JOYCE OF THE NORTH WOODS
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
AUTHOR OF JANET OF THE DUNES, TOWER AND THRONE, THE QUEEN'S HOSTAGE, ETC.
ILLUSTRATED BY JOHN CASSEL
GROSSET & DUNLAP PUBLISHERS :: NEW YORK
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
COPYRIGHT, 1911, BY DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
EVELINA HEMINWAY SMITH
Accept the dedication of this book of mine as a very slight recognition of your encouragement in my work; your faith in me.
To you I first read the story; from you I received my first approval; I believe its chances will be brighter in the book-world if your name and good-will go with it.
HARRIET T. COMSTOCK
Flatbush—Brooklyn, N. Y. February, 1910
TABLE OF CONTENTS
CHAPTER I 3 CHAPTER II 24 CHAPTER III 46 CHAPTER IV 65 CHAPTER V 78 CHAPTER VI 98 CHAPTER VII 111 CHAPTER VIII 134 CHAPTER IX 154 CHAPTER X 177 CHAPTER XI 198 CHAPTER XII 212 CHAPTER XIII 231 CHAPTER XIV 251 CHAPTER XV 273 CHAPTER XVI 301 CHAPTER XVII 312 CHAPTER XVIII 334 CHAPTER XIX 350 CHAPTER XX 369
"Love is the golden bead in the bottom of the crucible." And the crucible was St. Ange.
* * * * *
Fifty years before this story began, St. Ange was a lumber camp; the first gash in that part of the great Solitude to the north, which lay across Beacon Hill, three miles from Hillcrest.
When the splendid lumber had been felled within a prescribed limit, Industry took another leap, left St. Ange scarred and blighted, with a fringe of forest north and south, and struck camps farther back and nearer Canada.
Then Nature began to heal the stricken heart of the Solitude. A second growth of lovely tree and bush sprang to the call, and the only reminders of the camp were the absences of the men during the logging season, and the roaring and rushing of the river through Long Meadow every spring, with its burden of logs from the distant camps.
In the beginning St. Ange had had her aspirations. A futile highway had been constructed, for no other purpose apparently, than to connect the north and south forests. A little church had been built—there had never been any regular service held in it—and a small school-house which promptly degenerated into the Black Cat Tavern, General Store, and Post Office. A few modest houses met the highway face to face; a few more turned their backs upon it and were content with an outlook across Long Meadow and toward Beacon Hill, beyond which lay the village of Hillcrest which grew in importance as St. Ange degenerated. There were scattered houses among the clumps of maple and pine growths, and there was a forlorn railroad station before which a rickety, single track branch ended. Sometime during the day a train came in, and after an uncertain period it departed; it was the only link with the outer world that St. Ange had except what came by way of Hillcrest.
Toward Hillcrest, as the years went on, there grew in St. Ange a feeling of envy and distrust. Its prosperity and decency were a reflection, its very emphatic regard for law and order a menace and burden. St. Angeans sent their aspiring youths to the Hillcrest school—it was never an alarming constituency—it was cheaper to do that than to support a school of their own. There were emergencies when the Hillcrest doctor and minister were in demand, so it behooved St. Ange to keep up a partial show of friendliness, but bitterly did it resent the interference of Hillcrest justice during that season immediately following the enforced sobriety and isolation of the lumber camp.
Were men not to have some compensation for the hardships of the backwoods?
And just at that point in the argument Beacon Hill received its name and significance. From its top a watcher could view the road leading to Hillcrest, and by a well-directed signal give warning to any chance wrongdoer on the St. Ange side. Many a culprit had thus been aided in his plans of escape before Justice, striding over the western hill, bore down upon the town.
Beautiful, unappreciated St. Ange! The trees grew, and the scar was healed. The soft, pine-laden breezes touched with heavenly fragrance the dull-faced women, the pathetic children, and the unambitious men. Everything was run down and apparently doomed, until one day the endless chain which encompasses the world, in its turning dropped the Golden Bead of Love into St. Ange! Down deep it sank to the bottom of the crucible. Jude Lauzoon was blinded by it and stung to life; Joyce Birkdale through its power came into the heritage of her soul. Jock Filmer by its magic force was shorn of his poor shield and left naked and unprotected for Fate's crudest darts. John Gaston, working out his salvation in his shack hidden among the pines, was burnt by the divining rays that penetrated to his secret place and spared him not. And then, when things were at their tensest, Ralph Drew came and tuned the discordant notes into sweet harmony. St. Ange became in time a home for many whom despair had marked for its own; a Sanctuary for devoted service.
"You've got the winning cards, my girl ... It's all in the playing now" Frontispiece
"Once I went so far as to go up there with my gun" 76
That pictured Mother and Child were moulding Joyce's character 114
Presently he opened his eyes ... and there sat the girl of his dreams near him 188
JOYCE OF THE NORTH WOODS
The man lying flat on the rock which crusted Beacon Hill raised his head with a snake-like motion, and then let it fall back again upon his folded arms. His body had not moved; it seemed part of the stone and moss.
The midsummer afternoon was sunny and hot, and the fussy little river rambling through the Long Meadow was talking in its sleep.
Lazily it wound around young maples, and ferny groups—it would crush them by and by, poor trusting things—then it would stumble against a rock or pile of loose stones, wake up and repeat the strain it had learned at its mother's breast, far up in the North Woods.
"I'm here! here! here! I'll be ready by and by, by, by, by." Then on again, a little faster perhaps, but still dreamily. Children's laughter sounded far below; a slouching man or woman making for the Black Cat bent on business or pleasure, passed now and then; all else was still and seemingly asleep.
Again Jude raised his head and gave that quick glance around.
Jude was awake at last. Little Billy Falstar had roused him two days before and set the world in a jangle. The child's impish words had struck the scales from Jude's eyes, and the blinding light made him shrink and suffer.
"Him and her," the boy had whispered, hugging his bruised and dirty knees as he squatted by Jude's door; "him and her is sparking some." Then he laughed the freakish laugh of mischief.
Jude was polishing the gun which John Gaston had given him a year before, and had trained him to use until he was second only to Gaston himself for marksmanship. "Him and her—who?" he asked, raising his dull eyes to Billy's tormenting face.
"Joyce and Mr. Gaston. Him and her is beaux, I reckon. She goes to his shack; I listened outside the winder once—he reads to her and tells her things. They walks in the Long Medder, too, and once I saw him kiss her."
Again the teasing laugh that set every nerve tingling.
Then it was that Jude awoke, and his hot French blood, mingled with his canny Scotch inheritance, rose in his veins and struck madly against brain and heart.
He stared at Billy as if the boy had given him a physical blow—then he looked beyond him at the woods, the sky, the highway and the dejected houses—nothing was familiar! They all seemed alive and alert. Unseen happenings were going on—he must understand.
"You saw—him—kiss—her?" The gun fell limply across the man's knees.
"Yep," Billy whipped his dramatic sense into action. He arose and strode before Jude with Gaston's own manner. "This way. His arms out, and him a-laughing like, and Joyce she kinder run inter his arms and he held her, like this—." The close embrace of the childish gesture seemed to strangle Jude, and he gave a muffled cry. This acted like a round of applause upon Billy.
"Yep, and he kept on hugging and kissing her like this—" Billy went into an ecstasy of portrayal. Suddenly, however, he reeled into sanity, for Jude had struck him across the cheek with the back of a hand trembling with new-born emotion.
"Take that, you impish brat," he had said, "and more like it if you stand there another minute with your lying capers."
"They ain't lies," wailed Billy, edging away and nursing his smarting face; "he did! he did! It was in his shack—I saw 'em!"
"Get out," yelled Jude, glowering darkly; "and you tell that to any one else and," he came nearer to the shrinking child, "I swear I'll choke yer till yer can't speak." So changed was Jude that Billy trembled before him.
"I won't," he whispered, "I swear I won't, Jude; don't—don't hit me again; I won't tell."
He was gone, but the old Jude was gone also. The new man finished the gun cleaning, his breath coming hard and fast meanwhile, and then, taking the gun with him, he went into the deep woods on the northern edge of the village.
All the rest of the day he watched Gaston's shack from a distance; as the darkness drew on he crept closer.
Joyce did not come near the place, and Gaston himself only returned when the night was well advanced.
Jude watched him light his lamp, and prepare his supper. Watched him, later, go into the inner room, and then he crept close to the broad window to see what Gaston was doing in there where no foot but Gaston's own, so it was said, ever entered. As he had raised his eyes to the level of the casement, Gaston's calm gaze met his with a laugh in it.
"Hello, Jude," the voice was unshaken; "playing Indian Brave? Got your gun, too? What you after, big game or—what?" Jude rose to his feet. He was trembling violently. Gaston watched him closely. "Come in?" he asked presently.
