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BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The House of the Weeping Woman Hodder and Stoughton, London
The Worker and Other Poems The Macmillan Co., New York
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A Tale of Keewatin
CONINGSBY WILLIAM DAWSON
Hodder & Stoughton New York George H. Doran Company
Copyright, 1910, by George H. Doran Company
The Plimpton Press Norwood Mass. U.S.A.
I. John Granger of Murder Point 1 II. The Unbidden Guest 13 III. The Devil in the Klondike 25 IV. Spurling's Tale 42 V. Cities Out of Sight 53 VI. The Pursuer Arrives 74 VII. The Corporal Sets Out 86 VIII. The Last of Strangeways 100 IX. The Break-up of the Ice 112 X. A Message from the Dead 120 XI. The Love of Woman 144 XII. He Reviews His Marriage, and is Put to the Test 162 XIII. The Dead Soul Speaks Out 186 XIV. Spurling Makes a Request 210 XV. Manitous and Shades of the Departed 225 XVI. In Hiding on Huskies' Island 240 XVII. The Forbidden River 257 XVIII. The Betrayal 272 XIX. The Hand in the Doorway 283 XX. Spurling Takes Fright 297 XXI. The Murder in the Sky 305 XXII. The Blizzard 318 XXIII. The Last Chance 334
JOHN GRANGER OF MURDER POINT
John Granger, agent on the Last Chance River in the interests of Garnier, Parwin, and Wrath, independent traders in the territory of Keewatin, sat alone in his store at Murder Point. He sat upon an upturned box, with an empty pipe between his lips. In the middle of the room stood an iron stove which blazed red hot; through the single window, toward which he faced, the gold sun shone, made doubly resplendent in its shining by the reflected light cast up by the leagues of all-surrounding snow and ice.
Speaking to himself, as is the habit of men who have lived many months alone in the aboriginal silence of the North, "Well, and what next?" he asked.
He had been reviewing the uses to which he had put his thirty years of life, and was feeling far from satisfied. That a man of breeding, who had been given the advantages of a classical and university education, and was in addition an English barrister, should at the age of thirty be conducting an independent trader's store in a distant part of northern Canada did not seem right; Granger was conscious of the incongruity. During the past two years and a half he had obstinately refused to examine his career, had fought against introspection, and had striven to forget.
In this he had been wise, for Keewatin is not a good place wherein to remember and to balance the ledger of the soul; it is too remote from human habitation, too near to God—its vastness has robbed it of all standards, so that small misdemeanours may seem huge and disastrous as the sin of Cain. Madness lurks in its swampy creeks and wanders along the edges of its woodland seas, so that the border-line between natural and supernatural is very faintly marked.
But to-day Granger had given way before the wave of emotional memories and had permitted his mind to recapitulate all the happiness which he had lost; and with this result, that like a child in a darkened house he feared to advance and stood still trembling, questioning the future, anticipating and dreading that which was next to come. It was the second week in April; the break-up of the winter had almost begun; the spring was striding up from the south and a cry of travel was in the air, both hopeful and melancholy. The world would soon be growing young again. Even in this desperate land the scars of the frost would soon be obliterated; but to his own life, he was painfully aware, the spring had vouchsafed no promise of return. Was it gone forever? he asked.
At the present moment he was remembering London and St. James's Park with its banks of daffodils and showers of white may-blossom, its groups of laughing children at play, its parade of black-coated horsemen, with here and there the scarlet flash of a Life-guard as he sped trotting by, and for bass accompaniment to this music of the Joy of Life the continual low thunder which in the Mall the prancing hoofs of countless carriage-horses strummed.
Now it was Piccadilly in which he wandered, returning from the west with his back toward the setting sun; the street-lamps had just been kindled, and ahead of him, massed above the housetops, the blue-grey clouds of evening hung. He watched the faces of the people as they passed, some eager, some jaded, some pleasure-seeking, some smug, and he strove to conjecture their aim in life. At the Circus he paused awhile, breathing deep and filling out his lungs with fragrance of violets and narcissi, which flower-girls clamoured for him to purchase. He bought a bunch and smiled faintly, contrasting the beautiful significance of the name of the vendor's profession with the slatternly person to whom it was applied. Then onwards he went to Leicester Square where the dazzling lights of music-halls flared and quickened, and scarlet-lipped Folly smiled out upon him from street corners, and beckoned through the dusk. In the old days it had always been when he had attained this point in his advance that the pleasure of London had failed, leaving him with a cramped sensation, a frenzied desire for escape, and an overwhelming sense of the inherent rottenness of western civilisation. It was upon such occasions that he saw, or thought he saw, the inevitable tendency of European cities to emasculate and corrupt the rugged nobilities of mankind. A revolt against artificiality had followed. Immediately, there in the heart of the world's greatest city, there had grown up about him the mirage of the primeval forest, whose boughs are steeped in silence, borne up by tall bare trunks, which lured him on to explore and adventure through untried lands, where quiet grows intense and intenser at each new step, till he should arrive at that ultimate contentment for which he blindly sought.
He laughed at the memory, smiling bitterly at the manner in which that former self had been beguiled. As if to give emphasis to his jest he arose from his box, lounged over to the window, cleared its panes of mist with his hand, and gazed out upon the landscape of his choice. It stared back at him with immobile effrontery, with the glazed wide-parted eyes of the prostrate prize-fighter who, in his falling, has been stunned—eyes in which hatred is the only sign of life. He threw back his head and guffawed at the conceit, as though it had been conceived by a brain and given utterance to by a voice other than his own. Then he paused, drew himself erect, and his face went white; he had heard of solitary men in Keewatin who had commenced by laughing to themselves, and had ended by committing murder or suicide. Yet, as he stood in thought, he acknowledged the truth of the image; his existence on the Last Chance River was one long and wearisome struggle between himself and the intangible prize-fighter, whoever he might be,—Nature, the Elemental Spirit hostile to Creation, Keewatin, the Devil, call him what you like. Sometimes he had had the better of the combat, in which case days of peace had followed; but for the most part he stood at bay or crouched upon his knees, watching for his opportunity to rise; at his strongest he had only just sufficed to hold his invisible antagonist in check, battling for a victory which had been already awarded. He had long despaired of winning; the only question which now troubled him was "How long shall I be able to fight?"
A certain story current in the district, concerning a Hudson Bay factor, flashed through his mind. At the beginning of the frost his fort had been stricken with smallpox; one by one his six white companions had died and the Indians had fled in terror, leaving him alone in the silence. In the unpeopled solitude of the long dark winter days and nights which had followed, he had grown strangely curious as to the welfare of his soul, and had petitioned God that it might be disembodied so that he might gaze upon it with his living eyes. After a week of continuous prayer, he had fastened on his snowshoes, and gone out upon the ice to seek God's sign. He had not travelled far before he had come to the mound where his six companions lay buried. There against the dusky sky-line he had seen a famished wolf standing over a scooped-out grave. So the factor had had his sign, and had looked upon his disembodied soul with his own eyes.
When the ice broke up and the first canoe of half-breed voyageurs swept up to the fort, they had been met by a man who crawled upon hands and knees, and snarled like a husky or a coyote.
Granger shrugged his shoulders and shuddered. He thanked his God that the spring was near by. Upon one thing he was determined, that whatever happened, though he should have to die—by his own hand, he would not grovel into Eternity upon his hands and knees as had that factor of the Hudson Bay.
For relief from the turbulence of his thoughts he turned his attention to the frozen quiet of the world without. Not a feature in the landscape had changed throughout all the past five months. He had nothing new to learn about it: he had even committed to memory where each separate shadow would fall at each particular hour of the day. Straight out of the west the river ran so far as eye could reach, until it came to Murder Point. At close of day it seemed a molten pathway which led, without a waver, from Granger's store directly to the heart of the sun. Having arrived at the Point, the Last Chance River swept round to the northeast, and then to the north, until in many curves it poured its waters into the distant Hudson Bay. Its banks, in the open season, which lasted from May to October, were low and muddy; the country through which it flowed, known as the barren lands, was for the most part flat and densely wooded with a stunted growth of black spruce, jackpine, tamarack, poplar, willow, and birch. The river was the only highway: much of the forest which lay back from its banks was entirely unexplored on account of its swamps and the closeness of its underbrush. There were places within three miles of Murder Point where a white man had never travelled, and some where not even the Indians could penetrate. Partly for this reason the district was rich in game: the caribou, moose, lynx, bear, wolf, beaver,— wolverine, and all the smaller fur-bearing animals of the North abounded there. Seventy miles to the southwestward lay the nearest point of white habitation, where stood the Hudson Bay Company's Fort of God's Voice. Between Murder Point and the coast, for two hundred and fifty miles, there was no white settlement until the river's mouth was reached, where the Company's House of the Crooked Creek had been erected on the shores of the Bay. With his nearest neighbours, seventy miles distant at God's Voice, Granger had no intercourse, for he was regarded by them as an outcast inasmuch as he was an independent trader. Once was the time when Prince Rupert's Company of Adventurers of England trading in the Hudson's Bay had held the monopoly of the fur trade over all this territory, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Coast; then to have been caught trapping or trading privately had meant almost certain death to the trespasser. Now that the powers of the Company had been curtailed, the only manner in which a Hudson Bay factor could show his displeasure toward the interloper was by ignoring his presence—a very real penalty in a land of loneliness, where, at the best, men can only hope to meet once or twice a year—and by rendering his existence as unbearable and silent as possible in every lawful and private way. In the art of ostracising, Robert Pilgrim, the factor at God's Voice, was a past master; during the two and a half years that Granger had been in Keewatin he had had direct communication with no one of the Company's white employees. On occasions certain of its Cree Indians and half-breed trappers had come to him stealthily, at dead of night, to see whether he would not offer them better terms for their season's catch of furs, or to inquire whether he would not give them liquor in exchange, the selling of which to an Indian in Keewatin is a punishable offence. These were usually loose characters who, being heavily in debt to the Company, were trying to postpone payment by selling to Granger on the sly; yet, even these men, when day had dawned, would pass him on the river without recognition, as if he were a stick or a block of ice. However, only by dealing with such renegades could he hope to pick up any profit for the proprietors of his store. His every gain was a loss to the factor, and vice versa; therefore by Robert Pilgrim he was not greatly beloved.
