BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
North of Fifty-Three Big Timber Burned Bridges Poor Man's Rock
POOR MAN'S ROCK
BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY
Published September, 1920
THE UNIVERSITY PRESS, CAMBRIDGE, MASS., U.S.A.
Prologue—Long, Long Ago
I. The House in Cradle Bay
II. His Own Country
III. The Flutter of Sable Wings
V. From the Bottom Up
VI. The Springboard
VII. Sea Boots and Salmon
VIII. Vested Rights
IX. The Complexity of Simple Matters
X. Thrust and Counterthrust
XI. Peril of the Sea
XII. Between Sun and Sun
XIII. An Interlude
XIV. The Swing of the Pendulum
XV. Hearts are not Always Trumps
XVI. En Famille
XVII. Business as Usual
XVIII. A Renewal of Hostilities
XIX. Top Dog
XX. The Dead and Dusty Past
XXI. As it was in the Beginning
POOR MAN'S ROCK
Long, Long Ago
The Gulf of Georgia spread away endlessly, an immense, empty stretch of water bared to the hot eye of an August sun, its broad face only saved from oily smoothness by half-hearted flutterings of a westerly breeze. Those faint airs blowing up along the Vancouver Island shore made tentative efforts to fill and belly out strongly the mainsail and jib of a small half-decked sloop working out from the weather side of Sangster Island and laying her snub nose straight for the mouth of the Fraser River, some sixty sea-miles east by south.
In the stern sheets a young man stood, resting one hand on the tiller, his navigating a sinecure, for the wind was barely enough to give him steerageway. He was, one would say, about twenty-five or six, fairly tall, healthily tanned, with clear blue eyes having a touch of steely gray in their blue depths, and he was unmistakably of that fair type which runs to sandy hair and freckles. He was dressed in a light-colored shirt, blue serge trousers, canvas shoes; his shirt sleeves, rolled to the elbows, bared flat, sinewy forearms.
He turned his head to look back to where in the distance a white speck showed far astern, and his eyes narrowed and clouded. But there was no cloud in them when he turned again to his companion, a girl sitting on a box just outside the radius of the tiller. She was an odd-looking figure to be sitting in the cockpit of a fishing boat, amid recent traces of business with salmon, codfish, and the like. The heat was putting a point on the smell of defunct fish. The dried scales of them still clung to the small vessel's timbers. In keeping, the girl should have been buxom, red-handed, coarsely healthy. And she was anything but that. No frail, delicate creature, mind you,—but she did not belong in a fishing boat. She looked the lady, carried herself like one,—patrician from the top of her russet-crowned head to the tips of her white kid slippers. Yet her eyes, when she lifted them to the man at the tiller, glowed with something warm. She stood up and slipped a silk-draped arm through his. He smiled down at her, a tender smile tempered with uneasiness, and then bent his head and kissed her.
"Do you think they will overtake us, Donald?" she asked at length.
"That depends on the wind," he answered. "If these light airs hold they may overhaul us, because they can spread so much more cloth. But if the westerly freshens—and it nearly always does in the afternoon—I can outsail the Gull. I can drive this old tub full sail in a blow that will make the Gull tie in her last reef."
"I don't like it when it's rough," the girl said wistfully. "But I'll pray for a blow this afternoon."
If indeed she prayed—and her attitude was scarcely prayerful, for it consisted of sitting with one hand clasped tight in her lover's—her prayer fell dully on the ears of the wind god. The light airs fluttered gently off the bluish haze of Vancouver Island, wavered across the Gulf, kept the sloop moving, but no more. Sixty miles away the mouth of the Fraser opened to them what security they desired. But behind them power and authority crept up apace. In two hours they could distinguish clearly the rig of the pursuing yacht. In another hour she was less than a mile astern, creeping inexorably nearer.
The man in the sloop could only stand on, hoping for the usual afternoon westerly to show its teeth.
In the end, when the afternoon was waxing late, the sternward vessel stood up so that every detail of her loomed plain. She was full cutter-rigged, spreading hundreds of feet of canvas. Every working sail was set, and every light air cloth that could catch a puff of air. The slanting sun rays glittered on her white paint and glossy varnish, struck flashing on bits of polished brass. She looked her name, the Gull, a thing of exceeding grace and beauty, gliding soundlessly across a sun-shimmering sea. But she represented only a menace to the man and woman in the fish-soiled sloop.
The man's face darkened as he watched the distance lessen between the two craft. He reached under a locker and drew out a rifle. The girl's high pinkish color fled. She caught him by the arm.
"Donald, Donald," she said breathlessly, "there's not to be any fighting."
"Am I to let them lay alongside, hand you aboard, and then sail back to Maple Point, laughing at us for soft and simple fools?" he said quietly. "They can't take you from me so easily as that. There are only three of them aboard. I won't hurt them unless they force me to it, but I'm not so chicken-hearted as to let them have things all their own way. Sometimes a man must fight, Bessie."
"You don't know my father," the girl whimpered. "Nor grandpa. He's there. I can see his white beard. They'll kill you, Donald, if you oppose them. You mustn't do that. It is better that I should go back quietly than that there should be blood spilled over me."
"But I'm not intending to slaughter them," the man said soberly. "If I warn them off and they board me like a bunch of pirates, then—then it will be their lookout. Do you want to go back, Bessie? Are you doubtful about your bargain already?"
The tears started in her eyes.
"For shame to say that," she whispered. "Lord knows I don't want to turn back from anything that includes you, Don. But my father and grandpa will be furious. They won't hesitate to vent their temper on you if you oppose them. They are accustomed to respect. To have their authority flouted rouses them to fury. And they're three to one. Put away your gun, Donald. If we can't outsail the Gull I shall have to go back without a struggle. There will be another time. They can't change my heart."
"They can break your spirit though—and they will, for this," he muttered.
But he laid the rifle down on the locker. The girl snuggled her hand into his.
"You will not quarrel with them, Donald—please, no matter what they say? Promise me that," she pleaded. "If we can't outrun them, if they come alongside, you will not fight? I shall go back obediently. You can send word to me by Andrew Murdock. Next time we shall not fail."
"There will be no next time, Bessie," he said slowly. "You will never get another chance. I know the Gowers and Mortons better than you do, for all you're one of them. They'll make you wish you had never been born, that you'd never seen me. I'd rather fight it out now. Isn't our own happiness worth a blow or two?"
"I can't bear to think what might happen if you defied them out here on this lonely sea," she shuddered. "You must promise me, Donald."
"I promise, then," he said with a sigh. "Only I know it's the end of our dream, my dear. And I'm disappointed, too. I thought you had a stouter heart, that wouldn't quail before two angry old men—and a jealous young one. You can see, I suppose, that Horace is there, too.
"Damn them!" he broke out passionately after a minute's silence. "It's a free country, and you and I are not children. They chase us as if we were pirates. For two pins I'd give them a pirate's welcome. I tell you, Bessie, my promise to be meek and mild is not worth much if they take a high hand with me. I can take their measure, all three of them."
"But you must not," the girl insisted. "You've promised. We can't help ourselves by violence. It would break my heart."
"They'll do that fast enough, once they get you home," he answered gloomily.
The girl's lips quivered. She sat looking back at the cutter half a cable astern. The westerly had failed them. The spreading canvas of the yacht was already blanketing the little sloop, stealing what little wind filled her sail. And as the sloop's way slackened the other slid down upon her, a purl of water at her forefoot, her wide mainsail bellying out in a snowy curve.
There were three men in her. The helmsman was a patriarch, his head showing white, a full white beard descending from his chin, a fierce-visaged, vigorous old man. Near him stood a man of middle age, a ruddy-faced man in whose dark blue eyes a flame burned as he eyed the two in the sloop. The third was younger still,—a short, sturdy fellow in flannels, tending the mainsheet with a frowning glance.
The man in the sloop held his course.
"Damn you, MacRae; lay to, or I'll run you down," the patriarch at the cutter's wheel shouted, when a boat's length separated the two craft.
MacRae's lips moved slightly, but no sound issued therefrom. Leaning on the tiller, he let the sloop run. So for a minute the boats sailed, the white yacht edging up on the sloop until it seemed as if her broaded-off boom would rake and foul the other. But when at last she drew fully abreast the two men sheeted mainsail and jib flat while the white-headed helmsman threw her over so that the yacht drove in on the sloop and the two younger men grappled MacRae's coaming with boat hooks, and side by side they came slowly up into the wind.
MacRae made no move, said nothing, only regarded the three with sober intensity. They, for their part, wasted no breath on him.
"Elizabeth, get in here," the girl's father commanded.
It was only a matter of stepping over the rubbing gunwales. The girl rose. She cast an appealing glance at MacRae. His face did not alter. She stepped up on the guard, disdaining the hand young Gower extended to help her, and sprang lightly into the cockpit of the Gull.
"As for you, you calculating blackguard," her father addressed MacRae, "if you ever set foot on Maple Point again, I'll have you horsewhipped first and jailed for trespass after."
