A GIRL OF THE KLONDIKE
"Quid non mortalia pectora cogis Auri sacra fames?"
NEW YORK THE MACAULAY COMPANY
A Girl of the Klondike is now issued in America for the first time by arrangement with the author.
CHAPTER I A NIGHT IN TOWN 9
CHAPTER II AT THE WEST GULCH 49
CHAPTER III KATRINE'S NEIGHBOURS 99
CHAPTER IV GOD'S GIFT 167
CHAPTER V GOLD-PLATED 211
CHAPTER VI MAMMON'S PAY 265
A NIGHT IN TOWN
Night had fallen over Alaska—black, uncompromising night; a veil of impenetrable darkness had dropped upon the snow wastes and the ice-fields and the fettered Yukon, sleeping under its ice-chains, and upon the cruel passes where the trails had been made by tracks of blood. Day by day, as long as the light of day—God's glorious gift to man—had lasted, these trails across the passes, between the snowy peaks, the peaks themselves, had been the theatre of hideous scenes of human cruelty, of human lust and greed, of human egoism. Day by day a slow terrible stream of humanity had wound like a dark and sluggish river through these passes, bringing with it sweat and toil and agony, torture and suffering and death. As long as the brilliant sun in the placid azure of the summer heavens above had guided them, bands of men had laboured and fought and struggled over these passes, deaf to all pity or mercy or justice, deaf to all but the clamour of greed within them that was driving them on, trampling down the weak and the old, crushing the fallen, each man clutching and grasping his own, hoarding his strength and even refusing a hand to his neighbour, starving the patient beasts of burden they had brought with them, friends who were willing to share their toil without sharing their reward, driving on the poor staggering strengthless brutes with open knives, and clubbing them to death when they fell beneath their loads with piteous eyes, or leaving them to freeze slowly where they lay, pressing forward, hurrying, fighting, slaughtering, so the men went into the gold camps all the summer, and the passes were the silent witnesses of the horror of it all and of the innocent blood shed. Then Nature herself intervened, and winter came down like a black curtain on the world, and the passes closed up behind the men and were filled with drifts of snow that covered the bones and the blood and the deep miry slides, marked with slipping tracks where struggling, gasping lives had gone out, and the river closed up behind the men and the ice thickened there daily, and the men were in the camps and there was no way out.
And now, in the darkness of the winter night, in the coldness in which no man could live, there was peace. There was no sound, for the snow on the tall pines never melted and never fell, the water in the creeks was solid as the rocks and made no murmur, there was no footfall of bird nor beast, no leaf to rustle, no twig to fall.
But beyond the silent peaks and the desolate passes, beyond the rigid pines, low down in the darkness, there was a reddish glow in the air, a strange, yellowish, quivering mist of light that hovered and moved restlessly, and yet kept its place where it hung suspended between white earth and black sky. All around was majestic peace and calm and stillness, nature wrapped in silence, but the flickering, wavering mist of light jumped feverishly in the darkness and spoke of man. It was the cloud of restless light that hung over the city of Dawson.
Within the front parlour of the "Pistol Shot," the favourite and most successful, besides being the most appropriately named saloon in Dawson, the cold had been pretty well fought down; a huge stove stood at each end of the room, crammed as full as it would hold with fuel, all windows were tightly closed, and lamps flared merrily against the white-washed walls.
At this hour the room was full, and the single door, facing the bar, was pushed open every half minute to admit one or two or more figures to join the steaming, drinking, noisy crowd within. It was snowing outside. As the door swung open one could see the white sheet of falling flakes in the darkness; the air was full of snow—that cruel, light, dry snow, fine and sharp like powdered ice, borne down on a North wind. The figures that entered brought it in with them, the light frosty powder resting on their furs and lying deep in the upturned rims of their seal caps.
There had been a successful strike made that afternoon, and the men were all excited and eager about it. Every one pressed to the "Pistol Shot" to hear the latest details, to discuss and gossip over it. There was as much talk as digging done in Dawson. Men who had no chance and no means to win success, who owned no claims and never saw gold except in another man's hands, loved to talk work and talk claims and talk gold with the rest. It was exhilarating and exciting, and there was only that one topic in the world for them. They were like invalids in a small community afflicted by a common disease who never meet without discussing their symptoms. They were all invalids in reality, all suffering from the same horrible plague and fever, the gold fever that was eating into their brains.
At one end of the bar counter, between it and the back wall, a girl was standing idly surveying with indifferent eyes the animated crowd that moved and swayed round her, the men jostling each other in their efforts to push up to the thickly surrounded counter. She was tall rather than short, and her figure well made, showing good lines even in the rough dress she was wearing; long rubber boots came to her knees, where they met her short buckskin skirt, and above this, in place of bodice, she wore merely a rough straight jacket drawn into the waist by a broad leather belt, in which was stuck, not ostentatiously but still sufficiently conspicuously a brace of revolvers. Her hair was cut short, and only a few dark silky rings showed themselves beneath the edge of her sealskin cap, pushed down close to her dark eyebrows. The dark eyes beneath looked out upon the scene before her with a half-disdainful, half-wearied expression which deepened into scorn now and then as she watched the bar-tender rake over the counter double and three times the price of a drink in the generous pinch of gold dust laid there by some miner almost too drunk to stagger to the bar. She had a very attractive face, to which one's eyes would wander again and again trying to reconcile the peculiar resolution, even hardness of the expression with the soft, well-moulded features and the sweet youthful lips full of freshness and colour. The miners took very little notice of her, and she certainly made no effort to attract it, leaning listlessly against the bar with one elbow on the counter, a silent and motionless spectator of all this excited eager humanity. There was no thought in their mind, no word on their lips just then but gold. Gold! gold! The thought possessed them with a grip on their brains like the grip of fever on the body, and the word sounded pleasant as the sweetest music to their ears. Gold! The syllable went round and passed from mouth to mouth, till the very air seemed to be getting a yellow tint above the grey fumes of tobacco.
Amongst the last batch of incomers was a slim young fellow of twenty odd years, and when he had worked his way with difficulty up to the crowded counter, he found himself near the girl's corner. She looked at him, letting her dark eyes wander critically over his face. He formed a strong contrast to the figures around him, being slight and delicate in build, with a pale good-looking face that had a tender sympathetic expression like a woman's. Feeling the girl's gaze upon him, he glanced her way, and then having looked once, looked again. After a series of glances between drinks from his glass, the furtive looks began to amuse the girl, and the next time their eyes met she laughed openly, and they both spoke simultaneously.
"You're a new comer, aren't you?" she said.
"I haven't seen you here before," was his remark.
"You might have done, I should think," answered the girl carelessly; "but I don't come here very often, although my father is running this place."
"Are you Poniatovsky's daughter?" he asked in surprise, unable to connect this splendid young creature with the ugly little Pole he knew as the proprietor of the saloon.
The girl nodded. "Yes, Katrine Poniatovsky is my name—what's yours?"
"Stephen Wood," he answered meekly.
"What have you come here for—mining?" she asked next. Although her queries were direct there was nothing rude in the fresh young voice making them.
The young fellow coloured deeply, the rush of blood passed over his face up to his light smooth hair and deep down into his neck till it was lost beneath his coat collar.
"No—yes—that is—well, I mean—I do mine now," he stammered after a minute.
The girl said nothing, and when Stephen glanced around at her he saw she was regarding him with astonished eyes under elevated eyebrows. This expression made the pretty oval face fairly beautiful, and the young man's heart opened to her.
"I came with the intention of doing some good here amongst the people—in a missionary, religious way I mean, but"—and he stopped again in painful embarrassment.
"For the present you've laid religion aside and you're going to do a little mining and make a fortune, and then the religion can be taken up again," she said.
The young fellow only flushed deeper and turned his glass around nervously on the counter.
"That's all right," the girl said soothingly, after a second. "This place is a corner of the world where we all are different from what we are anywhere else. As soon as men come here they get changed. They forget everything else and just go in for gold. It's a sort of madness that's in the air. You'd be able to missionise somewhere else all right, but here you are obliged just to dig like the rest, you can't help it. Got a claim?"
The young man's face paled again.
"Yes," he answered in a low tone. "It was the claim that tempted me. It's one of the best, I believe, over in the west gulch, only about ten miles from here."
There was a pressing movement round them as some fresh miners came pushing their way through to the bar, and Stephen and Katrine moved away, to make room for them, towards the wall of the room; they put their backs against it and looked over the mass of moving heads towards the door.
"Look at this fellow coming in now," Stephen said to his companion suddenly, as the door swung open, to a mist of whirling whiteness, and two or three men entered: "Henry Talbot. He has the claim next mine in the gulch. He has just struck a fresh lot of gold, and he'll soon be one of the richest men here."
The girl craned her neck to get a good view between the intervening heads, and though she had not been told which of the incoming figures to look at, she fixed her eyes as if by instinct on the right one. A man of rather tall, slight figure, pale face, and marked features. He made his way towards the bar, and then catching Stephen's signals to him, he smiled and came their way.
"What are you doing down here?" he said, speaking to Stephen but looking at Katrine, who in her turn was scanning his face closely.
