PHILIP STEELE OF THE ROYAL NORTHWEST MOUNTED POLICE
By James Oliver Curwood
New York 1911
Chapter I. The Hyacinth Letter
Philip Steele's pencil drove steadily over the paper, as if the mere writing of a letter he might never mail in some way lessened the loneliness.
The wind is blowing a furious gale outside. From off the lake come volleys of sleet, like shot from guns, and all the wild demons of this black night in the wilderness seem bent on tearing apart the huge end-locked logs that form my cabin home. In truth, it is a terrible night to be afar from human companionship, with naught but this roaring desolation about and the air above filled with screeching terrors. Even through thick log walls I can hear the surf roaring among the rocks and beating the white driftwood like a thousand battering-rams, almost at my door. It is a night to make one shiver, and in the lulls of the storm the tall pines above me whistle and wail mournfully as they straighten their twisted heads after the blasts.
To-morrow this will be a desolation of snow. There will be snow from here to Hudson's Bay, from the Bay to the Arctic, and where now there is all this fury and strife of wind and sleet there will be unending quiet—the stillness which breeds our tongueless people of the North. But this is small comfort for tonight. Yesterday I caught a little mouse in my flour and killed him. I am sorry now, for surely all this trouble and thunder in the night would have driven him out from his home in the wall to keep me company.
It would not be so bad if it were not for the skull. Three times in the last half-hour I have started to take it down from its shelf over my crude stone fireplace, where pine logs are blazing. But each time I have fallen back, shivering, into the bed-like chair I have made for myself out of saplings and caribou skin. It is a human skull. Only a short time ago it was a living man, with a voice, and eyes, and brain—and that is what makes me uncomfortable. If it were an old skull, it would be different. But it is a new skull. Almost I fancy at times that there is life lurking in the eyeless sockets, where the red firelight from the pitch-weighted logs plays in grewsome flashes; and I fancy, too, that in the brainless cavities of the skull there must still be some of the old passion, stirred into spirit life by the very madness of this night. A hundred times I have been sorry that I kept the thing, but never more so than now.
How the wind howls and the pines screech above me! A pailful of snow, plunging down my chimney, sends the chills up my spine as if it were the very devil himself, and the steam of it surges out and upward and hides the skull. It is absurd to go to bed, to make an effort to sleep, for I know what my dreams would be. To-night they would be filled with this skull—and with visions of a face, a woman's face—
Thus far had Steele written, when with a nervous laugh he sprang from his chair, and with something that sounded very near to an oath, in the wild tumult of the storm, crumpled the paper in his hand and flung it among the blazing logs he had described but a few moments before.
"Confound it, this will never do!" he exclaimed, falling into his own peculiar habit of communing with himself. "I say it won't do, Phil Steele; deuce take it if it will! You're getting nervous, sentimental, almost homesick. Ugh, what a beast of a night!"
He turned to the rude stone fireplace again as another blast of snow plunged down the chimney.
"Wish I'd built a fire in the stove instead of there," he went on, filling his pipe. "Thought it would be a little more cheerful, you know. Lord preserve us, listen to that!"
He began walking up and down the hewn log floor of the cabin, his hands deep in his pockets, puffing out voluminous clouds of smoke. It was not often that Philip Steele's face was unpleasant to look upon, but to-night it wore anything but its natural good humor. It was a strong, thin face, set off by a square jaw, and with clear, steel-gray eyes in which just now there shone a strange glitter, as they rested for a moment upon the white skull over the fire. From his scrutiny of the skull Steele turned to a rough board table, lighted by a twisted bit of cotton cloth, three-quarters submerged in a shallow tin of caribou grease. In the dim light of this improvised lamp there were two letters, opened and soiled, which an Indian had brought up to him from Nelson House the day before. One of them was short and to the point. It was an official note from headquarters ordering him to join a certain Buck Nome at Lac Bain, a hundred miles farther north.
It was the second letter which Steele took in his hands for the twentieth time since it had come to him here, three hundred miles into the wilderness. There were half-a-dozen pages of it, written in a woman's hand, and from it there rose to his nostrils the faint, sweet perfume of hyacinth. It was this odor that troubled him—that had troubled him since yesterday, and that made him restless and almost homesick to-night. It took him back to things—to the days of not so very long ago when he had been a part of the life from which the letter came, and when the world had seemed to hold for him all that one could wish. In a retrospective flash there passed before him a vision of those days, when he, Mr. Philip Steele, son of a multimillionaire banker, was one of the favored few in the social life of a great city; when fashionable clubs opened their doors to him, and beautiful women smiled upon him, and when, among others, this girl of the hyacinth letter held out to him the tempting lure of her heart. Her heart? Or was it the tempting of his own wealth? Steele laughed, and his strong white teeth gleamed in a half-contemptuous smile as he turned again toward the fire.
He sat down, with the letter still in his hands, and thought of some of those others whom he had known. What had become of Jack Moody, he wondered—the good old Jack of his college days, who had loved this girl of the hyacinth with the whole of his big, honest heart, but who hadn't been given half a show because of his poverty? And where was Whittemore, the young broker whose hopes had fallen with his own financial ruin; and Fordney, who would have cut off ten years of his life for her—and half-a-dozen others he might name?
Her heart! Steele laughed softly as he lifted the letter so that the sweet perfume of it came to him more strongly. How she had tempted him for a time! Almost—that night of the Hawkins' ball—he had surrendered to her. He half-closed his eyes, and as the logs crackled in the fireplace and the wind roared outside, he saw her again as he had seen her that night—gloriously beautiful; memory of the witchery of her voice, her hair, her eyes firing his blood like strong wine. And this beauty might have been for him, was still his, if he chose. A word from out of the wilderness, a few lines that he might write to-night—
With a sudden jerk Steele sat bolt upright. One after another he crumpled the sheets of paper in his hand and tossed all but the signature page into the fire. The last sheet he kept, studied it for a little—as if her name were the answer to a problem—then laid it aside. For a few moments there remained still the haunting sweetness of the hyacinth. When it was gone, he gave a last searching sniff, rose to his feet with a laugh in which there was some return of his old spirit, hid that final page of her letter in his traveling kit and proceeded to refill his pipe.
More than once Philip Steele had told himself that he was born a century or two after his time. He had admitted this much to a few of his friends, and they had laughed at him. One evening he had opened his heart a little to the girl of the hyacinth letter, and after that she had called him eccentric. Within himself he knew that he was unlike other men, that the blood in him was calling back to almost forgotten generations, when strong hearts and steady hands counted for manhood rather than stocks and bonds, and when romance and adventure were not quite dead. At college he took civil engineering, because it seemed to him to breathe the spirit of outdoors; and when he had finished he incurred the wrath of those at home by burying himself for a whole year with a surveying expedition in Central America.
It was this expedition that put the finishing touch to Philip Steele. He came back a big hearted, clear minded young fellow, as bronzed as an Aztec—a hater of cities and the hothouse varieties of pleasure to which he had been born, and as far removed from anticipation of his father's millions as though they had never been. He possessed a fortune in his own right, but as yet he had found no use for the income that was piling up. A second expedition, this time to Brazil, and then he came back—to meet the girl of the hyacinth letter. And after that, after he had broken from the bondage which held Moody, and Fordney, and Whittemore, he went back to his many adventures.
It was the North that held him. In the unending desolations of snow and forest and plain, between Hudson's Bay and the wild country of the Athabasca, he found the few people and the mystery and romance which carried him back, and linked him to the dust-covered generations he had lost. One day a slender, athletically built young man enlisted at Regina for service in the Northwest Mounted Police. Within six months he had made several records for himself, and succeeded in having himself detailed to service in the extreme North, where man-hunting became the thrilling game of One against One in an empty and voiceless world. And no one, not even the girl of the hyacinth letter, would have dreamed that the man who was officially listed as "Private Phil Steele, of the N.W.M.P.," was Philip Steele, millionaire and gentleman adventurer.
None appreciated the humor of this fact more than Steele himself, and he fell again into his wholesome laugh as he placed a fresh pine log on the fire, wondering what his aristocratic friends—and especially the girl of the hyacinth letter—would say if they could see him and his environment just at the present moment. In a slow, chuckling survey he took in the heavy German socks which he had hung to dry close to the fire; his worn shoe-packs, shining in a thick coat of caribou grease, and his single suit of steaming underwear that he had washed after supper, and which hung suspended from the ceiling, looking for all the world, in the half dusk of the cabin, like a very thin and headless man. In this gloom, indeed, but one thing shone out white and distinct—the skull on the little shelf above the fire. As his eyes rested on it, Steele's lips tightened and his face grew dark. With a sudden movement he reached up and took it in his hands, holding it for a moment so that the light from the fire flashed full upon it. In the left side, on a line with the eyeless socket and above the ear, was a hole as large as a small egg.
"So I'm ordered up to join Nome, the man who did this, eh?" he muttered, fingering the ragged edge. "I could kill him for what happened down there at Nelson House, M'sieur Janette. Some day—I may."
He balanced the skull on his finger tips, level with his chin.
"Nice sort of a chap for a Hamlet, I am," he went on, whimsically. "I believe I'll chuck you into the fire, M'sieur Janette. You're getting on my nerves."
He stopped suddenly and lowered the skull to the table.
"No, I won't burn you," he continued, "I've brought you this far and I'll pack you up to Lac Bain with me. Some morning I'll give you to Bucky Nome for breakfast. And then, M'sieur—then we shall see what we shall see."
Later that night he wrote a few words on a slip of paper and tacked the paper to the inside of his door. To any who might follow in his footsteps it conveyed this information and advice:
This cabin and what's in it are quasheed by me. Fill your gizzard but not your pockets.
Steele, Northwest Mounted.
