The Hidden Places
by Bertrand W. Sinclair
Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5
Home - Random Browse

The light of a flash-lamp revealed a logger from the Carr settlement below. The smoke was rolling in billows when Hollister stepped outside. Down toward the Inlet's head there was a red flare in the sky.

"We got to get everybody out to fight that," the man said. "She started in the mouth of the river last night. If we don't check it and the wind turns right, it'll clean the whole valley. We sent a man to pull your crew off the hill."

In the growing dawn, Hollister and the logger went down through woods thick with smoke. They routed Lawanne out of his cabin, and he joined them eagerly. He had never seen a forest fire. What bore upon the woodsmen chiefly as a malignant, destructive force affected Lawanne as something that promised adventure, as a spectacle which aroused his wonder, his curious interest in vast, elemental forces unleashed. They stopped at Bland's and pressed him into service.

In an hour they were deployed before the fire, marshalled to the attack under men from Carr's, woodsmen experienced in battle against the red enemy, this spoiler of the forest with his myriad tongues of flame and breath of suffocating smoke.

In midsummer the night airs in those long inlets and deep valleys move always toward the sea. But as day grows and the sun swings up to its zenith, there comes a shift in the aerial currents. The wind follows the course of the sun until it settles in the westward, and sometimes rises to a gale. It was that rising of the west wind that the loggers feared. It would send the fire sweeping up the valley. There would be no stopping it. There would be nothing left in its wake but the blackened earth, smoking roots, and a few charred trunks standing gaunt and unlovely amid the ruin.

So now they strove to create a barrier which the fire should not pass. It was not a task to be perfunctorily carried on, there was no time for malingering. There was a very real incitement to great effort. Their property was at stake; their homes and livelihood; even their lives, if they made an error in the course and speed of the fire's advance and were trapped.

They cut a lane through the woods straight across the valley floor from the river to where the southern slope pitched sharply down. They felled the great trees and dragged them aside with powerful donkey engines to manipulate their gear. They cleared away the brush and the dry windfalls until this lane was bare as a traveled road—so that when the fire ate its way to this barrier there was a clear space in which should fall harmless the sparks and embers flung ahead by the wind.

There, at this labor, the element of the spectacular vanished. They could not attack the enemy with excited cries, with brandished weapons. They could not even see the enemy. They could hear him, they could smell the resinous odor of his breath. That was all. They laid their defenses against him with methodical haste, chopping, heaving, hauling the steel cables here and there from the donkeys, sweating in the blanket of heat that overlaid the woods, choking in the smoke that rolled like fog above them and about them. And always in each man's mind ran the uneasy thought of the west wind rising.

But throughout the day the west wind held its breath. The flames crawled, ate their way instead of leaping hungrily. The smoke rose in dun clouds above the burning area and settled in gray vagueness all through the woods, drifting in wisps, in streamers, in fantastic curlings, pungent, acrid, choking the men. The heat of the fire and the heat of the summer sun in a windless sky made the valley floor a sweat-bath in which the loggers worked stripped to undershirts and overalls, blackened with soot and grime.

Night fell. The fire had eaten the heart out of a block half a mile square. It was growing. A redness brightened the sky. Lurid colors fluttered above the hottest blaze. A flame would run with incredible agility up the trunk of a hundred-foot cedar to fling a yellow banner from the topmost boughs, to color the billowing smoke, the green of nearby trees, to wave and gleam and shed coruscating spark-showers and die down again to a dull glow.

Through the short night the work went on. Here and there a man's weariness grew more than he could bear, and he would lie down to sleep for an hour or two. They ate food when it was brought to them. Always, while they could keep their feet, they worked.

Hollister worked on stoically into the following night, keeping Lawanne near him, because it was all new and exciting to Lawanne, and Hollister felt that he might have to look out for him if the wind took any sudden, dangerous shift.

But the mysterious forces of the air were merciful. During the twenty-four hours there was nothing but little vagrant breezes and the drafts created by the heat of the fire itself. When day came again, without striking a single futile blow at the heart of the fire, they had drawn the enemy's teeth and clipped his claws—in so far as the flats of the Toba were threatened. The fire would burn up to that cleared path and burn itself out—with men stationed along to beat out each tiny flame that might spring up by chance. And when that was done, they rested on their oars, so to speak; they took time to sit down and talk without once relaxing their vigilance.

In a day or two the fire would die out against that barrier, always provided the west wind did not rise and in sportive mockery fling showers of sparks across to start a hundred little fires burning in the woods behind their line of defense. A forest fire was never beaten until it was dead. The men rested, watched, patrolled their line. They looked at the sky and sighed for rain. A little knot of them gathered by a tree. Some one had brought a box of sandwiches, a pail of coffee and tin cups. They gulped the coffee and munched the food and stretched themselves on the soft moss. Through an opening they could see a fiery glow topped by wavering sheets of flame. They could hear the crackle and snap of burning wood.

"A forest fire is quite literally hell, isn't it?" Lawanne asked.

Hollister nodded. His eyes were on Bland. The man sat on the ground. He had a cup of coffee in one hand, a sandwich in the other. He was blackened almost beyond recognition, and he was viewing with patent disgust the state of his clothes and particularly of his hands. He set down his food and rubbed at his fingers with a soiled handkerchief. Then he resumed eating and drinking. It appeared to him a matter of necessity rather than a thing from which he derived any satisfaction. Near him Charlie Mills lay stretched on the moss, his head pillowed on his folded arms, too weary to eat or drink, even at Hollister's insistence.

"Dirty job this, eh?" Bland remarked. "I'll appreciate a bath. Phew. I shall sleep for a week when I get home."

By mid-afternoon of the next day, Sam Carr decided they had the fire well in hand and so split his forces, leaving half on guard and letting the others go home to rest. Hollister's men remained on the spot in case they were needed; he and Lawanne and Bland went home.

But that was not the end of the great blaze. Blocked in the valley, the fire, as if animated by some deadly purpose, crept into the mouth of a brushy canyon and ran uphill with demoniac energy until it was burning fiercely over a benchland to the west of Hollister's timber.

The fight began once more. With varying phases it raged for a week. They would check it along a given line and rest for awhile, thinking it safely under control. Then a light shift of wind would throw it across their line of defense, and in a dozen places the forest would break into flame. The fire worked far up the slope, but its greatest menace lay in its steady creep westward. Slowly it ate up to the very edge of Hollister's timber, in spite of all their checks, their strategy, the prodigious effort of every man to check its vandal course.

Then the west wind, which had held its breath so long, broke loose with unrestrained exhalation. It fanned the fire to raging fury, sent it leaping in yellow sheets through the woods. The blaze lashed eagerly over the tops of the trees, the dreaded crown fire of the North Woods. Where its voice had been a whisper, it became a roar, an ominous, warning roar to which the loggers gave instant heed and got themselves and their gear off that timbered slope.

