ONLY the sighing of the autumn wind through the pines and the occasional hoot of a horned owl broke the stillness; a half moon rode in the sky and under its light the trees on the near ridges stood out vague, indistinct, distorted.
Pearson sat in the little, square, log shanty watching the play of the fire-light on the farther, tar-papered wall. The little room was in darkness and the leaping flames through the half-open stove door threw wierd, grotesque lights out into the gloom.
The grip of the cities was on him; the lonesomeness. He was at that stage when a man wavers between love and hatred of the silences. To-night all the dreary emptiness of it struck him fully. The mem-
ories of the years lived beside the roar of the city were flitting before him. He felt a fierce longing to be back, to be himself again. His young old, clean-shaven, handsome face was drawn and grey, fighting an old fight. He rose and, crossing the room took down from a shelf a long, red bottle and for several minutes stood holding the liquor between himself and the flames. It gurgled and gleamed a dozen colors in the firelight and to the man standing there it seemed like some evil thing, masteryful. With a gesture he dropped b^c-k into his seat, set the bottle on the table.
“Because of you has this always to be,” he asked aloud, his voice heavy" and lifeless, “Living from day to day "with nothing but gnawing pain. God! Forgive me. Let me forget it all for to-night,” his voice trailed off into a dreary murmur. For a long time he sat thus his mind busv.
It was almost five years now and in all that time he had never been back, never been in a city. The wilderness had been good to him and sometimes he almost forgot the past and at other times he was near winning the fight; then again would come the longing for the lights, the life and that woman.
Five years ago life had seemed so bright, his law practice good, himself handsome, popular; then the night at the Governor’s ball when drunk, he had humiliated her before them all. How vividly the scene came back to him tonight. lier delicately-cut face and the wide blue eyes with their mingled expression of grief and hurt pain. He had seen her but once again on the afternoon of the day he left, It had been a brief parting, neither showing the bitterness. He remembered standing before her and his words came back to him: “I’m going away to-night, Hazel, perhaps for good. I don’t ask anything of you because I don’t deserve it, but some day I want to come back a man and if you are here—”
And she had given him her hand with a slow, pained smile upon her lips and then he had gone out into the gathering darkness of the spring night.
He had come West and became one of the many men helping to build the great transcontinental line. Shrewd, levelheaded, resourceful and a born leader, Pearson had prospered as a contractor.
Five years ago ! What an age it seemed to him as he sat there. Gradually the fire died out and a. faint chill crept into the room. Slowly he rose from his chair and without one glance at the bottle on the table he undressed and rolled into his bunk. That battle was over.
The last echo of the foreman’s voice announcing quitting time, died away and slowly the men filed out of the cut. Pearson, standing on a jutting ledge at the farther end, with his elbow resting on his half bent knee, his chin sunk in the upturned palm, and wide, soft brimmed hat pulled well down, watched with contem-
plative eye the departing gangs. A cold west wind, spiced with the melancholy odors of the dying year, blew in his face and the western sky was dull, sombre red.
He watched the last man pass from sight behind the rocks and his heart was filled with a vague pity for the toilers. How empty, monotonous were their lives. The long days and months and years of toil for which they got so little. A week’s debauch in some little town and then— back to work. And yet they seemed happy. He wondered if he would drop to such a life.
Heavy steps awoke him from his reverie and looking up he met the big blue eyes of the foreman fixed on him quizzically.
“I tank we better be goin’ to supper, Mister Pearson.”
“All right Olaf,” and together they slowly descended the cut.
“I’m going to town to-morrow, Olaf,” the contractor interjected.
“Benora?” questioned the Swede.
“No,” smiled Pearson, amused at the man’s apparent concern. The saloons, gambling joints and the sporting houses of the railroad town held no attraction for him.
The big foreman halted and turned half around on the narrow path and stood looking at his employer for a long moment, trouble clouding his big, blue eyes. They understood each other, these two men. Between them was a comradeship, a perfect understanding. Many were the things Pearson did and said that were incomprehensible to his big foreman, and his going away at the worst season stirred his curiosity. He groped in his mind for the wherefore of it and Pearson seeing the changing expression felt the perfectness of his friendship. At least the wilderness had brought him a friend, a true friend.
“I tank you better not go just now, Mister Pearson ; I don’t be able to make it go alone; you don’t need anything anyhow?”
It was the most Olaf had ever said at once and Pearson, noting the lie, for Olaf was perfectly able to handle everything single handed, wondered why the foreman was so anxious for him to stay.
