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Trail of the Axe, The

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<SPAN NAME="chap09"></SPAN> <H3 ALIGN="center"> CHAPTER IX </H3> <H4 ALIGN="center"> IN DAVE'S OFFICE </H4> <P> It was the day after the bazaar. Betty had just returned home from her school for midday dinner. She was sitting at the open window, waiting while her aunt set the meal. The cool green of the wild-cucumbers covering the veranda tempered the blistering summer heat which oppressed the valley. The girl was looking out upon the village below her, at the woodland slopes opposite, at the distant narrowing of the mighty walls which bounded her world, but she saw none of these things. She saw nothing of the beauty, the gracious foliage, the wonderful sunlight she loved. Her gaze was introspective. She saw only the pictures her thoughts conjured up. </P> <P> They were not pleasant pictures either, but they were absorbing. She knew that she had arrived at a crisis in her life. The scene she had witnessed at the bazaar was still burning in her brain. The shame stung and revolted her. The horror of it was sickening. Jim's disgrace was complete; yet, in spite of it, she could not help remembering Dave's appeal for him. </P> <P> He had said that Jim needed her more than ever now, and the thought made her uneasy, and her tender heart urged her in a direction she knew she must not take. It was so easy for her to condemn, she who knew nothing of temptation. And yet her position was so utterly impossible. Jim had been in the village all this time and had not been near her, that is except on this one occasion, when he was drunk. He was evidently afraid to come near her. He was a coward, and she hated cowards. </P> <P> He had even persuaded Dave to intercede for him. She smiled as she thought of it. But her smile was for Dave, and not at the other's display of cowardice. It was not a smile of amusement either. She only smiled at the absurdity of Dave pleading for one whom he knew to be wholly unworthy. It was the man's large heart, she told herself. And almost in the same breath she found herself resenting his kindly interference, and wishing he would mind his own business. Why should he be always thinking of others? Why should he not think sometimes of himself? </P> <P> Her dreaming now became of Dave alone, and she found herself reviewing his life as she knew it. Her eyes grew tender, and she basked in the sunlight of a world changed to pleasant thought. His ugliness no longer troubled her&mdash;she no longer saw it. She saw only the spirit inside the man, and somehow his roughnesses of voice, manner and appearance seemed a wholly fitting accompaniment to it. Her thoughts of Jim had gone from her entirely. The crisis which she was facing had receded into the shadows. Dave became her dominant thought, and she started when her uncle's voice suddenly broke in upon her reverie. </P> <P> "Betty," he said, coming up behind her and laying one lean hand upon her rounded shoulder, "I haven't had time to speak to you about it since the bazaar, but now I want to tell you that you can have nothing more to do with young Truscott. He is a thorough-paced young scoundrel and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "You need say no more, uncle," the girl broke in bitterly. "You can tell me nothing I do not already know of him." </P> <P> "Then I trust you will send him about his business at once," added her aunt, who had entered the room bearing the dinner joint on a tray, just in time to hear Betty's reply. </P> <P> Betty looked at her aunt's round, good-natured face. For once it was cold and angry. From her she looked up at her uncle's, and the decision she saw in his frank eyes left her no alternative but a direct reply. </P> <P> "I intend to settle everything this afternoon," she said simply. </P> <P> "In what way?" inquired her uncle sharply. </P> <P> Betty rose from her seat and crossed the room to her aunt's side. The latter, having set the dinner, was waiting beside her chair ready to sit down as soon as the matter should be settled. Betty placed her arm about her stout waist, and the elder woman's face promptly relaxed. She could never long keep up even a pretense of severity where Betty was concerned. </P> <P> The girl promptly addressed herself to her uncle with all the frankness of one assured of a sympathetic hearing. </P> <P> "You have always taught me, uncle dear, that duty must be my first consideration in life," she began steadily. "I have tried to live up to that, and it has possibly made my conscience a little over keen." Her face clouded, but the clouds broke