They could do no more. They had beaten it in the valley. Backed by the lusty pressure of the west wind, it drove them off the hill and went its wanton way unhindered.

In the flat by Hollister's house the different crews came together. There was not one of them but drooped with exhaustion. They sat about on the parched ground, on moss, against tree trunks, and stared up the hill.

Already the westerly gale had cleared the smoke from the lower valley. It brought a refreshing coolness off the salt water, and it was also baring to their sight the spectacular destruction of the forest.

All that area where Hollisters cedars had stood was a red chaos out of which great flames leaped aloft and waved snaky tongues, blood-red, molten gold, and from which great billows of smoke poured away to wrap in obscurity all the hills beyond. There was nothing they could do now. They watched it apathetically, too weary to care.

Hollister looked on the destruction of his timber most stolidly of all. For days he had put forth his best effort. His body ached. His eyes smarted. His hands were sore. He had done his best without enthusiasm. He was not oppressed so greatly as were some of these men by this vast and useless destruction. What did it matter, after all? A few trees more or less! A square mile or two of timber out of that enormous stand. It was of no more consequence in the sum total than the life of some obscure individual in the teeming millions of the earth. It was his timber. So was his life a possession peculiar to himself. And neither seemed greatly to matter; neither did matter greatly to any one but himself.

It was all a muddle. He was very tired, too tired to bear thinking, almost too tired to feel. He was conscious of himself as a creature of weariness sitting against a tree, his scarred face blackened like the tired faces of these other men, wondering dully what was the sum of all this sweat and strain, the shattered plans, the unrewarded effort, the pain and stress that men endure. A man made plans, and they failed. He bred hope in his soul and saw it die. He longed for and sought his desires always, to see them vanish like a mirage just as they seemed within his grasp.

Lawanne and Bland had gone home, dragging themselves on tired limbs. Carr's men rested where they chose. They must watch lest the fire back down into the valley again and destroy their timber, as it had destroyed Hollister's. They had blankets and food. Hollister gave his own men the freedom of the house. Their quarters on the hill stood in the doomed timber. The old log house would be ashes now.

He wondered what Doris was doing, if she steadily gained her sight. But concrete, coherent thought seemed difficult. He thought in pictures, which he saw with a strange detachment as if he were a ghost haunting places once familiar.

He found his chin sinking on his breast. He roused himself and walked over to the house. His men were sprawled on the rugs, sleeping in grotesque postures. Hollister picked his way among them. Almost by the door of his bedroom Charlie Mills sprawled on his back, his head resting on a sofa cushion. He opened his eyes as Hollister passed.

"That was a tough game," Hollister said.

"It's all a tough game," Mills answered wearily and closed his eyes again.

Hollister went on into the room. He threw himself across the bed. In ten seconds he was fast asleep.


For another day, a day of brilliant sunshine and roaring west wind, the fire marched up over the southern slope. Its flaming head, with a towering crest of smoke, went over a high ridge, and its lower flank smoldered threateningly a little above the valley. The second night the wind fell to a whisper, shifting freakishly into the northeast, and day dawned with a mass formation of clouds spitting rain, which by noon grew to a downpour. The fire sizzled and sputtered and died. Twenty hours of rain cleared the sky of clouds, the woods of smoke. The sun lifted his beaming face over the eastern sky line. The birds that had been silent began their twittering again, the squirrels took up their exploration among the tree tops, scolding and chattering as they went. Gentle airs shook the last rain drops from leaf and bough. The old peace settled on the valley. There was little to mark the ten days of effort and noise and destruction except a charred patch on the valley floor and a mile-wide streak that ran like a bar sinister across the green shield of the slope south of the Big Bend. Even that desolate path seemed an insignificant strip in the vast stretch of the forest.

Hollister and his men went, after the rain, up across that ravaged place, and when they came to the hollow where the great cedars and lesser fir had stood solemn and orderly in brown-trunked ranks, the rudest of the loggers grew silent, a little awed by the melancholy of the place, the bleakness, the utter ruin. Where the good green forest had been, there was nothing but ashes and blackened stubs, stretches of bare rock and gravelly soil, an odor of charred wood. There was no green blade, no living thing, in all that wide space, nothing but a few gaunt trunks stark in the open; blasted, sterile trunks standing like stripped masts on a derelict.

There was nothing left of the buildings except a pile of stone which had been the fireplace in the log house, and a little to one side the rusty, red skeleton of the mess-house stove. They looked about curiously for a few minutes and went back to the valley.

At the house Hollister paid them off. They went their way down to the steamer landing, eager for town after a long stretch in the woods. The fire was only an exciting incident to them. There were other camps, other jobs.

It was not even an exciting incident to Hollister. Except for a little sadness at sight of that desolation where there had been so much beauty, he had neither been uplifted nor cast down. He had been unmoved by the spectacular phases of the fire and he was still indifferent, even to the material loss it had inflicted on him. He was not ruined. He had the means to acquire more timber if it should be necessary. But even if he had been ruined, it is doubtful if that fact would have weighed heavily upon him. He was too keenly aware of a matter more vital to him than timber or money,—a matter in which neither his money nor his timber counted one way or the other, and in which the human equation was everything.

The steamer that took out his men brought in a letter from his wife, which Lawanne sent up by his Chinese boy. He had written to her the day before the fire broke out. He could not recall precisely what he wrote, but he had tried to make clear to her what troubled him and why. And her reply was brief, uncommonly brief for Doris, who had the faculty of expressing herself fully and freely.

Hollister laid the letter on the table. The last line of that short missive kept repeating itself over and over, as if his brain were a phonograph which he had no power to stop playing:

"I shall be home next week on the Wednesday boat."

He got up and walked across the room, crossed and recrossed it half a dozen times. And with each step those words thrust at him with deadly import. He had deluded himself for a while. He had thought he could beat the game in spite of his handicap. He had presumed for a year to snap his fingers and laugh in the face of Fate, and Fate was to have the last laugh.

He seemed to have a fatalistic sureness about this. He made a deliberate effort to reason about it, and though his reason assumed that when a woman like Doris Cleveland loved a man she did not love him for the unblemished contours of his face, there was still that deep-rooted, unreasoning feeling that however she might love him as the unseen, the ideal lover, she must inevitably shrink from the reality.

He stood still for a few seconds. In the living quarters of his house there was, by deliberate intention, no mirror. Among Hollister's things there was a small hand glass before which he shaved off the hairs that grew out of the few patches of unscarred flesh about his chin, those fragments of his beard which sprouted in grotesquely separated tufts. But in the bedroom they had arranged for the housekeeper there was a large oval glass above a dresser. Into this room Hollister now walked and stood before the mirror staring at his face.

No, he could not blame her, any one, for shrinking from that. And when the darting shuttle of his thought reminded him that Myra did not shrink from it, he went out to the front room and with his body sunk deep in a leather chair he fell to pondering on this. But it led him nowhere except perhaps to a shade of disbelief in Myra and her motives, a strange instinctive distrust both of her and himself.

