THE RIVER'S END
James Oliver Curwood
JTABLE 10 25 1
THE RIVER'S END
Between Conniston, of His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police, and Keith, the outlaw, there was a striking physical and facial resemblance. Both had observed it, of course. It gave them a sort of confidence in each other. Between them it hovered in a subtle and unanalyzed presence that was constantly suggesting to Conniston a line of action that would have made him a traitor to his oath of duty. For nearly a month he had crushed down the whispered temptings of this thing between them. He represented the law. He was the law. For twenty-seven months he had followed Keith, and always there had been in his mind that parting injunction of the splendid service of which he was a part—"Don't come back until you get your man, dead or alive." Otherwise—
A racking cough split in upon his thoughts. He sat up on the edge of the cot, and at the gasping cry of pain that came with the red stain of blood on his lips Keith went to him and with a strong arm supported his shoulders. He said nothing, and after a moment Conniston wiped the stain away and laughed softly, even before the shadow of pain had faded from his eyes. One of his hands rested on a wrist that still bore the ring-mark of a handcuff. The sight of it brought him back to grim reality. After all, fate was playing whimsically as well as tragically with their destinies.
"Thanks, old top," he said. "Thanks."
His fingers closed over the manacle-marked wrist.
Over their heads the arctic storm was crashing in a mighty fury, as if striving to beat down the little cabin that had dared to rear itself in the dun-gray emptiness at the top of the world, eight hundred miles from civilization. There were curious waitings, strange screeching sounds, and heart-breaking meanings in its strife, and when at last its passion died away and there followed a strange quiet, the two men could feel the frozen earth under their feet shiver with the rumbling reverberations of the crashing and breaking fields of ice out in Hudson's Bay. With it came a dull and steady roar, like the incessant rumble of a far battle, broken now and then—when an ice mountain split asunder—with a report like that of a sixteen-inch gun. Down through the Roes Welcome into Hudson's Bay countless billions of tons of ice were rending their way like Hunnish armies in the break-up.
"You'd better lie down," suggested Keith.
Conniston, instead, rose slowly to his feet and went to a table on which a seal-oil lamp was burning. He swayed a little as he walked. He sat down, and Keith seated himself opposite him. Between them lay a worn deck of cards. As Conniston fumbled them in his fingers, he looked straight across at Keith and grinned.
"It's queer, devilish queer," he said.
"Don't you think so, Keith?" He was an Englishman, and his blue eyes shone with a grim, cold humor. "And funny," he added.
"Queer, but not funny," partly agreed Keith.
"Yes, it is funny," maintained Conniston. "Just twenty-seven months ago, lacking three days, I was sent out to get you, Keith. I was told to bring you in dead or alive—and at the end of the twenty-sixth month I got you, alive. And as a sporting proposition you deserve a hundred years of life instead of the noose, Keith, for you led me a chase that took me through seven different kinds of hell before I landed you. I froze, and I starved, and I drowned. I haven't seen a white woman's face in eighteen months. It was terrible. But I beat you at last. That's the jolly good part of it, Keith—I beat you and GOT you, and there's the proof of it on your wrists this minute. I won. Do you concede that? You must be fair, old top, because this is the last big game I'll ever play." There was a break, a yearning that was almost plaintive, in his voice.
Keith nodded. "You won," he said.
"You won so square that when the frost got your lung—"
"You didn't take advantage of me," interrupted Conniston. "That's the funny part of it, Keith. That's where the humor comes in. I had you all tied up and scheduled for the hangman when—bing!—along comes a cold snap that bites a corner of my lung, and the tables are turned. And instead of doing to me as I was going to do to you, instead of killing me or making your getaway while I was helpless—Keith—old pal—YOU'VE TRIED TO NURSE ME BACK TO LIFE! Isn't that funny? Could anything be funnier?"
He reached a hand across the table and gripped Keith's. And then, for a few moments, he bowed his head while his body was convulsed by another racking cough. Keith sensed the pain of it in the convulsive clutching of Conniston's fingers about his own. When Conniston raised his face, the red stain was on his lips again.
"You see, I've got it figured out to the day," he went on, wiping away the stain with a cloth already dyed red. "This is Thursday. I won't see another Sunday. It'll come Friday night or some time Saturday. I've seen this frosted lung business a dozen times. Understand? I've got two sure days ahead of me, possibly a third. Then you'll have to dig a hole and bury me. After that you will no longer be held by the word of honor you gave me when I slipped off your manacles. And I'm asking you—WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?"
In Keith's face were written deeply the lines of suffering and of tragedy. Yesterday they had compared ages.
He was thirty-eight, only a little younger than the man who had run him down and who in the hour of his achievement was dying. They had not put the fact plainly before. It had been a matter of some little embarrassment for Keith, who at another time had found it easier to kill a man than to tell this man that he was going to die. Now that Conniston had measured his own span definitely and with most amazing coolness, a load was lifted from Keith's shoulders. Over the table they looked into each other's eyes, and this time it was Keith's fingers that tightened about Conniston's. They looked like brothers in the sickly glow of the seal-oil lamp.
"What are you going to do?" repeated Conniston.
Keith's face aged even as the dying Englishman stared at him. "I suppose—I'll go back," he said heavily.
"You mean to Coronation Gulf? You'll return to that stinking mess of Eskimo igloos? If you do, you'll go mad!"
"I expect to," said Keith. "But it's the only thing left. You know that. You of all men must know how they've hunted me. If I went south—"
It was Conniston's turn to nod his head, slowly and thoughtfully. "Yes, of course," he agreed. "They're hunting you hard, and you're giving 'em a bully chase. But they'll get you, even up there. And I'm—sorry."
Their hands unclasped. Conniston filled his pipe and lighted it. Keith noticed that he held the lighted taper without a tremor. The nerve of the man was magnificent.
"I'm sorry," he said again. "I—like you. Do you know, Keith, I wish we'd been born brothers and you hadn't killed a man. That night I slipped the ring-dogs on you I felt almost like a devil. I wouldn't say it if it wasn't for this bally lung. But what's the use of keeping it back now? It doesn't seem fair to keep a man up in that place for three years, running from hole to hole like a rat, and then take him down for a hanging. I know it isn't fair in your case. I feel it. I don't mean to be inquisitive, old chap, but I'm not believing Departmental 'facts' any more. I'd make a topping good wager you're not the sort they make you out. And so I'd like to know—just why—you killed Judge Kirkstone?"
Keith's two fists knotted in the center of the table. Conniston saw his blue eyes darken for an instant with a savage fire. In that moment there came a strange silence over the cabin, and in that silence the incessant and maddening yapping of the little white foxes rose shrilly over the distant booming and rumbling of the ice.
"Why did I kill Judge Kirkstone?" Keith repeated the words slowly.
His clenched hands relaxed, but his eyes held the steady glow of fire. "What do the Departmental 'facts' tell you, Conniston?"
"That you murdered him in cold blood, and that the honor of the Service is at stake until you are hung."
"There's a lot in the view-point, isn't there? What if I said I didn't kill Judge Kirkstone?"
Conniston leaned forward a little too eagerly. The deadly paroxysm shook his frame again, and when it was over his breath came pantingly, as if hissing through a sieve. "My God, not Sunday—or Saturday," he breathed. "Keith, it's coming TOMORROW!"
"No, no, not then," said Keith, choking back something that rose in his throat. "You'd better lie down again."
Conniston gathered new strength. "And die like a rabbit? No, thank you, old chap! I'm after facts, and you can't lie to a dying man. Did you kill Judge Kirkstone?"
"I—don't—know," replied Keith slowly, looking steadily into the other's eyes. "I think so, and yet I am not positive. I went to his home that night with the determination to wring justice from him or kill him. I wish you could look at it all with my eyes, Conniston. You could if you had known my father. You see, my mother died when I was a little chap, and my father and I grew up together, chums. I don't believe I ever thought of him as just simply a father. Fathers are common. He was more than that. From the time I was ten years old we were inseparable. I guess I was twenty before he told me of the deadly feud that existed between him and Kirkstone, and it never troubled me much—because I didn't think anything would ever come of it—until Kirkstone got him. Then I realized that all through the years the old rattlesnake had been watching for his chance. It was a frame-up from beginning to end, and my father stepped into the trap. Even then he thought that his political enemies, and not Kirkstone, were at the bottom of it. We soon discovered the truth. My father got ten years. He was innocent. And the only man on earth who could prove his innocence was Kirkstone, the man who was gloating like a Shylock over his pound of flesh. Conniston, if you had known these things and had been in my shoes, what would you have done?"
Conniston, lighting another taper over the oil flame, hesitated and answered: "I don't know yet, old chap. What did you do?"
"I fairly got down on my knees to the scoundrel," resumed Keith. "If ever a man begged for another man's life, I begged for my father's—for the few words from Kirkstone that would set him free. I offered everything I had in the world, even my body and soul. God, I'll never forget that night! He sat there, fat and oily, two big rings on his stubby fingers—a monstrous toad in human form—and he chuckled and laughed at me in his joy, as though I were a mountebank playing amusing tricks for him—and there my soul was bleeding itself out before his eyes! And his son came in, fat and oily and accursed like his father, and HE laughed at me. I didn't know that such hatred could exist in the world, or that vengeance could bring such hellish joy. I could still hear their gloating laughter when I stumbled out into the night. It haunted me. I heard it in the trees. It came in the wind. My brain was filled with it—and suddenly I turned back, and I went into that house again without knocking, and I faced the two of them alone once more in that room. And this time, Conniston, I went back to get justice—or to kill. Thus far it was premeditated, but I went with my naked hands. There was a key in the door, and I locked it. Then I made my demand. I wasted no words—"
Keith rose from the table and began to pace back and forth. The wind had died again. They could hear the yapping of the foxes and the low thunder of the ice.