immediately, chased away by a plaintive smile. "When Jim asked me to marry him five years ago I believed I loved him. At one time I'm sure I did, in a silly, girlish fashion. But soon after he went away I realized that a girlish infatuation is not real love. This knowledge I tried to hide even from myself. I would not believe it, and for a long time I almost managed to convince myself. That was until Jim's letters became fewer and colder. With his change I no longer attempted to conceal from myself the real state of my own feelings. But even then my conscience wouldn't let me alone. I had promised to wait for him, and I made up my mind that, come what might, unless he made it impossible I would marry him." She sighed. "Well, you know the rest. He has now made it impossible. What his real feelings are for me," she went on with a pathetic smile, "I have not had an opportunity of gauging. As you know, he has not been near me. I shall now make it my business to see him this afternoon and settle everything. My conscience isn't by any means easy about it, but I intend to give him up." </P> <P> Her aunt squeezed her arm sympathetically, and her uncle nodded his approval. </P> <P> "Where are you going to see him?" the latter asked. "You mustn't see him alone." Then he burst out wrathfully, "He's a blackguard, and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "No, no, uncle, don't say that," Betty interrupted him. "Surely he is to be pitied. Remember him as he was. You cannot tell what temptations have come his way." </P> <P> The parson's face cleared at once. His angry outbursts were always short-lived. </P> <P> "I'm sorry, Betty," he said. "My dear, you shame me. I'm afraid that my hasty temper is always leading to my undoing as a churchman." The half-humorous smile which accompanied his words passed swiftly. "Where are you going to see him?" he again demanded. </P> <P> "Down at Dave's office," the girl replied, after a moment's thought. </P> <P> "Eh?" Her uncle was startled; but Mary Chepstow smiled on her encouragingly. </P> <P> "Yes, you see," she went on, "Dave had a good deal to do with&mdash;our engagement&mdash;in a way, and&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "I'm glad Dave is going to help you through this business," said her aunt, with a glance which effectually kept her husband silent. "He's a dear fellow, and&mdash;let's have our dinner&mdash;it's nearly cold." </P> <P> Aunt Mary was not brilliant, she was not meddlesome, but she had all a woman's intuition. She felt that enough had been said. And for some obscure reason she was glad that Dave was to have a hand in this matter. Nor had her satisfaction anything to do with the man's ability to protect her niece from possible insult. </P> <P> That afternoon Dave received an unexpected visit. He was alone in his office, clad for hard work, without coat, waistcoat, collar or tie. He had no scruples in these matters. With all an American's love of freedom he abandoned himself to all he undertook with a whole-heartedness which could not tolerate even the restraint of what he considered unnecessary clothing. And just now, in the terrific heat, all these things were superfluous. </P> <P> Betty looked particularly charming as she hurried across the lumber-yard. She was dressed in a spotless white cotton frock, and, under her large sun-hat, her brown hair shone in the sunlight like burnished copper. Without the least hesitation she approached the office and knocked peremptorily on the door. </P> <P> The man inside grudgingly answered the summons. His books were occupying all his attention, and his thoughts were filled with columns of figures. But the moment he beheld the white, smiling vision the last of his figures fled precipitately from his mind. </P> <P> "Why, come right in, little Betty," he cried, hastily setting the only available chair for her. Then he bethought himself of his attire. "Say, you might have let me know. Just half a minute and I'll fix myself up." </P> <P> But the girl instantly protested. "You'll do just as you are," she exclaimed. "Now you look like a lumberman. And I like you best that way." </P> <P> Dave grinned and sat down a little self-consciously. But Betty had no idea of letting any conventionalities interfere with the matter she had in hand. She was always direct, always single-minded, when her decision was taken. She gave him no time to speculate as to the object of her visit. </P> <P> "Dave," she began seriously, "I want you to do me a great favor." Then she smiled. "As usual," she added. "I want you to send for Jim Truscott and bring him here." </P> <P> Dave was on his feet in an instant and crossed