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The Valley of the Giants (Chapter13)

2006-08-22 19:48

  Chapter XIII

  Colonel Pennington's imported British butler showed Bryce into the Pennington living room at six-thirty, announcing him with due ceremony. Shirley rose from the piano where she had been idly fingering the keys and greeted him with every appearance of pleasure ——following which, she turned to present her visitor to Colonel Pennington, who was standing in his favourite position with his back to the fireplace.

  “Uncle Seth, this is Mr. Cardigan, who was so very nice to me the day I landed in Red Bluff.”

  The Colonel bowed. “I have to thank you, sir, for your courtesy to my niece.” He had assumed an air of reserve, of distinct aloofness, despite his studied politeness. Bryce stepped forward with extended hand, which the Colonel grasped in a manner vaguely suggestive of that clammy-palmed creation of Charles Dickens——Uriah Heep. Bryce was tempted to squeeze the lax fingers until the Colonel should bellow with pain; but resisting the ungenerous impulse, he replied instead:

  “Your niece, Colonel, is one of those fortunate beings the world will always clamour to serve.”

  “Quite true, Mr. Cardigan. When she was quite a little girl I came under her spell myself.”

  “So did I, Colonel. Miss Sumner has doubtless told you of our first meeting some twelve years ago?”

  “Quite so. May I offer you a cocktail, Mr. Cardigan?”

  “Thank you, certainly. Dad and I have been pinning one on about this time every night since my return.”

  “Shirley belongs to the Band of Hope,” the Colonel explained. “She's ready at any time to break a lance with the Demon Rum. Back in Michigan, where we used to live, she saw too many woodsmen around after the spring drive. So we'll have to drink her share, Mr. Cardigan. Pray be seated.”

  Bryce seated himself. “Well, we lumbermen are a low lot and naturally fond of dissipation,” he agreed. “I fear Miss Sumner's Prohibition tendencies will be still further strengthened after she has seen the mad-train.”

  “What is that?” Shirley queried.

  “The mad-train runs over your uncle's logging railroad up into Township Nine, where his timber and ours is located. It is the only train operated on Sunday, and it leaves Sequoia at five p.m. to carry the Pennington and Cardigan crews back to the woods after their Saturday-night celebration in town. As a usual thing, all hands, with the exception of the brakeman, engineers, and fireman, are singing, weeping or fighting drunk.”

  “But why do you provide transportation for them to come to town Saturday nights?” Shirley protested.

  “They ride in on the last trainload of logs, and if we didn't let them do it, they'd ask for their time. It's the way of the gentle lumberjack. And of course, once they get in, we have to round them up on Sunday afternoon and get them back on the job. Hence the mad- train.”

  “Do they fight, Mr. Cardigan?”

  “Frequently. I might say usually. It's quite an inspiring sight to see a couple of lumberjacks going to it on a flat-car travelling thirty miles an hour.”

  “But aren't they liable to fall off and get killed?”

  “No. You see, they're used to fighting that way. Moreover, the engineer looks back, and if he sees any signs of Donnybrook Fair, he slows down.”

  “How horrible!”

  “Yes, indeed. The right of way is lined with empty whiskey bottles.”

  Colonel Pennington spoke up. “We don't have any fighting on the mad- train any more,” he said blandly.

  “Indeed! How do you prevent it?” Bryce asked.

  “My woods-boss, Jules Rondeau, makes them keep the peace,” Pennington replied with a small smile. “If there's any fighting to be done, he does it.”

  “You mean among his own crew, of course,” Bryce suggested.

  “No, he's in charge of the mad-train, and whether a fight starts among your men or ours, he takes a hand. He's had them all behaving mildly for quite a while, because he can whip any man in the country, and everybody realizes it. I don't know what I'd do without Rondeau. He certainly makes those bohunks of mine step lively.”

  “Oh-h-h! Do you employ bohunks, Colonel?”

  “Certainly. They cost less; they are far less independent than most men and more readily handled. And you don't have to pamper them—— particularly in the matter of food. Why, Mr Cardigan, with all due respect to your father, the way he feeds his men is simply ridiculous! Cake and pie and doughnuts at the same meal!” The Colonel snorted virtuously.

  “Well, Dad started in to feed his men the same food he fed himself, and I suppose the habits one forms in youth are not readily changed in old age, Colonel.”

  “But that makes it hard for other manufacturers,” the Colonel protested. “I feed my men good plain food and plenty of it——quite better food than they were used to before they came to this country; but I cannot seem to satisfy them. I am continuously being reminded, when I do a thing thus and so, that John Cardigan does it otherwise. Your respected parent is the basis for comparison in this country, Cardigan, and I find it devilish inconvenient.” He laughed indulgently and passed his cigarette-case to Bryce.

  “Uncle Seth always grows restless when some other man is the leader,” Shirley volunteered with a mischievous glance at Pennington. “He was the Great Pooh-Bah of the lumber-trade back in Michigan, but out here he has to play second fiddle. Don't you, Nunky-dunk?”

  “I'm afraid I do, my dear,” the Colonel admitted with his best air of hearty expansiveness. “I'm afraid I do. However, Mr. Cardigan, now that you have——at least, I have been so informed——taken over your father's business, I am hoping we will be enabled to get together on many little details and work them out on a common basis to our mutual advantage. We lumbermen should stand together and not make it hard for each other. For instance, your scale of wages is totally disproportionate to the present high cost of manufacture and the mediocre market; yet just because you pay it, you set a precedent which we are all forced to follow. However,” he concluded, “let's not talk shop. I imagine we have enough of that during the day. Besides, here are the cocktails.”

