The Lady of Big Shanty
F. BERKELEY SMITH
TO THE READER
This story, written by a man who has passed many years of his life in the Adirondack woods, strikes a note not often sounded—the power of the primeval over the human mind.
Once abandoned in the wilderness, wholly dependent upon what can be wrested from its clutch to prolong existence, all the ordinary standards and ambitions of life become as naught: for neither love, hatred, revenge, honour, money, jewels, or social success will bring a cup of water, a handful of corn or a coal of fire. Under this torture Nature once more becomes king and man again an atom; his judgment clarified, his heart stripped naked, his soul turned inside out. The untamed, mighty, irresistible primitive is now to be reckoned with, and a lie will no longer serve.
Such is the power of the primeval, and for the unique way in which it has been treated between these covers, the father takes off his hat to the son.
F. HOPKINSON SMITH.
THE LADY OF BIG SHANTY
It was the luncheon hour, and The Players was crowded with its members; not only actors, but men of every profession, from the tall, robust architect to the quiet surgeon tucked away among the cushions of the corner divan. In the hall—giving sound advice, perhaps, to a newly fledged tragedian—sat some dear, gray-haired old gentleman in white socks who puffed silently at a long cigar, while from out the low-ceiled, black-oak dining room, resplendent in pewter and hazy with tobacco smoke, came intermittent outbursts of laughter. It was the hour when idlers and workers alike throw off the labours of the day for a quiet chat with their fellows.
Only one man in the group was restless. This was a young fellow who kept watch at the window overlooking the Park. That he was greatly worried was evident from the two tense furrows in his brow, and from the way his eyes scanned the street below.
"The devil!" he grumbled. "I wonder if Billy's missed his train—another Adirondack express late, I suppose." He flicked the ashes from his cigarette and, wheeling sharply, touched a bell.
"John," he said, as the noiseless old steward entered.
"Yes, Mr. Randall."
"Find out at the desk if a Mr. William Holcomb from Moose River has called or telephoned."
"Very good, sir."
"He's a tall, sun-burned young man, John—and he may be waiting below. You understand."
"I'll go and see, sir," and the steward turned.
"And, John—tell August we shall be five at luncheon."
The next moment two hands gripped him from behind by both shoulders.
"Well! I'm glad you're here, Keene, at any rate!" cried Randall as he smashed the bell hard. "Two dry Martinis"—this to the yellow-waistcoated steward now at his elbow. "It's Billy Holcomb you've come to meet. He wrote me he was coming to New York on business and I made him promise to come here first. He and I hunted together last fall and I wanted you and Brompton to know him. What I'm afraid of is that he has missed the night express. Moose River's a long ways from the railway, and you know what an Adirondack road is this time of year. I hope The Players won't scare him."
"Oh! we'll take care of him," laughed Keene good-humouredly. "Thank God he's not a celebrity; I'm sick of celebrities. It'll be a treat to meet a plain human being. Hello! here comes Brompton!"
Randall rose to his feet.
"Glad you could come, old man. There's only five of us—you, and Keene, Sam Thayor, and a friend of mine from the woods. Touch the bell and give your order."
Again the noiseless John appeared.
"Any news, John?"
"Yes, sir; Mr. Holcomb is waiting for you below, and Mr. Thayor has telephoned he will be here in a moment."
Jack started for the stairs.
"Good!" he cried. "I'll be back in a second."
If the actor and Keene had expected to see a raw-boned country boy, reticent and ill at ease, they got over it at the first glance. What they saw approaching with his arm in their host's was a young man of twenty-three, straight as an arrow, with the eyes of an eagle; whose clean-cut features were so full of human understanding that both the actor and Keene fell to wondering if Randall was not joking when he labeled him as hailing from so primitive a settlement as Moose River. To these qualities there was added the easy grace of a man of the world in the pink of condition. Only his dark gray pepper-and-salt clothes—they had been purchased in Utica the day before—confirmed Randall's diagnosis, and even these fitted him in a way that showed both his good taste and his common sense. The introductions over and the party seated, Randall turned again to his friend.
"I worried about you, Billy; what happened?"
"Oh, we had a washout just this side of Utica, and the train was nearly three hours late. But I had no trouble," he said with a quiet smile. "I came down a-foot—let's see—Fourth Avenue, isn't it? As soon as I saw the Park I knew I was on the right trail," he laughed, his white teeth gleaming in contrast with his nut-brown skin.
"Oh, I'd trust you anywhere in the world, trail or no trail. That's the way you got me out of Bog Eddy that night, and that's the way you saved Sam Thayor. He's coming, you know. Wants to meet you the worst kind. I'm keeping you for a surprise, but he'll hug himself all over when he finds out it's you."
The young man raised his eyes in doubt.
"Thayor? I don't know as I—"
"Why, of course you remember the Thayors, Billy! They were at Long Lake three or four summers ago."
"Oh! a short, thick-set man, with grayish hair?" replied Holcomb in his low, well-modulated voice—the voice of a man used to the silence of the big woods. "Let's see," he mused—"wasn't it he that cut himself so badly with an axe over at Otter Pond? Yes, I remember."
"So does Thayor, Billy, and it'll be a good many years before he forgets it," declared Jack. "You saved his life, he says. That's one thing he wants to see you for, and another is that he's played out and needs a rest."
"Bless me!" cried Brompton in the tragic tones of his profession. "You saved his life, me boy?"
Holcomb, for the first time, appeared embarrassed.
"Well, that's mighty good of him to think so, but I didn't do much," he replied modestly. "Now I come to think of it, he was badly cut and I helped him down to Doc' Rand's at Bog River. That was, as I figure it, about three years ago—wasn't it, Randall?"
"You mean," returned Randall, "that you took him down on your back, and if you hadn't Sam Thayor would have bled to death."
"Bless my soul!" cried the actor.
"Well, you see," continued Holcomb ignoring the interruption, "there are some that can handle an axe just as easily as some fellows can fiddle, and again there are some that can't. It's just a little knack, that's all, gentlemen, and, of course, Mr. Thayor wasn't used to chopping."
"The only thing Sam Thayor can handle is money," interposed Keene. "He's got millions, Billy—millions!"
"Millions," chuckled Randall; "I should think so. He owns about five of 'em." As he spoke he half rose from his chair and waved his hand to a well-dressed, gray-haired man whose eyes were searching the crowded hall. "Thayor!" he shouted.
As the new-comer moved closer the whole group rose to greet him.
"I'm afraid, my dear Jack, I've kept you all waiting," the banker began. "A special meeting of the Board detained me longer than I had anticipated. I hope you will forgive me. I am not usually late, I assure you, gentlemen. This for me?" and he picked up his waiting cocktail.
Holcomb, although his eyes had not wavered from Thayor, had not yet greeted him. That a man so quiet and unostentatious belonged to the favoured rich was a new experience to him. He was also waiting for some sign of recognition from the financial potentate, the democracy of the woods being in his blood.
Randall waited an instant and seeing Thayor's lack of recognition blurted out in his hearty way:
"Why, it's Holcomb, Sam; Billy Holcomb of Moose River."
Thayor turned and formally extended his hand.
"Oh, I beg your pardon! I—" then his whole manner changed. "Why, Holcomb!" he exclaimed with delightful surprise. "Oh, I'm so glad to see you! And—er—your dear father—how is he?"
"First rate, thank you, Mr. Thayor. It seems kind of natural to see you again. Father was speaking about you the very day he left. He went on Monday to Fort Ti' with my mother for a visit."
"Ah, indeed!" returned Thayor, drawing up a chair beside the boy, and before even the glasses were entirely emptied the two had begun talking of the woods and all it held in store for them, the banker declaring, as he followed Randall into the dining room, that if he could arrange his business he would make a quick trip to the Lake with Holcomb as guide.
If the luncheon that followed was a surprise to the stranger from Moose River, Holcomb's modest naturalness and innate good breeding were a revelation to Randall's friends. This increased to positive enthusiasm when one of the actor's massive turquoise rings struck the rim of the stranger's wine glass, nearly spilling the contents into Holcomb's lap, and which Holcomb's deft touch righted with the quickness of a squirrel, before a drop left its edge, a feat of dexterity which brought from the actor in his best stage voice:
"Zounds, sir! A little more and I should have deluged you"—Holcomb answering with a smile:
"Don't mention it. I saw it coming my way."
Even those at the adjoining tables caught the dominating influence of the man as they watched him sitting easily in his chair listening to the stories of the Emperor of the First Empire—as Brompton was called, he having played the part—the young woodsman joining in with experiences of his own as refreshing in tone and as clear in statement as a mountain spring.
Suddenly, and apparently without anything leading up to it, and as if some haunting memory of his own had prompted it, Thayor leaned forward and touched Billy's arm, and with a certain meaning in his voice asked:
"There is something I have wanted to ask you ever since I came, Holcomb. Tell me about that poor hide-out—the man your father fed in the woods that night. Did he get away?"
Holcomb straightened up and his face became suddenly grave. The subject was evidently a distasteful one.
"Whom do you mean, Mr. Thayor?"
