Romany Of The Snows by Gilbert Parker
It was no use: men might come and go before her, but Kitty Cline had eyes for only one man. Pierre made no show of liking her, and thought, at first, that hers was a passing fancy. He soon saw differently. There was that look in her eyes which burns conviction as deep as the furnace from which it comes: the hot, shy, hungering look of desire; most childlike, painfully infinite. He would rather have faced the cold mouth of a pistol; for he felt how it would end. He might be beyond wish to play the lover, but he knew that every man can endure being loved. He also knew that some are possessed--a dream, a spell, what you will--for their life long. Kitty Cline was one of these.
He thought he must go away, but he did not. From the hour he decided to stay misfortune began. Willie Haslam, the clerk at the Company's Post, had learned a trick or two at cards in the east, and imagined that he could, as he said himself, "roast the cock o' the roost"--meaning Pierre. He did so for one or two evenings, and then Pierre had a sudden increase of luck (or design), and the lad, seeing no chance of redeeming the I O U, representing two years' salary, went down to the house where Kitty Cline lived, and shot himself on the door-step.
He had had the misfortune to prefer Kitty to the other girls at Guidon Hill--though Nellie Sanger would have been as much to him, if Kitty had been easier to win. The two things together told hard against Pierre. Before, he might have gone; in the face of difficulty he certainly would not go. Willie Haslam's funeral was a public function: he was young, innocent-looking, handsome, and the people did not know what Pierre would not tell now--that he had cheated grossly at cards. Pierre was sure, before Liddall, the surveyor, told him, that a movement was apace to give him trouble--possibly fatal.
"You had better go," said Liddall. "There's no use tempting Providence."
"They are tempting the devil," was the cool reply; "and that is not all joy, as you shall see."
He stayed. For a time there was no demonstration on either side. He came and went through the streets, and was found at his usual haunts, to observers as cool and nonchalant as ever. He was a changed man, however. He never got away from the look in Kitty Cline's eyes. He felt the thing wearing on him, and he hesitated to speculate on the result; but he knew vaguely that it would end in disaster. There is a kind of corrosion which eats the granite out of the blood, and leaves fever.
"What is the worst thing that can happen a man, eh?" he said to Liddall one day, after having spent a few minutes with Kitty Cline.
Liddall was an honest man. He knew the world tolerably well. In writing once to his partner in Montreal he had spoken of Pierre as "an admirable, interesting scoundrel." Once when Pierre called him "mon ami," and asked him to come and spend an evening in his cottage, he said:
"Yes, I will go. But--pardon me--not as your friend. Let us be plain with each other. I never met a man of your stamp before--"
"A professional gambler--yes? Bien?"
"You interest me; I like you; you have great cleverness--"
"A priest once told me I had a great brain-there is a difference. Well?"
"You are like no man I ever met before. Yours is a life like none I ever knew. I would rather talk with you than with any other man in the country, and yet--"
"And yet you would not take me to your home? That is all right. I expect nothing. I accept the terms. I know what I am and what you are. I like men who are square. You would go out of your way to do me a good turn."
It was on his tongue to speak of Katy Cline, but he hesitated: it was not fair to the girl, he thought, though what he had intended was for her good. He felt he had no right to assume that Liddall knew how things were. The occasion slipped by.
But the same matter had been in his mind when, later, he asked, "What is the worst thing that can happen to a man?"
Liddall looked at him long, and then said: "To stand between two fires."
Pierre smiled: it was an answer after his own heart. Liddall remembered it very well in the future.
"What is the thing to do in such a case?" Pierre asked.
"It is not good to stand still."
"But what if you are stunned, or do not care?"
"You should care. It is not wise to strain a situation."
Pierre rose, walked up and down the room once or twice, then stood still, his arms folded, and spoke in a low tone. "Once in the Rockies I was lost. I crept into a cave at night. I knew it was the nest of some wild animal; but I was nearly dead with hunger and fatigue. I fell asleep. When I woke--it was towards morning--I saw two yellow stars glaring where the mouth of the cave had been. They were all hate: like nothing you could imagine: passion as it is first made--yes. There was also a rumbling sound. It was terrible, and yet I was not scared. Hate need not disturb you.--I am a quick shot. I killed that mountain lion, and I ate the haunch of deer I dragged from under her . . . "
He turned now, and, facing the doorway, looked out upon the village, to the roof of a house which they both knew. "Hate," he said, "is not the most wonderful thing. I saw a woman look once as though she could lose the whole world--and her own soul. She was a good woman. The man was bad--most: he never could be anything else. A look like that breaks the nerve. It is not amusing. In time the man goes to pieces. But before that comes he is apt to do strange things. Eh-so!"
He sat down, and, with his finger, wrote musingly in the dust upon the table.
Liddall looked keenly at him, and replied more brusquely than he felt: "Do you think it fair to stay--fair to her?"