Chapter II. A Face Out Of The Night
Steele came up to the Hudson's Bay Company's post at Lac Bain on the seventh day after the big storm, and Breed, the factor, confided two important bits of information to him while he was thawing out before the big box-stove in the company's deserted and supply-stripped store. The first was that a certain Colonel Becker and his wife had left Fort Churchill, on Hudson's Bay, to make a visit at Lac Bain; the second, that Buck Nome had gone westward a week before and had not returned. Breed was worried, not over Nome's prolonged absence, but over the anticipated arrival of the other two. According to the letter which had come to him from the Churchill factor. Colonel Becker and his wife had come over on the last supply ship from London, and the colonel was a high official in the company's service. Also, he was an old gentleman. Ostensibly he had no business at Lac Bain, but was merely on a vacation, and wished to see a bit of real life in the wilderness.
Breed's grizzled face was miserable.
"Why don't they send 'em down to York Factory or Nelson House?" he demanded of Steele. "They've got duck feathers, three women, and a civilized factor at the Nelson, and there ain't any of 'em here—not even a woman!"
Steele shrugged his shoulders as Breed mentioned the three women at Nelson.
"There are only two women there now," he replied. "Since a certain Bucky Nome passed that way, one of them has gone into the South."
"Well, two, then," said Breed, who had not caught the flash of fire in the other's eyes. "But I tell you there ain't a one here, Steele, not even an Indian—and that dirty Cree, Jack, is doing the cooking. Blessed Saints, I caught him mixing biscuit dough in the wash basin the other day, and I've been eating those biscuits ever since our people went out to their traplines! There's you, and Nome, two Crees, a 'half' and myself—and that's every soul there'll be at Lac Bain until the mid-winter run of fur. Now, what in Heaven's name is the poor old Mrs. Colonel going to do?"
"Got a bed for her?"
"A bunk—hard as nails!"
"Rotten!" groaned the factor. "Every trapper's son of them took out big supplies this fall and we're stripped. Beans, flour, sugar'n'prunes—and caribou until I feel like turning inside out every time I smell it. I'd give a month's commission for a pound of pork. Look here! If this letter ain't 'quality' you can cut me into jiggers. Bet the Mrs. Colonel wrote it for her hubby."
From an inside pocket Breed drew forth a square white envelope with a broken seal of red wax, and from it extracted a folded sheet of cream-tinted paper. Scarcely had Steele taken the note in his hands when a quick thrill passed through him. Before he had read the first line he was conscious again of that haunting sweetness in the air he breathed—the perfume of hyacinth. There was not only this perfume, but the same paper, the same delicately pretty writing of the letter he had burned more than a week before. He made no effort to suppress the exclamation of astonishment that broke from his lips. Breed was staring at him when he lifted his eyes.
"This is a mighty strange coincidence, Breed," he said, regaining his composure. "I could almost swear that I know this writing, and yet of course such a thing is impossible. Still, it's mighty queer. Will you let me keep the letter until to-night? I'd like to take it over to the cabin and compare it—"
"Needn't return it at all," interrupted the factor. "Hope you find something interesting to tell me at supper—five sharp. It will be a blessing if you know 'em."
Ten minutes later Steele was in the little cabin which he and Nome occupied while at Lac Bain. Jack, the Cree, had built a rousing fire in the long sheet-iron stove, and as Steele opened its furnace-like door, a flood of light poured out into the gathering gloom of early evening. Drawing a chair full into the light, he again opened the letter. Line for line and word for word he scrutinized the writing, and with each breath that he drew he found himself more deeply thrilled by a curious mental excitement which it was impossible for him to explain. According to the letter. Colonel and Mrs. Becker had arrived at Churchill aboard the London ship a little over a month previously. He remembered that the date on the letter from the girl was six weeks old. At the time it was written, Colonel Becker and his wife were either in London or Liverpool, or crossing the Atlantic. No matter how similar the two letters appeared to him, he realized that, under the circumstances, the same person could not have written them both. For many minutes he sat back in his chair, with his eyes half-closed, absorbing the comforting heat of the fire. Again the old vision returned to him. In a subconscious sort of way he found himself fighting against it, as he had struggled a score of times to throw off its presence, since the girl's letter had come to him. And this time, as before, his effort was futile. He saw her again—and always as on that night of the Hawkins' ball, eyes and lips smiling at him, the light shining gloriously in the deep red gold of her hair.
With an effort Steele aroused himself and looked at his watch. It was a quarter of five. He stooped to close the stove door, and stopped suddenly, his hand reaching out, head and shoulders hunched over. Across his knee, shining in the firelight, like a thread of spun gold, lay a single filament of a woman's hair.
He rose slowly, holding the hair between him and the light. His fingers trembled, his breath came quickly. The hair had fallen upon his knee from the letter—or the envelope, and it was wonderfully like HER hair!
From the direction of the factor's quarters came the deep bellowing of Breed's moose-horn, calling him to supper. Before he responded to it, Steele wound the silken thread of gold about his ringer, then placed it carefully among the papers and cards which he carried in his leather wallet. His face was flushed when he joined the factor. Not since the night at the Hawkins' ball, when he had felt the touch of a beautiful woman's hands, the warmth of her breath, the soft sweep of her hair against his lips as he had leaned over her in his half-surrender, had thought of woman stirred him as he felt himself stirred now. He was glad that Breed was too much absorbed in his own troubles to observe any possible change in himself or to ask questions about the letter.
"I tell you, it may mean the short birch for me, Steele," said the factor gloomily. "Lac Bain is just now the emptiest, most fallen-to-pieces, unbusiness-like post between the Athabasca and the Bay. We've had two bad seasons running, and everything has gone wrong. Colonel Becker is a big one with the company. Ain't no doubt about that, and ten to one he'll think it's a new man that's wanted here."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed Steele. A sudden flash shot into his face as he looked hard at Breed. "See here, how would you like to have me go out to meet them?" he asked. "Sort of a welcoming committee of one, you know. Before they got here I could casually give 'em to understand what Lac Bain has been up against during the last two seasons."
Breed's face brightened in an instant.
"That might save us, Steele. Will you do it?"
Philip was conscious of an increasing warmth in his face as he bent over his plate. "You're sure—they're elderly people?" he asked.
"That is what MacVeigh wrote me from Churchill; at least he said the colonel was an old man."
"And his wife?"
"Has got her nerve," growled Breed irreverently. "It wouldn't be so bad if it was only the colonel. But an old woman—ugh! What he doesn't think of she'll remind him of, you can depend on that."
Steele thought of his mother, who looked at things through a magnifying lorgnette, and laughed a little cheerlessly.
"I'll go out and meet them, anyway," he comforted. "Have Jack fix me up for the hike in the morning, Breed. I'll start after breakfast."
He was glad when supper was over and he was back in his own cabin smoking his pipe. It was almost with a feeling of shame that he took the golden hair from his wallet and held it once more so that it shone before his eyes in the firelight.
"You're crazy, Phil Steele," he assured himself. "You're an unalloyed idiot. What the deuce has Colonel Becker's wife got to do with you—even if she has golden hair and uses cream-tinted paper soaked in hyacinth? Confound it—there!" and he released the shining hair from his fingers so that the air currents sent it floating back into the deeper gloom of the cabin.
It was midnight before he went to bed. He was up with the first cold gray of dawn. All that day he strode steadily eastward on snowshoes, over the company's trail to the bay. Two hours before dusk he put up his light tent, gathered balsam for a bed, and built a fire of dry spruce against the face of a huge rock in front of his shelter. It was still light when he wrapped himself in his blanket and lay down on the balsam, with his feet stretched out to the reflected heat of the big rock. It seemed to Steele that there was an unnatural stillness in the air, as the night thickened beyond the rim of firelight, and, as the gloom grew still deeper, blotting out his vision in inky blackness, there crept over him slowly a feeling of loneliness. It was a new sensation to Steele, and he shivered as he sat up and faced the fire. It was this same quiet, this same unending mystery of voiceless desolation that had won him to the North. Until to-night he had loved it. But now there was something oppressive about it, something that made him strain his eyes to see beyond the rock and the fire, and set his ears in tense listening for sounds which did not exist. He knew that in this hour he was longing for companionship—not that of Breed, nor of men with whom he hunted men, but of men and women whom he had once known and in whose lives he had played a part—ages ago, it seemed to him. He knew, as he sat with clenched hands and staring eyes, that chiefly he was longing for a woman—a woman whose eyes and lips and sunny hair haunted him after months of forgetfulness, and whose face smiled at him luringly, now, from out the leaping flashes of fire—tempting him, calling him over a thousand miles of space. And if he yielded—
The thought sent his nails biting into the flesh of his palms and he sank back with a curse that held more of misery than blasphemy. Physical exhaustion rather than desire for sleep closed his eyes, at last, in half-slumber, and after that the face seemed nearer and more real to him, until it was close at his side, and was speaking to him. He heard again the soft, rippling laugh, girlishly sweet, that had fascinated him at Hawkins' ball; he heard the distant hum and chatter of other voices, and then one loud and close—that of Chesbro, who had unwittingly interrupted them, and saved him, just in the nick of time.
Steele moved restlessly; after a moment wriggled to his elbow and looked toward the fire. He seemed to hear Chesbro's voice again as he awoke, and a thrill as keen as an electric shock set his nerves tingling when he heard once more the laughing voice of his dream, hushed and low. In amazement he sat bolt upright and stared. Was he still dreaming? The fire was burning brightly and he was aware that he had scarce fallen into sleep.
A movement—a sound of feet crunching softly in the snow, and a figure came between him and the fire.
It was a woman.
He choked back the cry that rose to his lips and sat motionless and without sound. The figure approached a step nearer, peering into the deep gloom of the tent. He caught the silver glint in the firelight on heavy fur, the whiteness of a hand touching lightly the flap of his tent, and then for an instant he saw a face. In that instant he sat as rigid as if he had stopped the beat of his own life. A pair of dark eyes laughing in at him, a flash of laughing teeth, a low titter that was scarce more than a rippling throat-note, and the face was gone, leaving him still staring into the blank space where it had been.
With a cough to give warning of his wakefulness, Steele flung off his blanket and drew himself through the low opening of the tent. On the extreme right of the fire stood a man and woman, warming themselves over the coals. They straightened from their leaning posture as he appeared.
