Sunday Story: “White Magic” in the Maine Woods, Part I

Ready for more summer reading? Let’s step back one hundred one years for this novella by Emilie Loring.

Logging in the Maine woods
February, 1920

The road seemed to force its way through a growth of mammoth pine, spruce, and cedar which crowded close, as though jealous of the space it occupied. Some branches were snow laden, from others dripped long, glistening spikes of ice. A big dog fox appeared at the edge of a clearing. He stood like a graven image for a second to curiously observe the approaching sledge, then vanished into the silent forest. White hares scurried by on the day’s provisioning intent. The sun, which had been as glittering as a piece of glass, slid suddenly into the west. Darkness settled slowly among the tree-tops and the stars, cold and remote, appeared one by one.

The sledge heaved like a motor boat in a heavy sea. The driver, muffled to his eyes, alternately bellowed to his horses and threw a word of encouragement to the two passengers behind him. The runner over which the girl sat would slide up over a snow covered boulder and shoot her against her companion. Then his side would be in the air and the shooting process would be reversed.

“A-a-a-aren’t we off the r-road?” gasped Bettina Carrington when she had been juggled from side to side until she felt like nothing so much as a well kneaded bit of dough.

Her brother, Jim Bradlee, who had been absorbed in thought since they left the trading station, answered shortly: “Road’s all right.”

“Don’t squander language, whatever you do, Jimmy,” the girl thrust crisply.

He laughed.

“I’m a punk companion, Betty, I know, but I’ve got the dickens and all on my mind. This is what they call a ‘hauling’ road in this country. Losing your courage? When you’re fed up on riding we can tramp a bit, though the sledge is smoother going.”‘

“Then we’ll stick to the shock absorber, Jimmy.”

She had not seen him since.

Bettina burrowed into her furs and frantically blinked back the tears which threatened to freeze on her long lashes. Would Jim ever be quite the same to her again? She had hurt his best friend, his business partner. A hot, slow wave of color burned her face. And yet, was she the only girl who had been swept along on the emotional tide of the times? She mentally flayed herself for stooping to self-justification. Because the majority of her friends had become war brides was no excuse for her having consented when Neil Carrington pleaded with her to marry him before his division went overseas. Before they had finished cutting the wedding cake, he had been ordered to take command of his company. That had been a year ago and she had not seen him since.

After the excitement of the wedding had died down she had been horrified at what she had done. Neil Carrington was eight years older than she. He had been her brother’s Fidus Achates ever since their prep school days, and she and Neil had been the best of pals. He had teased her, disciplined her, comforted her; he had given a lordly oversight to her friendships–especially to the college men who had worshiped at her shrine–but she did not love him enough to be his wife. Her mother had died years before and there was no woman to whom she could confide her doubts and fears. Locked in her own mind they had assumed gigantic proportions.

She had resolutely crushed back the thought of Neil’s return. Her mind was in a tumult between anxiety for his safety and remorse for the wrong she had done him. She wrote him cool, friendly letters that fairly glittered with impersonalities. News had come of his promotion from captain to major for gallantry in action. She kept house for her brother, who was bending all his energies to provide lumber for government use. She plunged into war work. Carrington’s letters made her self-reproach almost unendurable and she laid some of them away unopened. Before she could decide upon the honorable course for her to take came the cessation of hostilities and the return of the troops.

She had wondered if her brother suspected her turmoil of mind. Whatever doubt she had vanished into thin air when he looked across the breakfast table one morning and announced in a grim voice:

“Neil will be here next week. But of course you know?”

Her eyes dropped before the accusing sternness of his. She had not known. After that she lay awake nights trying to decide what she ought to do. Neil deserved a better fate than to be tied to a woman who didn’t love him. Her sleepless nights and days crowded with volunteer nursing made her a bright, shining mark for the epidemic which was sweeping the country like a plague. When Carrington landed she was too ill to know it. When she regained consciousness she begged her brother not to let anyone see her, any one. He had soothed her tenderly but she noticed how his hair had whitened at the temples and the haggard lines about his mouth. The next day had come a note from Neil. She opened it with unsteady fingers and stared down unbelievably at the few lines:

“Am going away for a while.”