to the door. The next moment his voice roared out to one of his foremen. It was a shout that could have been heard across his own milling floor with every saw shrieking on the top of its work. </P> <P> He waited, and presently Simon Odd came hurrying across the yard. He spoke to him outside, and then returned to the office. </P> <P> "He'll be along in a few minutes," he said. "I've sent Odd with the buckboard." </P> <P> "Are you sure he'll come?" </P> <P> Dave smiled confidently. </P> <P> "I told Odd to bring him." </P> <P> "I hope he'll come willingly," the girl said, after a thoughtful pause. </P> <P> "So do I," observed Dave dryly. "Well, little girl?" </P> <P> Betty understood the inquiry, and looked him fearlessly in the eyes. </P> <P> "You sowed your wheat on barren soil, Dave," she said decidedly. "Your appeal for Jim has borne no fruit." </P> <P> The man shifted his position. It was the only sign he gave. But the fires were stirred into a sudden blaze, and his blood ran fiercely through his veins. </P> <P> "That's not a heap like you, Betty," was all he said. </P> <P> "Isn't it?" The girl turned to the window. The dirt on the glass made it difficult for her to see out of it, but she gazed at it steadily. </P> <P> "I suppose you'll think me a mean, heartless creature," she said slowly. "You'll think little enough of my promises, and still less of&mdash;of my loyalty." She paused. Then she raised her head and turned to him again. "I cannot marry Jim. I cannot undertake his reformation. I cannot give up my life to a man whom I now know I never really loved. I know you will not understand. I know, only too well, your own lofty spirit, your absolute unselfishness. I know that had you been in my place you would have fulfilled your promise at any cost. But I can't. I simply can't." </P> <P> "No." </P> <P> It was the man's only comment. But his mind was busy. He knew Betty so well that he understood a great deal without asking questions. </P> <P> "Aunt Mary and uncle know my decision," the girl went on. "They know I am here, and that I am going to see Jim in your presence. You see, I thought if I sent for him to come to our house he might refuse. He might insult uncle again. I thought, somehow, it would be different with you." </P> <P> Dave nodded. </P> <P> "I don't blame your uncle and aunt for making you give him up," he said. "I'd have done it in their place." </P> <P> "Yet you appealed for him?" </P> <P> Betty's eyes questioned him. </P> <P> "Sure, I promised to help him. That was before the bazaar." </P> <P> Suddenly Betty held out her hands with a little appealing movement. Dave wanted to seize them and crush them in his own, but he did not stir. </P> <P> "Tell me you don't think badly of me. Tell me you do not think me a heartless, wretched woman. I have thought and thought, and prayed for guidance. And now it seems to me I am a thoroughly wicked girl. But I cannot&mdash;I must not marry him." </P> <P> The man rose abruptly from his seat. He could no longer look into her troubled eyes and keep his own secret. When he spoke it was with his back to her, as he made a pretense of filling his pipe at the tobacco jar on the table. His voice was deep with emotion. </P> <P> "I thank God you've decided," he said. "You've done right by everybody. And you've shown more courage refusing him than if you'd gone through with your promise, because you've done it against your conscience. No, little Betty," he went on, turning to her again with infinite kindness in his steady eyes, "there's no one can call you heartless, or any other cruel name&mdash;and&mdash;and they'd better not in my hearing," he finished up clumsily. </P> <P> A few minutes later the rattle of buckboard wheels sounded outside, and before Betty could reply Dave took the opportunity of going to the door. Jim Truscott was standing outside with the gigantic Simon Odd close behind him, much in the manner of a warder watching his prisoner. The flicker of a smile came and went in the lumberman's eyes at the sight. Then his attention was held by the anger he saw in Jim's dissipated face. He was not a pleasant sight. His eyes were heavy and bloodshot, and the lines about them were accentuated by his general unwashed appearance. Even at that distance, as they stood there facing each other, he caught the reek of stale brandy the man exhaled. His clothes, too, had the appearance of having been flung on hurriedly, and the shirt and collar he wore were plainly filthy. Altogether he was an object for pity, and at the same time it was not possible to feel anything for him but a profound repugnance. </P> <P> "He was abed," said the giant Odd, the moment