Chapter XVIII. The Wild Nor'easter
 

Jasper did not remain long in the bedroom. There was nothing there that he could do and he would be only in the way. He found Mrs. Bean in the kitchen putting some wood in the stove.

"Do you know who that sick man is?" he asked.

"No, I have not the least idea," was the reply. "He is a stranger to me, but that makes no difference. The Bible bids us to entertain strangers for they may be angels unawares. Isn't that so?"

"But the Bible doesn't say that they will all be good angels, does it? Suppose the stranger you entertain should turn out to be your enemy, for instance?"

"Why, what do you mean?" and the widow looked her surprise. "How could an angel be one's enemy?"

"Doesn't the Bible speak about evil angels? If people were troubled with them in olden days I guess affairs haven't changed much since. Now, suppose the stranger you have entertained should be your enemy unawares instead of your friend, what would you do?"

"It wouldn't make any difference in my care of him," Mrs. Bean emphatically replied. "I should do just as the Scripture tells me, 'If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.' That is what I should do."

"Well, I guess you'll feel like heaping on the coals, all right, when you learn the name of your stranger. You had better get a shovelful ready, for I am going to tell you."

Mrs. Bean was busy setting the table for she knew how the men would appreciate a cup of hot tea and some of her fresh homemade bread after their long cold drive. She paused with a plate in her hand and looked keenly at Jasper as he stood with his back to the stove. When he had mentioned evil angels she thought that he was joking. But now something told her that he was in earnest. Suddenly there flashed into her mind an idea which made her heart thump.

"There is only one person in the world who is my enemy, as far as I know," she remarked.

"The man who is stealing your logs, eh?" Jasper queried.

"Yes. But surely he's not in there!"

"Get your coals ready, Mrs. Bean," Jasper bantered. "You can use them right away if you want to."

Mrs. Bean paid no attention to these words. Her worn face grew a shade paler and her hand shook as she laid the plate upon the table. Just then the doctor entered the kitchen.

"We must have a trained nurse at once," he began. "That's a very sick man in there, Mrs. Bean, and he must have the greatest of care."

"I shall do the best I can, sir," was the quiet reply. "No one shall ever say of me that I didn't do my duty. I have tried to do it in the past and shall try to do it still."

"I know you will do what you can, Mrs. Bean," and the doctor's voice was more gentle than usual, "but you must have assistance. No one could expect you to look after the house and take care of such a sick man as that. We must send to the city for a nurse at once."

"What about Miss Sinclair?" Jasper asked. "She should be told of her father's illness. I was planning to phone to her when we get hack to Creekdale. She could arrange for a nurse to come by train, and I could meet her at the station. This is Christmas Day and I'm afraid it will be difficult to get a nurse to come on go short a notice. She would have to come on the suburban this evening, though, as that will be the only train she would be able to get."

"Do the best you can," the doctor replied. "I shall stay here to-day. It would not do for me to leave now until some one comes to help Mrs. Bean."

The sun was just rising above the far-off horizon as Jasper rode into Creekdale. Not a breath of wind was astir, and the only signs of life were the long wreathes of smoke circling up from numerous chimneys. The village nestled on the side of a hill and thus met the sun's early smile while the surrounding valleys were still draped in shadows. To Jasper it seemed as if fairyland had burst suddenly upon his view after his drive through the sombre forest. The snow sparkled like countless diamonds and the white-robed trees stood bathed in glistening glory. It was Nature's silent symphony in honour of the birthday of the great Prince of Peace.

The telephone was at the store and it did not take Jasper long to arouse Andy Forbes and acquaint him with the object of his early visit. The storekeeper was greatly interested in the news of Peter Sinclair's illness. He knew that in a short time various rumours would be circulating throughout the parish. But he would have exact information and would be able to impress all by his hints of superior and first-hand knowledge.

It took Andy some time to get "Central" in the city, and longer still to make connection with the Sinclair home, the number of which he had found in the Telephone Directory. But at length his efforts were rewarded and he handed the receiver to Jasper.

"Guess it's her, all right," was his comment. "Her voice seems mighty shaky as if she's scared most out of her wits."

How far away seemed Lois' voice and how anxious the tone as before Jasper had even time to explain she asked about her father. Then, as briefly as possible, Jasper told what had happened to him, his illness, and where he was.

