THE wits of the Knickerbocker Club said that Clifford Ommanney's summer cigarettes were invariably taken off the ice, and that Sylvia Vandyk inevitably slept upon a couch filled with the down from the wings of tropical butterflies. This, of course, was the Western way of spelling the last word in refined civilisation and luxury. As a matter of fact, in Sylvia, on the one side, and Clifford, on the other, were represented the apogee of their respective parents. Time out of mind Père Vandyk and Père Ommanney had set out together from a "hayseed" village in the Far West fortune-seeking, and, like the Biblical character in pursuit of the traditional asses, lo, they had found it. In the course of time they had both married and settled down, and, in the words of Mr. Weller, Senior, Sylvia and Clifford were the results of the manoeuvre. They were plain, straightforward old men, who had never neglected an opportunity in the pursuit of the almighty dollar, and when they had anything to say in Wall Street, they were listened to with respectful attention. They were the financial grubs from which emanated those brilliant society butterflies respectively the hero and heroine of this veracious story. Sylvia and Clifford typified the apotheosis of commercial success.
In other words, they were two spoilt children of fortune—a young man after the heart of Charles Dana Gibson, and a young woman typical of America's best and most perfect type of beauty. And it is needless to say neither of them had ever done a day's work in their lives; they flitted from New York to Newport, from Paris to London, and from Rome to the Gulf of Florida, just as they pleased. They were immensely rich, immensely popular, and from the first the Four Hundred had received them with open arms. Apparently there was no fly in the amber and no crumpled roseleaf on the couch of down—that is, so far as the public knew. But on one point old Reuben Vandyk and his partner Amos Ommanney were perfectly firm. They had made their money together, and they knew the value of it, and not unnaturally they conceived the idea that, when they had done with it, those two vast estates should become one under the joint direction of the young people—in other words, they had made up their minds that the two must marry. By gradual stages this had become an obsession so great that Roman Fathers had issued their ultimatum. There was no immediate hurry, of course, but unless the young people came to a proper understanding, they were told quite firmly that they would have to look to themselves in the future, and that the vast accumulation of family dollars would pass elsewhere.
Now, had the young people been left to themselves, no doubt the trouble would have smoothed itself out strictly in accordance with the laws of Nature. Sylvia and Clifford had a genuine liking for one another—they had been friends and confidants from their childhood—and Dan Cupid, hiding round the corner, frowned to himself to see all the fine work he was putting in frustrated by two obstinate old men who thought they knew better than the astute son of Venus. As a matter of course, the two young people drifted apart—they were cold and distant to one another, and there were certain flirtations in other quarters which did nothing to fill the breach.
What the parents thought they kept to themselves. But they were none the less obdurate. It was about this time that they retired finally from business, realised their capital, chartered a yacht, and went off on a six months' cruise. Report had it that they contemplated the purchase of several islands in the Pacific, though there were others who said that they intended making a bid for some of the minor Balkan States.
Be that as it may, those two plutocrats sailed away into the sunset and never came back again. Months passed, but nothing was heard of the yacht, and the owners were given up for dead. It became necessary for Clifford Ommanney to look into his affairs, for even the son of a millionaire needs money sometimes, but apparently there was none to be had. To all practical purposes the wealth of the partners had vanished. Before they had set out they appeared to have sold everything and invested the proceeds in negotiable securities. Visits to banks and strong-rooms only tended to confirm the catastrophe. Beyond all doubt many millions of dollars in the way of bank paper lay at the bottom of the Pacific. Then for the first time it began to dawn upon Clifford that he was ruined.
He would have to get his own living. He pondered for a week over the best thing to take up, and then came to the deliberate conclusion that he was about as capable of keeping himself as the ordinary office-boy. It was not a pleasant summer that followed, and early autumn found Clifford fagged and run down—found him living on ten dollars a week and occupying a bed-sitting-room in a Brooklyn boarding-house. Yet he was young and strong; he had passed more than one winter trapping fur game in Alaska, and enduring the hardships of that life with zest and enjoyment, so that it injured his pride to find himself bound by the slavery of commercial New York.
It was about this time that he met Sylvia. She was coming out of the famous Flat Iron Building, carrying a note-book in her hand. She was pale and drooping. Gone were the Paris costumes, gone were the dainty shoes with their bejewelled buckles, and only the charm and sweetness of the girl remained. And Clifford stood before her, blushing and stammering like a school-boy.
