THE HIDDEN PLACES
THE HIDDEN PLACES
By BERTRAND W. SINCLAIR
"Big Timber," "Poor Man's Rock," etc.
A.L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company Printed in U.S.A.
Copyright, 1922, BY LITTLE, BROWN, AND COMPANY.
All rights reserved Published January, 1922.
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
THE HIDDEN PLACES
Hollister stood in the middle of his room, staring at the door without seeing the door, without seeing the bulky shadow his body cast on the wall in the pale glow of a single droplight. He was seeing everything and seeing nothing; acutely, quiveringly conscious and yet oblivious to his surroundings by reason of the poignancy of his thought.
A feeling not far short of terror had folded itself about him like a shrouding fog.
It had not seized him unaware. For weeks he had seen it looming over him, and he had schooled himself to disregard a great deal which his perception was too acute to misunderstand. He had struggled desperately against the unescapable, recognizing certain significant facts and in the same breath denying their accumulated force in sheer self-defense.
A small dressing-table topped by an oval mirror stood against the wall beside his bed. Hollister took his unseeing gaze off the door with a start, like a man withdrawing his mind from wandering in far places. He sat down before the dressing-table and forced himself to look steadfastly, appraisingly, at the reflection of his face in the mirror—that which had once been a presentable man's countenance.
He shuddered and dropped his eyes. This was a trial he seldom ventured upon. He could not bear that vision long. No one could. That was the fearful implication which made him shrink. He, Robert Hollister, in the flush of manhood, with a body whose symmetry and vigor other men had envied, a mind that functioned alertly, a spirit as nearly indomitable as the spirit of man may be, was like a leper among his own kind; he had become a something that filled other men with pitying dismay when they looked at him, that made women avert their gaze and withdraw from him in spite of pity.
Hollister snapped out the light and threw himself on his bed. He had known physical suffering, the slow, aching hours of tortured flesh, bodily pain that racked him until he had wished for death as a welcome relief. But that had been when the flame of vitality burned low, when the will-to-live had been sapped by bodily stress.
Now the mere animal instinct to live was a compelling force within him. He was young and strong, aching with his desire for life in its fullest sense. And he did not know how he was going to live and endure the manner of life he had to face, a life that held nothing but frustration and denial of all that was necessary to him, which was making him suffer as acutely as he had ever suffered in the field, under the knives of callous surgeons, in the shambles of the front line or the ether-scented dressing stations. There is morphine for a tortured body, but there is no opiate for agony of the spirit, the sharp-toothed pain that stabs at a lonely heart with its invisible lancet.
In the darkness of his room, with all the noisy traffic of a seaport city rumbling under his windows, Hollister lay on his bed and struggled against that terrifying depression which had seized him, that spiritual panic. It was real. It was based upon undeniable reality. He was no more captain of his soul than any man born of woman has ever been when he descends into the dark places. But he knew that he must shake off that feeling, or go mad, or kill himself. One of the three. He had known men to kill themselves for less. He had seen wounded men beg for a weapon to end their pain. He had known men who, after months of convalescence, quitted by their own hand a life that no longer held anything for them.
And it was not because life held out any promise to Hollister that he lived, nor was it a physical, fear of death, nor any moral scruple against self-destruction. He clung to life because instinct was stronger than reason, stronger than any of the appalling facts he encountered and knew he must go on encountering. He had to live, with a past that was no comfort, going on down the pathway of a future which he attempted not to see clearly, because when he did envisage it he was stricken with just such a panic as now overwhelmed him.
To live on and on, a pariah among his fellows because of his disfigurement. A man with a twisted face, a gargoyle of a countenance. To have people always shrink from him. To be denied companionship, friendship, love, to know that so many things which made life beautiful were always just beyond his reach. To be merely endured. To have women pity him—and shun him.
The sweat broke out on Hollister's face when he thought of all that. He knew that it was true. This knowledge had been growing on him for weeks. To-night the full realization of what it meant engulfed him with terror. That was all. He did not cry out against injustice. He did not whine a protest. He blamed no one. He understood, when he looked at himself in the glass.
After a time he shook off the first paralyzing grip of this unnameable terror which had seized him with clammy hands, fought it down by sheer resolution. He was able to lie staring into the dusky spaces of his room and review the stirring panorama of his existence for the past four years. There was nothing that did not fill him with infinite regret—and there was nothing which by any conceivable effort he could have changed. He could not have escaped one of those calamities which had befallen him. He could not have left undone a single act that he had performed. There was an inexorable continuity in it all. There had been a great game. He had been one of the pawns.
Hollister shut his eyes. Immediately, like motion pictures projected upon a screen, his mind began to project visions. He saw himself kissing his wife good-by. He saw the tears shining in her eyes. He felt again the clinging pressure of her arms, her cry that she would be so lonely. He saw himself in billets, poring over her letters. He saw himself swinging up the line with his company, crawling back with shattered ranks after a hammering, repeating this over and over again till it seemed like a nightmare in which all existence was comprised in blood and wounds and death and sorrow, enacted at stated intervals to the rumble of guns.
He saw himself on his first leave in London, when he found that Myra was growing less restive under his absence, when he felt proud to think that she was learning the lesson of sacrifice and how to bear up under it. He saw his second Channel crossing with a flesh wound in his thigh, when there seemed to his hyper-sensitive mind a faint perfunctoriness in her greeting. It was on this leave that he first realized how the grim business he was engaged upon was somehow rearing an impalpable wall between himself and this woman whom he still loved with a lover's passion after four years of marriage.
And he could see, in this mental cinema, whole searing sentences of the letter he received from her just before a big push on the Somme in the fall of '17—that letter in which she told him with child-like directness that he had grown dim and distant and that she loved another man. She was sure he would not care greatly. She was sorry if he did. But she could not help it. She had been so lonely. People were bound to change. It couldn't be helped. She was sorry—but—
And Hollister saw himself later lying just outside the lip of a shell-crater, blind, helpless, his face a shredded smear when he felt it with groping fingers. He remembered that he lay there wondering, because of the darkness and the strange silence and the pain, if he were dead and burning in hell for his sins.
After that there were visions of himself in a German hospital, in a prison camp, and at last the armistice, and the Channel crossing once more. He was dead, they told him, when he tried in the chaos of demobilization to get in touch with his regiment, to establish his identity, to find his wife. He was officially dead. He had been so reported, so accepted eighteen months earlier. His wife had married again. She and her husband had vanished from England. And with his wife had vanished his assets, his estate, by virtue of a pre-war arrangement which he had never revoked.
He beheld himself upon the streets of London, one of innumerable stray dogs, ruined, deserted, disfigured, a bit of war's wreckage. He did not particularly consider himself a victim of injustice. He did not blame Myra. He was simply numbed and bewildered.
But that was before he grew conscious of what it meant to a sensitive man, a man in whom all warm human impulses flowed so strongly, to be penniless, to have all the dependable foundations of his life torn from under his feet, to be so disfigured that people shunned him.
He had to gather up the broken pieces of his life, fit them together, go on as best he could. It did not occur to him at first to do otherwise, or that the doing would be hard. He had not foreseen all the strange shifts he would be put to, the humiliations he would suffer, the crushing weight of hopelessness which gathered upon him by the time he arrived on the Pacific Coast, where he had once lived, to which he now turned to do as men all over the war-racked earth were doing in the winter of 1919,—cast about in an effort to adjust himself, to make a place for himself in civil life.
All the way across the continent of North America Hollister grew more and more restive under the accumulating knowledge that the horrible devastation of his features made a No Man's Land about him which few had the courage to cross. It was a fact. Here, upon the evening of the third day in Vancouver, a blind and indescribable fear seized upon him, a sickening conviction that although living, he was dead,—dead in so far as the common, casual intimacies of daily intercourse with his fellows went. It was as if men and women were universally repulsed by that grotesquely distorted mask which served him for a face, as if at sight of it by common impulse they made off, withdrew to a safe distance, as they would withdraw from any loathsome thing.
Lying on his bed, Hollister flexed his arms. He arched his chest and fingered the muscular breadth of it in the darkness. Bodily, he was a perfect man. Strength flowed through him in continuous waves. He could feel within himself the surge of vast stores of energy. His brain functioned with a bright, bitter clearness. He could feel,—ah, that was the hell of it. That quivering response to the subtle nuances of thought! A profound change had come upon him, yet essentially he, the man, was unchanged. Except for those scars, the convoluted ridges of tissue, the livid patches and the ghastly hollows where once his cheeks and lips and forehead had been smooth and regular, he was as he had always been.
