so amazingly and completely charming. She was no longer clad in the rough, warm garments of the trail. Even the cotton overall she used in the work of the house had been removed. Now a dainty frock, that had no relation to the rigours of Labrador, displayed the delicate beauty of her figure, and perfectly harmonised with the colouring of her wonderful hair. Somehow it seemed to the man her beauty had intensified in its appeal since the day of her supreme confidence in the cause for which she had so devotedly fought.
"A favour?" he laughed. "Why, I'm just glad."
Even while he spoke Bull remembered his talk with Bat Harker when he had listened to a wealth of pitying comment upon the feelings and opinions he had then laid bare. The girl's unsmiling eyes troubled him.
"What's the favour?" he asked simply, as Nancy remained silent.
The girl started. She had turned to the evening light pouring in through the window. Her thought had wandered to that grim, dark future when the twilit forests would close about her, and the strong tones of this man's voice would never again be able to reach her.
She drew a folded paper from the bosom of her frock.
"Would you let them send it for me—wireless?" she asked timidly. "It's—it's to Mr. Peterman."
All Bull's desire to smile had passed. He nodded.
"Yes," he said. "If you wish it. It shall be sent right off."
His tone had suddenly lost its warmth. It seemed as if the mention of Peterman's name had destroyed his goodwill.
Nancy searched his face anxiously. The man's brows had depressed and his strong jaws had become set. She knew that expression. Usually it was the prelude to uncompromising action.
She drew a deep breath.
"Oh, I know," she cried. "I know the thing you're thinking. You're reminding yourself of all I've done, and of the injury I've striven to inflict on you. You're wondering at my temerity in asking you to help me communicate with your enemies. But please, please don't think worse of me than you can help. I'm not just trying to use you. It's not that. Will you read the message? Maybe it'll tell you better than any words of mine."
The paper was held out to him in an unsteady hand. Bull ignored it. He shook his head.
"No," he said.
Nancy sprang to her feet.
"But you must read it," she cried. "If you don't I—oh, I won't send it. I couldn't. Don't make me sorry I asked this favour. It is so little to you, and—and it means so much to me."
She stood waiting, but Bull showed no sign of yielding. He was thinking of the man, Peterman. He remembered his good-looking Teutonic face, and the favour with which Nancy had seemed to regard him. A smouldering jealousy had suddenly blazed up within him.
Nancy turned away in desperation. She moved to depart.
"I'm sorry," she said. And even in her trouble there was a coldness in her tone no less than his.
Bull choked down his feelings.
"Please don't go," he cried, urgently. "It would please me very much to have that message sent. Say, I wasn't thinking the way you reckoned. I wasn't thinking of the message at all."
"Then you will read it?" The girl came back readily.
"Why should I?" Bull asked smilingly. "Say, a friend asking me to send a message for him, a message no concern of mine, what would you think, what would he feel, if I demanded to read its contents?"
He ran the fingers of one hand through his mane of hair and stood smiling down into the girl's pretty eyes.
"You know this thing makes me want to talk. I've just got to talk. The position's sort of impossible as it stands. Maybe you don't guess the thing I'm feeling, and maybe I don't just know how it is with you. We've got to talk right out and show down our hands. If we don't—"
He turned away and glanced out of window. Then his eyes came back claimed by the magnetism which the girl exercised.
"You know, Nancy, our war is over. The war between you and me. We declared war, didn't we? We declared it in Quebec, and we both promised to do our best, or—worst. It was a sort of compact. We made it meaning it, and understanding the meaning of it. If you got the drop on me you were to use it. The same with me. It was one of those friendly things, between friends, which might easily mean life or death. We knew that, and were ready to stand just for whatever came along. Well, we fought our battle. It's over. It's done. Now for God's sake let's forget it. It's easy for me. You see, I'm a rough, hard sort of product of these forests that doesn't worry with scruples and things. I'm not a woman who's full of the notions belonging to her sex. I can wipe the whole thing out of my mind. I can feel glad for the scrap you put up. I can think one hell of a great piece of you for it. Maybe it's different with you, being a woman. I guess it's not going to be easy forgiving the way I had to handle you back out there on the trail. Or the way you were forced to live our camp life on the way down here. Or how I've had to hold you prisoner in a rough household of rougher men. I get all that. I know the thing it is to a woman. All it means. Still, it must have been plain to you the chances of that sort of thing before you started in. That is if I was worth my salt as a fighter. Well, can you kind of forgive it? Can't you try to forget? Can't you figger the whole darn thing's past and done with, and we're back at where we were in those days in Quebec, when you didn't hate me to death, and felt good taking dinner in my company? Say, do you remember the old Myra you'll soon be boarding again? You remember our talk on the deck, when the howling gale hit us? We were talking of the sense of things in Nature, and how she mussed them up. And how we'd have done a heap better if the job had been ours. Well?" His smile deepened. "Here we are standing in the sort of fool position of—what'll I call it? Antagonism? Anyway we agreed to fight, and stand for all it meant to us, and we're both feeling all broken up at the way we had to act to hurt each other most." He shook his head. "Where's our boasted sense of things? We ought to be sitting right here talking it over, and laughing to beat the band, that I had to treat you like a dangerous bunch of goods li'ble to get me by the throat, and choke the life out of me, while you were chasing every old notion folks could stuff into your dandy head to set me broke and busted so I wouldn't know where to collect a square feed once a week. That's what we ought to be doing, if we had the sense we guess. Instead of that you're feeling badly at me for the things I had to do to you. And I'm worried to death I'll never get a laugh from you for the fool talk I don't know better than to make. You need me to send that message to Peterman. Why, sure I'll send it, even if it's to tell him how mighty glad you are to be quitting the prison I'd condemned you to, and the joy it's going to hand you to see his darnation Teuton face again. Sure I'll send it. It's the least I can do to make up to you for those things I've done to you. But—but for God's sake don't ask me to read it."