THE IRON TRAIL
By REX BEACH
Author of "THE AUCTION BLOCK" "RAINBOW'S END" "THE SPOILERS" Etc.
I. IN WHICH THE TIDE TAKES A HAND
II. HOW A GIRL APPEARED OUT OF THE NIGHT
III. THE IRISH PRINCE
IV. HOW A JOURNEY ENDED AT HOPE
V. WHEREIN WE SEE CURTIS GORDON AND OTHERS
VI. THE DREAMER
VII. THE DREAM
VIII. IN WHICH WE COME TO OMAR
IX. WHEREIN GORDON SHOWS HIS TEETH
X. IN WHICH THE DOCTOR SHOWS HIS WIT
XI. THE TWO SIDES OF ELIZA VIOLET APPLETON
XII. HOW GORDON FAILED IN HIS CUNNING
XIII. WE JOURNEY TO A PLACE OF MANY WONDERS
XIV. HOW THE TRUTH CAME TO ELIZA
XV. THE BATTLE OF GORDON'S CROSSING
XVI. THE FRUIT OF THE TEMPEST
XVII. HOW THE PRINCE BECAME A MAN
XVIII. HOW THE MAN BECAME A PRINCE AGAIN
XIX. MISS APPLETON MAKES A SACRIFICE
XX. HOW GORDON CHANGED HIS ATTACK
XXI. DAN APPLETON SLIPS THE LEASH
XXII. HOW THE HAZARD WAS PLAYED
XXIII. A NEW CRISIS
XXIV. GORDON'S FALL
XXVI. THE RACE
XXVII. HOW A DREAM CAME TRUE
IN WHICH THE TIDE TAKES A HAND
The ship stole through the darkness with extremest caution, feeling her way past bay and promontory. Around her was none of that phosphorescent glow which lies above the open ocean, even on the darkest night, for the mountains ran down to the channel on either side. In places they overhung, and where they lay upturned against the dim sky it could be seen that they were mantled with heavy timber. All day long the NEBRASKA had made her way through an endless succession of straits and sounds, now squeezing through an inlet so narrow that the somber spruce trees seemed to be within a short stone's-throw, again plowing across some open reach where the pulse of the north Pacific could be felt. Out through the openings to seaward stretched the restless ocean, on across uncounted leagues, to Saghalien and the rim of Russia's prison-yard.
Always near at hand was the deep green of the Canadian forests, denser, darker than a tropic jungle, for this was the land of "plenty waters." The hillsides were carpeted knee-deep with moss, wet to saturation. Out of every gulch came a brawling stream whipped to milk-white frenzy; snow lay heavy upon the higher levels, while now and then from farther inland peered a glacier, like some dead monster crushed between the granite peaks. There were villages, too, and fishing-stations, and mines and quarries. These burst suddenly upon the view, then slipped past with dreamlike swiftness. Other ships swung into sight, rushed by, and were swallowed up in the labyrinthine maze astern.
Those passengers of the Nebraska who had never before traversed the "Inside Passage" were loud in the praises of its picturesqueness, while those to whom the route was familiar seemed to find an ever-fresh fascination in its shifting scenes.
Among the latter was Murray O'Neil. The whole north coast from Flattery to St. Elias was as well mapped in his mind as the face of an old friend, yet he was forever discovering new vistas, surprising panoramas, amazing variations of color and topography. The mysterious rifts and passageways that opened and closed as if to lure the ship astray, the trackless confusion of islets, the siren song of the waterfalls, the silent hills and glaciers and snow-soaked forests—all appealed to him strongly, for he was at heart a dreamer.
Yet he did not forget that scenery such as this, lovely as it is by day, may be dangerous at night, for he knew the weakness of steel hulls. On some sides his experience and business training had made him sternly practical and prosaic. Ships aroused no manner of enthusiasm in him except as means to an end. Railroads had no glamour of romance in his eyes, for, having built a number of them, he had outlived all poetic notions regarding the "iron horse," and once the rails were laid he was apt to lose interest in them. Nevertheless, he was almost poetic in his own quiet way, interweaving practical thoughts with fanciful visions, and he loved his dreams. He was dreaming now as he leaned upon the bridge rail of the Nebraska, peering into the gloom with watchful eyes. From somewhere to port came the occasional commands of the officer on watch, echoed instantly from the inky interior of the wheelhouse. Up overside rose the whisper of rushing waters; from underfoot came the rhythmic beat of the engines far below. O'Neil shook off his mood and began to wonder idly how long it would be before Captain Johnny would be ready for his "nightcap."
He always traveled with Johnny Brennan when he could manage it, for the two men were boon companions. O'Neil was wont to live in Johnny's cabin, or on the bridge, and their nightly libation to friendship had come to be a matter of some ceremony.
The ship's master soon appeared from the shadows—a short, trim man with gray hair.
"Come," he cried, "it's waiting for us."
O'Neil followed into Brennan's luxurious, well-lit quarters, where on a mahogany sideboard was a tray holding decanter, siphon, and glasses, together with a bottle of ginger ale. The captain, after he had mixed a beverage for his passenger, opened the bottle for himself. They raised their glasses silently.
"Now that you're past the worst of it," remarked O'Neil, "I suppose you'll turn in. You're getting old for a hard run like this, Johnny."
Captain Brennan snorted. "Old? I'm a better man than you, yet. I'm a teetotaler, that's why. I discovered long ago that salt water and whiskey don't mix."
O'Neil stretched himself out in one of Brennan's easy-chairs. "Really," he said, "I don't understand why a ship carries a captain. Now of what earthly use to the line are you, for instance, except for your beauty, which, no doubt, has its value with the women? I'll admit you preside with some grace at the best table in the dining-salon, but your officers know these channels as well as you do. They could make the run from Seattle to Juneau with their eyes shut."
"Indeed they could not; and neither could I."
"Oh, well, of course I have no respect for you as a man, having seen you without your uniform."
The captain grinned in thorough enjoyment of this raillery. "I'll say nothing at all of my seamanship," he said, relapsing into the faintest of brogues, "but there's no denying that the master of a ship has many unpleasant and disgusting duties to perform. He has to amuse the prominent passengers who can't amuse themselves, for one thing, and that takes tact and patience. Why, some people make themselves at home on the bridge, in the chart-room, and even in my living-quarters, to say nothing of consuming my expensive wines, liquors, and cigars."
"I'm a brutal seafaring man, and you'll have to make allowances for my well-known brusqueness. Maybe I did mean you. But I'll say that next to you Curtis Gordon is the worst grafter I ever saw."
"You don't like Gordon, do you?" O'Neil queried with a change of tone.
"I do not! He went up with me again this spring, and he had his widow with him, too."
"You know who I mean—Mrs. Gerard. They say it's her money he's using in his schemes. Perhaps it's because of her that I don't like him."
"Ah-h! I see."
"You don't see, or you wouldn't grin like an ape. I'm a married man, I'll have you know, and I'm still on good terms with Mrs. Brennan, thank God. But I don't like men who use women's money, and that's just what our friend Gordon is doing. What money the widow didn't put up he's grabbed from the schoolma'ams and servant-girls and society matrons in the East. What has he got to show them for it?"
"A railroad project, a copper-mine, some coal claims—"
"Bah! A menagerie of wildcats!"
"You can't prove that. What's your reason for distrusting him?"
"Well, for one thing, he knows too much. Why, he knows everything, he does. Art, literature, politics, law, finance, and draw poker have no secrets from him. He's been everywhere—and back—twice; he speaks a dozen different languages. He out-argued me on poultry-raising and I know more about that than any man living. He can handle a drill or a coach-and-four; he can tell all about the art of ancient Babylon; and he beat me playing cribbage, which shows that he ain't on the level. He's the best- informed man outside of a university, and he drinks tea of an afternoon—with his legs crossed and the saucer balanced on his heel. Now, it takes years of hard work for an honest man to make a success at one thing, but Gordon never failed at anything. I ask you if a living authority on all the branches of human endeavor and a man who can beat me at 'crib' doesn't make you suspicious."
"Not at all. I've beaten you myself!"
"I was sick," said Captain Brennan.
"The man is brilliant and well educated and wealthy. It's only natural that he should excite the jealousy of a weaker intellect."
Johnny opened his lips for an explosion, then changed his mind and agreed sourly.
"He's got money, all right, and he knows how to spend it. He and his valet occupied three cabins on this ship. They say his quarters at Hope are palatial."
"My dear grampus, the mere love of luxury doesn't argue that a person is dishonest."
"Would you let a hired man help you on with your underclothes?" demanded the mariner.
"There's nothing criminal about it."
"Humph! Mrs. Gerard is different. She's all class! You don't mind her having a maid and speaking French when she runs short of English. Her daughter is like her."
"I haven't seen Miss Gerard."
