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King Spruce, A Novel, Page 2

Holman Day



  "Oh, the road to 'Castle Cut 'Em' is mostly all uphill. You can dance along all cheerful to the sing-song of a mill; King Cole he wanted fiddles, and so does old King Spruce, But it's only gashin'-fiddles that he finds of any use.

  "Oh, come along, good lumbermen, oh, come along I say! Come up to 'Castle Cut 'Em,' and pull your wads and pay. King Cole he liked his bitters, and so does old King Spruce, But the only kind he hankers for is old spondulix-juice."

  --From song by Larry Gorman, "Woods Poet."

  The young man on his way to "Castle Cut 'Em" was a clean-cut picture ofself-reliant youth. But he was not walking as one who goes to a welcometask. He saw two men ahead of him who walked with as little display ofeagerness; men whose shoulders were stooped and whose hands swunglistlessly as do hands that are astonished at finding themselves idle.

  A row of mills that squatted along the bank of the canal sent after thema medley of howls from band-saws and circulars. The young man, with thememory of his college classics sufficiently fresh to make him fanciful,found suggestion of chained monsters in the aspect of those shriekingmills, with slip-openings like huge mouths.

  That same imagery invested the big building on the hill with attributesthat were not reassuring. But he went on up the street in the sunshine,his eyes on the broad backs of the plodders ahead.

  King Spruce was in official session.

  Men who were big, men who were brawny, yet meek and apologetic, weredaily climbing the hill or waiting in the big building to have wordwith the Honorable John Davis Barrett, who was King Spruce's highchamberlain. Dwight Wade found half a dozen ahead of him when he cameinto the general office. They sat, balancing their hats on their knees,and each face wore the anxious expectancy that characterized those whowaited to see John Barrett.

  Wade had lived long enough in Stillwater to know the type of men whocame to the throne-room of King Spruce in midsummer. These were stumpagebuyers from the north woods, down to make another season's contract withthe lord of a million acres of timber land. Their faces were brown,their hands were knotted, and when one, in his turn, went into the inneroffice he moved awkwardly across the level tiles, as though he missedthe familiar inequalities of the forest's floor.

  The others droned on with their subdued mumble about saw-logs, sleepercontracts, and "popple" peeling. The young man who had just entered wasso plainly not of themselves or their interests that they paid noattention to him.

  This was the first time Wade had been inside the doors of "Castle Cut'Em," the name the humorists of Stillwater had given the dominatingblock on the main street of the little city. The up-country men, withthe bitterness of experience, and moved by somewhat fantasticimaginings, said it was "King Spruce's castle."

  In the north woods one heard men talk of King Spruce as though thispotentate were a real and vital personality. To be sure, his power wasreal, and power is the principal manifestation of the tyrant who isincarnate. Invisibility usually makes the tyranny more potent. KingSpruce, vast association of timber interests, was visible only throughthe affairs of his court administered by his officers to whom power hadbeen delegated. And, viewed by what he exacted and performed, KingSpruce lived and reigned--still lives and reigns.

  Wade, not wholly at ease in the presence, for he had come with apetition like the others, gazed about the reception-room of the UmcolcusLumbering and Log-driving Association, the incorporators' more decoroustitle for King Spruce. It occurred to him that the wall-adornmentswere not reassuring. A brightly polished circular-saw hung between twowindows. It was crossed by two axes, and a double-handled saw was thebase for this suggestive coat of arms. The framed photographs displayedloaded log-sleds and piles of logs heaped at landings and similarportraiture of destruction in the woods. Everything seemed to accentuatethe dominion of the edge of steel. The other wall-decorations were theheads of moose and deer, further suggestion of slaughter in the forest.A stuffed porcupine on the mantel above the great fireplace mutelysuggested that the timber-owners would brook no rivalry in theircampaign against the forest; they had asked the State to offer a bountyfor the slaughter of this tree-girdler, and a card propped against the"quill-pig" instructed the reader that the State had already spent morethan fifty thousand dollars in bounties.

