The Silver Horde by Rex Ellingwood Beach
Chapter XII. In Which Miss Wayland is of Two Minds
That Willis Marsh still retained some curiosity regarding Emerson's presence at the Annex on that night four weeks before, and that the young man's non-committal reply to his inquiry about the new enterprise mentioned by Mildred had not entirely satisfied him, was proved by the remark which he addressed to the girl the moment her father's departure afforded him an opportunity.
"You said Mr. Emerson's new proposition was better than mining, did you not?" He was the embodiment of friendly interest, showing just the proper degree of complaisant expectancy. "I am decidedly curious to know what undertaking is sufficiently momentous to draw a young man away from beauty's side up into such a wilderness, particularly in the dead of winter."
Miss Wayland's guarded reply gave Emerson a moment in which to collect his thoughts. He was still too much confused by the recent disclosures to adjust himself fully to the situation. The one idea uppermost in his mind was to enlighten Marsh as little as possible; for if this new train of events was really to prove his undoing, as already he half believed, he would at any rate save himself from the humiliation of acknowledging defeat. If, on the other hand, he should decide to go ahead and wage war against the trust as an independent packer, then secrecy for the present was doubly imperative.
Once Marsh gained an inkling that he and Big George were equipping themselves to go back to Kalvik--to Kalvik, Marsh's own stronghold, of all places!--he could and would thwart them without doubt. These thoughts flashed through Boyd's mind with bewildering rapidity, yet he managed to equal the other's show of polite indifference as he remarked:
"I am not far enough along with my plans to discuss them."
"Perhaps if I knew their nature I might--"
Boyd laughed. "I am afraid a hydraulic proposition would not interest such a hard-headed business man as you." To himself he added: "Good heavens! I am worse than Fraser with his nebulous schemes!"
"Oh, hydraulic mining? Well, hardly!" the other replied. "I understood Miss Wayland to say that this was something better than a mine."
"Is a hydraulic a mine?" inquired Mildred; "I thought it was a water-power of some sort!"
"Once a miner always a miner," the younger man quoted, lightly.
As if with a shadow of doubt, Marsh next inquired:
"Didn't I meet you the other evening at the Annex?"
Boyd admitted the fact, with the air of one who exaggerates his interest in a trifling topic for the sake of conversation. He was beginning to be surprised at his own powers of dissimulation.
"And you were with George Balt?"
"Exactly. I picked him up on my way out from Nome; he was so thoroughly disgusted with Alaska that I helped him get back to the States."
Marsh's eyes gleamed at this welcome intelligence for certain misgivings had preyed upon him since that night of the encounter. He turned to the girl with the explanation:
"This fellow we speak of is a queer, unbalanced savage who nurses an insane hatred for me. I employed him once, but had to discharge him for incompetence, and he has threatened my life repeatedly. You may imagine the start it gave me to stroll into a cafe, at this distance from Kalvik, and find him seated at a near-by table."
"How strange!" Miss Wayland observed. "What did he do?"
"Mr. Emerson prevented him from making a scene. Only for his interference I might have been forced to--protect myself."
In spite of himself Boyd could not but wonder if Marsh were really the sort of man he had been painted; or if, as might appear sufficiently credible, he had been maligned through Cherry's prejudice and George Balt's hatred. To-night he seemed the most kindly and courteous of men.
Under Mildred's skilful direction the conversation had drifted into other channels by the time Mr. Wayland returned. Now, all at once, Boyd beheld the magnate in a new guise. Until to-night he had seen in him nothing more than a prospective father-in-law, a stubborn, dominant old fellow whose half-contemptuous toleration, unpleasant enough at times, never really amounted to active enmity. Now, however, he recognized in Wayne Wayland a commercial foe, and his knowledge of the man's character gave sufficient assurance that he might expect no mercy or consideration from him one moment after it transpired that their financial interests were in conflict.