He recognized Myra's power. He had succumbed to it in the old careless days and gloried in his surrender. He perceived that her compelling charm was still able to move him as it did other men. He knew that Myra had been carried this way and that in the great, cruel, indifferent swirl that was life. He could understand a great many things about her and about himself, about men as men and women as women, that he would have denied in the days before the war.

But while he could think about himself and Myra Bland with a calmness that approached indifference, he could not think with that same detachment about Doris. She had come, walking fearlessly in her darkened world, to him in his darkened world of discouragement and bitterness. There was something fine and true in this blind girl, something that Hollister valued over and above the flesh-and-blood loveliness of her, something rare and precious that he longed to keep. He could not define it; he simply knew that it resided in her, that it was a precious quality that set her apart in his eyes from all other women.

But would it stand the test of sight? If he were as other men he would not have been afraid; he would scarcely have asked himself that question. But he knew he would be like a stranger to her, a strange man with a repellingly scarred face. He did not believe she could endure that, she who loved beauty so, who was sensitive to subtleties of tone and atmosphere beyond any woman he had ever known. Hollister tried to put himself in her place. Would he have taken her to his arms as gladly, as joyously, if she had come to him with a face twisted out of all semblance to its natural lines? And Hollister could not say. He did not know.

He threw up his head at last, in a desperate sort of resolution. In a week he would know. Meantime—

He had no work to occupy him now. There were a few bolts behind the boom-sticks which he would raft to the mill at his leisure. He walked up to the chute mouth now and looked about. A few hundred yards up the hill the line of green timber ended against the black ruin of the fire. There the chute ended also. Hollister walked on across the rocky point, passed the waterfall that was shrinking under the summer heat, up to a low cliff where he sat for a long time looking down on the river.

When he came back at last to the house, Myra was there, busy at her self-imposed tasks in those neglected rooms. Hollister sat down on the porch steps. He felt a little uneasy about her being there, uneasy for her. In nearly two weeks of fighting fire he had been thrown in intimate daily contact with Jim Bland, and his appraisal of Bland's character was less and less flattering the more he revised his estimate of the man. He felt that Myra was inviting upon herself something she might possibly not suspect. He decided to tell her it would be wiser to keep away; but when he did so, she merely laughed. There was a defiant recklessness in her tone when she said:

"Do you think I need a chaperone? Must one, even in this desolate place, kow-tow to the conventions devised to prop up the weak and untrustworthy? If Jim can't trust me, I may as well learn it now as any other time. Besides, it doesn't matter to me greatly whether he does or not. If for any reason he should begin to think evil of me—well, the filthy thought in another's mind can't defile me. I can't recall that I was ever greatly afraid of what other people might think of me, so long I was sure of myself."

"Nevertheless," Hollister said, "it is as well for you not to come here alone while I am here alone."

"Don't you like me to come, Robin?" she asked.

"No," he said slowly. "That wasn't why I spoke—but I don't think I do."

"Why?" she persisted.

Hollister stirred uneasily.

"Call a spade a spade, Robin," she advised. "Say what you think—what you mean."

"That's difficult," he muttered. "How can any one say what he means when he is not quite sure what he does mean? I'm in trouble. You're sorry for me, in a way. And maybe you feel—because of old times, because of the contrast between what your life was then and what it is now—you feel as if you would like to comfort me. And I don't want you to feel that way. I look at you—and I think about what you said. I wonder if you meant it? Do you remember what you said?"

"Quite clearly. I meant it, Robin. I still mean it. I'm yours—if you need me. Perhaps you won't. Perhaps you will. Does it trouble you to have me a self-appointed anchor to windward?"

She clasped her hands over her knees, bending forward a little, looking at him with a curious serenity. Her eyes did not waver from his.

Hollister made no answer.

"I brought a lot of this on you, Robin," she went on in the musical, rippling voice so like Doris in certain tones and inflections as to make him wonder idly if he had unconsciously fallen in love with Doris Cleveland's voice because it was like Myra's. "If I had stuck it out in London till you came back, maimed or otherwise, things would have been different. But we were started off, flung off, one might say, into different orbits by the forces of the war itself. That's neither here nor there, now. You may think I'm offering myself as a sort of vicarious atonement—if your Doris fails you—but I'm not, really. I'm too selfish. I have never sacrificed myself for any man. I never will. It isn't in me. I'm just as eager to get all I can out of life as I ever was. I liked you long ago. I like you still. That's all there is to it, Robin."

She shifted herself nearer him. She put one hand on his shoulder, the other on his knee, and bent forward, peering into his face. Hollister matched that questioning gaze for a second. It was unreadable. It conveyed no message, hinted nothing, held no covert suggestion. It was earnest and troubled. He had never before seen that sort of look on Myra's face. He could make nothing of it, and so there was nothing in it to disturb him. But the warm pressure of her hands, the nearness of her body, did trouble him. He put her hands gently away.

"You shouldn't come here," he said quietly. "I will call a spade a spade. I love Doris—and I have a queer, hungry sort of feeling about the boy. If it happens that in spite of our life together Doris can't bear me and can't get used to me, if it becomes impossible for us to go on together—well, I can't make clear to you the way I feel about this. But I'm afraid. And if it turns out that I'm afraid with good cause—why, I don't know what I'll do, what way I'll turn. But wait until that happens—Well, it seems that a man and a woman who have loved and lived together can't become completely indifferent—they must either hate and despise each other—or else—You understand? We have made some precious blunders, you and I. We have involved other people in our blundering, and we mustn't forget about these other people. I can't. Doris and the kid come first—myself last. I'm selfish too. I can only sit here in suspense and wait for things to happen as they will. You," he hesitated a second, "you can't help me, Myra. You could hurt me a lot if you tried—and yourself too."

"I see," she said. "I understand."

She sat for a time with her hands resting in her lap, looking down at the ground. Then she rose.

"I don't want to hurt you, Robin," she said soberly. "I can't help looking for a way out, that's all. For myself, I must find a way out. The life I lead now is stifling me—and I can't see where it will ever be any different, any better. I've become cursed with the twin devils of analysis and introspection. I don't love Jim; I tolerate him. One can't go through life merely tolerating one's husband, and the sort of friends and the sort of existence that appeals to one's husband, unless one is utterly ox-like—and I'm not. Women have lived with men they cared nothing for since the beginning of time, I suppose, because of various reasons—but I see no reason why I should. I'm a rebel—in full revolt against shams and stupidity and ignorance, because those three have brought me where I am and you where you are. I'm a disarmed and helpless revolte by myself. One doesn't want to go from bad to worse. One wants instinctively to progress from good to better. One makes mistakes and seeks to rectify them—if it is possible. One sees suffering arise as the result of one's involuntary acts, and one wishes wistfully to relieve it. That's the simple truth, Robin. Only a simple truth is often a very complex thing. It seems so with us."

