Story type: Literature
A man and a woman were pacing up and down the wintry station platform, waiting for a train. On every side the snow lay a stained and crumpled blanket, with here and there a light or a chimney to show the village sleeping beneath.
The sky was a purple-black hemisphere, out of which the stars glittered almost white. The wind came out of the west, cold but amiable; the cracked bell of a switch-engine gurgled querulously at intervals, followed by the bumping of coupling freight-cars; roosters were crowing, and sleepy train-men were assembling in sullen silence.
The couple walked with arms locked like lovers, but the tones of their voices had the quality which comes after marriage. They were man and wife.
The woman’s clear voice arose. “Oh, Ed, isn’t this delicious? What one misses by not getting up early!”
“Sleep, for instance,” laughed her husband.
“Don’t drag me down. You know what I mean. Let’s get up early every morning while we’re up here in the woods.”
“Shouldn’t wonder if we had to. There’ll be a lot to do, and I want to get back to Chicago by the 1st of February.”
“This is an experience! Isn’t it still? When is our train due?”
“Due now; I think that is our headlight up the track.”
As he spoke an engine added its voice to the growing noise of the station, and drew solemnly down the frosty steel.
An eruption of shapeless forms of men from the depot filled the one general coach of the train. They nearly all were dressed in some sort of fur coat, and all had the look of men accustomed to out-door life–powerful, loud-voiced, unrefined. They were, in fact, travelling men, business men, the owners of mills or timber. The stolid or patient ox-like faces of some Norwegian workmen, dressed in gay Mackinac jackets, were sprinkled about.
The young wife was a fine type of woman anywhere, but these surroundings made her seem very dainty and startlingly beautiful. Her husband had the fair skin of a city man, but his powerful shoulders and firm step denoted health and wholesome living. They were both good to look at.
They soon felt the reaction to sleepiness which comes to those not accustomed to early rising, and the wife, soothed by the clank of the train, leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder and dozed. He looked out upon the landscape, glad that his wife was not observing it. He did not know such desolation existed in Wisconsin.
On every side were the evidences of a ruined forest land. A landscape of flat wastes, of thinned and burned and uprooted trees. A desolate and apparently useless land.
Here and there a sawmill stood gray and sagging, surrounded by little cabins of unpainted wood, to testify to the time when great pines stood all about, and the ring of the swamper’s axe was heard in the intervals of silence between the howls of a saw.
To the north the swells grew larger. Birch and tamarack swamps alternated with dry ridges on which an inferior pine still grew. The swamps were dense tangles of broken and uprooted trees. Slender pike-like stumps of fire-devastated firs rose here and there, black and grim skeletons of trees.
It was a land that had been sheared by the axe, torn by the winds, and blasted by fire.
Off to the west low blue ridges rose, marking the boundaries of the valley which had been washed out ages ago by water. After the floods pine forest had sprung up, and these in their turn had been sheared away by man. It lay now awaiting the plough and seeder of the intrepid pioneer.
Suddenly the wife awoke and sat up. “Why, we haven’t had any breakfast!”
He smiled at her childish look of bewilderment. “I’ve been painfully aware of it for some time back. I’ve been suffering for food while you slept.”
“Why didn’t you get into the basket?”
“How could I, with you on my manly bosom?”
She colored up a little. They had not been married long, evidently. “How considerate you are!”
They were soon eating a breakfast with the spirit of picnickers. Occasionally she looked out of the window.
“What a wild country!” she said. He did not emphasize its qualities to her; rather, he distracted her attention from its desolation.
The train roared round its curves, conforming with the general course of the river. On every hand were thickening signs of active lumber industry. They flashed by freight trains loaded with logs or lumber or ties. Mills in operation grew thicker.
The car echoed with the talk of lumber. A brisk man with a red mustache was exhibiting a model of a machine to cut certain parts of machinery out of “two by fours.” Another was describing a new shingle-mill he had just built.
A couple of elderly men, one a German, were discussing the tariff on lumber. The workmen mainly sat silent.