Pilgrim was a man of conservative principles, who looked back with longing to the days when a factor was supreme in his own domain, holding discretionary powers over all his people's lives, who, after the giving of a third warning to an independent trader found poaching in his district, could dispose of him more or less barbarously according to his choice. Now that every man, whatever his company, had an equal right to gather furs in the Canadian North, he considered that he and his employers were being robbed; wherefore he made it his business to see that no friendship existed between any of his subordinates and the man at Murder Point. Hence it happened that in summer when the canoes and York boats, and in winter when the dog-teams and runners from God's Voice, went up and down river by the free-trading store of Garnier, Parwin and Wrath, no head was turned, and no sign given that anyone was aware that a white man, yearning for a handshake and the sound of spoken words, was regarding them with sorrowful eyes from the wind-swept spit of land.
Two years and a half ago, on his first arrival, Granger had laughed at the factor's petty persecution and had pretended not to mind. Since then, as his isolation had grown on him, his temper had changed, his pride had given way, until, in the January of the present year, he had journeyed down to the Company's fort, and had implored them to speak to him, if only to curse him, that his reason might be saved. The gates of the fort had been clanged in his face, and he had been silently threatened with a loaded rifle, till resurrected shame had driven him away.
He had since heard that Pilgrim had said on that occasion, "I knew that he would come and that this would happen sooner or later. I've been waiting for it; but he's held out longer than the last one."
This remark explained to Granger how it was that, when he had arrived in Winnipeg, having just returned from the Klondike, and had applied to his acquaintance Wrath for employment, his request had been so readily granted. He had marvelled at the time that he, who had had next to no experience in Indian trading, should have met with immediate engagement, and have been given sole charge of an outpost. Now he knew the reason; he had been given his job because his employers could get no one else to take it. From the first day of his coming to Murder Point strange stories had reached his ears concerning the diverse and sudden ways in which its bygone agents had departed this life: some by committing murder against themselves; some by committing murder against others; some, having gone mad, by wandering off into the winter wilderness to die; others, who were reckoned sane, by attempting to make the six hundred and eighty mile journey back to civilisation alone across the snow and ice. These rumours he had not credited at first, supposing them to be fictions invented by Pilgrim for the purpose of shattering his confidence, and thus inducing him to leave at once. The last remark of the factor, however, inasmuch as it had been reported to him by an honest man, the Jesuit priest Pere Antoine, had proved to him that they were not all lies. When he had questioned Pere Antoine himself, the kindly old man had shaken his head, refusing to answer, and had departed on his way. This had happened shortly after the occurrence in January; since then Granger had been less than ever happy in his mind.
Luckily for him, about this time Beorn Ericsen, the Man with the Dead Soul, as he was named, the only white Company trapper in the district, had quarrelled with the factor over the price which had been offered him for a silver fox; in revenge he had betaken himself to Granger, bringing with him his half-breed daughter, Peggy, and his son, Eyelids. Their chance coming had saved his sanity; moreover it had furnished him with something to think about, besides himself, namely Peggy. His courtship of her had been short and informal, as is the way of white men when dealing with women of a darker shade: within a week he had taken her to himself. But Peggy had had ideas of her own upon the nebulous question of morals, ideas which she had gained in the two years during which she had attended a Catholic school in Winnipeg; she had refused to be regarded as a squaw, since the blood which flowed in her veins was fully half white, and, after staying with him for a fortnight, had taken herself off, joining her father on a hunting trip, giving Granger clearly to understand that she would not live with him again until Pere Antoine should have come that way and united them according to the rites of the Roman Church.
As he stood by the window looking out across the frost-bound land which once, years since, in Leicester Square, he in his ignorance had so much desired, he re-pondered these events and, "Well, and what next?" he asked.
The touch of spring in the air, recalling him to England and the old days, had made him realise among other things what this marriage with a half-breed girl, supposing he consented, must entail. It would exile him forever. No matter howsoever well he might prosper, or rich he might become, or whatsoever stroke of good fortune might visit him, he could never return to his English mother and English friends, bringing with him a half-breed wife and children who had Indian blood. If he married her, he would become what Pilgrim had named him—an outcast. If he did not marry her, she would refuse to live with him, and he would be left lonely as before and would probably become insane. Since he was never likely to become either prosperous, or rich, or fortunate, would it not be better for him to provide for his immediate happiness, he asked, and let the future take care of itself? Even while he asked the question another woman intruded her face: she was slim, and fair, and delicately made, and was disguised in the male attire of a Yukon placer-miner. She seemed to be asking him to remember her.
He shrugged his shoulders contemptuously, as if defying Fate: turning away from the window, he reseated himself upon the upturned box by the red-hot stove.
Pooh! he'd been a fool to give way to retrospection. He was no exception to the general rule; most men mismanaged their careers—more or less. Still, he was bound to confess that he had done so rather more than less. Oh well, he would settle down to his fate. As for that other girl in the Yukon miner's dress, who would keep intruding herself, she also must be forgotten.
But at that point, perversely enough, he began to think about her. What was she doing at the present time? Where was she? Did she still remember him? Had she made her fortune up there out of their last big strike? How had she construed his sudden and unexplained departure? He swore softly to himself, and rising, went over to the window again. Then he pressed closer as if to make certain of something, gazing up the long glimmering stretch of frozen river to the west.
There was a strange man coming down; strange to those parts, at any rate, though Granger seemed to recognise something familiar in his stride. He was driving his dogs furiously, lashing them on with frenzied brutality, coming on apace, turning his head ever and again from side to side, peering across his shoulder and looking behind, as if he feared a thing which followed him—which was out of sight.
THE UNBIDDEN GUEST
Granger, having withdrawn himself to one side of the window so that he might not be observed from the outside, watched the stranger's approach in anxious silence. Nearer and nearer he came, till in that still air it was possible to hear the panting of his huskies as they lunged forward in the traces, jerking their bodies to right and left as they desperately strove to escape the descending lash of the punishing whip. The man himself tottered as he ran, stubbing the toes of his snowshoes every now and then as he took a new step. Once from sheer weakness he nearly fell, whereupon the dogs came to a sudden halt, sat down on their haunches, and gazed wistfully round; in a second he had recovered himself, with an angry oath had straightened out his team in their traces, and was once more speeding toward Granger's shack. The impression which his mode of travelling conveyed was that of flight; but from whom and whither can a man flee in Keewatin? Both he and his animals were evidently exhausted; they must have journeyed continuously through the previous day and night, and still they were in haste. "Well, all the better for me," thought the watcher, "for if he is so weary he cannot choose but stay; and if he stays with me, though he be a Company man, he will have to speak."
Then fear seized hold of Granger lest Robert Pilgrim's discipline, or the enmity of the man himself, might be such that, though he endangered his life by the procedure, he would refuse the hospitality of a hated private trader. "Nonsense," said the voice of hope, "to where can he be travelling at this season of the year unless to Murder Point? Before ever he gets to the coast and Crooked Creek the winter will have broken up, and northwards there is nowhere else to go."
So, as is the way with men who have exhausted this world's resources for rendering them aid, he began to pray; not decorously, with reverent, well-chosen words, but fiercely, with repetition, and below his breath. "My God, don't let him pass," he said; "make him stop here. Make him stop here, and spend with me at least one night." Then, when he had petitioned God, thinking perhaps that He would not hear him, he commenced to call upon Lord Jesus Christ. He clenched his hands in his excitement till the nails broke into the flesh. There was a God in Keewatin after all, there must be, since He had sent to him this stranger.