"Why, enjoying Miss Poniatovsky's society," answered Stephen, with a bow. His friend bowed too, and then they all three laughed and felt instinctively they were friends. There is nothing truer than the saying, "Good looks are perpetual letters of introduction." These three carried their letters of introduction on their faces, and they were all mutually satisfied.
"I know your father quite well," remarked Talbot to her. "This 'Pistol Shot' has been an institution longer than I have been here, but I never knew he had a daughter."
"No," said Katrine, tranquilly, "I daresay not. Father and I quarrelled a little while ago, and since then I have been living by myself in one of those little cabins in Good Luck Row. Do you know it?"
"No," answered Talbot. "I come into town very seldom, only when I want fresh supplies. I stay up at the claim nearly all the time. Do you live all by yourself then?" he added, wondering to himself as he looked at her, for her beauty was quite striking, and she was certainly not over twenty, yet there was something in the strong, noble outlines of her figure, in the tranquil calm of her manner, the self-reliance of her whole bearing, and the business-like way those pistols were thrust in her belt, that modified the wonder a little.
"Quite," she said, with a laugh. "Oh, I've always been accustomed to take care of myself."
"But don't you feel very dull and lonely?"
"Sometimes," answered the girl; "but then I would much rather live alone than with some one I can't agree with."
Both the men knew the drunken habits of old Poniatovsky, so that they silently sympathised with her, and there was a pause as they watched other miners coming in.
"Well," said Katrine after a few seconds, straightening herself from her leaning attitude, "I think I will go home now; this place is getting so full, we shan't be able to breathe soon."
The men looked at each other, and then spoke simultaneously: "May we see you as far as your cabin?"
Katrine smiled, such a pretty arch smile, that dimpled the velvet cheeks and illumined the whole face.
"Why yes, do, I shall be delighted."
They all three went out together: the cold outside seemed so deadly that Talbot drew his collar up over his mouth and nose, unable to face it; the girl, however, did not seem to notice it, but laughed and chatted gaily in the teeth of the wind, as they made their way down the street. It was still snowing—a peculiar fine powdery snow, light and almost imperceptible, filled the whole air. Katrine walked fast with springing steps down the side-walk, and the two men plunged along beside her. Such a side-walk it was: in the summer a mere mass of mud and melted snow and accumulated rubbish—for in Dawson the inhabitants will not take the trouble to convey their refuse to any definite spot, but simply throw it out from their cabins a few yards from their own door, with a vague notion that they may have moved elsewhere before it rots badly,—now frozen solid but horribly uneven, and worn into deep holes. On the top of this had been laid some narrow planks, covered now by a thick glaze of ice, which rendered them things to be avoided and a line of danger down the middle of the path. Katrine made nothing of these slight inconveniences of the ground, but went swinging on in her large rubber boots, and talking and jesting all the way. At the bottom of the street, at the corner, there was a large wooden building, a double log-cabin turned into a saloon. Lights were fixed outside in tin shades, and the word "Dancing" was painted in white letters on the lintel. Katrine stopped suddenly.
"Let's go in and have a dance," she said, and turned towards Talbot, as if she felt instinctively he was the more likely to assent.
"If you like," he answered from behind his collar. "But can you dance in those boots?"
"Oh, I can dance in anything," said Katrine, laughing.
"Oh, don't go in, come on," remonstrated Stephen, trying to push on past the saloon.
"Why not?" said Katrine; "it's too early to go to bed. Come in, I'll pay," and before either of them could answer she had pushed open the door, and was holding it for them with one hand, while with the other she laid down three quarters on a small trestle inside, where an old man was sitting as doorkeeper.
It was a large oblong room, with a partition running half-way down the middle, dividing it into the front part, where they were standing and where the bar was, and the back part, which was strictly the dancing portion. Stephen sat down on a bench that faced the inner portion, with the determination of a man who was not to be moved from his seat. At the other side of the room was a low raised platform, where some very seedy-looking musicians were sawing out a jerky tune from their feeble violins. The room was fairly full, and a more heterogeneous collection of human beings Stephen thought he had never seen. There were miners in the roughest and thickest clothing, labourers, packers, a few Indians, some youths in extraordinary attempts at evening dress, some negro minstrels with real dress shirts on and diamond studs, girls with old velvet skirts and odd bodices that didn't match; and here and there, idling against the wall, looking on with absent eyes, one could find a different figure—that of student, or artist, or newspaper correspondent, or gentleman miner; one need not despair of finding almost any type of humanity in that room.
Talbot looked at the girl's bright sparkling face as they entered, and then without a word slipped his arm round her waist and they started over the rough wooden floor.
"You dance fine," observed Katrine, after a long silence, in which they had both given themselves up to the pleasure of mere motion. "I guess you have had lots of practice before you came out here."
Talbot smiled down into her admiring eyes.
"Yes," he said, thinking of the foreign embassies, the English ball-rooms, the many polished floors his feet had known, "in England."
"My! I expect you're a great swell!" remarked the saloon-keeper's daughter.
"All the same," he answered, laughing, "I have never had a partner that danced so perfectly as you do."
"Now that's real kind of you," answered Katrine, with a flush of pleasure, and then they gave themselves up to silent enjoyment again.
At the end of the dance they came back to Stephen, and found him in the same corner, watching the room with a doleful sadness on his face. Katrine, flushed and with sparkling eyes, sat down on the corner of the step beside him.
"You look so miserable," she said. "Come and have a dance with me to cheer you up."
"I can't dance," said Stephen, shortly.
"I'll teach you," volunteered Katrine, leaning her chin on her hands and looking up at him.
Stephen flushed angrily.
"It's not that—my conscience won't allow me to."
"I'll make you forget your conscience," with a very winning smile on her sweet scarlet lips.
Stephen turned towards her and looked at her with a sudden horror in his eyes. The girl looked back at him quite undisconcerted and unmoved. She saw nothing in what she had said. To her, conscience was a tiresome possession, that might, she knew, trouble you suddenly at any time, and if any one could succeed in making you forget you had one, he was surely entitled to your gratitude. Words failed Stephen, he only looked at her with that silent horror and fear growing in his eyes. Katrine waited what she considered a reasonable time for him to reply or to accept her offer, and then she rose and turned to Talbot, who had been standing looking down upon them both with amusement.
"I'm very thirsty, let's go and have a drink," she said, and they both strolled across the room, and then down into the farther end where the bar was. They elbowed their way to the counter and stood there waiting to be served. Most of the men seemed to know Katrine and made way for her, and she had a word of chaff, or a nod, or a smile or laugh or friendly greeting, for nearly all of them. Talbot noted this, and noted also that though the men seemed familiar, none of them were rude, and though rough enough, there was apparently no disrespect for her. Talbot wondered whether this was due to her morals or her pistols.
"Who's your friend?" asked two or three voices at her side while they stood waiting.
"Mr. Talbot—one of the lucky ones!" replied Katrine promptly. "He has a claim up the gulch that's bringing him in millions—or going to," she added mischievously. The men looked Talbot up and down curiously. Even in his rough miner's clothes, he looked a totally different figure from themselves. Slim and tall and trim, with his well-cut head and figure, with his long neck and refined quiet face, he was a type common enough in Bond Street, London, or on Broadway, New York, but not so common in the Klondike.
"Well, if that's so, pardner," slowly observed a thick-set, crop-haired man, edging close up to him, "you won't mind standing a drink for us?"
"Delighted," returned Talbot, with a pleasant smile. "Give it a name."
The result of taking votes on this motion was the ordering of ten hot whiskies and two hot rums, the latter for himself and Katrine. Talbot never drank spirits at all, and the terrible concoctions of the cheap saloons were an abomination to him. He took his glass, however, to show his friendliness, had it filled nearly to the brim with water, and then could hardly drink it. The fluid seared his throat like red-hot knife-blades. Katrine took hers straight as it was handed across the counter and tossed it down her throat at one gulp, seeming to enjoy it.
"Well, Jim," she said to the young miner next her, "what luck have you had lately?"
"None," he replied gloomily. "Since I left the old place, I've lost all along in the 'Sally White.'"
Talbot thought they were speaking of claims and that the man was referring to his work, and the next minute when Katrine turned her head to him and said rapidly, "The 'Sally White' is the third in the next street," he was rather mystified. He came so little into town, and mixed so little with the uncongenial life and company it offered, that he was ignorant of its prevailing fashion, pastime, and vice—gambling. Fortunes were made and lost across the trestle tables of the saloons quicker and easier than up on the claims. He did not now take much notice of what she had said, nor ask her for an explanation. The girl was handsome and a beautiful dancer, but the company at the bar he did not appreciate at all, and his only idea was to withdraw her from it.
"Are you not ready for another dance?" he said, as the violin began to squeak out another tune.
Katrine nodded, and they had already turned away, when a voice said over her shoulder, "You won't quite forget me this evening, will you?"
Katrine, without turning her head, answered, "You shall have the next, if you come for it."
Then they started, and for the next ten minutes Talbot tried to forget, to be oblivious of the sordid common scene around him, to get a glimpse back into his old life, which seemed so far away now, as one tries to re-dream a last night's dream.