So far the two had never seriously clashed, but sooner or later the capitalist must learn the truth; and when he did, when that iron-jawed, iron-willed autocrat once discovered that this youth whom he had taken into his home with so little thought of possible harm had actually dared to oppose him, his indignation would pass all bounds.
And then, for the first time, Emerson realized the impropriety of his own present position. He was here under false pretences; they had bared to him secrets not rightly his, with which he might arm himself. When this, too, became known to the financier, he would regard him not only as a presumptuous enemy, but as a traitor. Boyd knew the old tyrant too well to doubt his course of action; thenceforth there would be war to the hilt.
The enterprise which an hour ago had seemed so certain of success, the enterprise which he had fathered at such cost of labor and suffering, now seemed entirely hopeless. The futility of trying to oppose these men, equipped as they were with limitless means and experience, struck him with such force as to make him almost physically faint and sick. Even had his canning plant been open and running, he knew that they would never take him in; Wayne Wayland's consistent attitude toward him showed that plainly enough. And with nothing more tangible to offer than a half-born dream, they would laugh him to scorn. Furthermore, they had proclaimed their determination to choke all rivalry.
A sort of panic seized Boyd. If his present scheme fell through, what else could he do? Whither could he turn, even for his own livelihood, except back to the hateful isolation of a miner's life? That would mean other years as black as those just ended. There had been a time when he could boldly have taken the bit in his teeth and forced Mr. Wayland to reckon with him, but since his return Mildred herself had withdrawn her consent to a marriage that would mean immediate separation from the life that she loved. That course, therefore, was closed to him. If ever he was to win her, he must play this game of desperate chances to the end.
The announcement of dinner interrupted his dismayed reflections, and he walked out in company with Mr. Wayland, who linked arms with him as if to afford Willis Marsh every advantage, fleeting though it might prove.
"He is a wonderful fellow," the old gentleman observed, sotto voce, indicating Marsh--"one of the keenest business men I ever met."
"Indeed, he is. He is a money-maker, too; his associates swear by him. If I were you, my boy, I would study him; he is a good man to imitate."
At the dinner-table the talk at first was general, and of a character appropriate for the hour, but Miss Wayland, oddly enough, seemed bent upon leading the discussion back into its former course, and displayed such an unusual thirst for information regarding the North American Packers' Association that her father was moved to remark upon it.
"What in the world has come over you, Mildred?" he said. "You never cared to hear about my doings before."
"Please don't discourage me," she urged. "I am really in earnest; I should like to know all about this new trust of yours. Perhaps my little universe is growing a bit tiresome to me."
"Miss Mildred is truly your daughter," Marsh observed, admiringly. "But I fear the matter doesn't interest Mr. Emerson?"
"Oh, indeed it does," Mildred smilingly responded. "Doesn't it, Boyd?"
He flushed uncomfortably as he acquiesced.
"Now, please tell me more about it," the girl went on. "You know you are both full of the thing, and there are only we four here, so let's be natural; I am dreadfully tired of being conventional."
"Tut, tut!" exclaimed her father. "That comes of association with these untamed Westerners." Yet he plainly showed that he was flattered by her unexpected enthusiasm and more than ready to humor her.
Both men, in truth, were jubilant, and so thoroughly in tune with the subject which had obsessed them these past months that it took little urging to set them talking in harmony with the girl's wishes. Readily accepting the cue of informality, they grew communicative, and told of the troubles they had encountered in launching the gigantic combination, joking over the obstacles that had threatened to wreck it, and complimenting each other upon their persistence and sagacity.
Meanwhile, Emerson's discomfort steadily increased. He wondered if this were a deliberate effort on Mildred's part, or if she really had any idea of what bearing it all had upon his plans. The further it went, however, the more clearly he perceived the formidable nature of the new barrier between himself and Mildred which her father had unwittingly raised.