For a second MacRae made no answer. His nostrils dilated; his blue-gray eyes darkened till they seemed black. Then he said with a curious hoarseness, and in a voice pitched so low it was scarcely audible:
"Take your boat hooks out of me and be on your way."
The older man withdrew his hook. Young Gower held on a second longer, matching the undisguised hatred in Donald MacRae's eyes with a fury in his own. His round, boyish face purpled. And when he withdrew the boat hook he swung the inch-thick iron-shod pole with a swift twist of his body and struck MacRae fairly across the face.
MacRae went down in a heap as the Gull swung away. The faint breeze out of the west filled the cutter's sails. She stood away on a long tack south by west, with a frightened girl cowering down in her cabin, sobbing in grief and fear, and three men in the Gull's cockpit casting dubious glances at one another and back to the fishing sloop sailing with no hand on her tiller.
In an hour the Gull was four miles to windward of the sloop. The breeze had taken a sudden shift full half the compass. A southeast wind came backing up against the westerly. There was in its breath a hint of something stronger.
Masterless, the sloop sailed, laid to, started off again erratically, and after many shifts ran off before this stiffer wind. Unhelmed, she laid her blunt bows straight for the opening between Sangster and Squitty islands. On the cockpit floor Donald MacRae sprawled unheeding. Blood from his broken face oozed over the boards.
Above him the boom swung creaking and he did not hear. Out of the southeast a bank of cloud crept up to obscure the sun. Far southward the Gulf was darkened, and across that darkened area specks and splashes of white began to show and disappear. The hot air grew strangely cool. The swell that runs far before a Gulf southeaster began to roll the sloop, abandoned to all the aimless movements of a vessel uncontrolled. She came up into the wind and went off before it again, her sails bellying strongly, racing as if to outrun the swells which now here and there lifted and broke. She dropped into a hollow, a following sea slewed her stern sharply, and she jibed,—that is, the wind caught the mainsail and flung it violently from port to starboard. The boom swept an arc of a hundred degrees and put her rail under when it brought up with a jerk on the sheet.
Ten minutes later she jibed again. This time the mainsheet parted. Only stout, heavily ironed backstays kept mainsail and boom from being blown straight ahead. The boom end swung outboard till it dragged in the seas as she rolled. Only by a miracle and the stoutest of standing gear had she escaped dismasting. Now, with the mainsail broaded off to starboard, and the jib by some freak of wind and sea winged out to port, the sloop drove straight before the wind, holding as true a course as if the limp body on the cockpit floor laid an invisible, controlling hand on sheet and tiller.
And he, while that fair wind grew to a yachtsman's gale and lashed the Gulf of Georgia into petty convulsions, lay where he had fallen, his head rolling as his vessel rolled, heedless when she rose and raced on a wave-crest or fell laboring in the trough when a wave slid out from under her.
The sloop had all but doubled on her course,—nearly but not quite,—and the few points north of west that she shifted bore her straight to destruction.
MacRae opened his eyes at last. He was bewildered and sick. His head swam. There was a series of stabbing pains in his lacerated face. But he was of the sea, of that breed which survives by dint of fortitude, endurance, stoutness of arm and quickness of wit. He clawed to his feet. Almost before him lifted the bleak southern face of Squitty Island. Point Old jutted out like a barrier. MacRae swung on the tiller. But the wind had the mainsail in its teeth. Without control of that boom his rudder could not serve him.
And as he crawled forward to try to lower sail, or get a rope's end on the boom, whichever would do, the sloop struck on a rock that stands awash at half-tide, a brown hummock of granite lifting out of the sea two hundred feet off the tip of Point Old.
She struck with a shock that sent MacRae sprawling, arrested full in an eight-knot stride. As she hung shuddering on the rock, impaled by a jagged tooth, a sea lifted over her stern and swept her like a watery broom that washed MacRae off the cabin top, off the rock itself into deep water beyond.
He came up gasping. The cool immersion had astonishingly revived him. He felt a renewal of his strength, and he had been cast by luck into a place from which it took no more than the moderate effort of an able swimmer to reach shore. Point Old stood at an angle to the smashing seas, making a sheltered bight behind it, and into this bight the flooding tide set in a slow eddy. MacRae had only to keep himself afloat.
In five minutes his feet touched on a gravel beach. He walked dripping out of the languid swell that ran from the turbulence outside and turned to look back. The sloop had lodged on the rock, bilged by the ragged granite. The mast was down, mast and sodden sails swinging at the end of a stay as each sea swept over the rock with a hissing roar.
MacRae climbed to higher ground. He sat down beside a stunted, leaning fir and watched his boat go. It was soon done. A bigger sea than most tore the battered hull loose, lifted it high, let it drop. The crack of breaking timbers cut through the boom of the surf. The next sea swept the rock clear, and the broken, twisted hull floated awash. Caught in the tidal eddy it began its slow journey to join the vast accumulation of driftwood on the beach.
MacRae glanced along the island shore. He knew that shore slightly,—a bald, cliffy stretch notched with rocky pockets in which the surf beat itself into dirty foam. If he had grounded anywhere in that mile of headland north of Point Old, his bones would have been broken like the timbers of his sloop.
But his eyes did not linger there nor his thoughts upon shipwreck and sudden death. His gaze turned across the Gulf to a tongue of land outthrusting from the long purple reach of Vancouver Island. Behind that point lay the Morton estate, and beside the Morton boundaries, matching them mile for mile in wealth of virgin timber and fertile meadow, spread the Gower lands.
His face, streaked and blotched with drying bloodstains, scarred with a red gash that split his cheek from the hair above one ear to a corner of his mouth, hardened into ugly lines. His eyes burned again.
This happened many years ago, long before a harassed world had to reckon with bourgeois and Bolshevik, when profiteer and pacifist had not yet become words to fill the mouths of men, and not even the politicians had thought of saving the world for democracy. Yet men and women were strangely as they are now. A generation may change its manners, its outward seeming; it does not change in its loving and hating, in its fundamental passions, its inherent reactions.
MacRae's face worked. His lips quivered as he stared across the troubled sea. He lifted his hands in a swift gesture of appeal.
"O God," he cried, "curse and blast them in all their ways and enterprises if they deal with her as they have dealt with me."
The House in Cradle Bay
On an afternoon in the first week of November, 1918, under a sky bank full of murky cloud and an air freighted with a chill which threatened untimely snow, a man came rowing up along the western side of Squitty Island and turned into Cradle Bay, which lies under the lee of Point Old. He was a young man, almost boyish-looking. He had on a pair of fine tan shoes, brown overalls, a new gray mackinaw coat buttoned to his chin. He was bareheaded. Also he wore a patch of pink celluloid over his right eye.
When he turned into the small half-moon bight, he let up on his oars and drifted, staring with a touch of surprise at a white cottage-roofed house with wide porches sitting amid an acre square of bright green lawn on a gentle slope that ran up from a narrow beach backed by a low sea-wall of stone where the gravel ended and the earth began.
"Hm-m-m," he muttered. "It wasn't built yesterday, either. Funny he never mentioned that."
He pushed on the oars and the boat slid nearer shore, the man's eyes still steadfast on the house. It stood out bold against the grass and the deeper green of the forest behind. Back of it opened a hillside brown with dead ferns, dotted with great solitary firs and gnarly branched arbutus.
No life appeared there. The chimneys were dead. Two moorings bobbed in the bay, but there was no craft save a white rowboat hauled high above tidewater and canted on its side.
"I wonder, now." He spoke again.
While he wondered and pushed his boat slowly in on the gravel, a low pr-r-r and a sibilant ripple of water caused him to look behind. A high-bowed, shining mahogany cruiser, seventy feet or more over all, rounded the point and headed into the bay. The smooth sea parted with a whistling sound where her brass-shod stem split it like a knife. She slowed down from this trainlike speed, stopped, picked up a mooring, made fast. The swell from her rolled in, swashing heavily on the beach.
The man in the rowboat turned his attention to the cruiser. There were people aboard to the number of a dozen, men and women, clustered on her flush afterdeck. He could hear the clatter of their tongues, low ripples of laughter, through all of which ran the impatient note of a male voice issuing peremptory orders.
The cruiser blew her whistle repeatedly,—shrill, imperative blasts. The man in the rowboat smiled. The air was very still. Sounds carry over quiet water as if telephoned. He could not help hearing what was said.
"Wise management," he observed ironically, under his breath.
The power yacht, it seemed, had not so much as a dinghy aboard.
A figure on the deck detached itself from the group and waved a beckoning hand to the rowboat.
The rower hesitated, frowning. Then he shrugged his shoulders and pulled out and alongside. The deck crew lowered a set of steps.
"Take a couple of us ashore, will you?" He was addressed by a short, stout man. He was very round and pink of face, very well dressed, and by the manner in which he spoke to the others, and the glances he cast ashore, a person of some consequence in great impatience.
The young man laid his rowboat against the steps.
"Climb in," he said briefly.