All the while that he was praying and exclaiming thus, he was trying to judge of the man's errand from his dress. He was clad in the regulation capote of the Hudson Bay Company's employee; it was of a dark material, probably duffel, which reached to the knees. On his head was a fur-skin cap, over which he had drawn the hood of his capote so far down that his features could not be discerned. About his waist went a sash of scarlet, such as is worn by the Northwest metis. His legs were swathed in duffel leggings, so that they appeared to be of enormous size. On his feet he wore moose-hide moccasins which extended part way up his legs, and to these his five-foot snowshoes were attached. His whip he carried in his left hand. About this last there was something familiar. Who was it that he had known in the past who had driven his dogs left-handed, and had had that swinging, plunging stride? The memory refused to concentrate, so he strove to guess at the man's identity by the process of elimination. He could not be a Hudson Bay mail-carrier bringing him a letter, for the factor refused to deliver all missives addressed to Murder Point. It was not probable that he was an express messenger of Gamier, Parwin, and Wrath, sent up post-haste from Winnipeg; they could have nothing of such importance to say to him that it could not wait for the open season, when travelling is less expensive. Nor was he a trapper bound on a friendly or business visit to the store; for, in the first place, this man was no Indian (he could tell that by the way in which he lifted his feet in running), and, in the second, he had no friend, nor any man in the district, save Ericsen, who would be seen with him in the open daylight. A foolish, strangling expectancy rose up within him. Might he not be the bearer of important and good news from the homeland? What news? Oh, anything! That his father, the visionary explorer of Guiana, who twenty years ago had set out on his last mad search for El Dorado, the fabled city of the Incas, and who for many years had been given up for dead, had returned at length with gold, successful from his quest—or, at the least, that his mother had relented and wanted him back. Speedily his hope turned to agonising suspense. Perhaps he was coming to tell him that his mother in England was dead. Then he laughed hysterically, remembering that Mr. Wrath was not the sort of man to regard any death as serious, unless it were his own.
By this time the stranger had covered the intervening two miles of river and was within thirty yards of the Point. He was slowing down. He had halted. His exhausted dogs were already curling themselves up beneath a snow-bank, wisely snatching a moment's rest as soon as it was offered them. Careless of their welfare, leaving them as they were to tangle up their traces, he was commencing to ascend the mound towards the store. Despite the clamour of welcome which raged within him, Granger did not stir; the influence of the North Land was upon him, compelling him to self-repression, making him stern and forbidding in his manner as was the appearance of the world without. From his hiding by the window he watched the man; as he did so a vague sense of fear and loathing took the place of gladness.
His approach was slow and hesitating; continually he paused to gaze back along the river as if in search of a pursuer, then suddenly forward toward the shack as if for spying eyes which were reading his secret. Before he had come near enough to be recognised, he had pulled the hood still further forward, holding it together above his mouth with his right hand, so that of his face only his eyes were visible. With his left hand he fumbled in his breast, and Granger knew that he grasped a loaded weapon. "Does he mean to kill me?" he wondered; yet he made no effort to bar the door, or to reach for the rifle which hung on the wall above his head. He only smiled whimsically; amused that anyone should waste so much care over robbing a man of a possession which he himself so little valued—his life. Personally he would welcome so easy a method of departure from Keewatin—one which was quite respectable, and would attach no responsibility to himself. When all has been said, there remain but two qualities of fear: the fear of life, and the fear of death. Granger was only conscious of the first, therefore he could afford to be amazingly daring under the present circumstances. Now he could no longer see the man, for he was standing beneath the walls of the shack; but he could hear that he was listening, and could hear him gasp for breath. One, two, three slow footsteps, and the latch was raised and the door flung wide. He waited for his guest to enter, and then, because he delayed, "Come inside," he cried; "confound you, you're letting in the cold air."
He heard the snowshoes lifted across the threshold and rose to greet the stranger who, so soon as he had entered, made fast the door and confronted him without a word, still hiding his face from sight. He was a tall man, well over six feet and proportionately broad of chest; he had to stoop his head as he stood in the store, since the roof was none too high.
After some seconds spent in silent gazing, "Well, and what d'you want?" asked the trader. The man made no reply, but tossed him a screw of paper which, when he had unfolded it and smoothed it out, read, "Do all that is in your power to help the bearer. I am responsible. Destroy this so soon as it is read." The note was unsigned, but it was in the handwriting of Wrath. Granger slid back the door of the grate and watched the scrap of paper vanish in a little spurt of flame. Then he looked up, and seeing that the man still stood regarding him and had removed none of his garments, not even his snowshoes from which the crusted ice was already melting, "All right," he said; "I'll do my best. You must be tired, and have come a long journey."
"I have," said the stranger, throwing back his hood, and for the first time displaying his face.
Granger sprang forward with a startled cry, and seized the newcomer by his mittened hand. "By God, it's Spurling!"
In a flash all the winter had thawed out of his nature and the spring, which he had despaired of, had returned. Once more he was an emotional living creature, with a throbbing heart and brain, instead of a carcass which walked, and was erect, and muttered occasional words with its mouth as if it were alive, and was in reality a dead thing to which burial had been denied.
"Yes, it's Spurling," replied the traveller in a hoarse, uneager voice; then, "Has anyone been here before me?"
Granger shook his head, and instinctively stood back a pace from this leaden-eyed, unresponsive stranger, who had been his friend.
Spurling was quick to notice the revulsion. "And are you going to desert me and turn me out?"
"Desert you! If you knew how lonely I have been you wouldn't ask that question."
"I ought to know," he answered, and going over to the window looked out, turning his head from side to side in that furtive manner which Granger had noted in him when he had first seen him advancing across the ice.
Facing about suddenly, he asked, "Is there any way out of here, except down there?" pointing to the river frozen in its bed, stretching away interminably to the west, through groves of icicles, and marble forest, like a granite roadway hewn out and levelled by a giant, vanished race.
"There is no other," Granger replied, "unless you include the way out which is trodden by the dead."
Spurling started almost angrily at the mention of this last pathway of escape, and scowled. It was evident that the fear which made his life a burden was the fear of death—which was proof to Granger that he had not been long in Keewatin. However, he controlled himself and murmured, "Six hundred and eighty miles is a long journey, and it's all that to Winnipeg. Within a fortnight the ice will break, and then for almost a month the only way will be impassable. Thank God for that!" Addressing himself to Granger, "And what lies ahead?" he asked.
"The forest and three hundred odd miles of this Last Chance River till you come to the Hudson Bay and the House of the Crooked Creek."
"Is there nothing in between?"
"Only the Forbidden River, which neither white man nor Indian ever travels; it joins the Last Chance a hundred miles ahead."
"Ah, the Forbidden River! And no one ever travels there! Why not? Is it shallow or rapid? But then there is the winter; it cannot be that there's anything that doesn't freeze up here."
"Oh, it freezes right enough."
"The Indians are afraid to travel it."
"Of what are they afraid?"
"Manitous, and shades of the departed."
For the first time Spurling's face relaxed, the hunted expression went out of his eyes; he almost smiled. "Well, I'm not afraid of them," he said.
He commenced to unfasten his snowshoes and to take off the heavier portions of his dress. Granger stood by and watched him; he was puzzled by the man's manner, and heartsick with disappointment. What was the reason for the change which had crept over him in the three years since they had parted, and why had he made this journey at this season of the year, in haste, without warning? Six hundred and eighty miles seemed a long way to travel in winter, through a desolate land, only to tell your most intimate friend that you are not afraid of manitous and shades of the departed.
He recalled the man whom he had known, so generous and open-hearted, who had walked with him at night beneath the London gas-lamps, sharing and comprehending those dreams and enthusiasms which others had derided, or compassionated as delusions of the mad. This was the man who had given him what might have been his chance, had he only been able to use it aright. Like a tawdry curtain drawn up at a Christmas pantomime on a dazzling transformation scene, so, at the memory, the veil of the present was instantly removed, revealing only the flashing splendours of past things, which lay behind. This same body which now crouched basely here before him had belonged to a hero once—to the man who, five long years since, had pushed on in spite of defeat, carrying with him by his courage his despairing companion over the deadly Skaguay trail. The Skaguay, where bodies of horses lay unburied, spreading pestilence abroad every hundred yards of the way; where the army of gold-seekers turning back was as great as the army pressing on; and those of the attack had momentarily to stand aside, so narrow was the path, for the wounded and spent of the retreat, who passed them by with ashen faces, some of them with death in their eyes, bidding them, "Turn back! Turn back! You will never get through alive."
Many a time when his shoulders were bruised and broken, and he ached in every limb, and his clothes were sodden with rain, which he knew must shortly become stiff as boards when night had fallen and it had begun to freeze, and perhaps another horse had fallen and been left beside the trail, he also would have joined the retreat right gladly, unashamed of his cowardice, had not Spurling picked up his load with a laugh and dragged him on. What a fine brave fellow he had been in those early Yukon days! Why, it was he who, when they had reached the summit of that heart-breaking pass, had rescued young Mordaunt. Jervis Mordaunt, with a single horse, had packed his entire outfit single-handed to the topmost point of the trail, and then, when the hardest part of his journey had been accomplished and his goal was already in sight, his horse had given out and died. When they had come up with him, his beast had been dead three days, and, because he could not afford a new one, he had been packing his stuff on his own narrow shoulders into Bennett, whence the start by water for Dawson had to be made—a hopeless task, for Mordaunt was not a strong fellow, but slim and extraordinarily girlish in frame. Many of the travellers who had already attained the summit were flinging away their outfits and turning back in panic, terrified by stories which they had heard of winter and starvation in the Klondike; those who still trudged doggedly forward were too selfishly preoccupied with visions of gold, and their own concerns, and fears lest the rivers and lakes should close up, to render him aid. Not so Spurling; in those days he was never too busy to lend an unfortunate a helping hand; besides, like most brave men, the thing which he valued highest was courage, and he was taken with the young chap's pluck. "I'm fairly broad," he had said, "and before the river freezes there's plenty of time for all three of us to get drowned. So look sharp, my girl, and hand your bundles up." From the first day he had nicknamed Mordaunt "The Girl," because he was so surpassingly modest and had no beard to shave. So he and Spurling had shouldered Mordaunt's burden, and had made him their partner, and had carried him through to the gold-fields alive.