  With the disposal of the cocktails, the conversation drifted into a discussion of Shirley's adventures with a salmon in Big Lagoon. The Colonel discoursed learnedly on the superior sport of muskellunge- fishing, which prompted Bryce to enter into a description of going after swordfish among the islands of the Santa Barbara channel. “Trout-fishing when the fish gets into white water is good sport; salmon-fishing is fine, and the steel-head in Eel River are hard to beat; muskellunge are a delight, and tarpon are not so bad if you're looking for thrills; but for genuine inspiration give me a sixteen- foot swordfish that will leap out of the water from three to six feet, and do it three or four hundred times——all on a line and rod so light one dares not state the exact weight if he values his reputation for veracity. Once I was fishing at San——”

  The butler appeared in the doorway and bowed to Shirley, at the time announcing that dinner was served. The girl rose and gave her arm to Bryce; with her other arm linked through her uncle's she turned toward the dining room.

  Just inside the entrance Bryce paused. The soft glow of the candles in the old-fashioned silver candlesticks upon the table was reflected in the polished walls of the room-walls formed of panels of the most exquisitely patterned redwood burl Bryce Cardigan had ever seen. Also the panels were unusually large.

  Shirley Sumner's alert glance followed Bryce's as it swept around the room. “This dining room is Uncle Seth's particular delight, Mr. Cardigan,” she explained.

  “It is very beautiful, Miss Sumner. And your uncle has worked wonders in the matter of having it polished. Those panels are positively the largest and most beautiful specimens of redwood burl ever turned out in this country. The grain is not merely wavy; it is not merely curly; it is actually so contrary that you have here, Colonel Pennington, a room absolutely unique, in that it is formed of bird's- eye burl. Mark the deep shadows in it. And how it does reflect those candles!”

  “It is beautiful,” the Colonel declared. “And I must confess to a pardonable pride in it, although the task of keeping these walls from being marred by the furniture knocking against them requires the utmost care.”

  Bryce turned and his brown eyes blazed into the Colonel's. “Where did you succeed in finding such a marvellous tree?” he queried pointedly. “I know of but one tree in Humboldt County that could have produced such beautiful burl.”

  For about a second Colonel Pennington met Bryce's glance unwaveringly; then he read something in his guest's eyes, and his glance shifted, while over his benign countenance a flush spread quickly. Bryce noted it, and his quickly roused suspicions were as quickly kindled into certainty. “Where did you find that tree?” he repeated innocently.

  “Rondeau, my woods-boss, knew I was on the lookout for something special——something nobody else could get; so he kept his eyes open.”

  “Indeed!” There was just a trace of irony in Bryce's tones as he drew Shirley's chair and held it for her. “As you say, Colonel, it is difficult to keep such soft wood from being marred by contact with the furniture. And you are fortunate to have such a woods-boss in your employ. Such loyal fellows are usually too good to be true, and quite frequently they put their blankets on their backs and get out of the country when you least expect it. I dare say it would be a shock to you if Rondeau did that.”

  There was no mistaking the veiled threat behind that apparently innocent observation, and the Colonel, being a man of more than ordinary astuteness, realized that at last he must place his cards on the table. His glance, as he rested it on Bryce now, was baleful, ophidian. “Yes,” he said, “I would be rather disappointed. However, I pay Rondeau rather more than it is customary to pay woods-bosses; so I imagine he'll stay——unless, of course, somebody takes a notion to run him out of the county. And when that happens, I want to be on hand to view the spectacle.”

  Bryce sprinkled a modicum of salt in his soup. “I'm going up into Township Nine to-morrow afternoon,” he remarked casually. “I think I shall go over to your camp and pay the incomparable Jules a brief visit. Really, I have heard so much about that woods-boss of yours, Colonel, that I ache to take him apart and see what makes him go.”

  Again the Colonel assimilated the hint, but preferred to dissemble. “Oh, you can't steal him from me, Cardigan,” he laughed. “I warn you in advance——so spare yourself the effort.”

  “I'll try anything once,” Bryce retorted with equal good nature. “However, I don't want to steal him from you. I want to ascertain from him where he procured this burl. There may be more of the same in the neighbourhood where he got this.”

  “He wouldn't tell you.”

  “He might. I'm a persuasive little cuss when I choose to exert myself.”

  “Rondeau is not communicative. He requires lots of persuading.”

  “What delicious soup!” Bryce murmured blandly. “Miss Sumner, may I have a cracker?”

  The dinner passed pleasantly; the challenge and defiance between guest and host had been so skillfully and gracefully exchanged that Shirley hadn't the slightest suspicion that these two well-groomed men had, under her very nose, as it were, agreed to be enemies and then, for the time being, turned their attention to other and more trifling matters. Coffee was served in the living room, and through the fragrant smoke of Pennington's fifty-cent perfectos a sprightly three-cornered conversation continued for an hour. Then the Colonel, secretly enraged at the calm, mocking, contemplative glances which Bryce ever and anon bestowed upon him, and unable longer to convince himself that he was too apprehensive——that this cool young man knew nothing and would do nothing even if he knew something——rose, pleaded the necessity for looking over some papers, and bade Bryce good- night. Foolishly he proffered Bryce a limp hand; and a demon of deviltry taking possession of the latter, this time he squeezed with a simple, hearty earnestness, the while he said:

  “Colonel Pennington, I hope I do not have to assure you that my visit here this evening has not only been delightful but——er——instructive. Good-night, sir, and pleasant dreams.”

  With difficulty the Colonel suppressed a groan. However, he was not the sort of man who suffers in silence; for a minute later the butler, leaning over the banisters as his master climbed the stairs to his library, heard the latter curse with an eloquence that was singularly appealing.

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