“I’m not going on any spree Olaf. I’ll promise to be good.”
“No?” returned the foreman with such naive doubt that Pearson was forced to laugh. The resounding call of the triangle cut short the discussion and they resumed their walk.
Noon the following day found Pearson boarding the Overland at the little way station forty-five miles from camp. He still wore his high, side-lacing top-boots, his felt hat, soft blue shirt and cartridge belt. Entering the chair-car he sank into a seat and stared out the window at the fast flitting landscape of rocks, water and trees. Slowly the darkness came on and the trees and rocks became a vague, swiftly passing blur. Strangely enough, even to himself he could give no reason for the journey. Something, a subconscious influence, had taken hold of him and here he was drawing swiftly nearer the city so full of old memories.
It was almost twenty-one o’clock when the Overland drew into the long train shed. He alighted and passed through the huge doors into the street. Though unaware of his bizarre appearance and that he was attracting attention he took a cab and was soon rattling up town. He registered mechanically and followed the boy into the elevator. In the bar a three piece orchastra was playing Tschaikowsky and everywhere was noise and light.
Alone in his room he lighted a cigar pid strolled down to the rotunda. It was impossible to get over the strangeness he felt. Unknown to himself the five years had changed him. . The city no longer was “home”; he felt “alien.” " He still felt it the following day. He lunched late to be alone. Since his arrival he had spoken to no one. In the afternoon he went to the theatre and walking to the hotel when the dusk had fallen he found himself wishing himself back in camp; sitting chaffing the cookee in the long shack, or exchanging monosyllables with Olaf in the office. Twice during the day he had walked to the bar to order a drink, but, with strange new strength, his resolve came back to him and he lamely asked for white rock. The bartender, struck by his appearance and looking approval, sniffed audibly at the request but Pearson was unaware of it. He was too busy trying to analyze his feelings.
Evening again found him at the theatre up in the first gallery. He wanted to be
high up so as to see the people below, in the boxes and around him. The orchestra commenced. He closed his eyes when the lights went out and leaning back took in the old familiar waves of sound.
Presently, lazily opening them again he found his gaze fixed on the occupants of the upper left-hand box. Slowly recognition dawned upon him. Yes, it was she. No one in all the world could look like her. Even at the distance he could mark the contour of her face and her glorious hair. He leaned forward, lips parted, eyes bright. The music, the crowded house, the empty five years were forgotten. He knew only that it w^as she and that he craved speech with her and to see again—her eyes.
The moment the curtain fell Pearson was out of his seat and heading for the lower entrance. Hastily scribbling a note he tipped the usher lavishly and waited, breathless.
He had not written like a returned penitent. He forgot that, and addressed her with the old frankness: “Will you have supper in the same little placef—D. P.”
The boy returned, a folded slip in his hand. The railroader tore.the paper from the boy’s hand.
“Yes. Meet me at the entrance.”
Never had time seemed so to drag to Pearson. Up and down the smoking room he paced chewing a cold cigar. He was confused between two impulses. He felt a longing to be away from all the things around him; to be back in the silences. It was a new lonesomeness, the grip of the Wilderness, and yet—that hair and face and the eyes that he could only remember in the shadow of the box—!
She came to him alone, smiling her little, old sweet smile. And she noted the broad shoulders, the clear eyes, the easy stride and carriage of the woodsman, and in her heart she was strangely proud.
They drove in silence to the little cafe and when their orders had been taken and they were once more alone—there was silence, a silence in which the years rehearsed themselves until, the two unravelling memories, reached the present moment.
The man spoke, his voice low but steady.
“Hazel, I don’t know what brought me here to-night. Fate I think. But two nights ago, back there in the bush,” he waved his hand over toward the West, “I found myself, and then—well I came here. I’ve lived a century in five years. I said I would come back a man and I have, and—I want you. I have found a new life; a bigger life than the narrow confined one I used to live. And Hazel, even as I sit here with all my world at stake I feel the grip of the wilderness. I can’t give it up and I—I can’t give you up. It’s—I guess the grip of the wilder-
ness. Say you’ll forget the past, it’s hopeless unless—”
He was leaning far over the table, his hands gripping the edge, his eyes blazing, hungry, his whole form pleading and yet, to the girl, almost commanding.
She sat breathless for a moment and then, when he stopped, caught his great fist in her slender white hands and loosed the grip of the fingers ,on the woodwork.
“I—I’ll go with you, man dear—anywhere.” She said. There were immeasurable depths in the blue eyes, and Pearson paced the streets till dawn to work off the new intoxication of happiness.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.