"You, Smith, come along," the round-faced one addressed a youth in tight blue jersey and peaked cap.
The deck boy climbed obediently down. A girl in white duck and heavy blue sweater put her foot on the steps.
"I think I shall go too, papa," she said.
Her father nodded and followed her.
The rowboat nosed in beside the end of a narrow float that ran from the sea wall. The boy in the jersey sprang out, reached a steadying hand to his employer. The girl stepped lightly to the planked logs.
"Give the boy a lift on that boat to the chuck, will you?" the stout person made further request, indicating the white boat bottom up on shore.
A queer expression gleamed momentarily in the eyes of the boatman. But it passed. He did not speak, but made for the dinghy, followed by the hand from the yacht. They turned the boat over, slid it down and afloat. The sailor got in and began to ship his oars.
The man and the girl stood by till this was done. Then the girl turned away. The man extended his hand.
"Thanks," he said curtly.
The other's hand had involuntarily moved. The short, stout man dropped a silver dollar in it, swung on his heel and followed his daughter,—passed her, in fact, for she had only taken a step or two and halted.
The young fellow eyed the silver coin in his hand with an expression that passed from astonishment to anger and broke at last into a smile of sheer amusement. He jiggled the coin, staring at it thoughtfully. Then he faced about on the jerseyed youth about to dip his blades.
"Smith," he said, "I suppose if I heaved this silver dollar out into the chuck you'd think I was crazy."
The youth only stared at him.
"You don't object to tips, do you, Smith?" the man in the mackinaw inquired.
"Gee, no," the boy observed. "Ain't you got no use for money?"
"Not this kind. You take it and buy smokes."
He flipped the dollar into the dinghy. It fell clinking on the slatted floor and the youth salvaged it, looked it over, put it in his pocket.
"Gee," he said. "Any time a guy hands me money, I keep it, believe me."
His gaze rested curiously on the man with the patch over his eye. His familiar grin faded. He touched his cap.
"Thank y', sir."
He heaved on his oars. The boat slid out. The man stood watching, hands deep in his pockets. A displeased look replaced the amused smile as his glance rested a second on the rich man's toy of polished mahogany and shining brass. Then he turned to look again at the house up the slope and found the girl at his elbow.
He did not know if she had overheard him, and he did not at the moment care. He met her glance with one as impersonal as her own.
"I'm afraid I must apologize for my father," she said simply. "I hope you aren't offended. It was awfully good of you to bring us ashore."
"That's quite all right," he answered casually. "Why should I be offended? When a roughneck does something for you, it's proper to hand him some of your loose change. Perfectly natural."
"But you aren't anything of the sort," she said frankly. "I feel sure you resent being tipped for an act of courtesy. It was very thoughtless of papa."
"Some people are so used to greasing their way with money that they'll hand St. Peter a ten-dollar bill when they pass the heavenly gates," he observed. "But it really doesn't matter. Tell me something. Whose house is that, and how long has it been there?"
"Ours," she answered. "Two years. We stay here a good deal in the summer."
"Ours, I daresay, means Horace A. Gower," he remarked. "Pardon my curiosity, but you see I used to know this place rather well. I've been away for some time. Things seem to have changed a bit."
"You're just back from overseas?" she asked quickly.
He nodded. She looked at him with livelier interest.
"I'm no wounded hero," he forestalled the inevitable question. "I merely happened to get a splinter of wood in one eye, so I have leave until it gets well."
"If you are merely on leave, why are you not in uniform?" she asked quickly, in a puzzled tone.
"I am," he replied shortly. "Only it is covered up with overalls and mackinaw. Well, I must be off. Good-by, Miss Gower."
He pushed his boat off the beach, rowed to the opposite side of the bay, and hauled the small craft up over a log. Then he took his bag in hand and climbed the rise that lifted to the backbone of Point Old. Halfway up he turned to look briefly backward over beach and yacht and house, up the veranda steps of which the girl in the blue sweater was now climbing.
"It's queer," he muttered.
He went on. In another minute he was on the ridge. The Gulf opened out, a dead dull gray. The skies were hidden behind drab clouds. The air was clammy, cold, hushed, as if the god of storms were gathering his breath for a great effort.
And Jack MacRae himself, when he topped the height which gave clear vision for many miles of shore and sea, drew a deep breath and halted for a long look at many familiar things.
He had been gone nearly four years. It seemed to him but yesterday that he left. The picture was unchanged,—save for that white cottage in its square of green. He stared at that with a doubtful expression, then his uncovered eye came back to the long sweep of the Gulf, to the brown cliffs spreading away in a ragged line along a kelp-strewn shore. He put down the bag and seated himself on a mossy rock close by a stunted, leaning fir and stared about him like a man who has come a great way to see something and means to look his fill.
His Own Country
Squitty Island lies in the Gulf of Georgia midway between a mainland made of mountains like the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalayas all jumbled together and all rising sheer from the sea, and the low delta-like shore of Vancouver Island. Southward from Squitty the Gulf runs in a thirty-mile width for nearly a hundred miles to the San Juan islands in American waters, beyond which opens the sheltered beauty of Puget Sound. Squitty is six miles wide and ten miles long, a blob of granite covered with fir and cedar forest, with certain parklike patches of open grassland on the southern end, and a hump of a mountain lifting two thousand feet in its middle.
The southeastern end of Squitty—barring the tide rips off Cape Mudge—is the dirtiest place in the Gulf for small craft in blowy weather. The surges that heave up off a hundred miles of sea tortured by a southeast gale break thunderously against Squitty's low cliffs. These walls face the marching breakers with a grim, unchanging front. There is nothing hospitable in this aspect of Squitty. It is an ugly shore to have on the lee in a blow.
Yet it is not so forbidding as it seems. The prevailing summer winds on the Gulf are westerly. Gales of uncommon fierceness roar out of the northwest in fall and early winter. At such times the storms split on Squitty Island, leaving a restful calm under those brown, kelp-fringed cliffs. Many a small coaster has crept thankfully into that lee out of the whitecapped turmoil on either side, to lie there through a night that was wild outside, watching the Ballenas light twenty miles away on a pile of bare rocks winking and blinking its warning to less fortunate craft. Tugs, fishing boats, salmon trollers, beach-combing launches, all that mosquito fleet which gets its bread upon the waters and learns bar, shoal, reef, and anchorage thoroughly in the getting,—these knew that besides the half-moon bight called Cradle Bay, upon which fronted Horace Gower's summer home, there opened also a secure, bottle-necked cove less than a mile northward from Point Old.
By day a stranger could only mark the entrance by eagle watch from a course close inshore. By night even those who knew the place as they knew the palm of their hand had to feel their way in. But once inside, a man could lie down in his bunk and sleep soundly, though a southeaster whistled and moaned, and the seas roared smoking into the narrow mouth. No ripple of that troubled the inside of Squitty Cove. It was a finger of the sea thrust straight into the land, a finger three hundred yards long, forty yards wide, with an entrance so narrow that a man could heave a sounding lead across it, and that entrance so masked by a rock about the bigness of a six-room house that one holding the channel could touch the rock with a pike pole as he passed in. There was a mud bottom, twenty-foot depth at low tide, and a little stream of cold fresh water brawling in at the head. A cliff walled it on the south. A low, grassy hill dotted with solitary firs, red-barked arbutus, and clumps of wild cherry formed its northern boundary. And all around the mouth, in every nook and crevice, driftwood of every size and shape lay in great heaps, cast high above tidewater by the big storms.
So Squitty had the three prime requisites for a harbor,—secure anchorage, fresh water, and firewood. There was good fertile land, too, behind the Cove,—low valleys that ran the length of the island. There were settlers here and there, but these settlers were not the folk who intermittently frequented Squitty Cove. The settlers stayed on their land, battling with stumps, clearing away the ancient forest, tilling the soil. Those to whom Squitty Cove gave soundest sleep and keenest joy were tillers of the sea. Off Point Old a rock brown with seaweed, ringed with a bed of kelp, lifted its ugly head now to the one good, blue-gray eye of Jack MacRae, the same rock upon which Donald MacRae's sloop broke her back before Jack MacRae was born. It was a sunken menace at any stage of water, heartily cursed by the fishermen. In the years between, the rock had acquired a name not written on the Admiralty charts. The hydrographers would look puzzled and shake their heads if one asked where in the Gulf waters lay Poor Man's Rock.
But Poor Man's Rock it is. Greek and Japanese, Spaniard and Italian, American and Canadian—and there are many of each—who follow the silver-sided salmon when they run in the Gulf of Georgia, these know that Poor Man's Rock lies half a cable south southwest of Point Old on Squitty Island. Most of them know, too, why it is called Poor Man's Rock.