"This is too bad, too bad, Mr. Steele," exclaimed the man, advancing quickly. "I was afraid we'd make a blunder and awaken you. We were about to camp on a mountain back there when we saw your fire and drove on to it. I'm sorry—"
"Wouldn't have had you miss me for anything," interrupted Steele, gripping the other's proffered hand. "You see, I'm out from Lac Bain to meet Colonel and Mrs. Becker, and—" He hesitated purposely, his white teeth gleaming in the frank smile which made people like him immensely, from the first.
"You've met them," completed the laughing voice from across the fire. "Please, Mr. Steele, will you forgive me for looking in at you and waking you up? But your feet looked so terribly funny, and I assure you that was all I could see, though I tried awfully hard. Anyway, I saw your name printed on the flap of your tent."
Steele felt a slow fire burning in his cheeks as he encountered the beautiful eyes glowing at him from behind the colonel. The woman was smiling at him. In the heat of the fire she had pushed back her fur turban, and he saw that her hair was the same shining red gold that had come to him in the letter, and that her lips and eyes and the glorious color in her face were remarkably like those of which he had dreamed, and of which waking visions had come with the hyacinth letter to fill him with unrest and homesickness. In spite of himself he had reasoned that she would be young and that she would have golden hair, but these other things, the laughing beauty of her face, the luring depth of her eyes.
He caught himself staring.
"I—I was dreaming," he almost stammered. He pulled himself together quickly. "I was dreaming of a face, Mrs. Becker, It seems strange that this should happen—away up here, in this way. The face that I dreamed of is a thousand miles from here, and it is wonderfully like yours."
The colonel was laughing at him when he turned. He was a little man, as straight as a gun rod, pale of face except for his nose, which was nipped red by the cold, and with a pointed beard as white as the snow under his feet. That part of his countenance which exposed itself above the top of his great fur coat and below his thick beaver cap was alive with good cheer, notwithstanding its pallor.
"Glad you're good humored about it, Steele," he cried with an immediate tone of comradeship. "We wouldn't have ventured into your camp if it hadn't been for Isobel. She was positively insistent, sir. Wanted to see who was here and what it looked like. Eh, Isobel, my dear, are you satisfied?"
"I surely didn't expect to find 'It' asleep at this time of the day," said Mrs. Becker. She laughed straight into Philip's face, and so roguishly sweet was the curve of her red lips and the light in her eyes that his heart quickened its beating, and the flush deepened in his cheeks.
"It's only six," he said, looking at his watch. "I don't usually turn in this early. I was tired to-night—though I am not, now," he added quickly. "I could sit up until morning—and talk. We don't often meet people from outside, you know. Where are the others?"
"Back there," said the colonel, waving an arm into the gloom. "Isobel made 'em sit down and be quiet, dogs and all, sir, while we came on alone. There are Indians, two sledges, and a ton of duff."
"Call them," said Steele. "There's room for your tent beside mine, Colonel, close against the face of this rock. It's as good as a furnace."
The colonel moved a little out into the gloom and shouted to those behind. Philip turned to find Mrs. Becker looking at him in a timid, questioning sort of way, the laughter gone from her eyes. For a moment she seemed to be on the point of speaking to him, then picked up a short stick and began toying with the coals.
"You must be tired, Mrs. Becker," he said. "Now that you are near a fire, I would suggest that you throw off your heavy coat. You will be more comfortable, and I will bring you a blanket to sit on."
He dived into his tent and a moment later reappeared with a blanket, which he spread close against the butt of a big spruce within half a dozen feet of the fire. When he turned toward her, the colonel's wife had thrown off her coat and turban and stood before him, a slim and girlish figure, bewitchingly pretty as she smiled her gratitude and nestled down into the place he had prepared for her. For a moment he bent over her, tucking the thick fur about her feet and knees, and in that moment he breathed from the heavy coils of her shining hair the flower-like sweetness which had already stirred him to the depths of his soul.
Colonel Becker was smiling down upon them when he straightened up, and at the humorous twinkle in his eyes, as he gazed from one to the other, Steele felt that the guilt of his own thoughts was blazing in his face. He was glad that the Indians came up with the sledges just at this moment, and as he went back to help them with the dogs and packs he swore softly at himself for the heat that was in his blood and the strange madness that was firing his brain. And inwardly he cursed himself still more when he returned to the fire. From out the deep gloom he saw the colonel sitting with his back against the spruce and Mrs. Becker nestling against him, her head resting upon his shoulder, talking and laughing up into his face. Even as he hesitated for an instant, scarce daring to break upon the scene, he saw her pull the gray-bearded face down to hers and kiss it, and in the ineffable contentment and happiness shining in the two faces in the firelight Philip Steele knew that he was looking upon that which had broken for ever the haunting image of another woman in his heart. In its place would remain this picture of love—love as he had dreamed of it, as he had hoped for it, and which he had found at last—but not for himself—in the heart of a wilderness.
He saw now something childishly sweet and pure in the face that smiled welcome to him as he came noisily through the snow-crust; and something, too, in the colonel's face, which reached out and gripped at his very heartstrings, and filled him with a warm glow that was new and strange to him, and which was almost the happiness of these two. It swept from him the sense of loneliness which had oppressed him a short time before, and when at last, after they had talked for a long time beside the fire, the colonel's wife lifted her pretty head drowsily and asked if she might go to bed, he laughed in sheer joy at the pouting tenderness with which she rubbed her pink cheek against the grizzled face above her, and at the gentle light in the colonel's eyes as he half carried her into the tent.
For a long time after he had rolled himself in his own blanket Philip lay awake, wondering at the strangeness of this thing that had happened to him. It was Her hair that he had seen shining this night under the old spruce, lustrous and soft, and coiled in its simple glory, as he had seen it last on the night when Chesbro had broken in on them at the ball. It was very easy for him to imagine that it had been Her face, with soul and heart and love added to its beauty. More than ever he knew what had been missing for him now, and blessed Chesbro for his blundering, and fell asleep to dream of the new face, and to awaken hours later to the unpleasant realization that his visions were but dream-fabric after all, and that the woman was the wife of Colonel Becker.
Chapter III. A Skull And A Flirtation
It was late afternoon when they came into Lac Bain, and as soon as Philip had turned over the colonel and his wife to Breed, he hurried to his own cabin. At the door he encountered Buck Nome. The two men had not met since a month before at Nelson House, and "there was but little cordiality in Steele to say howdy to 'em," explained Nome, pausing for a moment. "Deuce of a good joke on you, Steele! How do you like the job of bringing in an old colonel's frozen wife, or a frozen colonel's old wife, eh?"
Every fiber in Steele's body grew tense at the banter in the other's voice. He whirled upon Nome, who had partly turned away.
"You remember—you lied down there at Nelson to get just such a 'job' as this," he reminded. "Have you forgotten what happened—after that?"
"Don't get miffed about it, man," returned Nome with an irritating laugh. "All's fair in love and war. That was love down there, 'pon my word of honor it was, and this is about as near the other thing as I want to come."
There was something in his laugh that drew Steele's lips in a tight line as he entered the cabin. It was not the first time that he had listened to Nome's gloating chuckle at the mention of certain women. It was this more than anything else that made him hate the man.
Physically, Nome was a magnificent specimen, beyond doubt the handsomest man in the service north of Winnipeg; so that while other men despised him for what they knew, women admired and loved him—until, now and then too late for their own salvation, they discovered that his moral code was rotten to the core.
Such a thing had happened at Nelson House, and Philip felt himself burning with a desire to choke the life out of Nome as he recalled the tragedy there. And what would happen—now? The thought came to him like a dash of cold water, and yet, after a moment, his teeth gleamed in a smile as a vision rose before him of the love and purity which he had seen in the sweet face of the colonel's wife. He chuckled softly to himself as he dragged out a pack from under his bunk; but there was no humor in the chuckle. From it he took a bundle wrapped in soft birch-bark, and from this produced the skull that he had brought up with him from the South. There was a tremble of excitement in his low laugh as he glanced about the gloomy interior of the cabin.
From the log ceiling hung a big oil lamp with a tin reflector, and under this he hung the skull.
"You'll make a pretty ornament, M'sieur Janette," he exclaimed, standing off to contemplate the white thing leering and bobbing at him from the end of its string. "Mon Dieu, I tell you that when the lamp is lighted Bucky Nome must be blind if he doesn't recognize you, even though you're dead, M'sieur!"
He lighted a smaller lamp, shaved himself, and changed his clothes. It was dark when he was ready for supper, and Nome had not returned. He waited a quarter of an hour longer, then put on his cap and coat and lighted the big oil lamp. At the door he turned to look back. The cavernous sockets of the skull stared at him. From where he stood he could see the ragged hole above the ear.
"It's your game to-night, M'sieur Janette," he cried back softly, and closed the door behind him.
They were gathered before a huge fire of logs in the factor's big living-room when Philip joined the others. A glance told him why Nome had not returned to the cabin. Breed and the colonel were smoking cigars over a ragged ledger of stupendous size, which the factor had spread out upon a small table, and both were deeply absorbed. Mrs. Becker was facing the fire, and close beside her sat Nome, leaning toward her and talking in a voice so low that only a murmur of it came to Steele's ears. The man's face was flushed when he looked up, and his eyes shone with the old fire which made Philip hate him.
As the woman turned to greet him Steele felt a suddenly sickening sensation grip at his heart. Her cheeks, too, were flushed, and the color in them deepened still more when he bowed to her and joined the two men at the table. The colonel shook hands with him, and Philip noticed that once or twice after that his eyes shifted uneasily in the direction of the two before the fire, and that whenever the low laughter of Mrs. Becker and Nome came to them he paid less attention to the columns of figures which Breed was pointing out to him. When they rose to go into supper, Philip's blood boiled as Nome offered his arm to Mrs. Becker, who accepted it with a swift, laughing glance at the colonel. There was no response in the older man's pale face, and Philip's fingers dug hard into the palms of his hands. At the table Nome's attentions to Mrs. Becker were even more marked. Once, under pretext of helping her to a dish, he whispered words which brought a deeper flush to her cheeks, and when she looked at the colonel his eyes were fixed upon her in stern reproof. It was abominable! Was Nome mad? Was the woman—
Steele did not finish the thought in his own mind. His eyes encountered those of the colonel's wife across the table. He saw a sudden, quick catch of breath in her throat; even as he looked the flush faded from her face, and she rose from her seat, her gaze still upon him.