"If you'd stir about the ship instead of wearing out my Morris chair you'd have that pleasure. She was on deck all morning." Captain Brennan fell silent and poked with a stubby forefinger at the ice in his glass.
"Well, out with it!" said O'Neil after a moment.
"I'd like to know the inside story of Curtis Gordon and this girl's mother."
"Why bother your head about something that doesn't concern you?" The speaker rose and began to pace the cabin floor, then, in an altered tone, inquired, "Tell me, are you going to land me and my horses at Kyak Bay?"
"That depends on the weather. It's a rotten harbor; you'll have to swim them ashore."
"Suppose it should be rough?"
"Then we'll go on, and drop you there coming back. I don't want to be caught on that shore with a southerly wind, and that's the way it usually blows."
"I can't wait," O'Neil declared. "A week's delay might ruin me. Rather than go on I'd swim ashore myself, without the horses."
"I don't make the weather at Kyak Bay. Satan himself does that. Twenty miles offshore it may be calm, and inside it may be blowing a gale. That's due to the glaciers. Those ice-fields inland and the warm air from the Japanese Current offshore kick up some funny atmospheric pranks. It's the worst spot on the coast and we'll lose a ship there some day. Why, the place isn't properly charted, let alone buoyed."
"That's nothing unusual for this coast."
"True for you. This is all a graveyard of ships and there's been many a good master's license lost because of half-baked laws from Washington. Think of a coast like this with almost no lights, no beacons nor buoys; and yet we're supposed to make time. It's fine in clear weather, but in the dark we go by guess and by God. I've stood the run longer than most of the skippers, but—"
Even as Brennan spoke the Nebraska seemed to halt, to jerk backward under his feet. O'Neil, who was standing, flung out an arm to steady himself; the empty ginger-ale bottle fell from the sideboard with a thump. Loose articles hanging against the side walls swung to and fro; the heavy draperies over Captain Johnny's bed swayed.
Brennan leaped from his chair; his ruddy face was mottled, his eyes were wide and horror-stricken.
"Damnation!" he gasped. The cabin door crashed open ahead of him and he was on the bridge, with O'Neil at his heels. They saw the first officer clinging limply to the rail; from the pilot-house window came an excited burst of Norwegian, then out of the door rushed a quartermaster.
Brennan cursed, and met the fellow with a blow which drove him sprawling back.
"Get in there, Swan," he bellowed, "and take your wheel."
"The tide swung her in!" exclaimed the mate. "The tide—My God!"
"Sweet Queen Anne!" said Brennan, more quietly. "You've ripped her belly out."
"It—was the tide," chattered the officer.
The steady, muffled beating of the machinery ceased, the ship seemed suddenly to lose her life, but it was plain that she was not aground, for she kept moving through the gloom. From down forward came excited voices as the crew poured up out of the forecastle.
Brennan leaped to the telegraph and signaled the engine-room. He was calm now, and his voice was sharp and steady.
"Go below, Mr. James, and find the extent of the damage," he directed, and a moment later the hull began to throb once more to the thrust of the propeller. Inside the wheelhouse Swan had recovered from his panic and repeated the master's orders mechanically.
The second and third officers arrived upon the bridge now, dressing as they came, and they were followed by the chief engineer. To them Johnny spoke, his words crackling like the sparks from a wireless. In an incredibly short time he had the situation in hand and turned to O'Neil, who had been a silent witness of the scene.
"Glory be!" exclaimed the captain. "Most of our good passengers are asleep; the jar would scarcely wake them."
"Tell me where and how I can help," Murray offered. His first thought had been of the possible effect of this catastrophe upon his plans, for time was pressing. As for danger, he had looked upon it so often and in so many forms that it had little power to stir him; but a shipwreck, which would halt his northward rush, was another matter. Whether the ship sank or floated could make little difference, now that the damage had been done. She was crippled and would need assistance. His fellow-passengers, he knew, were safe enough. Fortunately there were not many of them— a scant two hundred, perhaps—and if worse came to worst there was room in the life-boats for all. But the Nebraska had no watertight bulkheads and the plight of his twenty horses between decks filled him with alarm and pity. There were no life-boats for those poor dumb animals penned down yonder in the rushing waters.
Brennan had stepped into the chart-room, but returned in a moment to say:
"There's no place to beach her this side of Halibut Bay."
"How far is that?"
"Five or six miles."
"You'll—have to beach her?"
"I'm afraid so. She feels queer."
Up from the cabin deck came a handful of men passengers to inquire what had happened; behind them a woman began calling shrilly for her husband.
"We touched a rock," the skipper explained, briefly. "Kindly go below and stop that squawking. There's no danger."
There followed a harrowing wait of several minutes; then James, the first officer, came to report. He had regained his nerve and spoke with swift precision.
"She loosened three plates on her port quarter and she's filling fast."
"How long will she last?" snapped Brennan.
"Not long, sir. Half an hour, perhaps."
The captain rang for full speed, and the decks began to strain as the engine increased its labor. "Get your passengers out and stand by the boats," he ordered. "Take it easy and don't alarm the women. Have them dress warmly, and don't allow any crowding by the men. Mr. Tomlinson, you hold the steerage gang in check. Take your revolver with you." He turned to his silent friend, in whose presence he seemed to feel a cheering sympathy, "I knew it would come sooner or later, Murray," he said. "But—magnificent mummies! To touch on a clear night with the sea like glass!" He sighed dolefully. "It'll be tough on my missus."
O'Neil laid a hand upon his shoulder. "It wasn't your fault, and there will be room in the last boat for you. Understand?" Brennan hesitated, and the other continued, roughly: "No nonsense, now! Don't make a damned fool of yourself by sticking to the bridge. Promise?"
"Now what do you want me to do?"
"Keep those dear passengers quiet. I'll run for Halibut Bay, where there's a sandy beach. If she won't make it I'll turn her into the rocks, Tell 'em they won't wet a foot if they keep their heads."
"Good! I'll be back to see that you behave yourself." The speaker laughed lightly and descended to the deck, where he found an incipient panic. Stewards were pounding on stateroom doors, half- clad men were rushing about aimlessly, pallid faces peered forth from windows, and there was the sound of running feet, of slamming doors, of shrill, hysterical voices.
O'Neil saw a waiter thumping lustily upon a door and heard him shout, hoarsely:
"Everybody out! The ship is sinking!" As he turned away Murray seized him roughly by the arm and thrusting his face close to the other's, said harshly:
"If you yell again like that I'll toss you overboard."
"God help us, we're going—"
O'Neil shook the fellow until his teeth rattled; his own countenance, ordinarily so quiet, was blazing.
"There's no danger. Act like a man and don't start a stampede."
The steward pulled himself together and answered in a calmer tone:
"Very well, sir. I—I'm sorry, sir."
Murray O'Neil was known to most of the passengers, for his name had gone up and down the coast, and there were few places from San Francisco to Nome where his word did not carry weight. As he went among his fellow-travelers now, smiling, self-contained, unruffled, his presence had its effect. Women ceased their shrilling, men stopped their senseless questions and listened to his directions with some comprehension. In a short time the passengers were marshaled upon the upper deck where the life- boats hung between their davits. Each little craft was in charge of its allotted crew, the electric lights continued to burn brightly, and the panic gradually wore itself out. Meanwhile the ship was running a desperate race with the sea, striving with every ounce of steam in her boilers to find a safe berth for her mutilated body before the inrush of waters drowned her fires. That the race was close even the dullest understood, for the Nebraska was settling forward, and plowed into the night head down, like a thing maddened with pain. She was becoming unmanageable, too, and O'Neil thought with pity of that little iron-hearted skipper on the bridge who was fighting her so furiously.
There was little confusion, little talking upon the upper deck now; only a child whimpered or a woman sobbed hysterically. But down forward among the steerage passengers the case was different. These were mainly Montenegrins, Polacks, or Slavs bound for the construction camps to the westward, and they surged from side to side like cattle, requiring Tomlinson's best efforts to keep them from rushing aft.
O'Neil had employed thousands of such men; in fact, many of these very fellows had cashed his time-checks and knew him by sight. He went forward among them, and his appearance proved instantly reassuring. He found his two hostlers, and with their aid he soon reduced the mob to comparative order.
But in spite of his confident bearing he felt a great uneasiness. The Nebraska seemed upon the point of diving; he judged she must be settling very fast, and wondered that the forward tilt did not lift her propeller out of the water. Fortunately, however, the surface of the sound was like a polished floor and there were no swells to submerge her.
Over-side to starboard he could see the dim black outlines of mountains slipping past, but where lay Halibut Bay or what distance remained to be covered he could but vaguely guess.
In these circumstances the wait became almost unbearable. The race seemed hours long, the mites stretched into leagues, and with every moment of suspense the ship sank lower. The end came unexpectedly. There was a sudden startled outcry as the Nebraska struck for a second time that night. She rose slightly, rolled and bumped, grated briefly, then came to rest.