"I don't know his name; I only remember the incident, but it has haunted me ever since."
"You mean Dinsmore."
"What has become of him?"
"I haven't heard lately." He evidently did not want to discuss it further—certainly not in a crowded room full of strangers.
"But you must have learned something of him. Tell me—I want to know. I never felt so sorry for anyone in my life."
Holcomb looked Thayor squarely in the face, read its sincerity and said slowly, lowering his voice:
"He is still in hiding—was the last time I saw him."
"When was that?" asked Thayor, his eyes boring into the young woodsman's.
"About a month ago—Ed Munsey and I were cutting a trail at the time."
"Would you mind telling me?" persisted Thayor. "I have always thought that poor fellow was ill treated. Your father thought so too."
Holcomb dropped his eyes to the cloth, rolled a crumb of bread between his fingers and said, as if he was thinking aloud:
"Ill treated! I should say so!" Then he lifted his head, drew his chair closer to the group, ran his eyes around the room to be sure of his audience, and said in still lower tones:
"What I'm going to tell you, gentlemen, is between us, remember. None of you, I am sure, would want to get him into any more trouble, if you knew the circumstances as I do. One night about nine o'clock, during a pouring rain, Ed and I lay in a swamp under a lean-to. Ed was asleep, and I was dozing off, when I heard something step in the brush on the other side of the fire. I couldn't see anything, it was so dark, but it sounded just like an animal slouching and stepping about as light as it could. It would stop suddenly and then I'd hear the brush crack again on the left."
Thayor was leaning now with his elbows on the table, as absorbed as a child listening to a fairy tale. The others sat with their eyes fixed on the speaker.
"Any unusual noise at night must be looked into, and I threw a handful of birch bark on the fire and reached for Ed's Winchester. I had to crawl over him to get it, and when I got my hand on it and turned around a sandy-haired fellow was standing over me with a gun cocked and pointed at my head.
"I knew him the minute I laid eyes on him. It was Bob Dinsmore, who killed Jim Bailey over at Long Pond. He'd been hiding out for months. He was not more than thirty years old, but he looked fifty; there was a warrant out for him and a reward to take him dead or alive. He kept the gun pointed, drawing a fine sight on a spot between my left eye and my ear.
"'Hold on, Bob!' said I; 'sit down.' He didn't speak, but he lifted the muzzle of his gun a little, and there was a look came into his eyes, half crying, half like a dog cornered to fight.
"'S-s-h!' said I; 'you'll wake up Ed.'
"'I got to kill ye, Bill,' said he.
"'Sit down,' I said, for I saw he was so weak his thin legs were trembling. 'Neither Ed nor I are going to give you away—sit down,' and I shook Ed. He sat up blinking like an old toad in a hard shower. 'By whimey!' said Ed, staring at Bob as if he had seen a ghost.
"'I'm hongry, Bill,' said Bob. 'Bill, I'm hongry,' and he began to stagger and cry like a baby. I got hold of his rifle and Ed caught him just as he fainted.
"By and by he came to and Ed and I fixed up a stiff hooker of liquor and some hot tea and gave him a mouthful at a time. Just before daylight he rose on one elbow and lay there following us with his eyes, for he was too weak to talk. It seemed as if he was clean beat out and that his nerve was gone. What grit he had he had used up keeping away from the law."
Again Holcomb paused—the round table was as silent as a court room before a verdict.
"Neither Ed nor I liked the idea of being caught with Dinsmore," he resumed, "with three counties after him harder than an old dog after a five-pronged buck, so when it came daylight we shifted camp over back of a fire-slash where I knew all hell couldn't find him. We had to carry him most of the way. That was on a Wednesday. We never said anything to him about his killing Bailey—he knew we knew. We fed him the best we knew how. Saturday, 'long toward night, I killed a small deer, and the broth did him good.
"In a couple of days—Hold on, I've got ahead of my story; it was Sunday night when Bob said: 'Boys' said he, as near as I can repeat it in his dialect—'you've treated me like a humin, but I dassent stay here. It ain't fair to you. What I done I done with a reason. You've heard tell, most likely, that I been seen in Lower Saranac 'bout three weeks ago, ain't ye?'
"'Yes,' said Ed, 'we heard something about it. That Jew horse-trader, Bergstein, told us, but there warn't nobody that seen ye, that was sure it was you.'
"'They lied then,' said Bob, 'for there was more'n a dozen in the village that day that knowed me and warn't mistook 'bout who I was. As to that red-nosed Jew, Bergstein, he'll quit talkin' 'bout me and everythin' else if I kin ever draw a bead on him.'
"Then Bob began to tell us how he walked into the big hotel at Saranac about noon and flung a hind-quarter of venison on the counter in front of the clerk and said: 'What I come for is a decent meal; I ain't got no money, but I guess that'll pay for it.' The clerk got white around the gills, but he didn't say anything; he just took the venison and showed Bob into the big dining hall. Bob says they gave him the meal, and he kept eating everything around him with his Winchester across his knees. There wasn't a soul that spoke to him except the hired girl that waited on him, although the dining room was crowded with summer boarders.
"'Tea or coffee?' asked the hired girl when he had eaten his pie.
"'No, thank ye,' says Bob, 'but I won't never forgit ye if ye can git me four boxes of matches.' Bob said she was gone a minute and when she came back she had the matches for him under her apron. 'Good luck to ye, Bob,' she says—her cheeks red, and her mouth trembling. It was Myra Hathaway—he'd known her since she was a little girl. 'Bob, for God's sake go,' she begged—'there's trouble coming from the village.'
"It wasn't long before Bob crossed Alder Brook about forty rods this side of the Gull Rock. They saw his tracks where he crossed the next day, but Bob had the matches, and the sheriff and about forty that went out to get him came back that night looking kind of down in the mouth. There wasn't a sign of him after he crossed Alder Brook. He knew those woods like a partridge. When he got through telling how he got the square meal at Lower Saranac, Ed said to him:
"'Bob, you're welcome to what I've got,' and I told him, 'What I've got is yours, and you know it.'
"He tried to say a little something, but he choked up, then he said: 'Boys, I'm sick of bein' hounded. There's been nights and days when I've most died; if I can only get into Canady there won't none of 'em git me.'
"Ed and I had about eleven dollars between us. 'That will get you there, Bob,' I said, 'if you look sharp and don't take risks and keep to the timber.' We gave him the eleven dollars and what cartridges and matches we could spare, and what was left of the deer. I never saw a fellow so grateful; he didn't say anything, but I saw his old grit come back to him. That was Monday night, and about nine o'clock we turned in. Before daylight I woke up to attend to the fire and saw he was gone."
The men drew a deep breath. Keene and the actor looked blankly at each other. Compared to the tale just ended, their own stories seemed but a reflex of utterly selfish lives. Even the Emperor experienced a strange thrill—possibly the first real sensation he had known since he was a boy. As to Thayor—he had hung on every word that fell from Holcomb's lips.
"And what motive had Dinsmore in killing Bailey?" asked Thayor, nervously, when the others had gone to the hall for their coffee and liqueurs. "I asked your father but he did not answer me, and yet he must have known."
"Oh, yes, he knew, Mr. Thayor. Everybody knows, our way, but it's one of those things we don't talk about—but I'll tell you. It was about his wife."
Thayor folded his napkin in an absent way, laid it carefully beside his plate, unfolded it again and tossed it in a heap upon the table, and said with a certain tenderness in his tone:
"And did he get away to Canada, Holcomb?"
"No, sir; his little girl fell ill, and he wouldn't leave her."
"And the woman, Holcomb—was she worth it?" continued Thayor. There was a strange tremor in his voice now—so much so that the young man fastened his eyes on the banker's, wondering at the cause.
"She was worth a lot to Bob, sir," replied Holcomb slowly. "They had grown up together."
That same afternoon the banker passed through the polished steel grille of his new home by means of a flat key attached to a plain gold chain.
The house, like its owner, had a certain personality of its own, although it lacked his simplicity; its square mass being so richly carved that it seemed as if the faintest stroke of the architect's soft pencil had made a dollar mark. So vast, too, was its baronial hall and sweeping stairway in pale rose marble, that its owner might have entered it unnoticed, had not Blakeman, the butler, busying himself with the final touches to a dinner table of twenty covers, heard his master's alert step in the hall and hurried to relieve him of his coat and hat. Before, however, the man could reach him, Thayor had thrown both aside, and had stepped to a carved oak table on which were carefully arranged ten miniature envelopes. He bent over them for a moment and then turning to the butler asked in an impatient tone:
"How many people are coming to dinner, Blakeman?"
"Twenty, sir," answered Blakeman, his face preserving its habitual Sphinx-like immobility.
"Um!" muttered Thayor.
"Can, I get you anything, sir?"
"No, thank you, Blakeman. I have just left the Club."
"A dinner of twenty, eh?" continued Thayor, as Blakeman disappeared with his coat and hat—"our fourth dinner party this week, and Alice never said a word to me about it." Again he glanced at the names of the men upon the ten diminutive envelopes, written in an angular feminine hand; most of them those of men he rarely saw save at his own dinners. Suddenly his eye caught the name upon the third envelope from the end of the orderly row.