"It is," Hollister muttered, "and it might easily become more so."

"Ah, well," she said, "that is scarcely likely. You were always pretty dependable, Robin. And I'm no longer an ignorant little fool to rush thoughtlessly in where either angels or devils might fear to tread. We shall see."

She swung around on her heel. Hollister watched her walk away along the river path. He scarcely knew what he thought, what he felt, except that what he felt and thought disturbed him to the point of sadness, of regret. He sat musing on the curious, contradictory forces at work in his life. It was folly to be wise, to be sensitive, to respond too quickly, to see too clearly; and ignorance, dumbness of soul, was also fatal. Either way there was no escape. A man did his best and it was futile,—or seemed so to him, just then.

His gaze followed Myra while his thought ran upon Doris, upon his boy, wondering if the next steamer would bring him sentence of banishment from all that he valued, or if there would be a respite, a stay of execution, a miracle of affection that would survive and override the terrible reality—or what seemed to him the terrible reality—of his disfigured face. He had abundant faith in Doris—of the soft voice and the keen, quick mind, the indomitable spirit and infinite patience—but he had not much faith in himself, in his own power. He was afraid of her restored sight, which would leave nothing to the subtle play of her imagination.

And following Myra with that mechanical noting of her progress, his eyes, which were very keen, caught some movement in a fringe of willows that lined the opposite shore of the river some three hundred yards below. He looked more sharply. He had developed a hunter's faculty for interpreting movement in the forest, and although he had nothing more positive than instinct and a brief flash upon which to base conclusions, he did not think that movement of the leaves was occasioned by any creature native to the woods.

On impulse he rose, went inside, and taking his binoculars from their case, focused the eight-power lenses on the screen of brush, keeping himself well within the doorway where he could see without being seen.

It took a minute or so of covering the willows before he located the cause of that movement of shrubbery. But presently he made out the head and shoulders of a man. And the man was Bland, doing precisely what Hollister was doing, looking through a pair of field glasses. Hollister stood well back in the room. He was certain Bland could not see that he himself was being watched. In any case, Bland was not looking at Hollister's house. It was altogether likely that he had been doing so, that he had seen Myra sitting beside Hollister with her hand on his shoulder, bending forward to peer into Hollister's face. And Hollister could easily imagine what Bland might feel and think. But he was steadily watching Myra. Once he turned the glasses for a few seconds on Hollister's house. Then he swung them back to Myra, followed her persistently as she walked along the bank, on past Lawanne's, on towards their own rude shack. And at last Bland shifted. One step backward, and the woods swallowed him. One moment his shoulders and his head stood plain in every detail, even to the brickish redness of his skin and the curve of his fingers about the glasses; the next he was gone.

Hollister sat thinking. He did not like the implications of that furtive observance. A suspicious, watchful man is a jealous man. And a jealous man who has nothing to do but watch and suspect and nurse that mean passion was a dangerous adjunct to an unhappy woman.

Hollister resolved to warn Myra, to emphasize that warning. No one could tell of what a dull egotist like Bland might be capable. The very fact of that furtive spying argued an ignoble streak in any man. Bland was stiff-necked, vain, the sort to be brutal in retaliation for any fancied invasion of his rights. And his conception of a husband's rights were primitive in the extreme. A wife was property, something that was his. Hollister could imagine him roused to blind, blundering fury by the least suspicious action on Myra's part. Bland was the type that, once aroused, acts like an angry bull,—with about as much regard or understanding of consequences. Hollister had been measuring Bland for a year, and the last two or three weeks had given him the greatest opportunity to do so. He had appraised the man as a dullard under his stupid, inflexible crust of egotism, despite his veneer of manners. But even a clod may be dangerous. A bomb is a harmless thing, so much inert metal and chemicals, until it is touched off; yet it needs only a touch to let loose its insensate, rending force.

Hollister rose to start down the path after Myra with the idea that he must somehow convey to her a more explicit warning. As he stepped out on the porch, he looked downstream at Bland's house and saw a man approach the place from one direction as Myra reached it from the other. He caught up his glasses and brought them to bear. The man was Mills,—whom he had thought once more far from the Toba with the rest of his scattered crew. Nevertheless this was Mills drawing near Bland's house with quick strides.

Hollister's uneasiness doubled. There was a power for mischief in that situation when he thought of Jim Bland scowling from his hiding place in the willows. He set out along the path.

But by the time he came abreast of Lawanne's cabin he had begun to feel himself acting under a mistaken impulse, an exaggerated conclusion. He began to doubt the validity of that intuition which pointed a warning finger at Bland and Bland's suspicions. In attempting to forestall what might come of Bland's stewing in the juice of a groundless jealousy, he could easily precipitate something that would perhaps be best avoided by ignoring it. He stood, when he thought of it, in rather a delicate position himself.

So he turned into Lawanne's. He found Archie sitting on the shady side of his cabin, and they fell into talk.


Lawanne had been thumping a typewriter for hours, he told Hollister, until his fingers ached. He was almost through with this task, which for months had been a curious mixture of drudgery and pleasure.

"I'm through all but typing the last two chapters. It's been a fierce grind."

"You'll be on the wing soon, then", Hollister observed.

"That depends," Lawanne said absently.

But he did not explain upon what it depended. He leaned back in his chair, a cigarette in his fingers, and stared for a minute up at the trees.

"I'll get the rest of it pounded out in two or three days," he came back to his book, "then I think I'll go up the Little Toba, just to see what that wild-looking gorge is like twenty or thirty miles back. Better come along with me. Do you good. You're sort of at a standstill."

"I can't," Hollister explained. "Doris is coming back next week."

Lawanne looked at him intently.

"Eyes all right?"

"I don't know. I suppose so," Hollister replied. "She didn't say. She merely wrote that she was coming on the Wednesday steamer."

"Well, that'll be all right too," Lawanne said. "You'll get over being so down in the mouth then."

"Maybe," Hollister muttered.

"Of course. What rot to think anything else."

Hollister did not contradict this. It was what he wanted to feel and think, and could not. He understood that Lawanne, whatever his thought, was trying to hearten him. And he appreciated that, although he knew the matter rested in his wife's own hands and nothing any one else could do or say had the slightest bearing on it. His meeting with Doris would be either an ordeal or a triumph.

"I might get Charlie Mills to go with me," Lawanne pursued his own thought.

"Mills didn't go out with the rest of the crew?" Hollister asked. He knew, of course, that Charlie Mills was still in the Toba valley because he had seen him with his own eyes not more than half an hour earlier. His question, however, was not altogether idle. He wondered whether Mills had gone out and come back, or if he had not left at all.

"No. He turned back at the last minute, for some reason. He's camping in one of the old T. & T. shacks below Carr's. I rather like Mills. He's interesting when you can get him to loosen up. Queer, tense sort of beggar at times, though. A good man to go into the hills with—to go anywhere with—although he might not show to great advantage in a drawing-room. By Jove, you know, Hollister, it doesn't seem like nine months since I settled down in this cabin. Now I'm about due to go back to the treadmill."

