A VOLUME OF STORIES BY
CHARLES G D ROBERTS
LAMSON WOLFFE AND COMPANY BOSTON AND NEW YORK 1896 Copyright, 1895,
University Press: John Wilson and Son, Cambridge, U.S.A.
Most of the stories in this collection have already appeared in the pages of English, American, or Canadian periodicals. For kind courtesies in regard to the reprinting of these stories my thanks are due to the Editors of Harper's Magazine, Longman's Magazine, Scribner's Magazine, The Cosmopolitan, Lippincott's Magazine, The Independent, The Toronto Globe, Harper's Bazaar, and The Youth's Companion.
C. G. D. R.
Fredericton, N. B.
Do Seek their Meat from God
"The Young Ravens that Call upon Him"
Within Sound of the Saws
The Butt of the Camp
In the Accident Ward
The Romance of an Ox-Team
A Tragedy of the Tides
At the Rough-and-Tumble Landing
An Experience of Jabez Batterpole
The Stone Dog
The Barn on the Marsh
Captain Joe and Jamie
The Eye of Gluskap
Do Seek their Meat from God.
One side of the ravine was in darkness. The darkness was soft and rich, suggesting thick foliage. Along the crest of the slope tree-tops came into view—great pines and hemlocks of the ancient unviolated forest—revealed against the orange disk of a full moon just rising. The low rays slanting through the moveless tops lit strangely the upper portion of the opposite steep,—the western wall of the ravine, barren, unlike its fellow, bossed with great rocky projections, and harsh with stunted junipers. Out of the sluggish dark that lay along the ravine as in a trough, rose the brawl of a swollen, obstructed stream.
Out of a shadowy hollow behind a long white rock, on the lower edge of that part of the steep which lay in the moonlight, came softly a great panther. In common daylight his coat would have shown a warm fulvous hue, but in the elvish decolorizing rays of that half hidden moon he seemed to wear a sort of spectral gray. He lifted his smooth round head to gaze on the increasing flame, which presently he greeted with a shrill cry. That terrible cry, at once plaintive and menacing, with an undertone like the fierce protestations of a saw beneath the file, was a summons to his mate, telling her that the hour had come when they should seek their prey. From the lair behind the rock, where the cubs were being suckled by their dam, came no immediate answer. Only a pair of crows, that had their nest in a giant fir-tree across the gulf, woke up and croaked harshly their indignation. These three summers past they had built in the same spot, and had been nightly awakened to vent the same rasping complaints.
The panther walked restlessly up and down, half a score of paces each way, along the edge of the shadow, keeping his wide-open green eyes upon the rising light. His short, muscular tail twitched impatiently, but he made no sound. Soon the breadth of confused brightness had spread itself further down the steep, disclosing the foot of the white rock, and the bones and antlers of a deer which had been dragged thither and devoured.
By this time the cubs had made their meal, and their dam was ready for such enterprise as must be accomplished ere her own hunger, now grown savage, could hope to be assuaged. She glided supplely forth into the glimmer, raised her head, and screamed at the moon in a voice as terrible as her mate's. Again the crows stirred, croaking harshly; and the two beasts, noiselessly mounting the steep, stole into the shadows of the forest that clothed the high plateau.
The panthers were fierce with hunger. These two days past their hunting had been well-nigh fruitless. What scant prey they had slain had for the most part been devoured by the female; for had she not those small blind cubs at home to nourish, who soon must suffer at any lack of hers? The settlements of late had been making great inroads on the world of ancient forest, driving before them the deer and smaller game. Hence the sharp hunger of the panther parents, and hence it came that on this night they hunted together. They purposed to steal upon the settlements in their sleep, and take tribute of the enemies' flocks.
Through the dark of the thick woods, here and there pierced by the moonlight, they moved swiftly and silently. Now and again a dry twig would snap beneath the discreet and padded footfalls. Now and again, as they rustled some low tree, a pewee or a nuthatch would give a startled chirp. For an hour the noiseless journeying continued, and ever and anon the two gray, sinuous shapes would come for a moment into the view of the now well-risen moon. Suddenly there fell upon their ears, far off and faint, but clearly defined against the vast stillness of the Northern forest, a sound which made those stealthy hunters pause and lift their heads. It was the voice of a child crying,—crying long and loud, hopelessly, as if there were no one by to comfort it. The panthers turned aside from their former course and glided toward the sound. They were not yet come to the outskirts of the settlement, but they knew of a solitary cabin lying in the thick of the woods a mile and more from the nearest neighbor. Thither they bent their way, fired with fierce hope. Soon would they break their bitter fast.
Up to noon of the previous day the lonely cabin had been occupied. Then its owner, a shiftless fellow, who spent his days for the most part at the corner tavern three miles distant, had suddenly grown disgusted with a land wherein one must work to live, and had betaken himself with his seven-year-old boy to seek some more indolent clime. During the long lonely days when his father was away at the tavern the little boy had been wont to visit the house of the next neighbor, to play with a child of some five summers, who had no other playmate. The next neighbor was a prosperous pioneer, being master of a substantial frame-house in the midst of a large and well-tilled clearing. At times, though rarely, because it was forbidden, the younger child would make his way by a rough wood road to visit his poor little disreputable playmate. At length it had appeared that the five-year-old was learning unsavory language from the elder boy, who rarely had an opportunity of hearing speech more desirable. To the bitter grief of both children, the companionship had at length been stopped by unalterable decree of the master of the frame house.
Hence it had come to pass that the little boy was unaware of his comrade's departure. Yielding at last to an eager longing for that comrade, he had stolen away late in the afternoon, traversed with endless misgivings the lonely stretch of wood road and reached the cabin only to find it empty. The door, on its leathern hinges, swung idly open. The one room had been stripped of its few poor furnishings. After looking in the rickety shed, whence darted two wild and hawklike chickens, the child had seated himself on the hacked threshold, and sobbed passionately with a grief that he did not fully comprehend. Then seeing the shadows lengthen across the tiny clearing, he had grown afraid to start for home. As the dusk gathered, he had crept trembling into the cabin, whose door would not stay shut. When it grew quite dark, he crouched in the inmost corner of the room, desperate with fear and loneliness, and lifted up his voice piteously. From time to time his lamentations would be choked by sobs, or he would grow breathless, and in the terrifying silence would listen hard to hear if any one or anything were coming. Then again would the shrill childish wailings arise, startling the unexpectant night, and piercing the forest depths, even to the ears of those great beasts which had set forth to seek their meat from God.
The lonely cabin stood some distance, perhaps a quarter of a mile, back from the highway connecting the settlements. Along this main road a man was plodding wearily. All day he had been walking, and now as he neared home his steps began to quicken with anticipation of rest. Over his shoulder projected a double-barrelled fowling-piece, from which was slung a bundle of such necessities as he had purchased in town that morning. It was the prosperous settler, the master of the frame house. His mare being with foal, he had chosen to make the tedious journey on foot.
The settler passed the mouth of the wood road leading to the cabin. He had gone perhaps a furlong beyond, when his ears were startled by the sound of a child crying in the woods. He stopped, lowered his burden to the road, and stood straining ears and eyes in the direction of the sound. It was just at this time that the two panthers also stopped, and lifted their heads to listen. Their ears were keener than those of the man, and the sound had reached them at a greater distance.
Presently the settler realized whence the cries were coming. He called to mind the cabin; but he did not know the cabin's owner had departed. He cherished a hearty contempt for the drunken squatter; and on the drunken squatter's child he looked with small favor, especially as a playmate for his own boy. Nevertheless he hesitated before resuming his journey.
"Poor little devil!" he muttered, half in wrath. "I reckon his precious father's drunk down at 'the Corners,' and him crying for loneliness!" Then he reshouldered his burden and strode on doggedly.
But louder, shriller, more hopeless and more appealing, arose the childish voice, and the settler paused again, irresolute, and with deepening indignation. In his fancy he saw the steaming supper his wife would have awaiting him. He loathed the thought of retracing his steps, and then stumbling a quarter of a mile through the stumps and bog of the wood road. He was foot-sore as well as hungry, and he cursed the vagabond squatter with serious emphasis; but in that wailing was a terror which would not let him go on. He thought of his own little one left in such a position, and straightway his heart melted. He turned, dropped his bundle behind some bushes, grasped his gun, and made speed back for the cabin.
"Who knows," he said to himself, "but that drunken idiot has left his youngster without a bite to eat in the whole miserable shanty? Or maybe he's locked out, and the poor little beggar's half scared to death. Sounds as if he was scared;" and at this thought the settler quickened his pace.