"I—I am not feeling well," she said. "Will you please excuse me?"
In an instant Nome was at her side, but she turned quickly from him to the colonel, who had risen from his chair.
"Please take me to my room," she begged. "Then—then you can come back."
Once more her face turned to Steele. There was a pallor in it now that startled him. For a few moments he stood alone, as Breed and Nome left the table. He listened, and heard the opening and closing of a second door.
Then a footstep, and Nome reappeared.
"By Heaven, but she's a beauty!" he exclaimed. "I tell you, Steele—"
Something in his companion's eyes stopped him. Two red spots burned in Steele's cheeks as he advanced and gripped the other fiercely by the arm.
"Yes, she is pretty—very pretty," he said quietly, his fingers sinking deeper into Nome's arm. "Get your hat and coat, Nome. I want to see you in the cabin."
Behind them the door opened and closed again, and Steele shoved past his associate to meet Breed.
"Buck and I have a little matter to attend to over at the cabin," he explained. "When they—when the colonel returns tell him we'll be over to smoke an after-supper pipe with him a little later, will you? And give our compliments to—her." With a half-sneer on his lips he rejoined Nome, who stared hard at him, and followed him through the outer door.
"Now, what the devil does this mean?" Nome demanded when they were outside. "If you have anything on your mind, Steele—"
"I have," interrupted Philip, "and I'm going to relieve myself of it. Pretty? She's as beautiful as an angel, Buck—the colonel's wife, I mean. And you—" He laughed harshly. "You're always the lucky dog, Buck Nome. You think she's half in love with you now. Too bad she was taken ill just at the psychological moment, as you might say, Buck. Wonder what was the matter?"
"Don't know," growled Nome, conscious of something in the other's voice which darkness concealed in his face.
"Of course, you don't," replied Steele.
"That's why I am bringing you over to the cabin. I am going to tell you just what happened when Mrs. Becker was taken ill, and when she turned a trifle pale, if you noticed sharply. Buck. It's a good joke, a mighty good joke, and I know you will thoroughly appreciate it."
He drew a step back when they came near the cabin, and Nome entered first. Very coolly Philip turned and bolted the door. Then, throwing off his coat, he pointed to the white skull dangling under the lamp.
"Allow me to introduce an old friend of mine, Buck—M'sieur Janette, of Nelson House."
With a sudden curse Nome leaped toward his companion, his face flaming, his hands clenched to strike—only to look into the shining muzzle of Steele's revolver, with Steele's cold gray eyes glittering dangerously behind it.
"Sit down, Nome—right there, under the man you killed!" he commanded. "Sit down, or by the gods I'll blow your head off where you stand! There—and I'll sit here, like this, so that the cur's heart within you is a bull's-eye for this gun. It's M'sieur Janette's turn tonight," he went on, leaning over the little table, the red spots in his cheeks growing redder and brighter as Nome cringed before his revolver. "M'sieur Janette's—and the colonel's; but mostly Janette's. Remember that, Nome. It's for Janette. I'm not thinking much about Mrs. Becker—just now."
Steele's breath came quickly and his lips were almost snarling in his hatred of the man before him.
"It's a lie!" gasped Nome chokingly, his face ashen white. "You lie when you say I killed—Janette."
The fingers of Steele's pistol hand twitched.
"How I'd like to kill you!" he breathed. "You won his wife, Nome; you broke his heart—and after that he killed himself. You sent a report into headquarters that he killed himself by accident. You lied. It was you who killed him—by taking his wife. I got his skull because I thought I might need it against you to show that it was a pistol instead of a rifle that killed him. And this isn't the first man you've sent to hell, Nome, and is isn't the first woman. But your next won't be Mrs. Becker!"
He thrust his revolver almost into the other man's face as Nome opened his lips to speak.
"Shut up!" he cried. "If you open your dirty mouth again I'll be tempted to kill you where you sit! Don't you know what happened to-night? Don't you know that Mrs. Becker forgot herself, and remembered again, just in time, and that you've taken a little blood from the colonel's heart as you took all of it from—his?" He reached up and broke the string that held the skull, turning the empty face of the thing toward Nome. "Look at it, you scoundrel! That's the man you killed, as you would kill the colonel if you could. That's Janette!"
His voice fell to a hissing whisper as he shoved the skull slowly across the table, so close that a sudden movement would have sent it against the other's breast.
"We've been fixing this thing up between us, Bucky—M'sieur Janette and I," he went on, "and we've come to the conclusion that we won't kill you, but that you don't belong to the service. Understand?"
"You mean—to drive me out—" One of Nome's hands had stolen to his side, and Steele's pistol arm grew tense.
"On the table with your hands, Bucky! There, that's better," he laughed softly.
"Yes, we're going to drive you out. You're going to pack up a few things right away, Bucky, and you're going to run like the devil away from this place. I'd advise you to go straight back to headquarters and resign from the Northwest Mounted. MacGregor knows you pretty well, Bucky, and knows one or two things you've done, even though your whole record is not an open book to him. I don't believe he'll put any obstacles in the way of your discharge although your enlistment hasn't expired. Disability is an easy plea, you know. But if the inspector should think so much of you that he is loath to let you go, then M'sieur Janette and I will have to fix up the story for headquarters, and I don't mind telling you we'll add just a little for interest, and that the woman and the people at Nelson House will swear to it. You've the making of a good outlaw, Bucky," he smiled tauntingly, "and if you follow your natural bent you'll have some of your old friends after you, good and hard. You'd better steer clear of that though, and try your hand at being honest for once. M'sieur Janette wants to give you this chance, and you'd better make good time. So get a move on, Bucky. You'll need a blanket and a little grub, that's all."
"Steele, you don't mean this! Good God, man—" Nome had half risen to his feet. "You don't mean this!"
With his free hand Philip took out his watch.
"I mean that if you are not gone within fifteen minutes I'll march you over to Breed and the colonel, tell them the story of M'sieur Janette, here, and hold you until we hear from headquarters," he said quickly. "Which will it be, Nome?"
Like one stunned by a blow Nome rose slowly to his feet. He spoke no word as he carefully filled his pack with the necessities of a long journey. At the door, as he opened it to go, he turned for just an instant upon Steele, who was still holding the revolver in his hand.
"Remember, Bucky," admonished Philip in a quiet voice, "it's all for the good of yourself and the service."
Fear had gone from Nome's face. It was filled now with a hatred so intense that his teeth shone like the fangs of a snarling animal.
"To hell with you," he said, "and to hell with the service; but remember, Philip Steele, remember that some day we'll meet again."
"Some day," laughed Philip. "Good-by, Bucky Nome—deserter!"
The door closed and Nome was gone.
"Now, M'sieur Janette, it's our turn," cried Steele, smiling companionably upon the skull and loading his pipe. "It's our turn."
He laughed aloud, and for some time puffed out luxurious clouds of smoke in silence.
"It's the best day's work I've done in my life," he continued, with his eyes still upon the skull. "The very best, and it would be complete, M'sieur, if I could send you down to the woman who helped to kill you."
He stopped, and his eyes leaped with a sudden fire. "By George!" he exclaimed, under his breath. His pipe went out; for many minutes he stared with set face at the skull, as if it had spoken to him and its voice had transfixed him where he stood. Then he tossed his pipe upon the table, collected his service equipment and strapped it in his pack. After that he returned to the table with a pad of paper and a pencil and sat down. His face was strangely white as he took the skull in his hands.
"I'll do it, so help me all the gods, I'll do it!" he breathed excitedly. "M'sieur, a woman killed you—-as much as Bucky Nome, a woman did it. You couldn't do her any good—but you might—another. I'm going to send you to her, M'sieur. You're a terrible lesson, and I may be a beast; but you're preaching a powerful sermon, and I guess—perhaps—you may do her good. I'll tell her your story, old man, and the story of the woman who made you so nice and white and clean. Perhaps she'll see the moral, M'sieur. Eh? Perhaps!"
For a long time he wrote, and when he had done he sealed the writing, put the envelope and the skull together in a box, and tied the whole with babiche string. On the outside he fastened another note to Breed, the factor, in which he explained that he and Bucky Nome had found it necessary to leave that very night for the West. And he heavily underscored the lines in which he directed the factor to see that the box was delivered to Mrs. Colonel Becker, and that, as he valued the honor and the friendship of the service, and especially of Philip Steele, all knowledge of it should be kept from the colonel himself.
It was eight o'clock when he went out into the night with his pack upon his back. He grunted approval when he found it was snowing, for the track of himself and Nome would be covered. Through the thickening gloom the two or three lights in the factor's home gleamed like distant stars. One of them was brighter than the others, and he knew that it came from the rooms which Breed had fitted up for the colonel and his wife. As Philip halted for a moment, his eyes drawn by a haunting fascination to that window, the light grew clearer and brighter, and he fancied that he saw a face looking out into the night—toward his cabin. A moment later he knew that it was the woman's face. Then a door opened, and a figure hurried across the open. He stepped back into the gloom of his own cabin and waited. It was the colonel. Three times he knocked loudly at the cabin door.
"I'd like to go out and shake his hand," muttered Steele. "I'd like to tell him that he isn't the only man who's had an idol broken, and that Mrs. B.'s little flirtation isn't a circumstance—to what might have happened."
Instead, he moved silently away, and turned his face into the thin trail that buried itself in the black forests of the West.