"Dr. Sperry again!" he exclaimed, half aloud. He opened it and his lips closed tight. The crested card bore the name of his wife. As he dropped it back in its place his ear caught the sound of a familiar figure descending the stairway—the figure of a woman of perhaps thirty-five, thoroughly conscious of her beauty, whose white arms flashed as she moved from beneath the flowing sleeves of a silk tea-gown that reached to her tiny satin slippers.
She had gained the hall now, and noticing her husband came slowly toward him.
"Where's Margaret?" Thayor asked, after a short pause during which neither had spoken.
The shoulders beneath the rose tea-gown shrugged with a gesture of impatience.
"In the library, I suppose," she returned. Then, with a woman's intuition, she noticed that the third envelope had been touched. Her lips tightened. "Get dressed, Sam, or you will be late, as usual."
Thayor raised his head and looked at her.
"You never told me, Alice, that you were giving a dinner to-night—I never knew, in fact, until I found these."
"And having found them you pawed them over." There was a subtle, almost malicious defiance in her tone. "Go on—what else? Come—be quick! I must look at my table." One of her hands, glittering with the rings he had given her, was now on the portiere, screening the dining room from out which came faintly the clink of silver. She stopped, her slippered foot tapping the marble floor impatiently. "Well!" she demanded, her impatience increasing, "what is it?"
"Nothing," he replied slowly—"nothing that you can understand," and he strode past her up the sweeping stairs.
Margaret was in the biggest chair in the long library, sitting curled up between its generous arms when he entered. At the moment she was absorbed in following a hero through the pages of a small volume bound in red morocco. Thayor watched her for a moment, all his love for her in his eyes.
"Oh, daddy!" she cried. Her arms were about his neck now, the brown eyes looking into his own. "Oh, daddy! Oh! I'm so glad you've come. I've had such a dandy ride to-day!" She paused, and taking his two hands into her own looked up at him saucily. "You know you promised me a new pony. I really must have one. Ethel says my Brandy is really out of fashion, and I've seen such a beauty with four ducky little white feet."
"Where, Puss?" He stroked her soft hair as he spoke, his fingers lingering among the tresses.
"Oh, at the new stable. Ethel and I have been looking him over; she says he's cheap at seven hundred. May I have him daddy? It looks so poverty-stricken to be dependent on one mount."
Suddenly she stopped. "Why, daddy! What's the matter? You look half ill," she said faintly.
Thayor caught his breath and straightened.
"Nothing, Puss," he answered, regaining for the moment something of his jaunty manner. "Nothing, dearie. I must go and dress, or I shall be late for our guests."
"But my pony, daddy?" pleaded Margaret.
Thayor bent and kissed her fresh cheek.
"There—I knew you would!" she cried, clapping her hands in sheer delight.
Half an hour later, when the two walked down the sweeping stairs, her soft hand about his neck, the other firmly in his own, they found the mother, now radiant in white lace and jewels, standing before the white chimney piece, one slippered foot resting upon the low brass fender. Only when the muffled slam of a coupe door awoke her to consciousness did she turn and speak to them, and only then with one of those perfunctory remarks indulged in by some hostesses when their guests are within ear-shot.
In the midst of the comedy, to which neither made reply, the heavy portieres were suddenly drawn aside and Blakeman's trained voice rang out:
A tall, wiry man with a dark complexion, alluring black eyes and black moustache curled up at the ends, entered hastily, tucking the third envelope in the pocket of his pique waistcoat.
A peculiar expression flashed subtly from Alice's dark eyes as she smiled and put forth her hand. "I'm so glad you could come," she murmured. "I was afraid you would be sent for by somebody at the last moment."
"And I am more than happy, I assure you, dear lady," he laughed back, as he bent and kissed the tips of her fingers.
"And yet I feel so guilty—so very guilty, when there is so much sickness about town this wretched weather," she continued.
Again he smiled—this time in his best professional manner, in the midst of which he shook hands with Margaret and Thayor. Then he added in a voice as if he had not slept for months—
"Yes, there is a lot of grippe about."
Thayor looked at him from under lowered lids.
"I wonder you could have left these poor people," he said sententiously.
Alice, scenting danger, stretched forth one white hand and touched the doctor's wrist.
"You came because I couldn't do without you, didn't you, dear doctor?"
Again the portiere opened.
"Mr. and Mrs. Reginald Van Rock—Mr. Kennedy Jones—Miss Trevor," announced Blakeman successively.
Mrs. Thayor's fourth dinner party that week had begun.
* * * * *
As the door closed at midnight upon the last guest, Margaret kissed her father and mother good-night and hurried to her room, leaving the two alone. The dinner had been an ordeal to her—never before had she seen her father so absorbed.
"You were very brilliant to-night, were you not?" exclaimed Alice as soon as she and Thayor were alone.
Thayor continued silent, gazing into the library fire, his hands clenched deep in his trousers pockets, his shoulders squared.
"A beautiful dinner," she continued, her voice rising—"the best I have had this season, and yet you sat there like a log."
The man turned sharply—so sharply that the woman at his side gave a start.
"Sit down!" he commanded—"over there where I can see you. I have something to say."
She looked at him in amazement. The determined ring in his voice made her half afraid. What had he to say?
"What do you mean?" she retorted.
"Just what I said. Sit down!"
The fair shoulders shrugged. She was accustomed to these outbursts, but not to this ring in his voice.
"Go on—what is it?"
Thayor crossed the room, shut the door and turned the key in the lock. She watched him in silence as he switched off the electric lights along the bookcases, until naught illumined the still library but the soft glow of the lamp and the desultory flare from the hearth.
Still he did not speak. Finally the storm broke.
"What I have to say to you is this: I'm sick of this wholesale giving of dinners."
Alice let go her breath. After all, it was not what was uppermost in her mind.
"Ah! So that's it," she returned.
"That's a part of it," he cried, "but not all."
"And the other part?" she asked, her nervousness returning.
"I'll come to that later," said her husband, with an accent on the last word. "It is necessary that I should begin at the beginning."
"Go on," she murmured nervously, gazing absently into the fire, her mind at work, her fears suddenly aroused. For the first time its wavering light seemed restful. "Go on—I'm listening."
"The first part is that I'm sick of these dinners. I've told you so before, and yet you had the impertinence to-night to give another and not say a word to me about it." The voice had a cold, incisive note in it—the touch of steel to warm flesh.
"Impertinence! Your ideas of hospitality, Sam, are peculiar." Any topic was better than the one she feared.
"Hospitality!" he retorted hotly. "Do you call it hospitality to squander my money on the cheap spongers you are continually inviting here? Do you call it hospitable to force me to sit up and entertain this riff-raff night after night, and then be dragged off to the opera or theatre when I am played out after a hard day's work down town for the money you spend? And just look at Margaret! Do you suppose that these people, this sort of life you daily surround her with, is a sane atmosphere in which to bring up our daughter? That's the first thing I've got to say to you, and I want to tell you right here that it's got to stop."
She looked up at him in a half frightened way, wondering whether there was not something back of this sudden tirade, something she could not fathom—something she feared to fathom.
"The second thing that I have to tell you is this: I am at the end of my rope, or will be if I keep on. A man can't keep up month in and month out, living my life, and not break down. I saw Leveridge yesterday and he wishes me to get some relief at once. Young Holcomb, who did me a service once at Long Lake, is here, and I am going back home with him. I intend to take a rest for a fortnight—possibly three weeks—in camp."
For an instant she could not speak—so quick came the joyful rebound. Then there rushed over her what his absence might, or might not, mean to her.
"When do you start?" she asked with assumed condescension—her old way of concealing her thoughts.
"But Saturday night we are giving a dinner," she rejoined in a positive tone. This was one at which she wanted him present.
"You can give it, but without me," he replied doggedly.
"I tell you you'll do nothing of the sort, Sam. I'm not going to abide by the advice of that quack, Leveridge, nor shall you!" The old dominating tone reasserted itself now that she had read his mind to the bottom.
"Quack or not, you would not be alive to-day but for him, and it is disgraceful for you to talk this way behind his back. And now I am going to bed." With this he turned off the remaining light, leaving only the flicker of the firelight behind, shot back the bolt and strode from the room.
As he passed Margaret's door there came softly:
"Is that you, daddy?"
"Come in, daddy, dear." Her clear young voice was confident and tender.
He stopped, pushed back the door and entered her dainty room. She lay propped up among the snowy whiteness of the pillows, smiling at him.
Like her mother, Margaret in her womanhood—she was eighteen—was well made; her figure being as firm and well knit as that of a boy. For an instant his eyes wandered over her simple gown of white mull, tied at the throat with the daintiest of pink ribbons, her well shaped ears and the wealth of auburn hair that sprang from the nape of her shapely neck and lay in an undulating mass of gold all over her pretty head. Whatever sorrows life had for him were nothing compared to the joy of this daughter.
All his anger was gone in an instant.