Dave appeared. Then with a complacent grin, "But he guessed he'd come right along when I told him you was kind o' busy an' needed him important." </P> <P> But Jim's angry face flamed. </P> <P> "Nothing of the sort. This damned ruffian of yours dragged me out, blast him." </P> <P> "Cut it!" Dave warned him sharply. "There's a lady here to see you. Come right in." </P> <P> The warning had instant effect. Truscott stepped into the room and stood face to face with Betty. Dave closed the door and stood aside. For a few intense moments no word was spoken. The man stared stupidly into the girl's unsmiling face; then he looked across at Dave. It was Betty who finally broke the silence. </P> <P> "Well, Jim," she said kindly, "at last we meet." She noted all the signs of dissipation in the young face, which, but a few years ago, had been so fresh and clean and good-looking. Now it was so different, and, to her woman's eyes, there was more than the mere outward signs. There was a spirit looking out of his bloodshot eyes that she did not recognize. It was as though the soul of the man had changed; it had degenerated to a lower grade. There was something unwholesome in his expression, as though some latent brutality had been stirred into life, and had obliterated every vestige of that clean, boyish spirit that had once been his. </P> <P> "And," she went on, as he remained silent, "you had to be cajoled into coming to see me." </P> <P> Still the man did not speak. Whether it was shame that held him silent it was impossible to tell. Probably not, for there was a steadily growing light in his eyes that suggested thoughts of anything but of a moral tone. He was held by her beauty&mdash;he was held as a man is sometimes held by some ravishing vision that appeals to his lower senses. He lost no detail of her perfect woman's figure, the seductive contours so wonderfully moulded. His eyes drank in the sight, and it set his blood afire. </P> <P> Dave never turned his eyes. He too was watching. And he understood, and resented, the storm that was lashing through the man's veins. </P> <P> "Have you nothing to say to me after these long years?" the girl asked again, forced to break the desperate silence. Then the woman in her found voice, "Oh! Jim, Jim! the pity of it. And I thought you so strong." </P> <P> Dave clenched his hands at his sides, but made no other movement. Then Betty's manner suddenly changed. All the warmth died out of her voice, and, mistress of herself again, she went straight to her object. </P> <P> "Jim, it was I who sent for you. I asked Dave to do this for me." </P> <P> "A word from you would have been enough," the man said, with a sudden fire that lost nothing of its fierce passion in the hoarse tone in which he spoke. </P> <P> "A word from me?" There was unconscious irony in the girl's reply. </P> <P> "Yes, a word. I know. You are thinking of when your uncle came to me; you're thinking of our first meeting on the bridge; you're thinking of yesterday. I was drunk. I admit it. But I'm not always drunk. I tell you a word from you would have been enough." </P> <P> The girl's eyes reproached him. </P> <P> "A word from me, after five years' absence? It seems to me you should not have needed a word from me. Jim, had you come to me, whatever your state, poor or rich, it would have made no difference to me. I should have met you as we parted, ready to fulfil my pledge." </P> <P> "You mean&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> The man's bloodshot eyes were alight. A tremendous passion was urging him to the limits of his restraining powers. He had almost forgotten where he was. He had quite forgotten Dave. The sight of this woman with her beautiful figure, her sweet face and serious eyes, almost maddened him. He was from the wilds, where he had long since buried his wholesome youthful ideals. The life he had lived had entirely deadened all lofty thought. He only saw with a brain debased to the level of the animal. He desired her. He madly desired her now that he had seen her again, and he realized that his desire was about to be thwarted. </P> <P> Betty drew back a step. The movement was unconscious. It was the woman's instinct at the sight of something threatening which made her draw away from the passion she saw blazing in his eyes. Dave silently watched the man. </P> <P> "I mean," said the girl solemnly, "that you have made our pledge impossible. I mean," she went on, with quiet dignity, "that I cannot marry you now, even if you wish it. No, no," as Jim made a sudden movement to speak, "it is quite useless to discuss the matter further. I insisted on this meeting to settle the matter