Under certain conditions of sea and sky the Rock is as lonely and forbidding a spot as ever a ship's timbers were broken upon. Point Old thrusts out like the stubby thumb on a clenched first. The Rock and the outer nib of the Point are haunted by quarreling flocks of gulls and coots and the black Siwash duck with his stumpy wings and brilliant yellow bill. The southeaster sends endless battalions of waves rolling up there when it blows. These rear white heads over the Rock and burst on the Point with shuddering impact and showers of spray. When the sky is dull and gray, and the wind whips the stunted trees on the Point—trees that lean inland with branches all twisted to the landward side from pressure of many gales in their growing years—and the surf is booming out its basso harmonies, the Rock is no place for a fisherman. Even the gulls desert it then.
But in good weather, in the season, the blueback and spring salmon swim in vast schools across the end of Squitty. They feed upon small fish, baby herring, tiny darting atoms of finny life that swarm in countless numbers. What these inch-long fishes feed upon no man knows, but they begin to show in the Gulf early in spring. The water is alive with them,—minute, darting streaks of silver. The salmon follow these schools, pursuing, swallowing, eating to live. Seal and dogfish follow the salmon. Shark and the giant blackfish follow dogfish and seal. And man follows them all, pursuing and killing that he himself may live.
Around Poor Man's Rock the tide sets strongly at certain stages of ebb and flood. The cliffs north of Point Old and the area immediately surrounding the Rock are thick strewn with kelp. In these brown patches of seaweed the tiny fish, the schools of baby herring, take refuge from their restless enemy, the swift and voracious salmon.
For years Pacific Coast salmon have been taken by net and trap, to the profit of the salmon packers and the satisfaction of those who cannot get fish save out of tin cans. The salmon swarmed in millions on their way to spawn in fresh-water streams. They were plentiful and cheap. But even before the war came to send the price of linen-mesh net beyond most fishermen's pocketbooks, men had discovered that salmon could be taken commercially by trolling lines. The lordly spring, which attains to seventy pounds, the small, swift blueback, and the fighting coho could all be lured to a hook on a wobbling bit of silver or brass at the end of a long line weighted with lead to keep it at a certain depth behind a moving boat. From a single line over the stern it was but a logical step to two, four, even six lines spaced on slender poles boomed out on each side of a power launch,—once the fisherman learned that with this gear he could take salmon in open water. So trolling was launched. Odd trollers grew to trolling fleets. A new method became established in the salmon industry.
But there are places where the salmon run and a gasboat trolling her battery of lines cannot go without loss of gear. The power boats cannot troll in shallows. They cannot operate in kelp without fouling. So they hold to deep open water and leave the kelp and shoals to the rowboats.
And that is how Poor Man's Rock got its name. In the kelp that surrounded it and the greater beds that fringed Point Old, the small feed sought refuge from the salmon and the salmon pursued them there among the weedy granite and the boulders, even into shallows where their back fins cleft the surface as they dashed after the little herring. The foul ground and the tidal currents that swept by the Rock held no danger to the gear of a rowboat troller. He fished a single short line with a pound or so of lead. He could stop dead in a boat length if his line fouled. So he pursued the salmon as the salmon pursued the little fish among the kelp and boulders.
Only a poor man trolled in a rowboat, tugging at the oars hour after hour without cabin shelter from wind and sun and rain, unable to face even such weather as a thirty by eight-foot gasboat could easily fish in, unable to follow the salmon run when it shifted from one point to another on the Gulf. The rowboat trollers must pick a camp ashore by a likely ground and stay there. If the salmon left they could only wait till another run began. Whereas the power boat could hear of schooling salmon forty miles away and be on the spot in seven hours' steaming.
Poor Man's Rock had given many a man his chance. Nearly always salmon could be taken there by a rowboat. And because for many years old men, men with lean purses, men with a rowboat, a few dollars, and a hunger for independence, had camped in Squitty Cove and fished the Squitty headlands and seldom failed to take salmon around the Rock, the name had clung to that brown hummock of granite lifting out of the sea at half tide. From April to November, any day a rowboat could live outside the Cove, there would be half a dozen, eight, ten, more or less, of these solitary rowers bending to their oars, circling the Rock.
Now and again one of these would hastily drop his oars, stand up, and haul in his line hand over hand. There would be a splashing and splattering on the surface, a bright silver fish leaping and threshing the water, to land at last with a plop! in the boat. Whereupon the fisherman would hurriedly strike this dynamic, glistening fish over the head with a short, thick club, lest his struggles snarl the line, after which he would put out his spoon and bend to the oars again. It was a daylight and dusk job, a matter of infinite patience and hard work, cold and wet at times, and in midsummer the blaze of a scorching sun and the eye-dazzling glitter of reflected light.
But a man must live. Some who came to the Cove trolled long and skillfully, and were lucky enough to gain a power troller in the end, to live on beans and fish, and keep a strangle hold on every dollar that came in until with a cabin boat powered with gas they joined the trolling fleet and became nomads. They fared well enough then. Their taking at once grew beyond a rowboat's scope. They could see new country, hearken to the lure of distant fishing grounds. There was the sport of gambling on wind and weather, on the price of fish or the number of the catch. If one locality displeased them they could shift to another, while the rowboat men were chained perforce to the monotony of the same camp, the same cliffs, the same old weary round.
Sometimes Squitty Cove harbored thirty or forty of these power trollers. They would make their night anchorage there while the trolling held good, filling the Cove with talk and laughter and a fine sprinkle of lights when dark closed in. With failing catches, or the first breath of a southeaster that would lock them in the Cove while it blew, they would be up and away,—to the top end of Squitty, to Yellow Rock, to Cape Lazo, anywhere that salmon might be found.
And the rowboat men would lie in their tents and split-cedar lean-tos, cursing the weather, the salmon that would not bite, grumbling at their lot.
There were two or three rowboat men who had fished the Cove almost since Jack MacRae could remember,—old men, fishermen who had shot their bolt, who dwelt in small cabins by the Cove, living somehow from salmon run to salmon run, content if the season's catch netted three hundred dollars. All they could hope for was a living. They had become fixtures there.
Jack MacRae looked down from the bald tip of Point Old with an eager gleam in his uncovered eye. There was the Rock with a slow swell lapping over it. There was an old withered Portuguese he knew in a green dugout, Long Tom Spence rowing behind the Portuguese, and they carrying on a shouted conversation. He picked out Doug Sproul among three others he did not know,—and there was not a man under fifty among them.
Three hundred yards offshore half a dozen power trollers wheeled and counterwheeled, working an eddy. He could see them haul the lines hand over hand, casting the hooked fish up into the hold with an easy swing. The salmon were biting.
It was all familiar to Jack MacRae. He knew every nook and cranny on Squitty Island, every phase and mood and color of the sea. It is a grim birthplace that leaves a man without some sentiment for the place where he was born. Point Old, Squitty Cove, Poor Man's Rock had been the boundaries of his world for a long time. In so far as he had ever played, he had played there.
He looked for another familiar figure or two, without noting them.
"The fish are biting fast for this time of year," he reflected. "It's a wonder dad and Peter Ferrara aren't out. And I never knew Bill Munro to miss anything like this."
He looked a little longer, over across the tip of Sangster Island two miles westward, with its Elephant's Head,—the extended trunk of which was a treacherous reef bared only at low tide. He looked at the Elephant's unwinking eye, which was a twenty-foot hole through a hump of sandstone, and smiled. He had fished for salmon along the kelp beds there and dug clams under the eye of the Elephant long, long ago. It did seem a long time ago that he had been a youngster in overalls, adventuring alone in a dugout about these bold headlands.
He rose at last. The November wind chilled him through the heavy mackinaw. He looked back at the Gower cottage, like a snowflake in a setting of emerald; he looked at the Gower yacht; and the puzzled frown returned to his face.
Then he picked up his bag and walked rapidly along the brow of the cliffs toward Squitty Cove.
The Flutter of Sable Wings
A path took form on the mossy rock as Jack MacRae strode on. He followed this over patches of grass, by lone firs and small thickets, until it brought him out on the rim of the Cove. He stood a second on the cliffy north wall to look down on the quiet harbor. It was bare of craft, save that upon the beach two or three rowboats lay hauled out. On the farther side a low, rambling house of logs showed behind a clump of firs. Smoke lifted from its stone chimney.
MacRae smiled reminiscently at this and moved on. His objective lay at the Cove's head, on the little creek which came whispering down from the high land behind. He gained this in another two hundred yards, coming to a square house built, like its neighbor, of stout logs with a high-pitched roof, a patch of ragged grass in front, and a picket-fenced area at the back in which stood apple trees and cherry and plum, gaunt-limbed trees all bare of leaf and fruit. Ivy wound up the corners of the house. Sturdy rosebushes stood before it, and the dead vines of sweet peas bleached on their trellises.
It had the look of an old place—as age is reckoned in so new a country—old and bearing the marks of many years' labor bestowed to make it what it was. Even from a distance it bore a homelike air. MacRae's face lightened at the sight. His step quickened. He had come a long way to get home.
Across the front of the house extended a wide porch which gave a look at the Cove through a thin screen of maple and alder. From the grass-bordered walk of beach gravel half a dozen steps lifted to the floor level. As MacRae set foot on the lower step a girl came out on the porch.