"I guess," he said—"I guess that I'm the most selfish brute in New York. I forgot all about you. You were away at the time the trouble began, and somehow or other it got into my head that you were being looked after by friends."
"I have no friends," Sylvia said bitterly.
"Well, you need not put on frills over that," Clifford replied. "Nor have I. Not that I went looking for them with a gun when the crash came. Still, they did not exactly run after me, either. And to think I could not find a spare thought for you! You may not believe me, but it never occurred to me till this moment that we are both in the same boat together. Do you mean, to say yon are in an office?"
"That's what they call it," Sylvia said.
"And I'm in a dry-goods store. Dear kid, it's beastly!"
"So's the office, for that matter," Sylvia said, with a catch in her voice. "I ought to have tried for an outdoor job. I can ride and row and play golf; I can skate, and know all about ski-ing. There are lots of girls in America who would be glad to have me as a companion."
"Oh, hit me!" Clifford cried. "Now, why didn't I think of the same thing myself? I'm a perfect jay as far as business is concerned, but an outdoor life is a different matter. Now I've got an inspiration. You just come along with me and have some lunch, and we'll talk the matter over. We are up against it, Sylvia—this sort of life will kill us sooner or later—so I'm going to make a suggestion. You may think it a foolish one, but something's got to be done."
Sylvia made no objection. Clifford was not blind to the fact that Sylvia had not enjoyed a lunch like that for a long time. He saw the tinge of health come back into that exquisitely-cut face of hers; he saw the sparkle once more in the blue eyes, and the smile playing about the corners of her mouth. Of course, he had always known that Sylvia was a pretty girl, but for the first time he recognised that she was beautiful. The knowledge came to him with something of a shock. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her; he had an insane desire to kiss the drooping red lips and look into those downcast eyes. Strange that he never felt like that before. However
"Now, listen to me," he said. "I've got about five hundred dollars—saved it out of the wreck—and I've got a little shanty up yonder in Alaska that I bought and fitted out three years ago, when I had a fancy for trapping. Heaven knows how much money I wasted on that place! You see, I got keen on the game. You remember I spent a whole winter up there. And when I'd finished, old Sol Punnett, my guide, told me that I knew as much about the game as he did. Of course, I was going back next winter, but I never did. Sol keeps an eye on the place, and writes to me occasionally. But there it is—a jolly old shanty, furnished with all sorts of luxuries in the way of patent stoves and cooking utensils. Why, there's an oil engine to run the electric light! Goodness knows how much in the way of stores, either. If I had that place in the Adirondacks, or on the Gulf of Florida, I could sell it for my own price. But fashion has not yet reached to Alaska, and there it is. And I am going back very soon."
"How perfectly splendid!" Sylvia cried. "If I were a man, how I should love to go with you!"
"You are going with me," Clifford said coolly.
"My dear boy, don't be ridiculous!" "It ain't ridiculous," Clifford said. "Now, listen to me, kid. If I stay here, I shall blow my brains out. If you stay here, you'll just fade away and die. Now, why should you do anything so foolish? Why not marry me? There need be no sentimental nonsense, or anything of that sort. We can regard it as a matter of business, just as you regard your office. You don't care for me in that way, and I don't care "
Clifford paused just there. It was rather difficult to swallow a piece of bread and that lie simultaneously.
"Very well, then," he went on briskly. "You want to get out of this, and so do I. By nature we were intended for the simple outdoor life, and as long as there are such things as social conventions, you can only come with me in the way I speak of. We always got on very well together—always good pals, and so forth. Now, what do you say?"
For a minute or two Sylvia said nothing. Then she stole a glance at her companion. How handsome he was, in spite of his drawn appearance and that shabby serge suit! And then Sylvia made a discovery that caused her to drop her eyes, and brought the blood flaming into her cheeks. But the tender mood lasted but a moment, and the joy of adventure gripped her.
"It's a bargain," she said. "I think that's the proper word to use—what the dramatist would love to call a marriage of convenience. I suppose you and I must have watched a score of such comedies in the Madison Square theatre. Only they generally lead to the gilt cage of splendour, worked out in the best manner of Sir Arthur Pinero. All right, Clifford. I beg to accept your offer of partnership, and the sooner we start, the better. I dare say we shall be quite as comfortable and get on quite as well as the typical happy pair in a conventional novel. To be quite frank, I should love it. And now you'd better get back to your work, and I'll return to mine. If I think much more about the open air, I shall grow sentimental."