As the hungry panthers drew near the cabin, and the cries of the lonely child grew clearer, they hastened their steps, and their eyes opened to a wider circle, flaming with a greener fire. It would be thoughtless superstition to say the beasts were cruel. They were simply keen with hunger, and alive with the eager passion of the chase. They were not ferocious with any anticipation of battle, for they knew the voice was the voice of a child, and something in the voice told them the child was solitary. Theirs was no hideous or unnatural rage, as it is the custom to describe it. They were but seeking with the strength, the cunning, the deadly swiftness given them to that end, the food convenient for them. On their success in accomplishing that for which nature had so exquisitely designed them depended not only their own, but the lives of their blind and helpless young, now whimpering in the cave on the slope of the moon-lit ravine. They crept through a wet alder thicket, bounded lightly over the ragged brush fence, and paused to reconnoitre on the edge of the clearing, in the full glare of the moon. At the same moment the settler emerged from the darkness of the wood-road on the opposite side of the clearing. He saw the two great beasts, heads down and snouts thrust forward, gliding toward the open cabin door.
For a few moments the child had been silent. Now his voice rose again in pitiful appeal, a very ecstasy of loneliness and terror. There was a note in the cry that shook the settler's soul. He had a vision of his own boy, at home with his mother, safe-guarded from even the thought of peril. And here was this little one left to the wild beasts! "Thank God! Thank God I came!" murmured the settler, as he dropped on one knee to take a surer aim. There was a loud report (not like the sharp crack of a rifle), and the female panther, shot through the loins, fell in a heap, snarling furiously and striking with her fore-paws.
The male walked around her in fierce and anxious amazement. Presently, as the smoke lifted, he discerned the settler kneeling for a second shot. With a high screech of fury, the lithe brute sprang upon his enemy, taking a bullet full in his chest without seeming to know he was hit. Ere the man could slip in another cartridge the beast was upon him, bearing him to the ground and fixing keen fangs in his shoulder. Without a word, the man set his strong fingers desperately into the brute's throat, wrenched himself partly free, and was struggling to rise, when the panther's body collapsed upon him all at once, a dead weight which he easily flung aside. The bullet had done its work just in time.
Quivering from the swift and dreadful contest, bleeding profusely from his mangled shoulder, the settler stepped up to the cabin door and peered in. He heard sobs in the darkness.
"Don't be scared, sonny," he said, in a reassuring voice. "I'm going to take you home along with me. Poor little lad, I'll look after you if folks that ought to don't."
Out of the dark corner came a shout of delight, in a voice which made the settler's heart stand still. "Daddy, daddy," it said, "I knew you'd come. I was so frightened when it got dark!" And a little figure launched itself into the settler's arms, and clung to him trembling. The man sat down on the threshold and strained the child to his breast. He remembered how near he had been to disregarding the far-off cries, and great beads of sweat broke out upon his forehead.
Not many weeks afterwards the settler was following the fresh trail of a bear which had killed his sheep. The trail led him at last along the slope of a deep ravine, from whose bottom came the brawl of a swollen and obstructed stream. In the ravine he found a shallow cave, behind a great white rock. The cave was plainly a wild beast's lair, and he entered circumspectly. There were bones scattered about, and on some dry herbage in the deepest corner of the den, he found the dead bodies, now rapidly decaying, of two small panther cubs.
To the passing stranger there was nothing mysterious about it except the eternal mystery of beauty. To the scattered folk, however, who lived their even lives within its neighborhood, it was an object of dim significance and dread.
At first sight it seemed to be but a narrow, tideless, windless bit of backwater; and the first impulse of the passing stranger was to ask how it came to be called the "Perdu." On this point he would get little information from the folk of the neighborhood, who knew not French. But if he were to translate the term for their better information, they would show themselves impressed by a sense of its occult appropriateness.
The whole neighborhood was one wherein the strange and the not-to-be-understood might feel at home. It was a place where the unusual was not felt to be impossible. Its peace was the peace of one entranced. To its expectancy a god might come, or a monster, or nothing more than the realization of eventless weariness.
Only four or five miles away, across the silent, bright meadows and beyond a softly swelling range of pastured hills, swept the great river, a busy artery of trade.
On the river were all the modern noises, and with its current flowed the stream of modern ideas. Within sight of the river a mystery, or anything uninvestigated, or aught unamenable to the spirit of the age, would have seemed an anachronism. But back here, among the tall wild-parsnip tops and the never-stirring clumps of orange lilies, life was different, and dreams seemed likely to come true.
The Perdu lay perpetually asleep, along beside a steep bank clothed with white birches and balsam poplars. Amid the trunks of the trees grew elder shrubs, and snake-berries, and the elvish trifoliate plants of the purple and the painted trillium. The steep bank, and the grove, and the Perdu with them, ran along together for perhaps a quarter of a mile, and then faded out of existence, absorbed into the bosom of the meadows.
The Perdu was but a stone's throw broad, throughout its entire length. The steep with its trunks and leafage formed the northern bound of it; while its southern shore was the green verge of the meadows. Along this low rim its whitish opalescent waters mixed smoothly with the roots and over-hanging blades of the long grasses, with the cloistral arched frondage of the ferns, and with here and there a strayed spray of purple wild-pea. Here and there, too, a clump of Indian willow streaked the green with the vivid crimson of its stems.
Everything watched and waited. The meadow was a sea of sun mysteriously imprisoned in the green meshes of the grass-tops. At wide intervals arose some lonely alder bushes, thick banked with clematis. Far off, on the slope of a low, bordering hill, the red doors of a barn glowed ruby-like in the transfiguring sun. At times, though seldom, a blue heron winged over the level. At times a huge black-and-yellow bee hummed past, leaving a trail of faint sound that seemed to linger like a perfume. At times the landscape, that was so changeless, would seem to waver a little, to shift confusedly like things seen through running water. And all the while the meadow scents and the many-colored butterflies rose straight up on the moveless air, and brooded or dropped back into their dwellings.
Yet in all this stillness there was no invitation to sleep. It was a stillness rather that summoned the senses to keep watch, half apprehensively, at the doorways of perception. The wide eye noted everything, and considered it,—even to the hairy red fly alit on the fern frond, or the skirring progress of the black water-beetle across the pale surface of the Perdu. The ear was very attentive—even to the fluttering down of the blighted leaf, or the thin squeak of the bee in the straitened calyx, or the faint impish conferrings of the moisture exuding suddenly from somewhere under the bank. If a common sound, like the shriek of a steamboat's whistle, now and again soared over across the hills and fields, it was changed in that refracting atmosphere, and became a defiance at the gates of waking dream.
The lives, thoughts, manners, even the open, credulous eyes of the quiet folk dwelling about the Perdu, wore in greater or less degree the complexion of the neighborhood. How this came to be is one of those nice questions for which we need hardly expect definitive settlement. Whether the people, in the course of generations, had gradually keyed themselves to the dominant note of their surroundings, or whether the neighborhood had been little by little wrought up to its pitch of supersensibility by the continuous impact of superstitions, and expectations, and apprehensions, and wonders, and visions, rained upon it from the personalities of an imaginative and secluded people,—this might be discussed with more argument than conclusiveness.
Of the dwellers about the Perdu none was more saturated with the magic of the place than Reuben Waugh, a boy of thirteen. Reuben lived in a small, yellow-ochre-colored cottage, on the hill behind the barn with the red doors. Whenever Reuben descended to the level, and turned to look back at the yellow dot of a house set in the vast expanse of pale blue sky, he associated the picture with a vague but haunting conception of some infinite forget-me-not flower. The boy had all the chores to do about the little homestead; but even then there was always time to dream. Besides, it was not a pushing neighborhood; and whenever he would he took for himself a half-holiday. At such times he was more than likely to stray over to the banks of the Perdu.
It would have been hard for Reuben to say just why he found the Perdu so attractive. He might have said it was the fishing; for sometimes, though not often, he would cast a timorous hook into its depths and tremble lest he should lure from the pallid waters some portentous and dreadful prey. He never captured, however, anything more terrifying than catfish; but these were clad in no small measure of mystery, for the white waters of the Perdu had bleached their scales to a ghastly pallor, and the opalescence of their eyes was apt to haunt their captor's reveries. He might have said, also, that it was his playmate, little Celia Hansen,—whose hook he would bait whenever she wished to fish, and whose careless hands, stained with berries, he would fill persistently with bunches of the hot-hued orange lily.