Stephen, sitting in his corner, whence he had never stirred, watched her sullenly. She was not dancing with Talbot now. Stephen could see that he, too, was watching her from the other side of the room, standing with his back to the wall. She was waltzing with a man Stephen had not seen before, evidently a stranger in every way to the place and the surroundings. He was a young fellow, sufficiently good-looking, and danced with as much ease as if he were in a New York ball-room. His left hand clasped Katrine's and drew it high up close to his neck and shoulder, his right arm enclosed her waist and drew her to him so firmly that the two figures seemed fused into one as they glided together over the imperfect floor. Katrine was giving herself up wholly to the pleasure of the dance. Stephen saw, as her face turned towards him, that her eyes were half closed, and a little smile of deep satisfaction rested on her lips. The young fellow's face showed he was equally absorbed and lost to his surroundings, and there was something in its expression, coupled with the peculiar ease and sway of the two blent forms, which raised a savage and jealous anger in Stephen's breast. To an absolutely unprejudiced eye, and one that saw only the extreme grace of the movement, which neither their rough clothes, the uneven floor, nor the wretched music could spoil, those two figures made a harmonious and fascinating picture; to Stephen's view, naturally narrow and now darkened by the approaching blindness of a nascent passion, it was a sinful and abhorrent sight. When they floated silently close by him the second time, still lost in their dream of pleasure, and the girl's eyes fell upon him beneath their drooping lids, obviously without seeing him, he started up as if to plant himself in their way, then checked himself, and when they had passed went across the room to where Talbot was standing.
"You see her dancing?" he said excitedly, without any preface.
"Did you notice how they are dancing? that's what I mean."
Talbot laughed slightly. "That's not dancing, that's—"
Stephen flushed a dull red. "It's disgraceful; I'm going to stop her," he muttered.
"My dear fellow, remember you only met her this evening."
"I don't care; she ought not to dance like that."
"I don't like it myself," answered Talbot, "but you can't interfere."
"I'm going to."
"You'd much better not make an ass of yourself," returned Talbot, putting his hand on the other's arm.
"Leave me alone," said Stephen, roughly shaking it off, as the two delinquents, still in the same manner, came moving up towards them.
Stephen waited till they were just opposite him, then he stepped forward and seized the girl's arm and dragged it down from the level of the young fellow's neck where he had drawn it. Both the dancers stopped abruptly, and the man faced Stephen with an angry flush and kindling eyes.
"What the devil do you mean, sir?" he said angrily, advancing close to Stephen, who had his eyes fixed on Katrine's face, all warm tints and smiling, as a child's roused from a happy dream.
He ignored the man and addressed her.
"You are not going to dance any more to-night," he said with sombre emphasis.
The young man's face went from red to purple. He put his hand to his hip with an oath, and had half drawn his pistol, when Katrine sprang forward and seized his wrist.
"Now don't be silly; I'm tired anyway, Dick. I'll dance with you to-morrow night. This is Mr. Stephen Wood. Mr. Wood—Mr. Peters. Now let's go and have some drinks. I'm not going to have any fighting over me."
She put herself, smiling, between the two men, who stood glaring at each other in silence. She was annoyed at the dance being broken off, but she saw in Stephen's interference the great tribute paid to her own attraction, and therefore forgave him. At the same time she had no wish to have her vanity further gratified by bloodshed. There was a certain hardness but no cruelty in her nature. She turned from the men and strolled very slowly in the direction of the bar, and they followed her as if her moving feet were shod with magnets and theirs with steel. Talbot went too, and in a few minutes the four were standing at the counter with glasses in their hands.
Peters kept close beside Katrine, and he and Stephen did not exchange a word. Katrine kept up the chatter between herself and the two other men.
"May I see you home?" Peters said abruptly to her, interrupting the general talk.
"No," returned Katrine, lightly; "to-morrow night, not to-night. I have my escort," and she smiled at Stephen and Talbot.
"I will say good-night then," and Peters, after a slight bow to Talbot, withdrew, taking no notice of Stephen, who since the girl's surrender of the dance had looked very self-contented and happy, and was now standing glass in hand, his eyes fixed upon her face.
"I think I really will go home now," she said. "We've had a jolly time. I only wish you'd have joined us. Are you always so very good?" she said innocently to Stephen. He flushed angrily and said nothing.
A few seconds later they were on the way to Good Luck Row. One of the neatest-looking cabins in it had a light behind its yellow blind, and here Katrine stopped and thanked them for their escort. They would both have liked to see the interior, but she did not suggest their coming in. She wished them good-night very sweetly, and before they had realised it had disappeared inside.
They walked on down the row slowly, side by side. The next thing to do was to find a lodging for the night, and they both felt about ready to appreciate a bed and some hours' rest.
"There's Bill Winters," said Stephen, after a moment's silence. "He said he'd always put us up when we came down town; let's go and try him."
"Do you know where his cabin is?"
"I think so. Turn down here; now it is the next street, where those little black cabins are."
They walked on quickly, following Stephen's directions, and made for a block of cabins that had been pitched over and shone black and glossy in the brilliant moonlight. When they got up to them the men were puzzled, each was so like its neighbour, and Stephen declared he had forgotten the number, though Bill had given it to him.
"Well, try any one," said Talbot, impatiently, as Stephen stopped bewildered. They were standing on the side-walk, now a slippery arch of ice, between two rows of the low black cabins. There was no light in any of them; it was two o'clock; the moon alone shone up and down the street. Talbot felt his moustache freezing to his face, and his left eye being rapidly closed by the lashes freezing together, and that's enough to make a man impatient. Stephen did not move, and Talbot went up himself to the nearest cabin and knocked at the door. They waited a long time, but at last a hand fumbled with the catch inside, and the door was opened a little way; through the crack came out a stream of warm air, the fumes of tobacco and wood smoke; within was darkness.
"Is this Bill Winters'?" Talbot asked, and the door opened wider.
"I guess it is," said a voice in reply. "Why, it's Mr. Talbot and Mr. Wood—come in, sirs."
Talbot and Wood stepped over the threshold into the thick darkness, and the door closed behind them. There was a shuffling sound for an instant as Mr. Winters groped for a light, then he struck a match and lighted up a little tin lamp on the wall. The light revealed a good-sized cabin with a large stove in the centre, round which, with their feet towards it, four or five men rolled up in skins or blankets were lying asleep.
"You want a bed for the night, I expect," Winters went on; "we've all turned in already, but I guess there's room for two more."
Wood and Talbot both expressed their sense of contrition at disturbing him, but Winters would not listen.
"Oh, stow all that," he said, as he set about dragging forward two trestles and covering them with blankets. "You two fellows are so damned polite, you don't seem suited to this town, you don't seem natural here, that's a fact."
He was stepping over and about amongst the prostrate forms, and sometimes on them, but none of them roused themselves sufficiently to do more than utter a sleepy ejaculation and turn into a fresh position. Wood and Talbot stood waiting close against the door. It was half-an-hour before Bill had prepared their beds just as he wanted them, extinguished the lamp again, and retreated to his own corner. Then darkness and stillness reigned again over the smoky interior.
The low trestles on which the men lay were hard and unyielding, and a doubled-up blanket makes a poor mattress; the air of the cabin was thick and heavy, and the stove, which was close to Talbot's head, having been stuffed to its utmost capacity with damp wood that it might burn through the night, let out thin spirals of acrid smoke from all its cracks. Stephen did not close his eyes long after they had lain down, and there was utter silence in the place except for heavy breathings. He lay with open eyes staring into the thick darkness, a thousand painful wearying thoughts stinging his brain. Talbot, tired and worn out with bodily fatigue, but with that mental calm that comes from an absolute singleness of aim and hope and purpose, fell into a deep and tranquil sleep the moment his head touched the pillow. He lived now but to work; the night had come when he could not work, therefore he slept that he might work again on the morrow.
When the faint grey light of morning came creeping into the low and narrow room, which was not very early, as the nights now were far longer than the days, Talbot was the first of the sleepers to awake. He refilled the stove, which had burned down in the long night hours, and then let himself out.
When he returned Bill and the other men were all stirring, and Stephen sitting up on his trestle rubbing his red and weary-looking eyes.
"Well, pardner, what are you going to do to-day?" he asked a few minutes later, when they had the cabin to themselves for a moment.
"Going to do?" replied Talbot in astonishment, looking up from turning the coffee into the coffee-pot, according to Bill's orders. "Why, if we collect together all the stores we want, and get back to the diggings this afternoon, we shall have about enough to do."
"Oh, I meant about the girl."
"What girl?" queried Talbot, now standing still and staring Stephen in the face.
"The girl you danced with last night—the saloon-keeper's daughter, Katrine Poniatovsky—do you want any more identification?" returned Stephen, sarcastically, opening his heavy lids a little wider.
"Well, what about her?" returned Talbot, looking at him expectantly.
"Oh, well, I didn't know; I thought perhaps we wouldn't go back to-day, that's all," answered Stephen, rather sheepishly.
To his sympathetic, impulsive nature, open to every new impression, easily distracted like the butterfly which may be caught by the tint of any chance flower in its path, the incident of last night was much. To Talbot, self-concentrated, determined, and absorbed, it was nothing. He looked at his friend now with something like contempt.
"She's so handsome, and dances so well," Stephen went on hurriedly, feeling foolish and uncomfortable before the other's gaze.
