Within Sound of the Saws.



LUMBER had gone up, and the big mill on the Aspohegan was working overtime.
    Through the range of square openings under the eaves the sunlight streamed in steadily upon the strident tumult, the confusion of sun and shadow, within the mill. The air was sweet with the smell of fresh sawdust and clammy with the ooze from great logs just “yanked” up the dripping slides from the river. One had to pitch his voice with peculiar care to make it audible amid the chaotic din of the saws.

    In the middle of the mill worked the “gang,” a series of upright saws [Page 28] that rose and fell swiftly, cleaving their way with a pulsating, vicious clamor through an endless and sullen procession of logs. Here and there, each with a massive table to itself, hummed the circulars, large and small; and whensoever a deal, or a pile of slabs, was brought in contact with one of the spinning discs, upon the first arching spirt of saw-dust spray began a shrieking note, which would run the whole vibrant and intolerable gamut as the saw bit through the fibres from end to end. In the occasional brief moments of comparative silence, when several of the saws would change to be disengaged at the same instant, might be heard, far down in the lower story of the mill, the grumbling roar of the two great turbine wheels, which, sucking in the tortured water from the sluices, gave life to all the wilderness of cranks and shafts above [Page 29].
    That end of the mill which looked down river stood open, to a height of about seven feet, across the whole of the upper story. From this opening ran a couple of long slanting ways each two feet wide and about a hundred feet in length, raised on trestles. The track of these “slides,” as they are technically termed, consisted of a series of wooden rollers, along which the deals raced in endless sequence from the saws, to drop with a plunge into a spacious basin, at the lower end of which they were gathered into rafts. Whenever there was a break in the procession of deals, the rollers would be left spinning briskly with a cheerful murmur. There was also a shorter and steeper “slide,” diverging to the lumber yard, where clapboards and such light stuff were piled till they could be carted to the distant station.
    In former days it had been the [Page 30] easy custom to dump the sawdust into the stream, but the fish-wardens had lately interfered and put a stop to the practice. Now, a tall young fellow, in top boots, gray homespun trousers and blue shirt, was busy carting the sawdust to a swampy hollow near the lower end of the main slides.
    Sandy MacPherson was a new hand. Only that morning had he joined the force at the Aspohegan Mill; and every now and then he would pause, remove his battered soft felt from his whitish yellow curls, mop his red forehead, and gaze with a hearty appreciation at the fair landscape spread out beyond the mill. With himself and with the world in general he felt on fairly good terms — an easy frame of mind which would have been much jarred had he been conscious of the fact that from a corner in the upper story of the mill his every movement was [Page 31] watched with a vindictive and ominous interest.
     In that corner, close by the head of one of the main slides, stood a table whose presiding genius was a little swinging circular. The circular was tended by a powerful sombre-visaged old mill-hand called ’Lije Vandine, whose office it was to trim square the ragged ends of the “stuff” before it went down the slide. At the very back of the table hummed the saw, like a great hornet; and whenever Vandine got two or three deals in place before him he would grasp a lever above his head, and forward through its narrow slit in the table would dart the little saw, and scream its way in a second through the tough white spruce. Every time he let the saw swing back, Vandine would drop his eyes to the blue-shirted figure below, and his harsh features would work with concentrated fury. These seven [Page 32] years he had been waiting for the day when he should meet Sandy MacPherson face to face.
    Seven years before, ’Lije Vandine had been working in one of the mills near St. John, New Brunswick, while his only daughter, Sarah, was living out at service in the city. At this time Sandy MacPherson was employed on the city wharves, and an acquaintance which he formed with the pretty housemaid resulted in a promise of marriage between the two. Vandine and his wife were satisfied with the girl’s account of her lover, and the months slipped by swiftly without their making his acquaintance. Among the fishing and lumbering classes, however, it not seldom happens that betrothal brings with it rather more intimate privileges than propriety could sanction, whence it came to pass that one evening Sarah returned to her parents unexpectedly, having been dismissed [Page 33] from her situation in disgrace. Vandine, though ignorant, was a clear-seeing man, who understood his own class thoroughly; and after his first outburst of wounded indignation he had forgiven and comforted his daughter no less tenderly than her mother had done. He knew perfectly that the girl was no wanton. He went at once into the city, with the intention of fetching Sandy out and covering up the disgrace by an immediate marriage. He visited the wharves, but the young man was not there. With growing apprehension he hastened to his boarding house, only to learn that MacPherson had left the place and was departing for the States by the next train, having been married the previous evening. The man’s pain and fury at this revelation almost choked him, but he mastered himself sufficiently to ask a boy of the house to accompany him to the station and [Page 34] point out the betrayer. If the train had not gone, he would be in time to avenge his poor girl. The boy, however, took alarm at something in Vandine’s face, and led him by a roundabout way, so that just as he drew near the station the Western Express rolled out with increasing speed. On the rear platform stood a laughing young woman bedecked in many colors, and beside her a tall youth with a curly yellow head, whom the boy pointed out as Sandy MacPherson. He was beyond the reach of vengeance for the time. But his features stamped themselves ineffaceably on the avenger’s memory. As the latter turned away, to bide his time in grim silence, the young woman on the platform of the car said to her husband, “I wonder who that was, Sandy, that looked like he was going to run after the cars! Didn’t you see? His arms kind o’ jerked out, like that; but he [Page 35] didn’t start after all. There he goes up the hill, with one pant-leg in his boot. He looked kind of wild. I’m just as glad he didn’t get aboard!”