"Do you have to?" Hollister asked. "If this satisfies you, why not come back again after you've had a fling at the outside?"

"I can't, very well," Lawanne for the first time touched on his personal affairs, that life which he led somewhere beyond the Toba. "I have obligations to fulfill. I've been playing truant, after a fashion. I've stolen a year to do something I wanted to do. Now it's done and I'm not even sure it's well done—but whether it's well done or not, it's finished, and I have to go back and get into the collar and make money to supply other people's needs. Unless," he shrugged his shoulders, "I break loose properly. This country has that sort of effect on a man. It makes him want to break loose from everything that seems to hamper and restrain him. It doesn't take a man long to shed his skin in surroundings like these. Oh, well, whether I come back or not, I'll be all the same a hundred years from now."

A rifle shot cut sharp into the silence that followed Lawanne's last words. That was nothing uncommon in the valley, where the crack of a gun meant only that some one was hunting. But upon this report there followed, clear and shrill, a scream, the high-pitched cry that only a frightened woman can utter. This was broken into and cut short by a second whip-like report. And both shots and scream came from the direction of Bland's house.

Hollister rose. He looked at Lawanne and Lawanne looked at him. Across Hollister's brain flashed a thought that would scarcely have been born if he had not seen Bland spying from the willows, if he had not seen Charlie Mills approaching that house, if he had not been aware of all the wheels within wheels, the complicated coil of longings and desires and smoldering passions in which these people were involved. He looked at Lawanne, and he could not read what passed in his mind. But when he turned and set out on a run for that shake cabin four hundred yards downstream, Lawanne followed at his heels.

They were winded, and their pace had slowed to a hurried walk by the time they reached the cabin. The door stood open. There was no sound. The house was as still as the surrounding woods when Hollister stepped across the threshold.

Bland stood just within the doorway, erect, his feet a little apart, like a man bracing himself against some shock. He seemed frozen in this tense attitude, so that he did not alter the rigid line of his body or shift a single immobile muscle when Hollister and Lawanne stepped in. His eyes turned sidewise in their sockets to rest briefly and blankly upon the intruders. Then his gaze, a fixed gaze that suggested incredulous disbelief, went back to the body of his wife.

Myra lay in a crumpled heap, her face upturned, open-eyed, expressionless, as if death had either caught her in a moment of impassivity or with his clammy hands had forever wiped out all expression from her features. There were no visible marks on her,—but a red stain was creeping slowly from under her body, spreading across the rough floor.

Mills sat on the floor, his back against the wall, his hands braced on his knees to keep his body erect. And upon him there was to be seen no visible mark of the murderer's bullet. But his dark-skinned face had turned waxy white. His lips were colorless. Every breath he drew was a laborious effort. A ghastly smile spread slowly over his face as he looked up at Hollister and Lawanne.

"You fool. You damned, murdering fool!" Lawanne turned on Bland. "You did this?"

Bland did not answer. He put his hand to his face and wiped away the sweat that had gathered in a shiny film on his skin, from which all the ruddiness had fled. Myra's pale, dead face seemed to hold him in some horrible fascination.

Hollister shook him.

"Why did you do that?" he demanded.

Bland heaved a shuddering sigh. He looked up and about him stupidly.

"I don't know," he croaked. "I don't know—I don't know."

A gleam of something like reason came into his eyes.

"I suppose I shall have to give myself up to the authorities," he mumbled. "My God!"

The last two words burst from his lips like a cry, as for the first time he saw the full import of what he had done, realized the horror, the madness, and the consequences of his act. He shrank against the wall with a groan, putting out his hands as if to ward off some invisible enemy. Then, thrusting Hollister aside, he rushed out of the door, his rifle still clasped in both hands. He ran down the bank, out into the shallows of the river, splashing through water to his knees. He gained the opposite side where the heavy woods lifted silent and solemn, full of dusky places. Into that—whether for sanctuary or driven by some unreckoning panic, they did not know—but into that he plunged, the last sight either Hollister or Lawanne ever had of him.

They turned to Mills. Myra was dead. They could do nothing for her. But Mills still lived. The sound of his labored breathing filled the room. He had shifted a little, so that he could reach out and lay one hand on the dead woman's face, where it rested, with a caressing touch. A red pool was gathering where he sat.

"How bad are you hurt, Charlie?" Hollister said. "Let me see."

"No use," Mills said thickly. "I'm done. He got me right through the middle. And I wouldn't live if I could. Not now.

"Don't touch me," he protested, as they bent over him. "You can't do anything. There's a hole in me you could put your hand in. But it don't hurt. I won't last more than a minute or two, anyway."

"How did it happen?" Lawanne asked.

"I was sitting here talking to her," Mills said. "There was nothing wrong—unless it's wrong for a man to love a woman and tell her so. I found her sitting here, crying. She wouldn't tell me why. And I suppose maybe that stirred me up. I hadn't meant to start it again—because we'd had that out long ago. But I tried to persuade her to go away with me—to make a fresh start. I wanted her—but I've been doing that for a long time. She's only stuck to this Bland—because—oh, I don't know why. I don't savvy women. She liked me. But not enough. I was trying to persuade her to break loose. I don't remember—maybe I had hold of her hand. A man doesn't remember when he's begging for a chance. I don't know where he came from. Maybe he heard what I was saying. Maybe it just didn't look good to him. I know his face was like a wild man's when I saw him in the door."

Mills paused to catch his breath. The words tumbled out of him as if he had much to say and knew his time was short.

"Don't think he meant to kill her. He popped me. Then she screamed and jumped in front of me with her arms out—and he gave it to her."

Mills' voice broke. His fingers stroked feebly at the twisted coils of Myra's pale, honey-colored hair. His lips quivered.

"Finished. All over—for both of us. Butchered like beef by a crazy fool. Maybe I'm crazy too," he said in a husky whisper. "It don't seem natural a man should feel like I've felt for months. I didn't want to feel like that. Couldn't help it. I've lived in hell—you won't savvy, but it's true. I'm glad it's over. If there is any other life—maybe that'll be better. I hope there isn't. I feel as if all I want is to sleep forever and ever. No more laying awake nights thinking till my head hurts and my heart is like a lump of lead. By God, I have been crazy."

His body began to sag, and Hollister knelt beside him and supported him. He shook his head when Lawanne offered him a drink. His eyes closed. Only the feeble motion of his fingers on the dead woman's face and the slow heave of his breast betokened the life that still clung so tenaciously to him.

He opened his eyes again, to look at Hollister.

"I used to think—dying—was tough," he whispered. "It isn't. Like going—to sleep—when you're tired—when you're through—for the day."