Where was Jervis now? he wondered; then his thoughts returned to the panorama of that eventful journey. He remembered how in the mouth of the Windy Arm on Tagish Lake, when the sail swung round and sent him spinning overboard, he would most certainly have perished in those chill waters had not Spurling jumped in and held him up till the boat put back. It was Spurling's hand which had kept the boat steady in the boiling rapids of the White Horse, when he and Mordaunt had lost their nerve—yes, that same hand which was now plucking restlessly at the untrimmed beard which fringed that crafty, sullen face. How incredible it seemed that this body should contain the same man, and that the change should have taken place in five years! He contrasted that big-shouldered, song-singing fellow who had given them of his endless store of courage when their own was spent, compelling them to go through the mush ice at Five Fingers, and the drift ice at Fort Selkirk, and had landed them safely at Dawson almost against their will, the last boat through before the Klondike froze up, with this secretive hang-dog individual who slunk through an unpeopled wilderness, twisting his neck from side to side, as though he already felt the halter there—like a Seven Dials assassin, fearful of arrest. There he sat by the window, with eyes fixed uncannily on the west, watching for the follower whom he could not see, but only felt.
He turned round uncomfortably, feeling that Granger's eyes were upon him; then rose up abruptly, saying, "Ha, I was forgetting! My dogs must be fed."
Granger watched him go out, and was glad of relief from his presence. If anyone had come to him a week ago and had said, "Druce Spurling will be here this day or next," his joy would have surpassed all bounds. Now he realised that there is a worse evil than solitude—the compulsory companionship of a man who once was, and is no longer, your friend. "Ach!" he muttered shivering, "I feel as if I had been sitting with my feet in an open grave." Then remorsefully he added, "The poor chap's in trouble. He was good to me in days gone by: I'll do my best to help him. Perhaps that's the kind of offal that I appeared to Robert Pilgrim when I made my journey to God's Voice last January, and he threatened to shoot me; yet, God forbid that I ever looked like that. Maybe that which I seem to see in Spurling is only the reflected change in myself. Christ pity us lonely men!"
From the window he could see how Spurling was gathering his dogs around him, leading them past the Point northward to a bend where they could not be seen by a man approaching from up-river. What was the meaning of such precaution? Why had he been so urgently requested to help the one man in the world whom he was most likely to help without urging, since he had been his closest friend? Why had he been ordered to destroy the note immediately when read? And why had Spurling, whom he had thought to be in Klondike making his pile, or having taken advantage of the secret knowledge which he had unwisely shared with him, to be in Guiana, sailing up the Great Amana seeking El Dorado, travelled these thousands of miles by sea and land only to visit him here in Keewatin thus surlily? Was it to hide? Well, if that was his purpose, there wasn't much chance of his being followed, or if followed, found.
THE DEVIL IN THE KLONDIKE
Spurling, having returned from feeding his dogs, had reseated himself by the window, but he had not again spoken. When Granger had informed him that a meal was ready, and had called to him to come and partake, he had only shaken his head. When, however, it had been brought to him, he had eaten hungrily, bolting his food like a famished husky, yet never looking at what he ate, for his eyes were directed along the river-bed. He used neither fork nor spoon, carrying whatever was set before him hastily to his mouth in his hands. His whole attitude was one of hurry; he rested in haste, as if begrudging the moments which were lost from travel.
Had he been the foremost runner in some great race, who had fallen at the last lap, and, waiting to recover himself before making the final dash toward the tape, watched anxiously lest his next rival should round the bend, and surprise him before he was up on his feet again, he could not have been more tensely excited. His breath came in gasps and spasms; his body jerked and trembled even while he sat. He began to do things, and did not finish them. He opened his mouth to speak, and was silent. He half rose to his feet, and fell back again. He turned his head to look at Granger, then thought better of it, and continued staring into the west. Granger watched him, and wondered what might be the secret which he was hesitating to impart. Was his mind a blank through weariness? Was he arguing out some dreadful problem within himself? Or was he only mad?
What frail and isolated creatures we are!—when once our power of communicating thought is gone, though we breathe and move above the earth, we are more distant one from another than if we were truly dead; for, when a soul has totally forsaken its body, and the body has ceased to express, we, who live, can at least imagine that the thing departed sometimes returns and hovers within ourselves. To live and be silent is a remoter banishment from Life than the irrevocable exile decreed by Death.
Granger could now see that the change which he had noted in Spurling might quite well have been the work of a month or two months, and was due to trouble and neglect. The man was unwashed and unfed, and for many nights he had not slept. His eyes were ringed and bloodshot with fatigue, and with incipient snow-blindness. His cheeks were sunken and cadaverous with too much travel; his body was limp with over-work. Should the cause of his excitement be suddenly removed, he would collapse; it was nervous courage which upheld him. And there, despite all these alterations for the worse, he could still discern the old Spurling—the man whom he had loved. The brows retained their old frown of impudent defiance, and the mouth its good-humoured, reckless contempt. These had been overlaid by some baser passion, it was true; but they remained, showed through, and seemed recoverable. As he looked, the memory flashed through his mind of Spurling at his proudest—on that night at the Mascot dance-hall, when they had carried into Dawson City the news of the great bonanza they had struck at Drunkman's Shallows. He was standing on a table, surrounded by a group of miners, leading the singing, roaring out the doggerel chorus of a local mining ballad:
"Oh, we'll be there with our bags of gold When the Judgment trumpets blare, When the stars drop dead and the moon stands cold, Tell the angels we'll be there."
Ha, the power of the man and his consciousness of conquest!
Half to himself he began to hum the tune, beating time on the bare boards with his moccasined feet. In a moment Spurling had jumped up, "For God's sake, stop! I can't endure that," he cried. "Oh, to think of it, that I am come to this, and that it is like this we meet after all these years!" He covered his face with his hands, and, sinking weakly back in the chair, commenced to sob. Granger went towards him, and bending over him, flung an arm around his neck. For the moment the body before him was forgotten; the noble spirit of the man who had once stood by and helped him, was alone remembered. "Druce, tell me all," he said.
"I can't; you would shun me."
"Then why did you come if you could not trust me?"
"There was nowhere else to go—no other way of escape. They were all around me."
"Who were all around you?"
"Those who had come to take me to be hanged."
Granger gasped, and shrank aside. Then his worst conjecture was correct—it was as bad as that! murder had been done.
Spurling drew himself up suddenly, throwing back his hands and uncovering a face of ghastly paleness. One might have supposed that he had been the startled witness to the confession, instead of the man who had made it.
"What was that I said just now?" he asked. "You must not believe it. It is not true; I am tired and overstrained. They've hunted me so long that I myself have come almost to believe their squalid accusations. Don't look at me like that; I tell you I am innocent. . . . Oh well, perhaps I did fire the shot; but, if I did, it was an accident. I didn't know that the rifle had gone off until I saw him drop . . . and when I laid my hand on him to lift him up, I found that he was dead. Ugh! Then I hid him in a hole in the ice, and, because he had been my friend, I thought he would lie quiet forever there and never tell."
While these words had been in the saying, Granger had drawn nearer and nearer, so that now the two men stood face to face, almost touching, staring into one another's eyes. Who was this friend who had been shot? Could it have been Mordaunt? He seized hold of Spurling by the throat with both hands, and shook him violently, crying, "What was her name? Will you tell me that?"
Spurling wrenched himself free and his eyes blazed threateningly. "It wasn't a woman," he said; "thank God, I haven't sunk to that." Then more slowly, gazing fixedly on Granger as if to calculate how far it was safe to confide, "and he wasn't a friend of yours," he added.
Granger turned away from the window that the murderer might not see his countenance; his lips moved as if he prayed. He passed his hand before his eyes as a man does who has been temporarily blinded by a sudden flash. He had become terribly aware how near he had been to committing the crime for which this man was hunted. The knowledge of that fact gave him sympathy, a lack of which is always based on ignorance. The compassionate man is invariably one who has been greatly tempted. In those few seconds whilst he withdrew himself, the whole portentous problem was argued out, "By how much is this man who intends, better than that man who accomplishes his crime?" He concluded that the difference was not one of virtue, but only of opportunity—which entailed no credit on himself. He had passed through Spurling's temptation scatheless, therefore he could afford him tenderness.
"Druce," he said, speaking tremblingly, "it is terrible how far two men can drift apart in the passage of three short years."
"Then why did you leave me?" asked Spurling sulkily, not yet reassured of his safety, nor recovered from his rough usage.
"I left you because I feared that I might do the deed for which you are now in flight."
Spurling sat up astonished. "Lord!" he exclaimed, "have all men felt like that? I've often wondered why it was that you went away that night, leaving no message and abandoning your claim. Pray, who were you fearful of murdering?"
"Listen. If I tell you, it may make it easier for you to believe me, in spite of what has just happened, when I say that I sincerely want to help you."
He was interrupted. "I suppose you know," said Spurling with a shocking attempt at merriment, "that you are losing the thousand dollars which has been offered for my capture alive or dead? It's only fair to tell you that. If any man is to make a profit by my hanging, I'd rather that the man should be a friend."