But Reuben knew there was more to say than this. In a boyish way, and all unrealizing, he loved the child with a sort of love that would one day flower out as an absorbing passion. For the present, however, important as she was to him, she was nevertheless distinctly secondary to the Perdu itself with its nameless spell. If Celia was not there, and if he did not care to fish, the boy still longed for the Perdu, and was more than content to lie and watch for he knew not what, amid the rapt herbage, and the brooding insects, and the gnome-like conspiracies of the moisture exuding far under the bank.
Celia was two years younger than Reuben, and by nature somewhat less imaginative. For a long time she loved the Perdu primarily for its associations with the boy who was her playmate, her protector, and her hero. When she was about seven years old Reuben had rescued her from an angry turkey-cock, and had displayed a confident firmness which seemed to her wonderfully fine. Hence had arisen an unformulated but enduring faith that Reuben could be depended upon in any emergency. From that day forward she had refused to be content with other playmates. Against this uncompromising preference Mrs. Hansen was wont to protest rather plaintively; for there were social grades even here, and Mrs. Hansen, whose husband's acres were broad (including the Perdu itself), knew well that "that Waugh boy" was not her Celia's equal.
The profound distinction, however, was not one which the children could appreciate; and on Mrs. Hansen lay the spell of the neighborhood, impelling her to wait for whatever might see fit to come to pass.
For these two children the years that slipped so smoothly over the Perdu were full of interest. They met often. In the spring, when the Perdu was sullen and unresponsive, and when the soggy meadows showed but a tinge of green through the brown ruin of the winter's frosts, there was yet the grove to visit. Here Reuben would make deep incisions in the bark of the white birches, and gather tiny cupfuls of the faint-flavored sap, which, to the children's palates, had all the relish of nectar. A little later on there were the blossoms of the trillium to be plucked,—blossoms whose beauty was the more alluring in that they were supposed to be poisonous.
But it was with the deepening of the summer that the spell of the Perdu deepened to its most enthralling potency. And as the little girl grew in years and came more and more under her playmate's influence, her imagination deepened as the summer deepens, her perception quickened and grew subtle. Then in a quiet fashion, a strange thing came about. Under the influence of the children's sympathetic expectancy, the Perdu began to find fuller expression. Every mysterious element in the neighborhood—whether emanating from the Perdu itself or from the spirits of the people about it—appeared to find a focus in the personalities of the two children. All the weird, formless stories,—rather suggestions or impressions than stories,—that in the course of time had gathered about the place, were revived with added vividness and awe. New ones, too, sprang into existence all over the country-side, and were certain to be connected, soon after their origin, with the name of Reuben Waugh. To be sure, when all was said and sifted, there remained little that one could grasp or set down in black and white for question. Every experience, every manifestation, when investigated, seemed to resolve itself into something of an epidemic sense of unseen but thrilling influences.
The only effect of all this, however, was to invest Reuben with an interest and importance that consorted curiously with his youth. With a certain consciousness of superiority, born of his taste for out-of-the-way reading, and dreaming, and introspection, the boy accepted the subtle tribute easily, and was little affected by it. He had the rare fortune not to differ in essentials from his neighbors, but only to intensify and give visible expression to the characteristics latent in them all.
Thus year followed year noiselessly, till Reuben was seventeen and Celia fifteen. For all the expectancy, the sense of eventfulness even, of these years, little had really happened save the common inexplicable happenings of life and growth. The little that might be counted an exception may be told in a few words.
The customs of angling for catfish and tapping the birch trees for sap, had been suffered to fall into disuse. Rather, it seemed interesting to wander vaguely together, or in the long grass to read together from the books which Reuben would borrow from the cobwebby library of the old schoolmaster.
As the girl reached up mentally, or perhaps, rather, emotionally, toward the imaginative stature of her companion, her hold upon him strengthened. Of old, his perceptions had been keenest when alone, but now they were in every way quickened by her presence. And now it happened that the great blue heron came more frequently to visit the Perdu. While the children were sitting amid the birches, they heard the hush! hush! of the bird's wings fanning the pallid water. The bird, did I say? But it seemed to them a spirit in the guise of a bird. It had gradually forgotten its seclusiveness, and now dropped its long legs at a point right over the middle of the Perdu, alighted apparently on the liquid surface, and stood suddenly transformed into a moveless statue of a bird, gazing upon the playmates with bright, significant eyes. The look made Celia tremble.
The Perdu, as might have been expected when so many mysteries were credited to it, was commonly held to be bottomless. It is a very poor neighborhood indeed, that cannot show a pool with this distinction. Reuben, of course, knew the interpretation of the myth. He knew the Perdu was very deep. Except at either end, or close to the banks, no bottom could be found with such fathom-lines as he could command. To him, and hence to Celia, this idea of vast depths was thrillingly suggestive, and yet entirely believable. The palpably impossible had small appeal for them. But when first they saw the great blue bird alight where they knew the water was fathoms deep, they came near being surprised. At least, they felt the pleasurable sensation of wonder. How was the heron supported on the water? From their green nest the children gazed and gazed; and the great blue bird held them with the gem-like radiance of its unwinking eye. At length to Reuben came a vision of the top of an ancient tree-trunk just beneath the bird's feet, just beneath the water's surface. Down, slanting far down through the opaline opaqueness, he saw the huge trunk extend itself, to an immemorial root-hold in the clayey, perpendicular walls of the Perdu. He unfolded the vision to Celia, who understood. "And it's just as wonderful," said the girl, "for how did the trunk get there?"
"That's so," answered Reuben, with his eyes fixed on the bird,—"but then it's quite possible!"
And at the low sound of their voices the bird winnowed softly away.
At another time, when the children were dreaming by the Perdu, a far-off dinner-horn sounded, hoarsely but sweetly, its summons to the workers in the fields. It was the voice of noon. As the children, rising to go, glanced together across the Perdu, they clasped each other with a start of mild surprise. "Did you see that?" whispered Celia.
"What did you see?" asked the boy.
"It looked like pale green hand, that waved for a moment over the water, and then sank," said Celia.
"Yes," said Reuben, "that's just what it looked like. But I don't believe it really was a hand! You see those thin lily-leaves all about the spot? Their stems are long, wonderfully long and slender. If one of those queer, whitish catfish, like we used to catch, were to take hold of a lily-stem and pull hard, the edges of the leaf might rise up and wave just the way that did! You can't tell what the catfish won't do down there!"
"Perhaps that's all it was," said Celia.
"Though we can't be sure," added Reuben.
And thereafter, whensoever that green hand seemed to wave to them across the pale water, they were content to leave the vision but half explained.
It also came to pass, as unexpectedly as anything could come to pass by the banks of the Perdu, that one dusky evening, as the boy and girl came slowly over the meadows, they saw a radiant point of light that wavered fitfully above the water. They watched it in silence. As it came to a pause, the girl said in her quiet voice,—
"It has stopped right over the place where the heron stands!"
"Yes," replied Reuben, "it is evidently a will-o'-the-wisp. The queer gas, which makes it, comes perhaps from the end of that dead tree-trunk, just under the surface."
But the fact that the point of light was thus explicable, made it no less interesting and little less mysterious to the dwellers about the Perdu. As it came to be an almost nightly feature of the place, the people supplemented its local habitation with a name, calling it "Reuben Waugh's Lantern." Celia's father, treating the Perdu and all that pertained to it with a reverent familiarity befitting his right of proprietorship, was wont to say to Reuben,—
"Who gave you leave, Reuben, to hoist your lantern on my property? If you don't take it away pretty soon, I'll be having the thing put in pound."
It may be permitted me to cite yet one more incident to illustrate more completely the kind of events which seemed of grave importance in the neighborhood of the Perdu. It was an accepted belief that, even in the severest frosts, the Perdu could not be securely frozen over. Winter after winter, to be sure, it lay concealed beneath such a covering of snow as only firm ice could be expected to support. Yet this fact was not admitted in evidence. Folks said the ice and snow were but a film, waiting to yield upon the slightest pressure. Furthermore, it was held that neither bird nor beast was ever known to tread the deceptive expanse. No squirrel track, no slim, sharp foot-mark of partridge, traversed the immaculate level. One winter, after a light snowfall in the night, as Reuben strayed into the low-ceilinged kitchen of the Hansen farm-house, Mr. Hansen remarked in his quaint, dreamy drawl,—
"What for have you been walking on the Perdu, Reuben? This morning, on the new snow, I saw foot-marks of a human running right across it. It must have been you, Reuben. There's nobody else round here 'd do it!"