Captain Brennan shouted from the bridge:
"Fill your life-boats, Mr. James, and lower away carefully."
A cheer rose from the huddled passengers.
The boiler-room was still dry, it seemed, for the incandescent lights burned without a flicker, even after the grimy oilers and stokers had come pouring up on deck.
O'Neil climbed to the bridge. "Is this Halibut Bay?" he asked Captain Johnny.
"It is. But we're piled up on the reef outside. She may hold fast—I hope so, for there's deep water astern, and if she slips off she'll go down."
"I'd like to save my horses," said the younger man, wistfully. Through all the strain of the past half-hour or more his uppermost thought had been for them. But Brennan had no sympathy for such sentiments.
"Hell's bells!" he exclaimed. "Don't talk of horses while we've got women and children aboard." He hastened away to assist in transferring his passengers.
Instead of following, O'Neil turned and went below. He found that the water was knee-deep on the port side of the deck where his animals were quartered, which showed that the ship had listed heavily. He judged that she must be much deeper by the head then he had imagined, and that her nose was crushed in among the rocks. Until she settled at the stern, therefore, the case was not quite hopeless.
His appearance, the sound of his voice, were the signals for a chorus of eager whinnies and a great stamping of hoofs. Heads were thrust toward him from the stalls, alert ears were pricked forward, satin muzzles rubbed against him as he calmed their terror. This blind trust made the man's throat tighten achingly. He loved animals as he loved children, and above all he cared for horses. He understood them, he spoke their language as nearly as any human can be said to do so. Quivering muscles relaxed beneath his soothing palm; he called them by name and they answered with gentle twitching lips against his cheek. Some of them even began to eat and switch their tails contentedly.
He cursed aloud and made his way down the sloping deck to the square iron door, or port, through which he had loaded them. But he found that it was jammed, or held fast by the pressure outside, and after a few moments' work in water above his knees he climbed to the starboard side. Here the entrance was obstructed by a huge pile of baled hay and grain in sacks. It would be no easy task to clear it away, and he fell to work with desperate energy, for the ship was slowly changing her level. Her stern, which had been riding high, was filling; the sea stole in upon him silently. It crept up toward him until the horses, stabled on the lower side, were belly-deep in it. Their distress communicated itself to the others. O'Neil knew that his position might prove perilous if the hulk should slip backward off the reef, yet he continued to toil, hurling heavy sacks behind him, bundling awkward bales out of the way, until his hands were bleeding and his muscles ached. He was perspiring furiously; the commotion around him was horrible. Then abruptly the lights went out, leaving him in utter blackness; the last fading yellow gleam was photographed briefly upon his retina.
Tears mingled with the sweat that drained down his cheeks as he felt his way slowly out of the place, splashing, stumbling, groping uncertainly. A horse screamed in a loud, horribly human note, and he shuddered. He was sobbing curses as he emerged into the cool open air on the forward deck.
His eyes were accustomed to the darkness now, and he could see something of his surroundings. He noted numerous lights out on the placid bosom of the bay, evidently lanterns on the life- boats, and he heard distant voices. He swept the moisture from his face; then with a start he realized his situation. He listened intently; his eyes roved back along the boat-deck; there was no doubt about it—the ship was deserted. Stepping to the rail, he observed how low the Nebraska lay and also that her bow was higher than her stern. From somewhere beneath his feet came a muffled grinding and a movement which told him that the ship was seeking a more comfortable berth. He recalled stories of explosions and of the boiling eddies which sometimes accompany sinking hulls. Turning, he scrambled up to the cabin-deck and ran swiftly toward his stateroom.
HOW A GIRL APPEARED OUT OF THE NIGHT
O'Neil felt for the little bracket-lamp on the wall of his stateroom and lit it. By its light he dragged a life-preserver from the rack overhead and slipped the tapes about his shoulders, reflecting that Alaskan waters are disagreeably cold. Then he opened his traveling-bags and dumped their contents upon the white counterpane of his berth, selecting out of the confusion certain documents and trinkets. The latter he thrust into his pockets as he found them, the former he wrapped in handkerchiefs before stowing them away. The ship had listed now so that it was difficult to maintain a footing; the lamp hung at a grotesque angle and certain articles had become dislodged from their resting-places. From outside came the gentle lapping of waters, a gurgling and hissing as of air escaping through the decks. He could feel the ship strain. He acknowledged that it was not pleasant thus to be left alone on a sinking hulk, particularly on an ink-black night—
All at once he whirled and faced the door with an exclamation of astonishment, for a voice had addressed him.
There,—clinging to the casing, stood a woman—a girl—evidently drawn out of the darkness by the light which streamed down across the sloping deck from his stateroom. Plainly she had but just awakened, for she was clothed in a silken nightrobe which failed to conceal the outlines of her body, the swelling contour of her bosom, the ripened fullness of her limbs. She had flung a quilted dressing-gown of some sort over her shoulders and with one bare arm and hand strove to hold it in place. He saw that her pink feet were thrust into soft, heeless slippers—that her hair, black in this light, cascaded down to her waist, and that her eyes, which were very dark and very large, were fixed upon him with a stare like that of a sleep-walker.
"It is so dark—so strange—so still!" she murmured. "What has happened?"
"God! Didn't they waken you?" he cried in sharp surprise.
"Is the ship-sinking?" Her odd bewilderment of voice and gaze puzzled him.
He nodded. "We struck a rock. The passengers have been taken off. We're the only ones left. In Heaven's name where have you been?"
"I was asleep."
He shook his head in astonishment. "How you failed to hear that hubbub—"
"I heard something, but I was ill. My head—I took something to ease the pain."
"Ah! Medicine! It hasn't worn off yet, I see! You shouldn't have taken it. Drugs are nothing but poison to young people. Now at my age there might be some excuse for resorting to them, but you—" He was talking to cover the panic of his thoughts, for his own predicament had been serious enough, and her presence rendered it doubly embarrassing. What in the world to do with her he scarcely knew. His lips were smiling, but his eyes were grave as they roved over the cabin and out into the blackness of the night.
"Are we going to drown?" she asked, dully.
"Nonsense!" He laughed in apparent amusement, showing his large, strong teeth.
She came closer, glancing behind her and shrinking from the oily waters which could be seen over the rail and which had stolen up nearly to the sill of the door. She steadied herself by laying hold of him uncertainly. Involuntarily he turned his eyes away, for he felt shame at profaning her with his gaze. She was very soft and white, a fragile thing utterly unfit to cope with the night air and the freezing waters of Halibut Bay.
"I'm wretchedly afraid!" she whispered through white lips.
"None of that!" he said, brusquely. "I'll see that nothing happens to you." He slipped out of his life-preserver and adjusted it over her shoulders, first drawing her arms through the sleeves of her dressing-gown and knotting the cord snugly around her waist. "Just as a matter of precaution!" he assured her. "We may get wet. Can you swim?"
She shook her head.
"Never mind; I can." He found another life-belt, fitted it to his own form, and led her out upon the deck. The scuppers were awash now and she gasped as the sea licked her bare feet. "Cold, isn't it?" he remarked. "But there's no time to dress, and it's just as well, perhaps, for heavy clothes would only hamper you."
She strove to avoid the icy waters and finally paused, moaning: "I can't! I can't go on!"
Slipping his arm about her, he bore her to the door of the main cabin and entered. He could feel her warm, soft body quivering against his own. She had clasped his neck so tightly that he could scarcely breathe, but, lowering her until her feet were on the dry carpet, he gently loosed her arms.
"Now, my dear child," he told her, "you must do exactly as I tell you. Come! Calm yourself or I won't take you any farther." He held her off by her shoulders. "I may have to swim with you; you mustn't cling to me so!"
He heard her gasp and felt her draw away abruptly. Then he led her by the hand out upon the starboard deck, and together they made their way forward to the neighborhood of the bridge.
The lights he had seen upon coming from the forward hold were still in view and he hailed them at the top of his voice. But other voices were calling through the night, some of them comparatively close at hand, others answering faintly from far in-shore. The boats first launched were evidently landing, and those in charge of them were shouting directions to the ones behind. Some women had started singing and the chorus floated out to the man and the girl:
Pull for the shore, sailor, Pull for the shore.
It helped to drown their cries for assistance.
O'Neil judged that the ship was at least a quarter of a mile from the beach, and his heart sank, for he doubted that either he or his companion could last long in these waters. It occurred to him that Brennan might be close by, waiting for the Nebraska to sink —it would be unlike the little captain to forsake his trust until the last possible moment—but he reasoned that the cargo of lives in the skipper's boat would induce him to stand well off to avoid accident. He called lustily time after time, but no answer came.
Meanwhile the girl stood quietly beside him.
"Can't we make a raft?" she suggested, timidly, when he ceased to shout. "I've read of such things."
"There's no time," he told her. "Are you very cold?"