MacRae stopped. The girl did not see him. Her eyes were fixed questioningly on the sea that stretched away beyond the narrow mouth of the Cove. As she looked she drew one hand wearily across her forehead, tucking back a vagrant strand of dusky hair. MacRae watched her a moment. The quick, pleased smile that leaped to his face faded to soberness.
"Hello, Dolly," he said softly.
She started. Her dark eyes turned to him, and an inexpressible relief glowed in them. She held up one hand in a gesture that warned silence,—and by that time MacRae had come up the steps to her side and seized both her hands in his. She looked at him speechlessly, a curious passivity in her attitude. He saw that her eyes were wet.
"What's wrong, Dolly?" he asked. "Aren't you glad to see Johnny come marching home? Where's dad?"
"Glad?" she echoed. "I never was so glad to see any one in my life. Oh, Johnny MacRae, I wish you'd come sooner. Your father's a sick man. We've done our best, but I'm afraid it's not good enough."
"He's in bed, I suppose," said MacRae. "Well, I'll go in and see him. Maybe it'll cheer the old boy up to see me back."
"He won't know you," the girl murmured. "You mustn't disturb him just now, anyway. He has fallen into a doze. When he comes out of that he'll likely be delirious."
"Good Lord," MacRae whispered, "as bad as that! What is it?"
"The flu," Dolly said quietly. "Everybody has been having it. Old Bill Munro died in his shack a week ago."
"Has dad had a doctor?"
The girl nodded.
"Harper from Nanaimo came day before yesterday. He left medicine and directions; he can't come again. He has more cases than he can handle over there."
They went through the front door into a big, rudely furnished room with a very old and worn rug on the floor, a few pieces of heavy furniture, and bare, uncurtained windows. A heap of wood blazed in an open cobblestone fireplace.
MacRae stopped short just within the threshold. Through a door slightly ajar came the sound of stertorous breathing, intermittent in its volume, now barely audible, again rising to a labored harshness. He listened, a look of dismayed concern gathering on his face. He had heard men in the last stages of exhaustion from wounds and disease breathe in that horribly distressed fashion.
He stood a while uncertainly. Then he laid off his mackinaw, walked softly to the bedroom door, looked in. After a minute of silent watching he drew back. The girl had seated herself in a chair. MacRae sat down facing her.
"I never saw dad so thin and old-looking," he muttered. "Why, his hair is nearly white. He's a wreck. How long has he been sick?"
"Four days," Dolly answered. "But he hasn't grown old and thin in four days, Jack. He's been going downhill for months. Too much work. Too much worry also, I think—out there around the Rock every morning at daylight, every evening till dark. It hasn't been a good season for the rowboats."
MacRae stirred uneasily in his chair. He didn't understand why his father should have to drudge in a trolling boat. They had always fished salmon, so far back as he could recall, but never of stark necessity. He nursed his chin in his hand and thought. Mostly he thought with a constricted feeling in his throat of how frail and old his father had grown, the slow-smiling, slow-speaking man who had been father and mother and chum to him since he was an urchin in knee breeches. He recalled him at their parting on a Vancouver railway platform,—tall and rugged, a lean, muscular, middle-aged man, bidding his son a restrained farewell with a longing look in his eyes. Now he was a wasted shadow. Jack MacRae shivered. He seemed to hear the sable angel's wing-beats over the house.
He looked up at the girl at last.
"You're worn out, aren't you, Dolly?" he said. "Have you been caring for him alone?"
"Uncle Peter helped," she answered. "But I've stayed up and worried, and I am tired, of course. It isn't a very cheerful home-coming, is it, Jack? And he was so pleased when he got your cable from London. Poor old man!"
MacRae got up suddenly. But the clatter of his shoes on the floor recalled him to himself. He sat down again.
"I've got to do something," he asserted.
"There's nothing you can do," Dolly Ferrara said wistfully. "He can't be moved. You can't get a doctor or a nurse. The country's full of people down with the flu. There's only one chance and I've taken that. I wrote a message to Doctor Laidlaw—you remember he used to come here every summer to fish—and Uncle Peter went across to Sechelt to wire it. I think he'll come if he can, or send some one, don't you? They were such good friends."
"That was a good idea," MacRae nodded. "Laidlaw will certainly come if it's possible."
"And I can keep cool cloths on his head and feed him broth and give him the stuff Doctor Harper left. He said it depended mostly on his own resisting power. If he could throw it off he would. If not—"
She turned her palms out expressively.
"How did you come?" she asked presently.
"Across from Qualicum in a fish carrier to Folly Bay. I borrowed a boat at the Bay and rowed up."
"You must be hungry," she said. "I'll get you something to eat."
"I don't feel much like eating,"—MacRae followed her into the kitchen—"but I can drink a cup of tea."
He sat on a corner of the kitchen table while she busied herself with the kettle and teapot, marveling that in four years everything should apparently remain the same and still suffer such grievous change. There was an air of forlornness about the house which hurt him. The place had run down, as the sands of his father's life were running down. Of the things unchanged the girl he watched was one. Yet as he looked with keener appraisal, he saw that Dolly Ferrara too had changed.
Her dusky cloud of hair was as of old; her wide, dark eyes still mirrored faithfully every shift of feeling, and her incomparable creamy skin was more beautiful than ever. Moving, she had lost none of her lithe grace. And though she had met him as if it had been only yesterday they parted, still there was a difference which somehow eluded him. He could feel it, but it was not to be defined. It struck him for the first time that many who had never seen a battlefield, never heard a screaming shell, nor shuddered at the agony of a dressing station, might still have suffered by and of and through the reactions of war.
They drank their tea and ate a slice of toast in silence. MacRae's comrades in France had called him "Silent" John, because of his lapses into concentrated thought, his habit of a close mouth when he was hurt or troubled or uncertain. One of the things for which he had liked Dolly Ferrara had been her possession of the same trait, uncommon in a girl. She could sit on the cliffs or lie with him in a rowboat lifting and falling in the Gulf swell, staring at the sea and the sky and the wheeling gulls, dreaming and keeping her dreams shyly to herself,—as he did. They did not always need words for understanding. And so they did not talk now for the sake of talking, pour out words lest silence bring embarrassment. Dolly sat resting her chin in one hand, looking at him impersonally, yet critically, he felt. He smoked a cigarette and held his peace until the labored breathing of the sick man changed to disjointed, muttering, incoherent fragments of speech.
Dolly went to him at once. MacRae lingered to divest himself of the brown overalls so that he stood forth in his uniform, the R.A.F. uniform with the two black wings joined to a circle on his left breast and below that the multicolored ribbon of a decoration. Then he went in to his father.
Donald MacRae was far gone. His son needed no M.D. to tell him that. He burned with a high fever which had consumed his flesh and strength in its furnace. His eyes gleamed unnaturally, with no light of recognition for either his son or Dolly Ferrara. And there was a peculiar tinge to the old man's lips that chilled young MacRae, the mark of the Spanish flu in its deadliest manifestation. It made him ache to see that gray head shift from side to side, to listen to the incoherent babble, to mark the feeble shiftings of the nervous hands.
For a terrible half hour he endured the sight of his father struggling for breath, being racked by spasms of coughing. Then the reaction came and the sick man slept,—not a healthy, restful sleep; it was more like the dying stupor of exhaustion. Young MacRae knew that.
He knew with disturbing certainty that without skilled treatment—perhaps even in spite of that—his father's life was a matter of hours. Again he and Dolly Ferrara tiptoed out to the room where the fire glowed on the hearth. MacRae sat thinking. Dusk was coming on, the long twilight shortened by the overcast sky. MacRae glowered at the fire. The girl watched him expectantly.
"I have an idea," he said at last. "It's worth trying."
He opened his bag and, taking out the wedge-shaped cap of the birdmen, set it on his head and went out. He took the same path he had followed home. On top of the cliff he stopped to look down on Squitty Cove. In a camp or two ashore the supper fires of the rowboat trollers were burning. Through the narrow entrance the gasboats were chugging in to anchorage, one close upon the heels of another.
MacRae considered the power trollers. He shook his head.
"Too slow," he muttered. "Too small. No place to lay him only a doghouse cabin and a fish hold."
He strode away along the cliffs. It was dark now. But he had ranged all that end of Squitty in daylight and dark, in sun and storm, for years, and the old instinctive sense of direction, of location, had not deserted him. In a little while he came out abreast of Cradle Bay. The Gower house, all brightly gleaming windows, loomed near. He struck down through the dead fern, over the unfenced lawn.
Halfway across that he stopped. A piano broke out loudly. Figures flittered by the windows, gliding, turning. MacRae hesitated. He had come reluctantly, driven by his father's great need, uneasily conscious that Donald MacRae, had he been cognizant, would have forbidden harshly the request his son had come to make. Jack MacRae had the feeling that his father would rather die than have him ask anything of Horace Gower.