  The deification of the cutting-edge appealed to Wade's abundant fancy.He had noticed, when he came past the windows of the lumber company'soutfitting store on the first floor of the building, that the windowdisplays consisted mostly of cutting tools.

  When the door of the inner office opened and one of those big andawkward giants came out, Wade discovered that King Spruce had evidentlyplaced in the hands of the Honorable John Davis Barrett something sharpwith which to slash human feelings, also. The man's face was flushed andhis teeth were set down over his lower lip with manifest effort to damback language.

  "Didn't he renew?" inquired one of the waiting group, solicitously.

  "He turned me down!" muttered the other, scarcely releasing the clutchon his lip. "I've wondered sometimes why 'Stumpage John' hasn't beenover his own timber lands in all these years. If he has backed many outof that office feelin' like I do, I reckon there's a good reason why hedoesn't trust himself up in the woods." He struck his soft hat acrosshis palm. He did not raise his voice. But the venom in his tone wasconvincing. "By God, I'd relish bein' the man that mistook him for abear!"

  "Give any good reason for not renewin'?" asked a man whose face showedhis anxiety for himself.

  "Any one who has been over my operation on Lunksoos," declared thelumberman, answering the question in his own way--"any fair man knows Ihaven't devilled: I've left short stumps and I 'ain't topped off undereight inches, though you all know that their damnable scale-system putsa man to the bad when he's square on tops. But I 'ain't left tops to roton the ground. I've been square!"

  Wade did not understand clearly, but the sincerity of the man's distressappealed to him.

  One of the little group darted an uneasy look towards the door of theinner office. It was closed tightly. But for all that he spoke in ahusky whisper.

  "It must be that you didn't fix with What's-his-name last spring--Iheard you and he had trouble."

  The angry operator dared to speak now. He looked towards the door asthough he hoped his voice would penetrate to King Spruce's throne-room.

  "Trouble!" he cried. "Who wouldn't have trouble? I made up my mind I haddivided my profits with John Barrett's blackmailin' thieves of agentsfor the last time. I lumbered square. And the agent was mad because Iwasn't crooked and didn't have hush-money for him. And he spiked me withJohn Barrett; but you fellows, and all the rest that are willin' towhack up and steal in company, will get your contracts all right. AndI'm froze out, with camps all built and five thousand dollars' worth ofsupplies in my depot-camp."

  "Hold on!" protested several of the men, in chorus, crowding close tothis dangerous tale-teller. "You ain't tryin' to sluice the rest of us,are you, just because you've gone to work and got your own load bustedon the ramdown?"

  "I'd like to see the whole infernal game of graft, gamble, andwoods-gashin' showed up. Let John Barrett go up and look at his woodsand he'll see what you are doin' to 'em--you and his agents! And the manthat lumbers square, and remembers that there are folks comin' after usthat will need trees, gets what I've just got!" He shook his crumpledhat in their faces. "And I'm just good and ripe for trouble, and a lotof it."

  "Here, you let me talk with you," interposed a man who had said nothingbefore, and he took the recalcitrant by the arm, led him away to acorner, and they entered into earnest conference. At the end of it thedestructionist drove his hat on with a smack of his big palm and strodeout, sullen but plainly convinced.

  The other man returned to the group and spoke cautiously low, but inthat big, bare room with its resonant emptiness even whispers travelledfar.

  "I'll take a double contract and sublet to him,"
he explained. "Barrettwon't know, and after this Dave will come back into line and handle theagent. I reckon he's got well converted from honesty in a lumberin'deal. It's what we're up against, gents, in this business; the patternsare handed to us and we've got to cut our conduct accordin' to othermen's measurements. Barrett gets _his_ first; the agent gets _his_; weget what we can squeeze out of a narrow margin--and the woods get hell."

  A man came out of the inner office stroking the folds of a stumpagepermit preparatory to stuffing it into his wallet, and the peacemakerdeparted promptly, for it was now his turn to pay his respects to KingSpruce.