"The son began it," said Keith. "He sprang at me. I struck him. We grappled, and then the beast himself leaped at me with some sort of weapon in his hand. I couldn't see what it was, but it was heavy. The first blow almost broke my shoulder. In the scuffle I wrenched it from his hand, and then I found it was a long, rectangular bar of copper made for a paper-weight. In that same instant I saw the son snatch up a similar object from the table, and in the act he smashed the table light. In darkness we fought. I did not feel that I was fighting men. They were monsters and gave me the horrible sensation of being in darkness with crawling serpents. Yes, I struck hard. And the son was striking, and neither of us could see. I felt my weapon hit, and it was then that Kirkstone crumpled down with a blubbery wheeze. You know what happened after that. The next morning only one copper weight was found in that room. The son had done away with the other. And the one that was left was covered with Kirkstone's blood and hair. There was no chance for me. So I got away. Six months later my father died in prison, and for three years I've been hunted as a fox is hunted by the hounds. That's all, Conniston. Did I kill Judge Kirkstone? And, if I killed him, do you think I'm sorry for it, even though I hang?"
The Englishman's voice was commanding. Keith dropped back to his seat, breathing hard. He saw a strange light in the steely blue eyes of Conniston.
"Keith, when a man knows he's going to live, he is blind to a lot of things. But when he knows he's going to die, it's different. If you had told me that story a month ago, I'd have taken you down to the hangman just the same. It would have been my duty, you know, and I might have argued you were lying. But you can't lie to me—now. Kirkstone deserved to die. And so I've made up my mind what you're going to do. You're not going back to Coronation Gulf. You're going south. You're going back into God's country again. And you're not going as John Keith, the murderer, but as Derwent Conniston of His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police! Do you get me, Keith? Do you understand?"
Keith simply stared. The Englishman twisted a mustache, a half-humorous gleam in his eyes. He had been thinking of this plan of his for some time, and he had foreseen just how it would take Keith off his feet.
"Quite a scheme, don't you think, old chap? I like you. I don't mind saying I think a lot of you, and there isn't any reason on earth why you shouldn't go on living in my shoes. There's no moral objection. No one will miss me. I was the black sheep back in England—younger brother and all that—and when I had to choose between Africa and Canada, I chose Canada. An Englishman's pride is the biggest fool thing on earth, Keith, and I suppose all of them over there think I'm dead. They haven't heard from me in six or seven years. I'm forgotten. And the beautiful thing about this scheme is that we look so deucedly alike, you know. Trim that mustache and beard of yours a little, add a bit of a scar over your right eye, and you can walk in on old McDowell himself, and I'll wager he'll jump up and say, 'Bless my heart, if it isn't Conniston!' That's all I've got to leave you, Keith, a dead man's clothes and name. But you're welcome. They'll be of no more use to me after tomorrow."
"Impossible!" gasped Keith. "Conniston, do you know what you are saying?"
"Positively, old chap. I count every word, because it hurts when I talk. So you won't argue with me, please. It's the biggest sporting thing that's ever come my way. I'll be dead. You can bury me under this floor, where the foxes can't get at me. But my name will go on living and you'll wear my clothes back to civilization and tell McDowell how you got your man and how he died up here with a frosted lung. As proof of it you'll lug your own clothes down in a bundle along with any other little identifying things you may have, and there's a sergeancy waiting. McDowell promised it to you—if you got your man. Understand? And McDowell hasn't seen me for two years and three months, so if I MIGHT look a bit different to him, it would be natural, for you and I have been on the rough edge of the world all that time. The jolly good part of it all is that we look so much alike. I say the idea is splendid!"
Conniston rose above the presence of death in the thrill of the great gamble he was projecting. And Keith, whose heart was pounding like an excited fist, saw in a flash the amazing audacity of the thing that was in Conniston's mind, and felt the responsive thrill of its possibilities. No one down there would recognize in him the John Keith of four years ago. Then he was smooth-faced, with shoulders that stooped a little and a body that was not too strong. Now he was an animal! A four years' fight with the raw things of life had made him that, and inch for inch he measured up with Conniston. And Conniston, sitting opposite him, looked enough like him to be a twin brother. He seemed to read the thought in Keith's mind. There was an amused glitter in his eyes.
"I suppose it's largely because of the hair on our faces," he said. "You know a beard can cover a multitude of physical sins—and differences, old chap. I wore mine two years before I started out after you, vandyked rather carefully, you understand, so you'd better not use a razor. Physically you won't run a ghost of a chance of being caught. You'll look the part. The real fun is coming in other ways. In the next twenty-four hours you've got to learn by heart the history of Derwent Conniston from the day he joined the Royal Mounted. We won't go back further than that, for it wouldn't interest you, and ancient history won't turn up to trouble you. Your biggest danger will be with McDowell, commanding F Division at Prince Albert. He's a human fox of the old military school, mustaches and all, and he can see through boiler-plate. But he's got a big heart. He has been a good friend of mine, so along with Derwent Conniston's story you've got to load up with a lot about McDowell, too. There are many things—OH, GOD—"
He flung a hand to his chest. Grim horror settled in the little cabin as the cough convulsed him. And over it the wind shrieked again, swallowing up the yapping of the foxes and the rumble of the ice.
That night, in the yellow sputter of the seal-oil lamp, the fight began. Grim-faced—one realizing the nearness of death and struggling to hold it back, the other praying for time—two men went through the amazing process of trading their identities. From the beginning it was Conniston's fight. And Keith, looking at him, knew that in this last mighty effort to die game the Englishman was narrowing the slight margin of hours ahead of him. Keith had loved but one man, his father. In this fight he learned to love another, Conniston. And once he cried out bitterly that it was unfair, that Conniston should live and he should die. The dying Englishman smiled and laid a hand on his, and Keith felt that the hand was damp with a cold sweat.
Through the terrible hours that followed Keith felt the strength and courage of the dying man becoming slowly a part of himself. The thing was epic. Conniston, throttling his own agony, was magnificent. And Keith felt his warped and despairing soul swelling with a new life and a new hope, and he was thrilled by the thought of what he must do to live up to the mark of the Englishman. Conniston's story was of the important things first. It began with his acquaintance with McDowell. And then, between the paroxysms that stained his lips red, he filled in with incident and smiled wanly as he told how McDowell had sworn him to secrecy once in the matter of an incident which the chief did not want the barracks to know—and laugh over. A very sensitive man in some ways was McDowell! At the end of the first hour Keith stood up in the middle of the floor, and with his arms resting on the table and his shoulders sagging Conniston put him through the drill. After that he gave Keith his worn Service Manual and commanded him to study while he rested. Keith helped him to his bunk, and for a time after that tried to read the Service book. But his eyes blurred, and his brain refused to obey. The agony in the Englishman's low breathing oppressed him with a physical pain. Keith felt himself choking and rose at last from the table and went out into the gray, ghostly twilight of the night.
His lungs drank in the ice-tanged air. But it was not cold. Kwaske-hoo—the change—had come. The air was filled with the tumult of the last fight of winter against the invasion of spring, and the forces of winter were crumbling. The earth under Keith's feet trembled in the mighty throes of their dissolution. He could hear more clearly the roar and snarl and rending thunder of the great fields of ice as they swept down with the arctic current into Hudson's Bay. Over him hovered a strange night. It was not black but a weird and wraith-like gray, and out of this sepulchral chaos came strange sounds and the moaning of a wind high up. A little while longer, Keith thought, and the thing would have driven him mad. Even now he fancied he heard the screaming and wailing of voices far up under the hidden stars. More than once in the past months he had listened to the sobbing of little children, the agony of weeping women, and the taunting of wind voices that were either tormenting or crying out in a ghoulish triumph; and more than once in those months he had seen Eskimos—born in that hell but driven mad in the torture of its long night—rend the clothes from their bodies and plunge naked out into the pitiless gloom and cold to die. Conniston would never know how near the final breakdown his brain had been in that hour when he made him a prisoner. And Keith had not told him. The man-hunter had saved him from going mad. But Keith had kept that secret to himself.
Even now he shrank down as a blast of wind shot out of the chaos above and smote the cabin with a shriek that had in it a peculiarly penetrating note. And then he squared his shoulders and laughed, and the yapping of the foxes no longer filled him with a shuddering torment. Beyond them he was seeing home. God's country! Green forests and waters spattered with golden sun—things he had almost forgotten; once more the faces of women who were white. And with those faces he heard the voice of his people and the song of birds and felt under his feet the velvety touch of earth that was bathed in the aroma of flowers. Yes, he had almost forgotten those things. Yesterday they had been with him only as moldering skeletons—phantasmal dream-things—because he was going mad, but now they were real, they were just off there to the south, and he was going to them. He stretched up his arms, and a cry rose out of his throat. It was of triumph, of final exaltation. Three years of THAT—and he had lived through it! Three years of dodging from burrow to burrow, just as Conniston had said, like a hunted fox; three years of starvation, of freezing, of loneliness so great that his soul had broken—and now he was going home!
He turned again to the cabin, and when he entered the pale face of the dying Englishman greeted him from the dim glow of the yellow light at the table. And Conniston was smiling in a quizzical, distressed sort of way, with a hand at his chest. His open watch on the table pointed to the hour of midnight when the lesson went on.
Still later he heated the muzzle of his revolver in the flame of the seal-oil.
"It will hurt, old chap—putting this scar over your eye. But it's got to be done. I say, won't it be a ripping joke on McDowell?" Softly he repeated it, smiling into Keith's eyes. "A ripping joke—on McDowell!"
Dawn—the dusk of another night—and Keith raised his haggard face from Conniston's bedside with a woman's sob on his lips. The Englishman had died as he knew that he would die, game to the last threadbare breath that came out of his body. For with this last breath he whispered the words which he had repeated a dozen times before, "Remember, old chap, you win or lose the moment McDowell first sets his eyes on you!" And then, with a strange kind of sob in his chest, he was gone, and Keith's eyes were blinded by the miracle of a hot flood of tears, and there rose in him a mighty pride in the name of Derwent Conniston.
It was his name now. John Keith was dead. It was Derwent Conniston who was living. And as he looked down into the cold, still face of the heroic Englishman, the thing did not seem so strange to him after all. It would not be difficult to bear Conniston's name; the difficulty would be in living up to the Conniston code.