"Little girl, you know it's against orders, this reading in bed," he said in his kindly tone. Never in all her life had he spoken a cross word to her. "You'll ruin your eyes and you must be tired."
She closed her book. "Tired—yes, I am tired. Mother's dinners are such dreadfully long ones, and, then, daddy, to-night I've been worrying about you. You seemed so silent at dinner—it made my heart ache. Are you ill, daddy? or has something happened? I tried to sleep, but I couldn't. I've been waiting for you. Tell me what has happened—you will tell me, won't you, daddy?" Her smooth, young arms were about his neck now. "Tell me," she pleaded in his ear.
"There's nothing to tell, little girl," he said. "I'm tired too, I suppose; that's all. Come—you must go to sleep. Pouf!" and he blew out the flame of the reading candle at her bedside.
* * * * *
For a long time that night Thayor sat staring into the fire in his room, his mind going over the events of the day—the luncheon—the talk of those around the table—the tones of Holcomb's voice as he said, "It was about his wife," and then the added refrain: "He couldn't get away; his little girl fell ill." How did his case differ?
Suddenly he roused himself and sprang to his feet. No! he was wrong; there was nothing in it. Couldn't be anything in it. Alice was foolish—vain—illogical—but there was Margaret! Nothing would—nothing could go wrong as long as she lived.
With these new thoughts filling his mind, his face brightened. Turning up the reading lamp on his desk he opened his portfolio, covered half a page and slipped it into an envelope.
This he addressed to Mr. William Holcomb, ready for Blakeman's hand in the morning.
Two days subsequent to these occurrences—and some hours after his coupe loaded with his guns and traps had rumbled away to meet Holcomb, in time for the Adirondack express—Thayor laid a note in his butler's hands with special instructions not to place it among his lady's mail until she awoke.
He could not have chosen a better messenger. While originally hailing from Ireland, and while retaining some of the characteristics of his race—his good humor being one of them—Blakeman yet possessed that smoothness and deference so often found in an English servant. In his earlier life he had served Lord Bromley in the Indian jungle during the famine; had been second man at the country seat of the Duke of Valmoncourt at the time of the baccarat scandal, and later on had risen to the position of chief butler in the establishment of an unpopular Roumanian general.
It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that he was at forty-five past master in domestic diplomacy, knowing to a detail the private history of more than a score of families, having studied them at his ease behind their chairs, or that he knew infinitely more of the world at large than did his master.
Blakeman had two absorbing passions—one was his love of shooting and the other his reverent adoration of Margaret, whom he had seen develop into womanhood, and who was his Madonna and good angel.
At high noon, then, when the silver bell on Alice's night table broke the stillness of her bedroom, her French maid, Annette, entered noiselessly and slid back the soft curtains screening the bay window. She, like Blakeman, had seen much. She was, too, more self-contained in many things than the woman she served, although she had been bred in Montmartre and born in the Rue Lepic.
"Did madame ring?" Annette asked, bending over her mistress.
Alice roused herself lazily.
"Yes—my coffee and letters."
The girl crossed the room, opened a mirrored door, deftly extracted from a hanging mass of frou-frous behind it a silk dressing jacket, helped thrust the firm white arms within its dainty sleeves, tucked a small lace pillow between Alice's shoulders and picking up the glossy mass of black hair, lifted it skilfully until it lay in glistening folds over the lace pillow. She then went into the boudoir and returned with a dainty tray bearing a set of old Sevres, two buttered wafers of toast and two notes.
Alice waited until her maid closed the bedroom door, then, with the impatience of a child, she opened one of the two notes—the one Annette had discreetly placed beneath the other. This she read and re-read; it was brief, and written in a masculine hand. The woman was thoroughly awake now—her eyes shining, her lips parted in a satisfied smile. "You dear old friend," she murmured as she lay back upon the lace pillow. Dr. Sperry was coming at five.
She tucked the letter beneath the coverlid and opened her husband's note. Suddenly her lips grew tense; she raised herself erect and stared at its contents:
I shall pass the summer in the woods if I can find suitable place for you and Margaret. Make no arrangements which will conflict with this. Will write later.
Again she read it, grasping little by little its whole import: all that it meant—all that it would mean to her.
"Is he crazy?" she asked herself. "Does he suppose I intend to be dragged up there?"
It was open defiance on his part; he had done this thing without consulting her and without her consent. It was preposterous and insulting in its brusqueness. He evidently intended to change her life—she, who loathed camp life more than anything in the world was to be forced to live in one all summer instead of reigning at Newport. She understood now his open defiance in leaving for the woods with Holcomb, and yet this last decision was far graver to her than his taking a dozen vacations. Still deeper in her heart there lurked the thought of being separated from the man who understood her. The young doctor's summer practice in Newport would no longer be a labour of love. It really meant exile to them both.
At one o'clock she lunched with Margaret, hardly opening her lips through it all. She did not mention her husband's note—that she would reserve for the doctor. Between them she felt sure there could be arranged a way out of the situation. Again she devoured his note. Yes—"at five." The intervening hours seemed interminable.
That these same hours were anything but irksome to Sperry would have been apparent to anyone who watched his use of them. The day, like other days during office hours, had seen a line of coupes waiting outside his door. Within had assembled a score of rich patients waiting their turn while they read the illustrated papers in strained silence—papers they had already seen. There was, of course, no conversation. A nervous cough now and then from some pretty widow, overheated in her sables, would break the awkward silence, or perhaps the voice of some wealthy little girl of five asking impossible explanations of her maid. During these hours the mere opening of the doctor's sanctum door was sufficient to instantly raise the hopes and the eyes of the unfortunates.
For during these office hours Dr. Sperry had a habit of opening the door of this private sanctum sharply, and standing there for an instant, erect and faultlessly dressed, looking over the waiting ones; then, with a friendly nod, he would recognize, perhaps the widow—and the door closed again on the less fortunate.
It was, of course, more than possible that the young woman was ill over her dressmaker's bill, rather than suffering from a weak heart or an opera cold. Sperry's ear, however, generally detected the cold. It was not his policy to say unpleasant things—especially to young widows who had recently inherited the goods and chattels of their hard-working husbands.
"Ill!—nonsense, my dear lady; you look as fresh as a rose," he would begin in his fascinating voice—"a slight cold, but nothing serious, I assure you. You women are never blessed with prudence," etc., etc.
To another: "Nervous prostration, my dear madame! Fudge—all imagination! Silly, really silly. You caught cold, of course, coming out of the heated theatre. Get a good rest, my dear Mrs. Jack—I want you to stay at least a month at Palm Beach, and no late suppers, and no champagne. No—not a drop," he adds severely. Then softening, "Well, then, half a glass. There, I've been generous, haven't I?" etc., etc., and so the day passed.
On this particular day it was four o'clock before he had dismissed the last of his patients. Then he turned to his nurse with an impatient tone, as he searched hurriedly among the papers on his desk:
"Find out what day I set for young Mrs. Van Ripley's operation."
"Tuesday, sir," answered the nurse.
"Then make it Thursday, and tell James to pack up my big valise and see that my golf things are in it and aboard the 9.18 in the morning."
"Yes, sir," answered the girl, dipping her plump hands in a pink solution.
All this time Alice had been haunted by the crawling hands of the clock. Luxurious as was her house of marble, it was a dreary domain at best to-day, as she sat in the small square room that lay hidden beyond the conservatory of cool palms and exotic plants screening one end of the dining room—a room her very own, and one to which only the chosen few were ever admitted; a jewel box of a room indeed, whose walls, ceiling and furniture were in richly carved teak. A corner, by the way, in which one could receive an old friend and be undisturbed. There was about it, too, a certain feeling of snug secrecy which appealed to her, particularly the low lounge before the Moorish fireplace of carved alabaster, which was well provided with soft pillows richly covered with rare embroideries. To-day none of these luxuries appealed to the woman seated among the cushions, gazing nervously at the fire. What absorbed her were the hands of the clock, crawling slowly toward five.
* * * * *
He did not keep her waiting. He was ahead of time, in fact—Blakeman leading him obsequiously through the fragrant conservatory.
"Ah—it is you, doctor!" she exclaimed in feigned surprise as the butler started to withdraw.
"Yes," he laughed; "I do hope I'm not disturbing you, dear lady. I was passing and dropped in."
Alice put forth her hand to him frankly and received the warm pressure of his own. They waited until the sound of Blakeman's footsteps died away in the conservatory.
"He's gone," she whispered nervously.
"What has happened?" asked the doctor with sudden apprehension.
"Everything," she replied womanlike, raising her eyes slowly to his own. Impulsively he placed both hands on her shoulders.
"You are nervous," he said, his gaze riveted upon her parted lips. He felt her arms grow tense—she threw back her head stiffly and for a moment closed her eyes as if in pain.
"Don't!" she murmured—"we must be good friends—good friends—do you understand?"
"Forgive me," was his tactful reply. He led her to the corner of the lounge and with fresh courage covered her hand firmly with his own. "See—I am sensible," he smiled—"we understand each other, I think. Tell me what has happened."
"Sam," she murmured faintly, freeing her hand—"Sam has dared to treat me like—like a child."