“Get well as soon as you can, Betty. Sorry not to see you. Am going away for a while. Neil.”

She had been heartily ashamed of the feeling of relief which surged over her. From that moment, she began to gain. When two weeks later Bradlee had announced that he was going to the northern wilderness, that the firm had been informed that valuable timber in certain holdings had been cut and stolen and he was off to investigate, she had exclaimed with her old buoyant enthusiasm:

“Oh, Jimmy, be a dear and take me.”

“Take you? Do you know what those woods are in winter? Oh, boy!”

“I know, but I love the woods. I’ve been trained in woodcraft a little; I can shoot and I can manage on snowshoes; all I need is practice. Jimmy, dear, I think I’ve been in the grip of nerves. I’ve had the unreal sense of living in a nightmare this last year. The snow and cold and outdoor life will clear my heart and brain of fog: I’ll get back my sense of values. I know–I know that you think that I’m–I’m a y-yellow q-quitter, but–but—-” She had fled from the room without finishing the sentence.

He had been very tender after that and here she was–she returned to the present with a gasp as a dark, noiseless shadow passed overhead. She clutched her brother’s arm:

“W-what–what was that?” she whispered huskily.

“An owl,” Bradlee laughed and settled into his collar again.

“An owl! I thought it was a dirigible and then some,” the girl confessed with a sparkle in her tone which had been absent for many months.

“Here we are!” Bradlee announced later as the outline of a cabin with the dusky shape of a guide’s shack in the rear loomed before them. The driver pulled up his horses and, grunting and beating his arms, climbed slowly and stiffly from his perch. Bradlee helped extricate his sister from her wrappings, then threw open the door of the log house. “Hustle that stuff in, Bill,” he commanded.

As Bettina followed her brother into the cabin, red coals blinked a welcome from the fireplace. He groped for matches and lighted the lamp on a table. As the girl looked about the log walled room, her eyes widened. Some one was living there. An open book lay on the couch. A man’s coat was thrown over a chair. A fox skin stretched inside out on a frame decorated the mantel.

“Why, Jim, who–“

His eyes followed hers.

“Oh, that’s all right. I sent a man up to hold down the fort till I came. He’ll clear out now that you’ve come. He sent word by Bill that he’d gone on to the next camp, so if you don’t mind, I’ll go find him. Every minute counts in this business. I shan’t be gone long. You’ll be perfectly safe here alone.”

Bettina removed her leopard skin coat and pulled off her fur lined boots. Divested of her outer garments, the girl was quite as much in harmony with her surroundings. Her blouse of warm brown was open at the neck and showed her firm white throat. A kilted skirt of the same shade reached the tops of her high laced boots. The red light from the fire illumined the vivid beauty of her face, turned the ivory of her skin to rose color, accentuated the latent power and tenderness of her expressive brown eyes, and set the bronze of her hair agleam like copper. She straightened her slender figure with an air of determination and looked about her.

Bettina lifted the lid and peered in

The fireplace in the room was built of rough stone. A slab of slate served as mantel. A kettle hung from a crane. Bettina lifted the lid and peered in to make sure it held water before she coaxed the coals under it into a blaze with long strips of bark. Two small rooms that opened from one end of the living room had built-in bunks. Evidently the man in possession occupied one, for clothing hung there and blankets were thrown over a chair by the window. The bunk in the other room was heaped with fresh balsam boughs which Bettina knew from experience would make a deep, fragrant mattress.

Bill had placed her small trunk in the unoccupied room. She opened it and rearranged her belongings for convenience. She returned to the living room, peeped into the cupboard, decided that she would wait for Jim before she had supper, and crossed to the window.

Bill had placed her small trunk in the unoccupied room. She opened it and rearranged her belongings for convenience. She returned to the living room, peeped into the cupboard, decided that she would wait for Jim before she had supper, and crossed to the window.

The small world she gazed upon was flooded with moonlight. It slivered the tops of stately firs, it streamed through branches and patched the snow with blue shadows and glittering diamond dust. It was a night in which dreams became real and nothing seemed too glamorous to be possible. She leaned her forehead against the cold glass and wondered where Neil was. What a mess she had made of his life and hers.