"So far it has been all hard work," Wayne Wayland at length announced, "but in the future I propose to derive some pleasure from this affair. I am tired out. For a long time I have been planning a trip somewhere, and now I think I shall make a tour of inspection in the spring and visit the various holdings of the North American Packers' Association. In that way I can combine recreation and business."
"But you detest travel as much as I do," said Mildred.
"This would be entirely different from ordinary travel. The first vice- president has his yacht on the Pacific Coast, and offers her to the board of directors for a summer's cruise."
"How far will you go?" questioned Boyd.
"Clear up to Mr. Marsh's station."
"Yes; that is the plan," Marsh chimed in. "The scenery is more marvellous than that of Norway, the weather is delightful. Moreover, The Grande Dame is the best-equipped yacht on the Pacific, so the board of directors can take their families with them, and enjoy a wonderful outing among the fjords and glaciers beneath the midnight sun. You see, I am selfish in urging it, Miss Wayland. I expect you to join the party."
"I am sure you would like it, Mildred," the magnate added.
Boyd could scarcely believe his ears. Would they come to Kalvik? Would they all assemble there in that unmapped nook? And suppose they should-- had he the courage to continue his mad enterprise? It was all so unreal! He was torn between the desire to have Mildred agree, and fear of the influence Marsh might gain during such a trip. But Miss Wayland evidently had an eye to her own comfort, for she replied:
"No, indeed! The one thing I abhor above land travel is a sea voyage; I am a wretched sailor."
"But this trip would be worth while," urged her father. "Why, it will be a regular voyage of discovery; I am as excited over it as a country boy on circus day."
Marsh seconded him with all his powers of persuasion, but the girl, greatly to Emerson's surprise, merely reaffirmed her determination.
"Oh, I dare say I should enjoy the scenery," she observed, with a glance at Boyd; "but, on the other hand, I don't care for rough things, and I prefer hearing about canneries to visiting them. They must be very smelly. Above all, I simply refuse to be seasick." In her eyes was a half-defiant look which Emerson had never seen there before.
"I am sorry," Marsh acknowledged, frankly. "You see, there are no women in our country; and six months without a word or a smile from your gentle sex makes a man ready to hate himself and his fellow-creatures."
"Are there no women in Alaska?" questioned the girl.
"In the mining-camps, yes, but we fishermen live lonely lives."
"But the coy, shrinking Indian maidens? I have read about them."
"They are terrible affairs," Marsh declared. "They are flat of nose, their lips are pierced, and they are very--well, dirty."
"Not always!" Boyd gave voice to his general annoyance and growing dislike for Marsh in an abrupt denial, "I have seen some very attractive squaws, particularly breeds."
"Where?" demanded the other, sceptically.
"Well, at Kalvik, for instance,"
"Kalvik!" ejaculated Marsh.
"Yes; your home. You must know Chakawana, the girl they call 'The Snowbird'?"
"Come, come! She knows you very well."
"Ah, a mystery! He is concealing something!" cried Miss Wayland.
Marsh directed a sharp glance at Boyd before answering. "I presume you refer to Constantine's sister; I was speaking generally--of course, there are exceptions. As a matter of fact, I wasn't exactly right when I said we had no white women whatever at Kalvik. Mr. Emerson doubtless has met Cherry Malotte?"
"I have," acknowledged Boyd. "She was very kind to us."
"More damning disclosures," chuckled Mr. Wayland. "Pray, who is she?"
"I should like very much to know," Emerson answered.
"Oh, delightful!" exclaimed Mildred. "First, a beautiful Indian girl; now, a mysterious white woman! Why, Kalvik is decidedly interesting."
"There is nothing mysterious about the white woman," said Marsh. "She is quite typical--just a plain mining camp hanger-on who drifted down our way."
"Not at all," Boyd disclaimed, angrily. "Miss Malotte is a fine woman;" then, at Marsh's short laugh, "and her conduct bears favorable comparison with that of the other white people at Kalvik."
Marsh allowed his eyes to waver at this, but to Mildred he apologized. "She is not the sort one cares to discuss."