It was as though one should make an indecent jest in the presence of a woman newly dead.
"I deserved that you should say that," Granger replied. "But listen to me this once, for we may never meet again; who knows, in this land of death? I want to explain to you how it was that I behaved as I did, and to ask your forgiveness."
"Then make haste," said Spurling, as he drew his chair nearer the window, and returned his gaze to the west.
Without the dark was falling, though the sky was still faintly stained with red. It was thus he sat in the unlighted room as they talked together through the night, a shadowy outline against the misty panes which never stirred, but stared far away across the frozen quiet of the land.
Granger spoke again. "You know with what hopes we set out on our journey to Dawson; how we went there not for the greed of gold, but for the sake of that other and more secret adventure which, as a boy, I promised my father I would undertake when I grew to be a man—an adventure which the Yukon gold could make possible and could purchase. That was my frame of mind throughout all the time that we were poor up there. That first winter in the Klondike, when we were nearly starved, and our money gave out because our grub was exhausted and the price of provisions ran so high, when we were thankful to work for almost any wages on Wrath's diggings if only we might get food and keep warm, we still kept our faith in one another and our purpose in sight. You'll remember how we used to talk together throughout those long dark days when, from November to February, we scarcely ever saw the sun and the thermometer sometimes stood at fifty below, and how we would plan for our great expedition to El Dorado, when our fortunes should be made, comforting ourselves for our present privations with thoughts of the land which Raleigh described. Those, despite their misery, were my best days—I had hope then. Little Mordaunt would sit beside us, with his face in his hands and his eyes opened wide with wonder, listening to what we said; when we had finished he would beg us to take him also, offering as his share, if he should be first to make his pile, to pay the way for all of us. It was then that we three made the compact which should be binding, that whenever our joint fortunes, whether owned by one alone, or two, or in equal proportions by all together, should amount to fifty thousand dollars, we would regard it as common to us all, and, throwing up our workings, would leave the Yukon for Guiana, in search of El Dorado. We were good comrades then, and did not calculate what ruin the avarice of gain may bring about in men.
"When spring came, we set out to seek the gold which should redeem us, which lay just underground. All that summer we travelled and found only pay-dirt or colours, and at times not even that, till we came to the Sleeping River and pitched our camp at what was afterwards Drunkman's Shallows. How discouraged we were! We talked of turning back, saying that nothing of worth had ever been found in the Sleeping River. We called ourselves fools for having wasted our time up there. Then, on what we had determined should be the last night of our camp, when we had made up our minds to return next day, Eric Petersen came by and joined us. He also had found nothing; worse still, had spent all he had, and, being down in the mouth, got drunk—not decently, but gloriously intoxicated. Somewhere about midnight, when, after twenty hours of shining, the sun had disappeared and the world was still bright as day, and we were all sleeping, he got up and went down to the river to bathe his aching head, and stumbled on the banks and, falling in, was nearly drowned. You heard him cry and, waking, ran down to the water's edge. As you stooped to pull him out, you saw that, where his foot had stumbled on the bank, it had kicked up a nugget. Then you roused us and, when we had prospected and found that gold was really there, we each staked a claim, and you an extra one as discoverer, and set off that same night on the run to register.
"It was on the evening of the day we recorded that you had your great time at the Mascot, leading the singing, and being toasted all round. It seemed to me I had reached El Dorado that night,—and now I know that I never shall. So, after the fun was over, we went back to work our claims, and toiled day and night till the river froze up. The stampede had followed us, and every yard of likely land was staked for miles below and above. My claim yielded next to nothing, and Mordaunt's soon pinched out; but your two were the richest on the Shallows.
"I was soon compelled to work for you for wages. Mordaunt, when he had taken ten thousand dollars out of his claim, agreed to do likewise. We should both have left you at that time and gone away to prospect afresh, had it not been for our early understanding that whatever we earned was owned conjointly. Just before the winter closed down upon us, we had taken out nearly fifty thousand dollars, the figure at which we had agreed to quit the Yukon; I had one, Mordaunt ten, and you had thirty-five thousand dollars—forty-six thousand in all. Mordaunt and I talked to you about selling out and starting on our greater quest, but you held us to the fifty-thousand limit, saying that six months' postponement more or less would make no difference, and that we had better have too much than too little capital in hand before our start was made. We yielded to your judgment inasmuch as you were the richest man, never suspecting that you were already contemplating going back on your bargain to share and share alike with us.
"But after the burning had commenced, and the winter had settled down for good, and the days had grown short and gloomy, we noticed a change in your manner—one of which you, perhaps, were not fully conscious. Your conversation became masterful and abrupt; you made us feel that we were your hired men, and were no longer partners in a future and nobler enterprise. Gradually the certainty dawned upon us that you had repudiated your compact, and did not include us in your plans. Gold for its own sake I had never cared about as you had; I only valued it for the power it had to forward me in the quest of which I had dreamed since I was a child—the following in my father's footsteps and discovering of the city of the Incas, and, perhaps, of my father himself.
"When I had seen you growing rich whilst I remained a poor man, I had felt no jealousy; for I trusted in the promise we had exchanged and relied on your honesty in keeping your word. But, when I had perceived your new intention, something went wrong inside my brain, so that I began to construe all your former good as bad. I thought that from the first you had never intended to keep your word, and had brought me into the Klondike to get me out of the way, so that, possessed of the secret information which I had given you, you might steal a march on me, and set out for El Dorado by yourself. Whether that was your purpose I do not know; but, for doubting you, you can scarcely blame me. So, day by day, as I descended the shaft to the bed-rock, and piled up billets of wood, and kindled them, throwing out the muck, drifting with the streak, sending up nuggets to the surface, and dirt which often averaged ten dollars to the pan, I said to myself, 'Every shovelful you dig out, and every fire you light, and every billet you stack, is helping Spurling to betray you the earlier.'
"At first I would not believe my own judgment, but drove my anger down by replying, 'He is no traitor; he is my friend.' But at night when I came up, and you spoke to me pityingly about my hard luck and your own increasing wealth, I knew what you meant. Mordaunt didn't seem to mind; he had ten thousand dollars of his own, so he only said, 'Give him time. He's all right. He'll remember and come round. His head's turned for the moment by his fortune and he's lost his standards of what is just. I daresay if this happened to you or me, we should have been as bad.'
"But that did not comfort me much, for I thought, 'A man who can betray and lie to you once, can always lie and betray.' I could not sleep at night for thinking about it and I brooded over it all the day; there was ever before my eyes the vision of you, sailing up the Great Amana without me.
"If nothing else had happened and it had remained at that, I suppose I should have finished my winter's contract with you and have gone out again in the spring, either with Mordaunt or alone, prospecting for myself. As it was, I began to argue with myself. 'What better right has Spurling to this gold than I?' I said. 'If I had chosen this claim, as I might have done, all the wealth which is now his would have been mine. Had that been the case, I should have held to my bargain and have dealt squarely by him. Since he refuses to allow me the share which he promised me, I have a right to take it.'
"You know what followed, how I hid some nuggets in my shirt, and you accused me and discovered them. You called me a thief, and threatened to expose me to the law of the mining camp. I told you that, since we had made that agreement to share conjointly whatever we found, I had as big a right to take charge of some of the gold as you yourself. Then you laughed in my face and struck me, asking if that was the usual way in which a labourer spoke to his employer. That blow drove me mad. I made no reply, for I had become suddenly crafty; I awaited a revenge that was certain and from which there could be no rebound. From that day forward the lust to kill was upon me; wherever I looked I saw you dead, and was glad. When the Northern Lights shot up they seemed to me, instead of green or yellow, to be always crimson, the bloodcolour. When they crept and rustled through the snow along the mountain heights, I fancied that they were a band of murderers who fled from their crime, and turned, and beckoned, and pointed to me, and whispered 'Come.' As my imagination wrought within me I grew silent; not even Mordaunt could rouse me. But he guessed what was happening, and would often come to me and say, 'Don't get down-hearted. Whatever Spurling does, I still hold to my promise. You and I are partners with a common fund. We have eleven thousand dollars already, so cheer up.'
"But it wasn't envy of your wealth had driven me mad; it was fear lest you should go off and leave me behind, and should get to Guiana and to El Dorado first. I couldn't shake off my hallucination however much I tried—which wasn't much; always and everywhere I could see you dead. You know that the Klondike with its few hours of winter daylight, its interminable nights, its pale-green moon which seems to shine forever in a steely cloudless sky, and its three long months when men rarely see the sun, is not a much better place than Keewatin in which to heal a crippled mind. So, with the passage of time, there was worse to come.
"One morning as I came to the shaft, I found a stranger waiting there. It was dark, I could not see his face; since he said nothing, I passed him and, descending to the bed-rock, commenced to scatter the last night's burning that I might get at the thawed-out muck. Presently I heard the sound of someone following, and the creak of the rope as he let himself down in the bucket. I thought it was you, so I did not turn, but sulkily went on with my work. The footsteps came after me wherever I went, standing behind me. At last I swung round in anger, supposing that you had come to torment me; at that moment I had it in my heart to strike you dead. In the light of the scattered fire, I discovered that it was not you, but instead a man of about my height and breadth. 'What d'you want?' I asked him. He did not answer. 'Who sent you here?' I said. He was silent. Then I grew frightened; seizing a smouldering brand, having puffed it to a blaze, I thrust it before his face—and saw myself.