That night the rumble of the ice fields was clearer because there was no wind to deaden their tumult. The sky was cloudless, and the stars were like glaring, yellow eyes peering through holes in a vast, overhanging curtain of jet black. Keith, out to fill his lungs with air, looked up at the phenomenon of the polar night and shuddered. The stars were like living things, and they were looking at him. Under their sinister glow the foxes were holding high carnival. It seemed to Keith that they had drawn a closer circle about the cabin and that there was a different note in their yapping now, a note that was more persistent, more horrible. Conniston had foreseen that closing-in of the little white beasts of the night, and Keith, reentering the cabin, set about the fulfillment of his promise. Ghostly dawn found his task completed.
Half an hour later he stood in the edge of the scrub timber that rimmed in the arctic plain, and looked for the last time upon the little cabin under the floor of which the Englishman was buried. It stood there splendidly unafraid in its terrible loneliness, a proud monument to a dead man's courage and a dead man's soul. Within its four walls it treasured a thing which gave to it at last a reason for being, a reason for fighting against dissolution as long as one log could hold upon another. Conniston's spirit had become a living part of it, and the foxes might yap everlastingly, and the winds howl, and winter follow winter, and long night follow long night—and it would stand there in its pride fighting to the last, a memorial to Derwent Conniston, the Englishman.
Looking back at it, Keith bared his head in the raw dawn. "God bless you, Conniston," he whispered, and turned slowly away and into the south.
Ahead of him was eight hundred miles of wilderness—eight hundred miles between him and the little town on the Saskatchewan where McDowell commanded Division of the Royal Mounted. The thought of distance did not appall him. Four years at the top of the earth had accustomed him to the illimitable and had inured him to the lack of things. That winter Conniston had followed him with the tenacity of a ferret for a thousand miles along the rim of the Arctic, and it had been a miracle that he had not killed the Englishman. A score of times he might have ended the exciting chase without staining his own hands. His Eskimo friends would have performed the deed at a word. But he had let the Englishman live, and Conniston, dead, was sending him back home. Eight hundred miles was but the step between.
He had no dogs or sledge. His own team had given up the ghost long ago, and a treacherous Kogmollock from the Roes Welcome had stolen the Englishman's outfit in the last lap of their race down from Fullerton's Point. What he carried was Conniston's, with the exception of his rifle and his own parka and hood. He even wore Conniston's watch. His pack was light. The chief articles it contained were a little flour, a three-pound tent, a sleeping-bag, and certain articles of identification to prove the death of John Keith, the outlaw. Hour after hour of that first day the zip, zip, zip of his snowshoes beat with deadly monotony upon his brain. He could not think. Time and again it seemed to him that something was pulling him back, and always he was hearing Conniston's voice and seeing Conniston's face in the gray gloom of the day about him. He passed through the slim finger of scrub timber that a strange freak of nature had flung across the plain, and once more was a moving speck in a wide and wind-swept barren. In the afternoon he made out a dark rim on the southern horizon and knew it was timber, real timber, the first he had seen since that day, a year and a half ago, when the last of the Mackenzie River forest had faded away behind him! It gave him, at last, something tangible to grip. It was a thing beckoning to him, a sentient, living wall beyond which was his other world. The eight hundred miles meant less to him than the space between himself and that growing, black rim on the horizon.
He reached it as the twilight of the day was dissolving into the deeper dusk of the night, and put up his tent in the shelter of a clump of gnarled and storm-beaten spruce. Then he gathered wood and built himself a fire. He did not count the sticks as he had counted them for eighteen months. He was wasteful, prodigal. He had traveled forty miles since morning but he felt no exhaustion. He gathered wood until he had a great pile of it, and the flames of his fire leaped higher and higher until the spruce needles crackled and hissed over his head. He boiled a pot of weak tea and made a supper of caribou meat and a bit of bannock. Then he sat with his back to a tree and stared into the flames.
The fire leaping and crackling before his eyes was like a powerful medicine. It stirred things that had lain dormant within him. It consumed the heavy dross of four years of stupefying torture and brought back to him vividly the happenings of a yesterday that had dragged itself on like a century. All at once he seemed unburdened of shackles that had weighted him down to the point of madness. Every fiber in his body responded to that glorious roar of the fire; a thing seemed to snap in his head, freeing it of an oppressive bondage, and in the heart of the flames he saw home, and hope, and life—the things familiar and precious long ago, which the scourge of the north had almost beaten dead in his memory. He saw the broad Saskatchewan shimmering its way through the yellow plains, banked in by the foothills and the golden mists of morning dawn; he saw his home town clinging to its shore on one side and with its back against the purple wilderness on the other; he heard the rhythmic chug, chug, chug of the old gold dredge and the rattle of its chains as it devoured its tons of sand for a few grains of treasure; over him there were lacy clouds in a blue heaven again, he heard the sound of voices, the tread of feet, laughter—life. His soul reborn, he rose to his feet and stretched his arms until the muscles snapped. No, they would not know him back there—now! He laughed softly as he thought of the old John Keith—"Johnny" they used to call him up and down the few balsam-scented streets—his father's right-hand man mentally but a little off feed, as his chum, Reddy McTabb, used to say, when it came to the matter of muscle and brawn. He could look back on things without excitement now. Even hatred had burned itself out, and he found himself wondering if old Judge Kirkstone's house looked the same on the top of the hill, and if Miriam Kirkstone had come back to live there after that terrible night when he had returned to avenge his father.
Four years! It was not so very long, though the years had seemed like a lifetime to him. There would not be many changes. Everything would be the same—everything—except—the old home. That home he and his father had planned, and they had overseen the building of it, a chateau of logs a little distance from the town, with the Saskatchewan sweeping below it and the forest at its doors. Masterless, it must have seen changes in those four years. Fumbling in his pocket, his fingers touched Conniston's watch. He drew it out and let the firelight play on the open dial. It was ten o'clock. In the back of the premier half of the case Conniston had at some time or another pasted a picture. It must have been a long time ago, for the face was faded and indistinct. The eyes alone were undimmed, and in the flash of the fire they took on a living glow as they looked at Keith. It was the face of a young girl—a schoolgirl, Keith thought, of ten or twelve. Yet the eyes seemed older; they seemed pleading with someone, speaking a message that had come spontaneously out of the soul of the child. Keith closed the watch. Its tick, tick, tick rose louder to his ears. He dropped it in his pocket. He could still hear it.
A pitch-filled spruce knot exploded with the startling vividness of a star bomb, and with it came a dull sort of mental shock to Keith. He was sure that for an instant he had seen Conniston's face and that the Englishman's eyes were looking at him as the eyes had looked at him out of the face in the watch. The deception was so real that it sent him back a step, staring, and then, his eyes striving to catch the illusion again, there fell upon him a realization of the tremendous strain he had been under for many hours. It had been days since he had slept soundly. Yet he was not sleepy now; he scarcely felt fatigue. The instinct of self-preservation made him arrange his sleeping-bag on a carpet of spruce boughs in the tent and go to bed.
Even then, for a long time, he lay in the grip of a harrowing wakefulness. He closed his eyes, but it was impossible for him to hold them closed. The sounds of the night came to him with painful distinctness—the crackling of the fire, the serpent-like hiss of the flaming pitch, the whispering of the tree tops, and the steady tick, tick, tick of Conniston's watch. And out on the barren, through the rim of sheltering trees, the wind was beginning to moan its everlasting whimper and sob of loneliness. In spite of his clenched hands and his fighting determination to hold it off, Keith fancied that he heard again—riding strangely in that wind—the sound of Conniston's voice. And suddenly he asked himself: What did it mean? What was it that Conniston had forgotten? What was it that Conniston had been trying to tell him all that day, when he had felt the presence of him in the gloom of the Barrens? Was it that Conniston wanted him to come back?
He tried to rid himself of the depressing insistence of that thought. And yet he was certain that in the last half-hour before death entered the cabin the Englishman had wanted to tell him something and had crucified the desire. There was the triumph of an iron courage in those last words, "Remember, old chap, you win or lose the moment McDowell first sets his eyes on you!"—but in the next instant, as death sent home its thrust, Keith had caught a glimpse of Conniston's naked soul, and in that final moment when speech was gone forever, he knew that Conniston was fighting to make his lips utter words which he had left unspoken until too late. And Keith, listening to the moaning of the wind and the crackling of the fire, found himself repeating over and over again, "What was it he wanted to say?"
In a lull in the wind Conniston's watch seemed to beat like a heart in its case, and swiftly its tick, tick, ticked to his ears an answer, "Come back, come back, come back!"
With a cry at his own pitiable weakness, Keith thrust the thing far under his sleeping-bag, and there its sound was smothered. At last sleep overcame him like a restless anesthesia.
With the break of another day he came out of his tent and stirred the fire. There were still bits of burning ember, and these he fanned into life and added to their flame fresh fuel. He could not easily forget last night's torture, but its significance was gone. He laughed at his own folly and wondered what Conniston himself would have thought of his nervousness. For the first time in years he thought of the old days down at college where, among other things, he had made a mark for himself in psychology. He had considered himself an expert in the discussion and understanding of phenomena of the mind. Afterward he had lived up to the mark and had profited by his beliefs, and the fact that a simple relaxation of his mental machinery had so disturbed him last night amused him now. The solution was easy. It was his mind struggling to equilibrium after four years of brain-fag. And he felt better. His brain was clearer. He listened to the watch and found its ticking natural. He braced himself to another effort and whistled as he prepared his breakfast.
After that he packed his dunnage and continued south. He wondered if Conniston ever knew his Manual as he learned it now. At the end of the sixth day he could repeat it from cover to cover. Every hour he made it a practice to stop short and salute the trees about him. McDowell would not catch him there.
"I am Derwent Conniston," he kept telling himself. "John Keith is dead—dead. I buried him back there under the cabin, the cabin built by Sergeant Trossy and his patrol in nineteen hundred and eight. My name is Conniston—Derwent Conniston."
In his years of aloneness he had grown into the habit of talking to himself—or with himself—to keep up his courage and sanity. "Keith, old boy, we've got to fight it out," he would say. Now it was, "Conniston, old chap, we'll win or die." After the third day, he never spoke of John Keith except as a man who was dead. And over the dead John Keith he spread Conniston's mantle. "John Keith died game, sir," he said to McDowell, who was a tree. "He was the finest chap I ever knew."