“It’s all so strange!” the young wife said, again and again.
“Yes, it isn’t exactly the Lake Shore Drive.”
“I like it. I wish I could smell the pines.”
“You’ll have all the pines you can stand before we get back to Chicago.”
“No, sir; I’m going to enjoy every moment of it; and you’re going to let me help, you know–look over papers, and all that. I’m the heiress, you must remember,” she added, wickedly.
“Well, we won’t quarrel about that until we see how the legacy turns out. It may not be worth my time up here. I shall charge you roundly as your lawyer, depend on that.”
The outlook grew more attractive as the train sped on. Old Mosinee rose, a fine rounded blue shape, on the left.
“Why, there’s a mountain! I didn’t know Wisconsin had such a mountain as that.”
“Neither did I. This valley is fine. Now, if your uncle’s estates only included that hill!”
The valley made off to the northwest with a bold, large, and dignified movement. The coloring, blue and silver, purple-brown and bronze-green, was harmonious with the grouping of lines. It was all fresh and vital, wholesome and very impressive.
From this point the land grew wilder–that is to say, more primeval. There was more of Nature and less of man. The scar of the axe was here and there, but the forest predominated. The ridges of pine foliages broke against the sky, miles and miles, in splendid sweep.
“This must be lovely in summer,” the wife said, again and again, as they flashed by some lake set among the hills.
“It’s fine now,” he replied, feeling the thrill of the sportsman. “I’d like to shoulder a rifle and plunge into those snowy vistas. How it brings the wild spirit out in a man! Women never feel that delight.”
“Oh, yes, we do,” she replied, glad that something remained yet unexplained between them. “We feel just like men, only we haven’t the strength of mind to demand a share of it with you.”
“Yes, you feel it at this distance. You’d come back mighty quick the second night out.”
She did not relish his laughter, and so looked away out of the window. “Just think of it–Uncle Edwin lived here thirty years!”
He forebore to notice her inconsistency. “Yes, the wilderness is all right for a vacation, but I prefer Chicago for the year round.”
When they came upon Ridgeley, both cried out with delight.
“Oh, what a dear, picturesque little town!” she said.
“Well, well! I wonder how they came to build a town without a row of battlemented stores?”
It lay among and upon the sharp, low, stumpy pine ridges in haphazard fashion, like a Swiss village. A small brook ran through it, smothered here and there in snow. A sawmill was the largest figure of the town, and the railway station was the centre. There was not an inch of painted board in the village. Everywhere the clear yellow of the pine flamed unstained by time. Lumber piles filled all the lower levels near the creek. Evidently the town had been built along logging roads, and there was something grateful and admirable in its irregular arrangement. The houses, moreover, were all modifications of the logging camps; even the drug store stood with its side to the street. All about were stumps and fringes of pines, which the lumbermen, for some good reason, had passed by. Charred boles stood purple-black out of the snow.
It was all green and gray and blue and yellow-white and stern. The sky was not more illimitable than the rugged forest which extended on every hand.
“Oh, this is glorious–glorious!” said the wife. “Do I own some of this town?” she asked, as they rose to go out.
“I reckon you do.”
“Oh, I’m so glad!”
As they stepped out on the platform, a large man in corduroy and wolf-skin faced them like a bandit.
“Hello, Jack! Well, we’ve found you. My wife, Mr. Ridgeley. We’ve come up to find out how much you’ve embezzled,” he said, as Ridgeley pulled off an immense glove to shake hands all round.
“Well, come right over to the hotel. It ain’t the Auditorium, but then, again, it ain’t like sleeping outdoors.”
As they moved along they heard the train go off, and then the sound of the saw resumed its domination of the village noises.
“Was the town named after you, or you after the town?” asked Field.
“Named after me. Old man didn’t want it named after him; would kill it,” he said.
Mr. and Mrs. Field found the hotel quite comfortable and the dinner wholesome. They beamed upon each other.