He did not know why. He had never been told why. All he knew was that his father would have nothing to do with Gower, never mentioned the name voluntarily, let his catch of salmon rot on the beach before he would sell to a Gower cannery boat,—and had enjoined upon his son the same aloofness from all things Gower. Once, in answer to young Jack's curious question, his natural "why," Donald MacRae had said:
"I knew the man long before you were born, Johnny. I don't like him. I despise him. Neither I nor any of mine shall ever truck and traffic with him and his. When you are a man and can understand, I shall tell you more of this."
But he had never told. It had never been a mooted point. Jack MacRae knew Horace Gower only as a short, stout, elderly man of wealth and consequence, a power in the salmon trade. He knew a little more of the Gower clan now than he did before the war. MacRae had gone overseas with the Seventh Battalion. His company commander had been Horace Gower's son. Certain aspects of that young man had not heightened MacRae's esteem for the Gower family. Moreover, he resented this elaborate summer home of Gower's standing on land he had always known to be theirs, the MacRaes'. That puzzled him, as well as affronted his sense of ownership.
But these things, he told himself, were for the moment beside the point. He felt his father's life trembling in the balance. He wanted to see affectionate, prideful recognition light up those gray-blue eyes again, even if briefly. He had come six thousand miles to cheer the old man with a sight of his son, a son who had been a credit to him. And he was willing to pocket pride, to call for help from the last source he would have chosen, if that would avail.
He crossed the lawn, waited a few seconds till the piano ceased its syncopated frenzy and the dancers stopped.
Betty Gower herself opened at his knock.
"Is Mr. Gower here?" he asked.
"Yes. Won't you come in?" she asked courteously.
The door opened direct into a great living room, from the oak floor of which the rugs had been rolled aside for dancing. As MacRae came in out of the murk along the cliffs, his one good eye was dazzled at first. Presently he made out a dozen or more persons in the room,—young people nearly all. They were standing and sitting about. One or two were in khaki—officers. There seemed to be an abrupt cessation of chatter and laughing at his entrance. It did not occur to him at once that these people might be avidly curious about a strange young man in the uniform of the Flying Corps. He apprehended that curiosity, though, politely veiled as it was. In the same glance he became aware of a middle-aged woman sitting on a couch by the fire. Her hair was pure white, elaborately arranged, her eyes were a pale blue, her skin very delicate and clear. Her face somehow reminded Jack MacRae of a faded rose leaf.
In a deep armchair near her sat Horace Gower. A young man, a very young man, in evening clothes, holding a long cigarette daintily in his fingers, stood by Gower.
MacRae followed Betty Gower across the room to her father. She turned. Her quick eyes had picked out the insignia of rank on MacRae's uniform.
"Papa," she said. "Captain—" she hesitated.
"MacRae," he supplied.
"Captain MacRae wishes to see you."
MacRae wished no conventionalities. He did not want to be introduced, to be shaken by the hand, to have Gower play host. He forestalled all this, if indeed it threatened.
"I have just arrived home on leave," he said briefly. "I find my father desperately ill in our house at the Cove. You have a very fast and able cruiser. Would you care to put her at my disposal so that I may take my father to Vancouver? I think that is his only chance."
Gower had risen. He was not an imposing man. At his first glimpse of MacRae's face, the pink-patched eye, the uniform, he flushed slightly,—recalling that afternoon.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You'd be welcome to the Arrow if she were here. But I sent her to Nanaimo an hour after she landed us. Are you Donald MacRae's boy?"
"Yes," MacRae said. "Thank you. That's all."
He had said his say and got his answer. He turned to go. Betty Gower put a detaining hand on his arm.
"Listen," she put in eagerly. "Is there anything any of us could do to help? Nursing or—or anything?"
MacRae shook his head.
"There is a girl with him," he answered. "Nothing but skilled medical aid would help him at this stage. He has the flu, and the fever is burning his life out."
"The flu, did you say?" The young man with the long cigarette lost his bored air. "Hang it, it isn't very sporting, is it, to expose us—these ladies—to the infection? I'll say it isn't."
Jack MacRae fixed the young man—and he was not, after all, much younger than MacRae—with a steady stare in which a smoldering fire glowed. He bestowed a scrutiny while one might count five, under which the other's gaze began to shift uneasily. A constrained silence fell in the room.
"I would suggest that you learn how to put on a gas mask," MacRae said coldly, at last.
Then he walked out. Betty Gower followed him to the door, but he had asked his question and there was nothing to wait for. He did not even look back until he reached the cliff. He did not care if they thought him rude, ill-bred. Then, as he reached the cliff, the joyous jazz broke out again and shadows of dancing couples flitted by the windows. MacRae looked once and went on, moody because chance had decreed that he should fail.
* * * * *
When a ruddy dawn broke through the gray cloud battalions Jack MacRae sat on a chair before the fireplace in the front room, his elbows on his knees, his chin in his cupped palms. He had been sitting like that for two hours. The fir logs had wasted away to a pile of white ash spotted with dying coals. MacRae sat heedless that the room was growing cold.
He did not even lift his head at the sound of heavy footsteps on the porch. He did not move until a voice at the door spoke his name in accents of surprise.
"Is that you, yourself, Johnny MacRae?"
The voice was deep and husky and kind, and it was not native to Squitty Cove. MacRae lifted his head to see his father's friend and his own, Doctor Laidlaw, physician and fisherman, bulking large. And beyond the doctor he saw a big white launch at anchor inside the Cove.
"Yes," MacRae said.
"How's your father?" Laidlaw asked. "That wire worried me. I made the best time I could."
"He's dead," MacRae answered evenly. "He died at midnight."
On a morning four days later Jack MacRae sat staring into the coals on the hearth. It was all over and done with, the house empty and still, Dolly Ferrara gone back to her uncle's home. Even the Cove was bare of fishing craft. He was alone under his own rooftree, alone with an oppressive silence and his own thoughts.
These were not particularly pleasant thoughts. There was nothing mawkish about Jack MacRae. He had never been taught to shrink from the inescapable facts of existence. Even if he had, the war would have cured him of that weakness. As it was, twelve months in the infantry, nearly three years in the air, had taught him that death is a commonplace after a man sees about so much of it, that it is many times a welcome relief from suffering either of the body or the spirit. He chose to believe that it had proved so to his father. So his feelings were not that strange mixture of grief and protest which seizes upon those to whom death is the ultimate tragedy, the irrevocable disaster, when it falls upon some one near and dear.
No, Jack MacRae, brooding by his fire, was lonely and saddened and heavy-hearted. But beneath these neutral phases there was slowly gathering a flood of feeling unrelated to his father's death, more directly based indeed upon Donald MacRae's life, upon matters but now revealed to him, which had their root in that misty period when his father was a young man like himself.
On the table beside him lay an inch-thick pile of note paper all closely written upon in the clear, small pen-script of his father.
My son: [MacRae had written] I have a feeling lately that I may never see you again. Not that I fear you will be killed. I no longer have that fear. I seem to have an unaccountable assurance that having come through so much you will go on safely to the end. But I'm not so sure about myself. I'm aging too fast. I've been told my heart is bad. And I've lost heart lately. Things have gone against me. There is nothing new in that. For thirty years I've been losing out to a greater or less extent in most of the things I undertook—that is, the important things.
Perhaps I didn't bring the energy and feverish ambition I might have to my undertakings. Until you began to grow up I accepted things more or less passively as I found them.
Until you have a son of your own, until you observe closely other men and their sons, my boy, you will scarcely realize how close we two have been to each other. We've been what they call good chums. I've taken a secret pride in seeing you grow and develop into a man. And while I tried to give you an education—broken into, alas, by this unending war—such as would enable you to hold your own in a world which deals harshly with the ignorant, the incompetent, the untrained, it was also my hope to pass on to you something of material value.
This land which runs across Squitty Island from the Cove to Cradle Bay and extending a mile back—in all a trifle over six hundred acres—was to be your inheritance. You were born here. I know that no other place means quite so much to you as this old log house with the meadow behind it, and the woods, and the sea grumbling always at our doorstep. Long ago this place came into my hands at little more cost than the taking. It has proved a refuge to me, a stronghold against all comers, against all misfortune. I have spent much labor on it, and most of it has been a labor of love. It has begun to grow valuable. In years to come it will be of far greater value. I had hoped to pass it on to you intact, unencumbered, an inheritance of some worth. Land, you will eventually discover, Johnny, is the basis of everything. A man may make a fortune in industry, in the market. He turns to land for permanence, stability. All that is sterling in our civilization has its foundation in the soil.
Out of this land of ours, which I have partially and half-heartedly reclaimed from the wilderness, you should derive a comfortable livelihood, and your children after you.
But I am afraid I must forego that dream and you, my son, your inheritance. It has slipped away from me. How this has come about I wish to make clear to you, so that you will not feel unkindly toward me that you must face the world with no resources beyond your own brain and a sound young body. If it happens that the war ends soon and you come home while I am still alive to welcome you, we can talk this over man to man. But, as I said, my heart is bad. I may not be here. So I am writing all this for you to read. There are many things which you should know—or at least which I should like you to know.