"You! I don't believe it—you? Nonsense, dear friend."
"You must help me," she returned in a vain effort to keep back the tears.
"Has he been brutal to you?—jealous?—impossible!" and a certain query gleamed in his eyes.
"Yes, brutal enough. I never believed him capable of it."
"I believe you, but it seems strange—psychologically impossible. Why, he's not that kind of a man."
Alice slipped her hand beneath a cushion, drew forth her husband's note and gave it to him.
"Read that," she said, gazing doggedly into the fire, her chin in her hands.
"'I may pass the summer in the woods'"—he read. "'Make no arrangements—' Well, what of it?" This came with a breath of relief. Alice raised her head wearily.
"It means that my life will be different—a country boarding house or a camp up in those wretched woods, I suppose—an existence"—she went on, her voice regaining its old dominant note—"not life!"
"And no more Newport for either of us," he muttered half audibly to himself with a tone of regret.
Alice looked up at him, her white hands clenched.
"I won't have it!" she exclaimed hotly; "I simply won't have it. I should die in a place like that. Buried," she went on bitterly, "among a lot of country bumpkins! Sam's a fool!"
"And you believe him to be in earnest?" he asked at length. She made no reply; her flushed cheeks again sunk in her jewelled hands. "Do you, seriously?" he demanded with sudden fear.
"Yes—very much in earnest—that's the worst of it," she returned, with set, trembling lips.
For some moments he watched her in silence, she breathing in nervous gasps, her slippered feet pressed hard in the soft rug. A sudden desire rushed through him to take her in his arms, yet he dared not risk it.
"Come," he said, at last, "let us reason this thing out. We're neither of us fools. Besides, it does not seem possible he will dare carry out anything in life without your consent."
"I don't know," she answered slowly. "I never believed him capable of going to the woods—but he did. And I must say, frankly, I never believed him capable of this."
"You and he have had a quarrel—am I not right?"
She shrugged her shoulders in reply.
"Perhaps," she confessed—"but he has never understood me—he is incapable of understanding any woman."
"Quite true," he replied lightly, in his best worldly voice; "quite true. Few men, my dear child, ever understand the women they marry. You might have been free to-day—free, and happier, had you—"
He sprang to his feet, bending over her—clasping her hands clenched in her lap. Slowly he sought her lips.
"Don't," she breathed—"don't—I beg of you. You must not—you shall not! You know we have discussed all that before."
"Forgive me," said he, straightening and regaining his seat. The ice had been thinner than he supposed, and he was too much of an expert to risk breaking through. "But why are you so cold to me?" he asked gloomily, with a sullen glance; "you, whose whole nature is the reverse? Do you know you are gloriously beautiful—you, whom I have always regarded as a woman of the world, seem to have suddenly developed the conscience of a schoolgirl."
"You said you would help me," she replied, ignoring his outburst, her eyes averted as if fearing to meet his gaze.
"Then tell me you trust me," he returned, leaning toward her.
She raised her eyes frankly to his own.
"I do—I do trust you, but I do not trust myself. Now keep your promise—I insist on it. Believe me, it is better—wiser for us both."
"Come, then," he said, laying his hand tenderly on her shoulder—it had grown dark in the teakwood room—"let me tell you a story—a fairy tale."
She looked at him with a mute appeal in her eyes. Then with a half moan she said: "I don't want any story; I want your help and never so much as now. Think of something that will help me! Be quick! No more dreams—our minutes are too valuable; I must send you away at six."
For some minutes he paced the room in silence. Then, as if a new thought had entered his mind, he stopped and resumed his professional manner.
"What about Margaret?" he asked quietly. "Is she fond of the woods?"
"Why—she adores them." She had regained her composure now. "The child was quite mad about that wretched Long Lake. What a summer we had—I shudder when I think of it!"
"Did it ever occur to you, my dear friend, that Margaret needed the woods?" His eyes were searching hers now as if he wanted to read her inmost thought.
"Needed them—in what way?"
"I mean—er—wouldn't it be better for her if she went to them? A winter at Saranac—or better still, a longer summer at the camp—if there is to be a camp. In that case her father would not leave her alone; there would be less chance, too, of his insisting on your being there—should you refuse. At least that would be a reason for his spending as much time as possible in camp with Margaret, and you might run up occasionally. I'm merely speaking in a purely professional way, of course," he added.
A sudden pallor crept over her face.
"And you really believe Margaret to be delicate?" she asked in a trembling voice full of sudden apprehension.
Sperry regained his seat, his manner lapsing into one that he assumed at serious consultations.
"I am a pretty good diagnostician," he went on, satisfied with the impression he had made. "Don't think me brutal in what I am going to say, but I've watched that young daughter of yours lately. New York is not the place for her."
"You don't mean her lungs?" she asked in a barely audible tone.
The doctor nodded.
"Not seriously, of course, my dear friend—really not that sort of condition at present—only I deem it wisest to take precautions. I'm afraid if we wait it will—er—be somewhat difficult later. Margaret must be taken in time; she is just the sort of temperament tuberculosis gets hold of with annoying rapidity—often sooner than we who have had plenty of experience with the enemy suspect. I have always said that the Fenwick child might have been saved had it not been for the interference of Mrs. Fenwick after the consultation."
"And you are really telling me the truth?" Alice gasped—her lips set, her breast heaving.
The doctor shrugged his shoulders.
"Unfortunately—yes," was his reply.
Alice straightened to her feet, crossed to the mantel and stood for some moments with her forehead pressed against the cool edge of the marble, Sperry watching her in silence.
"Poor Margie!" he heard her say—then she turned to him with a strange, calm look in her eyes.
"You must go," she said with an effort; "it is late. Blakeman will be here in a moment to turn on the lights." She stretched forth her hands to him. For a second he held them warm and trembling in his own, then Blakeman's rapid step in the conservatory was heard.
"Good-night," he said in a louder tone, as the butler appeared. "I shall see you at the Van Renssalaer's Thursday—we are to dine at eight, I believe."
She smiled wearily in assent.
"And remember me to your good husband," he added. "I hope he will have the best of luck."
"They say hunting is a worse habit to break than bridge," she returned with a forced little laugh.
Blakeman followed the doctor to the door. Reverently he handed him his stick, coat and hat—a moment later the heavy steel grille closed noiselessly.
Blakeman stood grimly looking out of the front window, his jaw set, his eyes following the doctor until he disappeared within his coupe and slammed the door shut.
"Damn him!" he said. "If he tells that child that I'll strangle him!"
In a deserted lumber clearing up Big Shanty Brook a chipmunk skitted along a fallen hemlock in the drizzle of an October rain. Suddenly he stopped and listened, his heart, thumping against his sleek coat. He could hear the muffled roar of the torrent below him at the bottom of the ravine, talking and grumbling to itself, as it emptied its volume of water swollen by the heavy rains and sent it swirling out into the long green pool below.
"Was it the old brook that had frightened him?" he wondered. "Perhaps it was only the hedge-hog waddling along back from the brook to his hole in the ledge above, or it might be the kingfisher, who had tired of the bend of the brook a week before and had changed his thieving ground to the rapids above, where he terrorized daily a shy family of trout, pouncing upon the little ones with a great splashing and hysterical chattering as they darted about, panic-stricken, in the shallowest places.
"Perhaps, after all, it was only the creaking of a tree," he sighed, with a feeling of relief. Before he could lower his tail he heard the sound again—this time nearer—more alarming—the sound of human voices coming straight toward him.
Then came the sharp bark of a dog. At this the chipmunk went scurrying to safety along the great hemlock and over the sagging roof of the deserted shanty lying at its farther end, where he hid himself in a pile of rock.
There was no longer any doubt. Someone was approaching.
"If Billy Holcomb had only give us a leetle more time, Hite," came a voice, "we'd had things fixed up slicker'n they be; but she won't leak a drop, that's sartain, and if this here Mr. Thayor hain't too pertickler—"
"Billy allus spoke 'bout him as bein' humin, Freme," returned his companion, "and seein' he's humin I presume likely he'll understand we done our best. 'Twon't be long now," he added, "'fore they'll git here."
Two men now emerged into the clearing. The foremost, Hite Holt, as he was known—was a veteran trapper from the valley—lean and wiry, and wearing a coonskin cap. From under this peered a pair of keen gray eyes, as alert as those of a fox. His straight, iron-gray hair reached below the collar of his coat, curling in long wisps about his ears after the fashion of the pioneer trapper. As he came on toward the shanty the chipmunk noticed that he bent under the weight of a pack basket loaded with provisions. He also noticed that his sixty years carried him easily, for he kept up a swinging gait as he picked his way over the fallen timber.
His companion, Freme Skinner, was a young lumberman of thirty, with red hair and blue eyes; a giant in build; clad in a heavy woollen lumber-man's jacket of variegated colours. One of his distinguishing features—one which gained for him the soubriquet of the "Clown" the country about, was the wearing of a girl's ring in his ear, the slit having been made with his pocket knife in a moment of gallantry. At the heels of the two men trotted silently a big, brindle hound.