"No," said Reuben, "I haven't been nigh the Perdu these three days past. And then I didn't try walking on it, any way."
"Well," continued Celia's father, "I suppose folks would call it queer! Those foot-marks just began at one side of the Perdu, and ended right up sharp at the other. There wasn't another sign of a foot, on the meadow or in the grove!"
"Yes," assented Reuben, "it looks queer in a way. But then, it's easy for the snow to drift over the other tracks; while the Perdu lies low out of the wind."
The latter days of Reuben's stay beside the banks of the Perdu were filled up by a few events like these, by the dreams which these evoked, and above all by the growing realization of his love for Celia. At length the boy and girl slipped unawares into mutual self-revelations; and for a day or two life seemed so materially and tangibly joyous that vision and dream eluded them. Then came the girl's naive account of how her confidences had been received at home. She told of her mother's objections, soon overruled by her father's obstinate plea that "Reuben Waugh, when he got to be a man grown, would be good enough for any girl alive."
Celia had dwelt with pride on her father's championship of their cause. Her mother's opposition she had been familiar with for as long as she could remember. But it was the mother's opposition that loomed large in Reuben's eyes.
First it startled him with a vague sense of disquiet. Then it filled his soul with humiliation as its full significance grew upon him. Then he formed a sudden resolve; and neither the mother's relenting cordiality, nor the father's practical persuasions, nor Celia's tears, could turn him from his purpose. He said that he would go away, after the time-honored fashion, and seek his fortune in the world. He vowed that in three or four years, when they would be of a fit age to marry, he would come back with a full purse and claim Celia on even terms. This did not suit the unworldly old farmer, who had inherited, not in vain, the spiritualities and finer influences of his possession, the Perdu. He desired, first of all, his girl's happiness. He rebuked Reuben's pride with a sternness unusual for him. But Reuben went.
He went down the great river. Not many miles from the quiet region of the Perdu there was a little riverside landing, where Reuben took the steamer and passed at once into another atmosphere, another world. The change was a spiritual shock to him, making him gasp as if he had fallen into a tumultuous sea. There was the same chill, there was a like difficulty in getting his balance. But this was not for long. His innate self-reliance steadied him rapidly. His long-established habit of superiority helped him to avoid betraying his first sense of ignorance and unfitness. His receptiveness led him to assimilate swiftly the innumerable and novel facts of life with which he came all at once in contact; and he soon realized that the stirring, capable crowd, whose ready handling of affairs had at first overawed him, was really inferior in true insight to the peculiar people whom he had left about the Perdu. He found that presently he himself could handle the facts of life with the light dexterity which had so amazed him; but through it all he preserved (as he could see that those about him did not) his sense of the relativity of things. He perceived, always, the dependence of the facts of life upon the ideas underlying them, and thrusting them forward as manifestations or utterances. With his undissipated energy, his curious frugality in the matter of self-revelation, and his instinctive knowledge of men, he made his way from the first, and the roaring port at the mouth of the great river yielded him of its treasures for the asking. This was in a quiet enough way, indeed, but a way that more than fulfilled his expectations; and in the height of the blossoming time of his fifth summer in the world he found himself rich enough to go back to the Perdu and claim Celia. He resolved that he would buy property near the Perdu and settle there. He had no wish to live in the world; but to the world he would return often, for the sake of the beneficence of its friction,—as a needle, he thought, is the keener for being thrust often amid the grinding particles of the emery-bag. He resigned his situation and went aboard an up-river boat,—a small boat that would stop at every petty landing, if only to put ashore an old woman or a bag of meal, if only to take in a barrel of potatoes or an Indian with baskets and bead-work.
About mid-morning of the second day, at a landing not a score of miles below the one whereat Reuben would disembark, an Indian did come aboard with baskets and bead-work. At sight of him the old atmosphere of expectant mystery came over Reuben as subtly as comes the desire of sleep. He had seen this same Indian—he recognized the unchanging face—on the banks of the Perdu one morning years before, brooding motionless over the motionless water. Reuben began unconsciously to divest himself of his lately gathered worldliness; his mouth softened, his eyes grew wider and more passive, his figure fell into looser and freer lines, his dress seemed to forget its civil trimness. When at length he had disembarked at the old wharf under the willows, had struck across through the hilly sheep-pastures, and had reached a slope overlooking the amber-bright country of the Perdu, he was once more the silently eager boy, the quaintly reasoning visionary, his spirit waiting alert at his eyes and at his ears.
Reuben had little concern for the highways. Therefore he struck straight across the meadows, through the pale green vetch-tangle, between the intense orange lilies, amid the wavering blue butterflies and the warm, indolent perfumes of the wild-parsnip. As he drew near the Perdu there appeared the giant blue heron, dropping to his perch in mid-water. In almost breathless expectancy Reuben stepped past a clump of red willows, banked thick with clematis. His heart was beating quickly, and he could hear the whisper of the blood in his veins, as he came once more in view of the still, white water.
His gaze swept the expanse once and again, then paused, arrested by the unwavering, significant eye of the blue heron. The next moment he was vaguely conscious of a hand, that seemed to wave once above the water, far over among the lilies. He smiled as he said to himself that nothing had changed. But at this moment the blue heron, as if disturbed, rose and winnowed reluctantly away; and Reuben's eyes, thus liberated, turned at once to the spot where he had felt, rather than seen, the vision. As he looked the vision came again,—a hand, and part of an arm, thrown out sharply as if striving to grasp support, then dropping back and bearing down the lily leaves. For an instant Reuben's form seemed to shrink and cower with horror,—and the next he was cleaving with mighty strokes the startled surface of the Perdu. That hand—it was not pale green, like the waving hand of the old, childish vision. It was white and the arm was white, and white the drenched lawn sleeve clinging to it. He had recognized it, he knew not how, for Celia's.
Reaching the edge of the lily patch, Reuben dived again and again, groping desperately among the long, serpent-like stems. The Perdu at this point—and even in his horror he noted it with surprise—was comparatively shallow. He easily got the bottom and searched it minutely. The edge of the dark abyss, into which he strove in vain to penetrate, was many feet distant from the spot where the vision had appeared. Suddenly, as he rested, breathless and trembling, on the grassy brink of the Perdu, he realized that this, too, was but a vision. It was but one of the old mysteries of the Perdu; and it had taken for him that poignant form, because his heart and brain were so full of Celia. With a sigh of exquisite relief he thought how amused she would be at his plight, but how tender when she learned the cause of it. He laughed softly; and just then the blue heron came back to the Perdu.
Reuben shook himself, pressed some of the water from his dripping clothes, and climbed the steep upper bank of the Perdu. As he reached the top he paused among the birch trees to look back upon the water. How like a floor of opal it lay in the sun; then his heart leaped into his throat suffocatingly, for again rose the hand and arm, and waved, and dropped back among the lilies! He grasped the nearest tree, that he might not, in spite of himself, plunge back into the pale mystery of the Perdu. He rubbed his eyes sharply, drew a few long breaths to steady his heart, turned his back doggedly on the shining terror, and set forward swiftly for the farm-house, now in full view not three hundred yards away.
For all the windless down-streaming summer sunshine, there was that in Reuben's drenched clothes which chilled him to the heart. As he reached the wide-eaved cluster of the farmstead, a horn in the distance blew musically for noon. It was answered by another and another. But no such summons came from the kitchen door to which his feet now turned. The quiet of the Seventh Day seemed to possess the wide, bright farm-yard. A flock of white ducks lay drowsing on a grassy spot. A few hens dusted themselves with silent diligence in the ash-heap in front of the shed; and they stopped to watch with bright eyes the stranger's approach. From under the apple-trees the horses whinnied to him lonesomely. It was very peaceful; but the peacefulness of it bore down upon Reuben's soul like lead. It seemed as if the end of things had come. He feared to lift the latch of the well-known door.
As he hesitated, trembling, he observed that the white blinds were down at the sitting-room windows. The window nearest him was open, and the blind stirred almost imperceptibly. Behind it, now, his intent ear caught a sound of weary sobbing. At once he seemed to see all that was in the shadowed room. The moveless, shrouded figure, the unresponding lips, the bowed heads of the mourners, all came before him as clearly as if he were standing in their midst. He leaned against the door-post, and at this moment the door opened. Celia's father stood before him.
The old man's face was drawn with his grief. Something of bitterness came into his eyes as he looked on Reuben.
"You've heard, then!" he said harshly.