On this sixth day came the miracle. For the first time in many months John Keith saw the sun. He had seen the murky glow of it before this, fighting to break through the pall of fog and haze that hung over the Barrens, but this sixth day it was the sun, the real sun, bursting in all its glory for a short space over the northern world. Each day after this the sun was nearer and warmer, as the arctic vapor clouds and frost smoke were left farther behind, and not until he had passed beyond the ice fogs entirely did Keith swing westward. He did not hurry, for now that he was out of his prison, he wanted time in which to feel the first exhilarating thrill of his freedom. And more than all else he knew that he must measure and test himself for the tremendous fight ahead of him.
Now that the sun and the blue sky had cleared his brain, he saw the hundred pit-falls in his way, the hundred little slips that might be made, the hundred traps waiting for any chance blunder on his part. Deliberately he was on his way to the hangman. Down there—every day of his life—he would rub elbows with him as he passed his fellow men in the street. He would never completely feel himself out of the presence of death. Day and night he must watch himself and guard himself, his tongue, his feet, his thoughts, never knowing in what hour the eyes of the law would pierce the veneer of his disguise and deliver his life as the forfeit. There were times when the contemplation of these things appalled him, and his mind turned to other channels of escape. And then—always—he heard Conniston's cool, fighting voice, and the red blood fired up in his veins, and he faced home.
He was Derwent Conniston. And never for an hour could he put out of his mind the one great mystifying question in this adventure of life and death, who was Derwent Conniston? Shred by shred he pieced together what little he knew, and always he arrived at the same futile end. An Englishman, dead to his family if he had one, an outcast or an expatriate—and the finest, bravest gentleman he had ever known. It was the WHYFORE of these things that stirred within him an emotion which he had never experienced before. The Englishman had grimly and determinedly taken his secret to the grave with him. To him, John Keith—who was now Derwent Conniston—he had left an heritage of deep mystery and the mission, if he so chose, of discovering who he was, whence he had come—and why. Often he looked at the young girl's picture in the watch, and always he saw in her eyes something which made him think of Conniston as he lay in the last hour of his life. Undoubtedly the girl had grown into a woman now.
Days grew into weeks, and under Keith's feet the wet, sweet-smelling earth rose up through the last of the slush snow. Three hundred miles below the Barrens, he was in the Reindeer Lake country early in May. For a week he rested at a trapper's cabin on the Burntwood, and after that set out for Cumberland House. Ten days later he arrived at the post, and in the sunlit glow of the second evening afterward he built his camp-fire on the shore of the yellow Saskatchewan.
The mighty river, beloved from the days of his boyhood, sang to him again, that night, the wonderful things that time and grief had dimmed in his heart. The moon rose over it, a warm wind drifted out of the south, and Keith, smoking his pipe, sat for a long time listening to the soft murmur of it as it rolled past at his feet. For him it had always been more than the river. He had grown up with it, and it had become a part of him; it had mothered his earliest dreams and ambitions; on it he had sought his first adventures; it had been his chum, his friend, and his comrade, and the fancy struck him that in the murmuring voice of it tonight there was a gladness, a welcome, an exultation in his return. He looked out on its silvery bars shimmering in the moonlight, and a flood of memories swept upon him. Thirty years was not so long ago that he could not remember the beautiful mother who had told him stories as the sun went down and bedtime drew near. And vividly there stood out the wonderful tales of Kistachiwun, the river; how it was born away over in the mystery of the western mountains, away from the eyes and feet of men; how it came down from the mountains into the hills, and through the hills into the plains, broadening and deepening and growing mightier with every mile, until at last it swept past their door, bearing with it the golden grains of sand that made men rich. His father had pointed out the deep-beaten trails of buffalo to him and had told him stories of the Indians and of the land before white men came, so that between father and mother the river became his book of fables, his wonderland, the never-ending source of his treasured tales of childhood. And tonight the river was the one thing left to him. It was the one friend he could claim again, the one comrade he could open his arms to without fear of betrayal. And with the grief for things that once had lived and were now dead, there came over him a strange sort of happiness, the spirit of the great river itself giving him consolation.
Stretching out his arms, he cried: "My old river—it's me—Johnny Keith! I've come back!"
And the river, whispering, seemed to answer him: "It's Johnny Keith! And he's come back! He's come back!"
For a week John Keith followed up the shores of the Saskatchewan. It was a hundred and forty miles from the Hudson's Bay Company's post of Cumberland House to Prince Albert as the crow would fly, but Keith did not travel a homing line. Only now and then did he take advantage of a portage trail. Clinging to the river, his journey was lengthened by some sixty miles. Now that the hour for which Conniston had prepared him was so close at hand, he felt the need of this mighty, tongueless friend that had played such an intimate part in his life. It gave to him both courage and confidence, and in its company he could think more clearly. Nights he camped on its golden-yellow bars with the open stars over his head when he slept; his ears drank in the familiar sounds of long ago, for which he had yearned to the point of madness in his exile—the soft cries of the birds that hunted and mated in the glow of the moon, the friendly twit, twit, twit of the low-flying sand-pipers, the hoot of the owls, and the splash and sleepy voice of wildfowl already on their way up from the south. Out of that south, where in places the plains swept the forest back almost to the river's edge, he heard now and then the doglike barking of his little yellow friends of many an exciting horseback chase, the coyotes, and on the wilderness side, deep in the forest, the sinister howling of wolves. He was traveling, literally, the narrow pathway between two worlds. The river was that pathway. On the one hand, not so very far away, were the rolling prairies, green fields of grain, settlements and towns and the homes of men; on the other the wilderness lay to the water's edge with its doors still open to him. The seventh day a new sound came to his ears at dawn. It was the whistle of a train at Prince Albert.
There was no change in that whistle, and every nerve-string in his body responded to it with crying thrill. It was the first voice to greet his home-coming, and the sound of it rolled the yesterdays back upon him in a deluge. He knew where he was now; he recalled exactly what he would find at the next turn in the river. A few minutes later he heard the wheezy chug, chug, chug of the old gold dredge at McCoffin's Bend. It would be the Betty M., of course, with old Andy Duggan at the windlass, his black pipe in mouth, still scooping up the shifting sands as he had scooped them up for more than twenty years. He could see Andy sitting at his post, clouded in a halo of tobacco smoke, a red-bearded, shaggy-headed giant of a man whom the town affectionately called the River Pirate. All his life Andy had spent in digging gold out of the mountains or the river, and like grim death he had hung to the bars above and below McCoffin's Bend. Keith smiled as he remembered old Andy's passion for bacon. One could always find the perfume of bacon about the Betty M., and when Duggan went to town, there were those who swore they could smell it in his whiskers.
Keith left the river trail now for the old logging road. In spite of his long fight to steel himself for what Conniston had called the "psychological moment," he felt himself in the grip of an uncomfortable mental excitement. At last he was face to face with the great gamble. In a few hours he would play his one card. If he won, there was life ahead of him again, if he lost—death. The old question which he had struggled to down surged upon him. Was it worth the chance? Was it in an hour of madness that he and Conniston had pledged themselves to this amazing adventure? The forest was still with him. He could turn back. The game had not yet gone so far that he could not withdraw his hand—and for a space a powerful impulse moved him. And then, coming suddenly to the edge of the clearing at McCoffin's Bend, he saw the dredge close inshore, and striding up from the beach Andy Duggan himself! In another moment Keith had stepped forth and was holding up a hand in greeting.
He felt his heart thumping in an unfamiliar way as Duggan came on. Was it conceivable that the riverman would not recognize him? He forgot his beard, forgot the great change that four years had wrought in him. He remembered only that Duggan had been his friend, that a hundred times they had sat together in the quiet glow of long evenings, telling tales of the great river they both loved. And always Duggan's stories had been of that mystic paradise hidden away in the western mountains—the river's end, the paradise of golden lure, where the Saskatchewan was born amid towering peaks, and where Duggan—a long time ago—had quested for the treasure which he knew was hidden somewhere there. Four years had not changed Duggan. If anything his beard was redder and thicker and his hair shaggier than when Keith had last seen him. And then, following him from the Betsy M., Keith caught the everlasting scent of bacon. He devoured it in deep breaths. His soul cried out for it. Once he had grown tired of Duggan's bacon, but now he felt that he could go on eating it forever. As Duggan advanced, he was moved by a tremendous desire to stretch out his hand and say: "I'm John Keith. Don't you know me, Duggan?" Instead, he choked back his desire and said, "Fine morning!"
Duggan nodded uncertainly. He was evidently puzzled at not being able to place his man. "It's always fine on the river, rain 'r shine. Anybody who says it ain't is a God A'mighty liar!"
He was still the old Duggan, ready to fight for his river at the drop of a hat! Keith wanted to hug him. He shifted his pack and said:
"I've slept with it for a week—just to have it for company—on the way down from Cumberland House. Seems good to get back!" He took off his hat and met the riverman's eyes squarely. "Do you happen to know if McDowell is at barracks?" he asked.
"He is," said Duggan.
That was all. He was looking at Keith with a curious directness. Keith held his breath. He would have given a good deal to have seen behind Duggan's beard. There was a hard note in the riverman's voice, too. It puzzled him. And there was a flash of sullen fire in his eyes at the mention of McDowell's name. "The Inspector's there—sittin' tight," he added, and to Keith's amazement brushed past him without another word and disappeared into the bush.
This, at least, was not like the good-humored Duggan of four years ago. Keith replaced his hat and went on. At the farther side of the clearing he turned and looked back. Duggan stood in the open roadway, his hands thrust deep in his pockets, staring after him. Keith waved his hand, but Duggan did not respond. He stood like a sphinx, his big red beard glowing in the early sun, and watched Keith until he was gone.