"I did not come here to dance with girls," remarked Talbot shortly, going over to the stove, and the entry of the other men at that moment stopped the conversation.
They had breakfast together at the rough wood table in the centre of the room. The coffee was the redeeming feature of the meal: from that bright brown stream of boiling liquid the men seemed to gain new life; they watched it lovingly, expectantly, eagerly, as Bill poured it out into their thick cups.
The moment the meal was over Talbot crushed his hat on to his eyes, but before he left the cabin he glanced at Stephen, who was standing irresolutely by the stove.
"I shall get all I want," he said, "and be back here by two at the latest. If you're here then, we can start up together; if not, I shall go ahead;" and he went out.
Stephen lingered by the stove, then he and Bill drifted into a discussion over some of the latest discoveries of gold in Colorado, and they both fell to wondering how much more had been found since their last news, seven months old; and they had a pipe together, and then Bill thought he'd drop down to the "Pistol Shot," and Stephen crushed on his fur cap as determinedly as Talbot had done and went out—to Katrine's number in Good Luck Row.
AT THE WEST GULCH
Talbot made his start back to the cabin later than he intended; he had knocked at Winters' cabin before leaving the town, but all the occupants were out, and there had been no response.
It was afternoon, and already the uncompromising cold of evening had entered into the air; the sky was grey everywhere, and dark, almost black, in front of him; it seemed to hang low, frowning and ominous, over the desolate snowy waste that stretched before him: there was no snow falling yet, only the threat of it written in the black and dreary sky that faced him. His cheeks and chin felt stiff and frozen already, as if a thin mask of ice were drawn over them, and his eyes were sore and tired from the continuous glare of the snow. The little pony beside him plodded along the path patiently, and his master at intervals drew a hand from a comfortable pocket to lay it encouragingly on his neck, at which familiar caress the pony would throw up his head and step out faster for some paces. Talbot felt sorry for the little beast toiling along under his heavy though carefully packed burden of stores, cans of oil, loaves, and every sort of miscellaneous provisions, and would have spoken cheeringly to it, but his lips felt too stiff and painful to form the words, and so man and brute toiled along in silence over the trail under the angry sky. As he walked, Talbot's thoughts went back involuntarily to the picture of Stephen sitting smoking by the stove in the snug interior of Bill Winters' cabin; he felt instinctively, as surely as if he had seen it, that he would so sit through the afternoon, and by evening he would be finding his way down to the nearest saloon and pass the hours there with Katrine; and he compared him vaguely with himself, tired with tramping through the town from store to store, half frozen while he stood to pack the pony, and now labouring up alone to his cabin in the gulch.
He wondered dimly whether it would turn out that he should ever realise a reward for his toil, whether he should live to get out of this icy corner of the world, or whether he should die and rot here, caught in this great snow-trap, in this open grave, where the living were buried. He wondered a little, but his mind was not one inclined to abstract thought. He spent very little time in retrospection, reflection, and contemplation, very little time in thinking of any sort, and on this account possessed so great a stock of energy for acting. Each human being has only a certain amount of energy supplied him with which to do the work of his life. Thinking, speaking, and acting are all portions of this work, and whatever of his energy he consumes in any one, so much the less has he for the others. Thinking, the formation of ideas, is hard work; speaking, the expression of ideas, is hard work; and acting, the carrying out of ideas, is hard work. It is false to suppose that the first two are natural, instinctive, involuntary movements of the brain, and that only the last requires effort.
Talbot thought very little and spoke very little. His ideas came to him in simple form; they were not elaborated in his mind nor in his speech, they turned into actions immediately or died quietly without giving him any trouble or wasting his time. A decision once made he carried out. He never thought about it afterwards, or frittered away his strength in hours of torturing doubt as to whether it was a good one to have made, or whether some other might not have been better. Once made, he kept to it, good or bad, leaving it to chance whether he died or succeeded in his attempt to carry it out. And this conservation of energy in all other mental processes resulted in a splendid strength for action and a limitless endurance in the carrying out of his decisions.
And as he walked now he thought very little, except in a resigned way, of the physical discomfort he was enduring, and of the time when he should reach his cabin. Dusk had already fallen before he came to the gulch, and he had to strain his eyes to find the narrow trail which descended the side of the gorge. His log cabin, carefully and solidly constructed, stood half-way down the northern slope of the gulch, on a sort of natural platform formed by the vagaries of the now narrowed stream in its younger and wilder days. Beneath the cabin stretched his claims, 500 feet of dry soil on the slope of the hill, 100 feet this side of the stream and fairly in the creek, and 100 feet on the farther side, a stretch of 700 feet in all, and of a quality that made it at that time the richest claim for fifty miles round. Shafts, reaching down to bed rock, were sunk all over it, and great mounds of frozen gravel beside them showed how untiringly they had been worked. In addition to these, the man's native energy had prompted him to drive a tunnel horizontally for some distance into the side of the hill that rose steeply behind the cabin. The tunnel pierced the hill for 100 feet, and at the end a shaft had been sunk to bed rock, and it was from here at present that the highest grade ore was coming. Moved by an instinct to protect what he intuitively felt would be his richest possession, Talbot had built his tunnel in one solid block with the cabin, and closed its outer end with a huge door, well provided with bars and bolts. So long as this door was successfully held, no claim-jumper could penetrate into the tunnel or reach the shaft at the end. By this means, too, a double protection was afforded the living cabin, though of this he thought comparatively little, for the face of the cabin presented nothing but its one small window and this huge solid door. Upon opening this you found yourself in the tunnel; if you kept straight on you reached the shaft; if you entered the small door upon your left hand you found yourself in the interior of the living cabin.
The gulch ran east and west, and at sunset at some times in the year a red light from the dying sun would fall into it, like a tongue of flame, and the whole gulch would seem on fire. At such moments Talbot would cease his work and stand looking up the gorge, with the red light falling on his face and banishing its careworn pallor. No one knew what he was thinking of in those moments, whether he was recalling Italian or Egyptian skies that had been as fair, or whether for a moment some vanished face seemed to look at him from out those brilliant hues, or if merely the great sheets of gold that spread above the gulch brought visions of that wealth he was giving his best years to attain. No one who met him knew much about him, except that he was an Englishman, had travelled much and experienced many different forms of life, and finally come to the Klondike,—but why this last? He was believed to have been rich before he came: was it merely to increase his wealth, or was there some other reason? Was there any one awaiting his return? There were several portraits in his cabin of soft and lovely faces, but then the number was confusing, and the most curious of the men who worked under him could not come to any satisfying conclusion. All they knew was that he worked harder than any common miner, that his reserve was unbroken, and his life one continual self-denial. There were thirty men in all who worked for him, and by them all he was respected and feared rather than liked. There was a chilling reserve wrapped about him, an utter absence of ingenuousness and frankness of character, that prevented any affection growing up amongst the men for their master, and his attitude towards them was summed up in the answer he gave to an acquaintance who once asked him how he got on with his men, if he had any friends amongst them. Talbot had raised his dark, marked eyebrows and merely said coldly, "I don't make friends of miners."
Stephen Wood's cabin was a little higher up the gulch by several yards, and the claims of the two men had been staked out side by side. A great friendship had grown up between the two, such a friendship as common danger, common privations, common aims, and Nature's awful loneliness drives any two human beings in each other's proximity into. But besides this friendship there was a quiet liking on Talbot's part for this weak, impulsive, boyish character, so unlike his own, and on Stephen's side a warm admiration for all Talbot's qualities that he could not and yet wished to emulate. He, as others, was completely excluded from the elder man's confidence, and knew nothing of his past or what was likely to be his future; but then Stephen was one of those people always so deeply absorbed in himself, his own aims and views, that he really never noticed that his manifold confidences were never returned in the smallest degree. He would come over to Talbot's cabin in the evening, seat himself on the opposite side of the fire, and talk incessantly. Talbot would allow him to do so until he felt too much bored, when he would rise and quietly tell him to go. Stephen would hastily apologise and retire, to return the following night quite unabashed, with more views and aims to impart. In the first week of their acquaintance Talbot had heard all about his home life—about the little English village, and the red brick, ivy-covered school-house, where he had been master since he was eighteen; of the village schoolmistress he had loved, because she was so good, and had abandoned, presumably for the same reason; of his doubts, fears, hopes, wishes, and intentions,—and after ten months he knew no more of Talbot than he did the day of their first meeting.
The cabins of the men employed by both Stephen and Talbot were dotted over the gulch, some higher and some lower than their own; while a number of the men lived some distance off, a few of them even having lodgings in the town.
When at last Talbot reached his cabin door this evening darkness had completely fallen; there was no light from within to guide him, but with his half-frozen fingers he managed to unlock the outer door, and he and his tired beast went in together. The first thing he thought of when he had closed the great door behind him and lighted up the passage, was to unpack the animal and put him up in the stable which he had built opposite his own cabin door; and it was fully an hour before, having seen the beast comfortably installed, he turned into his own room and struck a light. Here there was only one living thing to greet him, and that was a shabby little black cat that leaped off the bed in the corner and came purring to meet him. One morning he had found this cat lying on his claim with a broken leg and carried it back to his cabin, where he had set the leg and nursed the miserable little creature into recovery. Denbigh, his foreman, who had seen Talbot sitting up for two whole nights to watch the helpless animal, had carried away the impression that the cold, quiet, hard and selfish man, as he appeared to the miners, had another side to his character that they never saw. It was this other side that the kitten was familiar with, and she came mewing and purring with delight towards him. Talbot, who was ready to sink to the floor with exhaustion, stooped and stroked the animal, which followed his steps everywhere as he set about lighting up his stove. It was very quiet, there was absolute silence all round him, and every step of his heavy boots on the wooden floor, every crackle of the igniting wood in the stove, seemed a loud and important sound in the stillness. It was always very quiet at the gulch, Nature's own solemn quiet, except in the summer time, when she filled it with the laughing voices of a thousand streams and rills.