"No. I was only passing—thought I would look in. I'm going now."
"Hold on there, Jude, what's up?" Gaston leaned from the window. "Are you alone?"
"Yes. There ain't anything the matter."
"All right." Gaston looked puzzled. "Good night." He watched Jude until he was lost in the shadows, then he drew the heavy wooden shutters close, bolted the door and placed his pistol near at hand.
All the next day Jude haunted the vicinity of Joyce Birkdale's home, but he kept hidden, for Joyce was safe within doors and a drizzly rain was falling. Night again found him on guard; and now he lay on Beacon Hill in the hot sun, napping by snatches (for he was woefully tired) and scanning the Long Meadow, with his feverish eyes, in between times.
In his dreams the scene Billy Falstar had so luridly described was enacted again and again, until he felt as if he, Jude, had been the onlooker.
The people whom he had taken for granted in the past now assumed new meaning and importance. Gaston had slipped in among them three years before, and after the first few months of observation he had aroused no interest. He had minded his business, paid his way, taken his turn in camp at greenhorn jobs, accounted for his presence on the ground of seeking health, and that was all. Life went on as usual, sluggishly and dully—but on.
Jude had, before Billy's illumination, been thinking that after the next logging season he would annex Joyce Birkdale to his few belongings—the cabin, his dog and gun. The idea had not roused him much, but it had been a pleasurable conclusion to arrive at; and now? Every nerve was aching and the boy's heart was thumping heavily. Again he dropped his head, and he cursed everything his thought touched upon—even the girl he meant, in some way, still to have.
One, two, three hours passed. Jude's hilltop was touched by the sun, but in the meadow the purpling shadows were gathering slowly.
Suddenly Jude sprang up—something was happening down there below. Something in him had warned him.
From the southern edge of the meadow a tall man was swinging along with easy strides. He carried his broad-brimmed hat in his right hand and waved it as if in greeting. From the opposite direction a girl was approaching. She wore a blue-checked gown, and her pale hair seemed to shine in the dimming light. She wore no hat, and she walked with the quick freedom of a child who longed to reach something precious.
Midway of the meadow the girl and man met. He stretched out his arms, and they closed about the slim form.
Then he bent his head over the fair one on his breast—but he did not kiss it! Jude was burning and palpitating. He strained his hearing, forgetting time and space. They were talking, and he would never know what they said.
Presently the girl slipped from the enfolding arms, and, clinging to the man's hands, looked up into his face. Sometimes she bowed her head, and once she passed her hand across her eyes as if to wipe away tears. Then the man drew her close again. He raised the face that was crushed against his shoulder; he kissed the brow, the eyes, the chin—and then the lips.
Something blinded Jude. Something thick and hot like blood, and when he could see again, the two had parted. The man stood with bared head watching the slim, drooping figure as it retraced its steps with never a backward turn. When it was gone he replaced his hat and took his way—this time, toward the Black Cat.
Jude stood alone on his hilltop and watched the lights spring to life in cottage and tavern. The stars twinkled above him in the calm evening gloaming. The little river trilled a vesper hymn as it felt its way along the dark rocky path—and then tears came to Jude's relief, impotent, boyish, weak tears, such tears as he had not shed since his father and mother lay dead, and in childish fright and sorrow he had not known what to do next. But now, as then, he pulled himself together and set his teeth grimly.
He did the wisest thing he could have done. He went down the hill and strode toward the Birkdale house.
But he did not walk alone. Almost forgotten memories rose sharply and kept him company as he pushed on to meet his Fate.
Womankind in St. Ange was monotonous. There was a shading of individuality in the girls and newly-wed women, but it faded soon into the dull drab that seemed the only possible wearing-colour of the place. Occasionally, though, the sameness had been relieved by a vivid touch, but only for a short hour. The Fate who snips the threads, had invariably clipped such colouring from the St. Ange design, and tossed it aside as useless.
Jude remembered Marsena Riddall. What a woman she had been! What a menace to man's rights and woman's position.
She had demanded, and got her husband's wages as he returned from camp. She met him at the edge of the North Wood, and held him up, morally and physically. That she kept a clean and respectable house; that her children were well fed, clothed and cared for, had not counted to her credit one jot among the powers that be. Her husband was not safe on the man's side of the Black Cat screen. At ten o'clock, did Riddall brave his chances to that hour, Marsena would march boldly into the arena and claim her quarry. If a man rose to expostulate, Marsena was equal to him with tongue and wit. Masculine superiority trembled during Marsena's reign, which lasted five years; then Fate downed her.
Riddall was called away from his jailer by the command that even Marsena could not defy, and she and her children faced life in a village where a man was an absolute necessity unless there was money to take his place. Jude grimly smiled as he recalled how the men and boys gave Marsena and her brood a jeering send-off as the rattling train bore them away soon after Riddall had been laid behind the disused church.
So while Marsena was still in Jude's memory, he came upon the deserted and decaying cottage where once Lola Laval had sung her pretty French-Canadian song.
It was odd how Lola came always with that song accompaniment. Try as he might, even now, in this disordered moment, Jude heard the rippling little lark song rise and fall in the fragrant darkness.
Jude, while but a boy, liked to draw water for Lola and run her errands when young Pierre, the husband, was in camp. When the logging season was over, Lola's cottage vied with the Black Cat in popularity. Pierre was a noted card player, but, oh! Lola's song sounded above the slap of pasteboard and the click of glasses. How pretty she was—and how the women hated her! The men were eager to serve her. She had no need to command; her desires seemed granted before she voiced them—poor, pretty Lola!
Alouette, alouette, alouette, alouette. Oh, alouette, chantez alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai. Alouette, chantez alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai. Je te plumerai le bec, Je te plumerai le bec A le bec, A le bec, Alouette, Alouette.
Lola had not lasted long; only nineteen she was when Pierre in his jealousy struck the light from her eyes by a cruel blow, and the song fled from her lips; then taking warning from a well-directed signal from Beacon Hill, he had sought the Southern Solitude just before Justice, in the form of the Hillcrest constable, came stalking into St. Ange.
But the song was not dead. Again and again a man or woman would revive it and so it had become a part of the place. To Jude, now, it was painfully evident as he again plunged forward; it followed him sweetly, mockingly as it used to when Lola sent it after him to keep him from being afraid as he left her for his lonely home; he, a neglected little boy.
And now here was Joyce! With a stinging consciousness Jude realized this new personality that heretofore he had not suspected. Even as jealous anger spurred him on, a vague something he knew awaited him, calmed him and made him cautious.
While he longed to grip and command the situation, he was aware of a power in Joyce—a power he had unconsciously, perhaps, sensed before—that bade him stand afar until she beckoned him.
As he neared her little house, before even he saw the lights, he heard a song. It was that song! It met the rhythm in his own heated fancy—he and Joyce seemed to be singing it together:
The light was streaming through open window and door. Inside Joyce was preparing the evening meal, stepping lightly between table and stove as she sang. Jude dared not enter unannounced, and his pride held him silent.
What was he afraid of? Was he not he, and Joyce but a girl? Still he kept his distance.
"Joyce!" The song within ceased, and the singer stepped to the open doorway.
"That you, father?" No answer came. "Father?"
Then Jude came into the light.
"You, Jude? Come in; father's late. I never wait for him and I am as hungry as a wolf."
Joyce had been one of the few girls who had gone to the Hillcrest school as long as paternal authority permitted, and she showed her training.
"I ain't come for no friendly call," muttered Jude, slouching in and dropping on to a wooden chair beside the table.
Joyce turned and looked at him, and the glow from the hanging lamp fell upon her.
She was tall and slim, almost to leanness, but there were no awkward angles and she was as graceful as a fawn.
Her skin was pale, clear and smooth, her eyes wide apart and so dark as to be colourless, but of a wondrous softness. Her hair was of that shade of gold that suggests silver, and in its curves, where the sun had not bleached it, it was full of tints and tones.
"What have you come for?" she asked, as a child might have asked it, wonderingly and interestedly.
"I want to ask you something, and I want the truth."
"Oh!" Joyce sat opposite, and let her clasped hands fall upon the table laid out for the evening meal with the brown bowl of early asters set in the centre. She forgot her hunger, and the steaming pot on the stove bubbled unheeded.
"What you want to know, Jude? You look mighty upset."
Jude saw with his new, keen vision that she was startled and was sparring for time. "It's about," he leaned forward, "it's about you and—and him. I saw you in the Long Medder. I saw him hold your hands and—and kiss you." The words smarted the dry, hot lips. "I—I want to know what it means."