“It’s going to be delightful,” they said.
Ridgeley was a bachelor, and made his home at the hotel also. That night he said: “Now we’ll go over the papers and records of your uncle’s property, and then we’ll go out and see if the property is all there. I imagine this is to be a searching investigation.”
“You may well think it. My wife is inexorable.”
As night fell, the wife did not feel so safe and well pleased. The loud talking in the office below and the occasional whooping of a crowd of mill-hands going by made her draw her chair nearer and lay her fingers in her husband’s palm.
He smiled indulgently. “Don’t be frightened, my dear. These men are not half so bad as they sound.”
Mrs. Field sat in the inner room of Ridgeley’s office, waiting for the return of her husband with the team. They were going out for a drive.
Ridgeley was working at his books, and he had forgotten her presence.
She could not but feel a deep admiration for his powerful frame and his quick, absorbed action as he moved about from his safe to his desk. He was a man of great force and ready decision.
Suddenly the door opened and a stranger entered. He had a sullen and bitter look on his thin, dark face. Ridgeley’s quick eyes measured him, and his hand softly turned the key in his money drawer, and as he faced about he swung shut the door of the safe.
The stranger saw all this with eyes as keen as Ridgeley’s. A cheerless and strange smile came upon his face.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “I’m low, but I ain’t as low as that.”
“Well, sir, what can I do for you?” asked Ridgeley. Mrs. Field half rose, feeling something tense and menacing in the attitude of the two men.
But the intruder quietly answered, “You can give me a job if you want to.”
Ridgeley remained alert. His eyes ran over the man’s tall frame. He looked strong and intelligent, although his eyes were fevered and dull.
“What kind of a job?”
“Any kind that will take me out into the woods and keep me there.”
There was a self-accusing tone in his voice that Ridgeley felt.
“What’s your object? You look like a man who could do something else. What brings you here?”
The man turned with a sudden resolution to punish himself. His voice expressed a terrible loathing.
“Whiskey, that’s what. It’s a hell of a thing to say, but I can’t let liquor alone when I can smell it. I’m no common hand, or I wouldn’t be if I–But let that go. I can swing an axe, and I’m ready to work. That’s enough. Now the question is, can you find a place for me?”
Ridgeley mused a little. The young fellow stood there, statuesque, rebellious.
Then Ridgeley said, “I guess I can help you out that much.” He picked up a card and a pencil. “What shall I call you?”
“Oh, call me Williams; that ain’t my name, but it’ll do.”
“What you been doing?”
“Everything part of the time, drinking the rest. Was in a livery-stable down at Wausau last week. It came over me, when I woke yesterday, that I was gone to hell if I stayed in town. So I struck out; and I don’t care for myself, but I’ve got a woman to look out for–” He stopped abruptly. His recklessness of mood had its limits, after all.
Ridgeley pencilled on a card. “Give this to the foreman of No. 6. The men over at the mill will show you the teams.”
The man started toward the door with the card in his hand. He turned suddenly.
“One thing more. I want you to send ten dollars of my pay every two weeks to this address.” He took an envelope out of his pocket. “It don’t matter what I say or do after this, I want that money sent. The rest will keep me in tobacco and clothing. You understand?”
Ridgeley nodded. “Perfectly. I’ve seen such cases before.”
The man went out and down the walk with a hurried, determined air, as if afraid to trust his own resolution.
As Ridgeley turned toward his desk he met Mrs. Field, who faced him with tears of fervent sympathy in her eyes.
“Isn’t it awful?” she said, in a half whisper. “Poor fellow, what will become of him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. He’ll get along some way. Such fellows do. I’ve had ’em before. They try it awhile here; then they move. I can’t worry about them.”
Mrs. Field was not listening to his shifty words. “And then, think of his wife–how she must worry.”
Ridgeley smiled. “Perhaps it’s his mother or a sister.”
“Anyway, it’s awful. Can’t something be done for him?”
“I guess we’ve done about all that can be done.”