That evening, when his domestic arrangements were all put into working order, his fire blazing, his coffee boiling on the hob, and his table laid, he sank back in his chair with a weary sigh, his hand idly stroking the cat, which had jumped purring on his knee. It seemed lonely without Stephen, and he foresaw that probably many evenings would pass now without his society.
The next morning, when it was yet barely light, and the gulch was holding still all its damp black shadows of the night, Talbot was out tramping over the claims, showing his men where to start new fires, and carefully scanning the fresh gravel as it was thawed and dug out. All his men had a pleasant salutation for him as he passed by, except one, who merely leaned over his work and threw out his spadeful of gravel savagely, as Talbot stopped by the fire. He took no notice apparently of the man, and after a second's survey passed on to the next fire. The man looked after him a moment sulkily and returned to his work. He was a huge fellow, some six feet four, and with a massive frame and head to suit his height. He had been working for many months with Talbot now, and was a valuable labourer on account of his great strength and capacity for work. At first he had been rather a favorite with Talbot, and there hung now in his cabin a first-class six-shooter, the gift of his master when he first came up to the gulch.
Dick Marley had had a devoted admiration for Talbot until the last few months, when it had turned into a bitter, sullen resentment over a matter with which in reality Talbot had absolutely nothing to do. Dick, being a hard and constant worker, had managed to save out of his liberal wages quite a considerable sum, and this he had entrusted to a man on his way to Seattle to invest for him in securities. After a time the man disappeared, and Dick discovered his securities had never been bought, and that he was in fact robbed and cheated. In his first rage and disappointment he cast about unconsciously in his mind for some one besides himself to lay the blame upon, and finding no one he grew daily more and more morose. Hour after hour, as he worked upon the claims, his thoughts would revolve sullenly round his loss, and the offender being beyond his reach, his anger burned against any and every man near him, and apparently chiefly against his employer.
A week passed before Stephen reappeared at the gulch, then one evening after dark, when Talbot was sitting back in his chair, dozing after the cold and fatigue of the day's work, a loud banging came on his outer door, and when he opened it, Stephen, looking very flushed and animated, came into the quiet little room, laden with packages and with a general air of city life about him.
"Well, old man, how are you? Hello, Kitty!" this as he stumbled over the little black cat at his feet. "Well, I've had such a glorious time! I wish you'd stayed down there too: that girl is just the finest creature I've ever seen. Have you anything for a fellow to eat?—I'm perfectly famished. Look here, I've brought you up some cans of things and a bottle of rye, the very best. I say, you look dreadfully blue—what's the matter?"
"Life in the west gulch in the winter isn't particularly exhilarating," answered Talbot, quietly, as he went about his preparations for Stephen's supper.
"How have the men been—all right?" questioned Stephen, as he took off his coat and settled himself in the best chair.
"They have been working pretty steadily, but I notice a difference in them since that fellow Marley has been here. He has been stirring them up, doing a lot of mischief, I think."
"You must assert your authority, I suppose," remarked Stephen pompously, stretching his feet out comfortably in the cheerful blaze. "Perhaps he doesn't know who's master here."
"He will very soon find out then," returned Talbot, so grimly that Stephen looked at him sharply. "Well, what's all your news?" asked Talbot, as if desirous to get away from the question of his men.
"I don't know that there is much, except I've been having a good time. You've looked after my ground and seen to the workings, haven't you? Thanks, I knew you would, and so I felt I could stay down town a little: you're a better hand at managing men than I am, any way,—women too, for that matter; do you know that you impressed Katrine awfully? She has talked about you to me—you are so good-looking, so distinguished, she wants to know whether you are a Count or a Prince in disguise, and all sorts of things."
Talbot smiled. "It is extremely kind of her," he said quietly.
"Oh, I know she's not the kind of girl you admire," said Stephen, in rather a nettled tone. "You wouldn't look at a saloon-keeper's daughter simply because she is a saloon-keeper's daughter; you like a girl in your own rank, all grace and dignity and good manners, and awfully clever and intellectual, and gifted and educated, and all that."
Talbot merely laughed and remained silent, a habit he had which successfully baffled questions, innuendoes, and suppositions alike.
"And any way your passions are engaged somehow, somewhere."
"How do you know that?" asked Talbot, with a hardening of his mouth.
"Know it! why, otherwise you could not lead this dog's life as you do, and you could not be indifferent to a beautiful girl like Katrine,—for she is beautiful, she's not 'pretty' or 'nice,' but she's downright beautiful," returned Stephen, emphasising his remarks by striking the table.
Talbot said nothing, but put more wood in the stove in silence.
"Your supper is ready now; if you are famished, as you said, you'd better have it, and discuss Miss Poniatovsky afterwards," he remarked.
Stephen turned to the table. "Won't you have something too?" he said.
Talbot shook his head. "No, thanks; I'm not hungry."
"You ascetic creature, you never are," replied Stephen, as he began to carve into the cold bacon.
"Well, you know how I detest her surroundings," he began again after a few minutes, "and drinking, and saloons, and almost everything she does, but then I can't help liking her. She's so different from any girl I've ever seen. She attracts me, she holds my thoughts so, and if I could get her to give up all that, if I could alter her views—"
"You would be doing away with that difference from others that is the basis of your attraction," put in Talbot, dryly.
"Well," returned Stephen after a minute, in a sulky tone, "we are all like that,—a man falls in love with a girl, because she is a girl, and then immediately wants to turn her into a married woman."
Talbot laughed. "Good!" he said. "You are quite right."
"It's the altering process we like, and we want to do the alteration ourselves. I showed her my pocket Greek testament yesterday," he continued.
"And was she interested?" inquired Talbot, dryly.
"Not so much as she was in the shooting gallery," admitted Stephen. "I told her how a bible at a man's heart had often saved his life, and she said a pistol had done that too, and she'd rather trust the pistol."
Talbot laughed. "You say you like altering. I should think in Katrine you've a splendid field. If you want to get her down to the schoolmistress pattern, you've employment for a lifetime!"
Stephen flushed, as he always did at any allusion to the girl he had loved as the type of all virtues, and yet had tired of. Good people are always more or less interested in and attracted by the wicked, while the wicked are not generally the least interested in nor attracted by the good. Stephen was drawn towards this reckless daughter of the saloons partly through the sense of her general badness, it formed unconsciously a sort of charm for him, whereas his goodness did not act at all in the same way upon her. To her eyes it was his one great drawback, an overwhelming disadvantage.
He finished his supper in silence, and the two men drew in close to the fire to smoke. That is to say, Stephen did the smoking, as he did the talking. He consumed Talbot's tobacco, and filled Talbot's cabin with its fumes. Talbot himself did not smoke.
Stephen's return to his own claim freed Talbot from the double share of work he had been doing for the last week, and he remained on his own claims all day, tramping from one end to the other, directing where a new shaft should be made, overseeing closely all the work that went on, and doing a good deal of it himself; and in those days he became more clearly conscious than ever of the difference that was growing up in his men's manner towards him. There was a veiled insolence in their replies to his questions, a certain want of promptness in obeying his orders, which caused a curious gleam to come into the quiet grey eyes as, apparently without noticing it, he passed on.
He did not speak of it, not even to his foreman, Denbigh, the man whom he liked and trusted most. He was accustomed to manage his own affairs, and rarely took counsel with any one. He was one of those men who are born with the gift of governing others. He was an organiser, an administrator, by nature. Had he been born to a throne, his kingdom would have been well ruled from end to end, and rarely if ever embroiled with other nations; and the same spirit that would have ruled a kingdom showed itself here in the ruling and management of his seven hundred feet of ground.
He never bullied, never swore, no one had ever seen him in a passion. He gave his orders in a pleasant friendly voice, his manner was quiet, even to gentleness, but he had a way of getting those orders invariably carried out that was hard to analyse. If he said a thing was to be done, it was done, and no one knew of an instance where it was not. He never countermanded an order, and never receded from a position once taken, even if in his own heart he recognised later it was an unwise one. But the forethought and caution, the deliberation in decision that were his by nature, made the occasions on which he regretted an order very seldom, and if such there were, no matter, the order stood. He himself looked upon his word as irrevocable, whether given in promise or command, and instinctively all who came in contact with him looked upon it in the same light. The men, when they made engagements with him and stipulated certain terms for certain work, and other details, never asked for paper, and even refused it when offered. Whatever came from those silent, resolute lips they knew unalterable, unanswerable, final, and absolute; they all trusted his word completely, and it passed amongst them as other men's bond.