"How do you know?" demanded Cherry's champion. "Do you know anything against her character?"
"I know she is a disturbing element at Kalviks and has caused us a great deal of trouble."
It was Boyd's turn to laugh. "But surely that has nothing to do with her character."
"My dear fellow"--Marsh shrugged his shoulders apologetically--"if I had dreamed she was a friend of yours, I never would have spoken."
"She is a friend," Emerson persisted doggedly, "and I admire her because she is a girl of spirit. If she had not been possessed of enough courage to disregard your instructions, I might have been forced to eject your watchman and take possession of one of your canneries."
"We can't entertain all comers. We leave that to Miss Malotte."
"And George Balt, eh?"
"Dear! dear!" laughed Miss Wayland. "I feel as if I were at a meeting of the Woman's Guild."
"In our business we must adhere to a definite policy," Marsh explained to the others. "Sometimes we are misjudged by travellers who consider us heartless, but we can't take care of every one."
"Not even your sick natives. Well, but for Miss Malotte some of your fishermen would have starved this winter, and you might have been short- handed next year."
"We give them work. Why should we support them?"
"I don't know of any legal reason, and ethics don't count for much up there. Nevertheless, Cherry Malotte has seen to it that the children, at least, haven't suffered. She saved a little brother of this Constantine you mention."
"Constantine has no brother," Marsh answered. "I happen to know, because he worked for me."
"This was a little red-headed youngster."
"Ah!" Marsh's ejaculation was sharp. "What was the matter with it?"
"Did it get well?"
"It was getting along all right when I left."
The other fell silent, while Miss Wayland inquired, curiously: "What is this mysterious woman like?"
"She is young, refined--thoroughly nice in every way."
"Good-looking also, I dare say?"
She was about to pursue her inquiries further, but the dinner was finished and Mr. Wayland had asked for his favorite cigars, so she rose and Boyd accompanied her, leaving the others to smoke. But, strangely enough, Marsh remained in such a state of preoccupation, even after their departure, that Mr. Wayland's attempts at conversation elicited only the vaguest and shortest of answers.
In the music-room Mildred turned upon Boyd. "Why didn't you tell me about this woman before?"
"I didn't think of her."
"And yet she is young, beautiful, refined, lives a romantic sort of existence, and entertained you--" She tossed her head.
"Are you jealous?" he inquired, with a smile.
"Of such a person? Certainly not."
"I wish you were," he confessed, truthfully. "If you would only get really jealous, I should be delighted. I should begin to feel a little sure of you."
She seated herself at the piano and struck a few idle notes, inquiring, casually: "Kalvik is the name of the place where you are going, isn't it?"
"I suppose you will see a great deal of this--Cherry Malotte?"
"Undoubtedly, inasmuch as we are partners."
"Partners!" Mildred ceased playing and swung about. "What do you mean?"
"She is interested in this enterprise; the cannery site is hers."
"I see!" After a moment, "Does this new affair of father's have any particular effect on your plans?"
"Yes and no," he answered, feeling again the weight of this last complication, forgotten for the moment.
"What do you wish me to do?"
"Nothing; only for the present please don't mention my scheme either to him or to Mr. Marsh. I am a bit uncertain as to my course. You see, it means so much to me that I can't bear to give it up, and yet it may lead to great--unpleasantness."
She nodded, comprehendingly.
The others joined them, and Boyd made his adieus; but in leaving he bore with him a weight of doubt and uneasiness in strange contrast with the buoyancy he had felt upon his arrival.
Willis Marsh, on the contrary, lost no time in emerging from his taciturn mood upon Boyd's departure, and seemed filled with even more than his accustomed optimism. Whatever had been the cause of his transitory depression, he could not fail to reflect that his fortunes had been singularly fair of late; and now that the other man was out of the way, Miss Wayland, for the first time in his acquaintance, began to display a lively interest in his affairs, which made his satisfaction complete. She questioned him closely regarding his work and habits in the North, letting down her reserve to such an unparalleled extent that when Mr. Wayland at last excused himself and retired to the library, Marsh felt that the psychological moment had arrived.