Jude was trembling visibly as he finished, but Joyce's silence, her apparent discomfort, gave him a kind of assurance that upheld him in his position.
The girl across the table had been awakened several weeks ago in Gaston's little shack among the pines. Since then she had been living vividly and fervently. The question with her, now, was how best to voice herself—the self that Jude in no wise knew. Womanlike, she did not want to plunge into what might prove an abyss. She wanted to take her own way, but with a half-unconscious coquetry she desired to drag her captives whither she went.
In the old stupid life before her womanhood was roused, Jude had held no mean part in her girlish dreams. He was the best of the St. Ange boyhood and Joyce had an instinctive relish for the best wherever she saw it. Whatever the future held she was not inclined to thrust Jude from it. In success or failure she would rather have him with her than against her. Not that she feared him—she had boundless belief in herself—but, hearts to the woman, scalps to the savage, are trophies not to be despised.
"I—I want to know what it means." Again Jude spoke, and this time a tone of command rang through the words.
The corners of Joyce's mouth twitched—she had a wonderfully expressive mouth. Suddenly she raised her eyes. They did not hold the expression Jude might have expected from her disturbed silence. His growing courage took a step back, but his passion rushed forward proportionately.
The witch-light danced in the steady glance she turned upon him; she threw her head back and her slim throat showed white and smooth in the lamp's glow.
"Suppose he did hold my hand and—and kiss me, Jude Lauzoon, you'd like to do the same yourself, now wouldn't you?"
She was ignorantly testing her weak, woman's weapon on the man's metal.
Jude felt the mist rising in his eyes that once before that day had hid this girl and Gaston from his sight. Like a mad mockery, too, Lola's lark song sounded above the rush of blood that made him giddy. He got to his feet and staggered around the table. He held to it, not so much to steady himself as to guide him, but as he neared the girl the blindness passed, and the tormenting song stopped—he stood in an awful silence, and a white, hot light.
"Yes, by God, I do want to, and if yer that kind I'll take—my share and chance along with the rest of 'em."
It was his own voice, loud and brutal, that smote the better part of him that stood afar and alone; a something quite different from the beast who spoke, and which felt a mad interest in wondering how she would take the words.
"You go and sit down over there!"
No clash of steel or dash of icy water could have had the effect those quiet words had, combined with the immovable calm out of which they came.
The instinct of frightened womanhood was alive. If she could not down the beast in the man by unflinching show of courage—she was lost.
They eyed each other for an instant—then Jude backed away and dropped into the chair across the table.
Still, like animal and tamer they measured each other from the safer distance. Presently the girl spoke, laying all the blame upon him for the fright and suffering.
"What right have you, Jude Lauzoon, to come here insulting me?"
"What right had you," he blurted out, "to make me think you was that—that sort?"
"I didn't make you think it—you thought it because you—wanted to think it—it was in you."
The beast was quelled now, and a stifled sob rose to the boyish throat.
"I—I didn't want to think it—God knows I didn't, Joyce, it was that that drove me mad."
"Can a man only think bad when he sees what he doesn't understand?"
Revulsion of feeling was making Joyce desperate. While her new power brought her a delirious joy, it also, she was beginning to understand, brought a terror she had never conceived before. She wished the house were nearer the other human habitations.
"If you're that kind, Jude, you had better take yourself to the Black Cat; you'll find plenty of your liking down there."
Jude was visibly cowering now.
"Why did he kiss you?" he pleaded.
"Suppose I gave him the right?"
"Then what am I to think? Have you given him the right? Does he want the right? I mean the right first—and last?" Jude was gaining ground, but neither he nor the girl to whom he spoke realized it yet. Joyce drew back.
"What is that to you?" she murmured hanging her head. For the moment she was safe—but she felt cornered.
Jude again bent toward her over his hands clenched close.
"It means everything," he panted, "and you know it. I've always liked you best of anything on earth—ever since I went to school, to please you, over to Hillcrest; ever since I tried to keep from the Black Cat, because you asked me to. I've gone following after you kinder heedless-like till—till he gave me a blow twixt the eyes, with his hand-holding and kissing. It drove me crazy. I never thought of any one else with you—least of all John Gaston and you. He didn't seem your kind—I don't know why, but he didn't. Howsomever, if it's all right—God knows I ain't in it—that's all."
A hoot of an owl outside made Joyce start nervously. She was unstrung and superstitious—the fun of the game died in her, and she felt weak and nauseated. She spoke as if she wanted to finish the matter and have done with it forever.
"Well, I didn't give him the right. He didn't want it. I guess it was all foolish—everything is foolish. When he found out how I liked books, and how I wanted to know about things, he just naturally was kind and he let me go to his shack to read. Sometimes he was there, sometimes he wasn't. He just thought about me as if I was a little girl—Maggie Falstar used to go sometimes—he told her fairy stories—it was all the same to him, until—" the wonderful colour that very pale people often have rose suddenly to Joyce's face, and the eyes became dreamy—"one day a week ago."
"Well," Jude urged her on—he was sensing the situation from the man's standpoint.
"It was nothing. I had been reading a book there by myself. It was the kind of story that makes you feel like you was the woman it tells about. Then Mr. Gaston came in, and stood looking at me from the doorway; he seemed like the man in the book too. We looked at each other, and—and I was frightened and I guess he was—for I was grown up all of a sudden. Jude"—the girl was appealing to the familiar in him, the comradeship that would stand with her and for her—"he took me in his arms and—and—kissed me. Then he begged my pardon—and he pushed me away; then he led me to the door and said he—he didn't understand, but I—I mustn't come again to the shack alone, but to meet him in the Long Meadow to-day."
"Curse 'im," muttered Jude; "curse 'im." But the move was a wrong one. Joyce rose to her own defence and Gaston's.
"If you feel that way," she cried, "you can take yourself off."
"I—I don't feel that way," Jude returned illogically and meekly; "go on."
"He's a good man, Jude Lauzoon; better than any one here in St. Ange; and he isn't our kind—not mine, yours, or any one else's around here. He just made me feel ashamed of myself out in the Meadow to-day. I felt as if I had been bold and—and all wrong, but he wouldn't let me feel that way. He acted like I was a little girl to him again—only different; and—I'm going to tell you something." The pink flush dyed even the white throat now. "He said he wished I would get married—it was for the best. That's the way he wanted me for himself!" Joyce laughed with a bitterness that changed suddenly as she recalled the subtle power she had felt over Gaston even while he was forcing her out of his life.
"He asked me about Jock Filmer."
"Jock Filmer?" Jude's jaw dropped. Was all St. Ange hurtling around Joyce? "Jock Filmer—why—why—" Words failed him and he laughed noisily.
"Oh, I don't know," Joyce tossed her head. "You seem to think nobody would want me—I guess—they would—if I wanted them!" The girl was worn out; racked by the emotions that were reflected from the new attitude of others toward her.
And now Jude came around the table again. This time he walked steadily, and he was quite himself. The best self he had ever yet been.
"I want you Joyce—God knows I do."
"He said you did."
"He—said that? Then why in thunder did—he kiss you?"
That rock Jude dashed against at every turn.
"He didn't until—until I told him—I liked you."
Poor Joyce! She was never to tell any one that that admission had been wrung from her in order to make Gaston think he himself had not been deeply in her thoughts. It had been a difficult fencing match that afternoon.
"You told him that?" A light came into Jude's handsome, heavy face, which quickly vanished as the torturing jealousy, feeding upon a new hope, rose, defiantly. "You told him you cared—and then he kissed you, damn him! Maybe he thinks he'll get you to take me, and then he'll go on with hand-holding and kissing all the safer."
"Take that back," cried Joyce harshly. "Take that back, Jude Lauzoon." Yet as she resented the implied insult, the primitive woman in her admired Jude as it had never admired him before.
"I didn't mean it against you, Joyce, I swear it. Can't you see how I love yer and I don't want yer hurt? No one ain't going to hurt yer!" He had clutched her to him roughly but tenderly. "Maybe he wouldn't want ter, maybe I don't understand—but he can't, anyway!"
She was sobbing hysterically against his breast.
"You're mine, lass; you're just a little one; you don't know things. You're no older than you was when you toted over to Hillcrest and—and never felt afraid."
Jude tried to kiss the tear-stained face, but she pressed it closer against him. He had to be content with the satin softness of her thick hair.
Suddenly she sprang from him. A sickish odour was filling the room.
"Everything's burned," she gasped; "everything!" She drew the pot from the stove and ruefully carried it outside. "Nothing left, Jude;" she laughed nervously. "Nothing but crusts and leavings."
"You go to bed," commanded Jude authoritatively; "that's what you need more than anything!"