    “He’s one of your old fellers as you’ve give the go-by to, I kind of suspicion, Sis,” replied the young man with a laugh. And the train roared into a cutting.
    About a year after these events Vandine’s wife died, and Vandine thereupon removed, with Sarah and her baby, to the interior of the province, settling down finally at Aspohegan Mills. Here he built himself a small cottage, on a steep slope overlooking the mill; and here Sarah, by her quiet and self-sacrificing devotion to her father and her child, wiped out the memory of her error and won the warm esteem of the settlement. As for the child, he grew into a handsome, blue-eyed, sturdy boy, whom his grandfather [Page 36] loved with a passionate tenderness intensified by a subtle strain of pity. As year by year his daughter and the boy twined themselves ever closer about his heart, Vandine’s hate against the man who had wronged them both kept ever deepening to a keener anguish.
    But now at last the day had come. When first he had caught sight of MacPherson in the yard below, the impulse to rush down and throttle him was so tremendous that as he curbed it the blood forsook his face, leaving it the color of ashes, and for a few seconds he could not tend his saw. Presently, when the yelping little demon was again at work biting across the timbers, the foreman drew near, and Vandine asked him, “Who’s the new hand down yonder?”
    “Oh!” said the foreman, leaning a little over the bench to follow Vandine’s pointing, “yon’s one Sandy MacPherson, from over on [Page 37] the Kennebec. He’s been working in Maine these seven year past, but says he kind of got a hankering after his own country, an’ so he’s come back. Good hand!”
    “That so!” was all Vandine replied.

    All the long forenoon, amid the wild, or menacing, or warning, or complaining crescendos and diminuendos of the unresting saws, the man’s brain seethed with plans of vengeance. After all these years of waiting he would be satisfied with no common retribution. To merely kill the betrayer would be insufficient. He would wring his soul and quench his manhood with some strange unheard-of horror, ere dealing the final stroke that should rid earth of his presence. Scheme after scheme burned through his mind, and at times his gaunt face would crease itself in a dreadful smile as he pulled the lever that drove his blade through the deals. Finding no plan altogether [Page 38] to his taste, however, he resolved to postpone his revenge till night, at least, that he might have the more time to think it over, and to indulge the luxury of anticipation with realization so easily within his grasp.
    At noon Vandine, muttering to himself, climbed the steep path to the little cottage on the hillside. He ate his dinner in silence, with apparently no perception of what was being set before him. His daughter dared not break in upon this preoccupation. Even his idolized Stevie could win from him no notice, save a smile of grim triumph that frightened the child. Just as he was leaving the cottage to return to the mill, he saw Sarah start back from the window and sit down suddenly, grasping at her bosom, and blanching to the lips as if she had seen a ghost. Glancing downward to the black road, deep with rotted [Page 39] sawdust, he saw MacPherson passing.
    “Who is it?” he asked the girl.
    “It’s Sandy,” she murmured, flushing scarlet and averting her face.
    Her father turned away without a word and started down the hill. Presently the girl remembered that there was something terrifying in the expression of his face as he asked the curt question. What a sudden vague fear rising in her breast, she ran to the cottage door.