Everything on the claims was well organised, all was kept in smooth working order. The men had exact hours of work, exact time for changing off, each his specified work and place on the ground, each his tools, for which he was accountable as long as he worked there.
Talbot's forethought even went far enough to provide for the happy-go-lucky and mostly ungrateful creatures who had no idea of providing for themselves. He established a sick fund, and to this each of the men who worked for him was obliged to subscribe a trifle out of his weekly wages. Then in their not infrequent sickness there was alleviation and comfort waiting for them. If the miners were not his friends they were his dependents, and as such he cared for them and looked after them. He was always friendly in manner to them, always ready to help and assist them, to attend to their wants, to listen to their complaints, and settle the frequent disputes amongst themselves, which they invariably brought to him for decision. If he had not instilled affection into them, they felt an unlimited faith and confidence in his absolute justice.
"He's hard, real hard," they said amongst themselves, "but he'll never go back on you;" and that was the received opinion amongst them.
Although he was conscious now of the feeling growing up amongst his men, he appeared to ignore it entirely. As long as his instructions and commands were carried out, he affected to be in ignorance whether it was with a smiling or a scowling face. He felt certain that the disaffection owed its origin to the man Marley, and he expected every day that some matter would bring this man and himself into a personal conflict, in which he meant to conquer, and he preferred to wait for this to happen than to, in any way, take an initiative step in bringing the covert hostility to light.
It was his method. On the same principle, when one of his debtors, having completely lost his head in blind rage against a quiet order that he should pay what was due, shook his fist in the other's face and threatened to wipe the floor with him, Talbot did not knock the man down, as some might have done. He simply remarked in his dryest tone, "You'd better try it," and for some reason or other the man did not. Shortly after the money was paid.
So now he simply stood his own ground, saw that his work was properly done, and waited until the man courted his own punishment. In the meantime, the men mistook his forbearance, his quietness, his smoothness of tones and manner for weakness, and Marley, a bully by nature, and quite incapable of understanding his employer, grew elated and triumphant.
Stephen had been back at the gulch a fortnight or more, when Talbot found late one afternoon some of his tools broken, and this, combined with other work he had to do in town, decided him to go down that afternoon and return the following day before daylight failed. He got ready, locked up his house, and called upon Stephen to say he was going. Stephen looked quite surprised, Talbot went to town so seldom, and then began to chaff him upon his motives and intentions.
"As it happens, I'm going about some mending of spades," Talbot returned.
"Are you sure it's not the breaking of hearts?" Stephen laughed back from the fire by which he was sitting. "Well, you'll see Katrine any way. Tell her—"
"My dear fellow," interrupted Talbot, impatiently, "I'm not going to see her. I shall have as much as I can do to be back here before mid-day to-morrow," and he went out before the amazed Stephen could say another word.
"Going down town and not going to see Katrine! why, he must be mad," ejaculated Stephen mentally; "wonder what his own girl's like anyway." Then he tossed himself back on the rug and looked at a little postage-stamp photograph Katrine had given him of herself, which he had stuck on the fly-leaf of his Greek testament.
The following morning, before it was fully light, found Talbot toiling up to the west gulch on foot. He had made an early start, as he wanted to be back before the men began work, and the air hung round one and against one's cheek like a sodden blanket in the dusky dawn. It took him over three hours to make the distance, and when he reached his cabin he felt chilled through. All his muscles were stiff and numb from the long climb. He felt a longing to sit down and rest and get a little warmth kindled in his half-frozen limbs. The first thing that encountered him at the main door, which led into the block composed of his own cabin and the tunnel, was a sheet of smooth ice, only an inch deep perhaps, but glazing over the ground from where he stood to his own door. He saw at once what had happened: the waste water from the workings had been diverted from its proper outlet, and had simply run freely at its own will over the level ground. Talbot's face darkened as his eyes rested on it. It was Marley's business to see that the egress for the water was kept free and unblocked with ice, and only yesterday he had given him orders to attend to it. It was the second or third time he had returned to find the entrance to his own house almost impassable. Crossing over with difficulty the frozen stream, he looked into his cabin. There was about a foot of muddy water and ice covering the floor and floating his slippers and some pairs of socks he had left by the hearth. The fire was out, and the lower part of the stove filled with mud and water. The bed was completely soddened, the blankets and quilt dabbling in the water. He did not go beyond the threshold. After a minute's survey he turned and walked down the tunnel leading to the shaft where he knew the men were working.
"Marley!" he called down the shaft.
"What is it?" came up from below in a surly tone.
"You have allowed the waste to run into the tunnel again, and my cabin is flooded."
"Well, clean it out then!"
"I think that is your business," answered the dry cutting tones from above. "Come up at once, and see to it."
"I'm not going to swab out your blasted, dirty old cabin," shouted Marley hoarsely from the bottom of the shaft. "Do it yourself."
A strange look came over Talbot's quiet face. It whitened and set in the darkness. He knew his men were gathered about Marley, listening to what passed, and this open defiance of his authority, this public insult before them, angered him excessively. He made his answer very quietly, however, only his voice was peculiarly hard, and the words seemed to drop like ice on the men standing listening below.
"I allow no one to speak to me like that here," he said. "This is the last day that you work on the claim."
"I'll work here as long as it suits me," retorted Marley, with an oath. "You can't turn me out."
"We will see about that," returned Talbot, in the same even, frigid tone, and he turned away from the pit and walked back to his flooded cabin.
He found Denbigh had arrived there. It was close to the luncheon hour by this time, and he was doing what he could to get rid of the water. He looked up, and saw at once from the other's face there had been some unusual incident.
"What's up?" he inquired, standing still, with his mop in his hand.
"That fellow Marley is making all the trouble he can," returned Talbot. "I have just told him he has got to get out, that's all."
Denbigh's face fell. "I think it's a bad job," he remarked after a minute. "You know what a desperate devil he is; he would kill you, I believe, if he had to give up his work."
"Well, he has been trying to boss this business for some time now," returned Talbot, "and I am tired of it. To-day he finished with a gross insult before a lot of the men, and it's time, I think, to show him and them who is boss here."
"Couldn't you overlook it?" replied Denbigh, tentatively, with a scared look on his thin face.
"I have no wish to," replied Talbot, coldly. "There is bound to be trouble some time. It may just as well come now as later."
Denbigh opened his mouth to make a further protest, but Talbot stopped him.
"Don't let us discuss it any further, please," he said curtly, and Denbigh closed his mouth and dropped back on his knees to his floor-mopping.
Talbot drew out his pistol, glanced over it, and buckled it round his waist.
When the room was reduced to some appearance of dry comfort again, the two men sat down to their luncheon in silence. Talbot was too excited to swallow a mouthful of the food. Although so calm outwardly, and with such absolute command over his passion, anger was with him, like a flame at white heat, rushing through his veins.
As they sat they heard the miners tramping by the cabin door, and saw their heads pass the window as they went out to get their mid-day food. Denbigh himself, as soon as he had finished, made an excuse and departed. He was eager to join his companions before they came back to work and hear some more delectable details of the row than he could get from Talbot. When all his men had filed out from the tunnel, Talbot went into the passage and walked up to the heavy wooden door and shut it, barring it with a steady hand. This was the main entrance to the shaft, and at the present time the only one. The door was never, under ordinary circumstances, closed, but stood open all day for the men to pass in and out to their work. When he had fastened it he walked back, turned into his own cabin, and took up his place at the window. From here he could see the men as they came back. They began to return earlier than was their wont, knowing that trouble was in the air, and each one was anxious to be on the spot for the crisis. All through the lunch hour Talbot's words and the possibility of Dick Marley being obliged to "quit" was the sole topic of conversation.
Dick talked largely, and with a great many of the miners his oaths, and the imputations of cowardice he heaped on his employer, carried the day. Some of the others, quieter men with keener perceptions, merely listened in silence, and shook their heads when appealed to for an opinion.
"I dunno. He's got grit," remarked one between mouthfuls of bread and bacon, in response to a sanguinary burst of Dick's.
"He's a slip," answered Dick, contemptuously.
"But a dead sure shot."
"He'd funk it," said Dick, his face paling a little. "He'd never stand up to me. He's got no fight in him. Why, he's managed that claim there now for two years and he's never so much as fired a shot over it. Now that fellow Robinson wot's got the claim a mile farther up the creek, he's the boy for me. Why, he hadn't been there two days before there was trouble, and at the end of the week we was reckoning up he had made five corpses over it."
He looked round the circle, and there was a murmur of admiring assent.
The old miner nodded his head slowly as he munched his beans.
"Yes, that's Talbot's way; he's just as smooth as butter as long as you know he's the boss and act accordin', but jest as soon as you begin to try and boss him, you'll know you have your hands full."
Dick took another pull at the tin whisky bottle, and tightened his belt.
As the men returned to their work they were surprised to see their employer leaning idly against his window, and still more surprised when they passed round to the main entrance to find the great door shut. Talbot came himself and let each man in, in turn as they came up, shutting the door afterwards. Their curiosity at this unusual state of things was great, but there was a look on the pale, stern face they encountered on the threshold that froze all open question or comment, and each man went by silently to his work. When they got down towards the shaft and out of hearing, however, their tongues were loosened again.