“Oh, I wish I could help him! I’ll tell Ed about him.”
“Don’t worry about him, Mrs. Field; he ain’t worth it.”
“Oh yes, he is. I feel he’s been a fine fellow, and then he’s so self-accusing.”
Her own happiness was so complete, she could not bear to think of others’ misery. She told her husband about Williams, and ended by asking, “Can’t we do something to help the poor fellow?”
Field was not deeply concerned. “No; he’s probably past help. Such men are so set in their habits, nothing but a miracle or hypnotism can save them. He’ll end up as a ‘lumber Jack,’ as the townsmen call the hands in the camps.”
“But he isn’t that, Edward. He’s finer, some way. You feel he is. Ask Mr. Ridgeley.”
Ridgeley merely said: “Yes, he seemed to me to be more than a common hand. But, all the same, it won’t be two weeks before he’ll be in here as drunk as a wild cat, wanting to shoot me for holding back his money.”
In this way Williams came to be to Mrs. Field a very important figure in the landscape of that region. She often spoke of him, and on the following Saturday night, when Field came home, she anxiously asked, “Is Williams in town?”
“No, he hasn’t shown up yet.”
She clapped her hands in delight. “Good! good! He’s going to win his fight.”
Field laughed. “Don’t bet on Williams too soon. We’ll hear from him before the week is out.”
“When are we going to visit the camp?” she asked, changing the subject.
“As soon as it warms up a little. It is too cold for you.”
She had a laugh at him. “You were the one who wanted to ‘plunge into the snowy vistas.’”
He evaded her joke on him by assuming a careless tone. “I’m not plunging as much as I was; the snow is too deep.”
“When you go I want to go with you–I want to see Williams.”
“Ha!” he snorted, melodramatically. “She scorns me faithful heart. She turns–“
Mrs. Field smiled faintly. “Don’t joke about it, Ed. I can’t get that wife out of my mind.”
A few very cold gray days followed, and then the north wind cleared the sky; and, though it was still cold, it was pleasant. The sky had only a small white cloud here and there to make its blueness the more profound.
Ridgeley dashed up to the door with a hardy little pair of broncos hitched to a light pair of bobs, and Mrs. Field was tucked in like a babe in a cradle.
Almost the first thing she asked was, “How is Williams?”
“Oh, he’s getting on nicely. He refused to sleep with his bunk-mate, and finally had to lick him, I understand, to shut him up. Challenged the whole camp, then, to let him alone or take a licking. They let him alone, Lawson says. G’lang there, you rats!”
Mrs. Field said no more, for the air was whizzing by her ears, and she hardly dared look out, so keen was the wind; but as soon as they entered the deeps of the forest it was profoundly still.
The ride that afternoon was a glory she never forgot. Everywhere yellow-greens and purple shadows. The sun in a burnished blue sky flooded the forests with light, striking down through even the thickest pines to lay in fleckings of radiant white and gold upon the snow.
The trail (it was not a road) ran like a graceful furrow over the hills, around little lakes covered deep with snow, through tamarack swamps where the tracks of wild things thickened, over ridges of tall pine clear of brush, and curving everywhere amid stumps, where dismantled old shanties marked the site of the older logging camps. Sometimes they met teams going to the store. Sometimes they crossed logging roads–wide, smooth tracks artificially iced, down which mountainous loads of logs were slipping, creaking, and groaning. Sometimes they heard the dry click-clock of the woodsmen’s axes or the crash of falling trees deep in the wood. When they reached the first camp Ridgeley pulled up the steaming horses at the door and shouted, “Hello, the camp!”
A tall old man with a long red beard came out. He held one bare red arm above his eyes. He wore an apron.
“Hello, Mr. Ridgeley!”
“Ready for company?”
“Am always ready for company,” he said, with a Scotch accent.
“Well, we’re coming in to get warm.”
As they went in, under the roofed shed between the cook’s shanty and the other and larger shanty, Mrs. Field sniffed. Sandy led them past a large pyramid composed of the scraps of beef bones, egg-shells, cans, and tea grounds left over during the winter. In the shed itself hung great slabs of beef.