For a moment there came over him the wild impulse to rush out into the street, crying:
"You fools! Because my face is torn and twisted makes me no different from you. I still feel and think. I am as able to love and hate as you. Was all your talk about honorable scars just prattle to mislead the men who risked the scars? Is all your much advertised kindliness and sympathy for war-broken men a bluff?"
He smiled sadly. They would say he was mad. They would classify him as suffering from shell shock. A frock-coated committee would gravely recommend him for treatment in the mental hospital at Essondale. They would not understand.
Hollister covered his face with a swift, tight clasping of his hands. Something rose chokingly in his throat. Into his eyes a slow, scalding wetness crept like a film. He set his teeth in one corner of his pillow.
When Hollister was eighteen years old he had been briefly troubled by an affliction of his eyes brought on from overstudy. His father, at the time, was interested in certain timber operations on the coast of British Columbia. In these rude camps, therefore, young Hollister spent a year. During that twelve months books were prohibited. He lived in the woods, restored the strength of his eyes amid that restful greenness, hardened a naturally vigorous body by healthy, outdoor labor with the logging crews. He returned home to go on with his University work in eastern Canada with unforgettable impressions of the Pacific coast, a boyish longing to go back to that region where the mountains receded from the sea in wave after wave of enormous height, where the sea lapped with green lips at the foot of the ranges and thrust winding arms back into the very heart of the land, and where the land itself, delta and slope and slide-engraved declivities, was clothed with great, silent forests, upon which man, with his axes and saws, his machinery, his destructiveness in the name of industry, had as yet made little more impression than the nibbling of a single mouse on the rim of a large cheese.
When he graduated he did return on a thirty-days' vacation, which the lure of the semi-wild country prolonged for six months,—a whole summer in which he resisted the importunities of his father to take his part in the business upon which rested the family fortune. Hollister never forgot that summer. He was young. He had no cares. He was free. All life spread before him in a vast illusion of unquestionable joyousness. There was a rose-pink tinge over these months in which he fished salmon and trout, climbed the frowning escarpments of the Coast Range, gave himself up to the spell of a region which is still potent with the charm of the wilderness untamed. There had always lingered in his receptive mind a memory of profound beauty, a stark beauty of color and outline, an unhampered freedom, opportunity as vast as the mountains that looked from their cool heights down on the changeful sea and the hushed forests, brooding in the sun and rain.
So he had come back again, after seven years, scarcely knowing why he came, except that the coast beckoned with a remote gesture, and that he desired to get as far as possible from the charnel house of Europe, and that he shrank from presenting himself among the acquaintances of his boyhood and the few distant relatives left him upon the Atlantic seaboard.
His father died shortly after Hollister married. He had left his son property aggregating several thousand dollars and a complicated timber business disorganized by his sudden death. Hollister was young, sanguine, clever in the accepted sense of cleverness. He had married for love,—urged thereto by a headlong, unquestioning, uncritical passion. But there were no obstacles. His passion was returned. There was nothing to make him ponder upon what a devastating, tyrannical force this emotion which he knew as love might become, this blind fever of the blood under cover of which nature works her ends, blandly indifferent to the consequences.
Hollister was happy. He was ambitious. He threw himself with energy into a revival of his father's business when it came into his hands. His needs expanded with his matrimonial obligations. Considered casually—which was chiefly the manner of his consideration—his future was the future of a great many young men who begin life under reasonably auspicious circumstances. That is to say, he would be a success financially and socially to as great an extent as he cared to aspire. He would acquire wealth and an expanding influence in his community. He would lead a tolerably pleasant domestic existence. He would be proud of his wife's beauty, her charm; he would derive a soothing contentment from her affection. He would take pleasure in friendships. In the end, of course, at some far-off, misty mile-post, he would begin to grow old. Then he would die in a dignified manner, full of years and honors, and his children would carry on after him.
Hollister failed to reckon with the suavities of international diplomacy, with the forces of commercialism in relation to the markets of the world.
The war burst upon and shattered the placidity of his existence very much as the bombs from the first Zeppelins shattered the peace and security of London and Paris.
He reacted to the impetus of the German assault as young men of his class uniformly reacted. There was in Hollister's mind no doubt or equivocation about what he must do. But he did not embark upon this adventure joyously. He could not help weighing the chances. He understood that in this day and age he was a fortunate man. He had a great deal to lose. But he felt that he must go. He was not, however, filled with the witless idea that service with the Expeditionary Force was to be an adventure of some few months, a brief period involving some hardships and sharp fighting, but with an Allied Army hammering at the gates of Berlin as a grand finale. The slaughter of the first encounters filled him with the conviction that he should put his house in order before he entered that bloody arena out of which he might not emerge.
So that when he crossed the Channel the first time he had disentangled himself from his business at a great loss, in order to have all his funds available for his wife in case of the ultimate disaster.
Myra accompanied him to England, deferred their separation to the last hour. They could well afford that concession to their affection, they told each other. It was so hard to part.
It scarcely seemed possible that four years had gone winging by since then, yet in certain moods it seemed to Hollister as if an eternity had passed. Things had been thus and so; they had become different by agonizing processes.
He did not know where Myra was. He, himself, was here in Vancouver, alone, a stranger, a single speck of human wreckage cast on a far beach by the receding tides of war. He had no funds worth considering, but money was not as yet an item of consideration. He was not disabled. Physically he was more fit than he had ever been. The delicate mechanism of his brain was unimpaired. He had no bitterness—no illusions. His intellect was acute enough to suggest that in the complete shucking off of illusions lay his greatest peril. Life, as it faced him, the individual, appeared to be almost too grim a business to be endured without hopes and dreams. He had neither. He had nothing but moods.
He walked slowly down Granville Street in the blackest mood which had yet come upon him. It differed from that strange feeling of terror which had taken him unaware the night before. He had fallen easy prey then to the black shadows of forlornness. He was still as acutely aware of the barrier which his disfigurement raised between him and other men. But with that morbid awareness there rose also now, for the first time, resentment against the smug folk who glanced at him and hurriedly averted their eyes. Slowly, by imperceptible degrees, as the tide rises on a sloping shore, his anger rose.
The day was cold and sunny, a January morning with a touch of frost in the air. Men passed him, walking rapidly, clad in greatcoats. Women tripped by, wrapped in furs, eyes bright, cheeks glowing. And as they passed, singly, in chattering pairs, in smiling groups, Hollister observed them with a growing fury. They were so thoroughly insulated against everything disagreeable. All of them. A great war had just come to a dramatic close, a war in which staggering numbers of men had been sacrificed, body and soul, to enable these people to walk the streets in comfortable security. They seemed so completely unaware of the significance of his disfigured face. It was simply a disagreeable spectacle from which they turned with brief annoyance.
Most of these men and women honored the flag. In a theater, at any public gathering, a display of the national colors caused the men to bare reverently their heads, the women to clap their hands with decorous enthusiasm. Without doubt they were all agreed that it was a sacred duty to fight for one's country. How peculiar and illogical then, he reflected, to be horrified at the visible results of fighting for one's country, of saving the world for democracy. The thing had had to be done. A great many men had been killed. A great number had lost their legs, their arms, their sight. They had suffered indescribable mutilations and disabilities in the national defense. These people were the nation. Those who passed him with a shocked glance at his face must be aware that fighting involves suffering and scars. It appeared as if they wished to ignore that. The inevitable consequences of war annoyed them, disturbed them, when they came face to face with those consequences.
Hollister imagined them privately thinking he should wear a mask.
After all, he was a stranger to these folk, although he was their countryman and a person of consequence until the war and Myra and circumstances conspired against him.
He stifled the resentment which arose from a realization that he must expect nothing else, that it was not injustice so much as stupidity. He reflected that this was natural. A cynical conclusion arose in his mind. There was no substance, after all, in this loose talk about sympathy and gratitude and the obligation of a proud country to those who had served overseas. Why should there be? He was an individual among other individuals who were unconsciously actuated by rampant individualism except in moments of peril, when stark necessity compelled them to social action. Otherwise it was every man for himself. Yes, it was natural enough. He was a stranger to these people. Except for the color of his skin, he was no more to them than a Hindoo or a Japanese. And doubtless the grotesque disarrangement of his features appalled them. How could they discern behind that caricature of a face the human desire for friendliness, the ache of a bruised spirit?