"'E's waiting for Dick to come back, that's what he is," volunteered one of the miners; "and somehow or other I don't feel jest dying to be in Dick's shoes when he do come."
There was no dissent openly offered to this guarded opinion. Most of the men hung about in the tunnel, and seemed unwilling to quit the scene of the coming contest.
At last, among the final batch of men, Marley came sauntering past the window. Talbot's eyes flashed as the tiger's when the brush crackles. He walked out to the great door and flung it wide open. Dick fell back a step, and the little crowd of miners who accompanied him closed in round the two, open mouthed and eyed, to see the battle.
"You can't come in," and the sentence had an accent of inflexibility that made it seem like a drawn sword across the entrance.
"To hell I can't!" returned Dick, a dull red flush coming over his face.
"No, you can't," Talbot replied in the same calm, incisive way, that contrasted strongly with the coarse, whisky-thickened tone of the other.
"Oh well, I guess I'm coming in any way," answered Marley, and he made a step forward. A slight motion of Talbot's right hand to his belt was his only answer.
Marley stopped, put his own hand, half involuntarily, to his hip, remembered he had no revolver with him, and turned pale and red in confusion.
By this time the loud voices and talking at the door had brought the remainder of the men upon the scene. Those who had already passed into the shaft left their work and came up behind Talbot in the tunnel; those in front pressed a little nearer. Talbot stood now completely surrounded by the crowd of rough working men. Marley's adherents were in full force. He was quite alone. He did not glance round them. He did not think of himself, nor of his own danger should two or three of them back up their fellow and commence to hustle him. He felt nothing but a cool though intensely savage determination to subdue this burly brute, to defend his position and title, though it cost him his life.
"There can be only one boss here," he said coldly, as Marley hesitated before him. "If you are not satisfied who it is, go to your cabin and get your six-shooter, and we will settle it here on the dump."
There was a movement and a murmur of satisfaction amongst the men. Now this was coming down to business and giving them something they could understand. Here was a man willing to defend his rights in a good, square stand-up fight on the spot, and they one and all agreed in their own minds that he was the right sort. They glanced at Dick expectantly, and some said to themselves he weakened. They were not going to take sides with either party. One of the men was their friend and fellow-worker, the other was their employer. The two had a difference, and they could settle it between themselves. They had no business to interfere. All they had to do was to stand round and see a square fight and "with'old their judgment," as they said afterwards, talking it over in the bar of the "Pistol Shot." They waited, and Dick hesitated. He felt his opponent's eyes upon him; he glanced round the men, they were watching him.
"Fetch your six-shooter," commanded Talbot again, with increasing sternness, and Dick, feeling he must do something, nodded sullenly and turned away towards his cabin. He strode up the incline in the direction of the miners' dwellings, and Talbot, whose brain seemed to himself half splitting with nervous, angry excitement, began to pace up and down a short length before the door, waiting for him to come back. He did not order his men away, and they stayed in their places.
The excitement was intense amongst them as they waited; not one of them shifted his place on the log or bank where he had sat down; they hardly seemed to draw their breath. All their eyes were fixed upon Talbot. He walked up and down in front of the door, his arms folded, his revolver still in its case on his hip. The men watched him curiously. His face was very white and exceedingly determined.
The afternoon was placid and lovely. The temperature was not within many degrees of zero, but the gold of the sunshine was bright, and the air dazzlingly clear. It was absolutely still, not a leaf rustled, not a breath stirred. Nature was in her calmest, gentlest mood; nowhere could there have been a more tranquil arena to witness the passions of men. There was perfect silence, except for the crack of the ice sometimes as it split beneath the firm, resolute steps of the man pacing up and down. His face was set as a stone mask, as immovable and as calm, but the passion of anger increased within him as he waited; a mad impatience for his adversary to return grew at each step that he walked to and fro, with the insult of the morning echoing in his ears.
At last he stopped in his walk and fixed his gaze on the road which led to the miners' cabins. All the men's eyes followed his, and they saw the figure of their fellow-worker coming slowly down towards them. A huge, hulking form, contrasting strongly with the slim one of the man waiting for him. Some of the miners glanced up at Talbot, wondering silently if he "funked it," but there was something in that attitude and that iron countenance that reassured them and stirred a dull admiration in their hearts. Talbot ceased to walk up and down. He planted himself directly in front of the wide open door and waited there. Passion and excitement had dilated his pupils until the usually calm light grey eyes looked black; his nostrils quivered slightly as he watched his enemy coming up. As Marley drew nearer, the miners noted with satisfaction his enormous six-shooter swinging in his belt; the sunlight caught the steel at every other step forward he made. Their hearts beat fast with keen anticipation. There would soon be some fine shooting, and one dead man perhaps, or two, for Marley meant business; and as for the other, he looked like the devil himself as he stood there. And he was a fine shot, there was no mistake about that. Denbigh stared hard at him with round fixed eyes. He was thinking of the nights when he had watched Talbot teaching Dick to shoot straight—teaching the very man he had sent off now to get his pistol to shoot himself with! He remembered how Talbot had stood with Marley at this very tunnel's mouth and showed him how to snuff a candle at thirty yards! And Denbigh stared and glowed with admiration. Marley drew nearer down the path, his heavy crunching steps echoing through the serene and frosty air. A few minutes more and he was close upon the eager, expectant, silent circle; the men watched him with their breath suspended. On he came, sullenly, filled with a sort of dogged, brutal animosity against the man he had wronged and insulted. He stepped between the men, who made a short line, and then into the clear open space, facing Talbot.
For the first time he looked him full in the face, with a fugitive, fleeting glance, and his eyes shifted away. His pace slackened, but he did not stop; his feet dragged loosely over the rough snow and gravel, his huge form seemed to shrink together, to lessen; while to the fascinated eyes of the men watching the two, that slight figure at the doorway, motionless as a statue, seemed to dominate the scene. Marley felt a peculiar, sick paralysis stealing over him, a curious tugging back of his muscles when he tried to get his hand to his hip, a strangling feeling in his throat: that glance seemed petrifying him. The absolute fearlessness, the indomitable will that filled it, seemed to overcome him.
The very fact, perhaps, that Talbot had not even yet drawn his pistol, the extreme coolness that relied upon the swiftness of his wrist to draw it at a second's notice, staggered and scared him. He remembered the skill that had long been his admiration, and that he had at last learned to imitate, the sureness of aim and eye, the dexterity and quickness of that hand, and his tongue fairly cleaved to the roof of his dry mouth. He struggled to draw his revolver, but his arm refused to obey his will. Yet it was not wholly cowardice that swept over him in a sickly tide. As he had met those scornful, indignant eyes, there had rushed back to his mind a thousand small benefits conferred upon him by this man, a thousand instances of friendliness, the memory of the first days they had worked together, how he had slept under his roof, fed at his table, how, more than all, he had been given by him and instructed in the use of this very weapon that now would be turned to the giver's own breast. A horror of killing this man, of wounding him, firing upon him, combined with his terror of being killed, swept over him, and between these he felt cowed and beaten, unable to stand up and face him, unable to do anything but drag one trembling foot behind the other and go by, keeping watch from the side of his eye that that deadly pistol was not drawn upon him. But Talbot never moved, simply stood and watched him too, with fixed eyes; and Marley, overwhelmed by some power he did not understand, as if dragged forward against his will, without another look at his opponent, passed by them all and went on slowly down the road leading to the town. Not a word was spoken, not a breath was drawn, no one moved. They watched his retreating figure, some half hoping, half expecting, some half fearing, he would turn and shoot from a distance,—all wondering greatly, and a little overawed. Then, as he neither turned nor looked back, but kept steadily ahead, his large figure well outlined against the stretches of white snow, his six-shooter glistening in the sun, his head hanging down, till at last by a turn in the road he was lost to view, there was a long-drawn breath of surprise and wonder, a general turning of the eyes to Talbot. It was a victory, though a bloodless one, and they felt it. Each one felt that the conqueror was before them. Talbot said nothing. He simply stood aside from the door, to let the miners who were outside enter. The men took it as a signification that they were to recommence work, and hastened to obey. They did not dare to speak to him, not even to congratulate him. They were awed into submissive silence before him. Not a sound was uttered. The men filed silently into the tunnel like cowed sheep into their pen, leaving their master standing motionless in the sunshine.
Good Luck Row was a little row of small, insignificant cabins towards the back of the city, and at right angles to the direction of the main street. Dawson faces the Yukon, and its main thoroughfare lies parallel with the river. In the summer, when the Yukon and the Klondike, that joins it just above, are free, the waters of the two rivers united come rolling by in jubilant majesty, tossing loose blocks of ice, the remnants of their winter chains, on their swelling tide. They form a little eddy in front of the city, and their waters roll outward and swirl back again to their course, as if the great stream made a bow to the city front as it swept past. Here in the summer, with the steamboats ploughing through the rocking green water, and the sun streaming down upon the banks crowded with active human beings, glinting on the gay signs of the saloons and the white and green painted doors of the warehouses, with the brilliant azure sky stretched above, and far off the tall green larches piercing it with their slender tops,—in the summer this main street is a pleasant, cheerful sight; but now, with the river solid and silent, the banks black and frozen, and the bleak, bitter sky above, it looked more desolate than the inner streets of the town, more uninviting than Good Luck Row, which had little cabins on each side, and where the inhabitants overlooked their opposite neighbours' firelit interior instead of the frozen river. The side-walks of the row were like the other side-walks of the city, a wealth of soft mud and slush and dirt through the warm weather, and now frozen hard into uneven lumps, big depressions, and rough hummocks. The cabins were uniform in size, small, with one fair-sized window in the front, beside the door, which opened straight into the main room, where the front window was. At the back there was another smaller room with a tiny window, looking out over a black barren ice-field, for Good Luck Row was on the edge of the town.