Chapter IV. The Silken Scarf
A loneliness deeper than he had ever known—a yearning that was almost pain, oppressed Philip as he left Lac Bain behind him. Half a mile from the post he stopped under a shelter of dense spruce, and stood listening as there came to him faintly the distant howling of a dog. After all, had he done right? He laughed harshly and his hands clenched as he thought of Bucky Nome. He had done right by him. But the skull—Mrs. Becker—was that right? Like a flash there came to him out of the darkness a picture of the scene beside the fire—of Mrs. Becker and the colonel, of the woman's golden head resting on her husband's shoulder, her sweet blue eyes filled with all the truth and glory of womanhood as she had looked up into his grizzled face. And then there took its place the scene beside the fire in the factor's room. He saw the woman's flushed cheeks as she listened to the low voice of Bucky Nome, he saw again what looked like yielding softness in her eyes—the grayish pallor in the colonel's face as he had looked upon the flirtation. Yes, he had done right. She had recovered herself in time, but she had taken a little bit of life from the colonel, and from him. She had broken his ideal—the ideal he had always hoped for, and had sought for, but had never found, and he told himself that now she was no better than the girl of the hyacinth letter, whose golden beauty and eyes as clear as an angel's had concealed this same deceit that wrecked men's lives. M'sieur Janette's clean, white skull and the story of how and why M'sieur Janette had died would not be too great a punishment for her.
He resumed his journey, striving to concentrate his mind on other things. Seven or eight miles to the south and west was the cabin of Jacques Pierrot, a half-breed, who had a sledge and dogs. He would hire Jacques to accompany him on his patrol in place of Bucky Nome. Then he would return to Nelson House and send in his report of Bucky Nome's desertion, since he knew well enough after the final remarks of that gentleman that he did not intend to sever his connection with the Northwest Mounted in the regular way. After that—He shrugged his shoulders as he thought of the fourteen months' of service still ahead of him. Until now his adventure as a member of the Royal Mounted had not grown monotonous for an hour. Excitement, action, fighting against odds, had been the spice of life to him, and he struggled to throw off the change that had taken hold of him the moment he had opened the hyacinth-scented letter of Mrs. Becker. "You're a fool," he argued. "You're as big a fool as Bucky Nome. My God—you—Phil Steele—letting a married woman upset you like this!"
It was near midnight when he came to Pierrot's cabin, but a light was still burning in the half-breed's log home. Philip kicked off his snow shoes and knocked at the door. In a moment Pierrot opened it, stepped back, and stared at the white figure that came in out of the storm.
"Mon Dieu—it ees you—Mee-sair Philip!"
Philip held out his hand to Jacques, and shot a quick glance about him. There had been a change in the cabin since he had visited it last. One of Pierrot's hands was done up in a sling, his face was thin and pale, and his dark eyes were sunken and lusterless. In the little wilderness home there was an air of desertion and neglect, and Philip wondered where Pierrot's rosy-cheeked, black-haired wife and his half dozen children had gone.
"Mon Dieu—it ees you, Mee-sair Philip," cried Pierrot again, his face lighting up with pleasure. "You come late. You are hongree?"
"I've had supper," replied Philip. "I've just come from Lac Bain. But what's up, old man—?" He pointed to Pierrot's hand, and looked questionably about the cabin again.
"Eh—Iowla—my wife—she is at Churchill, over on the bay," groaned Jacques. "And so are the children. What! You did not hear at Lac Bain? Iowla is taken seek—ver' seek—with a strange thing which—ugh!—has to be fixed with a knife, Mee-sair Philip. An' so I take her to the doctor over at Churchill, an' he fix her—an' she is growing well now, an' will soon come home. She keep the children with her. She say they mak' her think of Jacques, on his trap-line. Eh—it ees lonely—dam'—dam' lonely, and I have been gone from my Iowla but two weeks to-morrow."
"You have been with her at Fort Churchill?" asked Philip, taking off his pack and coat.
"Oui, M'sieur," said Jacques, falling into his French. "I have been there since November. What! They did not tell you at Lac Bain?"
"No—they did not tell me. But I was there but a few hours, Jacques. Listen—" He pulled out his pipe and began filling it, with his back to the stove. "You saw people—strangers—at Fort Churchill, Jacques? They came over on the London ship, and among them there was a woman—"
Pierrot's pale face flashed up with sudden animation.
"Ah—zee angel!" he cried. "That is what my Iowla called her, M'sieur. See!" He pointed to his bandaged hand. "Wan day that bete—the Indian dog of mine—did that, an' w'en I jumped up from the snow in front of the company's store, the blood running from me, I see her standing there, white an' scared. An' then she run to me with a little scream, an' tear something from her neck, an' tie it round my hand. Then she go with me to my cabin, and every day after that she come to see my Iowla an' the children. She wash little Pierre, an' cut his hair. She wash Jean an' Mabelle. She laugh an' sing an' hol' the baby, an' my Iowla laugh an' sing; an' she takes down my Iowla's hair, which is so long that it falls to her knees, an' does it up in a wonderful way an' says she would give everything she got if she could have that hair. An' my Iowla laugh at her, because her hair is like an angel's—like fire w'en the sun is on it; an' my Iowla tak' hers down, all red an' gold, an' do it up in the Cree way. And w'en she brings the man with her—he laughs an' plays with the kids, an' says he knows the doctor and that there will be nothing to pay for all that he is done. Ah—she ees wan be-e-eautiful-l-l angel! An' this—this is w'at she tied around my hand."
With new life Pierrot went to a covered box nailed against one of the log walls and a moment later placed in Philip's hands a long, white, silken neck-scarf. Once more there rose to his nostrils the sweet, faint scent of hyacinth, and with a sudden low cry Philip crushed the dainty fabric in a mass to his face. In that moment it seemed as though the sweetness of the woman herself was with him, stirring him at last to confess the truth—the thing which he had fought against so fiercely in those few hours at Lac Bain; and the knowledge that he had surrendered to himself, that in going from Lac Bain he was leaving all that the world held for him in the way of woman and love, drew his breath from him in another broken, stifled cry.
When he lowered the scarf his face was white. Pierrot was staring at him.
"It makes me think—of home," he explained lamely. "Sometimes I get lonely, too. There's a girl—down there—who wears a scarf like this, and what she wears smells like a flower, just as this does—"
"Oui, I understand," said Pierrot softly. "It is the way I feel when my Iowla is gone."
He replaced the scarf in the box, and when he returned to the stove Philip explained why he had come to his cabin. With Pierrot's promise to accompany him with dogs and sledge on his patrol the next day he prepared to go to bed. Pierrot also was undressing, and Philip said to him casually,
"This woman—at Churchill—Jacques—what if some one should tell you that she is not so much of an angel after all—that she is, perhaps, something like—like the woman over at Lac la Biche, who ran away with the Englishman?"
Pierrot straightened as though Philip had thrust a knife-point into his back. He broke forth suddenly into French.
"I would call him a liar, M'sieur," he cried fiercely. "I would call him a liar, once-twice—three times, and then if he said it again I would fight him. Mon Dieu, but it would be no sin to kill one with a mouth like that!"
Philip was conscious of the hot blood rushing to his face as he bent over his bunk. The depths of Pierrot's faith shamed him, and he crawled silently between the blankets and turned his face to the wall. Pierrot extinguished the light, and a little later Philip could hear his deep breathing. But sleep refused to close his own eyes, and he lay on his back, painfully awake. In spite of the resolution he had made to think no more of the woman at Lac Bain, his mind swept him back to her irresistibly. He recalled every incident that had occurred, every word that she had spoken, since he had first looked upon her beautiful face out on the Churchill trail. He could find nothing but purity and sweetness until he came with her for that fatal hour or two into the company of Bucky Nome. And then, again, his blood grew hot. But—after all—was there not some little excuse for her? He thought of the hundreds of women he had known, and wondered if there was one among them all who had not at some time fallen into this same little error as Mrs. Becker. For the first time he began to look at himself. Mrs. Becker had laughed with Bucky Nome, her cheeks had grown a little flushed, her eyes had shone radiantly—but were those things a sin? Had those same eyes not looked up into his own, filled with a sweetness that thrilled him, when he bent over her beside the fire out on the Churchill trail? Was there not that same lovely flush in her face when his lips had almost touched her hair? And had not the colonel's sudden return brought a flush into both their faces? He smiled to himself, and for a moment he thrilled ecstatically. The reaction came like a shock. In an instant other scenes—other faces—flashed upon him, and again he saw the luring, beautiful face of Eileen Hawkins, who smiled on men as Mrs. Becker had smiled on Bucky Nome and on him.
He closed his eyes and tried to force himself into sleep, but failed. At last he rose silently from his bunk, filled his pipe, and sat down in the darkness beside the stove. The storm had increased to a gale, wailing and moaning over the cabin outside, and the sound carried him back to the last night in the cabin far to the south, when he had destroyed the hyacinth-scented letter. The thought of the letter moved him restlessly. He listened to Pierrot's breathing, and knew that the half-breed was asleep. Then he rose to his feet and laid his pipe on the table. A curious feeling of guilt came over him as he moved toward the box in which Jacques had placed the silken scarf. His breath came quickly; in the dark his eyes shone; a tingling thrill of strange pleasure shot through him as his fingers touched the thing for which they were searching. He drew the scarf out, and returned to the stove with it, crushing it in both his hands. The sweetness of it came to him again like the woman's breath. It was the sweetness of her hair, of the golden coils massed in the firelight; a part of the woman herself, of her glorious eyes, her lips, her face—and suddenly he crushed the fabric to his own face, and stood there, trembling in the darkness, while Jacques Pierrot slept and the storm wailed and moaned over his head. For he knew—now—that he would do more for this woman than Jacques Pierrot could ever do; more, perhaps, than even the colonel, her husband, would do. His heart seemed bursting with a new and terrible pain, and the truth at last seemed to rise and choke him. He loved her. He loved this woman, the wife of another man. He loved her as he had never dreamed that he could love a woman, and with the scarf still smothering his lips and face he stood for many minutes, silent and motionless, gathering himself slowly from out of the appalling depths into which he had allowed himself to plunge.
Then he folded the scarf, and instead of returning it to the box, put it in one of the pockets of his coat.
"Pierrot won't care," he excused himself. "And it's the only thing, little girl—the only thing—I'll ever have—of you."
Chapter V. Beauty-Proof
It was Pierrot who aroused Philip in the morning.