    “Father!” she cried, “father!” But Vandine paid no heed to her calls, and after a pause she turned back into the room to answer Stevie’s demand for a cup of milk.
    Along about the middle of the afternoon, while Sandy MacPherson was still carting sawdust, and Vandine tending his circular amid the bewildering din, Stevie and some [Page 40] other children came down to play around the mill.
    The favorite amusement with these embryo mill-hands, stream-drivers, and lumbermen, was to get on the planks as they emerged from the upper story of the mill, and go careering swiftly and smoothly down the slides, till, just before coming to the final plunge, they would jump off, and fall on the heap of sawdust. This was a game that to strangers looked perilous enough; but there had never been an accident, so at Aspohegan Mills it had outgrown the disapproval of the hands. To Sandy MacPherson, however, it was new, and from time to time he eyed the sport apprehensively. And all the while Vandine glared upon him from his corner in the upper story, and the children raced shouting down the slides, and tumbled with bright laughter into the sawdust.
    Among the children none enjoyed [Page 41] more than Stevie this racing down the slides. His mother, looking out of the window on the hillside, saw the merry little figure, bareheaded, the long yellow curls floating out behind him, as he half knelt, half sat on the sliding plank ready to jump off at the proper moment. She had no thought of danger as she resumed her housework. Neither had Stevie. At length it happened, however, that just as he was nearing the end of the descent, an eagle came sailing low overhead, caught the little fellow’s eye, and diverted his attention for a moment. It was the fatal moment. Just as he looked down again, gathering himself to jump, his heart sprang into his throat, and the plank with a sickening lurch plunged into the churning basin. The child’s shrill, frightened shriek was not half uttered ere the waters choked it.
    Vandine had just let the buzzing little circular slip back into its recess [Page 42], when he saw MacPherson spring from his cart and dash madly down to the shore.

    At the same instant came that shrill cry, so abruptly silenced. Vandine’s heart stood still with awful terror,— he had recognized the child’s voice. In a second he had swung himself down over the scaffolding, alighting on a sawdust heap.
     “Hold back the deals!” he yelled in a voice that pierced the din. It was not five seconds ere every one in the mill seemed to know what had happened. Two men sprang on the slides and checked the stream of deals. Then the great turbines ceased to grumble, and all the clamor of the saws was hushed. The unexpected silence was like a blow, and sickened the nerves.
    And meanwhile — Stevie? The plank that bore his weight clinging desperately to it, plunged deeper than its fellows, and came up somewhat [Page 43] further from the slide, but not now with Stevie upon it. The child had lost his hold, and when he rose it was only to strike against the bottoms of three or four deals that lay clustered together.
    This, though apparently fatal, was in reality the child’s salvation, for during the half or three-quarters of a minute that intervened before the slides could be stopped, the great planks kept dropping and plunging and crashing about him; and had it not been for those very timbers that cut him off from the air he was choking to breathe, he would have been crushed and battered out of all human semblance in a second. As it was, ere he had time to suffocate, MacPherson was on the spot.
    In an instant the young man’s heavy boots were kicked off, and without pausing to count the odds, which were hideously against him, he sprang into the chaos of whirling [Page 44] timbers. All about him pounded the falling deals, then ceased, just as he made a clean dive beneath that little cluster that covered Stevie. As Vandine reached the shore, and was casting desperate glances over the basin in search of some clue to guide his plunge, MacPherson reappeared at the other side of the deals, and Stevie’s yellow curls were floating over his shoulder. The young man clung rather faintly to the supporting planks, as if he had overstrained himself; and two or three hands who had already shoved off a “bateau,” pushed out and picked him up with his burden.
    Torn by a convulsion of fiercely antagonized passions, Vandine sat down on the edge of the bank and waited stupidly. About the same moment Sarah looked out of the cottage door in wonder to see why the mill had stopped so suddenly.