He deliberately clamped down the lid upon such reflections and bethought himself of the business which brought him along the street. Turning off the main thoroughfare, he passed half a block along a cross street and entered an office building. Ascending to the fourth floor, he entered an elaborate suite of offices which bore upon the ground glass of the entrance door this legend:
LEWIS AND COMPANY
SPECIALISTS IN B.C. TIMBER. INVESTMENTS
He inquired for Mr. Lewis, gave his card to a young woman who glanced at him once and thereafter looked anywhere but at him while he spoke. After a minute of waiting he was ushered into a private office. As he neared this door, Hollister happened to catch a panoramic glimpse in a wall mirror. The eyes of half a dozen clerks and other persons in that room, both male and female, were fixed on him with the shocked and eager curiosity he had once observed upon the faces of a crowd gathered about the mangled victim of a street accident.
Mr. Lewis was a robust man, a few years older than Hollister. The cares of a rapidly developing business and certain domestic ties had prevented Mr. Lewis from offering himself upon the altar of his country. The responsibility of eight per cent. investments entrusted to his care was not easily shaken off. Business, of course, was a national necessity. However, since the armistice, Mr. Lewis had ceased to be either explanatory or inferentially apologetic—even in his own thought—for his inability to free himself from the demands of commerce during a critical period.
In any case he was there, sound in wind and limb, a tall, square-shouldered, ruddy man of thirty-five, seated behind an oak desk, turning Hollister's card over in his fingers with an anticipatory smile. Blankness replaced the smile. A sort of horrified wonder gleamed in his eyes. Hollister perceived that his face shocked the specialist in B.C. timber, filled Mr. Lewis with very mixed sensations indeed.
"You have my card. It is several years since we met. I dare say you find me unrecognizable," Hollister said bluntly. "Nevertheless I can identify myself to your satisfaction."
A peculiarity of Hollister's disfigurement was the immobility of his face. The shell which had mutilated him, the scalpels of the German field surgeons who had perfunctorily repaired the lacerations, had left the reddened, scar-distorted flesh in a rigid mold. He could neither recognizably smile nor frown. His face, such as it was, was set in unchangeable lines. Out of this rigid, expressionless mask his eyes glowed, blue and bright, having escaped injury. They were the only key to the mutations of his mind. If Hollister's eyes were the windows of his soul, he did not keep the blinds drawn, knowing that few had the hardihood to peer into those windows now.
Mr. Lewis looked at him, looked away, and then his gaze came slowly back as if drawn by some fascination against which he struggled in vain. He did not wish to look at Hollister. Yet he was compelled to look. He seemed to find difficulty in speech, this suave man of affairs.
"I'm afraid I shouldn't have recognized you, as you say," he uttered, at last. "Have you—ah——"
"I've been overseas," Hollister answered the unspoken question. That strange curiosity, tinctured with repulsion! "The result is obvious."
"Most unfortunate," Mr. Lewis murmured. "But your scars are honorable. A brother of mine lost an arm at Loos."
"The brothers of a good many people lost more than their arms at Loos," Hollister returned dryly. "But that is not why I called. You recollect, I suppose, that when I was out here last I bought a timber limit in the Toba from your firm. When I went overseas I instructed you to sell. What was done in that matter?"
Mr. Lewis' countenance cleared at once. He was on his own ground again, dealing with matters in which he was competent, in consultation with a client whom he recalled as a person of consequence, the son of a man who had likewise been of considerable consequence. Personal undesirability was always discounted in the investment field, the region of percentum returns. Money talked, in arrogant tones that commanded respect.
He pressed a button.
"Bring me," he ordered the clerk who appeared, "all correspondence relating to this matter," and he penciled a few sentences on a slip of paper.
He delved into the papers that were presently set before him.
"Ah, yes," he said. "Lot 2027 situated on the south slope of the Toba Valley. Purchased for your account July, 1912. Sale ordered October, 1914. We had some correspondence about that early in 1915, while you were in London. Do you recall it, Mr. Hollister?"
"Yes. You wrote that the timber market was dead, that any sale possible must be at a considerable sacrifice. Afterward, when I got to the front, I had no time to think about things like that. But I remember writing you to sell, even at a sacrifice."
"Yes, yes. Quite so," Mr. Lewis agreed. "I recall the whole matter very clearly. Conditions at that time were very bad, you know. It was impossible to find a purchaser on short notice. Early in 1917 there was a chance to sell, at a considerably reduced figure. But I couldn't get in touch with you. You didn't answer our cable. I couldn't take the responsibility of a sacrifice sale."
Hollister nodded. In 1917 he was a nameless convalescent in a German hospital; officially he was dead. Months before that such things as distant property rights had ceased to be of any moment. He had forgotten this holding of timber in British Columbia. He was too full of bitter personal misery to trouble about money.
"Failing to reach you we waited until we should hear from you—or from your estate." Mr. Lewis cleared his throat as if it embarrassed him to mention that contingency. "In war—there was that possibility, you understand. We did not feel justified; so much time had elapsed. There was risk to us in acting without verifying our instructions."
"So this property is still to be marketed. The carrying charges, as I remember, were small. I presume you carried them."
"Oh, assuredly," Mr. Lewis asserted. "We protected your interests to the very best of our ability."
"Well, find me a buyer for that limit as soon as you can," Hollister said abruptly. "I want to turn it into cash."
"We shall set about this at once," Mr. Lewis said. "It may take a little time—conditions, as a result of the armistice, are again somewhat unsettled in the logging industry. Airplane spruce production is dead—dead as a salt mackerel—and fir and cedar slumped with it. However we shall do our best. Have you a price in mind, Mr. Hollister, for a quick sale?"
"I paid ten thousand for it. On the strength of your advice as a specialist in timber investments," he added with a touch of malice. He had taken a dislike to Mr. Lewis. He had not been so critical of either men or motives in the old days. He had remembered Lewis as a good sort. Now he disliked the man, distrusted him. He was too smooth, too sleek. "I'll discount that twenty percent, for a cash sale."
Mr. Lewis made a memorandum.
"Very good," said he, raising his head with an inquiring air, as if to say "If that is all——"
"If you will kindly identify me at a bank,"—Hollister rose from his chair, "I shall cease to trouble you. I have a draft on the Bank of B.N.A. I do not know any one in Vancouver."
"No trouble, I assure you," Lewis hastened to assent, but his tone lacked heartiness, sincerity.
It was only a little distance to the bank, but Lewis insisted on making the journey in a motorcar which stood at the curb. It was plain to Hollister that Mr. Lewis disliked the necessity of appearing in public with him, that he took this means of avoiding the crowded sidewalks, of meeting people. He introduced Hollister, excused himself on the plea of business pressure, and left Hollister standing before the teller's wicket.
This was not a new attitude to Hollister. People did that,—as if he were a plague. There came into his mind—as he stood counting the sheaf of notes slide through a grill by a teller who looked at him once and thereafter kept his eyes averted—a paraphrase of a hoary quotation, "I am a monster of such frightful mien, as to be hated needs but to be seen." The rest of it, Hollister thought grimly, could never apply to him.
He put the money in his pocket and walked out on the street. It was a busy corner on a humming thoroughfare. Electric cars rumbled and creaked one behind another on the double tracks. Waves of vehicular traffic rolled by the curb. A current of humanity flowed past him on the sidewalk.
Standing there for a minute, Hollister felt again the slow rising of his resentment against these careless, fortunate ones. He could not say what caused that feeling. A look, a glance,—the inevitable shrinking. He was morbidly sensitive. He knew that, knew it was a state of mind that was growing upon him. But from whatever cause, that feeling of intolerable isolation gave way to an inner fury.
As he stood there, he felt a wild desire to shout at these people, to curse them, to seize one of these dainty women by the arms, thrust his disfigured face close to hers and cry: "Look at me as if I were a man, not a monstrosity. I'm what I am so that you could be what you are. Look at me, damn you!"
He pulled himself together and walked on. Certainly he would soon run amuck if he did not get over feeling like that, if he did not master these impulses which bordered on insanity. He wondered if that inner ferment would drive him insane.
He went back to the second-rate hotel where he had taken refuge, depressed beyond words, afraid of himself, afraid of the life which lay in fragments behind him and spread away before him in terrifying drabness. Yet he must go on living. To live was the dominant instinct. A man did not put on or off the desire to live as he put on or off his coat. But life promised nothing. It was going to be a sorry affair. It struck Hollister with disheartening force that an individual is nothing—absolutely nothing—apart from some form of social grouping. And society, which had exacted so much from him, seemed peculiarly indifferent to the consequences of those imperative exactions, seemed wholly indifferent to his vital need.