"Mon, Dieu, but you have slept like a bear," he exclaimed. "The storm has cleared and it will be fine traveling. Eh—you have not heard? I wonder why they are firing guns off toward Lac Bain!"
Philip jumped from his bed, and his first look was in the direction of the box. He was criminal enough to hope that Jacques would not discover that the scarf was missing.
"A moose—probably," he said. "There were tracks close up to the post a day or two ago."
He was anxious to begin their journey, and assisted Pierrot in preparing breakfast. The sound of guns impressed upon him the possibility of some one from Lac Bain calling at the half-breed's cabin, and he wished to avoid further association with people from the post—at least for a time. At nine o'clock Pierrot bolted the door and the two set off into the south and west. On the third day they swung to the eastward to strike the Indians living along Reindeer Lake, and on the sixth cut a trail by compass straight for Nelson House. A week later they arrived at the post, and Philip found a letter awaiting him calling him to Prince Albert. In a way the summons was a relief to him. He bade Pierrot good-by, and set out for Le Pas in company with two Indians. From that point he took the work train to Etomami, and three hours later was in Prince Albert.
"Rest up for a time, Steele," Inspector MacGregor told him, after he had made a personal report on Bucky Nome.
During the week that followed Philip had plenty of leisure in which to tell himself that he was a fool, and that he was deliberately throwing away what a munificent fortune had placed in his hands. MacGregor's announcement that he was in line for promotion in the near future did not stir him as it would have done a few weeks before. In his little barracks room he laughed ironically as he recalled MacGregor's words, "We're going to make a corporal or a sergeant of you." He—Philip Steele—millionaire, club man, son of a western king of finance—a corporal or a sergeant! For the first time the thought amused him, and then it maddened him. He had played the part of an idiot, and all because there had been born within him a love of adventure and the big, free life of the open. No wonder some of his old club friends regarded him as a scapegrace and a ne'er-do-well. He had thrown away position, power, friends and home as carelessly as he might have tossed away the end of a cigar. And all—for this! He looked about his cramped quarters, a half sneer on his lips. He had tied himself to this! To his ears there came faintly the thunder of galloping hoofs. Sergeant Moody was training his rookies to ride. The sneer left his lips, and was replaced by a quick, alert smile as he heard a rattle of revolver shots and the cheering of voices. After all, it was not so bad. It was a service that made men, and he thought of the English remittance-man, whose father was a lord of something-or-other, and who was learning to ride and shoot out there with red-headed, raucous-voiced Moody. There began to stir in him again the old desire for action, and he was glad when word was sent to him that Inspector MacGregor wished to see him in his office.
The big inspector was pacing back and forth when Philip came in.
"Sit down, Steele, sit down," he said. "Take it easy, man—and have a cigar."
If MacGregor had suddenly gone into a fit Philip could not have been more surprised than at these words, as he stood with his cap in his hand before the desk of the fiery-mustached inspector, who was passing his box of choice Havanas. There are tightly drawn lines of distinction in the Royal Mounted. As Philip had once heard the commissioner say, "Every man in the service is a king—but there are different degrees of kings," and for a barracks man to be asked to sit in the inspector's office and smoke was a sensational breach of the usual code. But as he had distinctly heard the invitation to sit, and to smoke, Philip proceeded to do both, and waited in silence for the next mine to explode under his feet. And there was a certain ease in his manner of doing these things which would have assured most men that he was not unaccustomed to sitting in the presence of greatness.
The inspector seemed to notice this. For a moment he stood squarely in front of Steele, his hands shoved deep into his pockets, a twinkle in the cold, almost colorless eyechuckling, companionable laugh, such as finds its vent in the fellowship of equals, but which is seldom indulged in by a superior before an inferior in the R.N.W.M. Police.
"Mighty good cigars, eh, Steele?" he asked, turning slowly toward the window. "The commissioner sent 'em up to me from Regina. Nothing like a good cigar on a dreary day like this. Whew, listen to the wind—straight from Medicine Hat!"
For a few moments he looked out upon the cheerless drab roofs of the barracks, with their wisps of pale smoke swirling upward into the leaden sky; counted the dozen gnarled and scrubby trees, as had become a habit with him; rested his eyes upon the black and shriveled remnants of summer flower-beds thrusting their frost-shrunken stalks through the snow, and then, almost as if he were speaking to himself, he said, "Steele, are you beautyproof?"
There was no banter in his voice. It was low, so low that it had in it the ring of something more than mere desire for answer, and when the inspector turned, Philip observed a thing that he had never seen before—a flush in MacGregor's face. His pale eyes gleamed. His voice was filled with an intense earnestness as he repeated the question. "I want to know, Steele. Are you beauty-proof?"
In spite of himself Philip felt the fire rising in his own face. In that moment the inspector could have hit on no words that would have thrilled him more deeply than those which he had spoken. Beauty-proof! Did MacGregor know? Was it possible— He took a step forward, words came to his lips, but he caught himself before he had given voice to them.
He laughed, softly, as the inspector had laughed a few moments before. But there was a strange tenseness in his face—something which MacGregor saw, but could not understand.
"Beauty-proof?" He repeated the words, looking keenly at the other. "Yes, I think I am, sir."
"You think you are?"
"I am quite sure that I am. Inspector. That is as far as I can go."
The inspector seated himself at his desk and opened a drawer. From it he took a photograph. For some time he gazed at it in silence, puffing out clouds of smoke from his cigar. Then, without lifting his eyes from the picture, he said: "I am going to put you up against a queer case, Steele, and the strangest thing about it is its very simplicity. It's a job for the greenest rookie in the service, and yet I swear that there isn't another man in Saskatchewan to whom I would talk as I am about to talk to you. Rather paradoxical, isn't it?"
"Rather," agreed Philip.
"And yet not when you come to understand the circumstances," continued the inspector, placing the photograph face down on the table and looking at the other through a purple cloud of tobacco smoke. "You see, Steele, I know who you are. I know that your father is Philip Steele, the big Chicago banker. I know that you are up here for romance and adventure rather than for any other thing there is in the service. I know, too, that you are no prairie chicken, and that most of your life has been spent where you see beautiful women every hour of the day, and where soft voices and tender smiles aren't the most wonderful things in the world, as they sometimes are up here. Fact is, we have a way of our own of running down records—"
"And a confounded clever one it must be," interrupted Philip irreverently. "Had you any—any particular reason for supposing me to be 'beauty-proof,' as you call it?" he added coldly.
"I've told you my only reason," said the inspector, leaning over his desk. "You've seen so many pretty faces, Steele, and you've associated with them so long that one up here isn't going to turn your head. Now—"
MacGregor hesitated, and laughed. The flush grew deeper in his cheeks, and he looked again at the photograph.
"I'm going to be frank with you," he went on. "This young woman called on me yesterday, and within a quarter of an hour—fifteen minutes, mind you!—she had me going like a fool! Understand? I'm not proof—against her—and yet I'm growing old in the service and haven't had a love affair since—a long time ago. I'm going to send you up to the Wekusko camp, above Le Pas, to bring down a prisoner. The man is her husband, and he almost killed Hodges, who is chief of construction up there. The minimum he'll get is ten years, and this woman is moving heaven and earth to save him. So help me God, Steele, if I was one of the youngsters, and she came to me as she did yesterday, I believe I'd let him give me the slip! But it mustn't happen. Understand? It mustn't happen. We've got to bring that man down, and we've got to give him the law. Simple thing, isn't it—this bringing a prisoner down from Wekusko! Any rookie could do it, couldn't he? And yet—"
The inspector paused to light his cigar, which had gone out. Then he added: "If you'll do this, Steele—and care for it—I'll see that you get your promotion."
As he finished, he tossed the photograph across the desk. "That's she. Don't ask me how I got the picture."
A curious thrill shot through Philip as he picked up the bit of cardboard. It was a wondrously sweet face that looked squarely out of it into his eyes, a face so youthful, so filled with childish prettiness that an exclamation of surprise rose to his lips. Under other circumstances he would have sworn that it was the picture of a school-girl. He looked up, about to speak, but MacGregor had turned again to the window, clouds of smoke about his head. He spoke without turning his head.
"That was taken nearly ten years ago," he said, and Philip knew that he was making an effort to keep an unnatural break out of his voice. "But there has been little change—almost none. His name is Thorpe. I will send you a written order this afternoon and you can start to-night."
Philip rose, and waited.
"Is there nothing more?" he asked, after a moment. "This woman—"
"There is nothing more," interrupted the inspector, still looking out through the window.
"Only this, Steele—you must bring him back. Whatever happens, bring back your prisoner."
As he turned to leave, Philip fancied that he caught something else—a stifled, choking breath, a sound that made him turn his head again as he went through the door. The inspector had not moved.
"Now what the deuce does this mean?" he asked himself, closing the door softly behind him. "You're up against something queer this time, Philip Steele, I'll wager dollars to doughnuts. Promotion for bringing in a prisoner! What in thunder—"
He stopped for a moment in one of the cleared paths. From the big low roofed drill enclosure a hundred yards away came the dull thud of galloping hoofs and the voice of Sergeant Moody thundering instructions to the rookies. Moody had a heart like flint and would have faced blazing cannon to perform his duty. He had grown old and ugly in the service and was as beauty-proof as an ogre of stone. Why hadn't MacGregor sent him?
Beauty-proof! The words sent a swift rush of thought, of regret, of the old homesickness and longing through Philip as he returned to his quarters. He wondered just how much MacGregor knew, and he sat down to bring up before him for the thousandth time a vision of the two faces that had played their part in his life—the face of the girl at home, as beautiful as a Diane de Poitiers, as soulless as a sphinx, who had offered herself to him in return for his name and millions, and of that other which he had met away up in the frozen barrens of Lac Bain. Beauty-proof! He laughed and loaded his pipe. MacGregor had made a good guess, even though he did not know what had passed that winter before he came north to seek adventure, or of the fight he had made for another woman, with Mr. Bucky Nome—deserter!