To escape her thoughts she piled logs on the coals till flames roared and crackled up the chimney. Then she curled up in a big armchair where she could watch the blaze. She was tired after her long journey. The fire purred soothingly. Her lids dropped. She made a valiant effort to keep them open. She must be awake when Jim returned. Perhaps if she were to close them for–a–mo–

Aeons afterward, it seemed to her, she struggled back to consciousness with the sense that some one was watching her. She looked up drowsily. Then her eyes flew wide, her hand went to her heart to stop its pounding. In front of the fire looking down upon her stood the man she had married, Neil Carrington. His gray eyes were inscrutable, his fine lips white, there was an air of inexorableness about him which made Bettina’s breath come in a quick gasp. For a moment their eyes met. Carrington spoke first.

“You are not dreaming, Betty; it’s Neil,” he asserted gravely.

Bettina was on her feet, wide awake enough now.

“Neil!” she whispered incredulously. “Neil!” She flashed an anxious glance around the room. “Where’s–where’s Jim?” she demanded.

Carrington drew a pipe from his pocket, carefully knocked out the ashes, and as carefully filled it.

“Is that all you have to say to me after this year, Betty?” He mercilessly watched the wave of color dye her face and fade before he continued, “Jim has gone to Quebec.”

“To Quebec! Gone and left me here all alone?”

He lighted his pipe before he answered:

“You’re not alone. I’m here.”

“But, Neil, I–I can’t stay here alone with you–I–“

Carrington raised his fine brows in affected surprise:

“Can’t you, Mrs. Carrington?”

The words and tone sent the blood flaming to Bettina’s hair. She clasped her hands behind her and moved an imperceptible step nearer. Her brown eyes were darkly troubled as she apologized:

“Forgive me, Neil, for a moment I–I forgot.” Then as he made no response indignation flared. “Did Jim plan this? If he did I will never, never forgive him!”

“Don’t blame Jim, Betty. This is wholly my plan. I couldn’t lose my–my wife and my pal, too, you know.”

Her eyes fell before the disconcerting steadiness of his. She became intent upon a charred log which had fallen forward. She cautiously pushed it back with the toe of her boot as she asked:

“Then–then Jim’s story about the stolen timber was all camouflage?”

His brows met in a quick frown.

“Camouflage! Not on your life! Since we’ve been so absorbed getting out our western lumber for war work, our holdings here have been seriously depleted of big wood. No one seems to know who is responsible for the theft; no one seems to care but our own guides. As soon as I returned from overseas Jim put me wise to what had been going on; he wouldn’t let me know before. When–when you were out of danger I came here. It’s a long reach to these woods for the arm of the law, so Jim and I determined to try some Sherlock Holmes stuff. If we can get evidence against the thieves we can retrieve our lumber all right. Jim has a new clue and has gone to follow it up.

“You would regain strength and poise and perspective in the white magic of this wilderness and also your confidence in me.”

“When he decided to come I wrote him to bring you. You would regain strength and poise and perspective in the white magic of this wilderness and also your confidence in me. Your imagination has transformed me into an ogre. We’ll go back to our old friendship, little girl. I promise not to refer by word or deed to our marriage while–for the present. If ever the time comes when it isn’t a nightmare to you–well, the Lord keep me sane, that’s all; that’s how I care.” His voice was harsh with repression.

The girl dropped her face on her arm which was stretched along the mantel. Little rebellious tendrils of her hair gleamed like copper in the firelight. Against the white nape of her neck two tiny curls nestled lovingly. Carrington looked at her for sixty throbbing seconds before he strode to the door and threw it wide.

“We’ll have something to eat,” he announced to the room behind him before he shouted, “O Joe! Supper!”

There was a great stamping of snow outside and a half-breed guide entered. Bettina felt his keen Indian eyes on her before they flashed to his employer. Neil answered the guide’s silent question:

“This is Mrs. Carrington, Joe. Put fresh water in her room, then hustle supper along.”