That was his last word. He went limp suddenly and slid out of Hollister's grasp. And they let him lie, a dead man beside the dead woman on the floor. They stood up themselves and stared at the bodies with that strange incredulity men sometimes feel in the face of sudden death.

Both Lawanne and Hollister were familiar with death, death by the sniper's bullet, by machine gun and shell, by bayonet and poison gas. This was different. It was not war. It was something that touched them more deeply than any of the killing they had seen in war. The low hum of foraging bees about the door, the foxglove swaying in summer airs, the hushed peace of the distant hills and nearer forest,—this was no background for violence and death. It shocked them, chilled and depressed them. Hollister felt a new sort of ache creep into his heart. His eyes stung. And Lawanne suddenly turned away with a choking sound muffled in his throat.

They went out into the sunlight. Away down the valley a donkey engine tooted and whirred. High above them an eagle soared, wheeling in great circles about his aerial business. The river whispered in its channel. The blue jays scolded harshly among the thickets, and a meadow lark perched on a black stump near at hand, warbling his throaty song. Life went on as before.

"What'll we do?" Lawanne said presently. "We've got to do something."

"There's not much we can do, now," Hollister replied. "You go down to Carr's and tell them to send a man with a gas-boat out to Powell River with word to the Provincial Police of what has happened. I'll keep watch until you come back."

In an hour Lawanne returned with two men from the settlement. They laid the bodies out decently on a bed and left the two men to keep vigil until sundown, when Hollister and Lawanne would take up that melancholy watch for the night.

"I wonder," Hollister said to Lawanne, as they walked home, "what'll become of Bland? Will he give himself up, or will they have to hunt him?"

"Neither, I think," Lawanne answered slowly. "A man like that is certainly not himself when he breaks out like that. Bland has the cultural inheritance of his kind. You could see that he was stupefied by what he had done. When he rushed away into the woods I think it was just beginning to dawn on him, to fill him with horror. He'll never come back. You'll see. He'll either go mad, or in the reaction of feeling he'll kill himself."

They went into Lawanne's cabin. Lawanne brought out a bottle of brandy. He looked at the shaking of his fingers as he poured for Hollister and smiled wanly.

"I don't go much on Dutch courage, but I sure need it now," he said. "Isn't it queer the way death affects you under different circumstances? I didn't see such an awful lot of action in France, but once a raiding party of Heinies tumbled into our trench, and there was a deuce of a ruction for a few minutes. Between bayonets and bombs we cleaned the lot, a couple of dozen of them. After it was all over, we stacked them up like cordwood—with about as much compunction. It seemed perfectly natural. There was nothing but the excitement of winning a scrap. The half-dozen of our own fellows that went west in the show—they didn't matter either. It was part of the game. You expected it. It didn't surprise you. It didn't shock you. Yet death is death. Only, there, it seemed a natural consequence. And here it—well, I don't know why, but it gives me a horror."

Lawanne sat down.

"It was so unnecessary; so useless," he went on in that lifeless tone. "The damned, egotistic fool! Two lives sacrificed to a stupid man's wounded vanity. That's all. She was a singularly attractive woman. She would have been able to get a lot out of life. And I don't think she did, or expected to."

"Did you have any idea that Mills had that sort of feeling for her?" Hollister asked.

"Oh, yes," Lawanne said absently. "I saw that. I understood. I was touched a little with the same thing myself. Only, noblesse oblige. And also I was never quite sure that what I felt for her was sympathy, or affection, or just sex. I know I can scarcely bear to think that she is dead."

He leaned back in his chair and put his hands over his eyes. Hollister got up and walked to a window. Then on impulse he went to the door. And when he was on the threshold, Lawanne halted him.

"Don't go," he said. "Stay here. I can't get my mind off this. I don't want to sit alone and think."

Hollister turned back. Neither did he want to sit alone and think. For as the first dazed numbness wore off, he began to see himself standing alone—more alone than ever—gazing into a bottomless pit, with Fate or Destiny or blind Chance, whatever witless force was at work, approaching inexorably to push him over the brink.


To the world outside the immediate environs of the Toba, beyond those who knew the people concerned, that double murder was merely another violent affair which provided material for newspapers, a remote event allied to fires, divorces, embezzlements, politics, and scandals in high finance,—another item to be glanced quickly over and as quickly forgotten.

But one man at least could not quickly forget or pass it over lightly. Once the authorities—coming from a great distance, penetrating the solitude of the valley with a casual, business-like air—arrived, asked questions, issued orders, sent two men abroad in search of the slayer, and removed the bodies to another jurisdiction, Hollister had nothing more to do with that until he should be called again to give formal testimony.

He was left with nothing to do but brood, to sit asking unanswerable questions of a world and a life that for him was slowly and bewilderingly verging upon the chaotic, in which there was no order, no security, no assurance of anything but devastating changes that had neither rhyme nor reason in their sequence. There might be logical causes, buried obscurely under remote events, for everything that had transpired. He conceded that point. But he could not establish any association; he could not trace out the chain; and he revolted against the common assumption that all things, no matter how mysterious, work out ultimately for some common good.

Where was the good forthcoming out of so much that was evil, he asked? Looking back over the years, he saw much evil for himself, for everything and every one he cared about, and mingled with it there was little good, and that good purely accidental, the result of fortuitous circumstances. He knew that until the war broke out he had lived in a backwater of life, himself and Myra, contented, happy, untried by adversity. Once swung out of that backwater they had been swept away, powerless to know where they went, to guess what was their destination.

Nothing that he could have done would have altered one iota the march of events. Nothing that he could do now would have more than the slightest bearing on what was still to come. He was like a man beaten to a dazed state in which he expects anything, in which his feeble resistance will not ward off a single blow aimed at him by an unseen, inscrutable enemy.

Hollister, sitting on the bank of the river, looked at the mountains rising tier upon tier until the farthest ranges were dazzling white cones against a far sky line. He saw them as a chaos of granite and sandstone flung up by blind forces. Order and logical sequence in the universe were a delusion—except as they were the result of ordered human thought, effected by patient, unremitting human effort, which failed more often than it succeeded.

He looked at one bold peak across the valley, standing so sheer above the Black Hole that it seemed to overhang from the perpendicular; a mass of bald granite, steep cliff, with glacial ice and perpetual snow lurking in its crevasses. Upon its lower slopes the forest ran up, a green mantle with ragged edges. From the forest upward the wind wafted seeds to every scanty patch of soil. They took root, became saplings, grew to substantial trees. And every winter the snow fell deep on that mountain, piling up in great masses delicately poised, until a mere nothing—a piece of stone loosened by the frost; a gust of wind; perhaps only the overhanging edge of a snow-drift breaking under its own weight—would start a slide that gathered speed and bulk as it came down. And as this insensate mass plunged downward, the small trees and the great, the thickets and the low salal, everything that stood in its path, was overwhelmed and crushed and utterly destroyed. To what end? For what purpose?