They had reached the dilapidated shanty now and were taking a rapid glance at their surroundings.
"Seems 'ough it warn't never goin' to clear up," remarked Hite Holt, the trapper, slipping the well-worn straps from his great shoulders and staggering with ninety pounds of dead weight until he deposited it in the driest corner of the shanty. Then he added with a good-natured smile: "Say, we come quite a piece, hain't we?"
During the conversation the dog stalked solemnly about, took a careful look at the shanty and its surroundings and disappeared in the thick timber in the direction of the brook. The trapper turned and looked after him, and a wistful, almost apologetic expression came into his face.
"I presume likely the old dog is sore about something," he remarked, when the hound was well out of hearing. "He's been kind er down in the mouth all day."
"'Twarn't nothin' we said 'bout huntin' over to Lily Pond, was it?" ventured Freme.
"No—guess not," replied the trapper thoughtfully. "But you know you've got to handle him jest so. He's gettin' techier and older every day."
Imaginative as a child, with a subtle humour, often inventing stories that were weird and impossible, this strange character had lived the life of a hermit and a wanderer in the wilderness—a life compelling him to seek his companions among the trees or the black sides of the towering mountains. All nature, to him, was human—the dog was a being.
The Clown swung his double-bitted axe into a dry hemlock, the keen blade sinking deeper and deeper into the tree with each successive stroke, made with the precision and rapidity of a piston, until the tree fell with a sweeping crash (it had been as smoothly severed as if by a saw) and the two soon had its full length cut up and piled near the shanty for night wood.
It was not much of a shelter. Its timbered door had sagged from its hinges, its paneless square windows afforded but poor protection from wind and rain, while a cook stove, not worth the carrying away, supported itself upon two legs in one corner of the rotting interior.
Stout hands and willing hearts, however, did their work, and by the next sundown a new roof had been put on the shanty, "The Pride of the Home" wired more securely upon its two rusty legs and the long bunk flanking one side of the shanty neatly thatched with a deep bed of springy balsam. Thus had the tumble-down log-house been transformed into a tight and comfortable camp.
* * * * *
The next morning (the rain over) dawned as bright as a diamond, its light flashing on the brook below, across which darted the kingfisher, a streak of azure through the green of the pines—while in a clump of near-by firs two red squirrels played hide-and-seek among the branches.
At the first sunbeam the Clown stretched his great arms above his head, whistled a lively jig tune, reached for a fry pan, and soon had a mess of pork hissing over the fire. Later on, from a bent sapling a smoke-begrimed coffee pail bubbled, boiled over, and was lifted off to settle.
"A grand morning ain't it, Hite?" he shouted in high glee, rubbing his eyes as he squatted before the blaze. "Yes, sir—a grand mornin'. Them deer won't hev' time to stop and make up their beds arter the old dog gits to work on 'em to-day. I'm tellin' ye, Hite, we'll hev' ven'son 'fore night if Mr. Thayor and Billy takes a mind to go huntin'."
"Mebbe," replied the trapper guardedly, "and mebbe we won't. There ain't no caountin' on luck, specially deer. But it's jest as well to be ready"—and he squeezed another cartridge into the magazine of his Winchester and laid the rifle tenderly on its side in a dry place as if fearful of disturbing its fresh coat of oil.
Suddenly the old dog, who had been watching the frizzling bacon, lifted his ears and peered down in the basin of the hemlocks.
"Halloo!" came faintly from below where the timber was thickest.
The Clown sprang to his feet.
"Thar they be, Hite!" he said briskly. "By whimey—thar they be!"
The trapper strode out into the tangled clearing and after a resonant whoop in reply stood listening and smiling.
"Jest like Billy Holcomb," he remarked. "He's took 'bout as mean goin' as a feller could find to git here." Then he added, "But you never could lose him."
"Whoop," came in answer, as the tall, agile figure of Holcomb appeared above the tangle of sumac, followed by a short, gray-haired man in blue flannel, who was stepping over a refractory sapling that Holcomb had bent down.
The trapper and the Clown strode clear of the brush and saw for the first time the man whose home they had been preparing.
Not the Samuel Thayor that Holcomb had talked to during that memorable luncheon at The Players, when he sat silent among Randall's guests; nor the Samuel Thayor who had faced his wife; nor the Samuel Thayor, the love of whose daughter put strength in his arms and courage in his heart. But a man with cheeks ruddy from the sting and lift of the morning air; all the worn, haggard look gone from his face.
"Wall, I swan!" shouted the trapper to Holcomb, as he came near enough to shake his hand, "you warn't perticler 'bout the way you come, Billy. If your friend ain't dead beat it ain't your fault."
"I hadn't any choice, Hite," laughed Holcomb. "You fellows must have been drowned out last night; the log over the South Branch is gone in the freshet; we had to get round the best way we could. Step up, Freme," he said. "I want you to know Mr. Thayor. This is Freme Skinner, Mr. Thayor, and this is Hite Holt, and there's no better anywhere round here."
Thayor stretched out both hands and caught each extended palm in a hearty grip.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mr. Thayor," said the trapper, his great freckled paw tight in the white hand of the stranger. "By goll, you done well, friend. But what did ye let Billy lead you through sich a hell-patch as he did, Mr. Thayor?" There was a certain silent dignity about the trapper as he greeted the new-comer. As he spoke the old dog sniffed at Thayor's knees, and with a satisfied air regained his resting place once more.
"Well, it was about all I cared to do for one morning," answered Thayor between his breaths, "but you see we found the old trail impossible. And so you received our telegram in time," he said, glancing in delight at the freshly thatched roof of the shanty.
"Oh, we got it," answered the trapper. "Joe Dubois's boy come in with your telegram to the valley, and as soon as I got it I dug out for Freme, and we come in here day 'fore yesterday to git things comfortable."
"Breakfus, gentlemen!" announced the Clown, for the bacon was done to a turn. "How do you like yourn, Mr. Thayor—leetle mite o' fat and lean?"
"Any way it happens to be," replied the millionaire, as he squeezed into his place at the rough board table next the trapper. "But before I touch a mouthful I want you all to understand that I don't wish to be considered as a guest. I'm on a holiday and I'm going to take my share of whatever comes."
"Thar, Freme!" exclaimed the trapper, "I told ye Mr. Thayor warn't perticler."
* * * * *
That night after supper the four sat chatting within the glow of the stove, while the old dog lay asleep. Possibly it was the persuasion latent in a bottle of Thayor's private reserve, that little by little coaxed the trapper into an unusually talkative mood, for until far into the night the man from the city lay on his back on the springy boughs, listening and smoking, keenly alive to every word the old man uttered.
"Most times now," he went on, as he leaned forward and patted the dog, "I let the old dog have his way—don't I, dog?—but then it warn't a week ago that 'twas t'other way. Me and him was follerin' a buck on Bald Mountin, and he got set on goin' by way of West Branch, 'stead of travellin' a leetle mite to the south, what would have brung us aout, as I figger it, jest this side o' Munsey's. Wall, sir, arter we'd been a-travellin' steady, say, for more'n four hours the old feller give in. Says he to me, 'I'm beat,' says he, julluk that, and he stopped and throwed up this gray snout of his'n to the wind and then he says, kinder 'shamed like, 'I led ye off consid'ble, hain't I?' says he. I see he was feelin' bad 'bout it, and I says, says I, 'It warn't your fault,' says I, 'we come such a piece; a dog's jest as liable to be mistook as a humin'; and arter that it warn't more'n an hour 'fore we was out to the big road and poundin' for home. Thar, now"—here he pushed the old dog gently from him—"lie down and take another snooze; ye're gittin' so blamed lazy ain't no comfort livin' with ye."
Thayor bent the closer to listen. Every moment brought some new sensation to his jaded nerves. This making a companion of a dog and endowing him with human qualities and speech was new to him.
The Clown now cut in: "And it beats all how ye kin understand him when he talks," he laughed, too loyal to his friend to throw doubt on the old trapper's veracity, "and yet it's kind o' cur'ous how a dog as old as him and that's had as much experience as him kin git twisted julluk some pusillanimous idjit that ain't never been off the poor-house road."
Thayor laughed softly to himself, not daring to bring the dialogue to a close by an intervention of his own.
"Now, there's Sam Pitkin's woman," the Clown continued with increased interest, "she's jest the same way; hain't never had no idee of whar a p'int lays; takes sorter spells and forgits which way't is back to the house. Doc' Rand see her last September when he come by with them new colts o' his'n. 'You're beat aout,' said he, 'and there ain't no science kin cure ye. Ye won't more'n pull aout till snow flies if ye don't give aout 'fore that'—so he fixed up some physic for her and she give him a dollar and arter he tucked up the collar o' that new sealskin coat o' his'n and spoke kinder sharp to Sam's boy what was holdin' the colts, he laid them new yaller lines 'cross their slick backs and begun to talk to 'em: 'Come, Flo! Come, Maudie!' says he. 'Git, gals!' and he drawed the lines tight on 'em, and Sam's boy says it jest seemed as if they sailed off in the air."
