I am sick of the bitter wood-smoke,
And sick of the wind and rain:
I will leave the bush behind me,
And look for my love again.
Little as I guessed it, this story really began at Skunk's Misery. But Skunk's Misery was the last thing in my head, though I had just come from the place.
Hungry, dog-tired, cross with the crossness of a man in authority whose orders have been forgotten or disregarded, I drove Billy Jones's old canoe across Lac Tremblant on my way home to Dudley Wilbraham's gold mine at La Chance, after an absence of months. It was halfway to dark, and the bitter November wind blew dead in my teeth. Slaps of spray from flying wave-crests blinded me with gouts of lake water, that was oddly warm till the cutting wind froze it to a coating of solid ice on my bare hands and stinging face, that I had to keep dabbing on my paddling shoulder to get my eyes clear in order that I might stare in front of my leaky, borrowed canoe.
To a stranger there might have seemed to be nothing particular to stare at, out on a lake where the world was all wind and lumpy seas and growing November twilight; but any one who had lived at La Chance knew better. By the map Lac Tremblant should have been our nearest gold route to civilization, but it was a lake that was no lake, as far as transport was concerned, and we never used it. The five-mile crossing I was making was just a fair sample of the forty miles of length Lac Tremblant stretched mockingly past the La Chance mine toward the main road from Caraquet—our nearest settlement—to railhead: and that was forty miles of queer water, sown with rocks that were sometimes visible as tombstones in a cemetery and sometimes hidden like rattlesnakes in a blanket. For the depth of Lac Tremblant, or its fairway, were two things no man might ever count on. It would fall in a night to shallows a child could wade through, among bristling needles of rocks no one had ever guessed at; and rise in a morning to the tops of the spruce scrub on its banks,—a sweet spread of water with not a rock to be seen. What hidden spring fed it was a mystery. But in the bitterest winter it was never cold enough to freeze, further than to form surging masses of frazil ice that would neither let a canoe push through them, nor yet support the weight of a man. Winter or summer, it was no thoroughfare—and neither was the ungodly jumble of swamp and mountains that stopped me from tapping the lower end of it—or I should not have spent the last three months in making fifty miles of road through untrodden bush to Caraquet, over which to transport the La Chance gold to a post-road and a railway: and it was no chosen return route of mine to La Chance now, either.
If I could draw you a map I should not have to explain the country. But failing that I will be as clear as I can.
The line of Lac Tremblant, and that of the road I had just made from Caraquet to La Chance, ran away from each other in two sides of a triangle,—except that the La Chance mine was five miles down the far side of the lake from Caraquet, and my road had to half-moon round the head of Lac Tremblant to get home—a lavish curve, too, by reason of swamps.
But it was on that half-moon road that I should have been now, if my order to have a horse meet me at the Halfway stables I had built at the beginning of it had not been forgotten or disregarded by some one at La Chance.
Getting drenched to the skin with lake water was no rattling good exchange for riding home on a fresh horse that felt like a warm stove under me, but a five-mile short cut across the apex of the road and lake triangle was better than walking twenty-two miles along the side of it on my own legs—which was the only choice I had had in the matter.
I was obliged to get home, for reasons of my own; but when I walked in on Billy Jones, the foreman at the Halfway stables, that afternoon, after months of absence and road-making, there was not even a team horse in his stables, let alone my own saddle mare. There was not a soul about the place, either, but Billy himself, blandly idle and sprawling over a grubby old newspaper in front of the stove in his shack.
His welcome was heartening, but his intelligence was not. No one had told him a word about me or my mare, he informed me profanely; also that it was quite impossible for me to ride over to La Chance that night. There were not any work horses at the Halfway, because he had doubled up the teams for some heavy hauling from Caraquet, according to my orders sent over from Caraquet the week before, and no horses had been sent back from La Chance since. He guessed affably that some one might be driving over from the mine in the morning, and that after tramping from Caraquet I had better stay where I was for the night.
I hesitated. I was dog-tired for once in my life, but I had not done any tramp from Caraquet that day, if I had told the bald truth. Only I had no idea of telling it, nor any wish to explain to Billy Jones that I had been making a fool of myself elsewhere, doing a solid week of hospital nursing over a filthy boy I had found on my just-finished road the morning I had really left Caraquet. From the look of him I guessed he had got hurt cutting down a tree and not getting out of the way in time, though he was past telling me that or anything else. But I had also guessed where he lived, by the dirt on him, and was ass enough to carry him home to the squalid, half-French, half-Indian village the Caraquet people called Skunk's Misery.