  In what he had seen and what he had heard, Dwight Wade found food forthought. The men so manifestly had accepted the stranger as some oneutterly removed from comprehension of their affairs or interest in theirtalk that they had not been discreet. It occurred to him that his ownpresent business with John Barrett would be decidedly furthered were heto utilize that indiscretion.

  This thought occurred to him not because he intended for one instant touse his information, but because he saw now that his business with JohnBarrett was more to John Barrett's personal advantage than thatgentleman realized. This knowledge gave him more confidence. He wasproposing something to the Honorable John Barrett that the latter, forhis own good, ought to be pressed into accepting.

  The earlier reflection which had made him uneasy, that a millionairetimber baron would not listen patiently to suggestions about his ownbusiness offered by the principal of the Stillwater high-school, hadnow been modified by circumstances. Even that lurking fear, that awe ofJohn Barrett which he had his peculiar and private reason for feelingand hiding, was not quite so nerve-racking.

  Barrett left it to his clients to manage the order of precedence in theouter office. It was only necessary for the awaiting suppliant to notehis place between those already there and those who came in after him;and Wade was prompt to accept his turn.

  He knew the Honorable John Barrett. As mayor that gentleman haddistributed the diplomas at the June graduation. And Mr. Barrett, afterone first, sharp, scowling glance over his nose-glasses, hooking hischin to one side as he gazed, rose and greeted the young man cordially.

  Then he wheeled his chair away from his desk to the window and sat downwhere he could feel the breeze.

  Looking past him Wade saw the Stillwater saw-mills. There were five ofthem in a row along the canal. Each had a slip-opening in the end and ityawned wide like a mouth that stretched for prey.

  The two windows pinched together in each gable gave to the end of thebuilding likeness to a hideous face. From his seat Wade heard thescreech of the band-saws. The sounds came out of those open mouths. Thedripping logs went up the slips and into those mouths, like morselssliding along a slavering tongue. Mingled with the fierce scream of theband-saws there were the wailings of the lath and clapboard saws. Inthat medley of sound the imagination heard monster and victims minglinghowl of triumph and despairing cry.

  The breeze that ruffled the awnings stirred the thin, gray hair of JohnBarrett, brought fresh scents of sawdust and sweeter fragrance ofseasoning lumber. And fainter yet came the whiff of resinous balsamfrom the vast fields of logs that crowded the booms.

  With that picture backing him in the frame of the open window--mutilatedtrees, and mills yowling in chorus, and with the scent of the riven logsbathing him--the timber baron politely waited for the young man tospeak. He had put off the brusqueness of his business demeanor, for ithad not occurred to him that the principal of the Stillwater high schoolcould have any financial errand. He played a little tattoo with hiseye-glasses' rim upon the second button of his frock-coat. One touch ofsunshine on Barrett's cheek showed up striated markings and the faintpurpling that indulgence paints upon the skin. The way in which theshoulders were set back under the tightly buttoned frock-coat, theflashing of the keen eyes, and even the cock of the bristly graymustache that crossed the face in a straight line showed that JohnBarrett had enjoyed the best that life had to offer him.

  "I'll make my errand a short one, Mr. Barrett," began Wade, "for I seethat others are waiting."

  "They're only men who want to buy something," said the baron,reassuringly--"men who have come, the whole of them, with the same growland whine. It's a relief to be rid of them for a few moments."

  Frankly showing that he welcomed the respite, and serenely indifferentto those who waited, he brought a box of cigars from the desk, and theyoung man accepted one nervously.

  "I think I have noticed you about the city since your school closed,"Mr. Barrett proceeded. And without special interest he asked, whirlinghis chair and gazing out of the window at the mills: "How do you happento be staying here in Stillwater this summer? I supposed pedagogues invacation-time ran away from their schools as fast as they could."

  If John Barrett had not been staring at the mills he would have seen theflush that blazed on the young man's cheeks at this sudden, blunt demandfor the reasons why he stayed in town.

  "If I had a home I should probably go there," answered Wade; "but myparents died while I was in college--and--and high-school principals donot usually find summer resorts and European trips agreeing with thesize of their purses."