She nodded. "Please forgive me for acting so badly just now. It was all so sudden and—so awful! I think I can behave better. Oh! What was that?" She clutched him nervously, for from the forward end of the ship had come a muffled scream, like that of a woman.
"It's my poor horses," said the man, and she looked at him curiously, prompted by the catch in his throat.
There followed a wait which seemed long, but was in reality of but a few minutes, for the ship was sliding backward and the sea was creeping upward faster and faster. At last they heard a shuddering sigh as she parted from the rocks and the air rushed up through the deck openings with greater force. The Nebraska swung sluggishly with the tide; then, when her upper structure had settled flush with the sea, Murray O'Neil took the woman in his arms and leaped clear of the rail.
The first gasping moment of immersion was fairly paralyzing; after that the reaction came, and the two began to struggle away from the sinking ship. But the effect of the reaction soon wore off. The water was cruelly cold and their bodies ached in every nerve and fiber. O'Neil did his best to encourage his companion. He talked to her through his chattering teeth, and once she had recovered from the mental shock of the first fearful plunge she responded pluckily. He knew that his own heart was normal and strong, but he feared that the girl's might not be equal to the strain. Had he been alone, he felt sure that he could have gained the shore, but with her upon his hands he was able to make but little headway. The expanse of waters seemed immense; it fairly crushed hope out of him. The lights upon the shore were as distant as fixed stars. This was a country of heavy tides, he reflected, and he began to fear that the current was sweeping them out. He turned to look for the ship, but could see no traces of her, and since it was inconceivable that the Nebraska could have sunk so quietly, her disappearance confirmed his fears. More than once he fancied he heard an answer to his cries for help— the rattle of rowlocks or the splash of oars—but his ears proved unreliable.
After a time the girl began to moan with pain and terror, but as numbness gradually robbed her of sensation she became quiet. A little later her grip upon his clothing relaxed and he saw that she was collapsing. He drew her to him and held her so that her face lay upturned and her hair floated about his shoulders. In this position she could not drown, at least while his strength lasted. But he was rapidly losing control of himself; his teeth were clicking loosely, his muscles shook and twitched It required a great effort to shout, and he thought that his voice did not carry so far as at first. Therefore he fell silent, paddling with his free arm and kicking, to keep his blood stirring.
Several times he gave up and floated quietly, but courage was ingrained in him; deep down beneath his consciousness was a vitality, an inherited stubborn resistance to death, of which he knew nothing. It was that unidentified quality of mind which supports one man through a great sickness or a long period of privation, while another of more robust physique succumbs. It was the same quality which brings one man out from desert wastes, or the white silence of the polar ice, while the bodies of his fellows remain to mark the trail. This innate power of supreme resistance is found in chosen individuals throughout the animal kingdom, and it was due to it alone that Murray O'Neil continued to fight the tide long after he had ceased to exert conscious control.
At length there came through the man's dazed sensibilities a sound different from those he had been hearing: it was a human voice, mingled with the measured thud of oars in their sockets. It roused him like an electric current and gave him strength to cry out hoarsely. Some one answered him; then out of the darkness to seaward emerged a deeper blot, which loomed up hugely yet proved to be no more than a life-boat banked full of people. It came to a stop within an oar's-length of him. From the babble of voices he distinguished one that was familiar, and cried the name of Johnny Brennan. His brain had cleared now, a great dreamlike sense of thanksgiving warmed him, and he felt equal to any effort. He was vaguely amazed to find that his limbs refused to obey him.
His own name was being pronounced in shocked tones; the splash from an oar filled his face and strangled him, but he managed to lay hold of the blade, and was drawn in until outstretched hands seized him.
An oarsman was saying: "Be careful, there! We can't take him in without swamping."
But Brennan's voice shouted: "Make room or I'll bash in your bloody skull."
Another protest arose, and O'Neil saw that the craft was indeed loaded to the gunwales.
"Take the girl—quick," he implored. "I'll hang on. You can—tow me."
The limp form was removed from his side and dragged over the thwarts while a murmur of excited voices went up.
"Can you hold out for a minute, Murray?" asked Brennan.
"Yes—I think so."
"I'd give you my place, but you're too big to be taken in without danger."
"Go ahead," chattered the man in the water. "Look after the girl before it's—too late."
The captain's stout hand was in his collar now and he heard him crying:
"Pull, you muscle-bound heathens! Everybody sit still! Now away with her, men. Keep up your heart, Murray, my boy; remember it takes more than water to kill a good Irishman. It's only a foot or two farther, and they've started a fire. Serves you right, you big idiot, for going overboard, with all those boats. Man dear, but you're pulling the arm out of me; it's stretched out like a garden hose! Hey! Cover up that girl, and you, lady, rub her feet and hands. Good! Move over please—so the men can bail."
The next O'Neil knew he was feeling very miserable and very cold, notwithstanding the fact that he was wrapped in dry clothing and lay so close to a roaring spruce fire that its heat blistered him.
Brennan was bending over him with eyes wet. He was swearing, too, in a weak, faltering way, calling upon all the saints to witness that the prostrate man was the embodiment of every virtue, and that his death would be a national calamity. Others were gathered about, men and women, and among them O'Neil saw the doctor from Sitka whom he had met on shipboard.
As soon as he was able to speak he inquired for the safety of the girl he had helped to rescue. Johnny promptly reassured him.
"Man, dear, she's doing fine. A jigger of brandy brought her to, gasping like a blessed mermaid."
"Was anybody lost?"
"Praise God, not a soul! But it's lucky I stood by to watch the old tub go down, or we'd be mourning two. You'll be well by morning, for there's a cannery in the next inlet and I've sent a boat's crew for help. And now, my boy, lay yourself down again and take a sleep, won't you? It'll be doing you a lot of good."
But O'Neil shook his head and struggled to a sitting posture.
"Thanks, Johnny," said he, "but I couldn't. I can hear those horses screaming, and besides—I must make new plans."
THE IRISH PRINCE
As dawn broke the cannery tender from the station near by nosed her way up to the gravelly shore where the castaways were gathered and blew a cheering toot-toot on her whistle. She was a flat-bottomed, "wet-sterned" craft, and the passengers of the Nebraska trooped to her deck over a gang-plank. As Captain Brennan had predicted, not one of them had wet a foot, with the exception of the two who had been left aboard through their own carelessness.
By daylight Halibut Bay appeared an idyllic spot, quite innocent of the terrors with which the night had endowed it. A pebbled half-moon of beach was set in among rugged bluffs; the verdant forest crowded down to it from behind. Tiny crystal wavelets lapped along the shingle, swaying the brilliant sea mosses which clung to the larger rocks. Altogether the scene gave a strong impression of peace and security, yet just in the offing was one jarring contrast—the masts and funnel of the Nebraska slanting up out of the blue serenity, where she lay upon the sloping bottom in the edge of deep water.
The reaction following a sleepless night of anxiety had replaced the first feeling of thankfulness at deliverance, and it was not a happy cargo of humanity which the rescuing boat bore with her as the sun peeped over the hills. Many of the passengers were but half dressed, all were exhausted and hungry, each one had lost something in the catastrophe. The men were silent, the women hysterical, the children fretful.
Murray O'Neil had recovered sufficiently to go among them with the same warm smile which had made him friends from the first. In the depths of his cool gray eyes was a sparkle which showed his unquenchable Celtic spirit, and before long smiles answered his smiles, jokes rose to meet his pleasantries.
It was his turn now to comfort Captain Johnny Brennan, who had yielded to the blackest despair, once his responsibility was over.
"She was a fine ship, Murray," the master lamented, staring with tragic eyes at the Nebraska's spars.
"She was a tin washtub, and rusted like a sieve," jeered O'Neil.
"But think of me losing her on a still night!"
"I'm not sure yet that it wasn't a jellyfish that swam through her."
"Humph! I suppose her cargo will be a total loss. Two hundred thousand dollars—"
"Insured for three hundred, no doubt. I'll warrant the company will thank you."
"It's kind of you to cheer me up," said Brennan, a little less gloomily, "especially after the way I abandoned you to drown, but the missus won't allow me in the house at all when she hears I left you in pickle. Thank God the girl didn't die, anyway! I've got that to be thankful for. Curtis Gordon would have broken me— "
"Sure! Man dear, don't you know who you went bathing with? She's the daughter of that widow Gerard, and the most prominent passenger aboard, outside of your blessed self. Ain't that luck! If I was a Jap I'd split myself open with a bread-knife."
"But, fortunately, you're a sensible 'harp' of old Ireland. I'll see that the papers get the right story, 'o buck up."
"Do you think for a minute that Mrs. Brennan will understand why I didn't hop out of the lifeboat and give you my place? Not at all. I'm ruined nautically and domestically. In the course of the next ten years I may live it down, but meanwhile I'll sleep in the woodshed and speak when I'm spoken to."