beyond question. Dave here witnessed our engagement, and I wished him to witness its termination. You will be better free, and so shall I. There could have been no happiness in a marriage between us&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "But I won't give you up," the man suddenly broke out. He had passed the narrow limits of his restraint. His face flushed and showed blotched in the sudden scarlet. For a second, after that first fiery outburst, no words came. Then the torrent flowed forth. "Is this what I went away for? Is this what I have slaved for in the wilds of the Yukon? Is this what I am to find now that I have made the money you desired? No, no, you can't get rid of me like that; you don't mean it, you can't mean it. Betty, I want you more than anything on earth," he rushed on, his voice dropping to a persuasive note. "I want you, and without you life is nothing to me. I must have you!" He took a step forward. But it was only a step, for the girl's steady eyes held him, and checked his further advance. And something in her attitude turned his mood to one of fierce protest. "What is it that has come between us? What is it that has changed you?" </P> <P> Betty snatched at his pause. </P> <P> "Such questions come well from you, Jim," she said, with some bitterness. "You know the truth. You do not need me to tell you." Her tone suddenly let the demon in the man loose. His passion-lit eyes lowered, and a furtive, sinister light shone in them when he lifted them again. </P> <P> "I know. I understand," he cried. "This is an excuse, and it serves you well." The coldness of his voice was in painful contrast to his recent passion. "The old story, eh? You have found some one else. I never thought much of a woman's promise, anyhow. I wonder who it is." Then with a sudden vehemence. "But you shan't marry him. Do you hear? You shan't while I am&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> "Quit it!" </P> <P> Dave's great voice suddenly filled the room and cut the man's threats short. </P> <P> Jim turned on him in a flash; until that moment he had entirely forgotten the lumberman. He eyed the giant for a second. Then he laughed cynically. </P> <P> "Oh, I'd forgotten you. Of course," he went on. "I see now. I never thought of it before. I remember, you were on the bridge together when I first&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> Dave had taken a couple of strides and now stood between the two. His movement silenced the man, while he addressed himself to Betty. </P> <P> "You're finished with him?" he inquired in a deep, harsh voice. </P> <P> There was something so compelling about him that Betty simply nodded. Instantly he swung round on the younger man. </P> <P> "You'll vacate this place&mdash;quick," he said deliberately. </P> <P> The two men eyed each other for some seconds. Truscott's look meant mischief, Dave's was calmly determined. The latter finally stepped aside and crossing to the door held it open. </P> <P> "I said you'll&mdash;vacate," he said sharply. </P> <P> Truscott turned and glanced at the open door. Then he glanced at Betty, who had drawn farther away. Finally his frigid eyes turned upon Dave's great figure standing at the door. For an instant a wicked smile played round his lips, and he spoke in the same cynical tone. </P> <P> "I never thought of you in the marriage market, Dave," he said, with a vicious laugh. "I suppose it's only natural. Nobody ever associated you with marriage. Somehow your manner and appearance don't suggest it. I seem to see you handling lumber all your life, not dandling children on your knee. But there, you're a good catch&mdash;a mighty good one. And I was fool enough to trust you with my cause. Ye gods! Well, your weight of money has done it, no doubt. I congratulate you. She has lied to me, and no doubt she will lie&mdash;&mdash;" </P> <P> But the man, if he finished his remark at all, must have done so to the stacks of lumber in the yards, and to the accompaniment of the shriek of the saws. There was no fuss. Scarcely any struggle. Dave moved with cat-like swiftness, which in a man of his size was quite miraculous, and in a flash Jim Truscott was sprawling on the hard red ground on the other side of the doorway. </P> <P> And when Dave looked round at Betty the girl's face was covered with her hands, and she was weeping. He stood for a second all contrition, and clumsily fumbling for words. He believed she was distressed at his brutal action. </P> <P> "I'm sorry, little Betty," he blurted out at last. "I'm real sorry. But I just couldn't help it." </P> <BR><BR><BR>
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