Thayor broke out into a roar of laughter, and was about to ask the Clown whether the physic had killed the pneumonia or the woman, when the trapper slanting his shoulders against the bunk broke in with:
"Ye ain't laid it on a bit too thick, Freme." "I knowed Sam's woman, and I knowed her mother 'fore she married Bill Eldridge over to Cedar Corners."
"That's whar she was from—I seen her many a time. My old shanty warn't more 'n forty rod from where Morrison's gang built the new one."
Thayor's delighted ears drank in every word. The perfunctory discussion of a Board of Directors issuing a new mortgage was so many dull words compared with this human kind of speech.
"And now ye are here whar I kin get at ye, Billy," continued the trapper, "let me tell ye how bad I feel when I think ye never been over to see me, or stopped even for a night. Why it actually sets my blood a-bilin'—makes me mad, as the feller said—" Here he nodded toward Thayor—"Some folks is that way, Mr. Thayor."
"I'd like to have come," pleaded Holcomb, "but somehow, Hite, I never managed to get over your way. You see I live so far off now, and yet when I come to think of it, I must have passed close by it when I was gunning last fall over by Bear Pond."
"Yes—I knowed ye was gunnin', and we cal'lated ye'd come in with them fellers what was workin' for Joe Dubois. Me and the old dog never give up lookin' for ye. The dog said he seen ye once, but you was too fur off to yell to."
"I want to know!" exclaimed the Clown, as he re-crossed his long legs.
"Goll—I felt sorry for the cuss; he took it so hard," Hite went on. "Then he owned up—tellin' me that when he see I felt so lonesome and disappointed at ye not comin', he'd be daddinged if he could hold out any longer and see me so miserable; so he jest ris his ears and made believe you was a-comin' and that he see ye, and that there warn't time to let ye know."
"Say—don't that beat all!" roared the Clown as he slapped his leg at the thought of the old dog's sagacity. Here the old dog cocked an ear and looked wistfully up into his master's face. Thayor could hardly believe the dog did not understand.
Hite paused in his narrative for breath. When these men of the woods, living often for weeks and months with no fellow-being to talk to, loosen up they run on as unceasingly as a brook.
"But dang yer old hide, Billy, what I got most again' ye is that ye ain't writ afore," and he slapped his young friend Holcomb vigorously on the back. "'Twarn't a night that passed when I was to hum in the valley last winter, but what I'd kinder slink away from the store arter they'd sorted out what mail thar was, feelin' ashamed, julluk the old dog does when he's flambussled into a trout hole ahead of ye. 'Why, how you take it,' my old woman would say; 'like as not Billy's been so busy he hain't had time to write ye and it hain't come,' says she. 'No,' said I, 'if he's writ I'd had it 'fore this. United States mail don't lie,' says I."
"But I did write you," declared Holcomb earnestly.
"Yes, so ye did, for I hadn't more'n said it 'fore down comes Dave Brown and says: 'Eke says thar's a letter come for ye in to-night's mail,' 'Why, haow you talk!' says I, and I reached for my tippet and drawed on my boots and started for Munsey's. 'For the land's sakes!' my old woman yelled arter me. 'Whar are ye a-goin' a night like this, Hite Holt?' 'Don't stop me,' says I, 'the old cuss has writ—the old cuss has writ—jest as I knowed he would. Most likely,' says I, 'he's broke his leg or couldn't git out to the settlement 'count the snow, or he'd writ 'fore this. Don't stop me,' says I, and aout I went and tramped through four feet of snow to the store and there lay yer welcome wad as neat as a piney in a little box over the caounter, and the lamp throwin' a pinky glow over its side, and that scratchy old handwritin' o' yourn I'd knowed three rod off. Thar it lay kinder laughin' at me and slanted so's I could jest read it. Gosh! but I was tickled!"
The trapper drew a sliver of wood from the stove, shielded its yellow flame in the hollow of his hand and re-lit his pipe.
Back in the shadow of the bunk lay Thayor drinking in every word of the strange talk so full of human kindness and so simple and genuine. For some moments his gray eyes rested on the gentle face of the old trapper, the wavering firelight lighting up the weather-beaten wrinkles.
Soon he straightened up, threw the white ash of his cigar toward the stove and slid gingerly to the dirt floor, his muscles lame from the morning's tramp, and calling to Billy to follow him, went out into the cool air.
The banker made his way carefully through the tangle until he reached the edge of the ledge overhanging the boiling torrent below, white as milk in the moonlight. He selected a dry log and for some minutes sat smoking and gazing in silence at the torrent, whose hoarse roar was the only sound coming up from the sleeping forest. So absorbed was he with his own thoughts that he seemed unconscious that Holcomb was beside him. His gaze wandered from the brook to the forest of hemlocks bristling from the opposite bank, their shaggy tops touched with silver. Beyond lay the wilderness—a rolling sea of soft hazy timber hemmed in by the big mountains, flanked by wet granite slides that shone like quicksilver.
"Billy," he began at length.
Holcomb started; it was the first time the banker had called him "Billy."
Suddenly Thayor looked up, and Holcomb saw that the gray eyes were dim with tears.
"You're not sick, are you, Mr. Thayor?" asked Holcomb, starting toward him.
"No, my boy," replied Thayor huskily; "I've been happy for a whole day, that is all. Happy for a whole day. Think of it!"
"I'm glad—and you haven't found it too rough; and the things were comfortable, too?" ventured Holcomb.
"Too rough! Why, man, this is Paradise! Think of it, Billy—your friends have been actually interested in me—in my comfort—me, remember!"
"Why, of course," returned Holcomb. "They think a heap of your being here—besides, there are not two better-hearted men in these whole woods than Freme and the old man."
Again the gray eyes gazed down into the torrent.
"What I want to say to you is this: I want you to let me know what you think would be right at the end of our stay, and I'll see that they get it."
Holcomb straightened and looked up with surprise.
"But they're not here, Mr. Thayor, for money; neither of them would accept a cent from you."
"What! Why, that isn't right, Billy. You mean to say that Holt and Skinner have come up here and fixed up this shanty to hunt with us for nothing!" stammered the financier. "I won't have it."
"Yes," answered Holcomb, his voice softening, "it's just as I'm telling you. That's the kind of men the Clown and Hite are. You'd only insult them if you tried to pay them. There are a lot of things the old man has done in his life that he has never taken a cent for; and as for the Clown, I've seen him many a time doing odd jobs for some poor fellow that couldn't help himself. I've seen him, too, after a hard month's chopping in the lumber woods working for Pat Morrison, come into Pat's hotel and pay the whole of his month's wages out in treat to a lot of lumber jacks he'd meet maybe Saturday night, and knew maybe he'd never see again by Monday morning."
"And yet you tell me they are both poor."
"Poor isn't the word for it. Why, I've seen Freme when he's been broke so he didn't have the price of a glass of beer at Pat's, build a dog house for some of the children, or help the hired girl by stacking a pile of wood handy for her."
It was a new doctrine for the banker—one he had never been accustomed to; and yet when he thought it over, and recalled the look in the old trapper's face and the hearty humour and independence of the Clown, he felt instantly that Holcomb was right. Something else must be done for them—but not money. For some moments he sat gazing into the weird stillness, then he asked in one of his restful tones:
"Billy—who owns this place?"
"You mean the shanty?"
"I mean as far as we can see."
"Well," answered Holcomb, "as far as we can see is a good ways. Morrison owns part of it—that is from the South Branch down to the State Road, and—let's see—after that there's a couple of lots belonging to some parties in Albany; then, as soon as you get across above the big falls it is all state land clear to Bear Brook—yes, clear to the old military road, in fact."
"Are there any ponds?" asked Thayer.
"Yes—four," replied Holcomb. "Lily Pond, and little Moose and Still Water and—"
"I see," interrupted Thayor.
"Why do you ask?" inquired Holcomb, wondering at the drift of Thayor's inquiry.
"Oh, nothing. That is, nothing now. How many acres do you think it all covers?"
"I should say about fifteen thousand," replied Holcomb.
"Only fifteen thousand, eh?"
For an instant he paused and looked out over the sweep of forest, with the gaunt trees standing like sentinels. Then he raised his hands above his head and in a half-audible voice murmured:
"My God, what freedom! I'll turn in now if you don't mind, Billy."
And so ended the banker's first day in the wilderness.
All through the night that followed Sam Thayor slept soundly on his spring bed of fragrant balsam, oblivious to the Clown's snoring or the snapping logs burning briskly in the stove, his head pillowed on his boots wound in his blanket. Beneath the canopy of stars the torrent roared and the great trees whined and creaked, their shaggy tops whistling in the stiff breeze. Not until Hite laid his rough hand on his shoulder and shook him gently did he wake to consciousness.
"Breakfus's most ready," announced the trapper cheerfully.
Thayor opened his eyes; then, with a start, he sat up, remembering where he was. As he grew accustomed to the light he caught a glimpse outside of Billy and the Clown busy over the frying pan, and the steaming pail of coffee. Its fragrance and the pungent smoke from the fire now brought him fully awake.