To Keith this first experiment in the matter of testing an identity was a disappointment. It was not only disappointing but filled him with apprehension. It was true that Duggan had not recognized him as John Keith, BUT NEITHER HAD HE RECOGNIZED HIM AS DERWENT CONNISTON! And Duggan was not a man to forget in three or four years—or half a lifetime, for that matter. He saw himself facing a new and unexpected situation. What if McDowell, like Duggan, saw in him nothing more than a stranger? The Englishman's last words pounded in his head again like little fists beating home a truth, "You win or lose the moment McDowell first sets his eyes on you." They pressed upon him now with a deadly significance. For the first time he understood all that Conniston had meant. His danger was not alone in the possibility of being recognized as John Keith; it lay also in the hazard of NOT being recognized as Derwent Conniston.
If the thought had come to him to turn back, if the voice of fear and a premonition of impending evil had urged him to seek freedom in another direction, their whispered cautions were futile in the thrill of the greater excitement that possessed him now. That there was a third hand playing in this game of chance in which Conniston had already lost his life, and in which he was now staking his own, was something which gave to Keith a new and entirely unlooked-for desire to see the end of the adventure. The mental vision of his own certain fate, should he lose, dissolved into a nebulous presence that no longer oppressed nor appalled him. Physical instinct to fight against odds, the inspiration that presages the uncertainty of battle, fired his blood with an exhilarating eagerness. He was anxious to stand face to face with McDowell. Not until then would the real fight begin. For the first time the fact seized upon him that the Englishman was wrong—he would NOT win or lose in the first moment of the Inspector's scrutiny. In that moment he could lose—McDowell's cleverly trained eyes might detect the fraud; but to win, if the game was not lost at the first shot, meant an exciting struggle. Today might be his Armageddon, but it could not possess the hour of his final triumph.
He felt himself now like a warrior held in leash within sound of the enemy's guns and the smell of his powder. He held his old world to be his enemy, for civilization meant people, and the people were the law—and the law wanted his life. Never had he possessed a deeper hatred for the old code of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth than in this hour when he saw up the valley a gray mist of smoke rising over the roofs of his home town. He had never conceded within himself that he was a criminal. He believed that in killing Kirkstone he had killed a serpent who had deserved to die, and a hundred times he had told himself that the job would have been much more satisfactory from the view-point of human sanitation if he had sent the son in the father's footsteps. He had rid the people of a man not fit to live—and the people wanted to kill him for it. Therefore the men and women in that town he had once loved, and still loved, were his enemies, and to find friends among them again he was compelled to perpetrate a clever fraud.
He remembered an unboarded path from this side of the town, which entered an inconspicuous little street at the end of which was a barber shop. It was the barber shop which he must reach first He was glad that it was early in the day when he came to the street an hour later, for he would meet few people. The street had changed considerably. Long, open spaces had filled in with houses, and he wondered if the anticipated boom of four years ago had come. He smiled grimly as the humor of the situation struck him. His father and he had staked their future in accumulating a lot of "outside" property. If the boom had materialized, that property was "inside" now—and worth a great deal. Before he reached the barber shop he realized that the dream of the Prince Albertites had come true. Prosperity had advanced upon them in mighty leaps. The population of the place had trebled. He was a rich man! And also, it occurred to him, he was a dead one—or would be when he reported officially to McDowell. What a merry scrap there would be among the heirs of John Keith, deceased!
The old shop still clung to its corner, which was valuable as "business footage" now. But it possessed a new barber. He was alone. Keith gave his instructions in definite detail and showed him Conniston's photograph in his identification book. The beard and mustache must be just so, very smart, decidedly English, and of military neatness, his hair cut not too short and brushed smoothly back. When the operation was over, he congratulated the barber and himself. Bronzed to the color of an Indian by wind and smoke, straight as an arrow, his muscles swelling with the brute strength of the wilderness, he smiled at himself in the mirror when he compared the old John Keith with this new Derwent Conniston! Before he went out he tightened his belt a notch. Then he headed straight for the barracks of His Majesty's Royal Northwest Mounted Police.
His way took him up the main street, past the rows of shops that had been there four years ago, past the Saskatchewan Hotel and the little Board of Trade building which, like the old barber shop, still hung to its original perch at the edge of the high bank which ran precipitously down to the river. And there, as sure as fate, was Percival Clary, the little English Secretary! But what a different Percy!
He had broadened out and straightened up. He had grown a mustache, which was immaculately waxed. His trousers were immaculately creased, his shoes were shining, and he stood before the door of his now important office resting lightly on a cane. Keith grinned as he witnessed how prosperity had bolstered up Percival along with the town. His eyes quested for familiar faces as he went along. Here and there he saw one, but for the most part he encountered strangers, lively looking men who were hustling as if they had a mission in hand. Glaring real estate signs greeted him from every place of prominence, and automobiles began to hum up and down the main street that stretched along the river—twenty where there had been one not so long ago.
Keith found himself fighting to keep his eyes straight ahead when he met a girl or a woman. Never had he believed fully and utterly in the angelhood of the feminine until now. He passed perhaps a dozen on the way to barracks, and he was overwhelmed with the desire to stop and feast his eyes upon each one of them. He had never been a lover of women; he admired them, he believed them to be the better part of man, he had worshiped his mother, but his heart had been neither glorified nor broken by a passion for the opposite sex. Now, to the bottom of his soul, he worshiped that dozen! Some of them were homely, some of them were plain, two or three of them were pretty, but to Keith their present physical qualifications made no difference. They were white women, and they were glorious, every one of them! The plainest of them was lovely. He wanted to throw up his hat and shout in sheer joy. Four years—and now he was back in angel land! For a space he forgot McDowell.
His head was in a whirl when he came to barracks. Life was good, after all. It was worth fighting for, and he was bound fight. He went straight to McDowell's office. A moment after his knock on the door the Inspector's secretary appeared.
"The Inspector is busy, sir," he said in response to Keith's inquiry. "I'll tell him—"
"That I am here on a very important matter," advised Keith. "He will admit me when you tell him that I bring information regarding a certain John Keith."
The secretary disappeared through an inner door. It seemed not more than ten seconds before he was back. "The Inspector will see you, sir."
Keith drew a deep breath to quiet the violent beating of his heart. In spite of all his courage he felt upon him the clutch of a cold and foreboding hand, a hand that seemed struggling to drag him back. And again he heard Conniston's dying voice whispering to him, "REMEMBER, OLD CHAP, YOU WIN OR LOSE THE MOMENT MCDOWELL FIRST SETS HIS EYES ON YOU!"
Was Conniston right?
Win or lose, he would play the game as the Englishman would have played it. Squaring his shoulders he entered to face McDowell, the cleverest man-hunter in the Northwest.
Keith's first vision, as he entered the office of the Inspector of Police, was not of McDowell, but of a girl. She sat directly facing him as he advanced through the door, the light from a window throwing into strong relief her face and hair. The effect was unusual. She was strikingly handsome. The sun, giving to the room a soft radiance, lit up her hair with shimmering gold; her eyes, Keith saw, were a clear and wonderful gray—and they stared at him as he entered, while the poise of her body and the tenseness of her face gave evidence of sudden and unusual emotion. These things Keith observed in a flash; then he turned toward McDowell.
The Inspector sat behind a table covered with maps and papers, and instantly Keith was conscious of the penetrating inquisition of his gaze. He felt, for an instant, the disquieting tremor of the criminal. Then he met McDowell's eyes squarely. They were, as Conniston had warned him, eyes that could see through boiler-plate. Of an indefinable color and deep set behind shaggy, gray eyebrows, they pierced him through at the first glance. Keith took in the carefully waxed gray mustaches, the close-cropped gray hair, the rigidly set muscles of the man's face, and saluted.
He felt creeping over him a slow chill. There was no greeting in that iron-like countenance, for full a quarter-minute no sign of recognition. And then, as the sun had played in the girl's hair, a new emotion passed over McDowell's face, and Keith saw for the first time the man whom Derwent Conniston had known as a friend as well as a superior. He rose from his chair, and leaning over the table said in a voice in which were mingled both amazement and pleasure:
"We were just talking about the devil—and here you are, sir! Conniston, how are you?"
For a few moments Keith did not see. HE HAD WON! The blood pounded through his heart so violently that it confused his vision and his senses. He felt the grip of McDowell's hand; he heard his voice; a vision swam before his eyes—and it was the vision of Derwent Conniston's triumphant face. He was standing erect, his head was up, he was meeting McDowell shoulder to shoulder, even smiling, but in that swift surge of exultation he did not know. McDowell, still gripping his hand and with his other hand on his arm, was wheeling him about, and he found the girl on her feet, staring at him as if he had newly risen from the dead.
McDowell's military voice was snapping vibrantly, "Conniston, meet Miss Miriam Kirkstone, daughter of Judge Kirkstone!"
He bowed and held for a moment in his own the hand of the girl whose father he had killed. It was lifeless and cold. Her lips moved, merely speaking his name. His own were mute. McDowell was saying something about the glory of the service and the sovereignty of the law. And then, breaking in like the beat of a drum on the introduction, his voice demanded, "Conniston—DID YOU GET YOUR MAN?"
The question brought Keith to his senses. He inclined his head slightly and said, "I beg to report that John Keith is dead, sir."
He saw Miriam Kirkstone give a visible start, as if his words had carried a stab. She was apparently making a strong effort to hide her agitation as she turned swiftly away from him, speaking to McDowell.
"You have been very kind, Inspector McDowell. I hope very soon to have the pleasure of talking with Mr. Conniston—about—John Keith."
She left them, nodding slightly to Keith.
When she was gone, a puzzled look filled the Inspector's eyes. "She has been like that for the last six months," he explained. "Tremendously interested in this man Keith and his fate. I don't believe that I have watched for your return more anxiously than she has, Conniston. And the curious part of it is she seemed to have no interest in the matter at all until six months ago. Sometimes I am afraid that brooding over her father's death has unsettled her a little. A mighty pretty girl, Conniston. A mighty pretty girl, indeed! And her brother is a skunk. Pst! You haven't forgotten him?"
He drew a chair up close to his own and motioned Keith to be seated. "You're changed, Conniston!"