Murray knew that Miss Gerard had been badly shaken by her ordeal, hence he made no attempt to see her even after the steamer had reached the fishing-village and the rescued passengers had been taken in by the residents. Instead, he went directly to the one store in the place and bought its entire stock, which he turned over to the sufferers. It was well he did so, for the village was small and, although the townspeople were hospitable, both food and clothing were scarce.
A south-bound steamer was due the next afternoon, it was learned, and plans were made for her to pick up the castaways and return them to Seattle. At the same time O'Neil discovered that a freighter for the "westward" was expected some time that night, and as she did not call at this port he arranged for a launch to take him out to the channel where he could intercept her. The loss of his horses had been a serious blow. It was all the more imperative now that he should go on, since he would have to hire men to do horses' work.
During the afternoon Miss Gerard sent for him and he went to the house of the cannery superintendent, where she had been received. The superintendent's wife had clothed her, and she seemed to have recovered her poise of body and mind. O'Neil was surprised to find her quite a different person from the frightened and disheveled girl he had seen in the yellow lamplight of his stateroom on the night before. She was as pale now as then, but her expression of terror and bewilderment had given place to one of reposeful confidence. Her lips were red and ripe and of a somewhat haughty turn. She was attractive, certainly, despite the disadvantage of the borrowed garments, and though she struck him as being possibly a little proud and cold, there was no lack of warmth in her greeting.
For her part she beheld a man of perhaps forty, of commanding height and heavy build. He was gray about the temples; his eyes were gray, too, and rather small, but they were extremely animated and kindly, and a myriad of little lines were penciled about their corners. These were evidently marks of expression, not of age, and although the rugged face itself was not handsome, it had a degree of character that compelled her interest. His clothes were good, and in spite of their recent hard usage they still lent him the appearance of a man habitually well dressed.
She was vaguely disappointed, having pictured him as being in the first flush of vigorous youth, but the feeling soon disappeared under the charm of his manner. The ideal figure she had imagined began to seem silly and school-girlish, unworthy of the man himself. She was pleased, too, by his faint though manifest embarrassment at her thanks, for she had feared a lack of tact.
Above all things she abhorred obligation of any sort, and she was inclined to resent masculine protection. This man's service filled her with real gratitude, yet she rebelled at the position in which it placed her. She preferred granting favors to receiving them.
But in fact he dismissed the whole subject so brusquely that he almost offended her, and when she realized how incomplete had been her acknowledgment, she said, with an air of pique:
"You might have given me a chance to thank you without dragging you here against your will."
"I'm sorry if I seemed neglectful."
She fell silent for a moment before asking:
"Do you detest me for my cowardice? I couldn't blame you for never wanting to see me again."
"You were very brave. You were splendid," he declared. "I simply didn't wish to intrude."
"I was terribly frightened," she confided, "but I felt that I could rely upon you. That's what every one does, isn't it? You see, you have a reputation. They told me how you refused to be taken into the boat for fear of capsizing it. That was fine."
"Oh, there was nothing brave about that. I wanted to get in badly enough, but there wasn't, room. Jove! It was cold, wasn't it?" His ready smile played whimsically about his lips, and the girl felt herself curiously drawn to him. Since he chose to make light of himself, she determined to allow nothing of the sort.
"They have told me how you bought out this whole funny little place," she said, "and turned it over to us. Is it because you have such a royal way of dispensing favors that they call you 'The Irish Prince'?"
"That's only a silly nickname."
"I don't think so. You give people food and clothes with a careless wave of the hand; you give me my life with a shrug and a smile; you offer to give up your own to a boatful of strangers without a moment's hesitation. I—I think you are a remarkable person."
"You'll turn my head with such flattery if you aren't careful," he said with a slight flush. "Please talk of something sensible now, for an antidote—your plans, for instance."
"My plans are never sensible, and what few I have are as empty as my pockets. To tell the truth, I have neither plans nor pockets," she laughed, "since this is a borrowed gown."
"Pockets in gowns are entirely matters of hearsay, anyhow; I doubt if they exist. You are going back to Seattle?"
"Oh, I suppose so. It seems to be my fate, but I'm not a bit resigned. I'm one of those unfortunate people who can't bear to be disappointed."
"You can return on the next ship, at the company's expense."
"No. Mother would never allow it. In fact, when she learns that I'm out here she'll probably send me back to New York as fast as I can go."
"Doesn't she know where you are?"
"Indeed no! She thinks I'm safely and tamely at home. Uncle Curtis wouldn't object to my visit, I fancy; at any rate, I've been counting on his good offices with mother, but it's too late now."
"I'm like you," he said; "I can't brook disappointment. I'm going on."
In answer to her questioning look he explained his plan of intercepting the freight-steamer that night, whereupon her face brightened with sudden hope.
"Can't I go, too?" she implored, eagerly. She was no longer the haughty young lady he had met upon entering the room, but a very wistful child.
"I'm afraid that's hardly—-"
"Oh! If only you knew how much it means! If only you knew how badly I want to! I'm not afraid of discomforts."
"It's not that—-"
"Please! Please! Be a real prince and grant me this boon. Won't you? My heart is set upon it."
It was hard to resist her imploring eyes—eyes which showed they had never been denied. It was hard for O'Neil to refuse anything to a woman.
"If your uncle is willing," he began, hesitatingly.
"He isn't my really uncle—I just call him that."
"Well, if Mr. Gordon wouldn't object, perhaps I can manage it, provided, of course, you promise to explain to your mother."
Miss Gerard's frank delight showed that she was indeed no more than a child. Her changed demeanor awakened a doubt in the man's mind.
"It will mean that you'll have to sit up all night in an open launch," he cautioned her.
"I'll sit up for a week."
"With the creepy water all about, and big black mountains frowning at you!"
"Oh, fiddle!" she exclaimed. "You'll be there if I get frightened." Rising impulsively she laid her hand on his arm and thanked him with an odd mingling of frankness and shyness, as if there could be no further doubt of his acquiescence. He saw that her eyes were the color of shaded woodland springs and that her hair was not black, but of a deep, rich brown where the sun played upon it, the hue of very old mahogany, with the same blood-red flame running through it. He allowed himself to admire her in silence, until suddenly she drew back with a startled exclamation.
"What is it?"
"I forgot—I have no clothes." Her words came with a doleful cadence.
"The universal complaint of your sex," he said, smiling. "Allow me to talk with your hostess. I'm sure she will let you walk out with your borrowed finery, just like Cinderella. You'll need a nice thick coat, too."
"But this is her very, very best dress."
"She shall receive, on the next ship, a big box all lined with tissue-paper, with the imprint of the most fashionable dressmaker in Seattle. I'll arrange all that by cable."
"You don't know how she loves it," the girl said, doubtfully.
"Come! Call her in. If I'm to be a prince you mustn't doubt my power."
Nor did the event prove him over-confident. Before he had fairly made known his request the good lady of the house was ready to surrender not only her best Sunday gown, but her fluttering heart as well. Murray O'Neil had a way of making people do what he wanted, and women invariably yielded to him.
HOW A JOURNEY ENDED AT HOPE
To Natalie Gerard the trip down the bay and into the sound that night was a wonderful adventure. She remembered it afterward far more vividly than the shipwreck, which became blurred in retrospect, so that she soon began to think of it as of some half-forgotten nightmare. To begin with, the personality of Murray O'Neil intrigued her more and more. The man was so strong, so sympathetic, and he had such a resistless way of doing things. The stories she had heard of him were romantic, and the superintendent's wife had not allowed them to suffer in the telling. Natalie felt elated that such a remarkable person should exert himself on her behalf. And the journey itself impressed her imagination deeply.
Although it was nine o'clock when they boarded the launch, it was still light. The evening was yellow with the peculiar diffused radiance of high latitudes, lending a certain somberness to their surroundings.
The rushing tide, the ragged rock-teeth which showed through it, the trackless, unending forests that clothed the hills in every direction, awed her a little, yet gave her an unaccustomed feeling of freedom and contentment. The long wait out between the lonely islands, where the tiny cockle-shell rolled strangely, although the sea seemed as level as a floor, held a subtle excitement. Darkness crept down out of the unpeopled gorges and swallowed them up, thrilling her with a sense of mystery.
When midnight came she found that she was ravenously hungry, and she was agreeably surprised when O'Neil produced an elaborate lunch. There were even thermos bottles filled with steaming hot coffee, more delicious, she thought, than anything she had ever before tasted. He called the meal their after-theater party, pretending that they had just come from a Broadway melodrama of shipwreck and peril. The subject led them naturally to talk of New York, and she found he was more familiar with the city than she.
"I usually spend my winters there," he explained.
"Then you have an office in the city?"
"Oh yes. I've maintained a place of business there for years."
"Where is it? On Wall Street?"
"No!" he smiled. "On upper Fifth Avenue. It's situated in the extreme southwest corner of the men's cafe at the Holland House. It consists of a round mahogany table and a leather settee."