  "Probably not," assented the millionaire, calmly. A sudden recollectionseemed to strike him. "Say, speaking of college--you're the Burtoncentre, aren't you--or you were? I was there a year ago when Burtonclinched the championship. I liked your game! I meant to have said asmuch to you, but I didn't get a chance, for you know what the push is ona ball-ground. I'm a Burton man, you know. I never miss a game. I'm gladto have such a chap as you at the head of our school. These pale fellowswith specs aren't my style!"

  He turned and ran an approving gaze over Wade's six feet of sturdy youngmanhood. With his keen eye for lines that revealed breeding andtraining, Barrett usually turned once to look after a handsome woman andtwice to stare at a blooded horse. Men interested him, too--men whoappealed to his sportsman sense. This young man, with the glamour of thefootball victories still upon him, was a particularly attractive objectat that moment. He stared into Wade's flushed face, evidently acceptingthe color as the signal that gratified pride had set upon the cheeks.

  "You'll weigh in at about one hundred and eighty-five," commented themillionaire. It seemed to Wade that his tone was that of a judgeappraising the points of a race-horse, and for an instant he resentedthe fact that Barrett was sizing him less as a man than as a gladiator."Old Dame Nature put you up solid, Mr. Wade, and gave you the face to gowith the rest. I wish I were as young--and as free!" He gave anotherlook at the mills and scowled when he heard the mumble of men's voicesin the outer room. "When a man is past sixty, money doesn't buy thethings for him that he really wants." It was the familiar cant of theman rich enough to affect disdain for money, and Wade was not impressed.

  "I'd like to take my daughter across the big pond this summer," the landbaron grumbled, discontentedly, "but I never was tied down so in mylife. I am directing-manager of the Umcolcus Association, and I've gotall my own lands to handle besides, and with matters in the lumberingbusiness as they are just now there are some things that you can'tdelegate to agents, Mr. Wade."

  This man, confiding his troubles, did not seem the ogre he had beenpainted.

  The young man had flushed still more deeply at mention of Barrett'sdaughter, but Barrett was again looking at his squalling mills.

  The pause seemed a fair opportunity for the errand. The mention ofagents revived the recollection that he was proposing something to JohnBarrett's advantage.

  "Mr. Barrett, you know it is pretty hard for any one to live inStillwater and not take an interest in the lumbering business. I'llconfess that I've taken such interest myself. A few of my older boyshave asked me to secure books on the science of forestry and help themstudy it."

  "A man would have pretty hard work to convince me that it is a science,"broke in Barrett, with some contempt. "As near as I can find out, it'smostly guesswork, and poor guesswork at that."

p; "Well, the fact remains," hastened Wade, a little nettled by thecurtness that had succeeded the timber baron's rather sentimentalcourtesy, "my boys have been studying forestry, and I have been keepinga bit ahead of them and helping them as I could. Now they need a littlepractical experience. But they are boys who are working their waythrough school, and as I had to do the same thing I'm taking an especialinterest in them. They have been in your mills two summers."

  "Why isn't it a good place for them to stay?" demanded Barrett. "They'relearning a side of forestry there that amounts to something."

  "The side that they want to learn is the side of the standing trees,"persisted Wade, patiently. "I thought I could talk it over with you alittle better than they. I hoped that such a large owner of timber landhad begun to take interest in forestry and would, for experiment's sake,put these young men upon a section of timber land this summer and letthem work up a map and a report that you could use as a basis for latercomparison, if nothing else."

  "What do you mean, that I'm going to hire them to do it--pay themmoney?" demanded the timber baron, fixing upon the young man that starethat always disconcerted petitioners. At that moment Wade realized whythose men whom he had seen waiting in the outer office were gazing atthe door of the inner room with such anxiety.

  "The young men will be performing a real service, for they will plot asquare mile and--"

  "If there's any pay to it, I'd rather pay them to keep off my lands,"broke in Barrett. "Forestry--"

  He in turn was interrupted. The man who came in entered with manifestbelief in his right to interrupt.