"We need a nurse at once," he said, "and if you can get one, send her out on the suburban. I will meet her at the station."

"She will be there," was the emphatic reply. "I know of one who will go without fail. I thank you very much, Mr. Randall, for all your kindness to my father."

Leaving the store Jasper made straight for the Haven where he received a royal welcome. Early though it was they were all astir for a wonderful Christmas tree had been prepared the day before, and there it stood loaded with presents.

"We had it for Betty," Mrs. Peterson explained, though it was quite evident that she and the captain as well as David were as much pleased as the girl.

Besides the presents from one another there was something for each one from Lois. As Jasper watched them unwrap their gifts and listened to Betty's exclamations of delight, a slight feeling of jealousy stole into his heart. He was the only one there beyond the orbit of Lois' circle of remembrance. He was well aware that he had no reason to expect anything, and yet how much any little token would have meant to him, for it would have told him that she had not forgotten him.

"Wasn't it kind of Miss Lois to send these lovely presents," Betty exclaimed, after she had examined everything most carefully. "And there's something for you, too, Mr. Jasper," she added. "I kept it till the last," and a merry twinkle shone in her eyes as she handed him a neatly-tied package.

"Why, who sent me this?" Jasper asked in surprise.

"Miss Lois, of course. She knew that you would be here to-day, and she asked me to give it to you when you came. This tree is her idea, you see. We would never have thought about it but for her. Isn't she great!"

Jasper took the package in his hands and held it there like a big awkward school boy. He could not trust himself to speak lest he should betray his feelings. He longed to be away in the quietness of his own cabin that he might open his treasure and that no eyes but his might look upon the gift. But Betty knew nothing of such thoughts.

"Open it, Mr. Jasper," she ordered, "I know you'll be surprised."

Slowly and carefully Jasper untied the red ribbon and opened out the paper wrapping. As he did so there came forth a grey woollen well-knitted muffler.

"Isn't it lovely!" Betty exclaimed as Jasper stood holding it in his hands staring hard upon it. "And I saw Miss Lois begin it herself just before she left for the city. She asked me what I thought you would like for a Christmas present, and I told her that you should have a muffler to keep your throat warm on cold days. She thought maybe you would rather have a book, but when I told her that you could buy books, but not a muffler like she could make, she said that perhaps I was right. Let me see what it looks like on you, for I must write and tell her all about it."

Before this torrent of words Jasper was as helpless as a child. He allowed Betty to unfold the muffler and wrap it carefully about his neck.

"There, isn't that fine, Mrs. Peterson?" she asked. "Mr. Jasper won't get cold now in his throat, will he?"

"I have never worn such a thing in my life," Jasper managed to explain. "What shall I do with it? I couldn't wear that in the woods."

"Oh, but you might need it, Mr. Jasper," Betty insisted. "Anyway, if you don't wear it Miss Lois will be so disappointed. She knit every bit of it with her own fingers, for she told me so. You should wear it because of that if for no other reason."

Jasper made no reply, but taking off the muffler folded it up and laid it upon the table. In fact, he hardly knew what he was doing so full of happiness was his heart. It was fortunate that just then Mrs. Peterson announced that breakfast was ready, for it changed the topic of conversation and gave him time to think it all over.

What a day that was at the Haven! There were so many things to talk about and such a number of questions to be asked and answered that the time sped by all too quickly. David was in excellent spirits, for he learned of the progress the men were making in the woods. Jasper heard, as well, about Lois, and Betty showed him several letters she had received from her. In every one she told of her longing for the spring that she might return to Creekdale.

When Jasper left the Haven he noticed how the weather had changed. The brightness of the day had passed and the sky was a mackerel grey. The wind, drifting in from the northeast, hummed a weird prelude to the coming storm upon the telephone wires stretched along the road.

The journey to the station was a pleasant one, for Pedro, after his rest, swung along at a swift clip. The wind was in their backs and the snow had not begun to fall. Jasper realised that the storm would not hold off much longer, and he wondered how the nurse would mind facing it for fifteen miles to Mrs. Bean's. The muffler that Lois had given him he was wearing. Betty had put it there before he left the Haven with the strict instruction to wear it, because if he didn't Miss Lois would feel badly. Never had he received any present which he valued more highly than this. And to think that Lois made it herself, especially for him, and that it had been so often in her hands. He was almost like a man beside himself as he thought of this, and several times his lips pressed the muffler in the fervency of his emotion.