And it was not reward or recognition of service performed that Hollister craved. He did not want to be pensioned or subsidized or to have medals pinned on him. What he wanted was chiefly to forget the war and what the war had visited upon him and others like him. Hollister suffered solely from that sense of being held outside the warm circle of human activities, fellowships, friendliness. If he could not overcome that barrier which people threw up around themselves at contact with him, if he could not occasionally know the sound of a friendly voice, he felt that he would very soon go mad. A man cannot go on forever enduring the pressure of the intolerable. Hollister felt that he must soon arrive at a crisis. What form it would take he did not know, and in certain moods he did not care.
On the landing at the end of the narrow corridor off which his room opened he met a man in uniform whom he recognized,—a young man who had served under him in the Forty-fourth, who had won a commission on the field. He wore a captain's insignia now. Hollister greeted him by name.
The captain looked at him. His face expressed nothing whatever. Hollister waited for that familiar shadow of distaste to appear. Then he remembered that, like himself, Rutherford must have seen thousands upon thousands of horribly mutilated men.
"Your voice," Rutherford remarked at length, "has a certain familiar sound. Still, I can't say I know you. What's the name?"
"Bob Hollister. Do you remember the bottle of Scotch we pinched from the Black Major behind the brick wall on the Albert Road? Naturally you wouldn't know me—with this face."
"Well," Rutherford said, as he held out his hand, "a fellow shouldn't be surprised at anything any more. I understood you'd gone west. Your face is mussed up a bit. Rotten luck, eh?"
Hollister felt a lump in his throat. It was the first time for months that any human being had met him on common ground. He experienced a warm feeling for Rutherford. And the curious thing about that was that out of the realm of the subconscious rose instantly the remembrance that he had never particularly liked Tommy Rutherford. He was one of the wild men of the battalion. When they went up the line Rutherford was damnably cool and efficient, a fatalist who went about his grim business unmoved. Back in rest billets he was always pursuing some woman, unearthing surplus stores of whisky or wine, intent upon dubious pleasures,—a handsome, self-centered debonair animal.
"My room's down here," Hollister said. "Come in and gas a bit—if you aren't bound somewhere."
"Oh, all right. I came up here to see a chap, but he's out. I have half an hour or so to spare."
Rutherford stretched himself on Hollister's bed. They lit cigarettes and talked. And as they talked, Rutherford kept looking at Hollister's face, until Hollister at last said to him:
"Doesn't it give you the willies to look at me?"
Rutherford shook his head.
"Oh, no. I've got used to seeing fellows all twisted out of shape. You seem to be fit enough otherwise."
"I am," Hollister said moodily. "But it's a devil of a handicap to have a mug like this."
"Makes people shy off, eh? Women particularly. I can imagine," Rutherford drawled. "Tough luck, all right. People don't take very much stock in fellows that got smashed. Not much of a premium on disfigured heroes these days."
Hollister laughed harshly.
"No. We're at a discount. We're duds."
For half an hour they chatted more or less one-sidedly. Rutherford had a grievance which he took pains to air. He was on duty at Hastings Park, having been sent there a year earlier to instruct recruits, after recovering from a wound. He was the military man par excellence. War was his game. He had been anxious to go to Siberia with the Canadian contingent which had just departed. And the High Command had retained him here to assist in the inglorious routine of demobilization. Rutherford was disgruntled. Siberia had promised new adventure, change, excitement.
The man, Hollister soon perceived, was actually sorry the war was over, sorry that his occupation was gone. He talked of resigning and going to Mexico, to offer his sword to whichever proved the stronger faction. It would be a picnic after the Western Front. A man could whip a brigade of those greasers into shape and become a power. There ought to be good chances for loot.
Yet Hollister enjoyed his company. Rutherford was genial. He was the first man for long to accept Hollister as a human being. He promised to look Hollister up again before he went away.
The world actually seemed cheerful to Hollister, after Rutherford had gone,—until in moving about the room he caught sight of his face in the mirror.
About ten days later Tommy Rutherford walked into Hollister's room at eight in the evening. He laid his cap and gloves on the bed, seated himself, swung his feet to and fro for a second, and reached for one of Hollister's cigarettes.
"It's a hard world, old thing," he complained. "Here was I all set for an enjoyable winter. Nice people in Vancouver. All sorts of fetching affairs on the tapis. And I'm to be demobilized myself next week. Chucked out into the blooming street with a gratuity and a couple of medals. Damn the luck."
He remained absorbed in his own reflections for a minute, blowing smoke rings with meticulous care.
"I wonder if a fellow could make it go in Mexico?" he drawled.
Hollister made no comment.
"Oh, well, hang it, sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof," he remarked, with an abrupt change of tone. "I'm going to a hop at the Granada presently. Banish dull care and all that, for the time being, anyway."
His gaze came to an inquiring rest on Hollister.
"What's up, old thing?" he asked lightly. "Why so mum?"
"Oh, nothing much," Hollister answered.
"Bad thing to get in the dumps," Rutherford observed sagely. "You ought to keep a bottle of Scotch handy for that."
"Drink myself into a state of mind where the world glitters and becomes joyful, eh? No, I don't fancy your prescription. I'd be more apt to run amuck."
"Oh, come now," Rutherford remonstrated. "It isn't so bad as that. Cheer up, old man. Things might be worse, you know.
"Oh, hell!" Hollister exploded.
After which he relapsed into sullen silence, to which Rutherford, frankly mystified and somewhat inclined to resent this self-contained mood, presently left him.
Hollister was glad when the man went away. He had a feeling of relief when the door closed and retreating footsteps echoed down the hall. He had grasped at a renewal of Rutherford's acquaintance as a man drowning in a sea of loneliness would grasp at any friendly straw. And Rutherford, Hollister quickly realized, was the most fragile sort of straw. The man was a profound, non-thinking egotist, the adventurer pure and simple, whose mentality never rose above grossness of one sort and another, in spite of a certain outward polish. He could tolerate Hollister's mutilated countenance because he had grown accustomed to horrible sights,—not because he had any particular sympathy for a crippled, mutilated man's misfortune, or any understanding of such a man's state of feeling. To Rutherford that was the fortune of war. So many were killed. So many crippled. So many disfigured. It was luck. He believed in his own luck. The evil that befell other men left him rather indifferent. That was all. When Hollister once grasped Rutherford's attitude, he almost hated the man.
He sat now staring out the window. A storm had broken over Vancouver that day. To-night it was still gathering force. The sky was a lowering, slate-colored mass of clouds, spitting squally bursts of rain that drove in wet lines against his window and made the street below a glistening area shot with tiny streams and shallow puddles that were splashed over the curb by rolling motor wheels. The wind droned its ancient, melancholy chant among the telephone wires, shook with its unseen, powerful hands a row of bare maples across the way, rattled the windows in their frames. Now and then, in a momentary lull of the wind, a brief cessation of the city noises, Hollister could hear far off the beat of the Gulf seas bursting on the beach at English Bay, snoring in the mouth of False Creek. A dreary, threatening night that fitted his mood.
He sat pondering over the many-horned dilemma upon which he hung impaled. He had done all that a man could do. He had given the best that was in him, played the game faithfully, according to the rules. And the net result had been for him the most complete disaster. So far as Myra went, he recognized that domestic tragedy as a natural consequence. He did not know, he was unable to say if his wife had simply been a weak and shallow woman, left too long alone, thrown too largely on her own resources in an environment so strongly tinctured by the high-pitched and reckless spirit generated by the war. He had always known that his wife—women generally were the same, he supposed—was dominated by emotional urges, rather than cold reason. But that had never struck him as of great significance. Women were like that. A peculiar obtuseness concealed from him, until now, that men also were much the same. He was, himself. When his feelings and his reason came into conflict, it was touch and go which should triumph. The fact remained that for a long time the war had separated them as effectually as a divorce court. Hollister had always had a hazy impression that Myra was the sort of woman to whom love was necessary, but he had presumed that it was the love of a particular man, and that man himself. This, it seemed, was a mistake, and he had paid a penalty for making that mistake.
So he accepted this phase of his unhappiness without too much rancor. Myra had played fair, he perceived. She had told him what to expect. And the accident of a misleading report had permitted her to follow her bent with a moral sanction. That she had bestowed herself and some forty thousand dollars of his money on another man was not the thing Hollister resented. He resented only the fact that her glow of love for him had not endured, that it had gone out like an untended fire. But for some inscrutable reason that had happened. He had built a dream-house on an unstable foundation. It had tumbled down. Very well. He accepted that.