"That's where I'm to be found at least four months out of every twelve."
"They told me you built railroads."
"I do—when I'm lucky enough to underbid my competitors. But that isn't always, and railroads aren't built every day."
"Mr. Gordon is building one."
"So I'm told." O'Neil marveled at the trick of fortune which had entangled this girl and her mother in the web of that brilliant and unscrupulous adventurer.
"Perhaps it will be a great success like your famous North Pass & Yukon Railway."
"Let us hope so." He was tempted to inquire what use Gordon had made of that widely advertised enterprise in floating his own undertaking, but instead he asked:
"Your mother has invested heavily, has she not?"
"Not in the railroad. Her fortune, and mine too, is all in the coal mines."
O'Neil smothered an exclamation.
"What is it?" she demanded.
"Nothing, only—are you sure?"
"Oh, quite sure! The mines are rich, aren't they?"
"There are no mines," he informed her, "thanks to our misguided lawmakers at Washington. There are vast deposits of fine coal which would—make mines if we were allowed to work them, but—we are not allowed."
"'We'? Are you a—a coal person, like us?"
"Yes. I was one of the first men in the Kyak fields, and I invested heavily. I know Mr. Gordon's group of claims well. I have spent more than a hundred thousand dollars trying to perfect my titles and I'm no nearer patent now than I was to begin with— not so near, in fact. I fancy Gordon has spent as much and is in the same fix. It is a coal matter which brings me to Alaska now."
"I hardly understand."
"Of course not, and you probably won't after I explain. You see the Government gave us—gave everybody who owns coal locations in Alaska—three years in which to do certain things; then it extended that time another three years. But recently a new Secretary of the Interior has come into office and he has just rescinded that later ruling, without warning, which gives us barely time to comply with the law as it first stood. For my part, I'll have to hustle or lose everything I have put in. You see? That's why I hated to see those horses drown, for I intended to use them in reaching the coal-fields. Now I'll have to hire men to carry their loads. No doubt Mr. Gordon has arranged to protect your holdings, but there are hundreds of claimants who will be ruined."
"I supposed the Government protected its subjects," said the girl, vaguely.
"One of the illusions taught in the elementary schools," laughed O'Neil. "We Alaskans have found that it does exactly the opposite! We have found it a harsh and unreasonable landlord. But I'm afraid I'm boring you." He wrapped her more snugly in her coverings, for a chill had descended with the darkness, then strove to enliven her with stories garnered from his rich experience—stories which gave her fascinating glimpses of great undertakings and made her feel personally acquainted with people of unfamiliar type, whose words and deeds, mirthful or pathetic, were always refreshingly original. Of certain individuals he spoke repeatedly until their names became familiar to his hearer. He called them his "boys" and his voice was tender as he told of their doings.
"These men are your staff?" she ventured.
"Yes. Every one who succeeds in his work must have loyal hands to help him."
"Where are they now?"
"Oh! Scattered from Canada to Mexico, each one doing his own particular work. There's Mellen, for instance; he's in Chihuahua building a cantilever bridge. He's the best steel man in the country. McKay, my superintendent, is running a railroad job in California. 'Happy Tom' Slater—"
"The funny man with the blues?"
"Exactly! He was at work on a hydraulic project near Dawson the last I heard of him. Dr. Gray is practising in Seattle, and Parker, the chief engineer, has a position of great responsibility in Boston. He is the brains of our outfit, you understand; it was really he who made the North Pass & Yukon possible. The others are scattered out in the same way, but they'd all come if I called them." The first note of pride she had detected crept into his voice when he said: "My 'boys' are never idle. They don't have to be, after working with me."
"And what is your part of the work?" asked the girl.
"I? Oh, I'm like Marcelline, the clown at the Hippodrome—always pretending to help, but forever keeping underfoot. When it becomes necessary I raise the money to keep the performance going."
"Do you really mean that all those men would give up their positions and come to you if you sent for them?"
"By the first train, or afoot, if there were no other way. They'd follow me to the Philippines or Timbuctoo, regardless of their homes and their families."
"That is splendid! You must feel very proud of inspiring such loyalty," said Natalie. "But why are you idle now? Surely there are railroads to be built somewhere."
"Yes, I was asked to figure on a contract in Manchuria the other day. I could have had it easily, and it would have meant my everlasting fortune, but—"
"I found it isn't a white man's country. It's sickly and unsafe. Some of my 'boys' would die before we finished it, and the game isn't worth that price. No, I'll wait. Something better will turn up. It always does."
As Natalie looked upon that kindly, square-hewn face with its tracery of lines about the eyes, its fine, strong jaw, and its indefinable expression of power, she began to understand more fully why those with whom she had talked had spoken of Murray O'Neil with an almost worshipful respect. She felt very insignificant and purposeless as she huddled there beside him, and her complacence at his attentions deepened into a vivid sense of satisfaction. Thus far he had spoken entirely of men; she wondered if he ever thought of women, and thrilled a bit at the intimacy that had sprung up between them so quickly and naturally.
It confirmed her feeling of prideful confidence in the man that the north-bound freighter should punctually show her lights around the islands and that she should pause in her majestic sweep at the signal of this pigmy craft. The ship loomed huge and black and terrifying as the launch at length drew in beneath it; its sides towered like massive, unscalable ramparts. There was a delay; there seemed to be some querulousness on the part of the officer in command at being thus halted, some doubt about allowing strangers to come aboard. But the girl smiled to herself as the voices flung themselves back and forth through the night. Once they learned who it was that called from the sea their attitude would quickly change. Sure enough, in a little while orders were shouted from the bridge; she heard men running from somewhere, and a rope ladder came swinging down. O'Neil was lifting her from her warm nest of rugs now and telling her to fear nothing. The launch crept closer, coughing and shuddering as if in terror at this close contact. There was a brief instant of breathlessness as the girl found herself swung out over the waters; then a short climb with O'Neil's protecting hand at her waist and she stood panting, radiant, upon steel decks which began to throb and tremble to the churning engines.
One further task remained for her protector's magic powers. It appeared that there were no quarters on the ship for women, but after a subdued colloquy between Murray and the captain she was led to the cleanest and coziest of staterooms high up near the bridge. Over the door she glimpsed a metal plate with the words "First Officer" lettered upon it. O'Neil was bidding her good night and wishing her untroubled rest, then almost before she had accustomed herself to her new surroundings an immaculate, though sleepy, Japanese steward stood before her with a tray. He was extremely cheerful for one so lately awakened, being still aglow with pleased surprise over the banknote which lay neatly folded in his waistcoat pocket.
Natalie sat cross-legged on her berth and munched with the appetite of a healthy young animal at the fruit and biscuits and lovely heavy cake which the steward had brought. She was very glad now that she had disobeyed her mother. It was high time, indeed, to assert herself, for she was old enough to know something of the world, and her judgment of men was mature enough to insure perfect safety—that much had been proved. She felt that her adventure had been a great success practically and romantically. She wanted to lie awake and think it over in detail, but she soon grew sleepy. Just before she dozed off she wondered drowsily if "The Irish Prince" had found quarters for himself, then reflected that undoubtedly the captain had been happy to tumble out of bed for him. Or perhaps he felt no fatigue and would watch the night through. Even now he might be pacing the deck outside her door. At any rate, he was not far off. She closed her eyes, feeling deliciously secure and comfortable.
In one way the southern coast of Alaska may be said to be perhaps a million years younger than any land on this continent, for it is still in the glacial period. The vast alluvial plains and valleys of the interior are rimmed in to the southward and shut off from the Pacific by a well-nigh impassable mountain barrier, the top of which is capped with perpetual snow. Its gorges, for the most part, run rivers of ice instead of water. Europe has nothing like these glaciers which overflow the Alaskan valleys and submerge the hills, for many of them contain more ice than the whole of Switzerland. This range is the Andes of the north, and it curves westward in a magnificent sweep, hugging the shore for a thousand leagues. Against it the sea beats stormily; its frozen crest is played upon by constant rains and fogs and blizzards. But over beyond lies a land of sunshine, of long, dry, golden summer days.
Into this chaos of cliff and peak and slanting canyon, midway to the westward, is let King Phillip Sound, a sheet of water dotted with islands and framed by forests. It reaches inland with long, crooked tentacles which end like talons, in living ice. Hidden some forty miles up one of these, upon the moraine of a receding glacier, sits Cortez, a thriving village and long the point of entry to the interior, the commencement of the overland trail to the golden valleys of the Yukon and the Tanana. The Government wagon trail winds in from here, tracing its sinuous course over one pass after another until it emerges into the undulating prairies of the "inside country."