"Yes, yes, that's what I need—sleep. I'm almost dead, I'm so tired."
Jude looked at her hungrily. The sudden happy ending of his torture gave him an unreal, unsafe feeling.
He wanted to touch her again in the new, thrilling way, but she was forbidding even in her sweet yielding.
"You go to bed," he said vaguely; "I'll go down to the Black Cat, and see that your father gets home all right."
Joyce stepped backward to the chamber door beyond.
"Thank you," she murmured; "I certainly am dead tired."
There was only a path leading from the highway to John Gaston's shack. A path wide enough for a single traveller, and the dark pointed pines guarded it on either side until within ten feet of the house. The house itself sat cosily in the clearing. It was a log house built by amateur hands, but roughly artistic without, and mannishly comfortable within.
The broad door opened into the long living room, where a deep fireplace (happily the chimney had drawn well from the first, or the builder would have been sore perplexed) gave a look of hospitality to the otherwise severe furnishings. The fireplace and mantel-shelf were Gaston's pride and delight. Upon them he had worked his fanciful designs, and the result was most satisfactory. There was a low, broad couch near the hearth piled with pine cushions covered with odds and ends of material that had come into a man's possession from limited sources. A table, home-made, and some Hillcrest chairs completed the furnishings, except for the china and cooking utensils that ornamented shelves and hooks around the room.
An inner door opened into Gaston's bedchamber and sanctum. No one but himself ever entered there.
There was a broad desk below the one wide window of that room and a revolving chair before it. A boxed-in affair, filled with fragrant pine boughs, answered for a bed. This was covered with white sheets and a pair of fine, handsome, red blankets. An iron-bound chest stood by the bed with a padlock strong enough to guard a king's treasure, and around the walls of the room there were rows of books, interrupted here and there to admit a picture of value and beauty out of all proportion to the other possessions.
Over the window hung a large-faced clock that kept faultless time, and announced the fact hourly in a mellow, but convincing, voice. Just below the window and over the desk, was a pipe-rack with pipes to fit every mood and fancy of a lonely man. There were the short stumpy ones, with the small bowls for the brief whiff when one did not choose to keep company with himself for long, but was willing to be sociable for a moment. There were the comfortable, self-caring pipes that obligingly kept lighted between long puffs while the master was looking over old papers, or considering future plans. Then there were the long-stemmed, deep-bellied friends for hours when Memory would have her way and wanted the misty, fragrant setting for her pictures that so comforted or tormented the man who wooed them.
By the rude desk Gaston was sitting on the evening that Jude and Joyce were clinging to each other in the house under the maples. His hands were plunged deep in the pockets of his corduroy trousers, his long legs extended, and his head thrown back; he was smoking one of his memory-filled pipes, and his eyes were fixed upon the rafters of the room.
He was a good-looking fellow in the neighbourhood of thirty-five; browned by an out-of-door life, but marked by a delicacy of feature and expression.
The strength that was in Gaston's face might puzzle a keen reader of character as to whether it were native, or the result of years of well-fought battles. Once the will was off guard, a certain softness of the eyes, and a twitching of the mouth muscles came into play; but the will was rarely off guard during Gaston's waking hours.
An open book lay upon the desk, and the student lamp cast a full light upon the words that had caught the reader's thoughts after the events of the day and their outcome.
"In the life of every man there occurs at least one epoch when the spirit seems to abandon the body, and elevating itself above mortal affairs just so far as to get a comprehensive and general view, makes this an estimate of its humanity, as accurate as it is possible, under the circumstances, to that particular spirit. The soul here separates itself from its own idiosyncrasy, or individuality, and considers its own being, not as appertaining solely to itself, but as a portion of the universal Ego. All important good resolutions of character are brought about at these crises of life; and thus it is our sense of self which debases and keeps us debased."
Poe and Gaston were great friends. The living man knew that had he known Poe in the body he would have feared and detested him, but there was no doubt he had left trails of glory in his wake, for the comfort of struggling humanity, if only one could lose sight of the man, in the spiritual effulgence of his genius.
Gaston, in his detached life, practised many arts upon his individuality and character. He had time and to spare to "abandon the body," and he was growing more and more confident, that in these self-imposed crises he was gaining not only strength, but a keen and absorbing interest in others. If the sense of self debased, then this detachment was his great salvation.
The rings of smoke curled upward, lost shape and formed a haze of blueness. The heat became intense, and the noises of the summer night magnified. The windows and doors were set wide, Gaston's wood-trained senses were alert even in this abstraction.
"What next?" That was the question. He had just come through a conflict with flying colours. He was flushed with victory, but the after details annoyed him. With the waning enthusiasm of achievement, from his point of vantage of abandonment, he was trying to see beyond this confident hour—see into the plain common days when a sense of self would control him, tempt him, lure, and perhaps, betray him. What then?
The realization of Joyce Birkdale's womanhood a time back had shaken him almost as much as it had the girl herself.
It had all been so peaceful, so elemental and satisfying before: that companionship with the little lonely, aspiring, neglected child. She was so responsive and joyous; so eager to learn, so childishly interested in the fairy tales of another sort of existence that he kept from decay by repeating to her. And then that sudden, upleaping flame in the purple-black eyes. The fierce rush of hot, live blood to the pale face. The grip of those small work-stained hands as they sought dumbly to stay the trembling until he had taken them into his firm control.
Well, confronted by the blinding flash, he had acted the man. That was good. He had not acted thoughtlessly, either. He had sent the quivering little thing away quietly, and with no sense of bitterness, until he had threshed the matter out. And then in the Long Meadow, he had set the girlish feet upon the trail he had blazed out for them during the nights of temptation and days of lonely self-abnegation.
It was a hard, stumbling way he had fixed upon. His heart yearned over the girl even as he urged her on. But Joyce was demanding her woman's rights. Demanding them none the less insistently, because she was unconscious of their nature. He knew, and he must go before her; but there was small choice of way.
When he had held her in his arms out there in the open, he had bidden her farewell with much the same feeling that one has who kisses the unconscious lips of a child, and leaves him to the doubtful issue of a necessary surgical operation.
But the victory over self was his, and Joyce was on Life's table. There was a sort of feverish comfort now in contemplating what might have been. Many a man—and he knew this only too well—would have put up a strong plea for the opposite course.
What was he resigning her to at the best? There was no conceit in the thought that, had he beckoned, Joyce would have leaped into the circle of his love and protection. Not in any low or self-seeking sense would the girl have responded—of that, too, he was aware; but as a lovely blossom caressed by favouring sun and light, forgetting the slime and darkness of its origin, she might have burst into a bloom of beauty.
Yes, beauty! Gaston fiercely thought. Instead—there was honour! His honour and hers, and the benediction of Society—if Society ever penetrated to the North Solitude.
Joyce would forget her soul vision, she would marry Jock Filmer—no; it was Jude Lauzoon who, for some unknown, girlish reason, she had preferred when she had been cast out from the circle of his, Gaston's protection.
Yes, she would marry Jude—and Jock might have made her laugh occasionally—Jude, never! She would live in cramped quarters, and have a family of children to drag her from her individual superiority to their everlasting demands upon her. Perhaps Jude would treat her, eventually, as other St. Ange husbands treated their wives. At that thought Gaston's throat contracted, but a memory of the girl's strange, uplifted dignity gave him heart to hope.
Again the reverse of the picture was turned toward him. He saw her flitting about his home—who was there to hold her back, or care that she had sought dishonour instead of honour?
He might have trained and guided that keen mind, and cultivated the delicate, innate taste. Yes; he might have created a rare personality, and brightened his own life at the same time—and the years and years would have stretched on, and nothing would have interrupted the pure passage of their lives until death had taken one or both. Gaston sat upright, and flung the pipe away. Suppose he should choose to—go back? Well, in that case it would have gone hard with Joyce. The soul he had awakened and glorified would have to be flung back into the hell from which its ignorance shielded it.
That was it. In giving the girl the best—yes, the best, in one sense—he must forego his own soul's good; forego the hope that he might some day choose to go back—and in that hope, lay Joyce's damnation.
Through dishonour—as men might have classified it—he might have lifted Joyce up, but to save her soul alive from the hope he reserved for himself—his open door—he must drive her back to squalor and even worse.
He had chosen for her and for himself. He had his hope; Joyce was to have her honour; and now, what next?
His renunciation had strengthened him. His good resolutions steadied him; in the regained empire of his self-respect he contemplated the loneliness of exile, self-imposed, but none the less dreary. He was so human in his inclinations, so pitifully dependent upon his environment; and since he had stepped from the train three years ago, these rough people had taken him at his face value; desired nor cared for nothing but what he chose to give. Desolate St. Ange was dear to him.