"I know!" shaped itself inaudibly on Reuben's lips.
At the sight of his anguish the old man's bitterness broke. "You've come in time for the funeral," he exclaimed piteously. "Oh, Reube, if you'd stayed it might have been different!"
"The Young Ravens that Call upon Him."
It was just before dawn, and a grayness was beginning to trouble the dark about the top of the mountain.
Even at that cold height there was no wind. The veil of cloud that hid the stars hung but a hand-breadth above the naked summit. To eastward the peak broke away sheer, beetling in a perpetual menace to the valleys and the lower hills. Just under the brow, on a splintered and creviced ledge, was the nest of the eagles.
As the thick dark shrank down the steep like a receding tide, and the grayness reached the ragged heap of branches forming the nest, the young eagles stirred uneasily under the loose droop of the mother's wings. She raised her head and peered about her, slightly lifting her wings as she did so; and the nestlings, complaining at the chill air that came in upon their unfledged bodies, thrust themselves up amid the warm feathers of her thighs. The male bird, perched on a jutting fragment beside the nest, did not move. But he was awake. His white, narrow, flat-crowned head was turned to one side, and his yellow eye, under its straight, fierce lid, watched the pale streak that was growing along the distant eastern sea-line.
The great birds were racked with hunger. Even the nestlings, to meet the petitions of whose gaping beaks they stinted themselves without mercy, felt meagre and uncomforted. Day after day the parent birds had fished almost in vain; day after day their wide and tireless hunting had brought them scant reward. The schools of alewives, mackerel, and herring seemed to shun their shores that spring. The rabbits seemed to have fled from all the coverts about their mountain.
The mother eagle, larger and of mightier wing than her mate, looked as if she had met with misadventure. Her plumage was disordered. Her eyes, fiercely and restlessly anxious, at moments grew dull as if with exhaustion. On the day before, while circling at her viewless height above a lake far inland, she had marked a huge lake-trout, basking near the surface of the water. Dropping upon it with half-closed, hissing wings, she had fixed her talons in its back. But the fish had proved too powerful for her. Again and again it had dragged her under water, and she had been almost drowned before she could unloose the terrible grip of her claws. Hardly, and late, had she beaten her way back to the mountain-top.
And now the pale streak in the east grew ruddy. Rust-red stains and purple, crawling fissures began to show on the rocky face of the peak. A piece of scarlet cloth, woven among the fagots of the nest, glowed like new blood in the increasing light. And presently a wave of rose appeared to break and wash down over the summit, as the rim of the sun came above the horizon.
The male eagle stretched his head far out over the depth, lifted his wings and screamed harshly, as if in greeting of the day. He paused a moment in that position, rolling his eye upon the nest. Then his head went lower, his wings spread wider, and he launched himself smoothly and swiftly into the abyss of air as a swimmer glides into the sea. The female watched him, a faint wraith of a bird darting through the gloom, till presently, completing his mighty arc, he rose again into the full light of the morning. Then on level, all but moveless wing, he sailed away toward the horizon.
As the sun rose higher and higher, the darkness began to melt on the tops of the lower hills and to diminish on the slopes of the upland pastures, lingering in the valleys as the snow delays there in spring. As point by point the landscape uncovered itself to his view, the eagle shaped his flight into a vast circle, or rather into a series of stupendous loops. His neck was stretched toward the earth, in the intensity of his search for something to ease the bitter hunger of his nestlings and his mate.
Not far from the sea, and still in darkness, stood a low, round hill, or swelling upland. Bleak and shelterless, whipped by every wind that the heavens could let loose, it bore no bush but an occasional juniper scrub. It was covered with mossy hillocks, and with a short grass, meagre but sweet. There in the chilly gloom, straining her ears to catch the lightest footfall of approaching peril, but hearing only the hushed thunder of the surf, stood a lonely ewe over the lamb to which she had given birth in the night.
Having lost the flock when the pangs of travail came upon her, the unwonted solitude filled her with apprehension. But as soon as the first feeble bleating of the lamb fell upon her ear, everything was changed. Her terrors all at once increased tenfold,—but they were for her young, not for herself; and with them came a strange boldness such as her heart had never known before. As the little weakling shivered against her side, she uttered low, short bleats and murmurs of tenderness. When an owl hooted in the woods across the valley, she raised her head angrily and faced the sound, suspecting a menace to her young. When a mouse scurried past her, with a small, rustling noise amid the withered mosses of the hillock, she stamped fiercely, and would have charged had the intruder been a lion.
When the first gray of dawn descended over the pasture, the ewe feasted her eyes with the sight of the trembling little creature, as it lay on the wet grass. With gentle nose she coaxed it and caressed it, till presently it struggled to its feet, and, with its pathetically awkward legs spread wide apart to preserve its balance, it began to nurse. Turning her head as far around as she could, the ewe watched its every motion with soft murmurings of delight.
And now that wave of rose, which had long ago washed the mountain and waked the eagles spread tenderly across the open pasture. The lamb stopped nursing; and the ewe, moving forward two or three steps, tried to persuade it to follow her. She was anxious that it should as soon as possible learn to walk freely, so they might together rejoin the flock. She felt that the open pasture was full of dangers.
The lamb seemed afraid to take so many steps. It shook its ears and bleated piteously. The mother returned to its side, caressed it anew, pushed it with her nose, and again moved away a few feet, urging it to go with her. Again the feeble little creature refused, bleating loudly. At this moment there came a terrible hissing rush out of the sky, and a great form fell upon the lamb. The ewe wheeled and charged madly; but at the same instant the eagle, with two mighty buffetings of his wings, rose beyond her reach and soared away toward the mountain. The lamb hung limp from his talons; and with piteous cries the ewe ran beneath, gazing upward, and stumbling over the hillocks and juniper bushes.
In the nest of the eagles there was content. The pain of their hunger appeased, the nestlings lay dozing in the sun, the neck of one resting across the back of the other. The triumphant male sat erect upon his perch, staring out over the splendid world that displayed itself beneath him. Now and again he half lifted his wings and screamed joyously at the sun. The mother bird, perched upon a limb on the edge of the nest, busily rearranged her plumage. At times she stooped her head into the nest to utter over her sleeping eaglets a soft chuckling noise, which seemed to come from the bottom of her throat.
But hither and thither over the round bleak hill wandered the ewe, calling for her lamb, unmindful of the flock, which had been moved to other pastures.
Within Sound of the Saws.
Lumber had gone up, and the big mill on the Aspohegan was working overtime.
Through the range of square openings under the eaves the sunlight streamed in steadily upon the strident tumult, the confusion of sun and shadow, within the mill. The air was sweet with the smell of fresh sawdust and clammy with the ooze from great logs just "yanked" up the dripping slides from the river. One had to pitch his voice with peculiar care to make it audible amid the chaotic din of the saws.
In the middle of the mill worked the "gang," a series of upright saws that rose and fell swiftly, cleaving their way with a pulsating, vicious clamor through an endless and sullen procession of logs. Here and there, each with a massive table to itself, hummed the circulars, large and small; and whensoever a deal, or a pile of slabs, was brought in contact with one of the spinning discs, upon the first arching spirt of sawdust spray began a shrieking note, which would run the whole vibrant and intolerable gamut as the saw bit through the fibres from end to end. In the occasional brief moments of comparative silence, when several of the saws would chance to be disengaged at the same instant, might be heard, far down in the lower story of the mill, the grumbling roar of the two great turbine wheels, which, sucking in the tortured water from the sluices, gave life to all the wilderness of cranks and shafts above.
That end of the mill which looked down river stood open, to a height of about seven feet, across the whole of the upper story. From this opening ran a couple of long slanting ways each two feet wide and about a hundred feet in length, raised on trestles. The track of these "slides," as they are technically termed, consisted of a series of wooden rollers, along which the deals raced in endless sequence from the saws, to drop with a plunge into a spacious basin, at the lower end of which they were gathered into rafts. Whenever there was a break in the procession of deals, the rollers would be left spinning briskly with a cheerful murmur. There was also a shorter and steeper "slide," diverging to the lumber yard, where clapboards and such light stuff were piled till they could be carted to the distant station.
In former days it had been the easy custom to dump the sawdust into the stream, but the fish-wardens had lately interfered and put a stop to the practice. Now, a tall young fellow, in top boots, gray homespun trousers and blue shirt, was busy carting the sawdust to a swampy hollow near the lower end of the main slides.