The papers got hold of it, of course; there is nothing that escapes the eagle eye of the American journalist. And, really, it made quite a good story. It was a typically human document, full of dramatic possibilities, quite a little novel in its way. The special writers briefly sketched the careers of the dead-and-gone millionaires, and ended up with the hope that the plucky young couple would be as happy as they deserved. Sylvia read all this with cynical amusement, and her sense of humour responded to the quite large number of wedding presents, inspired, no doubt, by the story, and for which she was not in the least grateful. All she wanted now was to get away from New York, to feel the crisp, dry air on her forehead, and work. She told herself that she was happy enough, but with it all there was a certain gnawing little pain at her heart that never left her night or day. She was frank to admit to herself that she liked Clifford well enough—he was a husband to be proud of, with the trifling exception that he did not love her. And Clifford was in wild spirits. His eye dwelt with the pride of possession on that exquisite face and figure opposite him, but he had never kissed her, and the fact troubled him. He was aching to do so, but it did not seem to be like playing the game. Perhaps, later on—
The first snows of winter had already fallen before the hut was reached. There was a long journey across the wild and desolate track of country and through the gloomy pine forests before the itinerary was finished. And it was all new and delightful. Even the broad silence of it appealed to Sylvia. It was a pure joy to lie back in the sledge in a mist of furs, and watch those big dogs flying through the snow. And it was strangely fascinating to encamp at night under the lee of a rock, and watch the firelight flickering as the dogs lay round waiting for something unseen—wolves, perhaps, or the danger of the snows. And so by easy stages they made their way along until the hut was reached.
Here a big man with a face like leather— a man with a huge hooked nose and scarred face—awaited them. He was a taciturn, typical son of the woods, who never used two words when one would do, and yet a man who knew every inch of the country, and in whose ears every snowflake whispered a message. He had his own hut a mile or so away; he had merely come over to light the stove and give the new-comers a welcome.
From the first moment Sol Punnett was Sylvia's abject slave. He surrendered at discretion; he rejoiced in his servitude. There was practically nothing that Sylvia had to do except cook the food and wash up the plates and dishes. Sol would have even made the very beds if she had allowed him to do so. He was hewer of wood and drawer of water; he showed signs of rebellion when Sylvia objected to his coming along in the mornings, with the thermometer below zero, to light the big stove.
Outside it was grim and forbidding enough; outside lay danger stark and black as the throat of a wolf for any luckless trapper who failed to read the warnings of the skies, or who wandered too far from the trail. There was plenty of game to be had. It was exciting work doing the circuit of the traps on the snow-shoes, and dragging the furs of the mink and the skunk and the black fox and the ermine back to the camp. For it was a good winter, and, from a business point of view, a long way the best in Sol Punnett's recollection.
But never did he cease in his taciturn way to impress upon Sylvia the danger of the life. There were times at night when he sat by the stove, pulling at his pipe and telling stories of dire perils and imminent escapes. And they were always stories of one or two men up against the forces of Nature in her wildest and most cruel moods. He told of bright and sunny mornings suddenly changing to a whirling hell of white battalions raging down the valleys and carrying all before them. These things to hear, like Desdemona, did Sylvia seriously incline. And she learnt the lesson, too. She revelled in the life; her cheeks held the glow of health, and her beauty glistened like a star. But, in spite of it all, that queer little pain was still at her heart, though she could trap a fox with the best of them, though she could manipulate a team of huskies, and once, when Clifford had had a nasty fall, she had gone back alone to the hut, a distance of ten miles, for assistance.
And she had all that she wanted there— she had all the comforts and luxuries of life. The hut was lighted by electricity, they boasted a baby-grand piano and a huge gramophone with hundreds of records. And Sylvia turned up her nose in scorn as she thought of the women she knew, cooped up there in New York. But the pain was still at her heart, and there it stayed.
The winter was drawing nearly to an end; it seemed as if Nature was turning in her sleep, and before long there would be no further trapping to do. Then the adventurers could go further south and live on the proceeds of the season's work. There would be no more snow, probably, but old Sol shook his head.
"One more flurry, I guess," he said. "Always wind up with a display of fireworks. Then we can round up them outlying traps and take it easy for a spell, maybe."