It was all as untidy and suggestive of slaughter as the nest of a brood of eagles.
Sandy was beginning dinner on a huge stove spotted with rust and pancake batter. All about was the litter of his preparation. Beef–beef on all sides, and tin dishes and bare benches and huge iron cooking-pans.
Mrs. Field was glad to get out into the sunlight again. “What a horrible place! Are they all like that?”
“No, my camps are not like that–or, I should say, our camps,” Ridgeley added, with a smile.
“Not a gay place at all,” said Field, in exaggerated reserve.
But Mrs. Field found her own camps not much better. True, the refuse was not raised in pyramidal shape before the front door, and the beef was a little more orderly, but the low log huts, the dim cold light, the dingy walls and floors, the lack of any womanly or home touch, the tin dishes, the wholesale cooking, all struck upon her with terrible force.
“Do human beings live here?” she asked Ridgeley, when he opened the door of the main shanty of No. 6.
“Forty creatures of the men kind sleep and house here,” he replied.
“To which the socks and things give evidence,” said Field, promptly, pointing toward the huge stove which sat like a rusty-red cheese in the centre of the room. Above it hung scores of ragged gray and red socks and Mackinac boots and jackets which had been washed by the men themselves.
Around were the grimy bunks where the forty men slept like tramps in a steamer’s hold. The quilts were grimy, and the posts greasy and shining with the touch of hands. There were no chairs–only a kind of rude stool made of boards. There were benches near the stove, nailed to the rough floor. In each bunk, hanging to a peg, was the poor little imitation-leather hand-bag which contained the whole wardrobe of each man, exclusive of the tattered socks and shirts hanging over the stove.
The room was chill and cold and gray. It had only two small windows. Its doors were low. Even Mrs. Field was forced to stoop in entering. This helped to make it seem like a den. There were roller-towels in the corner and wash-basins, and a grindstone which made it seem like a barn. It was, in fact, more cheerless than a barn, and less wholesome.
“Doesn’t that hay in the bunks get a–a–sometimes?” asked Field.
“Well, yes, I shouldn’t wonder, though the men are pretty strict about that. They keep pretty free from bugs, I think. However, I shouldn’t want to run no river chances on the thing myself.” Ridgeley smiled at Mrs. Field’s shudder of horror.
“Is this the place?” The men laughed. She had asked that question so many times before.
“Yes, this is where Mr. Williams hangs out. Say, Field, you’ll need to make some new move to hold your end up against Williams.”
Mrs. Field felt hurt and angry at his rough joke. In the dim corner a cough was heard, and as a yellow head raised itself over the bunk-board a man presented a ghastly face. His big blue eyes fixed themselves on the lovely woman with a look of childish wonder.
“Hello, Gus–didn’t see you! What’s the matter–sick?”
“Yah, ai baen hwick two days. Ai tank ai lack to hav doketer.”
“All right, I’ll send him up. What seems the matter?”
As they talked, Mrs. Field again chilled with the cold gray comfortlessness of it all: to be sick in such a place! The silent appearance of the man out of his grim corner was startling. She was glad when they drove out into the woods again, where the clear sunshine fell and the pines stood against the blazing winter sky motionless as iron trees. Her pleasure in the ride was growing less. To her delicate sense this life was sordid, not picturesque. She wondered how Williams endured it. They arrived at No. 8 just as the men were trailing down the road to work, after eating their dinner. Their gay-colored jackets of Mackinac wool stood out like trumpet notes in the prevailing white and blue and bronze-green.
The boss and the sealer came out and met them, and after introductions they went into the shanty to dinner. The cook was a deft young Norwegian–a clean, quick, gentlemanly fellow with a fine brown mustache. He cleared a place for them at one end of the long table, and they sat down.
It was a large camp, but much like the others. On the table were the same cheap iron forks, the tin plates, and the small tin basins (for tea) which made up the dinner-set. Basins of brown sugar stood about.