No, he would remain. There was really no reason why he should abdicate the little that was his own. All should be as it was, except for Joyce, and even she, now that he was sure of himself and had the rudder in hand, even she might claim his friendship and sympathy in her new life.
He started. His quick ear detected the slow step outside.
"Hello, Jude," he called without getting up. "Step in; I'll fetch a light."
"How did you know 'twas me?" Jude asked from the outer darkness. The salutation made him feel anew the awe of constant supervision.
"I thought you'd drop in," Gaston carried the lamp into the living room and set it upon the table.
Jude shambled in, drew a chair up to the table and sat down. Gaston took his place opposite and kept his eyes upon his caller. Jude grew restless under the calm inspection. He had come with a goodly stock of self-assertion and sudden-gained dignity, but they withered under the inquiring gaze.
"You've come from Joyce Birkdale's? I congratulate you, Jude."
So he knew that too! Jude felt a superstitious aversion to this man he had but recently begun to have any feeling toward whatever outside the ordinary give and take of village life.
Over the ground he had come laboriously to discuss, Gaston strode with unerring instinct. There were no words ready for this friendly advance, so Jude halted. He had meant to approach the announcement of his engagement to Joyce by telling Gaston what he had seen from the hilltop that afternoon and what he had gained since, and then he had intended, in man-fashion, to warn Gaston off his preserves. Instead, he sat twirling his cap and foolishly staring.
"Smoke?" Gaston felt his guest's discomfort and tried to ease the strain. He pushed the tobacco-jar forward; no St. Ange man ever travelled without his own pipe.
"Given it up," muttered Jude, "and cards likewise, and—and drink; I'm going to get married right away."
This was rather startling. Gaston had expected some faltering on Joyce's part, some dallying with the past. The smoke of his burning bridges was still in Gaston's consciousness. He had lighted the fuse, to be sure, but had not expected the demoralization to be so prompt.
For a minute his gaze faltered, then he said cordially:
"Good! And you won't drink to it—or smoke over it? Well, then, shake, old man."
For the life of him Jude could not decline. So their hands met over the bare table.
An awkward pause followed. Gaston took refuge in smoke. He drew the inevitable pipe from his pocket, filled and lighted it, and during the time of grace, got himself in hand.
"Jude," he said between puffs, "I want to see her married."
Jude's anger rose. The words and the tone brought back his suspicions and jealousies.
"I want that girl to have a chance at life." Gaston looked over Jude's head, and drew hard upon his pipe. "She's never really waked up. Just got the call, you know. Before this, she's been dreaming, and God alone knows where she got her dream material. Like the rest of us, until she finds out, she's going to expect her dream to come true. In heaven's name, Lauzoon, help her to make it true."
The import of all this touched Jude not at all, but the meddling of this outsider did mightily stir him to depths he had never fathomed before. Suddenly a kind of courage came to him, partly worthy, but wholly unreasonable.
"I ain't no wooden-head, as some thinks I am," he blurted out, while his dull eyes flashed; "and, by gosh, I want that darn well understood between you and me, Mr. Gaston! I don't want any interference in my affairs; but as to what you're drivin' at, perhaps, I'll say this. I'm going to let Joyce have her head—in reason."
"You better," Gaston laughed unpleasantly. He rather liked Jude the better for his uprising; but he had no intention of showing a flag of truce now.
"Why?" asked Lauzoon; the laugh irritated him.
"Oh, it's plain common sense to be with her, instead of against her, when she gets fully awake. Her kind goes well enough in harness if the other one pulls a fair share—if he doesn't—why, the chances are—she'd break the traces and—clip it alone."
"Alone, hey?" It was Jude's turn to laugh now. "You ain't got the lay of the country yet, Mr. Gaston, not so far as the women is concerned. How in thunder is a woman to go alone, I'd like to know, in St. Ange? Once she's married, she's married, and she knows it. Go alone? I'd like to know where she'd go to?"
A breeze was now stirring outside. Gaston felt it and he shivered slightly.
"Jude," he continued after a moment, "they sometimes go to the devil, you know. Even St. Ange's ideals do not prevent that, judging from things I've heard."
"Not her kind," Jude muttered. He was harking back to Lola Laval. How the girl rose and haunted him to-night! "Not her kind, Mr. Gaston."
"No, you're right, Jude—not her kind as she is now. That's just the point. It's poor work, though, to draw on your bank account without noting how your balance stands. If you do, you'll get a surprise some day. Joyce wants the best she can get out of life. She's had a vision, poor little girl, and she's making for that vision, believing it a reality. We all do that, old man, and it's up to you to give her as much of what she wants as you can. She's been building a place for her soul"—Gaston was thinking aloud. Jude had vanished from his horizon—"and she's going up to take possession some day. God, how that woman is going to love—something!"
And just then Jude shifted into view again upon the line of Gaston's perceptions. He had risen to his feet and was glaring at his companion. There was an ugly look on his face, and his hands trembled with the effort he made to restrain himself.
"Say, Mr. Gaston," he blurted out, "all that talk is damned moonshine, and I ain't such a fool but what I know it. Such gaff ain't nourishing. Now as to Joyce, I'm going to do the square thing by her. Her book-learning is all right if she keeps it to herself, and don't let it get mixed up with her duties 'long of me. And right here, Mr. Gaston," Jude choked miserably, "I guess her and me don't want no coaching from you. No harm intended, understand, but just a clean showing."
Indignation and a realization of his own insignificance, had hurled Jude along up to this point, but he was suddenly landed high and dry by the calm, amused look in Gaston's eyes.
"Too bad you don't smoke, Jude," Gaston said quietly, refilling his pipe. "But sit down, and loosen your collar. The room is infernally close. I've been thinking some of leaving St. Ange—"
"When are you going?" Jude broke in with an eagerness that intensified the smile on Gaston's face, and bade the devil in him awake. The same devil that in boyhood days had made him such an irritant to the bullies of his class.
"Oh, I'm not going," he replied, puffing luxuriously upon his pipe; "I've changed my mind. All I wanted was new scenes and occupations. I've decided to stay on awhile. But I've been thinking, Jude, you don't want to take Joyce into your shack. Let's build her another up on the sunny slope beyond the Long Meadow on the Hillcrest side. I'm gaining strength each year; I like to keep myself busy and the work would be a godsend to me. What do you say? I can lend you a little money, too, if you need it."
Need it? Unconsciously Gaston had touched the spring that unlocked the evilest part of Jude's nature. Jealousy, love, hate, were blotted out by this unlooked-for suggestion. His dark face flushed and his dull eyes gleamed. Money! Money! To handle it, spend it and enjoy it without great bodily effort in earning it. This had ever been a consuming passion with Jude. A passion that had remained smouldering because no favouring chance had ever fanned it. Lazy and hot-blooded, Jude, in a prosperous community, might have developed criminal tendencies young; in St. Ange there had been nothing to tempt him—until now.
"Thank you," he said, and Gaston saw the change in him. "I—I may be glad of a small loan—just at the start, you know, and before I get my pay from the camp boss. It's almighty kind of you, Mr. Gaston, to think of this here building and all. Me and Joyce will take it grateful, I can tell you."
"Going?" Gaston asked, for Jude had risen and was awkwardly shifting from foot to foot. "Well, so long! Good luck—and a speedy marriage."
Then the door closed upon the transformed Jude.
"Now, what in thunder," mused Gaston in the hot, smoky room, "has got into that fellow, I wonder!" Could they know of his money? The amount, and manner of getting it? Was he, in offering Jude this assistance, letting the leak in upon his own safety?
A cloud gathered on Gaston's face. A sensation of coming evil possessed him. He felt as if, in an unguarded moment, he had given an enemy a power over him.
The memory of the look in Jude's face when the money cast a gleam over his hate, repelled him. Gaston was as fully alive to the possibilities now as Jude was—perhaps more so; but there stood the pale, innocent girl between them. He recalled her hurt, quivering face when he had urged her into Jude's keeping. It had seemed her only salvation—hers and his! But it began to look now like a hideous damnation.
"Poor little devil," he murmured taking the lamp and going back into his bedroom.
The window of this room he closed carefully, and set the lamp upon the rude desk. He drew the pistol from the drawer, and laid it conveniently at hand, then he turned to the chest with the mighty lock and, having unfastened it, drew forth a small package and went back to the chair before the desk.
The package contained a photograph and some letters. The letters were tied together, and these the man placed beside the pistol. The photograph he took from its various wrappings of tissue paper and braced it against the lamp.
The big clock hanging over the window frame struck one. The heat in the little room became stifling, and the lamp flickered in its duty—for the oil was running low.