It was a true prophet who spoke, for morning brought a blizzard from the north, waited on by a piercing cold, and for two days it was only possible to sit over the stove and eat and sleep. Then the frost shut down again, and sunset brought the steel blue into the vault overhead, with the promise of more snow behind it.
"We'll clear up those outlying traps in the morning," Clifford said. "No, you are not coming along, Sylvia. Just a bit too risky this time. And if we don't come back again, then you can take the other team of dogs and meet us."
It seemed a long morning to Sylvia and a still longer afternoon. The sullen sun had vanished, a thin powder of snow began to fall, and there was an ominous moaning in the pines on the shoulder of the hill behind the house. Then, with the force of a thunderbolt, the blizzard broke, and it seemed to Sylvia as if she were alone in the universe.
She bustled about the hut, scarcely daring to think; she wanted occupation to distract her thoughts. It was beginning to get dusk when something seemed to strike against the door; a hollow voice spoke from outside, With her heart in her mouth, Sylvia threw back the heavy timbers and dragged the limp form of Sol Punnett to the stove. As the grateful heat struck him, he opened his eyes and looked stupidly round him. There was a cut on his face, his left hand dangled uselessly.
"Accident with a sledge," he gasped— "'bout four mile away, just off the track by Three Pines. Dogs got out of hand when they was cut loose, and there you are. I've got a nasty jar, but your old man, 'is left ankle give out, and there he is. Can't move a yard without another sledge, and here am I 'bout as useless as a log! If you dare—"
"Oh, I dare," Sylvia said quietly—"I dare!"
She fought her way in the teeth of the gale to the shed at the back of the hut. There she wrapped herself in her furs and whipped the dogs into the traces. It was touch and go for a minute, but she was reckless and full of courage, and the huskies seemed to know it. The pain was gone from her heart now, and she could see the truth. The thing that she had tried to hide from herself was like a hand pointing from the falling skies. And then for an hour or more she battled along the headlong track of her great adventure, fought fiercely till her eyes were blind with tears and the breath seemed to be frozen in her body. But somehow she knew that she was fighting to win. She knew that the light would hold good for a good hour or more, and that with the wind on the backs of the dogs, and their eager noses turned homewards, the victory would be hers.
And presently she found what she sought —an overturned sledge and a man sitting by the side of it, doggedly shaking the snow from his furs. He looked up in a dazed fashion and wiped the freezing snow from his eyes.
"Good Heavens, is it you, Sylvia?" Clifford gasped. "My dearest girl, my ever dearest girl, do you mean to say It isn't even as if you cared for me—I mean, not in the way that I care."
He was so dazed and numb that he seemed hardly to know what he was saying, and yet the words rang sweet and true, and the light that cannot be counterfeited was in his eyes. Then Sylvia forgot the peril of the moment, forgot everything as she stumbled out of the sledge and threw her arms about Clifford's neck and drew his head down on her shoulder.
"It was worth it," she whispered—" worth all the danger, because now I know! And do you mean to say that all the time you have really, really cared?"
"Always, I think," Clifford said, "only I didn't know. You see, if we had not been brought up together, if we had met casually, as people who get to love one another do—"
He broke off abruptly, and Sylvia laughed. Then she stooped and lifted Clifford in her arms as if he had been a child and placed him tenderly in the sledge. There was not another word spoken as they made their way back again, with the grey wolves of the gale howling for their lost prey—indeed, there was nothing more to say. They were back again presently, back in the warm shelter of the hut, safe and sound and happy.
ABOUT a fortnight later, when the snows were melting on the hillside, and Sol Punnett was away clearing out the traps, two elderly travellers might have been seen wending their way in the direction of the hut. Then one of them looked in through the window and signed to his companion to approach cautiously.
"Looks as if it had come off all right, pard," he said. "Seems as if our little scheme had planned out all right. Now, if you take my advice, you will just wait?"
But the other man was taking no advice. Without ceremony he opened the door of the hut and walked in. There was a shout of surprise and welcome, and a moment later the trapper and his bride and the two long-lost mariners were all talking at once.
It was the strident voice of Reuben Vandyk that presently dominated the rest.
"It was all a put-up job," he said. "I got it out of a book. So we just put our money away quietly and hopped off on the yacht way down South. We changed its name— because why? We wanted to give you young people a chance to learn a few things, and then find yourselves, and now you 'ave! You can't get over the old people; you see, they always know best."
"No doubt," Sylvia laughed. "But if you knew everything, you'd realise there was some danger in it, after all."