But he did not accept this unuttered social dictum that he should be kept at arm's length because he had suffered a ghastly disarrangement of his features while acting as a shield behind which the rest of society rested secure. No, he would never accept that as a natural fact. He could not.
No one said that he was a terrible object which should remain in the background along with family skeletons and unmentionable diseases. He was like poverty and injustice,—present but ignored. And this being shunned and avoided, as if he were something which should go about in furtive obscurity, was rapidly driving Hollister to a state approaching desperation.
For he could not rid himself of the social impulse any more than a healthy man can rid himself of the necessity for food and drink at certain intervals. If Hollister had been so crushed in body and mind that his spirit was utterly quenched, if his vitality had been so drained that he could sit passive and let the world go by unheeded, then he would have been at peace.
He had seen men like that—many of them—content to sit in the sun, to be fed and let alone. Their hearts were broken as well as their bodies.
But except for the distortion of his face, he returned as he had gone away, a man in full possession of his faculties, his passions, his strength. He could not be passive either physically or mentally. His mind was too alert, his spirit too sensitive, his body too crammed with vitality to see life go swinging by and have no hand in its manifestations and adventures.
Yet he was growing discouraged. People shunned him, shrank from contact. His scarred face seemed to dry up in others the fountain of friendly intercourse. If he were a leper or a man convicted of some hideous crime, his isolation could not be more complete. It was as if the sight of him affected men and women with a sense of something unnatural, monstrous. He sweated under this. But he was alive, and life was a reality to him, the will to live a dominant force. Unless he succumbed in a moment of madness, he knew that he would continue to struggle for life and happiness because that was instinctive, and fundamental instincts are stronger than logic, reason, circumstance.
How he was going to make his life even tolerably worth living was a question that harassed him with disheartening insistence as he watched through his window the slanting lines of rain and listened to the mournful cadences of the wind.
"I must get to work at something," he said to himself. "If I sit still and think much more——"
He did not carry that last sentence to its logical conclusion. Deliberately he strove to turn his thought out of the depressing channels in which it flowed and tried to picture what he should set about doing.
Not office work; he could not hope for any inside position such as his experience easily enabled him to fill. He knew timber, the making and marketing of it, from top to bottom. But he could not see himself behind a desk, directing or selling. His face would frighten clients. He smiled; that rare grimace he permitted himself when alone. Very likely he would have to accept the commonest sort of labor, in a mill yard, or on a booming ground, among workers not too sensitive to a man's appearance.
Staring through the streaming window, Hollister looked down on the traffic flow in the street, the hurrying figures that braved the storm in pursuit of pleasure or of necessity, and while that desperate loneliness gnawed at him, he felt once more a sense of utter defeat, of hopeless isolation—and for the first time he wished to hide, to get away out of sight and hearing of men.
It was a fugitive impulse, but it set his mind harking back to the summer he had spent holidaying along the British Columbia coast long ago. The tall office buildings, with yellow window squares dotting the black walls, became the sun-bathed hills looking loftily down on rivers and bays and inlets that he knew. The wet floor of the street itself became a rippled arm of the sea, stretching far and silent between wooded slopes where deer and bear and all the furtive wild things of the forest went their accustomed way.
Hollister had wandered alone in those hushed places, sleeping with his face to the stars, and he had not been lonely. He wondered if he could do that again.
He sat nursing those visions, his imagination pleasantly quickened by them, as a man sometimes finds ease from care in dreaming of old days that were full of gladness. He was still deep in the past when he went to bed. And when he arose in the morning, the far places of the B.C. coast beckoned with a more imperious gesture, as if in those solitudes lay a sure refuge for such as he.
And why not, he asked himself? Here in this pushing seaport town, among the hundred and fifty thousand souls eagerly intent upon their business of gaining a livelihood, of making money, there was not one who cared whether he came or went, whether he was glad or sad, whether he had a song on his lips or the blackest gloom in his heart. He had done his bit as a man should. In the doing he had been broken in a cruel variety of ways. The war machine had chewed him up and spat him out on the scrap heap. None of these hale, unmanned citizens cared to be annoyed by the sight of him, of what had happened to him.
And he could not much longer endure this unapproachableness, this palpable shrinking. He could not much longer bear to be in the midst of light and laughter, of friendly talk and smiling faces, and be utterly shut off from any part in it all. He was in as evil case as a man chained to a rock and dying of thirst, while a clear, cold stream flowed at his feet. Whether he walked the streets or sat brooding in his room, he could not escape the embittered consciousness that all about him there was a great plenty of kindly fellowship which he craved and which he could not share because war had stamped its iron heel upon his face.
Yes, the more he thought about it, the more he craved the refuge of silence and solitude. If he could not escape from himself, at least he could withdraw from this feast at which he was a death's-head. And so he began to cast about him for a place to go, for an objective, for something that should save him from being purely aimless. In the end it came into his mind that he might go back and look over this timber in the valley of the Toba River, this last vestige of his fortune which remained to him by pure chance. He had bought it as an investment for surplus funds. He had never even seen it. He would have smiled, if his face had been capable of smiling, at the irony of his owning ten million feet of Douglas fir and red cedar—material to build a thousand cottages—he who no longer owned a roof to shelter his head, whose cash resources were only a few hundred dollars.
Whether Lewis sold the timber or not, he would go and see it. For a few weeks he would be alone in the woods, where men would not eye him askance, nor dainty, fresh-faced women shrink from him as they passed.
The steamer backed away from a float of which Hollister was the sole occupant. She swung in a wide semicircle, pointed her bluff bow down the Inlet, and presently all that he could see of her was the tip of her masts over a jutting point and the top of her red funnel trailing a pennant of smoke, black against a gray sky.
Hollister stood looking about him. He was clad like a logger, in thick mackinaws and heavy boots, and the texture of his garments was appropriate to the temperature, the weather. He seemed to have stepped into another latitude,—which in truth he had, for the head of Toba Inlet lies a hundred and fifty miles northwest of Vancouver, and the thrust of that narrow arm of the sea carries it thirty miles into the glacial fastnesses of the Coast Range. The rain that drenched Vancouver became snow here. The lower slopes were green with timber which concealed the drifts that covered the rocky soil. A little higher certain clear spaces bared the whiteness, and all the tree tops, the drooping boughs, carried a burden of clinging snow. Higher still lifted grim peaks capped with massive snow banks that even midsummer heat could never quite dispel. But these upper heights were now hidden in clouds and wraiths of frost fog, their faces shrouded in this winter veil which—except for rare bursts of sunshine or sweeping northwest wind—would not be lifted till the vernal equinox.
It was very cold and very still, as if winter had laid a compelling silence on everything in the land. Except the faint slapping of little waves against the ice-encrusted, rocky shore, and the distant, harsh voices of some wheeling gulls, there was no sound or echo of a sound, as he stood listening.
Yet Hollister was not oppressed by this chill solitude. In that setting, silence was appropriate. It was merely unexpected. For so long Hollister had lived amid blaring noises, the mechanical thunder and lightning of the war, the rumble of industry, the shuffle and clatter of crowds, he had forgotten what it was like to be alone,—and in the most crowded places he had suffered the most grievous loneliness. For the time being he was unconscious of his mutilation, since there was no one by to remind him by look or act. He was only aware of a curious interest in what he saw, a subdued wonder at the majestic beauty and the profound hush, as if he had been suddenly transferred from a place where life was maddeningly, distractingly clamorous to a spot where life was mute.
The head of Toba is neither a harbor nor a bay. One turns out of the island-studded Gulf of Georgia into an arm of the sea a mile in breadth. The cliffs and mountains grow higher, more precipitous mile by mile, until the Inlet becomes a chasm with the salt water for its floor. On past frowning points, around slow curves, boring farther and farther into the mainland through a passage like a huge tunnel, the roof of which has been blown away. Then suddenly there is an end to the sea. Abruptly, a bend is turned, and great mountains bar the way, peaks that lift from tidewater to treeless heights, formidable ranges bearing upon their rocky shoulders the lingering remains of a glacial age. The Inlet ends there, the seaway barred by these frowning declivities.
Hollister remembered the head of Toba after a fashion. He had the lay of the land in his mind. He had never seen it in midwinter, but the snow, the misty vapors drifting along the mountain sides, did not confuse him.