"I was down there all alone and underground; no one could have heard me had I cried for help. In my terror I grew foolish and laughed aloud; it seemed to me so odd that I should have such fear of myself. When I had grown quiet, 'Who sent you here?' I asked again.
"At last he answered, 'You called me.'
"'What have you come for?' I questioned.
"'To murder Spurling,' he replied.
"Then in a choking whisper I muttered, 'Who are you?'
"And he answered me, 'Your baser self.'
"I looked for a way of escape, but he stood between me and the mouth of the shaft; to get out I would have had to pass him. I tried to make him speak with me again that I might draw him aside, and so might slip past him and get above ground; but he refused to stir. Then I grew fascinated, and went near him, and peered into his face. He was like me, yet unlike; he was more evil—what I might become at my worst. He was to me what you were, when you just now arrived, to the man whom I loved in London, and who saved my life in Tagish Lake. Having studied his body and his face I loathed him, and drew myself away to the farthest hiding-place. There I crouched beside the gold streak for ten hours until the last glow of fire had died out, and I was left in darkness. Then, though I could not see him, I knew that he was there.
"At last Mordaunt came and called to me. I begged him to come down. Thinking I was wounded, he lit a lantern and descended in haste. As he approached, I looked to see where myself had been standing; but, though I had felt him there the moment before, directly Mordaunt came he vanished. In my horror I told Mordaunt everything—and what do you think the little fellow did? Instead of laughing at me, or fleeing from me for his life because I was mad, he set down his lamp and, throwing his arms about me, knelt down there on the bed-rock and prayed. If it hadn't been for Mordaunt I should certainly have killed you in the days which followed. Whenever I was alone or in your company, that thing, which was my baser self, was there. He would stand behind you, so that you could not see him, with his hand upraised as if about to strike. He would beckon to me that I also should get behind you, and when you spoke to me contemptuously or harshly the evil of his face would reflect a like passion in me against you. But whenever Mordaunt was present he vanished, and I had rest from temptation; therefore I say that Mordaunt saved you.
"I kept on hoping that when spring came I would be able to leave, and thus rid myself of my evil dread; but the longer I stayed the greater grew my peril. At length the crisis came.
"You had been down river across the ice to Dawson on the spree and to arrange for the carriage of your bullion to Seattle. It was night, and I was just returning from the shaft, where I had been giving a last look to the burning. I had a rifle in my hand, and, as I arrived at the door of the cabin, raising my eyes, saw you coming up-stream with your dogs, with your head bent low as if you were tired. Also I saw in the moonlight that that other was noiselessly following you, stride by stride, stealing up behind. I saw him waving his arms to me, gesticulating madly and signing to me to kneel down and fire.
"Suddenly all power of resistance left me; with my eyes upon his face, the memory of all the wrongs which you had dealt me, and my hatred of you, swam uppermost in my mind. I knelt down in the snow to take steadier aim and had my finger on the trigger, when the gun was snatched from behind. I turned fiercely round and found Mordaunt standing there. 'Quick,' he said, 'come inside.' He thrust the rifle beneath a pile of furs, and bade me tumble into my bunk and pretend sleep. Shortly after, I heard you come in and say that one of your dogs had been shot dead; but I did not stir. You came over and gazed down suspiciously at me, but seemed satisfied with Mordaunt's account of how I had been lying there for the past two hours wearied out with the day's work. Next day I could not look you in the eyes; also the memory of a woman I had loved had come suddenly back and changed me, making me ashamed. So two nights later I gathered together the few things I had and, abandoning my claim, fled.
"If I could not trust myself with you, I could not trust myself in the Yukon. Every miner travelling with gold seemed to me a possible victim for my crime. I went about in fear lest I should see that evil thing, which called himself myself, returning to keep me company through life. I fled to escape him and, hoping to leave him behind me in the Klondike, went over the winter trail to Skaguay, the route by which two years earlier we had fought our way up, took steamer to Vancouver and came on thence to Winnipeg. My money was all but exhausted when I got there, I was broken in spirit and at my wit's end. By chance I met with Wrath, on whose claim in our first winter we had worked. He had gone back to his independent trading, and, at my request for employment, sent me up here to look after his interests at Murder Point. I was glad to come; after my experience on the Sleeping River, I was distrustful of myself in the company of men, never knowing when that foreshadowing of my evil desires might not return to hound me on to fresh villainies and despair. For one who wished to be alone, Heaven knows, I chose well. You're not burdened with too much society in Keewatin—that isn't the complaint which is most often heard."
Outside the night had long since settled down—a night which with snow and starlight was not dark, but shadowy and ghostlike, making the interval between two days a long-protracted dusk beneath which it was possible to see for miles. Far away in the forest a timber-wolf howled dismally; the huskies in the river-bed, seated on their haunches, lifted up their heads and echoed his complaint. Then all was still again, nothing was audible except the occasional low booming of the ice, when a crack rent its path across the surface and far below the river shook its gyves, as though clapping its hands in expectation of the freedom of the spring to come.
Against the window the silhouette of Spurling loomed up, with the drifting dimness of the starlight for background, and the square of surrounding darkness for a frame of sombre plush; he seemed a man-portrait whom some painter had condemned forever to motionlessness and silence with the magic of his brush, and had nailed on a stretcher, and had hung up for ornament.
At last he turned his head and stared into the blackness of the room, searching with his eyes for Granger. "So the deed which you feared to do, I have done," he said. "And here we sit together again, now that three years have passed; I, the man whom you hoped to murder and the man who has committed your crime; you, the man who stole from me, fired on me, missed aim, and ran away, and yet who at this present time are my judge. It is very strange! One would have supposed that with the breadth of a continent between us, you in Keewatin, I in Yukon, we need never have met. There is a meaning in this happening; God intends that you should help me to escape."
Granger from his place beside the red-hot stove said nothing, but bowed his head. Spurling saw his action through the darkness and took courage.
"There is not much to tell," he said. "After you left us, my luck seemed to vanish. My great bonanza pinched out, as Mordaunt's had done. I spent the spring and summer in washing out the gold from my winter's dump, and in sinking shafts to locate another streak which I might follow in the winter to come. I found none, but at first I did not lose confidence. I had plenty of capital and could well afford to spend some of it in exploration. I was quite sure that my two claims contained a hundred times as much gold as I had taken out—all I had to do was to find its location.
"What Mordaunt said to you about me was true—my sudden good fortune had turned my head; I flung my earnings right and left, spending them on the most foolish extravagances, and still remained avaricious. I developed a mania for asserting my power and getting myself talked about. You know that in those days a new 'millionaire' in the Klondike was expected to do some of that; if, when he came to Dawson, he was sparing, and refused to treat the town to half-dollar drinks till everyone was drunk, they'd take him by his legs and arms and batter him against a wall until he gave in and cried, 'Yes.' Why, I've seen men set to and pan out from the sawdust on the floor of a saloon the gold which I had scattered. I performed such follies as made Swiftwater Bill famous when, after he had squabbled with his 'lady-friend,' and he saw her ordering eggs, of which she happened to be fond, he bought up every egg in town at a dollar a piece, nine hundred in all, and smashed them, to spite her, against the side of her house. I was a confounded fool; if I hadn't been, I shouldn't have quarrelled with you, and we shouldn't have been here now—we might have been in El Dorado, perhaps.
"Well, when I'd blown a good part of my money over stupidities for which I scarcely received even pleasure in return, I awoke to the fact that my workings had ceased to bear. Already the Sleeping River had got a bad name and was deserted; it was a commonplace that 'Drunkman's Shallows was played out.' I wouldn't acknowledge it. I took pride in the Shallows because I had discovered them; I wasted the remainder of my money in buying up other men's useless claims, and in engaging men to work them. Towards the end, even I had to own to myself that the streaks had pinched out and the Shallows were barren; but out of desperate bravado I kept on until my money was at an end. Then, when I was clean broke, I chose out a partner and went prospecting once again.
"At first we found nothing, for, as I say, when you left me my luck departed. For months we wandered, finding only pay and colours, till we entered the Squaw River and discovered what we wanted at Gold Bug Bend. We stayed there working and testing the dirt till well into January; then one day we drifted into a streak which panned out twenty dollars to the pan, and so we knew at last that we had struck it. We eyed one another suspiciously, for we each of us remembered how you had been treated, and we began to talk about the necessity of recording our claims and discovery. Neither of us would trust the other to go alone, for we both wanted the claim on which we had been working, where the rich streak had been located, so we set out together. At first we travelled leisurely, speaking to one another; but soon we grew silent, and began to race. My partner was a lighter built man than I, and had the better team of dogs, and carried no gun. Very soon he began to draw away from me; but I relied on my superior strength to catch him up, for the journey was long. Then, somehow, as he ran farther and farther ahead, the belief grew up within me, that, whatever I might do, God meant him to get there first as a punishment to me for what I had done to you. At that thought all my lust after power, and the memory of the mastery which I had lost, came back, and I said, 'I will outwit God this time, however.'