Sandy MacPherson was a new hand. Only that morning had he joined the force at the Aspohegan Mill; and every now and then he would pause, remove his battered soft felt from his whitish yellow curls, mop his red forehead, and gaze with a hearty appreciation at the fair landscape spread out beyond the mill. With himself and with the world in general he felt on fairly good terms—an easy frame of mind which would have been much jarred had he been conscious of the fact that from a corner in the upper story of the mill his every movement was watched with a vindictive and ominous interest.
In that corner, close by the head of one of the main slides, stood a table whose presiding genius was a little swinging circular. The circular was tended by a powerful, sombre-visaged old mill-hand called 'Lije Vandine, whose office it was to trim square the ragged ends of the "stuff" before it went down the slide. At the very back of the table hummed the saw, like a great hornet; and whenever Vandine got two or three deals in place before him he would grasp a lever above his head, and forward through its narrow slit in the table would dart the little saw, and scream its way in a second through the tough white spruce. Every time he let the saw swing back, Vandine would drop his eyes to the blue-shirted figure below, and his harsh features would work with concentrated fury. These seven years he had been waiting for the day when he should meet Sandy MacPherson face to face.
Seven years before, 'Lije Vandine had been working in one of the mills near St. John, New Brunswick, while his only daughter, Sarah, was living out at service in the city. At this time Sandy MacPherson was employed on the city wharves, and an acquaintance which he formed with the pretty housemaid resulted in a promise of marriage between the two. Vandine and his wife were satisfied with the girl's account of her lover, and the months slipped by swiftly without their making his acquaintance. Among the fishing and lumbering classes, however, it not seldom happens that betrothal brings with it rather more intimate privileges than propriety could sanction, whence it came to pass that one evening Sarah returned to her parents unexpectedly, having been dismissed from her situation in disgrace. Vandine, though ignorant, was a clear-seeing man, who understood his own class thoroughly; and after his first outburst of wounded indignation he had forgiven and comforted his daughter no less tenderly than her mother had done. He knew perfectly that the girl was no wanton. He went at once into the city, with the intention of fetching Sandy out and covering up the disgrace by an immediate marriage. He visited the wharves, but the young man was not there. With growing apprehension he hastened to his boarding-house, only to learn that MacPherson had left the place and was departing for the States by the next train, having been married the previous evening. The man's pain and fury at this revelation almost choked him, but he mastered himself sufficiently to ask a boy of the house to accompany him to the station and point out the betrayer. If the train had not gone, he would be in time to avenge his poor girl. The boy, however, took alarm at something in Vandine's face, and led him by a roundabout way, so that just as he drew near the station the Western Express rolled out with increasing speed. On the rear platform stood a laughing young woman bedecked in many colors, and beside her a tall youth with a curly yellow head, whom the boy pointed out as Sandy MacPherson. He was beyond the reach of vengeance for the time. But his features stamped themselves ineffaceably on the avenger's memory. As the latter turned away, to bide his time in grim silence, the young woman on the platform of the car said to her husband, "I wonder who that was, Sandy, that looked like he was going to run after the cars! Didn't you see? His arms kind o' jerked out, like that; but he didn't start after all. There he goes up the hill, with one pant-leg in his boot. He looked kind of wild. I'm just as glad he didn't get aboard!"
"He's one of your old fellers as you've give the go-by to, I kind of suspicion, Sis," replied the young man with a laugh. And the train roared into a cutting.
About a year after these events Vandine's wife died, and Vandine thereupon removed, with Sarah and her baby, to the interior of the province, settling down finally at Aspohegan Mills. Here he built himself a small cottage, on a steep slope overlooking the mill; and here Sarah, by her quiet and self-sacrificing devotion to her father and her child, wiped out the memory of her error and won the warm esteem of the settlement. As for the child, he grew into a handsome, blue-eyed, sturdy boy, whom his grandfather loved with a passionate tenderness intensified by a subtle strain of pity. As year by year his daughter and the boy twined themselves ever closer about his heart, Vandine's hate against the man who had wronged them both kept ever deepening to a keener anguish.
But now at last the day had come. When first he had caught sight of MacPherson in the yard below, the impulse to rush down and throttle him was so tremendous that as he curbed it the blood forsook his face, leaving it the color of ashes, and for a few seconds he could not tend his saw. Presently, when the yelping little demon was again at work biting across the timbers, the foreman drew near, and Vandine asked him, "Who's the new hand down yonder?"
"Oh!" said the foreman, leaning a little over the bench to follow Vandine's pointing, "yon's one Sandy MacPherson, from over on the Kennebec. He's been working in Maine these seven year past, but says he kind of got a hankering after his own country, an' so he's come back. Good hand!"
"That so!" was all Vandine replied.
All the long forenoon, amid the wild, or menacing, or warning, or complaining crescendos and diminuendos of the unresting saws, the man's brain seethed with plans of vengeance. After all these years of waiting he would be satisfied with no common retribution. To merely kill the betrayer would be insufficient. He would wring his soul and quench his manhood with some strange unheard-of horror, ere dealing the final stroke that should rid earth of his presence. Scheme after scheme burned through his mind, and at times his gaunt face would crease itself in a dreadful smile as he pulled the lever that drove his blade through the deals. Finding no plan altogether to his taste, however, he resolved to postpone his revenge till night, at least, that he might have the more time to think it over, and to indulge the luxury of anticipation with realization so easily within his grasp.
At noon Vandine, muttering to himself, climbed the steep path to the little cottage on the hillside. He ate his dinner in silence, with apparently no perception of what was being set before him. His daughter dared not break in upon this preoccupation. Even his idolized Stevie could win from him no notice, save a smile of grim triumph that frightened the child. Just as he was leaving the cottage to return to the mill, he saw Sarah start back from the window and sit down suddenly, grasping at her bosom, and blanching to the lips as if she had seen a ghost. Glancing downward to the black road, deep with rotted sawdust, he saw MacPherson passing.
"Who is it?" he asked the girl.
"It's Sandy," she murmured, flushing scarlet and averting her face.
Her father turned away without a word and started down the hill. Presently the girl remembered that there was something terrifying in the expression of his face as he asked the curt question. With a sudden vague fear rising in her breast, she ran to the cottage door.
"Father!" she cried, "father!" But Vandine paid no heed to her calls, and after a pause she turned back into the room to answer Stevie's demand for a cup of milk.
Along about the middle of the afternoon, while Sandy MacPherson was still carting sawdust, and Vandine tending his circular amid the bewildering din, Stevie and some other children came down to play around the mill.
The favorite amusement with these embryo mill-hands, stream-drivers, and lumbermen, was to get on the planks as they emerged from the upper story of the mill, and go careering swiftly and smoothly down the slides, till, just before coming to the final plunge, they would jump off, and fall on the heap of sawdust. This was a game that to strangers looked perilous enough; but there had never been an accident, so at Aspohegan Mills it had outgrown the disapproval of the hands. To Sandy MacPherson, however, it was new, and from time to time he eyed the sport apprehensively. And all the while Vandine glared upon him from his corner in the upper story, and the children raced shouting down the slides, and tumbled with bright laughter into the sawdust.
Among the children none enjoyed more than Stevie this racing down the slides. His mother, looking out of the window on the hillside, saw the merry little figure, bareheaded, the long yellow curls floating out behind him, as he half knelt, half sat on the sliding plank ready to jump off at the proper moment. She had no thought of danger as she resumed her housework. Neither had Stevie. At length it happened, however, that just as he was nearing the end of the descent, an eagle came sailing low overhead, caught the little fellow's eye, and diverted his attention for a moment. It was the fatal moment. Just as he looked down again, gathering himself to jump, his heart sprang into his throat, and the plank with a sickening lurch plunged into the churning basin. The child's shrill, frightened shriek was not half uttered ere the waters choked it.
Vandine had just let the buzzing little circular slip back into its recess, when he saw MacPherson spring from his cart and dash madly down to the shore.
At the same instant came that shrill cry, so abruptly silenced. Vandine's heart stood still with awful terror,—he had recognized the child's voice. In a second he had swung himself down over the scaffolding, alighting on a sawdust heap.
"Hold back the deals!" he yelled in a voice that pierced the din. It was not five seconds ere every one in the mill seemed to know what had happened. Two men sprang on the slides and checked the stream of deals. Then the great turbines ceased to grumble, and all the clamor of the saws was hushed. The unexpected silence was like a blow, and sickened the nerves.
And meanwhile—Stevie? The plank that bore his weight clinging desperately to it, plunged deeper than its fellows, and came up somewhat further from the slide, but not now with Stevie upon it. The child had lost his hold, and when he rose it was only to strike against the bottoms of three or four deals that lay clustered together.