Chapter VI. Philip Follows A Pretty Face
It was late in the afternoon when Philip's instructions came from the inspector. They were tersely official in form, gave him all necessary authority, and ordered him to leave for Le Pas that night. Pinned to the order was a small slip of paper, and on this MacGregor had repeated in writing his words of a few hours before: "Whatever happens, bring back your prisoner."
There was no signature to this slip, and the first two words were heavily underscored. What did this double caution mean? Coming from a man like MacGregor, who was as choice as a king of his advice, Philip knew that it was of unusual significance. If it was intended as a warning, why had not the inspector given him more detail? During the hour in which he was preparing for his journey he racked his brain for some clew to the situation. The task which he was about to perform seemed simple enough. A man named Thorpe had attempted murder at Wekusko. He was already a prisoner, and he was to bring him down. The biggest coward in Saskatchewan, or a man from a hospital bed, could do this much, and yet—
He read the inspector's words over and over again. "Whatever happens!" In spite of himself a little stir of excitement crept into his blood. Since that thrilling hour in which he had seen Bucky Nome desert from the service he had not felt himself moved as now, and in a moment of mental excitement he found himself asking a question which a few minutes before he would have regarded as a mark of insanity. Was it possible that in the whole of the Northland there could be another woman as beautiful as Colonel Becker's wife—a woman so beautiful that she had turned even Inspector MacGregor's head, as Mrs. Becker had turned Bucky Nome's—and his? Was it possible that between these two women—between this wife of an attempted murderer and Mrs. Becker there was some connecting link—some association—
He cut his thoughts short with a low exclamation of disgust. The absurdity of the questions he had asked himself brought a flush into his face. But he could not destroy the undercurrent of emotions they had aroused. Anyway, something was going to happen. He was sure of that. The inspector's actions, his words, his mysterious nervousness, the strange catch in his voice as they parted, all assured him that there was a good reason for the repeated warning. And whatever did happen was to be brought about by the woman whose girlish beauty he had looked upon in the picture. That MacGregor was aware of the nature of his peril, if he was to run into danger at all, he was sure, and he was equally certain that some strong motive restrained the inspector from saying more than he had. Already he began to scent in the adventure ahead of him those elements of mystery, of excitement, even of romance, the craving for which was an inherited part of his being. And with these things there came another sensation, one that surprised and disquieted him. A few days before his one desire had been to get out of the north country, to place as much distance as possible between himself and Lac Bain. And now he found himself visibly affected by the thought that his duty was to take him once more in the direction of the woman whose sweet face had become an indissoluble part of his existence. He would not see her. Even at Wekusko he would be many days' journey from Lac Bain. But she would be nearer to him, and it was this that quickened his pulse.
He was ten minutes early for his train, and employed that interval in mingling among the people at the station. MacGregor had as much as told him that whatever unusual thing might develop depended entirely upon the appearance of the woman and he began to look for her. She was not at the station. Twice he walked through the coaches of his train without discovering a face that resembled that in the photograph.
It was late when he arrived at Etomami, where the sixty mile line of the Hudson's Bay Railroad branches off to the north. At dawn he entered the caboose of the work train, which was to take him up through the wilderness to Le Pas. He was the only passenger.
"There ain't even a hand-car gone up ahead of us," informed the brakeman in response to his inquiry. "This is the only train in five days."
After all, it was to be a tame affair, in spite of the inspector's uneasiness and warnings, thought Philip. The woman was not ahead of him. Two days before she had been in MacGregor's office, and under the circumstances it was impossible for her to be at Le Pas or at Wekusko, unless she had traveled steadily on dog sledge. Philip swore softly to himself in his disappointment, ate breakfast with the train gang, went to sleep, and awoke when they plowed their way into the snow-smothered outpost on the Saskatchewan.
The brakeman handed him a letter.
"This came on the Le Pas mail," he explained. "I kept it out for you instead of sending it to the office."
"Thank you," said Philip. "A special—from headquarters. Why in thunder didn't they send me a messenger instead of a letter, Braky? They could have caught me on the train."
He tore open the departmental envelope as he spoke and drew forth a bit of folded paper. It was not the official letter-head, but at a glance Philip recognized the inspector's scrawling writing and his signature. It was one of MacGregor's quiet boasts that the man did not live who could forge his name. An astonished whistle broke from his lips as he read these few lines:
Follow your conscience, whatever you do. Both God and man will reward you in the end.
And this was all. There was no date, no word of explanation; even his own name had been omitted from this second order. He picked up the envelope which had fallen to the floor and looked at the postmark. It had been stamped four-thirty. It was after five, an hour later, that he had received his verbal instructions from MacGregor! The inspector must have written the note before their interview of the preceding afternoon—before his repeated injunction of "Whatever happens, bring back your prisoner!" But this letter was evidently intended as final instructions since it had been sent so as to reach him at this time. What did it mean? The question buzzed in Philip's brain, repeated itself twenty times, fifty times, as he hurried through the gathering darkness of the semi-polar night toward the log hotel of the place. He was convinced that there was some hidden motive in the inspector's actions. What was he to understand?
Suddenly he stopped, a hundred yards from the glimmering lights of the Little Saskatchewan hotel, and chuckled audibly as he stuffed his pipe. It flashed upon him now why MacGregor had chosen him instead of an ordinary service man to bring down the prisoner from Wekusko. MacGregor knew that he, Philip Steele, college man and man of the world, would reason out the key to this little puzzle, whereas Sergeant Moody and others of his type would turn back for explanations. And Inspector MacGregor, twenty years in the service, and recognized as the shrewdest man-hunter between the coasts, wished to give no explanation. Philip's blood tingled with fresh excitement as the tremendous risk which the inspector himself was running, dawned upon him. Publicity of the note which he held in his hand would mean the disgrace and retirement even of Felix MacGregor.
He thrust the letter in his pocket and hurried on. The lights of the settlement were already agleam. From the edge of the frozen river there came the sound of a wheezy accordion in a Chinese cafe, and the howling of a dog, either struck by man or worsted in a fight. Where the more numerous lights of the one street shone red against the black background of forest, a drunken half-breed was chanting in half-Cree, half-French, the chorus of the caribou song. He heard the distant snapping of a whip, the yelping response of huskies, and a moment later a sledge and six dogs passed him so close that he was compelled to leap from their path. This was Le Pas—the wilderness! Beyond it, just over the frozen river which lay white and silent before him, stretched that endless desolation of romance and mystery which he had grown to love, a world of deep snows, of silent-tongued men, of hardship and battle for life where the law of nature was the survival of the fittest, and that of man, "Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you." Never did Philip Steele's heart throb with the wild, free pulse of life and joy as in such moments as these, when his fortune, his clubs, and his friends were a thousand miles away, and he stood on the edge of the big northern Unknown.
As he had slept through the trainmen's dinner hour, he was as hungry as a wolf, and he lost no time in seating himself in a warm corner of the low, log-ceilinged dining-room of the Little Saskatchewan. Although a quarter of an hour early, he had hardly placed himself at his table when another person entered the room. Casually he glanced up from the two letters which he had spread out before him. The one who had followed him was a woman. She had turned sharply upon seeing him and seated herself at the next table, her back so toward him that he caught only her half profile.
It was enough to assure him that she was young and pretty. On her head she wore a turban of silver lynx fur, and about this she had drawn her glossy brown hair, which shone like burnished copper in the lamp-glow, and had gathered it in a bewitchingly coquettish knot low on her neck, where it shone with a new richness and a new warmth with every turn of her head. But not once did she turn so that Philip could see more than the tantalizing pink of her cheek and the prettiness of her chin, which at times was partly concealed in a collarette of the same silver gray lynx fur.
He ate his supper almost mechanically, in spite of his hunger, for his mind was deep in the mysterious problem which confronted him. Half a dozen times he broke in upon his thoughts to glance at the girl at the opposite table. Once he was sure that she had been looking at him and that she had turned just in time to keep her face from him. Philip admired pretty women, and of all beauty in woman he loved beautiful hair, so that more and more frequently his eyes traveled to the shining wealth of copper-colored tresses near him. He had almost finished his supper when a movement at the other table drew his eyes up squarely, and his heart gave a sudden jump. The girl had risen. She was facing him, and as for an instant their eyes met she hesitated, as if she were on the point of speaking. In that moment he recognized her.
It was the girl in the photograph, older, more beautiful—the same soft, sweet contour of face, the same dark eyes that had looked at him in MacGregor's office, filled with an indescribable sadness now, instead of the laughing joy of girlhood. In another moment he would have responded to her hesitation, to the pathetic tremble of her lips, but before words could form themselves she had turned and was gone. And yet at the door, even as she disappeared, he saw her face turned to him again, pleadingly, entreatingly, as if she knew his mission and sent to him a silent prayer for mercy.
Thrusting back his chair, he caught up his hat from a rack and followed. He was in time to see her pass through the low door out into the night. Without hesitation his mind had leaped to a definite purpose. He would overtake her outside, introduce himself, and then perhaps he would understand the conflicting orders of Inspector MacGregor.
The girl was passing swiftly down the main street when he took up the pursuit. Suddenly she turned into a path dug through the snow that led riverward. Ahead of her there was only the starlit gloom of night and the distant blackness of the wilderness edge. Philip's blood ran a little faster. She had expected that he would follow, knew that he was close behind her, and had turned down into this deserted place that they might not be observed! He made no effort now to overtake her, but kept the same distance between them, whistling carelessly and knowing that she would stop to wait for him. Ahead of them there loomed up out of the darkness a clump of sapling spruce, and into their shadow the girl disappeared.
A dozen paces more and Philip himself was buried in the thick gloom. He heard quick, light footsteps in the snow-crust ahead of him. Then there came another sound—a step close behind him, a noise of disturbed brush, a low voice which was not that of a woman, and before his hand could slip, to the holster at his belt a human form launched itself upon him from the side, and a second form from behind, and under their weight he fell a helpless heap into the snow. Powerful hands wrenched his arms behind his back and other hands drew a cloth about his mouth. A stout cord was twisted around his wrists, his legs were tied, and then his captors relieved him of their weight.