From the float he now perceived two openings in the mountain chain. The lesser, coming in from the northwest, was little more than a deep and narrow gash in the white-clad hills. On his right opened the broader valley of the Toba River, up which he must go.
For a space of perhaps five minutes Hollister stood gazing about him. Then he was reminded of his immediate necessities by the chill that crept over his feet,—for several inches of snow overlaid the planked surface of the landing float.
Knowing what he was about when he left Vancouver, Hollister had brought with him a twenty-foot Hudson's Bay freight canoe, a capacious shoal-water craft with high topsides. He slid this off the float, loaded into it sundry boxes and packages, and taking his seat astern, paddled inshore to where the rising tide was ruffled by the outsetting current of a river.
Here, under the steep shoulder of a mountain, rows of piles stood gaunt above the tide flats. When Hollister had last seen the mouth of the Toba, those same piles had been the support of long boom-sticks, within which floated hundreds of logs. On the flat beside the river there had stood the rough shacks of a logging camp. Donkey engines were puffing and grunting in the woods. Now the booming ground was empty, save for those decaying, teredo-eaten sticks, and the camp was a tumbledown ruin when he passed. He wondered if the valley of the Toba were wholly deserted, if the forests of virgin timber covering the delta of that watercourse had been left to their ancient solitude. But he did not stop to puzzle over this. In ten minutes he was over the sandy bar at the river's mouth. The sea was hidden behind him. He passed up a sluggish waterway lined by alder and maple, covered with dense thickets, a jungle in which flourished the stalwart salmonberry and the thorny sticks of the devil's club. Out of this maze of undergrowth rose the tall brown columns of Douglas fir, of red cedar, of spruce and hemlock with their drooping boughs.
Sloughs branched off in narrow laterals, sheeted with thin ice, except where the current kept it open, and out of these open patches flocks of wild duck scattered with a whir of wings. A mile up-stream he turned a bend and passed a Siwash rancheria. The bright eyes of little brown-faced children peered shyly out at him from behind stumps. He could see rows of split salmon hung by the tail to the beams of an open-fronted smokehouse. Around another bend he came on a buck deer standing knee-deep in the water, and at the sight of him the animal snorted, leaped up the bank and vanished as silently as a shadow.
Hollister marked all these things without ceasing to ply his paddle. His objective lay some six miles up-stream. But when he came at last to the upper limit of the tidal reach he found in this deep, slack water new-driven piling and freshly strung boom-sticks and acres of logs confined therein; also a squat motor tugboat and certain lesser craft moored to these timbers. A little back from the bank he could see the roofs of buildings.
He stayed his paddle a second to look with a mild curiosity. Then he went on. That human craving for companionship which had gained no response in the cities of two continents had left him for the time being. For that hour he was himself, sufficient unto himself. Here probably a score of men lived and worked. But they were not men he knew. They were not men who would care to know him,—not after a clear sight of his face.
Hollister did not say that to himself in so many words. He was only subconsciously aware of this conclusion. Nevertheless it guided his actions. Through long, bitter months he had rebelled against spiritual isolation. The silent woods, the gray river, the cloud-wrapped hills seemed friendly by comparison with mankind,—mankind which had marred him and now shrank from its handiwork.
So he passed by this community in the wilderness, not because he wished to but because he must.
Within half a mile he struck fast water, long straight reaches up which he gained ground against the current by steady strokes of the paddle, shallows where he must wade and lead his craft by hand. So he came at last to the Big Bend of the Toba River, a great S curve where the stream doubled upon itself in a mile-wide flat that had been stripped of its timber and lay now an unlovely vista of stumps, each with a white cap of snow.
On the edge of this, where the river swung to the southern limit of the valley and ran under a cliff that lifted a thousand foot sheer, he passed a small house. Smoke drifted blue from the stovepipe. A pile of freshly chopped firewood lay by the door. The dressed carcass of a deer hung under one projecting eave. Between two stumps a string of laundered clothes waved in the down-river breeze. By the garments Hollister knew a woman must be there. But none appeared to watch him pass. He did not halt, although the short afternoon was merging into dusk and he knew the hospitality of those who go into lonely places to wrest a living from an untamed land. But he could not bear the thought of being endured rather than welcomed. He had suffered enough of that. He was in full retreat from just that attitude. He was growing afraid of contact with people, and he knew why he was afraid.
When the long twilight was nearly spent, he gained the upper part of the Big Bend and hauled his canoe out on the bank. A small flat ran back to the mouth of a canyon, and through the flat trickled a stream of clear water.
Hollister built a fire on a patch of dry ground at the base of a six-foot fir. He set up his tent, made his bed, cooked his supper, sat with his feet to the fire, smoking a pipe.
After four years of clamor and crowds, he marveled at the astonishing contentment which could settle on him here in this hushed valley, where silence rested like a fog. His fire was a red spot with a yellow nimbus. Beyond that ruddy circle, valley and cliff and clouded sky merged into an impenetrable blackness. Hollister had been cold and wet and hungry. Now he was warm and dry and fed. He lay with his feet stretched to the fire. For the time he almost ceased to think, relaxed as he was into a pleasant, animal well-being. And so presently he fell asleep.
In winter, north of the forty-ninth parallel, and especially in those deep clefts like the Toba, dusk falls at four in the afternoon, and day has not grown to its full strength at nine in the morning. Hollister had finished his breakfast before the first gleam of light touched the east. When day let him see the Alpine crevasses that notched the northern wall of the valley, he buckled on a belt that carried a sheath-ax, took up his rifle and began first of all a cursory exploration of the flat on which he camped.
It seemed to him that in some mysterious way he was beginning his life all over again,—that life which his reason, with cold, inexorable logic, had classified as a hopeless ruin. He could not see wherein the ruin was lessened by embarking upon this lone adventure into the outlying places. Nevertheless, something about it had given a fillip to his spirits. He felt that he would better not inquire too closely into this; that too keen self-analysis was the evil from which he had suffered and which he should avoid. But he said to himself that if he could get pleasure out of so simple a thing as a canoe trip in a lonely region, there was hope for him yet. And in the same breath he wondered how long he could be sustained by that illusion.
He had a blue-print of the area covering the Big Bend. That timber limit which he had lightly purchased long ago, and which unaccountably went begging a purchaser, lay south and a bit west from where he set up his camp. He satisfied himself of that by the blue-print and the staking description. The northeast corner stake should stand not a great way back from the river bank.
He had to find a certain particularly described cedar tree, thence make his way south to a low cliff, at one extreme of which he should find a rock cairn with a squared post in its center. From that he could run his boundary lines with a pocket compass, until he located the three remaining corners.
Hollister found cedars enough, but none that pointed the way to a low cliff and a rock cairn. He ranged here and there, and at last went up the hillside which rose here so steeply as to be stiff climbing. It bore here and there a massive tree, rough-barked pillars rising to a branchy head two hundred feet in the air. But for the most part the slope was clothed with scrubby hemlock and thickets of young fir and patches of hazel, out of which he stirred a great many grouse and once a deer.
But if he found no stakes to show him the boundaries of his property, he gained the upper rim of the high cliff which walled the southern side of the Big Bend, and all the valley opened before him. Smoke lifted in a pale spiral from the house below his camp. Abreast of the log boom he had passed in the river, he marked the roofs of several buildings, and back of the clearings in the logged-over land opened white squares against the dusky green of the surrounding timber. He perceived that a considerable settlement had arisen in the lower valley, that the forest was being logged off, that land was being cleared and cultivated. There was nothing strange in that. All over the earth the growing pressure of population forced men continually to invade the strongholds of the wilderness. Here lay fertile acres, water, forests to supply timber, the highway of the sea to markets. Only labor,—patient, unremitting labor—was needed to shape all that great valley for cultivation. Cleared and put to the plow, it would produce abundantly. A vast, fecund area out of which man, withdrawing from the hectic pressure of industrial civilization, could derive sustenance,—if he possessed sufficient hardihood to survive such hardships and struggle as his forefathers had for their common lot.
Hollister ranged the lower part of the hillside until hunger drove him back to camp. And, as it sometimes happens that what a man fails to come upon when he seeks with method and intent he stumbles upon by accident, so now Hollister, coming heedlessly downhill, found the corner stake he was seeking. With his belt-axe he blazed a trail from this point to the flat below, so that he could find it again.