During supper, Carrington resolutely took the reins of conversation into his own hands. He was noted as a raconteur. His friends at college had adored him for that accomplishment quite as much as for his prowess in athletics. He bridged the threatened silences with stories of his experiences overseas, shading them with bits of tragedy which threw the sunny, amusing spots into high relief. He could imitate a brogue or broken English perfectly and he spoke French fluently. His stories were punctuated by the girl’s sobbing breath of sympathy or her ripple of laughter. they were still at table, her eyes radiant, her vivid lips curved with mirth, when Joe entered to remove the supper things.

She stole a glance at Carrington as he rose and leaned against the mantel. How fine his smooth, clean-cut face was, how determined his chin, how convincing his gray eyes. His face showed the strain of his overseas experiences. She had made him curious many times by declaring that he was a survival of the age of togas, chaplets, and imperial Caesars. Her heart slid into a nose dive as he looked down suddenly and met her intent glance. His eyes held an I’m just biding my time expression which sent hers down in a flash. With barely an instant’s premeditation she stifled an artificial yawn gracefully:

“I–I can hardly keep my eyes open, Neil. Good night.”

There was a note of tenderness in his quick laugh.

“Sort of here’s your hat what’s your hurry stuff, isn’t it, Betty?” Then, as she busied herself turning down the lamp which flared, he stood very straight and stern. “Good night! You will be quite alone in the cabin, but you needn’t be afraid. Joe and I will be within call. Don’t lie awake thinking. The wilderness will get on your nerves if you do and you’ll hear all sorts of hair-raising sounds. Drop the bar of the door after I go out,” he commanded, and was gone.


It still seemed the middle of the night when on the third morning of her stay in the wilderness Bettina was awakened by a voice outside her window singing lustily:

“Oh, how she hates to get up in the morning;

Oh! how she loves to remain in bed,

For the hardest blow of all

Is to hear the bugler call,

You’ve got to get up, you’ve got to get up,

You’ve got–“

With a laugh Bettina sprang out of bed, threw her warm wrapper across her shoulders, and ran to the window. She put her face to the opening and sang:

“Some day I’m going to murder the bugler,

Some day they’re going to find him dead;

I’ll amputate his reveille,

And step upon it heavily,

And spend–“

“You’re awake, all right; you’ve proved it,” interrupted Carrington’s voice from outside. “Get a move on if you want to go the rounds of the traps.”

If she wanted to go! She had never wanted to do anything quite as much, Bettina thought as she began to dress. She had been in the wilderness three days and while Neil and Joe had admitted her skill in woodcraft they had refused to take her on a long trip until today. She had spent almost every moment of daylight out of doors. Neil was almost as he used to be in the good, old pre-war days–almost–not quite. She put her hand to her face as it burned with color. She–she sure was a–a piker to accept Neil’s care and devotion without loving him in return. But–he had told her to forget–she administered that flimsy dope to her conscience–then despised herself cordially. There was a thundering knock at her door.

“Com–ing! In a minute!” she called.

She drew a heavy pair of wool stockings over her moccasins and pulled the red cap, on which Jim had insisted for forest wear, over her wavy hair.

She stuffed mittens in her pocket and opened her door. Carrington and Joe stood in the lighted living room, one with a cup of steaming coffee, the other with a plate of bacon and biscuit.

“Drink your coffee” Carrington commanded brusquely.

“Brute! Have you no soul for the appreciation of my charming if somewhat portly appearance?” she challenged with a pretense of hurt surprise as her eyes gleamed at him above the rim of her cup.

Without answering, Carrington fastened the belt which held his side-arms about her waist.

“What’s the big idea? Trying to make me a little combat division?” the girl asked saucily.

“Your rifle is too heavy for you to carry on this long trip. There are only six shells in the belt; see them there in front? The gun isn’t loaded,” he pressed back on the release and the empty cylinder fell out on the side. “As you won’t be out of sight of Joe and me, don’t load till you are ready to use it.”

Bettina looked up curiously as the door closed. A caller in this wilderness and before daybreak–what could it mean? Her eyes widened with surprise as a man entered. He was dressed like Carrington even to the leather coat. His knitted cap was pulled so low over his ears that the girl received only an impression of restless dark eyes and white teeth beneath a small black mustache. He was as tall as Neil and as straight and lithe. He broke into a flood of patois as he saw the two men, then stopped suddenly at sight of Bettina. She shivered unconsciously at the expression which leaped to his eyes. It was veiled in an instant. He addressed Carrington and talked rapidly with voice, shoulder and eyes.