Looking at the map, one would imagine that an easier gateway to the heart of Alaska would be afforded by the valley of the Salmon River, which enters the ocean some few miles to the eastward of King Phillip Sound, but there are formidable difficulties. The stream bursts the last rampart of the Coast Range asunder by means of a canyon down which it rages in majestic fury and up which no craft can navigate. Then it spreads itself out through a dozen shallow mouths across a forty-mile delta of silt and sand and glacial wash. As if Nature feared her arctic strong-box might still be invaded by this route, she has placed additional safeguards to the approach in the form of giant glaciers, through the very bowels of which the Salmon River is forced to burrow.
In the early days of the Klondike rush men had attempted to ascend the valley, but they had succeeded only at the cost of such peril and disaster that others were warned away. The region had become the source of many weird stories, and while the ice- fields could be seen from the Kyak coal-fields, and on still days their cannonading could be heard far out at sea, there were few who had ventured to cross the forty-mile morass which lay below them and thus attempt to verify or to disprove the rumors,
It was owing to these topographical conditions that Cortez had been established as the point of entry to the interior; it was because of them that she had grown and flourished, with her sawmills and her ginmills, her docks, and her dives. But at the time when this story opens Alaska had developed to a point where an overland outlet by winter and a circuitous inlet, by way of Bering Sea and the crooked Yukon, in summer were no longer sufficient, There was need of a permanent route by means of which men and freight might come and go through all the year. The famous North Pass & Yukon Railway, far to the eastward, afforded transportation to Dawson City and the Canadian territory, and had proven itself such a financial success that builders began to look for a harbor, more to the westward, from which they could tap the great heart of Alaska. Thus it was that Cortez awoke one morning to find herself selected as the terminus of a new line. Other railway propositions followed, flimsy promotion schemes for the most part, but among them two that had more than paper and "hot air" behind them. One of these was backed by the Copper Trust which had made heavy mining investments two hundred miles inland, the other by Curtis Gordon, a promoter, who claimed New York as his birthplace and the world as his residence.
Gordon had been one of the first locaters in the Kyak coal- fields, and he had also purchased a copper prospect a few miles down the bay from Cortez, where he had started a town which he called Hope. There were some who shook their heads and smiled knowingly when they spoke of that prospect, but no one denied that it was fast assuming the outward semblance of a mine under Gordon's direction. He had erected a fine substantial wharf, together with buildings, bunk-houses, cottages, and a spacious residence for himself; and daily the piles of debris beneath the tunnel entries to his workings grew. He paid high wages, he spent money lavishly, and he had a magnificent and compelling way with him that dazzled and delighted the good people of Cortez. When he began work on a railroad which was designed to reach far into the interior his action was taken as proof positive of his financial standing, and his critics were put down as pessimists who had some personal grudge against him.
It was up to the raw, new village of Hope, with its odor of fresh-cut fir and undried paint, that the freight-steamer with Natalie Gerard and "The Irish Prince" aboard, came gingerly one evening.
O'Neil surveyed the town with some curiosity as he approached, for Gordon's sensational doings had interested him greatly. He was accustomed to the rapid metamorphoses of a growing land; it was his business, in fact, to win the wilderness over to order, and therefore he was not astonished at the changes wrought here during his absence. But he was agreeably surprised at the businesslike arrangement of the place, and the evidence that a strong and practised hand had guided its development.
Even before the ship had tied up he had identified the tall, impressive man on the dock as the genius and founder of Hope, and the dark-haired, well-formed woman beside him as Natalie's mother. It was not until they were close at hand that the daughter made her presence known; then, unable to restrain herself longer, she shrieked her greeting down over the rail. Mrs. Gerard started, then stared upward as if at an apparition; she stretched out a groping hand to Gordon, who stood as if frozen in his tracks. They seemed to be exchanging hurried words, and the man appeared to be reassuring his companion. It looked very odd to O'Neil; but any suspicion that Natalie was unwelcome disappeared when she reached the dock. Her mother's dark eyes were bright with unshed tears of gladness, her face was transfigured, she showed the strong, repressed emotion of an undemonstrative nature as they embraced. Natalie clung to her, laughing, crying, bombarding her with questions, begging forgiveness, and babbling of her adventures. Their resemblance was striking, and in point of beauty there seemed little to choose between them. They might have been nearly of an age, except that the mother lacked the girl's restless vivacity.
O'Neil remained in the background, like an uncomfortable bridegroom, conscious meanwhile of the searching and hostile regard of Curtis Gordon. But at last his protegee managed to gasp out in a more or less coherent manner the main facts of the shipwreck and her rescue, whereupon Gordon's attitude abruptly altered.
"My God!" he ejaculated. "You were not on the Nebraska?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" cried Natalie. "The life-boats went off and left me all alone—in the dark—with the ship sinking! Mr. O'Neil saved me. He took me up and jumped just as the ship sank, and we were all night in the freezing water. We nearly died, didn't we? He fainted, and so did I, mummie dear—it was so cold. He held me up until we were rescued, though, and then there wasn't room in the life-boat for both of us. But he made them take me in, just the same, while he stayed in the water. He was unconscious when he reached the shore. Oh, it was splendid!"
O'Neil's identity being established, and the nature of his service becoming apparent, Curtis Gordon took his hand in a crushing grip and thanked him in a way that might have warmed the heart of a stone gargoyle. The man was transformed, now that he understood; he became a geyser of eloquence. He poured forth his appreciation in rounded sentences; his splendid musical voice softened and swelled and broke with a magnificent and touching emotion. Through it all the Irish contractor remained uncomfortably silent, for he could not help thinking that this fulsome outburst was aroused rather by the man who had built the North Pass
A crowd was collecting round them, but Gordon cleared it away with an imperious gesture.
"Come!" he said. "This is no place to talk. Mr. O'Neil's splendid gallantry renders our mere thanks inane. He must allow us to express our gratitude in a more fitting manner."
"Please don't," exclaimed O'Neil, hastily.
"You are our guest; the hospitality of our house is yours. Hope would be honored to welcome you, sir, at any time, but under these circumstances—"
"I'm going right on to Cortez."
"The ship will remain here for several hours, discharging freight, and we insist that you allow us this pleasure meanwhile. You shall spend the night here, then perhaps you will feel inclined to prolong your stay. All that Cortez has we have in double proportion—I say it with pride. Cortez is no longer the metropolis of the region. Hope—Well, I may say that Cortez is, of all Alaskan cities, the most fortunate, since it has realized its Hope." He laughed musically. "This town has come to stay; we intend to annex Cortez eventually. If you feel that you must go on, I shall deem it a pleasure to send you later in my motor- boat. She makes the run in fifteen minutes. But you must first honor our house and our board; you must permit us to pledge your health in a glass. We insist!"
"Please!" said Mrs. Gerard.
"Do come, your Highness," Natalie urged, from the shelter of the elder woman's arms.
"You're more than kind," said O'Neil, and together the four turned their faces to the shore.
WHEREIN WE SEE CURTIS GORDON AND OTHERS
Curtis Gordon's respect for his guest increased as they walked up the dock, for, before they had taken many steps, out from the crowd which had gathered to watch the ship's arrival stepped one of his foremen. This fellow shook hands warmly with O'Neil, whereupon others followed, one by one—miners, day laborers, "rough-necks" of many nationalities. They doffed their hats- something they never did for Gordon—and stretched out grimy hands, their faces lighting up with smiles. O'Neil accepted their greetings with genuine pleasure and called them by name.
"We just heard you was shipwrecked," said Gordon's foreman, anxiously. "You wasn't hurt, was you?"
"Not in the least."
"God be praised! There's a lot of the old gang at work here."
"So I see."
"Here's Shorty, that you may remember from the North Pass." The speaker dragged from the crowd a red-faced, perspiring ruffian who had hung back with the bashfulness of a small boy. "He's the fellow you dug out of the slide at twenty-eight."
"Connors!" cried O'Neil, warmly. "I'm glad to see you. And how are the two arms of you?"
"Better 'n ever they was, the both av them!" Mr. Connors blushed, doubled his fists and flexed his bulging muscles. "An' why shouldn't they be, when you set 'em both with your own hands, Misther O'Neil? 'Twas as good a job as Doc Gray ever done in the hospittle. I hope you're doin' well, sir." He pulled his forelock, placed one foot behind the other, and tapped it on the planking, grinning expansively.
"Very well indeed, thank you."
O'Neil's progress was slow, for half the crowd insisted upon shaking his hand and exchanging a few words with him. Clumsy Swedes bobbed their heads, dark-browed foreign laborers whose nationality it was hard to distinguish showed their teeth and chattered words of greeting.
"Bless my soul!" Gordon exclaimed, finally.
"You know more of them than I do."
"Yes! I seldom have to fire a man."
"Then you are favored of the gods. Labor is my great problem. It is the supreme drawback of this country. These people drift and blow on every breeze, like the sands of the Sahara. With more and better help I could work wonders here."
Unexpected as these salutations had been, O'Neil's greatest surprise came a moment later as he passed the first of the company buildings. There he heard his name pronounced in a voice which halted him, and in an open doorway he beheld a huge, loose- hung man of tremendous girth, with a war-bag in his hand and a wide black hat thrust back from a shiny forehead.