    In all his dreams, Vandine had [Page 45] never dreamed of such chance as that his enemy should deserve his gratitude. In his nature there had grown up one thing stronger than his thirst for vengeance, and that one thing was his love for Stevie. In spite of himself, and indeed to his furious self-scorn, he found his heart warming strangely to the man who, at deadliest risk, had saved the life of his darling. At the same time he was conscious of a fresh sense of injury. A bitter resentment throbbed up in his bewildered bosom, to think that MacPherson should thus have robbed him of the sweets of that revenge he had so long anticipated. The first clear realization that came to him was that, though he must kill the man who had wronged his girl, he would nevertheless be tortured with remorse for ever after. A moment more, and — as he saw Sandy step out of the “bateau” with the boy, now sobbing feebly, in his [Page 46] arms — he knew that his vengeance had been made for ever impossible. He longed fiercely to grasp the fellow’s hand, and make some poor attempt to thank him. But he mastered the impulse — Sarah must not be forgotten. He strode down the bank. One of the hands had taken Stevie, and MacPherson was leaning against a pile of boards, panting for breath. Vandine stepped up to him, his fingers twitching, and struck him a furious blow across the mouth with his open hand. Then he turned aside, snatched Stevie to his bosom, and started up the bank. Before going two paces, however, he paused, as if, oppressed by the utter stillness that followed his astounding act. Bending a strange look on the young man, he said, in a voice as harsh as the saw’s:—
    “I was going to kill you to-night, Sandy MacPherson. But now after this day’s work of yourn, I guess yer [Page 47] safe from me from this out.” He shut his mouth with a snap, and strode up through the piles of sawdust toward the cottage on the hill.

    As for MacPherson, he was dumbfounded. Though no boaster, he knew he had done a magnificently heroic thing, and to get his mouth slapped for it was an exigency which he did not know what to do with. He had staggered against the boards from the force of the stroke, but it had not occurred to him to resent it, though ordinarily he was hot-blooded and quick in a quarrel. He stared about him sheepishly, bewildered and abashed, and unspeakably aggrieved. In the faces of the mill-hands who were gathered about him, he found no solution of the mystery. They looked as astonished as himself, and almost equally hot and ashamed. Presently he ejaculated, “Well, I swan!” Then one of the men who [Page 48] had taken out the “bateau” and picked him up, found voice.
    “I’ll be gosh-darned ef that ain’t the damnedest,” said he, slowly. “Why, so, I’d thought as how he was agoin’ right down on his prayerhandles to ye. That there kid is the apple of his eye.”
    “An’ he was sot on killin’ me tonight, was he?” murmured MacPherson in deepest wonderment. “What might his name be, anyhow?”
    “’Lije Vandine,” spoke up another of the hands. “An’ that’s his grandchild, Stevie. I reckon he must have a powerful grudge agin you, Sandy, or he’d never ’a’ acted that way.”
    MacPherson’s face had grown suddenly serious and dignified. “Is the boy’s father and mother livin’?” he inquired.

    “Sarah Vandine’s living with the old man,” answered the foreman [Page 49], “and as fine a girl as there’ll be in Aspohegan. Don’t know anything about the lad’s father, nor don’t want to. The man that’d treat a girl like Sarah Vandine that way—hangin’s too good for ’im.” 
    MacPherson’s face flushed crimson, and he dropped his eyes.   