Reaching the station he had half an hour to spare before the train would arrive. This gave him an opportunity to give Pedro a feed of oats in a nearby stable, for he well knew that a severe battle was ahead of him. Already the storm had set in, gentle at first but increasing in intensity as the afternoon waned. It was snowing hard by the time the train surged up to the station, and as Jasper waited for the passengers to alight he wondered whether it would be advisable to face the tempest on such a night and in the teeth of so furious a storm.

As the passengers came forth what was his surprise to see not a stranger as he had expected but Lois Sinclair. Scarcely had she stepped upon the platform ere Jasper hurried forward. Her face brightened when she saw him and she reached out her gloved hand.

"How is my father?" was her first question. "I have been so uneasy about him."

As they walked along the platform Jasper told her all he could about the sick man, and how the doctor was staying with him, to assist Mrs. Bean until the nurse arrived.

"I little expected to see you," he added, "I am afraid it will be a terrible drive in the face of this storm. But if we wait until morning the roads will be so blocked that we may not be able to get there for several days."

"Let us go to-night," Lois replied. "I can stand the storm, but it is a great pity to give you so much trouble. How far is it?"

"About fifteen miles. You get good and warm in the waiting-room while I go for Pedro. Wrap yourself up well before we start."

In about a quarter of an hour they had left the station and Pedro was speeding up the road with long swinging strides. So far but little snow had fallen to interfere with the travelling, and they made excellent progress. But after they had been on the way for about an hour Pedro was forced to slow down and walk most of the time. Drifts were forming across the road and the snow was blinding. At times they obtained considerable shelter from stretches of woods they passed through. But out in the open the tempest struck them with full force, blotting out everything from view.

But notwithstanding the discomforts of the journey, Jasper was supremely happy. For a few brief hours this beautiful woman by his side was his, and he was her guide and protector. The unexpected had happened and come what might he would always look back upon this drive as one of the happiest times in his life.

Lois, too, enjoyed the drive. She was content to sit there and to feel Jasper's strength by her side, as he guided Pedro through the night. Owing to the storm there was very little conversation. But it was not necessary. They were happy in each other's presence and words were not needed.

The farther they went the heavier became the roads and the more violent the storm. It was cold as well, and once a shiver shook Lois' body, which Jasper was quick to notice.

"Are you cold?" he asked. "I have an extra rug. Let me wrap it around you."

Carefully as if she had been a child, Jasper placed the rug about Lois' shoulders and over her head. Then, taking off the precious muffler he folded it about her body in such a way as to hold the rug in place and thus form a complete shelter from the driving storm. This accomplished, he reached over and drew the sleigh-robe around her body. It was but natural that his arm should remain around her for a while that the robe might be kept in place. Their heads, too, drew closer together. Perhaps it was the storm which caused this movement, for it was difficult to face the tempest. It was merely an incident in their young lives, and yet it caused their hearts to beat faster and their faces to flush, the memory of which they would ever cherish. How easy then it would have been for Jasper to give voice to the promptings of his heart. He felt that Lois cared for him and would respond to his love. But just when he might have spoken Pedro plunged into the ditch, and it took all of his master's attention to get him back on the road without upsetting the sleigh.

"We nearly went over that time," Jasper remarked. Then they both laughed. Why they did so they alone knew. But from that moment they understood each other better than ever before.

It was a hard struggle Pedro put up that night as mile after mile he crept onward. The froth flew from his champing mouth and the vapour rose from his steaming body. The footing was uncertain, the snow deep, and the driving storm almost blinded him. But never for an instant did he hesitate or show the least sign of discouragement. He seemed to realise how much depended upon his exertions this night, and he felt bound to do his utmost. His master held the reins and in his judgment he had perfect confidence, and for him he would have expended the last ounce of his marvellous strength. Nevertheless, his eyes brightened and his weary steps quickened when at length he saw the lights from Mrs. Bean's house struggling faintly through the night. With a sudden spurt he dashed through the gateway and surged proudly up to the door like a hero who had fought a hard battle and had won.