It was just the same with man, Hollister thought. If he got in the way of forces greater than himself, he was crushed. Nature was blind, ruthless, disorderly, wantonly destructive. One had to be alert, far-seeing, gifted with definite characteristics, to escape. Even then one did not always, or for long, escape being bruised and mauled by the avalanches of emotion, the irresistible movement of circumstance over which one could exert no control.

How could it be otherwise? Hollister thought of all that had happened to all the people he knew, the men he had seen killed and maimed, driven insane by the shocks of war; of Doris, stricken blind in the full glow of youth; Myra pulled and hauled this way and that because she was as she was and powerless to be otherwise; himself marred and shunned and suffering intolerable agonies of spirit; of Bland, upon whom had fallen the black mantle of unnecessary tragedy; and Mills, who had paid for his passion with his life.

All these things pressed upon Hollister; a burden of discouragement, of sadness. Not one of all these, himself included, but wanted happiness according to his conception of happiness. And who and what was responsible for each one's individual conception of what he wanted? Not one of them had demanded existence. Each had had existence thrust upon him. Nature, and a thousand generations of life and love and pain, such environment in which, willy-nilly, they passed their formative years, had bestowed upon each his individual quota of character, compounded of desires, of intellect, of tendencies. And the sum total of their actions and reactions—what was it? How could they have modified life, bent it purposefully to its greatest fulfilment?

Hollister tried to shake himself free of these morbid abstractions. He was alive. He had a long time yet to live. He was a strong man, in whom the fire of life burned with an unquenchable flame. He had a great many imperative requisitions to make on life's exchequer, and while he was now sadly dubious of their being honored, either in full or in part, he must go on making them.

There was a very black hole yawning before him. The cumulative force of events had made him once more profoundly uncertain. All his props were breaking. Sometimes he wondered if the personal God of the Christian orthodoxy was wreaking upon him some obscure vengeance for unknown sins.

He shook himself out of this depressing bog of reflection and went to see Archie Lawanne. Not simply for the sake of Lawanne's society, although he valued that for itself. He had a purpose.

"That boat's due to-morrow at three o'clock," he said to Lawanne. "Will you take my big canoe and bring Doris up the river?

"I can't," he forestalled the question he saw forming on Lawanne's lips. "I can't meet her before that crowd—the crew and passengers, and loggers from Carr's. I'm afraid to. Not only because of myself, but because of what effect the shock of seeing me may have on her. Remember that I'll be like a stranger to her. She has never seen me. It seems absurd, but it's true. It's better that she sees me the first time by herself, at home, instead of before a hundred curious eyes. Don't you see?"

Lawanne saw; at least, he agreed that it was better so. And after they had talked awhile, Hollister went home.

But he was scarcely in his own dooryard before he became aware that while he might plan and arrange, so also could others; that his wife was capable of action independent of him or his plans.

He glanced down the river and saw a long Siwash dugout sweep around the curve of the Big Bend. It straightened away and bore up the long stretch of swift water that ran by his house. Hollister could distinguish three or four figures in it. He could see the dripping paddles rise and fall in measured beat, the wet blades flashing in the sun.

He gained the porch and turned his glasses on the canoe. He recognized it as Chief Aleck's dugout from a rancherie near the mouth of the river, a cedar craft with carved and brilliantly painted high-curving ends. Four Siwash paddlers manned it. Amidships two women sat. One was the elderly housekeeper who had been with them since their boy's birth. The other was Doris, with the baby in her lap.

A strange panic seized Hollister, the alarm of the unexpected, a reluctance to face the crisis which he had not expected to face for another twenty-four hours. He stepped down off the porch, walked rapidly away toward the chute mouth, crossed that and climbed to a dead fir standing on the point of rocks beyond. From there he watched until the canoe thrust its gaudy prow against the bank before his house, until he saw the women ashore and their baggage stacked on the bank, until the canoe backed into the current and shot away downstream, until Doris with the baby in her arms—after a lingering look about, a slow turning of her head—followed the other woman up the porch steps and disappeared within. Then Hollister moved back over the little ridge into the shadow of a clump of young firs and sat down on a flat rock with his head in his hands, to fight it out with himself.

To stake everything on a single throw of the dice,—and the dice loaded against him! If peace had its victories no less than war, it had also crushing defeats. Hollister felt that for him the final, most complete debacle was at hand.

He lifted his head at a distant call, a high, clear, sweet "Oh-hoo-oo-oo" repeated twice. That was Doris calling him as she always called him, if she wanted him and thought he was within range of her voice. Well, he would go down presently.

He looked up the hill. He could see through a fringe of green timber to a place where the leaves and foliage were all rusty-red from the scorching of the fire. Past that opened the burned ground,—charred, black, desolate. Presently life would be like that to him; all the years that stretched ahead of him might be as barren as that black waste.

His mind projected itself into the future from every possible angle. He did not belittle Doris' love, her sympathy, her understanding. He even conceded that no matter how his disfigurement affected her, she would try to put that behind her, she would make an effort to cling to him. And Hollister could see the deadly impact of his grotesque features upon her delicate sensibility, day after day, month after month, until she could no longer endure it, or him. She loved the beautiful too well, perfection of line and form and color. Restored sight must alter her world; her conception of him must become transformed. The magic of the unseen would lose its glamor. All that he meant to her as a man, a lover, a husband, must be stripped bare of the kindly illusion that blindness had wrapped him in. Even if she did not shrink in amazed reluctance at first sight, she must soon cease to have for him any keener emotion than a tolerant pity. And Hollister did not want that. He would not take it as a gift—not from Doris; he could not.

Love, home, all that sweet companionship which he had gained, the curious man-pride he had in that morsel of humanity that was his son,—he wondered if he were to see all these slowly or swiftly withdrawn from him?

Well, he would soon know. He stood up and looked far along the valley. Suddenly it seemed a malevolent place, oppressive, threatening, grim in spite of its beauty. It seemed as if something had been lurking there ready to strike. The fire had swept away his timber. In that brilliant sunshine, amid all that beauty, Myra's life had been snuffed out like a blown candle flame—to no purpose. Or was there some purpose in it all? Was some sentient force chastening him, scourging him with rods for the good of his soul? Was it for some such inscrutable purpose that men died by the hundred thousand in Europe? Was that why Doris Cleveland had been deprived of her sight? Why Myra had been torn by contradictory passions during her troubled life and had perished at last, a victim of passions that burst control? All this evil that some hidden good might accrue? Hollister bared his teeth in defiance of such a conclusion. But he was in a mood to defy either gods or devils. In that mood he saw the Toba valley, the whole earth, as a sinister place,—a place where beauty was a mockery, where impassive silence was merely the threatening hush before some elemental fury. This serene, indifferent beauty was hateful to him in that moment, the Promethean rock to which circumstance had chained him to suffer. It needed only as a capsheaf the gleam of incredulous dismay which should appear in his wife's eyes when she looked first upon the mutilated tissue, the varying scars and cicatrices, the twisted mask that would be revealed to her as the face of her husband.

