Part Three
Chapter XIX
 

Shortly after Bob's return in the early spring, George Pollock rode to Auntie Belle's in some disorder to say that the little girl, now about a year old, had been taken sick.

"Jenny has a notion it's something catching," said he, "so she won't let Jim send Mary over. There's too many young-uns in that family to run any risks."

"How does she seem?" called Auntie Belle from the bedroom where she was preparing for departure.

"She's got a fever, and is restless, and won't eat," said George anxiously. "She looks awful sick to me."

"They all do at that age," said Auntie Belle comfortably; "don't you worry a mite."

Nevertheless Auntie Belle did not return that day, nor the next, nor the next. When finally she appeared, it was only to obtain certain supplies and clothes. These she caused to be brought out and laid down where she could get them. She would allow nobody to come near her.

"It's scarlet fever," she said, "and Lord knows where the child got it. But we won't scatter it, so you-all stay away. I'll do what I can. I've been through it enough times, Lord knows."

Three days later she appeared again, very quietly.

"How's the baby?" asked Bob. "Better, I hope?"

"The poor little thing is dead," said Auntie Belle shortly, "and I want you or somebody to ride down for the minister."

The community attended the funeral in a body. It was held in the open air, under a white oak tree, for Auntie Belle, with unusual caution and knowledge for the mountains, refused to permit even a chance of spreading the contagion. The mother appeared dazed. She sat through the services without apparent consciousness of what was going on; she suffered herself to be led to the tiny enclosure where all the Pollocks of other generations had been buried; she allowed herself to be led away again. There was in the brief and pathetic ceremony no meaning and no pain for her. The father, on the other hand, seemed crushed. So broken was his figure that, after the services, Bob was impelled to lay his hand on the man's shoulder and mutter a few incoherent but encouraging words. The mountaineer looked up dully, but sharpened to comprehension and gratitude as his eyes met those of the tall, vigorous young man leaning over him.

"I mean it," said Bob; "any time--any place."

On the way back to Sycamore Flats Auntie Belle expressed her mind to the young man.

"Nobody realizes how things are going with those Pollocks," said she. "George sold his spurs and that Cruces bit of his to get medicine. He wouldn't take anything from me. They're proud folks, and nobody'd have a chance to suspect anything. I tell you," said the good lady solemnly, "it don't matter where that child got the fever; it's Henry Plant, the old, fat scoundrel, that killed her just as plain as if he'd stuck a gun to her head. He has a good deal to answer for. There's lots of folks eating their own beef cattle right now; and that's ruinous. I suppose Washington ain't going to do anything. We might have known it. I don't suppose you heard anything outside about it?"

"Only that Thorne had resigned."

"That so!" Auntie Belle ruminated on this a moment. "Well, I'm right glad to hear it. I'd hate to think I was fooled on him. Reckon 'resign' means fired for daring to say anything about His High-and-mightiness?" she guessed.

Bob shook his head. "Couldn't say," said he.

The busy season was beginning. Every day laden teams crawled up the road bringing supplies for the summer work. Woodsmen came in twos, in threes, in bunches of a dozen or more. Bob was very busy arranging the distribution and forwarding, putting into shape the great machinery of handling, so that when, a few weeks later, the bundles of sawn lumber should begin to shoot down the flume, they would fall automatically into a systematic scheme of further transportation. He had done this twice before, and he knew all the steps of it, and exactly what would be required of him. Certain complications were likely to arise, requiring each their individual treatments, but as Bob's experience grew these were becoming fewer and of lesser importance. The creative necessity was steadily lessening as the work became more familiar. Often Bob found his eagerness sinking to a blank; his attention economizing itself to the bare needs of the occasion. He caught himself at times slipping away from the closest interest in what he had to do. His spirit, although he did not know it, was beginning once more to shake itself restlessly, to demand, as it had always demanded in the past from the time of his toy printing press in his earliest boyhood, fresh food for the creative instinct that was his. Bobby Orde, the child, had been thorough. No superficial knowledge of a subject sufficed. He had worked away at the mechanical difficulties of the cheap toy press after Johnny English, his partner in enterprise, had given up in disgust. By worrying the problem like a terrier, Bobby had shaken it into shape. Then when the commercial possibilities of job printing for parents had drawn Johnny back ablaze with enthusiasm, Bobby had, to his partner's amazement, lost completely all interest in printing presses. The subject had been exhausted; he had no desire for repetitions.

So it had gone. One after another he had with the utmost fervour taken up photography, sailing, carpentry, metal working--a dozen and one occupations--only to drop them as suddenly. This restlessness of childhood came to be considered a defect in young manhood. It indicated instability of character. Only his mother, wiser in her quiet way, saw the thoroughness with which he ransacked each subject. Bobby would read and absorb a dozen technical books in a week, reaching eagerly for the vital principles of his subject. She alone realized, although but dimly, that the boy did not relinquish his subject until he had grasped those vital principles.

"He's learning all the time," she ventured.

"'Jack of all trades: master of none,'" quoted Orde doubtfully.

The danger being recognized, little Bobby's teaching was carefully directed. He was not discouraged in his varied activities; but the bigger practical principles of American life were inculcated. These may be very briefly stated. An American must not idle; he must direct his energies toward success; success means making one's way in life; nine times out of ten, for ninety-nine men out of a hundred, that means the business world. To seize the business opportunity; to develop that opportunity through the business virtues of attention to detail, industry, economy, persistence, and enthusiasm--these represented the plain and manifest duty of every citizen who intended to "be somebody."

Now Bob realized perfectly well that here he was more fortunate than most. A great many of his friends had to begin on small salaries in indoor positions of humdrum and mechanical duty. He had started on a congenial out-of-door occupation of great interest and picturesqueness, one suited to his abilities and promising a great future. Nevertheless, he had now been in the business five years. He was beginning to see through and around it. As yet he had not lost one iota of his enthusiasm for the game; but here and there, once in a while, some of the necessary delays and slow, long repetitions of entirely mechanical processes left him leisure to feel irked, to look above him, beyond the affairs that surrounded him. At such times the old blank, doped feeling fell across his mind. It had always been so definite a symptom in his childhood of that state wherein he simply could not drag himself to blow up the embers of his extinguished enthusiasm, that he recoiled from himself in alarm. He felt his whole stability of character on trial. If he could not "make good" here, what excuse could there be for him; what was there left for him save the profitless and honourless life of the dilettante and idler? He had caught on to a big business remarkably well, and it was worse than childish to lose his interest in the game even for the fraction of a second. Of course, it amounted to nothing but that. He never did his work better than that spring.

A week after the burial of the Pollock baby, Mrs. Pollock was reported seriously ill. Bob rode up a number of times to inquire, and kept himself fully informed. The doctor came twice from White Oaks, but then ceased his visits. Bob did not know that such visits cost fifty dollars apiece. Mary, Jim's wife, shared the care of the sick woman with George. She was reported very weak, but getting on. The baby's death, together with the other anxieties of the last two years, had naturally pulled her down.