The words came out of him like a shot. So unexpected were they that Keith felt the effect of them in every nerve of his body. He sensed instantly what McDowell meant. He was NOT like the Englishman; he lacked his mannerisms, his cool and superior suavity, the inimitable quality of his nerve and sportsmanship. Even as he met the disquieting directness of the Inspector's eyes, he could see Conniston sitting in his place, rolling his mustache between his forefinger and thumb, and smiling as though he had gone into the north but yesterday and had returned today. That was what McDowell was missing in him, the soul of Conniston himself—Conniston, the ne plus ultra of presence and amiable condescension, the man who could look the Inspector or the High Commissioner himself between the eyes, and, serenely indifferent to Service regulations, say, "Fine morning, old top!" Keith was not without his own sense of humor. How the Englishman's ghost must be raging if it was in the room at the present moment! He grinned and shrugged his shoulders.
"Were you ever up there—through the Long Night—alone?" he asked. "Ever been through six months of living torture with the stars leering at you and the foxes barking at you all the time, fighting to keep yourself from going mad? I went through that twice to get John Keith, and I guess you're right. I'm changed. I don't think I'll ever be the same again. Something—has gone. I can't tell what it is, but I feel it. I guess only half of me pulled through. It killed John Keith. Rotten, isn't it?"
He felt that he had made a lucky stroke. McDowell pulled out a drawer from under the table and thrust a box of fat cigars under his nose.
"Light up, Derry—light up and tell us what happened. Bless my soul, you're not half dead! A week in the old town will straighten you out."
He struck a match and held it to the tip of Keith's cigar.
For an hour thereafter Keith told the story of the man-hunt. It was his Iliad. He could feel the presence of Conniston as words fell from his lips; he forgot the presence of the stern-faced man who was watching him and listening to him; he could see once more only the long months and years of that epic drama of one against one, of pursuit and flight, of hunger and cold, of the Long Nights filled with the desolation of madness and despair. He triumphed over himself, and it was Conniston who spoke from within him. It was the Englishman who told how terribly John Keith had been punished, and when he came to the final days in the lonely little cabin in the edge of the Barrens, Keith finished with a choking in his throat, and the words, "And that was how John Keith died—a gentleman and a MAN!"
He was thinking of the Englishman, of the calm and fearless smile in his eyes as he died, of his last words, the last friendly grip of his hand, and McDowell saw the thing as though he had faced it himself. He brushed a hand over his face as if to wipe away a film. For some moments after Keith had finished, he stood with his back to the man who he thought was Conniston, and his mind was swiftly adding twos and twos and fours and fours as he looked away into the green valley of the Saskatchewan. He was the iron man when he turned to Keith again, the law itself, merciless and potent, by some miracle turned into the form of human flesh.
"After two and a half years of THAT even a murderer must have seemed like a saint to you, Conniston. You have done your work splendidly. The whole story shall go to the Department, and if it doesn't bring you a commission, I'll resign. But we must continue to regret that John Keith did not live to be hanged."
"He has paid the price," said Keith dully.
"No, he has not paid the price, not in full. He merely died. It could have been paid only at the end of a rope. His crime was atrociously brutal, the culmination of a fiend's desire for revenge. We will wipe off his name. But I can not wipe away the regret. I would sacrifice a year of my life if he were in this room with you now. It would be worth it. God, what a thing for the Service—to have brought John Keith back to justice after four years!"
He was rubbing his hands and smiling at Keith even as he spoke. His eyes had taken on a filmy glitter. The law! It stood there, without heart or soul, coveting the life that had escaped it. A feeling of revulsion swept over Keith.
A knock came at the door.
McDowell's voice gave permission, and the door slowly opened. Cruze, the young secretary, thrust in his head.
"Shan Tung is waiting, sir," he said.
An invisible hand reached up suddenly and gripped at Keith's throat. He turned aside to conceal what his face might have betrayed. Shan Tung! He knew what it was now that had pulled him back, he knew why Conniston's troubled face had traveled with him over the Barrens, and there surged over him with a sickening foreboding, a realization of what it was that Conniston had remembered and wanted to tell him—when it was too late. THEY HAD FORGOTTEN SHAN TUNG, THE CHINAMAN!
In the hall beyond the secretary's room Shan Tung waited. As McDowell was the iron and steel embodiment of the law, so Shan Tung was the flesh and blood spirit of the mysticism and immutability of his race. His face was the face of an image made of an unemotional living tissue in place of wood or stone, dispassionate, tolerant, patient. What passed in the brain behind his yellow-tinged eyes only Shan Tung knew. It was his secret. And McDowell had ceased to analyze or attempt to understand him. The law, baffled in its curiosity, had come to accept him as a weird and wonderful mechanism—a thing more than a man—possessed of an unholy power. This power was the oriental's marvelous ability to remember faces. Once Shan Tung looked at a face, it was photographed in his memory for years. Time and change could not make him forget—and the law made use of him.
Briefly McDowell had classified him at Headquarters. "Either an exiled prime minister of China or the devil in a yellow skin," he had written to the Commissioner. "Correct age unknown and past history a mystery. Dropped into Prince Albert in 1908 wearing diamonds and patent leather shoes. A stranger then and a stranger now. Proprietor and owner of the Shan Tung Cafe. Educated, soft-spoken, womanish, but the one man on earth I'd hate to be in a dark room with, knives drawn. I use him, mistrust him, watch him, and would fear him under certain conditions. As far as we can discover, he is harmless and law-abiding. But such a ferret must surely have played his game somewhere, at some time."
This was the man whom Conniston had forgotten and Keith now dreaded to meet. For many minutes Shan Tung had stood at a window looking out upon the sunlit drillground and the broad sweep of green beyond. He was toying with his slim hands caressingly. Half a smile was on his lips. No man had ever seen more than that half smile illuminate Shan Tung's face. His black hair was sleek and carefully trimmed. His dress was immaculate. His slimness, as McDowell had noted, was the slimness of a young girl.
When Cruze came to announce that McDowell would see him, Shan Tung was still visioning the golden-headed figure of Miriam Kirkstone as he had seen her passing through the sunshine. There was something like a purr in his breath as he stood interlacing his tapering fingers. The instant he heard the secretary's footsteps the finger play stopped, the purr died, the half smile was gone. He turned softly. Cruze did not speak. He simply made a movement of his head, and Shan Tung's feet fell noiselessly. Only the slight sound made by the opening and closing of a door gave evidence of his entrance into the Inspector's room. Shan Tung and no other could open and close a door like that. Cruze shivered. He always shivered when Shan Tung passed him, and always he swore that he could smell something in the air, like a poison left behind.
Keith, facing the window, was waiting. The moment the door was opened, he felt Shan Tung's presence. Every nerve in his body was keyed to an uncomfortable tension. The thought that his grip on himself was weakening, and because of a Chinaman, maddened him. And he must turn. Not to face Shan Tung now would be but a postponement of the ordeal and a confession of cowardice. Forcing his hand into Conniston's little trick of twisting a mustache, he turned slowly, leveling his eyes squarely to meet Shan Tung's.
To his surprise Shan Tung seemed utterly oblivious of his presence. He had not, apparently, taken more than a casual glance in his direction. In a voice which one beyond the door might have mistaken for a woman's, he was saying to McDowell:
"I have seen the man you sent me to see, Mr. McDowell. It is Larsen. He has changed much in eight years. He has grown a beard. He has lost an eye. His hair has whitened. But it is Larsen." The faultlessness of his speech and the unemotional but perfect inflection of his words made Keith, like the young secretary, shiver where he stood. In McDowell's face he saw a flash of exultation.
"He had no suspicion of you, Shan Tung?"
"He did not see me to suspect. He will be there—when—" Slowly he faced Keith. "—When Mr. Conniston goes to arrest him," he finished.
He inclined his head as he backed noiselessly toward the door. His yellow eyes did not leave Keith's face. In them Keith fancied that he caught a sinister gleam. There was the faintest inflection of a new note in his voice, and his fingers were playing again, but not as when he had looked out through the window at Miriam Kirkstone. And then—in a flash, it seemed to Keith—the Chinaman's eyes closed to narrow slits, and the pupils became points of flame no larger than the sharpened ends of a pair of pencils. The last that Keith was conscious of seeing of Shan Tung was the oriental's eyes. They had seemed to drag his soul half out of his body.
"A queer devil," said McDowell. "After he is gone, I always feel as if a snake had been in the room. He still hates you, Conniston. Three years have made no difference. He hates you like poison. I believe he would kill you, if he had a chance to do it and get away with the Business. And you—you blooming idiot—simply twiddle your mustache and laugh at him! I'd feel differently if I were in your boots."
Inwardly Keith was asking himself why it was that Shan Tung had hated Conniston.
McDowell added nothing to enlighten him. He was gathering up a number of papers scattered on his desk, smiling with a grim satisfaction. "It's Larsen all right if Shan Tung says so," he told Keith. And then, as if he had only thought of the matter, he said, "You're going to reenlist, aren't you, Conniston?"
"I still owe the Service a month or so before my term expires, don't I? After that—yes—I believe I shall reenlist."
"Good!" approved the Inspector. "I'll have you a sergeancy within a month. Meanwhile you're off duty and may do anything you please. You know Brady, the Company agent? He's up the Mackenzie on a trip, and here's the key to his shack. I know you'll appreciate getting under a real roof again, and Brady won't object as long as I collect his thirty dollars a month rent. Of course Barracks is open to you, but it just occurred to me you might prefer this place while on furlough. Everything is there from a bathtub to nutcrackers, and I know a little Jap in town who is hunting a job as a cook. What do you say?"
"Splendid!" cried Keith. "I'll go up at once, and if you'll hustle the Jap along, I'll appreciate it. You might tell him to bring up stuff for dinner," he added.
McDowell gave him a key. Ten minutes later he was out of sight of barracks and climbing a green slope that led to Brady's bungalow.