“Wal, m’sieu, you’ll have to be queek, ba gosh. Dat feller goin’ lak I tole you. ‘But w’y so soon?’ I say, an’ he say–“

“Come out to the shack, Francois,” interrupted Carrington, and opened the door. The Frenchman cast a languishing glance at the girl before he followed and closed it softly behind him.

Bettina turned to the guide.

“Who was that, Joe?”

“What, him? Him Francois Lacross. Him no good. Him wear de boss’ ole close. T’ink day mak him look lak him, mebbe.”

There was unutterable scorn in the Indian’s tone. Bettina looked at his squat, square figure and wondered if jealousy might not be at the bottom of his valuation of Francois.

“What does his coming mean, Joe? That we won’t get our trip?”

The half-breed regarded her with deep, unblinking gaze.

“Dunno, but heap plenty more days. You see bime bye.”

“But Joe,” she protested. Then as Carrington hurriedly entered the room she appealed to him. “That party with the Charlie Chaplin mustache isn’t going to spoil our wonderful day, is he, Neil?”

“Sorry, Betty, but important business has developed which will take me away. You can’t go.” answered Carrington as he began to collect his belongings.

“Can’t go! ‘All hell is writ in those two words!'” she quoted melodramatically; then with a shameless resort to wheedling, “Is Joe going with you?”

“Joe? Certainly not. He’ll stay here to look after you.”

“Why can’t I go to the traps and look after him?”

“Without me? Nothing doing.”

“Autocrat! You ex-officers are so–so–bossy,” in exasperated defiance. She regarded him speculatively for an instant–then slipped her hand coaxingly under his arm and laid her head against his sleeve. “Neil–dear–please let me go!” she pleaded as she looked up with eyes of laughing appeal.

Carrington’s face went white. HIs eyes smoldered dangerously as they met hers and he warned tensely:

“You’re playing with fire, girl.”

She moved abruptly away from him. The guide looked from one to the other.

“I tak heap good care of she.” he ventured.

“Oh, Neil, please let me go!”

Carrington avoided her beseeching eyes.

“Very well, Joe. I’ll trust her with you. Don’t let her go too far, you understand, and be back here by sundown. Betty, if I let you go will you promise to do just as Joe tells you?”

She saluted with military precision. Her eyes sparkled with eager anticipation as she answered in a tormentingly respectful tone:

“Yes, major. I promise, sir.” She cut her hand sharply away from her cap in the manner prescribed by the I. D. R. Carrington’s eyes flamed as he took one quick step toward her; then, with a gruff “Look out for her, Joe,” went out and banged the door behind him.


Continued next week…

With a suddenness which gave her pause the sun disappeared. The forest grew colder.

Happy Landings!


8 thoughts on “Sunday Story: “White Magic” in the Maine Woods, Part I

  1. I have enjoyed this latest “serial” that you found Ms. Patti Bender. I have been an Emilie Loring fan since I stumbled across my first volume in a used book store nearly four decades ago! It then became my mission to find, buy, and read as many of her novels as possible. In the intervening years, I have acquired many and several duplicates. But some, due to other things that required my attention, have not yet been read. Thanks for posting everything that you do. Mildred Harrison

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are welcome, Mildred. Thank you for writing. For us longtime readers of Emilie Loring, these “new” stories are a breath of fresh air. It’s fun to read without knowing what will happen next!

      Like

  2. Thank you very much! What a wonderful surprise to see this pop up today. I recognize the name “Neil Carrington” as well. I’m glad you haven’t told us there are some unpublished (or otherwise forgotten) works. We’d be harassing you to get those posted/published for us to read!

    I look forward to next week’s installment.

    You are very wonderful to do this!

    Like

  3. Oh, good!! I love getting to read “new” Emilie Lorings!! So Neil Carrington’s name was reused in “A Key to Many Doors,” but there is nothing similar about the character. Looking forward to the next installment!!

    Liked by 1 person

Please write your comment here.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s