Thirty years ago—
Donald MacRae's real communication to his son began at that point in the long ago when the Gull outsailed his sloop and young Horace Gower, smarting with jealousy, struck that savage blow with a pike pole at a man whose fighting hands were tied by a promise. Bit by bit, incident by incident, old Donald traced out of a full heart and bitter memories all the passing years for his son to see and understand. He made Elizabeth Morton, the Morton family, Horace Gower and the Gower kin stand out in bold relief. He told how he, Donald MacRae, a nobody from nowhere, for all they knew, adventuring upon the Pacific Coast, questing carelessly after fortune, had fallen in love with this girl whose family, with less consideration for her feelings and desires than for mutual advantages of land and money and power, favored young Gower and saw nothing but impudent presumption in MacRae.
Young Jack sat staring into the coals, seeing much, understanding more. It was all there in those written pages, a powerful spur to a vivid imagination.
No MacRae had ever lain down unwhipped. Nor had Donald MacRae, his father. Before his bruised face had healed—and young Jack remembered well the thin white scar that crossed his father's cheek bone—Donald MacRae was again pursuing his heart's desire. But he was forestalled there. He had truly said to Elizabeth Morton that she would never have another chance. By force or persuasion or whatsoever means were necessary they had married her out of hand to Horace Gower.
"That must have been she sitting on the couch," Jack MacRae whispered to himself, "that middle-aged woman with the faded rose-leaf face. Lord, Lord, how things get twisted!"
Though they so closed the avenue to a mesalliance, still their pride must have smarted because of that clandestine affection, that boldly attempted elopement. Most of all, young Gower must have hated MacRae—with almost the same jealous intensity that Donald MacRae must for a time have hated him—because Gower apparently never forgot and never forgave. Long after Donald MacRae outgrew that passion Gower had continued secretly to harass him. Certain things could not be otherwise accounted for, Donald MacRae wrote to his son. Gower functioned in the salmon trade, in timber, in politics. In whatever MacRae set on foot, he ultimately discerned the hand of Gower, implacable, hidden, striking at him from under cover.
And so in a land and during a period when men created fortunes easily out of nothing, or walked carelessly over golden opportunities, Donald MacRae got him no great store of worldly goods, whereas Horace Gower, after one venture in which he speedily dissipated an inherited fortune, drove straight to successful outcome in everything he touched. By the time young Jack MacRae outgrew the Island teachers and must go to Vancouver for high school and then to the University of British Columbia, old Donald had been compelled to borrow money on his land to meet these expenses.
Young Jack, sitting by the fire, winced when he thought of that. He had taken things for granted. The war had come in his second year at the university,—and he had gone to the front as a matter of course.
Failing fish prices, poor seasons, other minor disasters had followed,—and always in the background, as old Donald saw it, the Gower influence, malign, vindictive, harboring that ancient grudge.
Whereas in the beginning MacRae had confidently expected by one resource and another to meet easily the obligation he had incurred, the end of it was the loss, during the second year of the war, of all the MacRae lands on Squitty,—all but a rocky corner of a few acres which included the house and garden. Old Donald had segregated that from his holdings when he pledged the land, as a matter of sentiment, not of value. All the rest—acres of pasture, cleared and grassed, stretches of fertile ground, blocks of noble timber still uncut—had passed through the hands of mortgage holders, through bank transfers, by devious and tortuous ways, until the title rested in Horace Gower,—who had promptly built the showy summer house on Cradle Bay to flaunt in his face, so old Donald believed and told his son.
It was a curious document, and it made a profound impression on Jack MacRae. He passed over the underlying motive, a man justifying himself to his son for a failure which needed no justifying. He saw now why his father tabooed all things Gower, why indeed he must have hated Gower as a man who does things in the open hates an enemy who strikes only from cover.
Strangely enough, Jack managed to grasp the full measure of what his father's love for Elizabeth Morton must have been without resenting the secondary part his mother must have played. For old Donald was frank in his story. He made it clear that he had loved Bessie Morton with an all-consuming passion, and that when this burned itself out he had never experienced so headlong an affection again. He spoke with kindly regard for his wife, but she played little or no part in his account. And Jack had only a faint memory of his mother, for she had died when he was seven. His father filled his eyes. His father's enemies were his. Family ties superimposed on clan clannishness, which is the blood heritage of the Highland Scotch, made it impossible for him to feel otherwise. That blow with a pike pole was a blow directed at his own face. He took up his father's feud instinctively, not even stopping to consider whether that was his father's wish or intent.
He got up out of his chair at last and went outside, down to where the Cove waters, on a rising tide, lapped at the front of a rude shed. Under this shed, secure on a row of keel-blocks, rested a small knockabout-rigged boat, stowed away from wind and weather, her single mast, boom, and gaff unshipped and slung to rafters, her sail and running gear folded and coiled and hung beyond the wood-rats' teeth. Beside this sailing craft lay a long blue dugout, also on blocks, half filled with water to keep it from checking.
These things belonged to him. He had left them lying about when he went away to France. And old Donald had put them here safely against his return. Jack stared at them, blinking. He was full of a dumb protest. It didn't seem right. Nothing seemed right. In young MacRae's mind there was nothing terrible about death. He had become used to that. But he had imagination. He could see his father going on day after day, month after month, year after year, enduring, uncomplaining. Gauged by what his father had written, by what Dolly Ferrara had supplied when he questioned her, these last months must have been gray indeed. And he had died without hope or comfort or a sight of his son.
That was what made young MacRae blink and struggle with a lump in his throat. It hurt.
He walked away around the end of the Cove without definite objective. He was suddenly restless, seeking relief in movement. Sitting still and thinking had become unbearable. He found himself on the path that ran along the cliffs and followed that, coming out at last on the neck of Point Old where he could look down on the broken water that marked Poor Man's Rock.
The lowering cloud bank of his home-coming day had broken in heavy rain. That had poured itself out and given place to a southeaster. The wind was gone now, the clouds breaking up into white drifting patches with bits of blue showing between, and the sun striking through in yellow shafts which lay glittering areas here and there on the Gulf. The swell that runs after a blow still thundered all along the southeast face of Squitty, bursting boom—boom—boom against the cliffs, shooting spray in white cascades. Over the Rock the sea boiled.
There were two rowboats trolling outside the heavy backwash from the cliffs. MacRae knew them both. Peter Ferrara was in one, Long Tom Spence in the other. They did not ride those gray-green ridges for pleasure, nor drop sidling into those deep watery hollows for joy of motion. They were out for fish, which meant to them food and clothing. That was their work.
They were the only fisher folk abroad that morning. The gasboat men had flitted to more sheltered grounds. MacRae watched these two lift and fall in the marching swells. It was cold. Winter sharpened his teeth already. The rowers bent to their oars, tossing and lurching. MacRae reflected upon their industry. In France he had eaten canned salmon bearing the Folly Bay label, salmon that might have been taken here by the Rock, perhaps by the hands of these very men, by his own father. Still, that was unlikely. Donald MacRae had never sold a fish to a Gower collector. Nor would he himself, young MacRae swore under his breath, looking sullenly down upon the Rock.
Day after day, month after month, his father had tugged at the oars, hauled on the line, rowing around and around Poor Man's Rock, skirting the kelp at the cliff's foot, keeping body and soul together with unremitting labor in sun and wind and rain, trying to live and save that little heritage of land for his son.
Jack MacRae sat down on a rock beside a bush and thought about this sadly. He could have saved his father much if he had known. He could have assigned his pay. There was a government allowance. He could have invoked the War Relief Act against foreclosure. Between them they could have managed. But he understood quite clearly why his father made no mention of his difficulties. He would have done the same under the same circumstances himself, played the game to its bitter end without a cry.
But Donald MacRae had made a long, hard fight only to lose in the end, and his son, with full knowledge of the loneliness and discouragement and final hopelessness that had been his father's lot, was passing slowly from sadness to a cumulative anger. That cottage amid its green grounds bright in a patch of sunshine did not help to soften him. It stood on land reclaimed from the forest by his father's labor. It should have belonged to him, and it had passed into hands that already grasped too much. For thirty years Gower had made silent war on Donald MacRae because of a woman. It seemed incredible that a grudge born of jealousy should run so deep, endure so long. But there were the facts. Jack MacRae accepted them; he could not do otherwise. He came of a breed which has handed its feuds from generation to generation, interpreting literally the code of an eye for an eye.
So that as he sat there brooding, it was perhaps a little unfortunate that the daughter of a man whom he was beginning to regard as a forthright enemy should have chosen to come to him, tripping soundlessly over the moss.
He did not hear Betty Gower until she was beside him. Her foot clicked on a stone and he looked up. Betty was all in white, a glow in her cheeks and in her eyes, bareheaded, her reddish-brown hair shining in a smooth roll above her ears.
"I hear you have lost your father," she said simply. "I'm awfully sorry."