In spite of the fact that he had not played his part brilliantly, he believed that he had scored a triumph. Andy Duggan had not recognized him, and the riverman had been one of his most intimate friends. McDowell had accepted him apparently without a suspicion. And Shan Tung—
It was Shan Tung who weighed heavily upon his mind, even as his nerves tingled with the thrill of success. He could not get away from the vision of the Chinaman as he had backed through the Inspector's door, the flaming needle-points of his eyes piercing him as he went. It was not hatred he had seen in Shan Tung's face. He was sure of that. It was no emotion that he could describe. It was as if a pair of mechanical eyes fixed in the head of an amazingly efficient mechanical monster had focused themselves on him in those few instants. It made him think of an X-ray machine. But Shan Tung was human. And he was clever. Given another skin, one would not have taken him for what he was. The immaculateness of his speech and manners was more than unusual; it was positively irritating, something which no Chinaman should rightfully possess. So argued Keith as he went up to Brady's bungalow.
He tried to throw off the oppression of the thing that was creeping over him, the growing suspicion that he had not passed safely under the battery of Shan Tung's eyes. With physical things he endeavored to thrust his mental uneasiness into the background. He lighted one of the half-dozen cigars McDowell had dropped into his pocket. It was good to feel a cigar between his teeth again and taste its flavor. At the crest of the slope on which Brady's bungalow stood, he stopped and looked about him. Instinctively his eyes turned first to the west. In that direction half of the town lay under him, and beyond its edge swept the timbered slopes, the river, and the green pathways of the plains. His heart beat a little faster as he looked. Half a mile away was a tiny, parklike patch of timber, and sheltered there, with the river running under it, was the old home. The building was hidden, but through a break in the trees he could see the top of the old red brick chimney glowing in the sun, as if beckoning a welcome to him over the tree tops. He forgot Shan Tung; he forgot McDowell; he forgot that he was John Keith, the murderer, in the overwhelming sea of loneliness that swept over him. He looked out into the world that had once been his, and all that he saw was that red brick chimney glowing in the sun, and the chimney changed until at last it seemed to him like a tombstone rising over the graves of the dead. He turned to the door of the bungalow with a thickening in his throat and his eyes filmed by a mist through which for a few moments it was difficult for him to see.
The bungalow was darkened by drawn curtains when he entered. One after another he let them up, and the sun poured in. Brady had left his place in order, and Keith felt about him an atmosphere of cheer that was a mighty urge to his flagging spirits. Brady was a home man without a wife. The Company's agent had called his place "The Shack" because it was built entirely of logs, and a woman could not have made it more comfortable. Keith stood in the big living-room. At one end was a strong fireplace in which kindlings and birch were already laid, waiting the touch of a match. Brady's reading table and his easy chair were drawn up close; his lounging moccasins were on a footstool; pipes, tobacco, books and magazines littered the table; and out of this cheering disorder rose triumphantly the amber shoulder of a half-filled bottle of Old Rye.
Keith found himself chuckling. His grin met the lifeless stare of a pair of glass eyes in the huge head of an old bull moose over the mantel, and after that his gaze rambled over the walls ornamented with mounted heads, pictures, snowshoes, gun-racks and the things which went to make up the comradeship and business of Brady's picturesque life. Keith could look through into the little dining-room, and beyond that was the kitchen. He made an inventory of both and found that McDowell was right. There were nutcrackers in Brady's establishment. And he found the bathroom. It was not much larger than a piano box, but the tub was man's size, and Keith raised a window and poked his head out to find that it was connected with a rainwater tank built by a genius, just high enough to give weight sufficient for a water system and low enough to gather the rain as it fell from the eaves. He laughed outright, the sort of laugh that comes out of a man's soul not when he is amused but when he is pleased. By the time he had investigated the two bedrooms, he felt a real affection for Brady. He selected the agent's room for his own. Here, too, were pipes and tobacco and books and magazines, and a reading lamp on a table close to the bedside. Not until he had made a closer inspection of the living-room did he discover that the Shack also had a telephone.
By that time he noted that the sun had gone out. Driving up from the west was a mass of storm clouds. He unlocked a door from which he could look up the river, and the wind that was riding softly in advance of the storm ruffled his hair and cooled his face. In it he caught again the old fancy—the smells of the vast reaches of unpeopled prairie beyond the rim of the forest, and the luring chill of the distant mountain tops. Always storm that came down with the river brought to him voice from the river's end. It came to him from the great mountains that were a passion with him; it seemed to thunder to him the old stories of the mightiest fastnesses of the Rockies and stirred in him the child-bred yearning to follow up his beloved river until he came at last to the mystery of its birthplace in the cradle of the western ranges. And now, as he faced the storm, the grip of that desire held him like a strong hand.
The sky blackened swiftly, and with the rumbling of far-away thunder he saw the lightning slitting the dark heaven like bayonets, and the fire of the electrical charges galloped to him and filled his veins. His heart all at once cried out words that his lips did not utter. Why should he not answer the call that had come to him through all the years? Now was the time—and why should he not go? Why tempt fate in the hazard of a great adventure where home and friends and even hope were dead to him, when off there beyond the storm was the place of his dreams? He threw out his arms. His voice broke at last in a cry of strange ecstasy. Not everything was gone! Not everything was dead! Over the graveyard of his past there was sweeping a mighty force that called him, something that was no longer merely an urge and a demand but a thing that was irresistible. He would go! Tomorrow—today—tonight—he would begin making plans!
He watched the deluge as it came on with a roar of wind, a beating, hissing wall under which the tree tops down in the edge of the plain bent their heads like a multitude of people in prayer. He saw it sweeping up the slope in a mass of gray dragoons. It caught him before he had closed the door, and his face dripped with wet as he forced the last inch of it against the wind with his shoulder. It was the sort of storm Keith liked. The thunder was the rumble of a million giant cartwheels rolling overhead.
Inside the bungalow it was growing dark as though evening had come. He dropped on his knees before the pile of dry fuel in the fireplace and struck a match. For a space the blaze smoldered; then the birch fired up like oil-soaked tinder, and a yellow flame crackled and roared up the flue. Keith was sensitive in the matter of smoking other people's pipes, so he drew out his own and filled it with Brady's tobacco. It was an English mixture, rich and aromatic, and as the fire burned brighter and the scent of the tobacco filled the room, he dropped into Brady's big lounging chair and stretched out his legs with a deep breath of satisfaction. His thoughts wandered to the clash of the storm. He would have a place like this out there in the mystery of the trackless mountains, where the Saskatchewan was born. He would build it like Brady's place, even to the rain-water tank midway between the roof and the ground. And after a few years no one would remember that a man named John Keith had ever lived.
Something brought him suddenly to his feet. It was the ringing of the telephone. After four years the sound was one that roused with an uncomfortable jump every nerve in his body. Probably it was McDowell calling up about the Jap or to ask how he liked the place. Probably—it was that. He repeated the thought aloud as he laid his pipe on the table. And yet as his hand came in contact with the telephone, he felt an inclination to draw back. A subtle voice whispered him not to answer, to leave while the storm was dark, to go back into the wilderness, to fight his way to the western mountains.
With a jerk he unhooked the receiver and put it to his ear.
It was not McDowell who answered him. It was not Shan Tung. To his amazement, coming to him through the tumult of the storm, he recognized the voice of Miriam Kirkstone!
Why should Miriam Kirkstone call him up in an hour when the sky was livid with the flash of lightning and the earth trembled with the roll of thunder? This was the question that filled Keith's mind as he listened to the voice at the other end of the wire. It was pitched to a high treble as if unconsciously the speaker feared that the storm might break in upon her words. She was telling him that she had telephoned McDowell but had been too late to catch him before he left for Brady's bungalow; she was asking him to pardon her for intruding upon his time so soon after his return, but she was sure that he would understand her. She wanted him to come up to see her that evening at eight o'clock. It was important—to her. Would he come?
Before Keith had taken a moment to consult with himself he had replied that he would. He heard her "thank you," her "good-by," and hung up the receiver, stunned. So far as he could remember, he had spoken no more than seven words. The beautiful young woman up at the Kirkstone mansion had clearly betrayed her fear of the lightning by winding up her business with him at the earliest possible moment. Why, then, had she not waited until the storm was over?
A pounding at the door interrupted his thought. He went to it and admitted an individual who, in spite of his water-soaked condition, was smiling all over. It was Wallie, the Jap. He was no larger than a boy of sixteen, and from eyes, ears, nose, and hair he was dripping streams, while his coat bulged with packages which he had struggled to protect, from the torrent through which he had forced his way up the hill. Keith liked him on the instant. He found himself powerless to resist the infection of Wallie's grin, and as Wallie hustled into the kitchen like a wet spaniel, he followed and helped him unload. By the time the little Jap had disgorged his last package, he had assured Keith that the rain was nice, that his name was Wallie, that he expected five dollars a week and could cook "like heaven." Keith laughed outright, and Wallie was so delighted with the general outlook that he fairly kicked his heels together. Thereafter for an hour or so he was left alone in possession of the kitchen, and shortly Keith began to hear certain sounds and catch occasional odoriferous whiffs which assured him that Wallie was losing no time in demonstrating his divine efficiency in the matter of cooking.
Wallie's coming gave him an excuse to call up McDowell. He confessed to a disquieting desire to hear the inspector's voice again. In the back of his head was the fear of Shan Tung, and the hope that McDowell might throw some light on Miriam Kirkstone's unusual request to see her that night. The storm had settled down into a steady drizzle when he got in touch with him, and he was relieved to find there was no change in the friendliness of the voice that came over the telephone. If Shan Tung had a suspicion, he had kept it to himself.
To Keith's surprise it was McDowell who spoke first of Miss Kirkstone.
"She seemed unusually anxious to get in touch with you," he said. "I am frankly disturbed over a certain matter, Conniston, and I should like to talk with you before you go up tonight."
Keith sniffed the air. "Wallie is going to ring the dinner bell within half an hour. Why not slip on a raincoat and join me up here? I think it's going to be pretty good."
"I'll come," said McDowell. "Expect me any moment."
Fifteen minutes later Keith was helping him off with his wet slicker. He had expected McDowell to make some observation on the cheerfulness of the birch fire and the agreeable aromas that were leaking from Wallie's kitchen, but the inspector disappointed him. He stood for a few moments with his back to the fire, thumbing down the tobacco in his pipe, and he made no effort to conceal the fact that there was something in his mind more important than dinner and the cheer of a grate.