It lay in the bush, in a slanting line between Caraquet and Lac Tremblant: a nest of thriftless evil stuck in a hollow you might pass within twenty yards of, and never guess held a house. Once there I had no choice but to stay and nurse the boy's sickening pain, till his mother came home from some place where she was fishing eels for the winter; for none of the rest of the population of fat-faced, indifferent women—I never saw a man, whether they were away in the lumber woods or not—would lay a hand on him. I will say plainly that I was more than thankful to hand him over to his mother. I had spilt over myself a bottle of some nameless and abominable brew that I'd mistaken for liniment, and my clothes smelt like carrion; also the lean-to I had lived in was so dirty that I scratched from suspicion all day long, except when I was yawning from a week of hardly closing my eyes. Altogether, as I said, I was dog-tired, if it were not from walking, and I might have stayed at Billy Jones's if I had not been crazy to get rid of my dirt-infected clothes. The worst reek had gone from them, but even out in the open air they smelt. I saw Billy Jones wrinkle up his nose to sniff innocently while he talked to me, and that settled me.
"I have to get home," I observed hastily. "Wilbraham expected me a week ago. But I don't walk any twenty-two miles! I'll take your old canoe and a short cut across the lake."
I was the only man who ever used Lac Tremblant, and the foreman of the Halfway stables cast a glance on me. "If it was me, I'd walk," he remarked drily. "But take your choice. The lake's a short cut right enough, only I wouldn't say where to—in my crazy old birchbark this kind of a blowing-up evening!"
That, and a few more things he said as he squinted a weather-wise eye on the lake, came back to me as I fought his old canoe through the water. And fighting it was, mind you, for the spray hid the rocks I knew, and the wind shoved me back on the ones I didn't know. Also the canoe was leaking till she was dead logy, and the gusts were so fierce I could not stop paddling to bail her. The short, vicious seas that snapped at me five ways at once were the color of lead and felt as heavy as cold molasses. But, for all that, crossing Lac Tremblant was saving me twenty-two miles on my feet, and I was not wasting any dissatisfaction on the traverse. Only, as I shoved the canoe forward, I was nearer to being played out, from one thing on top of another, than ever I was in my life. I pretended the paddle that began to hang in spite of me was only heavy with freezing spray and that the dead ache in my back was a kink. But I had to put every ounce there was in my six feet of weary bones into lightning-change wrenches to hold the old canoe head on to the splattering seas and keep her from swamping. I was very near to thinking I had been a fool not to have stayed with Billy Jones,—when I was suddenly aware of absolute, utter calm in the air that felt as warm on my face as if I'd gone into a house; of tranquil water under the forefoot of the canoe that had jumped forward under me as the resistance of the wind ceased; and of the lake shore—dark, featureless, silent—within twenty feet of me. I was across Lac Tremblant and in the shelter of the La Chance shore!
There is no good in denying that for five minutes all I did was to sit back and breathe. Then I lit my pipe, that was dry because it was inside my shirt; bailed the unnecessary water out of the canoe and the immediate neighborhood of my legs; and, without meaning to, turned a casual eye on the shore at my right hand.
It might have been because I was tired, but that shore struck me as if I had never seen it before; and on a November evening it was not an inviting prospect. Bush and bush, and more bush, grew down to the very verge of the water in a mass that spoke of heavy swamp and no landing. Behind that, I knew, was rising land, country rock, and again swamp and more swamp,—and all of it harsh, ugly, and inhospitable. But the queer thought that came over me was that it was more than inhospitable: it was forbidding. High over my head poured the bitter wind in a river of sound through the bare tree tops; close at hand it rustled with a flurry of dead leaves that was uncannily like the bustle of inimical businesses pursued insolently in the dark, at my very elbow; and suddenly, through and over all other sounds, there rose in the harsh gloom the long, ravening cry of a wolf.
Heaven knows I was used to the bush, and no howling was much to me; but you know how things come over you sometimes. It came over me then that I was sick of my life at La Chance; sick of working with Wilbraham and sicker still of washing myself in brooks and sleeping on the ground,—for I had not been in a house since August. Before I knew it I was speaking out loud as men do in books, only it was something I had thought before, which in books it generally isn't: "Scott, I'm a fool to stay here. I'd sooner go and work on day's wages somewhere and have a place to go home to!" And then I felt my face get red in the dark, for I knew what I meant, if you do not.
There was nothing to go home to at Wilbraham's, except a roof over my head, till circumstances sent me out into the bush again. In the daytime there were the mine and the mill. At night there was the bare living room of Wilbraham's shack, without a book, or a paper, or a decent chair; Wilbraham himself, fat, pig-headed, truculent, stumping the devil's sentry-go up and down the bare floor, talking eternally about himself and the mine, till a saint must have loathed the two of them; Thompson, the mine superintendent, silent, slow and stupid, playing ghastly solitaire games in a corner with a pack of dirty cards; and me, Nick Stretton, hunching myself irritably on a hard chair till I could decently go to bed. Even the bush was better than night after night of that,—and suddenly I felt my thoughts bursting out, even if I had sense enough to keep my mouth shut.
I was as sick of the bush as I was of the shack. I wanted a place of my own and a life of my own: and I was going to have it. There was nothing but old friendship to tie me to Wilbraham's; I could do as well anywhere else, and I was going there—to-morrow; going somewhere, anyhow, so that when my day's work was over I could go home to a blazing fire on a wide hearth, instead of Wilbraham's smelly stove where no one ever cleaned the creosote out of the pipe,—and where the girl I had had in my head for ten years would be waiting for me.