Some peculiar quality of sympathy in her tone touched MacRae deeply. His eyes shifted for a moment to the uneasy sea. The lump in his throat troubled him again. Then he faced her again.
"Thanks," he said slowly. "I dare say you mean it, although I don't know why you should. But I'd rather not talk about that. It's done."
"I suppose that's the best way," she agreed, although she gave him a doubtful sort of glance, as if she scarcely knew how to take part of what he said. "Isn't it lovely after the storm? Pretty much all the civilized world must feel a sort of brightness and sunshine to-day, I imagine."
"Why?" he asked. It seemed to him a most uncalled-for optimism.
"Why, haven't you heard that the war is over?" she smiled. "Surely some one has told you?"
He shook his head.
"It is a fact," she declared. "The armistice was signed yesterday at eleven. Aren't you glad?"
MacRae reflected a second. A week earlier he would have thrown up his cap and whooped. Now the tremendously important happening left him unmoved, unbelievably indifferent. He was not stirred at all by the fact of acknowledged victory, of cessation from killing.
"I should be, I suppose," he muttered. "I know a lot of fellows will be—and their people. So far as I'm concerned—right now—"
He made a quick gesture with his hands. He couldn't explain how he felt—that the war had suddenly and imperiously been relegated to the background for him. Temporarily or otherwise, as a spur to his emotions, the war had ceased to function. He didn't want to talk. He wanted to be let alone, to think.
Yet he was conscious of a wish not to offend, to be courteous to this clear-eyed young woman who looked at him with frank interest. He wondered why he should be of any interest to her. MacRae had never been shy. Shyness is nearly always born of acute self-consciousness. Being free from that awkward inturning of the mind Jack MacRae was not thoroughly aware of himself as a likable figure in any girl's sight. Four years overseas had set a mark on many such as himself. A man cannot live through manifold chances of death, face great perils, do his work under desperate risks and survive, without some trace of his deeds being manifest in his bearing. Those tried by fire are sure of themselves, and it shows in their eyes. Besides, Jack MacRae was twenty-four, clear-skinned, vigorous, straight as a young fir tree, a handsome boy in uniform. But he was not quick to apprehend that these things stirred a girl's fancy, nor did he know that the gloomy something which clouded his eyes made Betty Gower want to comfort him.
"I think I understand," she said evenly,—when in truth she did not understand at all. "But after a while you'll be glad. I know I should be if I were in the army, although of course no matter how horrible it all was it had to be done. For a long time I wanted to go to France myself, to do something. I was simply wild to go. But they wouldn't let me."
"And I," MacRae said slowly, "didn't want to go at all—and I had to go."
"Oh," she remarked with a peculiar interrogative inflection. Her eyebrows lifted. "Why did you have to? You went over long before the draft was thought of."
"Because I'd been taught that my flag and country really meant something," he said. "That was all; and it was quite enough in the way of compulsion for a good many like myself who didn't hanker to stick bayonets through men we'd never seen, nor shoot them, nor blow them up with hand grenades, nor kill them ten thousand feet in the air and watch them fall, turning over and over like a winged duck. But these things seemed necessary. They said a country worth living in was worth fighting for."
"And isn't it?" Betty Gower challenged promptly.
MacRae looked at her and at the white cottage, at the great Gulf seas smashing on the rocks below, at the far vista of sea and sky and the shore line faintly purple in the distance. His gaze turned briefly to the leafless tops of maple and alder rising out of the hollow in which his father's body lay—in a corner of the little plot that was left of all their broad acres—and came back at last to this fair daughter of his father's enemy.
"The country is, yes," he said. "Anything that's worth having is worth fighting for. But that isn't what they meant, and that isn't the way it has worked out."
He was not conscious of the feeling in his voice. He was thinking with exaggerated bitterness that the Germans in Belgium had dealt less hardly with a conquered people than this girl's father had dealt with his.
"I'm afraid I don't quite understand what you mean by that," she remarked. Her tone was puzzled. She looked at him, frankly curious.
But he could not tell her what he meant. He had a feeling that she was in no way responsible. He had an instinctive aversion to rudeness. And while he was absolving himself of any intention to make war on her he was wondering if her mother, long ago, had been anything like Miss Betty Gower. It seemed odd to think that this level-eyed girl's mother might have been his mother,—if she had been made of stiffer metal, or if the west wind had blown that afternoon.
He wondered if she knew. Not likely, he decided. It wasn't a story either Horace Gower or his wife would care to tell their children.
So he did not try to tell her what he meant. He withdrew into his shell. And when Betty Gower seated herself on a rock and evinced an inclination to quiz him about things he did not care to be quizzed about, he lifted his cap, bade her a courteous good-by, and walked back toward the Cove.
From the Bottom Up
MacRae did nothing but mark time until he found himself a plain citizen once more. He could have remained in the service for months without risk and with much profit to himself. But the fighting was over. The Germans were whipped. That had been the goal. Having reached it, MacRae, like thousands of other young men, had no desire to loaf in a uniform subject to military orders while the politicians wrangled.
But even when he found himself a civilian again, master of his individual fortunes, he was still a trifle at a loss. He had no definite plan. He was rather at sea, because all the things he had planned on doing when he came home had gone by the board. So many things which had seemed good and desirable had been contingent upon his father. Every plan he had ever made for the future had included old Donald MacRae and those wide acres across the end of Squitty. He had been deprived of both, left without a ready mark to shoot at. The flood of war had carried him far. The ebb of it had set him back on his native shores,—stranded him there, so to speak, to pick up the broken threads of his old life as best he could.
He had no quarrel with that. But he did have a feud with circumstance, a profound resentment with the past for its hard dealing with his father, for the blankness of old Donald's last year or two on earth. And a good deal of this focused on Horace Gower and his works.
"He might have let up on the old man," Jack MacRae would say to himself resentfully. He would lie awake in the dark thinking about this. "We were doing our bit. He might have stopped putting spokes in our wheel while the war was on."
The fact of the matter is that young MacRae was deeply touched in his family pride as well as his personal sense of injustice. Gower had deeply injured his father, therefore it was any MacRae's concern. It made no difference that the first blow in this quarrel had been struck before he was born. He smarted under it and all that followed. His only difficulty was to discern a method of repaying in kind, which he was thoroughly determined to do.
He saw no way, if the truth be told. He did not even contemplate inflicting physical injury on Horace Gower. That would have been absurd. But he wanted to hurt him, to make him squirm, to heap trouble on the man and watch him break down under the load. And he did not see how he possibly could. Gower was too well fortified. Four years of war experience, which likewise embraced a considerable social experience, had amply shown Jack MacRae the subtle power of money, of political influence, of family connections, of commercial prestige.
All these things were on Gower's side. He was impregnable. MacRae was not a fool. Neither was he inclined to pessimism. Yet so far as he could see, the croakers were not lying when they said that here at home the war had made the rich richer and the poor poorer. It was painfully true in his own case. He had given four years of himself to his country, gained an honorable record, and lost everything else that was worth having.
What he had lost in a material way he meant to get back. How, he had not yet determined. His brain was busy with that problem. And the dying down of his first keen resentment and grief over the death of his father, and that dead father's message to him, merely hardened into a cold resolve to pay off his father's debt to the Gowers and Mortons. MacRae ran true to the traditions of his Highland blood when he lumped them all together.
In this he was directed altogether by the promptings of emotion, and he never questioned the justice of his attitude. But in the practical adjustment of his life to conditions as he found them he adopted a purely rational method.
He took stock of his resources. They were limited enough. A few hundred dollars in back pay and demobilization gratuities; a sound body, now that his injured eye was all but healed; an abounding confidence in himself,—which he had earned the right to feel. That was all. Ambition for place, power, wealth, he did not feel as an imperative urge. He perceived the value and desirability of these things. Only he saw no short straight road to any one of them.
For four years he had been fed, clothed, directed, master of his own acts only in supreme moments. There was an unconscious reaction from that high pitch. Being his own man again and a trifle uncertain what to do, he did nothing at all for a time. He made one trip to Vancouver, to learn by just what legal processes the MacRae lands had passed into the Gower possession. He found out what he wanted to know easily enough. Gower had got his birthright for a song. Donald MacRae had borrowed six thousand dollars through a broker. The land was easily worth double, even at wild-land valuation. But old Donald's luck had run true to form. He had not been able to renew the loan. The broker had discounted the mortgage in a pinch. A financial house had foreclosed and sold the place to Gower,—who had been trying to buy it for years, through different agencies. His father's papers told young MacRae plainly enough through what channels the money had gone. Chance had functioned on the wrong side for his father.
So Jack went back to Squitty and stayed in the old house, talked with the fishermen, spent a lot of his time with old Peter Ferrara and Dolly. Always he was casting about for a course of action which would give him scope for two things upon which his mind was set: to get the title to that six hundred acres revested in the MacRae name, and, in Jack's own words to Dolores Ferrara, to take a fall out of Horace Gower that would jar the bones of his ancestors.