With arms folded before him Gaston gazed upon the pictured face. It broke upon the senses like a revelation of womanhood. At the first glance it seemed as if just that type had never been conceived before. The artist had grasped that conception evidently, for with no shading or background, with only a filmy scarf outlining the form from the colourless paper, the compelling features started vividly upon the vision, as the individuality of the girl did upon the imagination. An irritation followed the first impression. Was this child, or woman? What was she to become, or what had she become already? Was she a soul reaching out for realization, or a well-developed personality, having gained, with all its other attainments, a power of self-concealment from the inquisitive eye?
The brow, low and broad, bespoke gracious womanhood and a possible radiant maternity, rather than intellectuality. The masses of hair were braided and wound coronet-style about the small uplifted head. The eyes, deep, dark, and mystical gave no clue to the inner woman; but the mouth, while it was tender in its curves, had a rigidity of purpose in its expression that fixed the attention. A pretty, rounded chin, a slender, slightly tilted nose, an exquisite throat set off by the cloud of lace—such was the face that Gaston beheld, and presently it wrung a groan from him.
"Ruth, Ruth, Ruth," he muttered, and then his mind took to the memory-haunted highway that led back, back of the lonely years of St. Ange; past a certain black horror that had stood, and would always stand, as a thing that should not have existed; but which had been, and would always remain, an object that cast a shadow before it and behind it.
"Did you do this thing?"
Question and answer made up the vital happening in Gaston's life. Everything before led up to them, and all that had occurred since was the outcome.
They had admitted—or so he once thought—of no shading nor explanation. The questioner was not the type to deal unsteadily with a problem, and Gaston had been too simple and direct to note fine points or shadings. Perhaps neither of them had understood. Life had been so fair until the terrible thing had loomed up. It had come like a cataclysm—how could they, young and inexperienced as they had been, deal with the situation justly?
Suppose now she stood before him, wonder-eyes raised, seeking his soul's truth; hands resting in his until he should speak. Would he speak again those two crude, fatal words? Would she drop her hands letting his soul sink, by so doing, into the blackness which had engulfed it?
That was the torturing problem that Gaston was working out up in the lonely St. Ange woods; but he seemed no nearer the answer than when he had come to the place, by mistake, a few years back, and decided to stay there simply because it was as desirable as any other forsaken spot, while he was debarred from the Paradise of life.
The lamp flickered fretfully, and the spasmodic flare showed the rigid face torn with the emotions that were racking the soul laid bare before its God and its own consciousness.
What had the dreary, desolated years done for him? He was a fool. Why had he not taken what was possible, since the ideal was dashed from him?
This girl, way off there behind the hideous shadow, had been wiser. She had replaced his memory by living love; why should not he take the poor substitute that the Solitude offered, and warm the barren places of his heart and life with the faint glow?
It was a bad hour for Temptation to assail John Gaston.
The armour of self-wrought strength was off. Suffering was flaying the naked despair and yearning; and just then Temptation knocked softly and pitifully at the door of the outer room!
Gaston had done more while he had hidden in the woods than he was aware of. He had developed something akin to second sight. Loneliness and empty hours had strengthened this as blindness intensifies other senses to abnormal keenness. Gradually he had grown to believe that a man's life, complete and prearranged, lies stretched before, and occasionally some, when the circumstances are propitious and the soul has a certain detachment that ignores the bodily claims, can leap over the now and here, and catch a glimpse of the future and what it holds. This vague sense had come to Gaston more than once during the past year or two—the seeing and hearing of that which had held no part in what was, at the moment, occurring, but which he noted later had become a fact in his life.
That feeble knock dragged the man's consciousness away from the pictured face; away from his wavering indecision; away from the darkening room with its foul smell of oil: he knew who stood outside in the moonlighted, fragrant summer night, and he wondered if he were going to open that barred door to her. He waited for a glimpse of what was in store for them both.
But his spiritual sight was blinded by a firm, deadening blankness! Whatever was to be the outcome must be of his own choosing.
Again she knocked, that poor little temptress in the dark. What had Fate decreed that he was to do? Gaston knew as well as if Joyce had told him, why she had come. Her soul had revolted from her concession to Jude. In the bewitched hours of darkness, the primitive, savage instinct had driven the girl to the only one who could change her future. Worn, weary, defiant, she had come to him; not questioning further than her despair and his power.
Well, why not? Who would be the worse, and who the better—if he drew her within and closed the door upon—St. Ange?
Another tap—this time upon the wooden shutter of the bedchamber!
Gaston shivered and trembled. He was not outside; he was stifling in the dark room. The light had gone entirely, and he was struggling to free himself from an intangible enemy or friend; a thing that had, unknown to himself, evolved during those isolated years among the pines, and was restraining his lower nature now.
He battled to get to that little, insistent girl. He heard her sob, a childish sob, half desire, half fear. The veins stood out on his forehead and his hands gripped the edge of his desk as he got upon his feet.
The sob outside was echoed by a stifled groan from within—then all was still.
Slow retreating steps presently sounded without. She, that sad, broken, little temptress, was going to meet the fore-ordained future that lay before. There was nothing else left for her to do. All her reserves were taken.
Then Gaston, when all was beyond his power of recall or desire, opened the window.
Softly, sweetly, the fresh morning air entered. It was a young and good morning. A morning cool and faintly tinted, a morning to soothe a hurt heart, not to stimulate it too harshly.
Gaston's lined face smoothed under the caress. His armour arose as if unseen hands guided it, and placed it again upon him. Once more he was the strong, quiet man that St. Ange had taken upon faith, and accepted without question.
As he looked at the scene, his self-respect giving him courage to meet the day, Jude Lauzoon's soft-stepping figure materialized upon the edge of the pine woods.
The humour of the situation for a moment gripped Gaston's senses. Had all St. Ange stayed awake and been on guard while the night passed? But the smile faded. How long had Jude been there? Long enough to know all, or just long enough to know half?
What should he do? If Jude knew but half, no explanation could possibly avail. If he knew all; if he had been on guard before Joyce came—been camping out with no definite purpose, since his late talk in the shack—why, then it was simply a matter to be settled between Lauzoon and Joyce. God help her! He, Gaston, could serve best by retiring. This he did physically.
He put away his treasures and locked them fast; then, flinging himself upon the pine-bough bed, dressed as he was, he soon fell into a troubled sleep.
Jared Birkdale, with a contemplative eye, looked at his daughter through the haze of his tobacco smoke as if seeing her for the first time. In a way this was so. He was not one to take heed of time or happenings. When he was not obliged to work, he was enjoying himself in his own way, and so long as nothing jarred him, life slipped by comfortably enough.
When he worked he was away, as all St. Ange men were, in the camps. Occupation, outside of Leon Tate's profession, was the same for all the men after first boyhood was past. When the logging season was over Jared, more temperate, perhaps more cruel for that reason, settled down. When he was not occupying the chair of honour at the Black Cat—given him by common consent because of his superior mental endowments—he was lounging at home and idly appreciating the plain comfort for which Joyce was responsible; a comfort Jared neither understood nor questioned.
But little Billy Falstar, the day before, with the fiendish depravity of a mischief-making child, had set the match to a fuse of gunpowder all ready for it down at the Black Cat.
Resenting the treatment Jude had given him when he had voiced his observations about Gaston and Joyce, he had gone to the tavern to nurse his wounded feelings where company and safety abounded. His fear of Jude had departed.
Several men, Birkdale among them, were sitting about when Billy, sniffing and rubbing his knuckles in his eyes to such an extent that of necessity notice must be taken, drew their attention.
"What's up, Billy?" asked Jock Filmer good-naturedly; "shingle struck a thin place in your breeches? Go around and buy a peppermint stick. Here's a cent. Peppermint ought to be as good for a pain in your hindquarters as it is for one in your first cabin. Let up, kid, and get cheerful!"
Billy accepted the coin, but turned a calculating eye on the others. If his news had had power to rouse Jude, how would it act now? Billy, freckled and sharp-eyed, was a born tragedian.
"'Tain't Ma," he said. "No more was it Pa; it was that Jude what beat me most to a jelly."
This was startling enough to awaken a new interest. Jude was too lazy on general principles to reduce any one to jelly unless the provocation had been great.
"What divilment was you up to?" Filmer asked with a leer.
"I didn't do nothing! 'Pon my soul, I didn't. I swear!"
This Billy did, fervently and fluently. The children of St. Ange swore with a guileless eloquence quite outside the sphere of wickedness. The matter was in them. It must, of course, come out. So Billy swore now with only an occasional hitch where his indignation muddled pronunciation.
"Billy's got a fine flow of language," Birkdale put in amusedly. "For a youngster, I don't think I ever heard it equalled." Birkdale was about to urge Billy to renewed effort, when something the boy was wedging in among his evil words caught his attention.