Katrine lived at No. 13. This cabin had been the last to be occupied on account of its unlucky number, but Katrine only laughed at it, and painted it very large in white paint upon the door. Here Katrine lived alone, though her father, the little stunted Pole who kept the "Pistol Shot," was one of the richest men in the city.
And because she lived alone some of her neighbours declared she was not respectable. As a matter of fact, she was more respectable than many of the married women living in the row, and Katrine knew many a story with which she could have startled an unsuspecting husband when he came into town after a week or two's absence prospecting or at work on the claims; but she did not trouble about other people's affairs; she gave her friendship to those who sought it, and heeded not at all those who condemned her.
On an afternoon about three weeks after her first meeting with Stephen, Katrine stood in front of her little glass in the corner of her cabin, smoothing her short glossy hair; when this was flattened with mathematical exactness to her well-shaped head—for Katrine was always trim and neat in her appearance—she turned to the table and wrote on a slip of paper, "I'm next door;" this she pinned to the outside of her door, and then locking it went into the next cabin in the row. She had grown quite accustomed to Stephen's visits now, and generally left a note on her door when she went out, in case he should come unexpectedly in her absence. The cabin she entered presented a different appearance from her own. There was the same large stove opposite the door, the same rough table in the centre and wooden chairs round, but the floor was dirty and gritty, quite unlike Katrine's, which always maintained a white and floury look from her constant attentions, and the stove looked rusty and uncleaned. The small square panes of the window, too, hardly let in any light, they were so obscured by dust inside and snow frozen on to them without. By the stove sat a young woman, in whose face ill-health and beauty struggled together for predominance. Her hair, twisted into a loose knot at the back of her head, was of the lightest gold colour, like a young child's, and her face brought to one's mind the idea of milk and violets, the skin was so white and smooth and the eyes so blue. This was the beauty which no disease could kill, but ill-health triumphed in the livid circles round the eyes, the drawn lines round the faded lips. Katrine entered with her brightest smile.
"Well, Annie, are you better to-day?" she asked.
The woman rose with an unsteady movement from the chair, and before she could answer burst suddenly into a rain of tears. "Better? Oh, Katie, I shall never be any better! But I wish I could go home to die!"
Katrine advanced and put her arms round her, drawing the frail attenuated form close against her own warm vigorous frame.
"What nonsense!" she said gently. "You are not going to die at home or anywhere yet. Why, Will is going to make a big strike, and take you home to live in style all the rest of your life."
"No," sobbed the girl,—for she was no more than a girl in age,—falling back in her chair again. "No, it won't come in time for me."
"Where is Will?" asked Katrine, looking round.
"He's just got a job up at the west gulch on Mr. Stephen Wood's claim," returned the other. "Oh, I am that thankful he's found some one to employ him at last."
"Yes, it's delightful," returned Katrine, absently, as she sat down on the other side of the rusty stove and looked round the dirty, cheerless room. It was due to her urgent pleading with Stephen that Will had obtained the place on the claim, but his wife did not seem to know, and Katrine did not tell her.
"But then it don't lead to nothing," continued Annie, despairingly. "He can't look out for himself if he's working another man's ground."
"Well, he only does a few hours' work, I believe, and has the rest of the day to look round for himself," returned Katrine.
"It don't amount to much, anyway; this time of the year there ain't no day to speak of," replied the other, gazing plaintively through the dim glass of the window. "And then if he do see a bit of land he fancies, why, he can't buy it, he's got no money."
"I think Mr. Wood will advance him enough to buy any ground he thinks well of," replied Katrine, gently.
"Mr. Wood!" repeated Annie, opening her sunken eyes wide with the first display of interest she had shown. "Why should he help my man along?"
"I don't know," returned Katrine, evasively, with heightened colour; "but he told me he would do so, and I know he will. How is Tim to-day?" she added suddenly, to divert the conversation.
The mother looked round.
"Tim!" she called; "where is that child? Katie, you go and look if you can see him in the wood-shed."
Katrine crossed the room to the lean-to attached to the cabin and looked in. On the floor of the wood-shed, with the happy indifference to the cold usually displayed by Klondike infants, little Tim sat on the floor with a pile of chips beside him. Great icicles hung from the rafters above him, and his tiny hands were blue with cold, but he was contentedly and silently piling up the wood on the frozen ground. Katrine picked him up and carried him into the next room, and put him by the fire at his mother's feet. He did not cry nor offer any resistance, but when put in his new location looked round for a few minutes, and then calmly leaned towards the stove and began to play with the cinders in place of his vanished wood chips.
"What a good little fellow he is!" said Katrine, leaning over him.
"Yes; he's his mother's darling, that's what he is!" returned the other, stooping to smooth the curly head that was only a shade lighter than her own.
"Will you have some coffee?" asked Annie presently, looking helplessly towards the dirty stove, where a feeble fire was burning sulkily amongst the old wood ash.
"No," returned Katrine, cheerfully; "you must be getting tired of coffee. I brought you some tea for a change," and she extracted a neat little packet from one of her pockets. "May I do up the fire and make some for you?"
"Why, it will make you so dirty; that stove is in an awful state," replied Annie, looking over the other's neat dress and figure dubiously.
"I don't mind that. Pick up the baby," Katrine answered, rolling up her sleeves and displaying two rounded muscular arms white as the snow outside. "You'd better move farther out of the dust," she added, going down on her knees before the stove. Annie picked up the child and retreated to a chair by the window, from where she watched the other with a sort of helpless envy.
"Lord! I've grown that weak lately I can't do nothing," she said after a minute. "You know how nice I used to keep the place for Will when we first came."
Katrine nodded in silence, and two bright tears fell amongst the wood ash she was taking from the stove. She did remember the bright, active young wife, the united little family moving into the cabin next her only a year ago; she remembered the interior that had always been so neat and clean and cheerful to receive Will when he came home, the unceasing devotion of his wife, and the mutual love and hope that had buoyed them up and made them face all hardships smilingly. Then she had watched sorrowfully the gradual deterioration of the man under the constant disappointment; she had met him more and more frequently in the saloons, less and less at his home. She had seen day by day the rapid decline of the bright, beautiful young creature he had brought with him into this poor faded wraith dragging herself about in the neglected, cheerless cabin.
"You'll get stronger again in the warm weather," she said after a minute, when her voice was steady.
"You wouldn't say that if you'd seen what I saw on the snow this morning when I'd been coughing there back of the wood-shed," returned Annie, drearily leaning her tired head against the dingy pane.
"What do you mean?" asked Katrine, looking up apprehensively. "Blood?"
The other nodded in silence, and there was quiet in the cabin except for the crooning of the child. Then Katrine rose from the hearth impulsively with a flushed, lovely face and the ash dust on her hair and dress. She went over to Annie and drew her head on to her strong, warm bosom.
"Oh, you poor, poor thing! What can we do?" she said desperately.
"Nothing," murmured Annie, closing her eyes in the girl's soothing embrace, "unless you could persuade Will to take me home, and nobody could do that now, he's so set upon the gold. That's the second bleeding from the chest that I've had this month; now the third'll do for me."
She shivered as if from cold, and Katrine kissed her and hastened back to her work at the fire. It is not a pleasant nor an easy thing to do to clean out a stove that has been left to itself for a week or more and fresh fires kindled on the old ashes every day, but in a few minutes Katrine had the work completed and the fresh wood crackling and filling the stove with red flame. Then she made the tea rapidly, and neither of them spoke again till Annie held a great tin mug of it to her white lips. Katrine pulled her chair close to the stove again, and took Tim on her own lap, where he found a new toy in her cartridge belt. Annie sipped from her mug and gazed absently into the flames.
"Lord, we were so happy," she said musingly, a little colour coming into her face under the influence of the hot tea and the warmth from the re-invigorated fire. "We had the nicest little home down in Brixham. I daresay you don't know where that is?" Katrine shook her head. "It's just the prettiest, sweetest village in the world, down in Devonshire; and we had a cottage there, quite in the country, with pink roses all over the front,—I can smell those roses now. Oh, it was lovely; and Will had regular work all the time, and he was the best husband woman ever had. He used to bring his wages in Saturdays, and say to me, 'Annie, old girl, ain't there enough there to get you a new ribbon for Sunday or a fresh sash for the baby?' He never spent a penny for drink nor tobacco. And Sunday we'd go out on the downs and stand looking at the sea; it do come in so splendid there, and the wind from it seems to put new life in yer. We was as happy and as well as could be, all of us; and then them newspapers got to printing all those tales of the gold in the Klondike, and Will he just got mad like, and nothing would do but he must sell the house and come out here. He thought he'd come back so rich; well, so he may, but he won't have no wife to go back with."