  "Forestry!" he cried, taking the word off Barrett's lips--"forestry isgetting your men into the woods, getting grub to 'em, hiring bosses thatcan whale spryness into human jill-pokes, and can get the logs down toPea Cove sortin'-boom before the drought strikes. That's forestry!That's my kind. It's the kind I've made my money on. It's the kind JohnBarrett made his on. What are you doin', John--hirin' a perfesser?" Thenew arrival asked this in a tone and with a glance up and down Wade thatleft no doubt as to his opinion of "perfessers." "Are you one of thesenewfangled fellers that's been studyin' in a book how to make treesgrow?" he demanded.

  Wade had only a limited acquaintance with the notables of the State, buthe knew this man. He had seen him in Stillwater frequently, and hisdown-river office was in "Castle Cut 'Em." He was the Honorable PulaskiD. Britt. He had acquired that title--mostly for newspaper use--byserving many years in the State senate from Umcolcus County.

  Wade gazed at the puffy red face, the bristle of gray beard, the hardlittle eyes--pupils of dull gray set in yellow eyeballs--and rememberedthe stories he had heard about this man who yelped his words with canineabruptness of utterance, who waved his big, hairy hands about his headas he talked, and with every gesture, every glance, every word revealedhimself as a driver of men, grown arrogant and cruel by possession ofpower.

  "Mr. Britt is executive officer for the lumber company in the northcountry," explained Barrett, dryly. "We are all associated more or lessclosely, though many of our holdings are separate. We think it is quiteessential to confer together when undertaking any important step." Hissatiric dwelling on the word "important" was exasperating. "This younggentleman is the principal of our high-school, Pulaski, and he wants meto put a bunch of high-school boys in my woods as foresters--and pay 'emfor it. You came in just as I was going to give him my opinion. But itmay be more proper for you to do it, for you are the woods executive,and are better posted on conditions up there than I am." His drawledirony was biting.

  The Honorable John Barrett enjoyed sport of all kinds, includingbadger-baiting. Now he leaned back in his swivel-chair with the air of aman about to enjoy the spectacle of a lively affair. But Wade, glancingfrom Barrett to Britt, was in no humor to be the butt of themillionaire.

  "I don't think I care to listen to Mr. Britt's opinions," he said,rising hastily.

  "Why? Don't you think I know what I'm talking about?" demanded thelumberman. He had missed the point of Barrett's satire, being himself aman of the bludgeon instead of the rapier.

  "I'm quite sure you know, Mr. Britt," said the young man, bowing toBarrett and starting away.

  "I've hired more men than any ten operators on the Umcolcus, put 'em alltogether," declared Britt, following him, "and I'd ought to knowsomething about whether a man is worth anything on a job or not. Andrather than have any one of those squirt-gun foresters cuttin' andcaliperin' over my lands, I'd--"

  Wade shut the door behind him, strode through the outer office, andhurried down-stairs, his face very red and his teeth shut very tight.He realized that he had left the presence of King Spruce in mostdiscourteous haste, but the look in John Barrett's eyes when he hadleaned back and "sicked on" that old railer of the rasping voice hadbeen too much for Wade's nerves. To be made an object of ridicule by_her_ father was bitter, with the bitterness of banished hope that hadsprung into blossom for just one encouraging moment.

  When he came out into the sunlight he threw down the fat cigar--plumpwith a suggestion of the rich man's opulence--and ground it under hisheel. In the anxiety of his intimate hopes, in the first cordiality oftheir interview, it had seemed as though the millionaire had chosen tomeet him upon that common level of gentle society where consideration ofmoney is banished. Now, in the passion of his disappointment, Waderealized that he had served merely as a diversion, as a prize pup or agame-cock would have served, had either been brought to "Castle Cut 'Em"for inspection.

  Walking--seeking the open country and the comforting breath of theflowers--away from that sickly scent of the sawdust, his cheeks burnedwhen he remembered that at first he had fearfully, yet hopefully,believed that John Barrett knew the secret that he and Elva Barrett werekeeping.