“Good gracious! Do people still eat brown sugar? Why, I haven’t seen any of that for ages!” cried Mrs. Field.
The stew was good and savory, and the bread fair. The tea was not all clover, but it tasted of the tin. Mrs. Field said:
“Beef, beef–everywhere beef. One might suppose a menagerie of desert animals ate here. Edward, we must make things more comfortable for our men. They must have cups to drink out of; these basins are horrible.”
It was humorous to the men, this housewifely suggestion.
“Oh, make it napkins, Allie!”
“You can laugh, but I sha’n’t rest after seeing this. If you thought I was going to say, ‘Oh, how picturesque!’ you’re mistaken. I think it’s barbarous.”
She was getting impatient of their patronizing laughter, as if she were a child. They changed their manner to one of acquiescence, but thought of her as a child just the same.
After dinner they all went out to see the crew working. It was the biggest crew anywhere in the neighborhood. Ridgeley got out and hitched the team to a tree, and took Field up to the skidway. Mrs. Field remained in the sleigh.
Near her “the swamping team,” a span of big, deep-red oxen, came and went among the green tops of the fallen pines. They crawled along their trails in the snow like some strange machinery, and the boy in a blue jacket moved almost as listlessly. Somewhere in the tangle of refuse boughs the swampers’ axes click-clocked, saws uttered their grating, rhythmic snarl, and great trees at intervals shivered, groaned, and fell with soft, rushing, cracking sweeps into the deep snow, and the swampers swarmed upon them like Lilliputians attacking a giant enemy.
There was something splendid (though tragic) in the work, but the thought of the homelessness of the men, their terrible beds, and their long hours of toil oppressed the delicate and refined woman. She began to take on culpability. She was partly in authority now, and this system must be changed. She was deep in plans for improvement, in shanties and in sleeping-places, when the men returned.
Ridgeley was saying: “No, we control about thirty thousand acres of pine as good as that. It ain’t what it was twenty years ago, but it’s worth money, after all.”
It was getting near to dark as they reached No. 6 again, and Ridgeley drew up and helped them out and into the cook’s shanty.
Mrs. Field was introduced to the cook, a short, rather sullen, but intelligent man. He stood over the red-hot stove, laying great slices of beef in a huge dripping-pan. He had a taffler, or assistant, in the person of a half-grown boy, at whom he jerked rough orders like hunks of stove wood. Some hit the boy and produced noticeable effects, others did not.
Meanwhile a triumphant sunset was making the west one splendor of purple and orange and crimson, which came over the cool green rim of the pines like the Valhalla March in Wagner.
Mrs. Field sat there in the dim room by the window, seeing that splendor flush and fade, and thinking how dangerous it was to ask where one’s wealth comes from in the world. Outside, the voices of the men thickened; they were dropping in by twos and fours, with teams and on foot.
The assistant arranged the basins in rows, and put one of the iron forks and knives on either side of each plate, and filled the sugar-basins, and dumped in the cold beans, and split the bread into slabs, and put small pots of tea here and there ready for the hands of the men.
At last, when the big pans of toast, the big plates of beef, were placed steaming on the table, the cook called Field and Ridgeley, and said:
“Set right here at the end.” He raised his arm to a ring which dangled on a wire. “Now look out; you’ll see ’em come–sidewise.” He jerked the ring, and disappeared into the kitchen.
A sudden tumult, shouts, trampling, laughter, and the door burst open and they streamed in: Norwegians, French, half-breeds–dark-skinned fellows, all of them, save the Norwegians. They came like a flood, but they fell silent at sight of a woman, so beautiful and strange to them.
All words ceased. They sank into place beside the table with the thump of falling sand-bags. They were all in their shirt-sleeves, but with faces cleanly washed, and the most of them had combed their hair; but they seemed very wild and hairy to Mrs. Field. She looked at her husband and Ridgeley with a grateful pleasure; it was so restful to have them close beside her.