This, though apparently fatal, was in reality the child's salvation, for during the half or three-quarters of a minute that intervened before the slides could be stopped, the great planks kept dropping and plunging and crashing about him; and had it not been for those very timbers that cut him off from the air he was choking to breathe, he would have been crushed and battered out of all human semblance in a second. As it was, ere he had time to suffocate, MacPherson was on the spot.
In an instant the young man's heavy boots were kicked off, and without pausing to count the odds, which were hideously against him, he sprang into the chaos of whirling timbers. All about him pounded the falling deals, then ceased, just as he made a clean dive beneath that little cluster that covered Stevie. As Vandine reached the shore, and was casting desperate glances over the basin in search of some clue to guide his plunge, MacPherson reappeared at the other side of the deals, and Stevie's yellow curls were floating over his shoulder. The young man clung rather faintly to the supporting planks, as if he had overstrained himself; and two or three hands, who had already shoved off a "bateau," pushed out and picked him up with his burden.
Torn by a convulsion of fiercely antagonized passions, Vandine sat down on the edge of the bank and waited stupidly. About the same moment Sarah looked out of the cottage door in wonder to see why the mill had stopped so suddenly.
In all his dreams, Vandine had never dreamed of such chance as that his enemy should deserve his gratitude. In his nature there had grown up one thing stronger than his thirst for vengeance, and that one thing was his love for Stevie. In spite of himself, and indeed to his furious self-scorn, he found his heart warming strangely to the man who, at deadliest risk, had saved the life of his darling. At the same time he was conscious of a fresh sense of injury. A bitter resentment throbbed up in his bewildered bosom, to think that MacPherson should thus have robbed him of the sweets of that revenge he had so long anticipated. The first clear realization that came to him was that, though he must kill the man who had wronged his girl, he would nevertheless be tortured with remorse for ever after. A moment more, and—as he saw Sandy step out of the "bateau" with the boy, now sobbing feebly, in his arms—he knew that his vengeance had been made for ever impossible. He longed fiercely to grasp the fellow's hand, and make some poor attempt to thank him. But he mastered the impulse—Sarah must not be forgotten. He strode down the bank. One of the hands had taken Stevie, and MacPherson was leaning against a pile of boards, panting for breath. Vandine stepped up to him, his fingers twitching, and struck him a furious blow across the mouth with his open hand. Then he turned aside, snatched Stevie to his bosom, and started up the bank. Before going two paces, however, he paused, as if oppressed by the utter stillness that followed his astounding act. Bending a strange look on the young man, he said, in a voice as harsh as the saw's:—
"I was going to kill you to-night, Sandy MacPherson. But now after this day's work of yourn, I guess yer safe from me from this out." He shut his mouth with a snap, and strode up through the piles of sawdust toward the cottage on the hill.
As for MacPherson, he was dumbfounded. Though no boaster, he knew he had done a magnificently heroic thing, and to get his mouth slapped for it was an exigency which he did not know what to do with. He had staggered against the boards from the force of the stroke, but it had not occurred to him to resent it, though ordinarily he was hot-blooded and quick in a quarrel. He stared about him sheepishly, bewildered and abashed, and unspeakably aggrieved. In the faces of the mill-hands who were gathered about him, he found no solution of the mystery. They looked as astonished as himself, and almost equally hot and ashamed. Presently he ejaculated, "Well, I swan!" Then one of the men who had taken out the "bateau" and picked him up, found voice.
"I'll be gosh-darned ef that ain't the damnedest," said he, slowly. "Why, so, I'd thought as how he was a-goin' right down on his prayer-handles to ye. That there kid is the apple of his eye."
"An' he was sot on killin' me to-night, was he?" murmured MacPherson in deepest wonderment. "What might his name be, anyhow?"
"'Lije Vandine," spoke up another of the hands. "An' that's his grandchild, Stevie. I reckon he must have a powerful grudge agin you, Sandy, or he'd never 'a' acted that way."
MacPherson's face had grown suddenly serious and dignified. "Is the boy's father and mother livin'?" he inquired.
"Sarah Vandine's living with the old man," answered the foreman, "and as fine a girl as there'll be in Aspohegan. Don't know anything about the lad's father, nor don't want to. The man that'd treat a girl like Sarah Vandine that way—hangin 's too good for 'im."
MacPherson's face flushed crimson, and he dropped his eyes.
"Boys," said he, huskily, "ef 'Lije Vandine had 'a' served me as he intended, I guess as how I'd have only got my deserts. I reckon as how I'm the little lad's father!"
The hands stared at each other. Nothing could make them forget what MacPherson had just done. They were all daring and ready in emergency, but each man felt that he would have thought twice before jumping into the basin when the deals were running on the slides. The foreman could have bitten his tongue out for what he had just said. He tried to mend matters.
"I wouldn't have thought you was that sort of a man, to judge from what I've just seen o' you," he explained. "Anyhow, I reckon you've more'n made up this day for the wrong you done when you was younger. But Sarah Vandine's as good a girl as they make, an' I don't hardly see how you could 'a' served her that trick."
A certain asperity grew in the foreman's voice as he thought of it; for, as his wife used to say, he "set a great store by 'Lije's girl, not havin' no daughter of his own."
"It was lies as done it, boys," said MacPherson. "As for whose lies, why that ain't neither here nor there, now—an' she as did the mischief's dead and buried—and before she died she told me all about it. That was last winter—of the grippe—and I tell you I've felt bad about Sarah ever since. An' to think the little lad's mine! Boys, but ain't he a beauty?" And Sandy's face began to beam with satisfaction at the thought.
By this time all the hands looked gratified at the turn affairs were, to them, so plainly taking. Every one returned to work, the foreman remarking aside to a chum, "I reckon Sarah's all right." And in a minute or two the saws were once more shrieking their way through the logs and slabs and deals.
On the following morning, as 'Lije Vandine tended his vicious little circular, he found its teeth needed resetting. They had been tried by a lot of knotty timber. He unshipped the saw and took it to the foreman. While he was waiting for the latter to get him another saw, Sandy MacPherson came up. With a strong effort Vandine restrained himself from holding out his hand in grateful greeting. There was a lull in the uproar, the men forgetting to feed their saws as they watched the interview.
Sandy's voice was heard all over the mill:—
"'Lije Vandine, I saved the little lad's life, an' that, counts for something; but I know right well I ain't got no right to expect you or Sarah ever to say a kind word to me. But I swear, so help me God, I hadn't no sort of idee what I was doin'. My wife died las' winter, over on the Kennebec, an' afore she died she told me everything—as I'd take it kindly ef you'd let me tell you, more particular, another time. An' as I was wantin' to say now, I'd take it kind ef you'd let me go up along to your place this evenin', and maybe Sarah'd let me jest talk to the boy a little. Ef so be ez I could persuade her by-and-by to forget an' forgive—and you'd trust me after what I'd done—I'd lay out to marry her the minute she'd say the word, fur there ain't no other woman I've ever set such store by as I do now by her. An' then ther's Stevie——"
"Stevie and the lass hez both got a good home," interrupted Vandine, roughly.
"An' I wouldn't want a better for 'em," exclaimed MacPherson, eagerly, catching the train of the old man's thought. "What I'd want would be, ef maybe you'd let me come in along with them and you."
By this time Vandine had got his new saw, and he turned away without replying. Sandy followed him a few paces, and then turned back dejectedly to attend his own circular—he having been moved into the mill that morning. All the hands looked at him in sympathy, and many were the ingenious backwoods oaths which were muttered after Vandine for his ugliness. The old man paid little heed, however, to the tide of unpopularity that was rising about him. Probably, absorbed in his own thoughts, he was utterly unaware of it. All the morning long he swung and fed his circular, and when the horn blew for twelve his mind was made up. In the sudden stillness he strode over to the place where MacPherson worked, and said in a voice of affected carelessness—
"You better come along an' have a bite o' dinner with us, Sandy. You'll be kinder expected, I reckon, for Stevie's powerful anxious to see you."
Sandy grabbed his coat and went along.
The Butt of the Camp.
He was a mean-looking specimen, this Simon Gillsey, and the Gornish Camp was not proud of him. His neck was long, his mouth was long and protruding, like a bird's beak, his hair was thin and colorless, his shoulders sloped in such a manner that his arms, which were long and lean, seemed to start from somewhere near his waist.