His eyes fell on the telephone, and he nodded toward it. "Seemed very anxious to see you, didn't she, Conniston? I mean Miss Kirkstone."
McDowell seated himself and lighted a match. "Seemed—a little—nervous—perhaps," he suggested between puffs. "As though something had happened—or was going to happen. Don't mind my questioning you, do you, Derry?"
"Not a bit," said Keith. "You see, I thought perhaps you might explain—"
There was a disquieting gleam in McDowell's eyes. "It was odd that she should call you up so soon—and in the storm—wasn't it? She expected to find you at my office. I could fairly hear the lightning hissing along the wires. She must have been under some unusual impulse."
McDowell was silent for a space, looking steadily at Keith, as if measuring him up to something.
"I don't mind telling you that I am very deeply interested in Miss Kirkstone," he said. "You didn't see her when the Judge was killed. She was away at school, and you were on John Keith's trail when she returned. I have never been much of a woman's man, Conniston, but I tell you frankly that up until six or eight months ago Miriam was one of the most beautiful girls I have ever seen. I would give a good deal to know the exact hour and date when the change in her began. I might be able to trace some event to that date. It was six months ago that she began to take an interest in the fate of John Keith. Since then the change in her has alarmed me, Conniston. I don't understand. She has betrayed nothing. But I have seen her dying by inches under my eyes. She is only a pale and drooping flower compared with what she was. I am positive it is not a sickness—unless it is mental. I have a suspicion. It is almost too terrible to put into words. You will be going up there tonight—you will be alone with her, will talk with her, may learn a great deal if you understand what it is that is eating like a canker in my mind. Will you help me to discover her secret?" He leaned toward Keith. He was no longer the man of iron. There was something intensely human in his face.
"There is no other man on earth I would confide this matter to," he went on slowly. "It will take—a gentleman—to handle it, someone who is big enough to forget if my suspicion is untrue, and who will understand fully what sacrilege means should it prove true. It is extremely delicate. I hesitate. And yet—I am waiting, Conniston. Is it necessary to ask you to pledge secrecy in the matter?"
Keith held out a hand. McDowell gripped it tight.
"It is—Shan Tung," he said, a peculiar hiss in his voice. "Shan Tung—and Miriam Kirkstone! Do you understand, Conniston? Does the horror of it get hold of you? Can you make yourself believe that it is possible? Am I mad to allow such a suspicion to creep into my brain? Shan Tung—Miriam Kirkstone! And she sees herself standing now at the very edge of the pit of hell, and it is killing her."
Keith felt his blood running cold as he saw in the inspector's face the thing which he did not put more plainly in word. He was shocked. He drew his hand from McDowell's grip almost fiercely.
"Impossible!" he cried. "Yes, you are mad. Such a thing would be inconceivable!"
"And yet I have told myself that it is possible," said McDowell. His face was returning into its iron-like mask. His two hands gripped the arms of his chair, and he stared at Keith again as if he were looking through him at something else, and to that something else he seemed to speak, slowly, weighing and measuring each word before it passed his lips. "I am not superstitious. It has always been a law with me to have conviction forced upon me. I do not believe unusual things until investigation proves them. I am making an exception in the case of Shan Tung. I have never regarded him as a man, like you and me, but as a sort of superphysical human machine possessed of a certain psychological power that is at times almost deadly. Do you begin to understand me? I believe that he has exerted the whole force of that influence upon Miriam Kirkstone—and she has surrendered to it. I believe—and yet I am not positive."
"And you have watched them for six months?"
"No. The suspicion came less than a month ago. No one that I know has ever had the opportunity of looking into Shan Tung's private life. The quarters behind his cafe are a mystery. I suppose they can be entered from the cafe and also from a little stairway at the rear. One night—very late—I saw Miriam Kirkstone come down that stairway. Twice in the last month she has visited Shan Tung at a late hour. Twice that I know of, you understand. And that is not all—quite."
Keith saw the distended veins in McDowell's clenched hands, and he knew that he was speaking under a tremendous strain.
"I watched the Kirkstone home—personally. Three times in that same month Shan Tung visited her there. The third time I entered boldly with a fraud message for the girl. I remained with her for an hour. In that time I saw nothing and heard nothing of Shan Tung. He was hiding—or got out as I came in."
Keith was visioning Miriam Kirkstone as he had seen her in the inspector's office. He recalled vividly the slim, golden beauty of her, the wonderful gray of her eyes, and the shimmer of her hair as she stood in the light of the window—and then he saw Shan Tung, effeminate, with his sly, creeping hands and his narrowed eyes, and the thing which McDowell had suggested rose up before him a monstrous impossibility.
"Why don't you demand an explanation of Miss Kirkstone?" he asked.
"I have, and she denies it all absolutely, except that Shan Tung came to her house once to see her brother. She says that she was never on the little stairway back of Shan Tung's place."
"And you do not believe her?"
"Assuredly not. I saw her. To speak the cold truth, Conniston, she is lying magnificently to cover up something which she does not want any other person on earth to know."
Keith leaned forward suddenly. "And why is it that John Keith, dead and buried, should have anything to do with this?" he demanded. "Why did this 'intense interest' you speak of in John Keith begin at about the same time your suspicions began to include Shan Tung?"
McDowell shook his head. "It may be that her interest was not so much in John Keith as in you, Conniston. That is for you to discover—tonight. It is an interesting situation. It has tragic possibilities. The instant you substantiate my suspicions we'll deal directly with Shan Tung. Just now—there's Wallie behind you grinning like a Cheshire cat. His dinner must be a success."
The diminutive Jap had noiselessly opened the door of the little dining-room in which the table was set for two.
Keith smiled as he sat down opposite the man who would have sent him to the executioner had he known the truth. After all, it was but a step from comedy to tragedy. And just now he was conscious of a bit of grisly humor in the situation.
The storm had settled into a steady drizzle when McDowell left the Shack at two o'clock. Keith watched the iron man, as his tall, gray figure faded away into the mist down the slope, with a curious undercurrent of emotion. Before the inspector had come up as his guest he had, he thought, definitely decided his future action. He would go west on his furlough, write McDowell that he had decided not to reenlist, and bury himself in the British Columbia mountains before an answer could get back to him, leaving the impression that he was going on to Australia or Japan. He was not so sure of himself now. He found himself looking ahead to the night, when he would see Miriam Kirkstone, and he no longer feared Shan Tung as he had feared him a few hours before. McDowell himself had given him new weapons. He was unofficially on Shan Tung's trail. McDowell had frankly placed the affair of Miriam Kirkstone in his hands. That it all had in some mysterious way something to do with himself—John Keith—urged him on to the adventure.
He waited impatiently for the evening. Wallie, smothered in a great raincoat, he sent forth on a general foraging expedition and to bring up some of Conniston's clothes. It was a quarter of eight when he left for Miriam Kirkstone's home.
Even at that early hour the night lay about him heavy and dark and saturated with a heavy mist. From the summit of the hill he could no longer make out the valley of the Saskatchewan. He walked down into a pit in which the scattered lights of the town burned dully like distant stars. It was a little after eight when he came to the Kirkstone house. It was set well back in an iron-fenced area thick with trees and shrubbery, and he saw that the porch light was burning to show him the way. Curtains were drawn, but a glow of warm light lay behind them.
He was sure that Miriam Kirkstone must have heard the crunch of his feet on the gravel walk, for he had scarcely touched the old-fashioned knocker on the door when the door itself was opened. It was Miriam who greeted him. Again he held her hand for a moment in his own.
It was not cold, as it had been in McDowell's office. It was almost feverishly hot, and the pupils of the girl's eyes were big, and dark, and filled with a luminous fire. Keith might have thought that coming in out of the dark night he had startled her. But it was not that. She was repressing something that had preceded him. He thought that he heard the almost noiseless closing of a door at the end of the long hall, and his nostrils caught the faint aroma of a strange perfume. Between him and the light hung a filmy veil of smoke. He knew that it had come from a cigarette. There was an uneasy note in Miss Kirkstone's voice as she invited him to hang his coat and hat on an old-fashioned rack near the door. He took his time, trying to recall where he had detected that perfume before. He remembered, with a sort of shock. It was after Shan Tung had left McDowell's office.
She was smiling when he turned, and apologizing again for making her unusual request that day.
"It was—quite unconventional. But I felt that you would understand, Mr. Conniston. I guess I didn't stop to think. And I am afraid of lightning, too. But I wanted to see you. I didn't want to wait until tomorrow to hear about what happened up there. Is it—so strange?"
Afterward he could not remember just what sort of answer he made. She turned, and he followed her through the big, square-cut door leading out of the hall. It was the same door with the great, sliding panel he had locked on that fateful night, years ago, when he had fought with her father and brother. In it, for a moment, her slim figure was profiled in a frame of vivid light. Her mother must have been beautiful. That was the thought that flashed upon him as the room and its tragic memory lay before him. Everything came back to him vividly, and he was astonished at the few changes in it. There was the big chair with its leather arms, in which the overfatted creature who had been her father was sitting when he came in. It was the same table, too, and it seemed to him that the same odds and ends were on the mantel over the cobblestone fireplace. And there was somebody's picture of the Madonna still hanging between two windows. The Madonna, like the master of the house, had been too fat to be beautiful. The son, an ogreish pattern of his father, had stood with his back to the Madonna, whose overfat arms had seemed to rest on his shoulders. He remembered that.
The girl was watching him closely when he turned toward her. He had frankly looked the room over, without concealing his intention. She was breathing a little unsteadily, and her hair was shimmering gloriously in the light of an overhead chandelier. She sat down with that light over her, motioning him to be seated opposite her—across the same table from which he had snatched the copper weight that had killed Kirkstone. He had never seen anything quite so steady, quite so beautiful as her eyes when they looked across at him. He thought of McDowell's suspicion and of Shan Tung and gripped himself hard. The same strange perfume hung subtly on the air he was breathing. On a small silver tray at his elbow lay the ends of three freshly burned cigarettes.