"This has been a day of triumphs for me," he stated, "and I am anxious to crown it with even a greater good-fortune."
"Don't be greedy," the girl cautioned.
"That is man's nature."
She laughed lightly. "Having used my poor, yielding parent for your own needs, you now wish to employ his innocent child in the same manner. Is there no limit to your ambition?"
"There is, and I can reach it with your help."
"Please don't count on me; I am the most disappointing of creatures."
But he disregarded her words. "I hope not; at any rate, I must know."
"I warn you," she said.
"Nevertheless, I insist; and yet--I don't quite know how to begin. It isn't a new story to you perhaps--what I am trying to say--but it is to me, I can assure you--and it means everything to me. I don't even have to tell you what it is--you must have seen it in my eyes. I--I have never cared much for women--I am a man's man, but--"
"Please don't," she interrupted, quietly. But he continued, unheeding:
"You must know that I love you. Every man must love you, but no man could love you more than I do. I--I could make a lot of romantic avowals, Miss-- Mildred, but I am not an adept at such things. You can make me very happy if--"
"I am sorry--"
"I know. What I have said is trite, but my whole heart is in it. Your father approves, I am quite sure, and so it all rests with you."
For the first time the girl realized the deadly earnestness of the man and felt the unusual force of his personality, which made it seem no light matter to refuse him. He took his disappointment quietly, however, and raised himself immensely in her estimation by his graceful acceptance of the inevitable.
"It is pretty hard on a fellow," he smiled, "but please don't let it make any difference in our relations. I hope to remain a welcome visitor and to see as much of you as before."
"More, if you wish."
"I begin to understand that Mr. Emerson is a lucky chap." He still smiled.
She ignored his meaning, and replied: "Boyd and I have been the closest of friends for many years."
"So I have been told," and he smiled at her again, in the same manner. Somehow the smile annoyed her--it seemed to savor of self-confidence. When he bade her good-bye an hour later he was still smiling.
Mr. Wayland was busy over some rare first edition, recently received from his English collector, when she sought him out in the library. He looked up to inquire:
"Has Willis gone?"
"Yes. He sent you his adieus by me." A moment later she added: "He asked me to marry him."
"Of course," nodded the magnate, "they all do that. What did you say?"
"What I always say."
"H'm!" He tapped his eyeglasses meditatively upon the bridge of his high- arched nose. "You might do worse. He suits me."
"I have no doubt he could hold the millions together. In fact, he is the first one I have seen of whose ability in that line I am quite certain. However--" She made a slight gesture of dismissal.
"I hope you didn't offend him?"
She raised her brows.
"Forgive me. I might have known--" He stared at the page before him for a moment. "You have a certain finality about you that is almost masculine. They never return to the charge--"
"Oh yes," she demurred. "There is Alton Clyde, for instance--"
Mr. Wayland dismissed Clyde with an inarticulate grunt of contempt which measured that young man's claim to consideration more comprehensively than could a wealth of words.
"I would think it over if I were you," he advised. Then he pondered. "If you would only change your mind, occasionally, like other girls--"
"I have changed my mind to-night--since Mr. Marsh left."
"Good!" he declared, heartily.
"Yes. I have decided to go to Kalvik with you."
On that very night, in a little, snow-smothered cabin crouching close against the Kalvik bluffs, another girl was seated at a piano. Her slim, white fingers had strayed upon the notes of a song which Boyd Emerson had sung. In her dream-filled eyes was the picture of a rough-garbed, silent man at her shoulder, and in her ears was the sound of his voice. Clear to the last melting note she played the air, and then a pitiful sob shook her. She bowed her golden head and hid her face in her arms, for a memory was upon her, a forgotten kiss was hot upon her lips, and she was very lonely.