"Mechanically, almost without thinking, I levelled my gun and fired—and saw my partner drop. When I came up with him, he was lying face-downwards, with his arms stretched out before him along the ground. I turned him over and called on him to rouse. I kicked him with the toe of my snowshoe, and tried to get angry, pretending to myself that he was shamming. Then I knelt down beside him and covered him with a robe, deceiving myself that he had fainted and would presently awake. After I had waited for what seemed to be ages, I called him by name, and, when he did not stir, I laid my finger on his eyeballs—and so I knew that he was dead. When I knew that, fear got hold upon me; at every crack of the ice I persuaded myself that someone was coming up or down the frozen river, or had already seen me, and lay hidden behind a snow-ridge, watching all my doings. So I took up my comrade, and thrust him upright into a hole in the ice, trusting that because he had been my friend he would understand, and never tell. But his arms, which he had extended in falling, stuck out above the surface, as if signing my secret to all the world. They had grown stiff and frozen, and I could not bend them, so I knocked off, and piled up around and above them, blocks of ice.
"Then, because I was fearful lest my coming alone without my partner into Dawson to record a claim might arouse suspicion, I turned back to the Gold Bug Bend. There I stayed and drifted with the streak for three months, and thawed out at least sixty thousand dollars' worth of muck. I had time to think things over. I came to the conclusion that I could not record my claim, since that might bring the miners up who would notice that my partner was missing; neither could I take down my dust to Dawson to express it to the outside, since that also would lead to questions being asked as to where I'd got it, seeing that it was so great in amount. So I determined to lie quiet until the summer time, and then to wash out only so much gold as I could carry about myself.
"There was little chance of my being discovered on the Squaw River, for it is seldom travelled, and I calculated that in four months' time when the spring had come, the river would float the body far away to where it never would be found, or if found, then at a time when it would be unrecognisable. But in my first calculation I had not reckoned with my loneliness, and the horror which comes of knowledge of hidden crime. By the end of March I could stand it no longer and set out for Dawson, where there were men in whose company I could forget.
"Soon after I got there the winter broke up and, by the first of May, though the Klondike itself was still frozen solid to its river-bed, the snow and ice from the country and rivers to the south, which had been exposed to the rays of the sun, had thawed and, draining into it, had created a shallow torrent which, running between the banks above the ground-ice, gave an appearance of the Klondike in full flood. Very soon the water over-flowed, so that houses were deluged and men had to take to boats and the roofs of their cabins for safety; it looked as though Dawson would be washed away. The drifting ice commenced to pack and pile against the bridge above the town; unless the jam could be broken before the ground-ice loosened, the bridge must collapse. Some men volunteered to blow it up with dynamite. In so doing they caused the ground-ice to tear itself free from the bottom so that, the water getting underneath, it floated up and pressed the pack against the floor of the bridge, forming, for a half-minute, an impassable barrier against the torrent rushing down. The flood rose behind it like a tidal wave, tossing on its crest a gigantic floe, standing waist-deep in which I saw, for the second during which it flashed in the sun, a frozen man, whom I recognised, who gazed upright towards me with his arms upstretched—only for a second, then the bridge went down and the water leapt over it, driving timbers, and floe, and man below the surface, carrying them northwards passed the city, out of sight.
"The thing had been so sudden that only a few of those who were watching had realised what had happened; of these still fewer had seen the man; and of these only one had known and recognised my partner, as I had done. None of them could say for certain whether the man they had seen upon the floe had been alive or dead. In the confusion which followed the catastrophe this rumour was at first regarded as an idle tale to which no one paid much attention. But, when that one man who had seen and recognised came to me and inquired as to my partner's whereabouts, and I could give him no satisfactory answers, curiosity was aroused.
"The Mounted Police instituted a search for the body, but as yet it was not found.
"I was half-minded to leave the country and go outside. Would to God I had! But I was afraid that such conduct, following immediately upon this occurrence, would attract attention. I returned to the Squaw River and spent the half of another year up there. Then one day in November an Indian, who was passing up-river, stepped into my cabin and told me that the Mounted Police were searching for me. When I asked him why, he said that the English friends of my partner had been inquiring for him, and that I was known to have been the last man to be seen in his company. When that had been said, I knew the meaning of the sight I had witnessed when the bridge gave—my partner had sent his body down river on the first of the flood to warn me of my danger, as if he would say, 'Escape while you can; it will soon be discovered.'
"I gathered together what gold I could carry and, travelling by night only that I might not be noticed (and you know how long November nights can be in the Yukon), I struck the trail for Skaguay—the route by which two and a half years before you had fled. I got out undetected, as I thought, and arrived at Vancouver. There I read in a paper that at Forty-Mile the body had been found. I was seized with panic and hurried on to Winnipeg; on the way I was alarmed to find that I was being shadowed. I escaped my follower on my arrival there and sought out Wrath, the only man I knew in town. I was sure that I could trust him if he were sufficiently heavily bribed; so I gave him all the gold I had, and told him the truth, and offered to furnish him with such information as would enable him to go up and stake the rich bonanza which I had left behind on the Squaw River—all this if he would only help me to escape. He agreed to accept my terms, despite the risks he was taking in helping to conceal a criminal. He told me that you were up here, and said that it was no good going East, or striking down to the States, since all the railroads would be watched, and that my only chance lay in making a dash due north for Keewatin. He gave me a guide for the first three hundred miles of the journey, and the swiftest team of huskies he had. He smuggled me out to Selkirk, and gave me introductions to such men as could be trusted on the way. Before I left, I heard that they had made me an outlaw by placing a thousand dollars on my head.
"I've travelled day and night since then, only halting when my strength gave out, or when I had to hide till darkness came that I might pass unobserved by a Company's outpost.
"And I'm followed; I know that. I have not seen him, but I can feel that he is drawing nearer, and now is not far behind. I knew that if I could reach you, in spite of what has happened between us, you would save me. Granger, you must save me, if not for the sake of what I am, then because of what I once was to you in our London days. I know that I've deteriorated and have become bad; but it was more the fault of the country than of the man. You know what happens to a fellow who lives up there, how greedy and gloomy he gets, always feeling that the gold is underground and that he must get to it even at the expense of his honour and his life. You've felt it, you came near doing what I have done. If Mordaunt hadn't stopped you, you would have stood where I now stand."
Granger broke in upon the frenzy of his appeal, asking abruptly, "Where is Mordaunt now?"
If his face had not been in the shadow, Granger would have seen how Spurling's lips tightened as to withstand sudden pain, and his body shuddered at that question. "Oh, Mordaunt is all right," he said. "He left the Yukon soon after you left—he said that the fun was spoilt without you. I daresay he's seeking for El Dorado or else is married."
"You are sure of that?" asked Granger.
"Sure of what? All I know is that he quarrelled with me over your affair because he thought that I had not used you justly; shortly afterwards we broke up our partnership, and I was told that he had gone out through Alaska, via Michael to Seattle."
When the man at the back of the room said nothing, Spurling asked in a tone of horror, "Why, you don't think that I killed him too, do you,—just because I have owned to shooting one man?"
"I don't know what to think," replied Granger, speaking slowly; "no, certainly I do not think that you killed him, too."
"Never mind, since the matter's in doubt I will help you. What do you propose to do?"
"Go on till I come to the Forbidden River, and hide there till the hunt for me is over, and they think that I am dead."
"And then, if you survive?"
"Creep back into the world and begin life all afresh."
"And how can I help you?"
"By lending me a fresh team, for mine is all tired out, and giving me provisions for my journey, and delaying my pursuer when he arrives."
"How shall I delay him!"
"Oh, you will know when you see him—there are many ways, some of which are very effectual." Spurling played with the butt of his revolver as he said these words, and looked at Granger tentatively, then looked aside. "For instance, the winter is breaking up and he might fall through the ice; or while he is staying here several of his dogs might die; or, at the least, you can tell him that you have not seen me and persuade him that he has passed me by. If he refuses to believe that, you can suggest that I have left the river and gone into the forest, and so put him off my track—anything to give me time."
"He would scarcely believe the last," said Granger, "for on the Last Chance there is only one trail—by the river up and down. And I want you to understand Spurling, that if I do help you it will be by clean means; I intend to play fair all round."
"Play fair! Do you call it fair play when a nation sets out to hunt one man? I have only done what thousands have thought and intended. What better is the man who effects my capture, and gets the thousand dollars which they have set upon my head, and sends me to the scaffold, than I myself who without premeditation shot a man. You're a nice one to talk about playing fair to the fellow who gave you your chance, and was your friend, and whom you tried to murder! Which of us, do you suppose, is the cleaner man?"
Granger did not answer; through the last few hours he had been asking himself that same question. Spurling, thinking he had offended, began to plead afresh. "Oh, John, if you knew all that I have suffered you would pity me. God knows I've repented for what I did with drops of blood. If I'd only thought before I acted, I might have known that I stood to gain nothing by it. What good was the gold to me when I got it? I could only hide it, and wealth is not wealth when you have to keep it secret to yourself."
He paused exhausted, and fell back drooping in his chair. Granger's pity had been aroused. "Druce," he said, "I have promised that I will help you; you must be content with that."
Spurting clutched at his hand and pressed it to his lips. "And there are things which you need not tell him?" he questioned. "Say that there are things that you will not tell."
"There are things that I will not tell," Granger repeated. "I will not tell him that I have seen you, and will refuse to give him help."