The men ate like hungry dogs. They gorged in silence. Nothing was heard but the clank of knives on tin plates, the drop of heavy platters of food, and the occasional muttered words of some one asking for the bread or the gravy.
As they ate they furtively looked with great curiosity and admiration up at the dainty woman. Their eyes were bright and large, and gleamed out of the obscure brown of their dimly lighted faces with savage intensity–so it seemed to Mrs. Field, and she dropped her eyes before their glare.
Her husband and Ridgeley tried to enter into conversation with those sitting near. Ridgeley seemed on good terms with them all, and ventured a joke or word, at which they laughed with terrific energy, and fell as suddenly silent again.
As Mrs. Field looked up the second time she saw the dark, strange face of Williams a few places down, and opposite her. His eyes were fixed on her husband’s hands with a singular intensity. Her eyes followed his, and the beauty of her husband’s hands came to her again with new force. They were perfectly shaped, supple, warm-colored, and strong. Their color and deftness stood out in vivid contrast to the heavy, brown, cracked, and calloused, paw-like hands of the workmen.
Why should Williams study her husband’s hands? If he had looked at her she would not have been surprised. The other men she could read. They expressed either frank, simple admiration or furtive desire. But this man looked at her husband, and his eyes fell often upon his own hands, which trembled with fatigue. He handled his knife clumsily, and yet she could see he, too, had a fine hand–a slender, powerful hand, like that people call an artist hand–a craftsman-like hand.
He saw her looking at him, and he flashed one enigmatical glance into her eyes, and rose to go out.
“How you getting on, Williams?” Ridgeley asked.
Williams resented his question. “Oh, I’m all right,” he said, sullenly.
The meal was all over in an incredibly short time. One by one, two by two, they rose heavily and lumbered out with one last, wistful look at Mrs. Field. She will never know how seraphic she seemed sitting there amid those rough surroundings–the dim, red light of the kerosene lamp falling across her clear pallor, out of which her dark eyes shone with liquid softness, made deeper and darker by her half-sorrowful tenderness for these homeless fellows.
An hour later, as they were standing at the door, just ready to take to their sleigh, they heard the scraping of a fiddle.
“Oh, some one is going to play!” Mrs. Field cried, with visions of the rollicking good times she had heard so much about, and of which she had seen nothing so far. “Can’t I look in?”
Ridgeley was dubious. “I’ll go and see,” he said, and entered the door. “Boys, Mrs. Field wants to look in a minute. Go on with your fiddling, Sam–only I wanted to see that you weren’t sitting around in dishabill.”
This seemed a good joke, and they all howled and haw-hawed gleefully.
“So go right ahead with your evening prayers. All but–you understand!”
“All right, captain,” said Sam, the man with the fiddle.
When Mrs. Field looked in, two men were furiously grinding axes; several were sewing on ragged garments; all were smoking; some were dressing chapped or bruised fingers. The atmosphere was horrible. The socks and shirts were steaming above the huge stove; the smoke and stench for a moment were sickening, but Ridgeley pushed them just inside the door.
“It’s better out of the draught.”
Sam jigged away on the violin. The men kept time with the cranks of the grindstone, and all faces turned with bashful smiles and bold grins at Mrs. Field. Most of them shrank a little from her look, like shy animals.
Ridgeley threw open the window. “In the old days,” he explained to Mrs. Field, “we used a fireplace, and that kept the air better.”
As her sense of smell became deadened the air seemed a little more tolerable to Mrs. Field.
“Oh, we must change all this,” she said. “It is horrible.”
“Play us a tune,” said Sam, extending the violin to Field. He did not think Field could play. It was merely a shot in the dark on his part.
Field took it and looked at it and sounded it. On every side the men turned face in eager expectancy.
“He can play, that feller.”
“I’ll bet he can. He handles her as if he knew her.”
“You bet your life. Tune up, Cap.”
Williams came from the obscurity somewhere, and looked over the shoulders of the men.