This test was at hand. He reassured himself, as he had vainly reassured himself before, by every resource his mind and courage could muster, and still he was afraid. He saw nothing ahead but a black void in which there was neither love nor companionship nor friendly hands and faces, nothing but a deep gloom in which he should wander alone,—not because he wished to, but because he must.

He turned with a sudden resolution, crossed the low rocky point and went down to the flat. He passed under the trestle which carried the chute. The path to the house turned sharply around a clump of alder. He rounded these leafy trees and came upon Doris standing by a low stump. She stood as she did the first time he saw her on the steamer, in profile, only instead of the steamer rail her elbow rested on the stump, and she stared, with her chin nestled in the palm of one hand, at the gray, glacial stream instead of the uneasy heave of a winter sea. And Hollister thought with a slow constriction gathering in his breast that life was a thing of vain repetitions; he remembered so vividly how he felt that day when he stood watching her by the rail, thinking with a dull resentment that she would presently look at him and turn away. And he was thinking that again.

Walking on soft leaf-mold he approached within twenty feet of her, unheard. Then she lifted her head, looked about her.


"Yes," he answered. He stopped. She was looking at him. She made an imperative gesture, and when Hollister still stood like a man transfixed, she came quickly to him, her eyes bright and eager, her hands outstretched.

"What's the matter?" she asked. "Aren't you glad to see me?"

"Are you glad to see me?" he countered. "Do you see me?"

She shook her head.

"No, and probably I never shall," she said evenly. "But you're here, and that's just as good. Things are still a blur. My eyes will never be any better, I'm afraid."

Hollister drew her close to him. Her upturned lips sought his. Her body pressed against him with a pleasant warmth, a confident yielding. They stood silent a few seconds, Doris leaning against him contentedly, Hollister struggling with the flood of mingled sensations that swept through him on the heels of this vast relief.

"How your heart thumps," Doris laughed softly. "One would think you were a lover meeting his mistress clandestinely for the first time."

"You surprised me," Hollister took refuge behind a white lie. He would not afflict her with that miasma of doubts and fears which had sickened him. "I didn't expect you till to-morrow afternoon."

"I got tired of staying in town," she said. "There was no use. I wasn't getting any better, and I got so I didn't care. I began to feel that it was better to be here with you blind, than alone in town with that tantalizing half-sight of everything. I suppose the plain truth is that I got fearfully lonesome. Then you wrote me that letter, and in it you talked about such intimately personal things that I couldn't let Mrs. Moore read it to me. And I heard about this big fire you had here. So I decided to come home and let my eyes take care of themselves. I went to see another oculist or two. They can't tell whether my sight will improve or not. It may go again altogether. And nothing much can be done. I have to take it as it comes. So I planned to come home on the steamer to-morrow. You got my letter, didn't you?"


"Well, I happened to get a chance to come as far as the Redondas on a boat belonging to some people I knew on Stuart Island. I got a launch there to bring me up the Inlet, and Chief Aleck brought us up the river in the war canoe. My, it's good to be with you again."

"Amen," Hollister said. There was a fervent quality in his tone.

They found a log and sat down on it and talked. Hollister told her of the fire. And when he saw that she had no knowledge of what tragedy had stalked with bloody footprints across the Big Bend, he put off telling her. Presently she would ask about Myra, and he would have to tell her. But in that hour he did not wish to see her grow sad. He was jealous of anything that would inflict pain on her. He wanted to shield her from all griefs and hurts.

"Come back to the house," Doris said at last. "Baby's fretting a little. The trip in a small boat rather upset him. I don't like to leave him too long."

But Robert junior was peacefully asleep in his crib when they reached the house. After a look at him, they went out and sat on the porch steps. There, when the trend of their conversation made it unavoidable, he told her what had overtaken Charlie Mills and Myra Bland.

Doris listened silently. She sighed.

"What a pity," she murmured. "The uselessness of it, the madness—like a child destroying his toys in a blind rage. Poor Myra. She told me once that life seemed to her like swimming among whirlpools. It must have been true."

How true it was Hollister did not dare reveal. That was finished, for Myra and himself. She had perished among the whirlpools. He scarcely knew how he had escaped.

"How lucky we are, you and I, Bob," Doris said after a time. She put her arms around him impulsively. "We might so easily be wandering about alone in a world that is terribly harsh to the unfortunate. Instead—we're here together, and life means something worth while to us. It does to me, I know. Does it to you?"

"As long as I have you, it does," he answered truthfully. "But if you could see me as I really am, perhaps I might not have you very long."

"How absurd," she declared—and then, a little thoughtfully, "if I thought that was really true, I should never wish to see again. Curiously, the last two or three weeks this queer, blurred sort of vision I have seems quite sufficient. I haven't wanted to see half so badly as I've wanted you. I can get impressions enough through the other four senses. I'd hate awfully to have to get along without you. You've become almost a part of me—I wonder if you understand that?"

Hollister did understand. It was mutual,—that want, that dependence, that sense of incompleteness which each felt without the other. It was a blessed thing to have, something to be cherished, and he knew how desperately he had reacted to everything that threatened its loss.

Hollister sat there looking up at the far places, the high, white mountain crests, the deep gorges, the paths that the winter slides had cut through the green forest, down which silvery cataracts poured now. It seemed to have undergone some subtle change, to have become less aloof, to have enveloped itself in a new and kindlier atmosphere. Yet he knew it was as it had always been. The difference was in himself. The sympathetic response to that wild beauty was purely subjective. He could look at the far snows, the bluish gleam of the glaciers, the restful green of the valley floor, with a new quality of appreciation. He could even—so resilient and adaptable a thing is the human mind—see himself engaged upon material enterprises, years passing, his boy growing up, life assuming a fullness, a proportion, an orderly progression that two hours earlier would have seemed to him only a futile dream.

He wondered if this would endure. He looked down at his wife leaning upon his knee, her face thoughtful and content. He looked out over the valley once more, at those high, sentinel peaks thrusting up their white cones, one behind the other. He heard the river. He saw the foxglove swaying in the wind, the red flare of the poppies at his door. He smelled the fragrance of wild honeysuckle, the sharp, sweet smells blown out of the forest that drowsed in the summer heat.

It was all good. He rested in that pleasant security like a man who has fought his way through desperate perils to some haven of safety and sits down there to rest in peace. He did not know what the future held for him. He had no apprehension of the future. He was not even curious. He had firm hold of the present, and that was enough. He wondered a little that he should suddenly feel so strong a conviction that life was good. But he had that feeling at last. The road opened before him clear and straight. If there were crooks in it, pitfalls by the way, perils to be faced, pains to be suffered, he was very sure in that hour that somehow he would find courage to meet them open-eyed and unafraid.


Previous Part     1  2  3  4  5
Home - Random Browse