     “Boys,” said he, huskily, “ef ’Lije Vandine had ’a’ served me as he intended, I guess as how I’d have only got my deserts. I reckon as how I’m the little lad’s father!”
    The hands stared at each other. Nothing could make them forget what MacPherson had just done. They were all daring and ready in emergency, but each man felt that he would have thought twice before jumping into the basin when the deals were running on the slides. The foreman could have bitten his tongue out for what he had just said. He tried to mend matters.
    “I wouldn’t have thought you [Page 50] was that sort of a man, to judge from what I’ve just seen o’ you,” he explained. “Anyhow, I reckon you’ve more’n made up this day for the wrong you done when you was younger. But Sarah Vandine’s as good a girl as they make, an’ I don’t hardly see how you could ’a’ served her that trick.”
    A certain asperity grew in the foreman’s voice as he thought of it; for, as his wife used to say, he “set a great store by ’Lije’s girl, not havin’ no daughter of his own.”
    “It was lies as done it, boys,” said MacPherson. “As for whose lies, why that ain’t neither here nor there, now—an’ she as did the mischief’s dead and buried—and before she died she told me all about it. That was last winter—of the grippe—and I tell you I’ve felt bad about Sarah ever since. An’ to think the little lad’s mine! Boys, but ain’t [Page 51] he a beauty?” And Sandy’s face began to beam with satisfaction at the thought.
    By this time all the hands looked gratified at the turn affairs were, to them, so plainly taking. Every one returned to work, the foreman remarking aside to a chum, “I reckon Sarah’s all right.” And in a minute or two the saws were once more shrieking their way through the logs and slabs and deals.
    On the following morning, as ’Lije Vandine tended his vicious little circular, he found its teeth needed resetting. They had been tried by a lot of knotty timber. He unshipped the saw and took it to the foreman. While he was waiting for the latter to get him another saw, Sandy MacPherson came up. With a strong effort Vandine restrained himself from holding out his hand in grateful greeting. There was a lull in the uproar, the men forgetting to [Page 52] feed their saws as they watched the interview.
    Sandy’s voice was heard all over the mill:—
    “’Lije Vandine, I saved the little lad’s life, n’ that counts for something; but I know right well I ain’t got no right to expect you or Sarah ever to say a kind word to me. But I swear, so help me God, I hadn’t no sort of idee what I was doin’. My wife died las’ winter, over on the Kennebec, an’ afore she died she told me everything—as I’d take it kindly ef you’d let me tell you, more particular, another time. An’ as I was wantin’ to say now, I’d take it kind ef you’d let me go up along to your place this evenin’, and maybe Sarah’d let me jest talk to the boy a little. Ef so be ez I could persuade her by-and-by to forget an’ forgive—and you’d trust me after what I’d done—I’d lay out to marry her the minute she’d say the [Page 53] word, fur there ain’t no other woman I’ve ever set such store by as I do now by her. An’ then ther’s Stevie—”
    “Stevie and the lass hez both got a good home,” interrupted Vandine, roughly.
“An’ I wouldn’t want a better for ’em,” exclaimed MacPherson eagerly, catching the train of the old man’s thought. “What I’d want would be, ef maybe you’d let me come in along with them and you.”
    By this time Vandine had got his new saw, and he turned away without replying.
    Sandy followed him a few paces, and then turned back dejectedly to attend his own circular—he having been moved into the mill that morning. All the hands looked at him in sympathy, and many were the ingenious backwoods oaths which were muttered after Vandine for his ugliness. The old man paid little heed, however, to the [Page 54] tide of unpopularity that was rising about him. Probably, absorbed in his own thoughts, he was utterly unaware of it. All the morning long he swung and fed his circular, and when the horn blew for twelve his mind was made up. In the sudden stillness he strode over to the place where MacPherson worked, and said in a voice of affected carelessness—
    “You better come along an’ have a bite o’ dinner with us, Sandy. You’ll be kinder expected, I reckon, for Stevie’s powerful anxious to see you.”
    Sandy grabbed his coat and went along [Page 55].