"Why, Tom!" he exclaimed. "Tom Slater!"
Gordon groaned and went on with the women, saying: "Come up to the house when you escape, Mr. O'Neil. I shall have dinner served."
Mr. Slater came forward slowly, dragging his clothes-bag with him. The two shook hands.
"What in the world are you doing here, Tom?"
"Nothing!" said Slater. He had a melancholy cast of feature, utterly out of keeping with his rotund form. In his eye was the somber glow of a soul at war with the flesh.
"I had a good job, putting in a power plant for his nibs"—he indicated the retreating Gordon with a disrespectful jerk of the thumb—"but I quit."
"Not enough pay?"
"Best wages I ever got. He pays well."
"What made you quit?"
"I haven't exactly quit, but I'm going to. When I saw you coming up the dock I said: 'There's the chief! Now he'll want me.' So I began to pack." The speaker dangled his partly filled war-bag as evidence. In an even sourer tone he murmured:
"Ain't that just me? I ain't had a day's luck since Lincoln was shot. The minute I get a good job along you come and spoil it."
"I don't want you," laughed O'Neil.
But Slater was not convinced. He shook his head.
"Oh yes, you do. You've got something on or you wouldn't be here. I've been drawing pay from you now for over five minutes."
O'Neil made a gesture of impatience.
"No! No! In the first place, I have nothing for you to do; in the second place, I probably couldn't afford the wages Gordon is paying you."
"That's the hell of it!" gloomily agreed "Happy Tom." "Where are your grips? I'll begin by carrying them."
"I haven't any. I've been shipwrecked. Seriously, Tom, I have no place for you."
The repetition of this statement made not the smallest impression upon the hearer.
"You'll have one soon enough," he replied. Then with a touch of spirit, "Do you think I'd work for this four-flusher if you were in the country?"
"Hush!" O'Neil cast a glance over his shoulder. "By the way, how do you happen to be here? I thought you were in Dawson."
"I finished that job. I was working back toward ma and the children. I haven't seen them for two years."
"You think Gordon is a false alarm?"
"Happy Tom" spat with unerring accuracy at a crack, then said:
"He's talking railroads! Railroads! Why, I've got a boy back in the state of Maine, fourteen years old—"
"Yes. My son Willie could skin Curtis Gordon at railroad- building—and Willie is the sickly one of the outfit. But I'll hand it to Gordon for one thing; he's a money-getter and a money- spender. He knows where the loose stone in the hearth is laid, and he knows just which lilac bush the family savings are buried under. Those penurious Pilgrim Fathers in my part of the country come up and drop their bankbooks through the slot in his door every morning. He's the first easy money I ever had; I'd get rich off of him, but"—Slater sighed—"of course you had to come along and wrench me away from the till."
"Don't quit on my account," urged his former chief. "I'm up here on coal matters. I can't take time to explain now, but I'll see you later."
"Suit yourself, only don't keep me loafing on full time. I'm an expensive man. I'll be packed and waiting for you."
O'Neil went on his way, somewhat amused, yet undeniably pleased at finding his boss packer here instead of far inland, for Slater's presence might, after all, fit well enough into his plans.
"The Irish Prince" had gained something of a reputation for extravagance, but he acknowledged himself completely outshone by the luxury with which Curtis Gordon had surrounded himself at Hope. The promoter had spoken of his modest living-quarters—in reality they consisted of a handsome twenty-room house, furnished with the elegance of a Newport cottage. The rugs were thick and richly colored; the furniture was of cathedral oak and mahogany. In the library were deep leather chairs and bookcases, filled mainly with the works of French and German authors of decadent type. The man's taste in art was revealed by certain pictures, undeniably clever, but a little too daring. He was undoubtedly a sybarite, yet he evidently possessed rare energy and executive force. It was an unusual combination.
The dinner was notable mainly for its lavish disregard of expense. There were strawberries from Seattle, fresh cream and butter from Gordon's imported cows, cheese prepared expressly for him in France, and a champagne the date of which he took pains to make known.
On the whole he played the part of host agreeably enough and his constant flow of talk was really entertaining. His anecdotes embraced three continents; his wit, though Teutonic, was genial and mirth-provoking. When Mrs. Gerard took time from her worshipful regard of her daughter to enter the conversation, she spoke with easy charm and spontaneity. As for Natalie, she was intoxicated with delight; she chattered, she laughed, she interrupted with the joyful exuberance of youth.
Under such circumstances the meal should have proved enjoyable, yet the guest of honor had never been more ill at ease. Precisely what accounted for the feeling he could not quite determine. Somewhere back in his mind was a suspicion that things were not as they should be, here in this house of books and pictures and incongruities. He told himself that he should not be so narrow- minded as to resent Gloria Gerard's presence here, particularly since she herself had told him that her friendship for Gordon dated back many years. Nevertheless, the impression remained to disturb him.
"You wonder, perhaps, why I have been so extravagant with my living-quarters," said Gordon, as they walked into the library, "but it is not alone for myself. You see I have people associated with me who are accustomed to every comfort and luxury and I built this house for them. Mrs. Gerard has been kind enough to grace the establishment with her presence, and I expect others of my stock-holders to do likewise. You see, I work in the light, Mr. O'Neil; I insist upon the broadest publicity in all my operations, and to that end I strive to bring my clients into contact with the undertaking itself. For instance, I am bringing a party of my stockholders all the way from New York, at my own expense, just to show them how their interests are being administered. I have chartered a special train and a ship for them, and of course they must be properly entertained while here."
"Quite a scheme," said O'Neil.
"I wanted to show them this marvelous country, God's wonderland of opportunity. They will return impressed by the solidity and permanence of their investment."
Certainly the man knew how to play his game. No more effective means of advertising, no more profitable stock-jobbing scheme could be devised than a free trip of that sort and a tour of Alaska under the watchful guidance of Curtis Gordon. If any member of the party returned unimpressed it would not be the fault of the promoter; if any one of them did not voluntarily go out among his personal friends as a missionary it would be because Gordon's magnetism had lost its power. O'Neil felt a touch of unwilling admiration.
"I judge, from what you say, that the mine gives encouragement," he ventured, eying his host curiously through a cloud of tobacco smoke.
"'Encouragement' is not the word. Before many years 'Hope Consolidated' will be listed on the exchanges of the world along with 'Amalgamated' and the other great producers. We have here, Mr. O'Neil, a tremendous mountain of ore, located at tide water, on one of the world's finest harbors. The climate is superb; we have coal near at hand for our own smelter. The mine only requires systematic development under competent hands."
"I was in Cortez when Lars Anderson made his first discovery here, and I had an option on all this property. I believe the price was twelve hundred dollars; at any rate, it was I who drove those tunnels you found when you bought him out."
Gordon's eyes wavered briefly, then he laughed.
"My dear sir, you have my sincere sympathy. Your poison, my meat —as it were, eh? You became discouraged too soon. Another hundred feet of work and you would have been justified in paying twelve hundred thousand dollars. This 'Eldorado' which the Copper Trust has bought has a greater surface showing than 'Hope,' I grant; but—it lies two hundred miles inland, and there is the all-important question of transportation to be solved. The ore will have to be hauled, or smelted on the ground, while we have the Kyak coal-fields at our door. The Heidlemanns are building a railroad to it which will parallel mine in places, but the very nature of their enterprise foredooms it to failure."
"Indeed? How so?"
"My route is the better. By a rigid economy of expenditure, by a careful supervision of detail, I can effect a tremendous saving over their initial cost. I hope to convince them of the fact, and thus induce them to withdraw from the field or take over my road at—a reasonable figure. Negotiations are under way."
At this talk of economy from Curtis Gordon O'Neil refrained from smiling with difficulty. He felt certain that the man's entire operations were as unsound as his statement that he could bring the Trust to terms. Yet Gordon seemed thoroughly in earnest. Either he expected to fool his present hearer, or else he had become hypnotized by the spell of his own magnificent twaddle— O'Neil could not tell which.
"Who laid out your right-of-way?" he asked with some interest.
"A very able young engineer, Dan Appleton. An excellent man, but —unreliable in certain things. I had to let him go, this very afternoon, in fact, for insubordination. But I discharged him more for the sake of discipline than anything else. He'll be anxious to return in a few days. Now tell me"—Gordon fixed his visitor with a bland stare which failed to mask his gnawing curiosity—"what brings you to King Phillip Sound? Are we to be rivals in the railroad field?"
"No. There are enough projects of that sort in the neighborhood for the present."
"Five, all told, but only one destined to succeed."
"I'm bound for the Kyak coal-fields to perfect and amend my surveys under the new ruling."
"Ah! I've heard about that ruling."
"Heard about it?" exclaimed O'Neil. "Good Lord! Haven't you complied with it?"