"How'd ye sleep, friend?" inquired Hite, his weather-beaten face wrinkled in a kindly grin.
"How did I sleep?" returned the millionaire smiling; "like a top—really I don't know; I don't remember anything after Holcomb covered me up."
"Breakfast!" shouted the Clown from without.
"Wait'll I git ye some fresh water," said the trapper, tossing the soapy contents of a tin basin into the sun and returning with it re-filled. "Thar, dip yer head into that, friend—makes a man feel good, I tell ye, on a frosty mornin'." Then lowering his voice to a whisper he added: "The old dog's sot on gittin' an early start; he's mighty pertickler 'bout it. The old feller's been up 'long 'fore daylight. He told me he never seen no nicer mornin' for a hunt. If we don't git a deer 'fore noon you kin have all that's on my plate." There was a confident gleam in the old man's eyes—an enthusiasm that was contagious.
The gray head of the millionaire went into the tin basin with a will. Big Shanty Brook, that morning, was as cold as ice. He rubbed his face and neck into a glow, combing his hair as best he could with his hands. He was as hungry as a wolf. Thayor was now beginning to understand their unwillingness to accept pay for their services.
Breakfast over, the four struck into the woods in single file, en route for their runways, Hite taking the lead, the old dog trotting at the Clown's heels in silence, Holcomb bringing up the rear.
"Now, friend," began Hite in a low tone to Thayor, "you'd better come with me, I presume; and, Billy, we'll go slow so's you'll have time to git down to whar that leetle brook comes into Big Shanty." And the banker and the trapper, followed by the dog, struck off to the left, up the densely wooded side of the mountain.
It was all a mystery to Thayor, this finding a blind trail in the forest, but to the trapper it was as plain as a thoroughfare.
"'T won't be long 'fore the old dog'll git down to business this mornin'," he muttered to Thayor in his low voice, as he steadied him along a slippery log. "The dog says Freme's allys sot on keepin' up too high. He thinks them deer is feedin' on what they kin git low down in the green timber underneath them big slides. I ain't of course, sayin' nothin' agin Freme. Thar ain't a better starter in these hull maountins, only him and the old dog ain't allus of the same idee."
Presently Big Shanty Brook flashed ahead of them through the trees, and the trapper led the way out to a broad pool, a roaring cauldron of emerald green steaming in mist. Just above it lay a point of boulders out of which a dense clump of hemlocks struggled for a rough existence—the boulders about their gnarled roots splitting the course of the mountain torrent right and left.
"Thar, Mr. Thayor!" shouted the trapper in a voice that could be heard above the roar of water. "Guess you'll be better off here whar ye kin see up and down—if the deer comes through here he's liable to cross jest above whar ye see them cedars noddin' to us, or like's not he'll take a notion to strike in a leetle mite higher up, and slosh down till he kin git acrost by them big rocks. Take your time, friend, and if ye see him comin' your way, let him come on and don't shoot till he turns and ye kin see the hull bigness of him."
"I'll do my best," returned Thayor above the roar, as he settled himself behind the pile of driftwood the trapper had indicated. "But where are you going, Mr. Holt?"
"Me? Oh, further up. 'T ain't likely he'll come my way, but if ye was to miss him I'll be whar he can't git by without my gittin' the gun on him if he undertakes to back track up the brook. Let's see!" he exclaimed, after a moment's hesitation, again casting his keen eyes over Thayor's vantage point. "Guess ye'd be more comfortable, wouldn't ye, if ye was to set over thar whar ye won't git sloppin' wet. Gosh! how she's riz!" he remarked, as Thayor re-settled himself. "If you was to hear me shoot," said the old man, as he took his leave, "come back up to whar I be. 'T ain't more 'n half a mile."
Thayor watched the gaunt figure of the trapper as he went off to his runway, leaping with his long legs from one slippery boulder to the next, as sure-footed as a goat—watched until he disappeared beyond the clump of torrent-scarred trees.
The man from the city was alone. He sat there listening and watching as eager as a boy. An hour passed. Time and again since he had taken up his vigil he had started up excitedly, glancing here and there, confident he heard the baying notes of a hound above the roar of Big Shanty. Voices, too, rang in his ears from out of that deceptive torrent as it boiled and eddied past him in the sunlight. Again, it seemed as if quarrelling had broken out among the boulders—quarrels that changed to girlish laughter and distant choruses. Once his mind reverted to the note he had sent by Blakeman; he wondered what effect the news had had upon Alice. When he faced her again would he have to go through what he had gone through before? or would she come to her senses, and be once more the loyal, loving wife she had always been until—No; he would not go into that. Then Margaret's eyes looked into his. Again he felt her arms about his neck; the coo and gurgle of her voice, and laughter in his ears. Here she, at least, would be happy, and here, too, they could have those long days together which he had always promised himself, and which his life in the Street made impossible.
He rose to stretch his legs. As he did so the strange fascination of the mountain torrent—fascination that grew into a stranger feeling of isolation, almost of fear, took possession of him. He knew the trapper was somewhere, but half a mile above him. He was glad of this unseen companionship, and yet he realized that he was helpless to find his way back to the shanty. Big Shanty Brook had lost men before, and could again.
Suddenly the hoarse bellowing of a hound brought him again to his feet.
"Oo—oo—wah!" it rang over the roar; then the baying grew fainter from far up under the black slides as the dog turned in his course.
At this instant he became conscious of a presence which he could not at first make out—but something alive—something that moved—stood still—still as the tree behind which it slunk—and moved again. He grasped his Winchester and peered ahead, straining his eyes. Before him, barely thirty yards away, stood a man, the like of whom he had never seen before. Gaunt, hollow-eyed, unshorn, his matted beard and hair covered by a ragged slouch hat. Resting in the hollow of his arm was a rifle, and around his waist a belt of cartridges. That he had not seen Thayor was evident from the way he stood listening to the baying of the hound, his hand cupped to his ear.
Suddenly the figure crouched; sank to the ground and rolled behind a fallen log. At the same instant the old dog bounded out of the bushes and sprang straight at where the man lay concealed.
Thayor waited, not daring to breathe. The old dog had evidently lost the deer tracks.
Thayor settled once more in his place, now that the mystery was explained; looked his rifle over, laid it within instant reach of his hand and gave a low cough in the direction of the concealed figure. Should the deer charge this way it was just as well to let the man know where he sat, or he might stop a stray bullet. Quick as the answering flash of a mirror a line of light glinted along the barrel of a rifle resting on the fallen log, its muzzle pointed straight at him.
Thayor shrank behind the drift and uttered a yell. Almost every year someone had been mistaken for a deer and shot.
At this instant there rang through the forest the stamping splash of hoofs in the rapids above him; a moment more and he saw the spray fly back of a boulder. Then he gazed at something that obliterated all else.
A big buck was coming straight toward him. He came on, walking briskly, his steel-blue coat wet and glistening, a superb dignity about him, carrying his head and its branching horns with a certain fearless pride, and now that he had struck water, wisely taking his time to gain his second wind.
In a flash the buck saw him, turned broadside and leaped for the clump of nodding hemlocks.
Bang! Bang! Thayor was shooting now—shooting as if his life depended upon it. His first shot went wild, the bullet striking against a rock. The second sent the buck to his knees; in a second he was up again. It was the fourth shot that reached home, just as the deer gained the mass of boulders and hemlocks. The buck sprang convulsively in the air—the old dog at his throat—turned a half somersault and fell in a heap, stone dead, in a shallow pool. With a cry of joy the trapper was beside him.
"By Goll! you done well!" Hite declared with enthusiasm. "By Goll! friend, you done well! I knowed you had him soon's I heard the gun crack. Thinks I, he ain't liable to git by ye if he comes in whar I knowed he would. Well, he's consider'ble of a deer, I swan!" he declared, running his hand over the branching prongs.
"He's a beauty!" cried Thayor.
"Yes, sir, and he'll dress clus to a hundred and seventy. Must have made him think this perticler section was inhabited when ye was lettin' drive at him. Fust shot I know ye shot too quick. I warn't mor'n a hundred yards from him, then I knowed ye was gittin' stiddier when I heard ye shoot again."
"Hurrah, boys!" shouted a voice from the bank. It was Holcomb. "There's our saddle for Randall," he cried as he leaped toward them.
"But, Billy, I came pretty near not getting him after all," exclaimed Thayor with a laugh. "I was trying to keep your friend in the runway across the brook from shooting me, but I forgot all about him when I heard the deer come crashing down stream. If he got a crack at him at all I didn't hear it, I was so excited. You ought to have told me, Mr. Holt, you had somebody else watching out across the brook, or I might have let drive at him by mistake, or he at me." And Thayor laughed heartily. He was very happy to-day.
The trapper looked at him in wonder.
"Freme warn't down this way was he, Billy?"
Holcomb shook his head—a curious expression on his face.
"Oh, it wasn't Freme," retorted Thayor. "This man was half the size of Skinner, and a regular scarecrow. Looked as if he hadn't had anything to eat for weeks—but he could handle a gun all right. That's what worried me; I was afraid he would use it on me until the old dog lay down beside him."