His body started forward from the hips, and he used his hands in a deprecating fashion that seemed to beseech so much recognition as might be conveyed in a passing kick.
He was muscular to a degree that would never be guessed from his make-up, but the camp was possessed with a sense of shame at tolerating his presence, and protected its self-respect by reminding him continually that he was considered beneath contempt.
Simon seemed quite unconscious of the difference between the truth and a lie. It was not that he lied from malice—the hands said he hadn't "spunk" enough to know what malice was—but sheer mental obliquity led him to lie by preference, unless he saw reason to believe that the truth would conciliate his comrades.
He used to steal tobacco and other trifles whenever he found a good opportunity, and when he was caught his repentance was that of fear rather than of shame.
At the same time, the poor wretch was thoroughly courageous in the face of some physical and external dangers. The puniest man in camp could cow him with a look, yet none was prompter than he to face the grave perils of breaking a log-jam, and there was no cooler hand than his in the risky labors of stream-driving. Altogether he was a disagreeable problem to the lumbermen,—who resented any element of pluck in one so unmanly and meagre-spirited as he was.
In spite of their contempt, however, they could ill have done without this cringing axeman. He did small menial services for his fellows, was ordered about at all times uncomplainingly, and bore the blame for everything that went wrong in the Gornish Camp.
When one of the hands was in a particularly bad humor, he could always find some relief for his feelings by kicking Gillsey in the shins, at which Gillsey would but smile an uneasy protest, showing the conspicuous absence of his upper front teeth.
Then again the Gornish Camp was waggishly inclined. The hands were much addicted to practical jokes. It was not always wholesome to play these on each other, but Gillsey afforded a safe object for the ingenuity of the backwoods wit.
For instance, whenever the men thought it was time to "chop a fellow down," in default of a greenhorn from the older settlements they would select Gillsey for the victim, and order that reluctant scarecrow up to the tree-top. This was much like the hunting of a tame fox, as far as exhilaration and manliness were concerned; but sport is sport, and the men would have their fun, with the heedless brutality of primitive natures.
This diversion, though rough and dangerous, is never practised on any but green hands or unwary visitors; but all signs fail in dry weather, and for Gillsey no traditions held.
When he had climbed as high as his tormentors thought advisable—which usually was just as high as the top of the tree—a couple of vigorous choppers would immediately attack the tree with their axes.
As the tall trunk began to topple with a sickening hesitation, Gillsey's eyes would stick out and his thin hair seem to stand on end, for to this torture he never grew accustomed. Then, as the men yelled with delight, the mass of dark branches would sweep down with a soft, windy crash into the snow, and Gillsey, pale and nervous, but adorned with that unfailing toothless smile, would pick himself out of the debris and slink off to camp.
The men usually consoled him after such an experience with a couple of plugs of "black-jack" tobacco,—which seemed to him ample compensation.
In camp at night, when the hands had all gone to bed, two or three wakeful ones would sometimes get up to have a smoke in the fire-light. Such a proceeding almost always resulted in skylarking, of which Simon would be the miserable object. Perhaps the arch-conspirator would go to the cook's flour-barrel, fill his mouth with dry flour, and then, climbing to the slumbering Simon's bunk, would blow the dusty stuff in a soft, thin stream all over the sleeper's face and hair and scraggy beard. This process was called "blowing him," and was counted a huge diversion.
On soft nights, when the camp was hot and damp, it made, of course, a sufficiently nasty mess in the victim's hair, but Gillsey, by contrast, deemed rather to enjoy it. It never woke him up.
If the joker's mood happened to be more boisterous, the approved procedure was to softly uncover Gillsey's feet, and tie a long bit of salmon twine to each big toe. After waking all the other hands, the conspirators would retire to their bunks.
Presently some one would give a smart tug on one of the strings, and pass it over hastily to his neighbor. Gillsey would wake up with a nervous yell, and grabbing his toe, seek to extricate it from the loop. Then would come another and sharper pull at the other toe, diverting Gillsey's attention to that member.
The game would be kept up till the bunks were screaming with laughter, and poor Gillsey bathed in perspiration and anxiety. Then the boss would interfere, and Gillsey would be set free.
These are only instances of what the butt was made to endure, though he was probably able to thrash almost any one of his tormentors, and had he mustered spirit to attempt this, all the camp would have seen that he got fair play.
At last, however, it began to be suspected that Gillsey was stealing from the pork barrels and other stores. This was serious, and the men would not play any more jokes upon the culprit. Pending proof, he was left severely to himself, and enjoyed comparative peace for nearly a week.
This peace, strange to say, did not seem to please him. The strange creature hated to be ignored, and even courted further indignities. No one would notice him, however, till one night when he came in late, and undertook to sleep on the "deacon-seat."
A word of explanation is needed here. The "deacon-seat"—why so called I cannot say—is a raised platform running alongside of the stove, between the chimney and the tier of bunks. It is, of course, a splendid place to sleep on a bitter night, but no one is allowed so to occupy it, because in that position he shuts off the warmth from the rest.
The hands were all apparently asleep when Gillsey, after a long solitary smoke, reached for his blanket, and rolled himself up on the coveted "deacon-seat," with his back to the glowing fire. After a deprecating grin directed toward the silent bunks, he sank to sleep.
Soon in the bunks arose a whispered consultation, as a result of which stalwart woodsmen climbed down, braced their backs against the lower tier, doubled up their knees, and laid their sock feet softly against the sleeper's form. At a given signal the legs all straightened out with tremendous force, and poor Gillsey shot right across the "deacon-seat" and brought up with a thud upon the stove.
With a yell, he bounced away from his scorching quarters and plunged into his bunk, not burnt, but very badly scared. After that he eschewed the "deacon-seat."
At last the unfortunate wretch was caught purloining the pork. It became known in the camp, somehow, that he was a married man, and father of a family as miserable and shiftless as himself. Here was an explanation of his raids upon the provisions, for nobody in the camp would for a moment imagine that Gillsey could, unaided, support a family.
One Sunday night he was tracked to a hollow about a mile from camp, where he was met by a gaunt, wild, eccentric-looking girl, who was clearly his daughter. The two proceeded to an old stump concealed under some logs in a thicket, and out of the hollow, of the stump Gillsey fished a lump of salt pork, together with a big bundle of "hard-tack," and a parcel or two of some other kind of provender.
The girl threw herself upon the food like a famishing animal, devoured huge mouthfuls, and then, gathering all promiscuously into her scanty skirt, darted off alone through the gloom. As soon as she had disappeared with her stores, Gillsey was captured and dragged back to camp.
At first he was too helpless with terror to open his mouth; but when formally arraigned before the boss he found his tongue. He implored forgiveness in the most piteous tones, while at the same time he flatly denied every charge. He even declared he was not married, that he had no family, and that he knew no one at all in the Gornish district or that part of the province.
But the boss knew all about him, even to his parentage. He lived about ten miles from the camp, across the mountains, on the Gornish River itself. As for his guilt, there was no room for a shadow of uncertainty.
A misdemeanor of this sort is always severely handled in the lumber camps. But every man, from the boss down, was filled with profound compassion for Gillsey's family. A family so afflicted as to own Gillsey for husband and sire appeared to them deserving of the tenderest pity.
It was the pathetic savagery and haggardness of the young girl that had moved the woodmen to let her off with her booty; and now, the boss declared, if Gillsey were dismissed without his wages—as was customary, in addition to other punishment—the family would surely starve, cut off from the camp pork-barrel. It was decided to give the culprit his wages up to date. Then came the rough-and-ready sentence of the camp-followers. The prisoner was to be "dragged"—the most humiliating punishment on the woodmen's code.
Gillsey's tears of fright were of no avail. He was wrapped in a sort of winding-sheet of canvas, smeared from head to foot with grease to make him slip smoothly, and hitched by the fettered wrists to a pair of horses. The strange team was then driven, at a moderate pace, for about half a mile along the main wood-road, the whole camp following in procession, and jeering at the unhappy thief.
When the man was unhitched, unbound, and set upon his feet,—not physically the worse for his punishment save that, presumably, his wrists ached somewhat,—he was given a bundle containing his scanty belongings, and told to "streak" for home. As he seemed reluctant to obey, he was kicked into something like alacrity.
When he had got well out of sight the woodmen returned to their camp. As for the wretched Gillsey, after the lamentations wherewith he enlivened his tramp had sunk to silence, he began to think his bundle remarkably heavy. He sat down on a stump to examine it. To his blank amazement he found a large lump of pork and a small bag of flour wrapped up in his dilapidated overalls.