Spurling's eyes had again sought out the west and the intervening stretch of sky, where from the east the reflected light of dawn had already begun to spread.
"I don't like the look of it," he muttered; "I can feel that he is not far behind. Every time I look up-river I expect to see him, a dull brown shadow, hurrying down between the banks of white. I must be going; while I stay I cannot rest."
So, when all had been got ready and Granger had supplied him with a new outfit and an untired team of dogs, he accompanied him out on to the Point where the dawn was breaking. Then he told him of a cache which Beorn had made at the mouth of the Forbidden River, which he might open, and from which he could get supplies if his own ran short. He went with him a mile down the ice, that he might guide him round a part of the trail which was rotten and unsafe to travel. At parting, Spurling grasped his hand; pointing back to the danger spot he whispered, "That is one of the things which you need not tell." Before he could answer him, he had lashed up his dogs and was on his way northwards. It was then that the thought of a final test flashed through Granger's mind. "Spurling, Spurling," he called, "did you know that Mordaunt was a woman and not a man?"
Whether he had heard Granger could not tell, for he did not halt or turn his head; driving yet more furiously, urging his huskies forward with the whip and shouting them on, he vanished round the bend.
Granger stood gazing after him, listening to the last faint echo of his cries; then he turned slowly and walked through the half-light back to his lonely store. Over to his right, above the horizon the red sun leapt. He did not raise his eyes; but, as he walked, he whispered over and over to himself words which seemed incredible, "And, if it had not been for her, I should have been like that."
CITIES OUT OF SIGHT
In Keewatin the human intellect stands forever at a halt, awed in the presence of a limitless serenity for which it can find no better name than God, since, of all things which are incalculable, He seems most infinite.
In this land of rivers and solitude Man is unnecessary, disregarded, and plays no part; if, after two hundred odd years of white, and many centuries of Indian habitation, Man were to withdraw himself to-morrow, he would leave no permanent record of his sojourn there—only a few outposts and forts, several far-scattered independent traders' stores, one or two missions and fishing-stations, all of them built of wood, which within a decade would have crumbled to decay, over which the tangled forest would silently close up. Instinctively he knows himself for an impudent intruder on something which is sacred; he hears continually what Adam heard when he stole of the fruit which was forbidden, God walking in the garden in the cool of the day—the accusing footsteps of God. His brain is staggered by an unchartered immensity in which he has no portion, which he can only watch. His individual worth to the universe is dwarfed by the imminence of the All: so nothing seems very serious which is only personal and, since all things which we apprehend must become in some sense personal, nothing is very important. The procession of human effort becomes a spectacle at sight of which Homeric laughter may sometimes be permissible, but tears never. If a man once gives way to weeping in Keewatin, he will weep always. Only by the exercise of a self-restraint which at first seems brutal can life be endured there.
Granger, as he walked toward his store under the shadow of the dawn, was conscious of all this. The land was wrapped in the intensest quiet; the very crunch of his snowshoes seemed a profanation, though he trod lightly. When he had ascended the Point, he paused and gazed back. Already the thaw had commenced; down the still white face of the country, which lay at his feet like a shrouded corpse, the tears had begun to trinkle, though the eyes were tranquil and fast shut; the sight was as astounding to him as if a man six months dead should be seen to stir within his coffin of glass. Here and there in the expanse of forest he could see flashes of green and brown, of tree-tops from which the snow had fallen. The river-banks, which yesterday had seemed chiselled out of solid marble, were to-day tunnelled and scarred with tiny rills and watercourses which groped their way feebly riverwards. As he stood in silence meditating, he was startled by the whirr of wings, and looking southward descried the advance-guard of the first flock of ducks. "Ha, the spring has come," he cried; but immediately he checked his ecstasy, for his eyes had again caught sight of the emotionless expression on that great white face with its closed eyes turned toward the sun. Though no voice spoke it seemed to him to say, making by its silence its meaning plain, "There is nothing of which the importance is so great that we should forsake our calm."
He felt rebuked for vulgarity, as though he had been found shouting in a cathedral-nave where priests were praying for the peace of souls of the departed. He desired to hide himself; entering his shack, he pushed to the door. He was tired; his brain ached with thought, and his thought was disjointed. He could not believe that Spurling had ever come; it was all an hallucination. Thinking about the past had made him imagine all that, or else he had dreamed it in the night. He went over detail by detail all that had seemed to him to happen; and even then, when it fitted reasonably together, he could not be certain. It was too monstrous that Spurling should have become like that! He would not believe it. Then his anxiety for Mordaunt sprang up and commenced to craze him. The terrible question throbbed through his mind, "Is Mordaunt dead?"
The mania for questions grew upon him. Three separate voices spoke clamorously at once: "Is Mordaunt dead?"
"Did Spurling murder him?"
"Am I mad?"
He stumbled to the far end of the room and flung himself down in his bunk, burying his face in its coverings that he might shut out the light and gain a moment's rest. But his imaginings followed and knelt beside him.
"Well, if I must think," he whispered, "I will think of that which is best." He beckoned from out the shadows his memory of Mordaunt's face, and gave himself over to recalling all that it once had meant. They had nicknamed him "The Girl" because of his shyness and modesty, and had not always been particular in the jokes which they had made at his expense. Yes, and he had had a woman's ways from first to last. Nothing that had happened had been able to coarsen him; he had never given way to loose talk or brutal jests, and in the presence of suffering had invariably been full of tenderness.
Good heavens! pass on to the crisis—to that day when he had come to the top of the shaft and called down to him! He had answered his call, praying him in an agonized voice to descend and rescue him. He could see him now approaching hurriedly, yet cautiously, through the darkness, lifting high up his swinging lamp so that its rays fell across his face. He could still remember how absurd it had seemed to suppose that a creature, so small and fragile, could save him from that other. Yet he had; and after that, because of the relief he felt, he had confessed. Then, in a moment of compassionate self-forgetfulness, Mordaunt had placed his arms about him and had drawn down his head upon his breast—an action of which no man in dealing with another man was ever capable; the mother-instinct was manifested there. In the flickering lamplight, with his head pressed close to his companion's breast, feeling its rise and fall at each struggling intake of the breath, crouching underground upon the bed-rock, he had guessed the secret—that Mordaunt was not a man. From that hour he had loved her. She had never known that he shared her secret. Thank God, he had remained so much a gentleman that he had not told her that! Who she was, why she had come to the Klondike, what was her proper name, he had not permitted himself to inquire; for him it had been sufficient that she was a woman, and that he loved her, and that he was unworthy of her love. After she had seen him shoot at Spurling he had avoided her, lest by contact with him she should be defiled. He had vaguely hoped at the time of leaving that the day might come, after he had cleansed himself and proved himself a man, when he might seek her out and ask her to be his wife. Through the last three years he had lived for that. To have asked her then would have been an insult, an act of cowardice. How would an upright woman answer a man whom she had just saved from homicide? How would she regard a man who had discovered the secret of her sex in such a manner, because of her compassion, and had not had the decency to keep that knowledge secret even from herself? So he had fled from the Shallows for a double reason; that he might not do violence to Spurling, and that he might not betray himself to her. He had left her without a hint of his going, or a word of explanation.
What had she thought of him? He had often wondered that. Had she also loved him, and not dared to speak about it? He half-suspected that. If she had loved him and had spoken out, he would not have married her at that time, when even he despised himself; to have done so would have been to drag her down. Still, he could not help speculating as to what she had said and thought on that morning when she awoke in the winter dreariness, and, gazing round the cabin, found that he had vanished. Had she regretted him, and had she sometimes, when Spurling had become intolerable, gone aside and wept? After three years, though he had loved her, he could only recall her by her man's name, and picture her in her man's dress.
Then, while he thought with closed eyes, that awful question came again, "Is Mordaunt dead?"
Whilst she was in the world it had been possible for him to strive to be straightforward and courageous; but, if she was dead . . .! If Spurling had murdered her, if he had lied to him and she was his partner, what then? Well, that all depended on whether Spurling had known her sex. If not, what a revenge he would take when he should confront him, and inform him that he had murdered a woman, and not a man! He knew Spurling; for him the public ignominy of being hanged would be as nothing compared with such private knowledge—it would thrust him into Hell in this life.
Ah, but that could not be; God would not allow it! Spurling himself had said that he had not sunk so low as that. Yet, in case it might be so, he would keep his word and help him to escape—from the Mounted Police, but not from himself. He would be the executioner if there must be one. The law should not rob him of his revenge. He would save Spurling's life in case he might need to take it.
Then, unbidden and against his will, there rose up the image of the man who had saved his life in Tagish Lake. Spurling had forestalled him, bribed him beforehand, by restoring him his own life in exchange for the life which he was doomed to take. Did that not make amends? Also he had rescued Mordaunt from disaster on the Skaguay trail, where he would certainly have perished had he been left. He had done unconsciously that which Granger proposed to do of set purpose—saved a life that he might take it. Did not that in some measure make amends? The problem was too complicated; it must work itself out in its own way. Yet, it would be a bitter irony if, after he had travelled a continent to avoid this deed, he should be forced to kill Spurling in the end—Spurling, who had come to him of his own accord. Still more burlesque would it be if, after Spurling was at rest, he should be hanged in his stead.