He made no further explorations that afternoon. He spent a little time in making his camp comfortable in ways known to any outdoor man. But when day broke clear the following morning he was on the hill, compass in hand, bearing due west from the original stake. He found the second without much trouble. He ran a line south and east and north again and so returned to his starting point by noon with two salient facts outstanding in his mind.
The first was that he suspected himself of having bought a poke which contained a pig of doubtful value. This, if true, made plain the difficulty of re-sale, and made him think decidedly unpleasant things of "Lewis and Company, Specialists in B.C. Timber." The second was that someone, within recent years, had cut timber on his limit. And it was his timber. The possessive sense was fairly strong in Hollister, as it usually is in men who have ever possessed any considerable property. He did not like the idea of being cheated or robbed. In this case there was superficial evidence that both these things had happened to him.
So when he had cooked himself a meal and smoked a pipe, he took to the high ground again to verify or disprove these unwelcome conclusions. In that huge and largely inaccessible region which is embraced within the boundaries of British Columbia, in a land where the industrial life-blood flows chiefly along two railways and three navigable streams, there are many great areas where the facilities of transportation are much as they were when British Columbia was a field exploited only by trappers and traders. Settlement is still but a fringe upon the borders of the wilderness. Individuals and corporations own land and timber which they have never seen, sources of material wealth acquired cheaply, with an eye to the future. Beyond the railway belts, the navigable streams, the coastwise passages where steamers come and go, there lies a vast hinterland where canoe and pack-sack are still the mainstay of the traveler.
In this almost primeval region the large-handed fashion of primitive transactions is still in vogue. Men traffic in timber and mineral stakings on the word of other men. The coastal slopes and valleys are dotted with timber claims which have been purchased by men and corporations in Vancouver and New York and London and Paris and Berlin, bought and traded "sight unseen" as small boys swap jackknives. There flourishes in connection with this, on the Pacific coast, the business of cruising timber, a vocation followed by hardy men prepared to go anywhere, any time, in fair weather or foul. Commission such a man to fare into such a place, cruise such and such areas of timber land, described by metes and bounds. This resourceful surveyor-explorer will disappear. In the fullness of weeks he will return, bearded and travel-worn. He will place in your hands a report containing an estimate of so many million feet of standing fir, cedar, spruce, hemlock, with a description of the topography, an opinion on the difficulty or ease of the logging chance.
On the British Columbia coast a timber cruiser's report comes in the same category as a bank statement or a chartered accountant's audit of books; that is to say, it is unquestionable, an authentic statement of fact.
Within the boundaries defined by the four stakes of the limit Hollister owned there stood, according to the original cruising estimate, eight million feet of merchantable timber, half fir, half red cedar. The Douglas fir covered the rocky slopes and the cedar lined the gut of a deep hollow which split the limit midway. It was classed as a fair logging chance, since from that corner which dipped into the flats of the Toba a donkey engine with its mile-long arm of steel cable could snatch the logs down to the river, whence they would be floated to the sea and towed to the Vancouver sawmills.
Hollister had been guided by the custom of the country. He had put a surplus fund of cash into this property in the persuasion that it would resell at a profit, or that it could ultimately be logged at a still greater profit. And this persuasion rested upon the cruising estimate and the uprightness of "Lewis and Company, Specialists in B.C. Timber, Investments, Etc."
But Hollister had a practical knowledge of timber himself, acquired at first hand. He had skirted his boundaries and traversed the fringes of his property, and he saw scrubby, undersized trees where the four-foot trunks of Douglas fir should have lifted in brown ranks. He had looked into the bisecting hollow from different angles and marked magnificent cedars,—but too few of them. Taken with the fact that Lewis had failed to resell even at a reduced price, when standing timber had doubled in value since the beginning of the war, Hollister had grave doubts, which, however, he could not establish until he went over the ground and made a rough estimate for himself.
This other matter of timber cutting was one he could settle in short order. It roused his curiosity. It gave him a touch of the resentment which stirs a man when he suspects himself of being the victim of pillaging vandals. No matter that despair had recently colored his mental vision; the sense of property right still functioned unimpaired. To be marred and impoverished and shunned as if he were a monstrosity were accomplished facts which had weighed upon him, an intolerable burden. He forgot that now. There was nothing much here to remind him. He was free to react to this new sense of outrage, this new evidence of mankind's essential unfairness.
In the toll taken of his timber by these unwarranted operations there was little to grieve over, he discovered before long. He had that morning found and crossed, after a long, curious inspection, a chute which debouched from the middle of his limit and dipped towards the river bottom apparently somewhere above his camp. He knew that this shallow trough built of slender poles was a means of conveying shingle-bolts from the site of cutting to the water that should float them to market. Earlier he had seen signs of felling among the cedars, but only from a distance. He was not sure he had seen right until he discovered the chute.
So now he went back to the chute and followed its winding length until it led into the very heart of the cedars in the hollow. Two or three years had elapsed since the last tree was felled. Nor had there ever been much inroad on the standing timber. Some one had begun operations there and abandoned the work before enough timber had been cut to half repay the labor of building that long chute.
Nor was that all. In the edge of the workings the branches and litter of harvesting those hoary old cedars had been neatly cleared from a small level space. And on this space, bold against the white carpet of snow, stood a small log house.
Hollister pushed open the latched door and stepped into the musty desolation of long abandoned rooms. It was neatly made, floored with split cedar, covered by a tight roof of cedar shakes. Its tiny-paned windows were still intact. Within, it was divided into two rooms. There was no stove and there had never been a stove. A rough fireplace of stone served for cooking. An iron bar crossed the fireplace and on this bar still hung the fire-blackened pothooks. On nails and shelves against the wall pans still hung and dishes stood thick with dust. On a homemade bunk in one corner lay a mattress which the rats had converted to their own uses, just as they had played havoc with papers scattered about the floor and the oilcloth on the table.
Hollister passed into the other room. This had been a bedroom, a woman's bedroom. He guessed that by the remnants of fabric hanging over the windows, as well as by a skirt and sunbonnet which still hung from a nail. Here, too, was a bedstead with a rat-ruined mattress. And upon a shelf over the bed was ranged a row of books, perhaps two dozen volumes, which the rats had somehow respected,—except for sundry gnawing at the bindings.
Hollister took one down. He smiled; that is to say, his eyes smiled and his features moved a little out of their rigid cast. Fancy finding the contes of August Strindberg, the dramatist, that genius of subtle perception and abysmal gloom, here in this forsaken place. Hollister fluttered the pages. Writing on the flyleaf caught his eye. There was a date and below that:
DORIS CLEVELAND—HER BOOK
He took down the others, one by one,—an Iliad, a Hardy novel, "The Way of All Flesh" between "Kim" and "The Pilgrim Fathers", a volume of Swinburne rubbing shoulders with a California poet who sang of gibbous moons, "The Ancient Lowly" cheek by jowl with "Two Years Before the Mast." A catholic collection, with strong meat sandwiched between some of the rat-gnawed covers. And each bore on the flyleaf the inscription of the first, written in a clear firm hand: Doris Cleveland—Her Book.
Hollister put the last volume back in place and stood staring at the row. Who was Doris Cleveland and why had she left her books to the rats?
He gave over his wonder at the patently unanswerable, went out into the living room, glanced casually over that once more, and so to the outside where the snow crisped under his feet now that the sun had withdrawn behind the hills. About the slashed area where the cedars had fallen, over stumps and broken branches and the low roof of the cabin, the virgin snow laid its softening whiteness, and the tall trees enclosed the spot with living green. A hidden squirrel broke out with brisk scolding, a small chirruping voice in a great silence. Here men had lived and worked and gone their way again. The forest remained as it was before. The thickets would soon arise to conceal man's handiwork.
Hollister shook off this fleeting impression of man's impermanence, and turned downhill lest dark catch him in the heavy timber and make him lose his way.
A wind began to sigh among the trees as Hollister made his way downhill. Over his evening fire he heard it grow to a lusty gale that filled the valley all night with moaning noises. Fierce gusts scattered the ashes of his fire and fluttered the walls of his tent as though some strong-lunged giant were huffing and puffing to blow his house down. At daylight the wind died. A sky banked solid with clouds began to empty upon the land a steady downpour of rain. All through the woods the sodden foliage dripped heavily. The snow melted, pouring muddy cataracts out of each gully, making tiny cascades over the edge of every cliff. Snowbanks slipped their hold on steep hillsides high on the north valley wall. They gathered way and came roaring down out of places hidden in the mist. Hollister could hear these slides thundering like distant artillery. Watching that grim facade across the river he saw, once or twice during the day, those masses plunge and leap, ten thousand tons of ice and snow and rock and crushed timber shooting over ledge and precipice to end with fearful crashing and rumbling in the depth of a steep-walled gorge.