Don't imagine it was any girl I knew that I was thinking of; it was just a dream girl I meant to marry, when I found her. I'd never met such a girl anywhere, and it sounds like a fool to say I knew I was going to meet her: that she was waiting somewhere in the world for me, just as I was looking for her. I knew exactly what she must be like. She would have that waving bronze-gold hair that stands out in little separate, shining tendrils; eyes that startled you with their clear blue under dark, level eyebrows—I never look twice at a girl with arched brows—the rose-white, satin-smooth skin that goes with all of them, and she would move like——Well, you've seen Pavlova move! Her voice—somehow one of the most important things I knew about her seemed to be her voice—would be the clear, carrying kind that always sounds gay. I was certain I should know my dream girl—first—by that. And that was the girl—I forgot it was all made-up child's play—who somewhere in the world was waiting for me, Nick Stretton; a fool with nothing on earth but six feet of a passably good body, and a dark, high-nosed face like an Indian's, who was working in the bush for Wilbraham instead of sieving creation for her. Well, I would start to-morrow; and, where the clean heavens meant me to, I should find her!
And with the words I came alive to the dark lake, and the leaky canoe I sat in, and the knowledge that all I had been thinking about a bronze-haired girl was just the cracked dream of a lonely man. Even if it had not been, and I could have started to look for a real girl to-morrow, I had to get back to Wilbraham's to-night. My drenched clothes were freezing on me, and I was hungrier than the wolf who had just howled again, as I picked up my slippery paddle and started for the La Chance landing.
There was no light there, naturally, since no one ever used the lake except myself, and I had been away for months; but as I rounded the point between the canoe and the landing, and slipped into the dark of its shadow, the lamplight from Wilbraham's living room shone out on me in a narrow beam, like a moon path on the water. As I crossed it and beached the canoe I must have been in plain sight to any one on the shore, though all I saw was the dark shingle I stepped upon. I stooped to lift the canoe out of water,—and I did what you mean when you say you nearly jumped out of your skin.
Touching my shoulder, her hand fiercely imperative in the dark, was a girl—at La Chance, where no girl had ever set foot!—and she was speaking to me with just that golden, carrying voice I knew would belong to my own dream girl, if she were keeping it down to a whisper.
"So you're here," was what she said; and it would have fitted in with the fool's thoughts I had just come out of, if it had not been for her tone. That startled me, till all I could do was to nod in the dark I could just see her in. I could not discern what she looked like, for her head was muffled in a shawl; and I never realized that all she could see of me was my height and general make-up, since my face must have been invisible where I stood in the shadow.
"You!" her golden voice stabbed like a dagger. "I won't have you staying here—where I am! I told you I'd speak to you when I could, and I'm speaking. You kept your word and disgraced me once, if I don't know how you did it; but I won't run the chance of that again! I'm safe here, except for you; and you've got to let me alone. If you don't, I—I——" she stammered till I knew she was shaking, but she got hold of herself in the second. "You won't find it safe to play any tricks with the gold here—or me—if that's what you came for," she said superbly, "and you've given me a way to stop it. That's why I've sneaked out to meet you: not because I care for you. You must go away, or—I'll tell that you're here! Do you hear? I don't care what promises you make me—they always came easily to you. If you want me to hold my tongue about you, you've got to go. Go and betray me, if you like—but go!"
There was dead, cold hatred in it, the kind a woman has for a man she once cared for, and it staggered what wits I had left. I nodded like a fool, just as if I had known what she was talking about, and went on lifting the canoe ashore. Whether I really heard her give a terrified gasp I don't know; perhaps I only thought so. But as I put the canoe on the bank I heard a rustle, and when I looked up she was gone. There was nothing to tell me she had really even been there. It was just as probable that I was crazy, or walking in my sleep, as that a girl who talked like that—or even any kind of a girl—should be at La Chance. The cold, collected hatred in her voice still jarred me, since it was no way for even a dream girl to speak. But what jarred me worse was that the whole thing had been so quick I could not have sworn she had been there at all. I was honestly dazed as I walked up the rough path to Wilbraham's and my shack. I must have stood in front of it a good five minutes, with my wet clothes freezing as hard as a board, and the noise of the men in the bunk house down by the mine coming up to me on the night wind.
"'If I be I, as I should be, I've a little dog at home, and he'll know me,'" I said to myself at last like the old woman in the storybook, only with a grin. For when I went into the house there would be the neglected living room with the smelly stove, and Wilbraham walking up and down there as usual; and Dudley Wilbraham's conversation would bring any man back to his senses, even if he needed it worse than I did. I opened the shack door and went in,—and in the bare passage I jerked up taut.
The living room faced me,—and there was no stove in it. And no Wilbraham, walking up and down and talking to himself. There was a glowing, blazing log fire in a stone fireplace that must have been built while I was away; and, sitting alone before it, exactly as I had always thought of her, was my dream girl,—that I had meant to hunt the world for to welcome me home!