“Down in front!” somebody called, and the men took seats on the benches, leaving Field standing with the violin in hand. He smiled around upon them in a frank, pleased way, quite ready to show his skill. He played Annie Laurie, and a storm of applause broke out.
“Hoo-ray! Bully for you!”
“Sam, you’re out of it!”
“Sam, your name is Mud!”
“Give us another, Cap!”
“It ain’t the same fiddle!”
He played again some simple tune, and he played it with the touch which showed the skilled amateur. As he played, Mrs. Field noticed a growing restlessness on Williams’ part. He moved about uneasily. He gnawed at his finger-nails. His eyes glowed with a singular fire. His hands drummed and fingered. At last he approached, and said, roughly:
“Let me take that fiddle a minute.”
“Oh, cheese it, Williams!” the men cried. “Let the other man play.”
“What do you want to do with the fiddle–think it’s a music-box?” asked Sam, its owner.
“Go to hell!” said Williams. As Field gave the violin over to him, his hands seemed to tremble with eagerness.
He raised his bow, and struck into an imposing, brilliant strain, and the men fell back in astonishment.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” gasped the owner of the violin.
“Keep quiet, Sam.”
Mrs. Field looked at her husband. “Why, Ed, he is playing Sarasate!”
“That’s what he is,” he returned, slangily, too much astonished to do more than gaze. Williams played on.
There was a faint defect in the high notes, as if his fingers did not touch the strings properly, but his bow action showed cultivation and breadth of feeling. As he struck into one of those difficult octave-leaping movements his face became savage. On the E string a squeal broke forth; he flung the violin into Sam’s lap with a ferocious curse, and then, extending his hands, hard, crooked to fit the axe-helve, calloused and chapped, he said to Field:
“Look at my hands! Lovely things to play with, aren’t they?”
His voice trembled with passion. He turned and went outside. As he passed Mrs. Field his head was bowed, and he was uttering a groaning cry like one suffering physical pain.
“That’s what drink does for a man,” Ridgeley said, as they watched Williams disappear down the swampers’ trail.
“That man has been a violinist,” said Field. “What’s he doing up here?”
“Came to get away from himself, I guess,” Ridgeley replied.
“I’m afraid he’s failed,” said Field, as he put his arm about his wife and led her to the sleigh.
The ride home was made mainly in silence. “Oh, the splendid stillness!” the woman kept saying in her heart. “Oh, the splendid moonlight, the marvellous radiance!” Everywhere a heavenly serenity–not a footstep, not a bell, not a cry, not a cracking tree–nothing but vivid light, white snow dappled and lined with shadows, and trees etched against a starlit sky. Unutterable splendor of light and sheen and shadow. Wide wastes of snow so white the stumps stood like columns of charcoal. A night of Nature’s making, when she is tired of noise and blare of color.
And in the midst of it stood the camp, with its reek of obscenity, foul odors, and tobacco smoke, to which a tortured soul must return.
The following Saturday afternoon, as Ridgeley and Field entered the office, Williams rose to meet them. He looked different–finer some way, Field imagined. At any rate, he was perfectly sober. He was freshly shaven, and though his clothes were rough, he appeared the man of education he really was. His manner was cold and distant.
“I’d like to be paid off, Mr. Ridgeley,” he said. “I guess what’s left of my pay will take me out of this.”
“Where do you propose to go?” Ridgeley asked, with kindly interest.
Williams must have perceived his kindliness, for he answered: “I’m going home to my wife, to my violin. I am going to try living once more.”
After he had gone out, Field said, “I wonder if he’ll do it?”
“Oh, I shouldn’t wonder. I’ve seen men brace up just as mysteriously as that and stay right by their resolutions. I thought he didn’t look like a common lumber Jack when he came in.”
“Ed, your playing did it!” Mrs. Field cried, when she heard of Williams’ resolution. “Oh, how happy his wife will be! She’ll save him yet!”
“Well, I don’t know; depends on what kind of a woman she is.”