He was tied to his camp. He could not stir abroad without more discomfort than he cared to undergo. Every bush, every bough, would precipitate upon him showers of drops at the slightest touch. He sat by his fire in the mouth of the tent and smoked and thought of the comfortable cabin up in the cedar hollow, and of Doris Cleveland's books. He began by reflecting that he might have brought one down to read. He ended before nightfall of a dull, rain-sodden day with a resolution to move up there when the weather cleared. A tent was well enough, but a house with a fireplace was better.
The rain held forty-eight hours without intermission. Then, as if the clouds had discharged their aqueous cargo and rode light as unballasted ships, they lifted in aerial fleets and sailed away, white in a blue sky. The sun, swinging in a low arc, cocked a lazy eye over the southern peaks, and Hollister carried his first pack-load up to the log cabin while the moss underfoot, the tree trunks, the green blades of the salal, and the myriad stalks of the low thickets were still gleaming with the white frost that came with a clearing sky.
He began with the idea of carrying up his blankets and three or four days' food. He ended by transporting up that steep slope everything but his canoe and the small tent. It might be, he said to himself as he lugged load after load, just a whim, a fancy, but he was free to act on a whim or a fancy, as free as if he were in the first blush of careless, adventurous youth,—freer, because he had none of the impatient hopes and urges and dreams of youth. He was finished, he told himself in a transient mood of bitterness. Why should he be governed by practical considerations? He was here, alone in the unsentient, uncritical forest. It did not matter to any one whether he came or stayed. To himself it mattered least of all, he thought. There was neither plan nor purpose nor joy in his existence, save as he conceived the first casually, or snatched momentarily at the other in such simple ways as were available to him here,—here where at least there was no one and nothing to harass him, where he was surrounded by a wild beauty that comforted him in some fashion beyond his understanding.
When he had brought the last of his food supply up to the cabin, he hauled the canoe back into a thicket and covered it with the glossy green leaves of the salal. He folded his tent in a tight bundle and strung it to a bough with a wire, out of reach of the wood rats.
These tasks completed, he began his survey of the standing timber on his limit.
At best he could make only a rough estimate, less accurate than a professional cruiser's would be, but sufficient to satisfy him. In a week he was reasonably certain that the most liberal estimate left less than half the quantity of merchantable timber for which he had paid good money. The fir, as a British Columbia logging chance, was all but negligible. What value resided there lay in the cedar alone.
By the time he had established this, the clear, cold, sunny days came to an end. Rain began to drizzle half-heartedly out of a murky sky. Overnight the rain changed to snow, great flat flakes eddying soundlessly earthward in an atmosphere uncannily still. For two days and a night this ballet of the snowflakes continued, until valley and slope and the high ridges were two feet deep in the downy white.
Then the storm which had been holding its breath broke with singular fury. The frost bared its teeth. The clouds still volleyed, but their discharge now filled the air with harsh, minute particles that stung bare skin like hot sand blown from a funnel. The wind shrieked its whole tonal gamut among the trees. It ripped the clinging masses of snow from drooping bough and exposed cliff and flung it here and there in swirling clouds. And above the treble voices of the storm Hollister, from the warm security of the cabin, could hear the intermittent rumbling of terrific slides. He could feel faint tremors in the earth from the shock of the arrested avalanche.
This elemental fury wore itself out at last. The wind shrank to chill whisperings. But the sky remained gray and lowering, and the great mountain ranges—white again from foot to crest, save where the slides had left gashes of brown earth and bare granite—were wrapped in winter mists, obscuring vapors that drifted and opened and closed again. Hollister could stir abroad once more. His business there was at an end. But he considered with reluctance a return to Vancouver. He was not happy. He was merely passive. It did not matter to anyone where he went. It did not matter much to himself. He was as well here as elsewhere until some substantial reason or some inner spur rowelled him into action.
Here there was no one to look askance at his disfigurement. He was less alone than he would be in town, for he found a subtle sense of companionship in this solitude, as if the dusky woods and those grim, aloof peaks accepted him for what he was, discounting all that misfortune which had visited him in the train of war. He knew that was sheer fantasy, but a fantasy that lent him comfort.
So he stayed. He had plenty of material resources, a tight warm house, food. He had reckoned on staying perhaps a month. He found now that his estimate of a month's staples was away over the mark. He could subsist two months. With care he could stretch it to three, for there was game on that southern slope,—deer and the white mountain goat and birds. He hunted the grouse at first, but that gave small return for ammunition expended, although the flesh of the blue and willow grouse is pleasant fare. When the big storm abated he looked out one clear dawn and saw a buck deer standing in the open. At a distance of sixty yards he shot the animal, not because he hankered to kill, but because he needed meat. So under the cabin eaves he had quarters of venison, and he knew that he could go abroad on that snowy slope and stalk a deer with ease. There was a soothing pleasantness about a great blaze crackling in the stone fireplace. And he had Doris Cleveland's books.
Yes, Hollister reiterated to himself, it was better than a bedroom off the blank corridor of a second-rate hotel and the crowded streets that were more merciless to a stricken man than these silent places. Eventually he would have to go back. But for the present,—well, he occupied himself wholly with the present, and he did not permit himself to look far beyond.
From the deerskin he cut a quantity of fine strips and bent into oval shape two tough sticks of vine maple. Across these he strung a web of rawhide, thus furnishing himself with a pair of snowshoes which were a necessity now that the snow lay everywhere knee-deep and in many places engulfed him to the waist when he went into the woods.
It pleased him to go on long snowshoe hikes. He reached far up the ridges that lifted one after another behind his timber. Once he gained a pinnacle, a solitary outstanding hummock of snow-bound granite rising above all the rest, rising above all the surrounding forest. From this summit he gained an eagle's view. The long curve of Toba Inlet wound like a strip of jade away down to where the islands of the lower gulf spread with channels of the sea between. He could see the twin Redondas, Cortez, Raza, the round blob that was Hernando,—a picturesque nomenclature that was the inheritance of Spanish exploration before the time of Drake. Beyond the flat reaches of Valdez, Vancouver Island, an empire in itself, lifted its rocky backbone, a misty purple against the western sky. He watched a steamer, trailing a black banner of smoke, slide through Baker Pass.
Out there men toiled at fishing; the woods echoed with the ring of their axes and the thin twanging of their saws; there would be the clank of machinery and the hiss of steam. But it was all hidden and muffled in those vast distances. He swung on his heel. Far below, the houses of the settlement in the lower Toba sent up blue wisps of smoke. To his right ran with many a twist and turn the valley itself, winding away into remote fastnesses of the Coast Range, a strip of level, fertile, timbered land, abutted upon by mountains that shamed the Alps for ruggedness,—mountains gashed by slides, split by gloomy crevasses, burdened with glaciers which in the heat of summer spewed foaming cataracts over cliffs a thousand foot sheer.
"Where the hill-heads split the tide Of green and living air, I would press Adventure hard To her deepest lair.
I would let the world's rebuke Like a wind go by, With my naked soul laid bare To the naked sky."
Out of some recess in his memory, where they had fixed themselves long before, those lines rose to Hollister's lips. And he looked a long time before he turned downhill.
A week passed. Once more the blustery god of storms asserted his dominion, leaving the land, when he passed, a foot deeper in snow. If he had elected to stay there from choice, Hollister now kept close to his cabin from necessity, for passage with his goods to the steamer landing would have been a journey of more hardships than he cared to undertake. The river was a sheet of ice except over the shallow rapids. Cold winds whistled up and down the Toba. Once or twice on clear days he climbed laboriously to a great height and felt the cold pressure of the northwest wind as he stood in the open; and through his field glasses he could see the Inlet and the highroads of the sea past the Inlet's mouth all torn by surging waves that reared and broke in flashing crests of foam. So he sat in the cabin and read Doris Cleveland's books one after another—verse, philosophy, fiction—and when physical inaction troubled him he cut and split and piled firewood far beyond his immediate need. He could not sit passive too long. Enforced leisure made too wide a breach in his defenses, and through that breach the demons of brooding and despondency were quick to enter. When neither books nor self-imposed tasks about the cabin served, he would take his rifle in hand, hook on the snowshoes, and trudge far afield in the surrounding forest.