  Hastening away from his humiliation, he confessed to himself that inhis optimism of love he had been dreaming a beautiful but particularlyfoolish dream; but having realized the blessed hope that had onceseemed so visionary--having won Elva Barrett's love--the winning ofeven John Barrett had not seemed an impossible task. The millionaire'sfrank greeting had held a warmth that Wade had grasped at as vagueencouragement. But now the clairvoyancy of his sensitiveness enabled himto understand John Barrett's nature and his own pitiful position in thatgreat affair of the heart; he had not dared to look at that affair tooclosely till now.

  So he hurried on, seeking the open country, obsessed by the strangefancy that there was something in his soul that he wanted to take outand scrutinize, alone, away from curious eyes.

  The Honorable Pulaski D. Britt had watched that hasty exit with suddenire that promptly changed to amusement. He turned slowly and gazed atthe timber baron with that amusement plainly showing--amusement spicedwith a bit of malice. The reverse of Britt's hard character as bullyand tyrant was an insatiate curiosity as to the little affairs of thepeople he knew and a desire to retail those matters in gossip when hecould wound feelings or stir mischief. If one with a gift of prophecyhad told him that his next words would mark the beginning of the crisisof his life, Pulaski Britt would have professed his profane incredulityin his own vigorous fashion. All that he said was, "Well, John, yourgirl has picked out quite a rugged-lookin' feller, even if he ain't muchinclined to listen to good advice on forestry."

  Confirmed gossips are like connoisseurs of cheese: the stuff they relishmust be stout. It gratified Britt to see that he had "jumped" hisfriend.

  "I didn't know but you had him in here to sign partnership papers,"Britt continued, helping himself to a cigar. "I wouldn't blame you muchfor annexin' him. You need a chap of his size to go in on your lands andstraighten out your bushwhackin' thieves with a club, seein' that youdon't go yourself. As for me, I don't need to delegate clubbers; I canattend to it myself. It's the way I take exercise."

  "Look here, Pulaski," Barrett replied, angrily, "a joke is all rightbetween friends, but hitching up my daughter Elva's name with a beggarof a school-master isn't humorous."

  Britt gnawed off the end of the cigar, and spat
the fragment of tobaccointo a far corner.

  "Then if you don't see any humor in it, why don't you stop thecourtin'?"

  "There isn't any courting."

  "I say there is, and if the girl's mother was alive, or you 'tending outat home as sharp as you ought to, your family would have had a stir-uplong ago. If you ain't quite ready for a son-in-law, and don't want thatyoung man, you'd better grab in and issue a family bulletin to thateffect."

  "Damn such foolishness! I don't believe it," stormed Barrett, pullinghis chair back to the desk; "but if you knew it, why didn't you saysomething before?"

  "Oh, I'm no gossip," returned Britt, serenely. "I've got something to dobesides watch courtin' scrapes. But I don't have to watch this one in_your_ family. I know it's on."

  Barrett hooked his glasses on his nose with an angry gesture, and beganto fuss with the papers on his desk. But in spite of his professedscepticism and his suspicion of Pulaski Britt's ingenuousness, it wasplain that his mind was not on the papers.

  He whirled away suddenly and faced Britt. That gentleman was pullingpackets of other papers from his pocket.

  "Look here, Britt, about this lying scandal that seems to be snakingaround, seeing that it has come to your ears, I--"

  "What I'm here for is to go over these drivin' tolls so that they can bepassed on to the book-keepers," announced Mr. Britt, with a fine andbrisk business air. He had shot his shaft of gossip, had "jumped" hisman, and the affair of John Barrett's daughter had no further interestfor him. "You go ahead and run your family affairs to suit yourself. Asto these things you are runnin' with me, let's get at 'em."

  In this manner, unwittingly, did Pulaski D. Britt light the fuse thatconnected with his own magazine; in this fashion, too, did he turn hisback upon it.