"I was just a-telling him—" more lurid expressions—"'bout Joyce and Mr. Gaston. It didn't seem like nothing; just them two being beaux like all girls and fellers, but Jude he did me dirt, he did!" Billy stopped rubbing his eyes.
He was interested, himself, in the effect his words now had. For a moment he feared all the men were going to rise up against him as Jude had done. A silence fell upon the group. Filmer gave one keen glance at the imp on the doorstep, and then refilled his pipe and leaned back in his wooden chair.
Tom Smith, the ticket agent of the Station, looked as if some one had dashed water in his face, so startled was he; and Jared Birkdale simply stared open-mouthed at the spy in their midst. Then Tate, the proprietor, with the tact for which he was noted, went to the bar and began filling glasses.
St. Ange had received a shock; but St. Ange took its shocks in a peculiar way. It reserved its opinion until it had drunk on them.
Soon after the revelation Birkdale went home without a word having been spoken by any one on the subject so suddenly thrust upon their notice.
Jared had gone home to assure himself that Joyce had actually grown up to the extent of making Billy Falstar's remarks possible.
The afternoon's contemplation had caused him some astonishment.
Joyce was grown up! Then he had slept on the knowledge, and dreamed of other days—a life apart, and beyond St. Ange.
St. Ange was a young place; it had no antiquity; almost all who lived there had had a setting in some other time and environment.
Jared recalled, in his thoughts that night, the beginnings of things in his life. Joyce's mother, and the babies who had come and gone like little ghosts, each one taking more of the wife's and mother's beauty and power.
Then that flight to the St. Ange lumber camp—it was really that, nothing less—the attending discomfort and paralyzing reality of what lay before!
Joyce was born the year after the settlement in the rough forest home, and then poor Mrs. Birkdale gave up the struggle.
She told Isa Tate that had the baby been a boy she would not have felt the way she did, but to face the life of another woman in her own life was more than she could bear.
Isa had tried to hold her to her responsibility: Isa had more than her own share of trouble—but Jane Birkdale had slipped away in the middle of the severest winter St. Ange had known for many a year and Isa had been obliged to have "an eye" to the baby Joyce. The small girl responded in health and joyousness, and Jared, when he was himself, had had the grace to be grateful.
As the years slipped by the fire of Jared's own little private hell aroused him to a consciousness that he deserved anything but a happy future.
He hoped, in due season, that he would forget the wrongs he had done his wife, but they gathered strength with time. His sins walked with him through the sober lumber season; their memory drove him to the Black Cat; but his keener wit evolved a desire to "make good," as he termed it, in his relations with his daughter.
He would so conduct himself with her that she, at least, should have nothing against him; and when age, sickness or accident befell him, he might turn to her and find refuge. Jared had always had some kind of sanctuary to flee to when overtaken by the results of his own evil nature.
And now, by the impish words of Falstar's Billy, he was brought face to face with a possibility that staggered and unnerved him.
Joyce and Jude, or Joyce and Jock Filmer, had been possibilities in Jared's distant future. But Joyce, already a woman, and that silent man Gaston who had come from a Past that he rigidly reserved for his own contemplation—Gaston, who lived among them as a traveller who might depart with the day into a Future Birkdale instinctively knew would hold no possible connection with St. Ange—Joyce and Gaston! Here was a situation indeed.
Astonishment, anger, a dull fear and a determination to grip something out of it all for himself, swayed Jared as he sat tilted back, eyeing his daughter after the night's travail.
He had come from his troubled thought imbued with a forced strength and singleness of purpose that made themselves felt by the quiet girl at the window.
Joyce had brought no strength from her disturbed night. She was ill-fitted for the encounter.
"By Jove," Jared suddenly ejaculated, "it's just struck me all of a heap, Joyce, that you're more than ordinary handsome."
The girl raised her eyes with a dull show of surprise, then went on with her sewing.
"With the learning I've given you over and above the other girls of the place, you ought to do pretty good for yourself—and me—and no mistake. You always was a real grateful child, and you ain't one ever to forget the fifth commandment, Joyce—the only one with a promise."
"The only one needing it," Joyce returned, with a bitterness for which she was sorry the moment after. But when Jared turned to quoting Scripture the girl grew rebellious. It was always distasteful to her to see, or hear, her father parade his superior knowledge. For some reason she always felt more ashamed of him then than at any other time.
"You've got a nasty bit of a temper, Joyce." Jared's eye gleamed. "I hope you ain't going to take the first chance you get to shirk your duty to me."
"I guess not, father, but I hate to be dragged to my duty; and I have a headache."
"What give you that, Joyce?"
"I don't know." Again the fair head bent above the coarse sewing in the trembling hands.
She had seen the light in the chinks of Gaston's shutter. She had felt his nearness, but rigid aloofness. The memory of these things had tortured her and left their trace in worn-out nerves and hurt pride. She felt that she hated Gaston and in revolt her thought now clung to Jude. She forgot her father.
"Oh, yes, father." How the insistent invasion of paternal intimacy jarred.
"I've been thinking lately how you and me might do better than stick here in St. Ange."
A sudden illumination flashed into the pale face. Was there a possibility of escape that did not include Jude?
"Where could we go, father?" Joyce was all attention.
"Oh! there are several places. I wasn't always here by a long shot. I've always meant to tell you some day, Joyce. It has sometimes struck me as singular that you never asked."
"I never cared. I was here—and the rest didn't matter—or it never did, until now."
"Well I was a handsome young buck once, my girl." Jared glanced at the mirror hanging over Joyce's head, and smirked. "I ain't a bad looking feller now. A little trimming of the beard, fashionable clothes, refined surroundings and you'd have a father that any girl might be proud of!"
Joyce noted now, as she had more than once before, since Hillcrest training had given her a certain power of discrimination, her father's style of speaking.
"What happened, father, before you came here?" she asked quickly. Her directness, and the slight she paid to his personal reflections, ruffled Jared's complacency. He was not ready to confess more than was absolutely necessary.
"Just one of them misunderstandings," he replied, slipping into St. Ange's carelessness of speech, "that happens now and again to any young man with a fine taste and slim purse. A matter of business! I always calculated to go back and make it straight, after the first flash had passed and I had money enough. I never give up or got discouraged. It was your mother losing grip sort of set me back; and then your raising and expenses here, kinder held me down. But the spirit in me has soared nevertheless."
"Sometimes it seems to me," Joyce's eyes grew dreamy, "that every one in St. Ange has something to keep still about. Every one seems to be here because he has to, not because he wants to. People seem to drift in here like logs after a spring freshet—and they get jammed."
Jared laughed. The idea caught his fancy.
"You've hit it, Joyce!" he said, "You've hit it all right. Jammed, by damn! that's it; but to carry the simile further, when the jam is loosened up, there's going to be some logs as gets away."
"Where could we go, father, and how?"
The pleading intensity of the girl encouraged Jared. He refilled his pipe, imagined himself in the mirror trimmed up and fashionably attired, and then drove his axe to the heart of the matter.
"When all's said and done, girl," he began, "I've been a pretty good dad to you. Given you years of schooling and stood by you when I might have skipped and led my own life. Many a man with his wife dead, and a kid on his hands, has done it. I've worked for you, and given you the best home in St. Ange; and now if you let me play the cards that you've got in your hands, we'll get out of this and live in clover to the end o' time."
"I don't know what you mean," Joyce gasped.
This was no idle talk. She was fascinated and frightened. It seemed as if her father had his fingers on the rope that was strangling the life out of her.
"You've got the winning cards, my girl, if I don't miss my guess. It's all in the playing now. I've had one eye on you all along, Joyce. I've seen, like any kind father might, that there ain't a young feller between here and Hillcrest but would be glad to have you. But like a rap on the shut eye it has just been sprung on me that Myst. has had his mind on you as well!"
Joyce's eyes dilated and the colour rose through her soft paleness, but she did not speak.
"It's always the way. Them most concerned gits wind of scandal last. Even the brats have caught on before me. But once your father has both eyes open, folks better watch out."
"Who do you mean by Myst.?" asked Joyce, and her strained voice sounded unnatural.
"Gaston, to be sure! I've got a wit of my own, Joyce. Myst.—short for Mystery. That's what Gaston is. No one knows a damned thing about him."
"Well, that's to his credit, anyway." Joyce flung up a defence now. She must fight, but she must keep herself out of sight.
Jared glared angrily. He did not like the tone.