Not a word had been spoken during the brief struggle. Not a word was spoken now as his mysterious assailants hoisted him between them and followed in the footsteps of the woman. Scarcely a hundred paces beyond the spruce the dark shadow of a cabin came into view. Into this he was carried and placed on something which he took to be a box. Then a light was struck.
For the first time Philip's astonished eyes had a view of his captors. One of them was an old man, a giant in physique, with a long gray beard and grayish yellow hair that fell to his shoulders. His companion was scarcely more than a boy, yet in his supple body, as he moved about, Philip recognized the animal-like strength of the forest breed. A word spoken in a whisper by the boy revealed the fact that the two were father and son. From that side of the room which was at Philip's back they dragged forth a long pine box, and were engaged in this occupation when the door opened and a third man entered. Never had Philip looked on a more unprepossessing face than that of the newcomer, in whose little black eyes there seemed to be a gloating triumph as he leered at the prisoner. He was short, with a huge breadth of shoulders. His eyes and mouth and nose were all but engulfed in superfluous flesh, and as he turned from Philip to the man and boy over the box he snapped the joints of his fingers in a startling manner.
"Howdy, howdy!" he wheezed, like one afflicted with asthma. "Good! good!" With these four words he lapsed into the silence of the older man and the boy.
As the box was dragged full into the light, a look of horror shot into Philip's eyes. It was the rough-box of a coffin! Without a word, and apparently without a signal, the three surrounded him and lifted him bodily into it. To his surprise he found himself lying upon something soft, as if the interior of his strange prison had been padded with cushions. Then, with extreme caution, his arms were freed from under his back and strapped to his side, and other straps, broad and firm, were fastened from side to side of the box across his limbs and body, as if there were danger of his flying up and out through the top. Another moment and a shadow fell above him, pitch gloom engulfed him.
They were dragging on the cover to the box! He heard the rapid beating of a hammer, the biting of nails into wood, and he writhed and struggled to free his hands, to cry out, to gain the use of his legs, but not the fraction of an inch could he relieve himself of his fetters. After a time his straining muscles relaxed, and he stopped to get his breath and listen. Faintly there came to him the sound of subdued voices, and he caught a glimmer of light, then another, and still a third. He saw now that half a dozen holes had been bored into the cover and sides of the box. The discovery brought with it a sense of relief. At least he was not to be suffocated. He found, after an interval, that he was even comfortable, and that his captors had not only given him a bed to lie upon, but had placed a pillow under his head.
Chapter VII. The Tragedy In The Cabin
A few moments later Philip heard the movement of heavy feet, the opening and closing of a door, and for a time after that there was silence. Had MacGregor anticipated this, he wondered? Was this a part of the program which the inspector had foreseen that he would play? His blood warmed at the thought and he clenched his fists. Then he began to think more calmly. His captors had not relieved him of his weapons. They had placed his service cap in the box with him and had unbuckled his cartridge belt so that he would rest more comfortably. What did all this mean? For the hundredth time he asked himself the question.
Returning footsteps interrupted his thoughts. The cabin door opened, people entered, again he heard whispering voices.
He strained his ears. At first he could have sworn that he heard the soft, low tones of a woman's voice, but they were not repeated. Hands caught hold of the box, dragged it across the floor, and then he felt himself lifted bodily, and, after a dozen steps, placed carefully upon some object in the snow. His amazement increased when he understood what was occurring.
He was on a sledge. Through the air-holes in his prison he heard the scraping of strap-thongs as they were laced through the runner-slits and over the box, the restless movement of dogs, a gaping whine, the angry snap of a pair of jaws. Then, slowly, the sledge began to move. A whip cracked loudly above him, a voice rose in a loud shout, and the dogs were urged to a trot. Again there came to Philip's ears the wheezing notes of the accordion. By a slight effort he found that he could turn his head sufficiently to look through a hole on a level with his eyes in the side of the box. The sledge had turned from the dark trail into the lighted street, and stopped at last before a brilliantly lighted front from which there issued the sound of coarse voices, of laughter and half-drunken song.
One of his captors went into the bar while the other seated himself on the box, with one leg shutting out Philip's vision by dangling it over the hole through which he was looking.
"What's up, Fingy?" inquired a voice.
"Wekusko," replied the man on the box, in the husky, flesh-smothered tones of the person who had entered last into the cabin.
"Another dead one up there, eh?" persisted the same voice.
"No. Maps 'n' things f'r Hodges, up at the camp. Devil of a hurry, ain't he, to order us up at night? Tell —— to hustle out with the bottle, will you?"
The speaker sent the lash of his whip snapping through the air in place of supplying a name.
"Maps and things—for Hodges—Wekusko!" gasped Philip inwardly.
He listened for further information. None came, and soon the man called Fingy jumped from the box, cracked his whip with a wheezing command to the dogs, and the sledge moved on.
And so his captors were taking him to Wekusko?—and more than that, to Hodges, chief of construction, whose life had been attempted by the prisoner whom Inspector MacGregor had ordered him to bring down! Had Fingy spoken the truth? And, if so, was this another part of the mysterious plot foreseen by the inspector?
During the next half hour, in which the sledge traveled steadily over the smooth, hard trail into the north, Philip asked himself these and a score of other questions equally perplexing. He was certain that the beautiful young woman whom he had followed had purposely lured him into the ambush. He considered himself her prisoner. Then why should he be consigned, like a parcel of freight, to Hodges, her husband's accuser, and the man who demanded the full penalty of the law for his assailant?
The more he added to the questions that leaped into his mind the more mystified he became. The conflicting orders, the strange demeanor of his chief, the pathetic appeal that he had seen in the young woman's eyes, the ambush, and now this unaccountable ride to Wekusko, strapped in a coffin box, all combined to plunge him into a chaos of wonder from which it was impossible for him to struggle forth. However, he assured himself of two things; he was comparatively comfortable, and within two hours at the most they would reach Hodges' headquarters, if the Wekusko camp were really to be their destination. Something must develop then.
It had ceased to occur to him that there was peril in his strange position. If that were so, would his captors have left him in possession of his weapons, even imprisoned as he was? If they had intended him harm, would they have cushioned his box and placed a pillow under his head so that the cloth about his mouth would not cause him discomfort? It struck him as peculiarly significant, now that he had suffered no injury in the short struggle on the trail, that no threats or intimidation had been offered after his capture. This was a part of the game which he was to play! He became more and more certain of it as the minutes passed, and there occurred to him again and again the inspector's significant words, "Whatever happens!" MacGregor had spoken the words with particular emphasis, had repeated them more than once. Were they intended to give him a warning of this, to put him on his, guard, as well as at his ease?
And with these thoughts, many, conflicting and mystifying, he found it impossible to keep from associating other thoughts of Bucky Nome, and of the woman whom he now frankly confessed to himself that he loved. If conditions had been a little different, if the incidents had not occurred just as they had, he have suspected the hand of Bucky Nome in what was transpiring now. But he discarded that suspicion the instant that it came to him. That which remained with him more and more deeply as the minutes passed was a mental picture of the two women—of this woman who was fighting to save her husband, and of the other, whom he loved, and for whom he had fought to save her for her husband. It was with a dull feeling of pain that he compared the love, the faith, and the honor of this woman whose husband had committed a crime with that one night's indiscretion of Mrs. Becker. It was in her eyes and face that he had seen a purity like that of an angel, and the pain seemed to stab him deeper when he thought that, after all, it was the criminal's wife who was proving herself, not Mrs. Becker.
He strove to unburden his mind for a time, and turned his head so that he could peer through the hole in the side of the box. The moon had risen, and now and then he caught flashes of the white snow in the opens, but more frequently only the black shadows of the forest through which they were passing. They had not left Le Pas more than two hours behind when the sledge stopped again and Philip saw a few scattered lights a short distance away.
"Must be Wekusko," he thought. "Hello, what's that?"
A voice came sharply from the opposite side of the box.
"Is that you, Fingy?" it demanded. "What the devil have you got there?"
"Your maps and things, sir," replied Fingy hoarsely. "Couldn't come up to-morrow, so thought we'd do it to-night."
Philip heard the closing of a door, and footsteps crunched in the snow close to his ears.
"Love o' God!" came the voice again. "What's this you've brought them up in, Fingy?"
"Coffin box, sir. Only thing the maps'd fit into, and it's been layin' around useless since MacVee kem down in it Mebby you can find use for it, later," he chuckled grewsomely. "Ho-ho-ho! mebby you can!"
A moment later the box was lifted and Philip knew that he was being carried up a step and through a door, then with a suddenness that startled him he found himself standing upright. His prison had been set on end!
"Not that way, man," objected Hodges, for Philip was now certain that he was in the presence of the chief of construction. "Put it down—over there in the corner."
"Not on your life," retorted Fingy, cracking his finger bones fiercely. "See here. Mister Hodges, I ain't a coward, but I b'lieve in bein' to the dead, 'n' to a box that's held one. It says on that red card, 'Head—This end up,' an', s'elp me, it's going to be up, unless you put it down. I ain't goin' to be ha'nted by no ghosts! Ho, ho, ho—" He approached close to the box. "I'll take this red card off, Mister Hodges. It ain't nat'ral when there ain't nothing but maps 'n' things in it."
If the cloth had not been about his mouth, it is possible that Philip would not have restrained audible expression of his astonishment at what happened an instant later. The card was torn off, and a ray of light shot into his eyes. Through a narrow slit not more than a quarter of an inch wide, and six inches long, he found himself staring out into the room. The Fingy was close behind him. And in the rear of these two, as if eager for their departure, was Hodges, chief of construction. No sooner had the men gone than Hodges turned back to the table in the center of the office. It was not difficult for Philip to see that the man's face was flushed and that he was laboring under some excitement. He sat down, fumbled over some papers, rose quickly to his feet, looked at his watch, and began pacing back and forth across the room.
"So she's coming," he chuckled gleefully.
"She's coming, at last!" He looked at his watch again, straightened his cravat before a mirror, and rubbed his hands with a low laugh. "The little beauty has surrendered," he went on, his face turning for an instant toward the coffin box. "And it's time—past time."