"Oh! I ain't the one to object to you keeping your mouth shut," he returned. "Jammed logs"—the phrase stuck in his mind—"jammed logs don't creak any; but when it comes to joining forces, like two jams together for instance, there's got to be, in the nature of things, some demonstration. What I'm aiming at is this. Has this here Myst. meant business or has he not? I'm a man of the world—so is Gaston—he ain't never hoodwinked me. I had my reasons for coming here, and likewise, so has he. That's my business and his, by thunder! but when he meddles in my affairs he's got to show his hand. Now is it, or ain't it, business 'twixt you and him?"
"What kind of business?" Joyce's voice was low and even. She was approaching her father cautiously and fearfully.
A silence followed. Something was born, and something died in the sunlighted room while that silence lasted.
The child's dependence upon its father fell, torn and quivering, before the new-risen self-protection of the pitiful girlhood.
For the first time, consciously, Joyce experienced the soul-loneliness for which there is no aid. Her deep eyes pleaded for help and mercy where there was no help, and alas! no mercy. Birkdale had his answer now, though no word had been uttered by those quivering lips.
"You can't be expected to act for yourself in these matters." Jared put his pipe on the table and brought his chair to the floor. "You ain't the first girl as has been game for such as Myst., but he's made a damned mistake if he thought two couldn't play at his game here in St. Ange. We'll make something out of him no matter which way you put it."
"Make something—out—of—what?" Joyce bent forward and real horror filled her eyes. Was even the security of Jude to be wrenched from her?
"Out of Myst. He's got money, It comes in letters—checks. Tate has ways of finding out. Myst. has a fat account over to Hillcrest. He thought we took him on trust. We knowed what we wanted to know."
"And so, and so," panted Joyce, "what next?"
"Well, by the living God, if he wants to marry you, let him come out and say so, and I won't hold back my presence nor my blessing."
It was quite plain now. Gaston was the target at which Jared aimed. In some way she must shield him and shield him so effectually that no harm could reach him. There was no escape for her. Every path was closed through which she had hoped to go free and happy.
"I ain't going, though," Jared was whining in his semi-religious tone, "to have my reputation smirched. Either he marries you, or he pays well, and we'll get out. See?"
"Oh, yes, I see!" Joyce shivered in the hot room; "I see what you think, but why do you suppose I'd marry Mr. Gaston if he did want me? Sometimes girls don't—marry—men even when they are asked. Books are full of such things." A heavy sob came after the pitiful words.
"Oh! that's your dodge, eh?" Jared laughed comfortably from the secure position he had gained for himself from this misery. "Trying to shield him, eh? It won't do, Joyce. Your daddy's too much a man of the world for that. Now here it is in a nutshell: The boys at the tavern are back of me. How do I know? You leave that to me. Now I calculate that Gaston don't want any of the dust of his past stirred up by us. If he's been playing with you, it's for you to say whether you'd rather have him forced to marry you, or have him pan out money enough to hush the matter up. I'm willing to sacrifice something for you, Joyce. I'm willing to go so far as to say I don't want the dust of my past raised—I'm actually willing to sacrifice—anything."
"Even me!" The words were a moan of fear and misery.
"Sure!" Jared did not catch the point. "This is an opportunity that don't come often. Retribution for Myst., by thunder, and clear gain for me and you! Out beyond the high trees, girl, there's better diggings for us. God! how I've smothered, these long years. The end justifies the means—you will say so, too, when you see what lies down to the south."
Jared laughed wildly as if the ambition of all the desolated years had been achieved. Joyce, compelled by his delirious words and excitement, almost felt a responsive sympathy; but her words, slow and hard, brought her and Jared down to the bleakness of St. Ange again.
"You are wrong, terribly wrong. Mr. Gaston never wanted to marry me, and I can take care of myself—I always have—taken care of myself! Why—why, I'm engaged to Jude Lauzoon. I'm going to marry him right away. We can't even wait for him to build a new shack. If a minister doesn't happen this way, we're going over to Hillcrest. Oh, what a joke we've played on you!"
Jared stared idiotically, and Joyce's laugh rang wildly out.
"Mr. Gaston and me! What an idea! Why, he's helping us"—the inspiration to say this came from a blind belief in Gaston's quick adaptability—"he's helping me and Jude—to what we want."
"The devil he is!" It was all that Jared could clutch from the rout. "I—I believe it's a thundering lie," he added as an after-thought, and as a cover to his retreat.
"It's no lie." Joyce had regained her calmness. She was panting, but she had reached safety and she knew it. An unlovely, unhallowed safety, but such as it was it was her salvation and Gaston's.
When she had stolen to him the night before it was her last ignorant impulse to gain her own ends. From now on she must be on guard, or her world would come clattering about her heart and soul. It took Jared some minutes to digest the information that had been flung at him so unexpectedly, and then anger and baffled hope swayed him. Joyce married to Jude would make his, Jared's, future no securer than it now was. Indeed it might complicate matters, for Jared had no belief in Jude rising above the dead level of St. Ange standards.
"You're a durn fool!" he ejaculated at last, while the new impression of his daughter's beauty stirred him painfully. "You are a durn fool to fling yourself away on Jude when you might have done most anything with yourself—if you was managed right."
Then in an evil moment Joyce laughed. Her lips parted in an odd little way they had showing the small white teeth and forming the dimples in cheeks and chin. So great was the girl's relief; so appalled was she at what might have been, that the conflict of emotions made her almost hysterical.
"Daddy," she said, between ripples of laughter, "you thought you had me then, didn't you? But being your daughter, you know, I had wit enough to take care of myself."
Jared listened to this outburst in sheer amazement. Unable to understand, in the least, what was passing over the girl before him, he weighed her by his own low standard, and drew the worst possible conclusion as Jude had done before him.
He looked steadily at Joyce, and he saw the colour and fire come to cheek and eye. The ringing laughter struck through his brutality and hurt something in him that was akin to paternal love; but so long had that protecting tenderness been ignored by Jared, that now when it was called upon to act, it did so in a savage rage.
"By heaven!" he thundered, "I catch your drift, you young divil. And if that Myst. ain't a slick one! Going to use Jude is he, to pull his chestnuts out of the fire?"
Then Jared strode forward with arm upraised as if to strike and, by so doing, again command the situation. In like manner had he downed and controlled Joyce's mother. But he paused before the pale undaunted girl. Her laugh died suddenly, to be sure, so suddenly that the gleaming teeth and pretty dimples outlived the mirth long enough to give a stricken, death-like expression to the face, but the change brought no fear; it brought something worse.
Joyce's moral sense was an unknown quantity in her present development. Her father's true meaning affected her not at all; what she felt was—a loathing disgust, and a conviction that if she was to hold even Jude for herself against her father's anger and purpose, she must flee to other shelter.
She drew herself up and cast a look upon Jared that he never forgot to his dying day. It was an added faggot to that hell of his.
"Isa Tate," the even voice broke upon him, "Isa Tate said you killed my mother. But I'm not afraid of you, and I'm going to live my life. You can't kill me! I know when and where to go."
With that she gathered up the work that had fallen to the floor, and almost ran into the little bedchamber beyond the kitchen, closing the door after her.
Jared sat dumbly staring at the wooden barrier. He longed to call her, but his tongue pricked with excitement.
He dared not go to her—so he waited. He heard her moving about inside the room. A half-hour passed, then an hour. Noon came and went. The fire was out, and dinner, apparently, was as distant as it had been two hours before.
Jared fell asleep in his hard chair, his dishevelled head lying on his arms folded on the bare table. When he awoke it was three o'clock and Joyce stood before him.
She was very white, and the drawn look was still in evidence. She wore a blue-and-white checked gown; short and scant it was, but daintily fresh and sweet. She had her poor little best hat on—a hat with a bunch of roses on the side—and she carried a large basket in her hand.
Jared stared at her as if she were part of a nightmarish dream.
"Where are you going?" he asked hoarsely, a new fear gripping him.
"It doesn't matter to you, father. I'm just—going."
Jared experienced a shock as he realized how far this girl had already gone from him.
"Good-bye," she faltered; "good-bye, father."
She turned from him and walked to the door. Then a latent power for good roused Jared.
"Joyce," he called after her; "there's twenty dollars left—take it all, girl."
"Then for God's sake take half!" He was pleading, pleading with a woman for the first time in his selfish, depraved life.
Joyce turned and looked at him, and the tears filled her eyes.
"No," she repeated, "I—I couldn't take it. I don't want it; but I'm going to Isa Tate, father."
How frightfully still and lonely she had left the little house. Jared looked at the old furniture and found it strange and unnatural. The summer day grew dim as he waited there among the ruins of all that he thought had been his own. No dinner; no probable supper—Jared thought upon the physical discomfort, too, but he was sober enough, and shocked enough to give heed to the graver side of the situation.