"What if I should take her with me?" Pierre flashed a keen, searching look after the words.
"It would be useless devilry."
"Let us drink," said Pierre, as he came to his feet quickly: "then for the House of Lords" (the new and fashionable tavern).
They separated in the street, and Pierre went to the House of Lords alone. He found a number of men gathered before a paper pasted on a pillar of the veranda. Hearing his own name, he came nearer. A ranch man was reading aloud an article from a newspaper printed two hundred miles away. The article was headed, "A Villainous Plunderer." It had been written by someone at Guidon Hill. All that was discreditable in Pierre's life it set forth with rude clearness; he was credited with nothing pardonable. In the crowd there were mutterings unmistakable to Pierre. He suddenly came among them, caught a revolver from his pocket, and shot over the reader's shoulder six times into the pasted strip of newspaper.
The men dropped back. They were not prepared for warlike measures at the moment. Pierre leaned his back against the pillar and waited. His silence and coolness, together with an iron fierceness in his face, held them from instant demonstration against him; but he knew that he must face active peril soon. He pocketed his revolver and went up the hill to the house of Kitty Cline's mother. It was the first time he had ever been there. At the door he hesitated, but knocked presently, and was admitted by Kitty, who, at sight of him, turned faint with sudden joy, and grasped the lintel to steady herself.
Pierre quietly caught her about the waist, and shut the door. She recovered, and gently disengaged herself. He made no further advance, and they stood looking at each other for a minute: he, as one who had come to look at something good he was never to see again; she, as at something she hoped to see for ever. They had never before been where no eyes could observe them. He ruled his voice to calmness.
"I am going away," he said, "and I have come to say good-bye."
Her eyes never wavered from his. Her voice was scarce above a whisper.
"Why do you go? Where are you going?"
"I have been here too long. I am what they call a villain and a plunderer. I am going to-mon Dieu, I do not know!" He shrugged his shoulders, and smiled with a sort of helpless disdain.
She leaned her hands on the table before her. Her voice was still that low, clear murmur.
"What people say doesn't matter." She staked her all upon her words. She must speak them, though she might hate herself afterwards. "Are you going--alone?"
"Where I may have to go I must travel alone."
He could not meet her eyes now; he turned his head away. He almost hoped she would not understand. "Sit down," he added; "I want to tell you of my life."
He believed that telling it as he should, she would be horror-stricken, and that the deep flame would die out of her eyes. Neither he nor she knew how long they sat there, he telling with grim precision of the life he had led. Her hands were clasped before her, and she shuddered once or twice, so that he paused; but she asked him firmly to go on.
When all was told he stood up. He could not see her face, but he heard her say:
"You have forgotten many things that were not bad. Let me say them." She named things that would have done honour to a better man. He was standing in the moonlight that came through the window. She stepped forward, her hands quivering out to him. "Oh, Pierre," she said, "I know why you tell me this: but it makes no difference-none! I will go with you wherever you go."
He caught her hands in his. She was stronger than he was now. Her eyes mastered him. A low cry broke from him, and he drew her almost fiercely into his arms.
"Pierre! Pierre!" was all she could say.
He kissed her again and again upon the mouth. As he did so, he heard footsteps and muffled voices without. Putting her quickly from him, he sprang towards the door, threw it open, closed it behind him, and drew his revolvers. A half-dozen men faced him. Two bullets whistled by his head, and lodged in the door. Then he fired swiftly, shot after shot, and three men fell. His revolvers were empty. There were three men left. The case seemed all against him now, but just here a shot, and then another, came from the window, and a fourth man fell. Pierre sprang upon one, the other turned and ran. There was a short sharp struggle: then Pierre rose up--alone.
The girl stood in the doorway. "Come, my dear," he said, you must go with me now."
"Yes, Pierre," she cried, a mad light in her face, "I have killed men too--for you."
Together they ran down the hillside, and made for the stables of the Fort. People were hurrying through the long street of the town, and torches were burning, but they came by a roundabout to the stables safely. Pierre was about to enter, when a man came out. It was Liddall. He kept his horses there, and he had saddled one, thinking that Pierre might need it.
There were quick words of explanation, and then, "Must the girl go too?" he asked. "It will increase the danger--besides--"
"I am going wherever he goes," she interrupted hoarsely. "I have killed men; he and I are the same now."
Without a word Liddall turned back, threw a saddle on another horse, and led it out quickly. "Which way?" he asked; "and where shall I find the horses?"
"West to the mountains. The horses you will find at Tete Blanche Hill, if we get there. If not, there is money under the white pine at my cottage. Goodbye!"
They galloped away. But there were mounted men in the main street, and one, well ahead of the others, was making towards the bridge over which they must pass. He reached it before they did, and set his horse crosswise in its narrow entrance. Pierre urged his mare in front of the girl's, and drove straight at the head and shoulders of the obstructing horse. His was the heavier animal, and it bore the other down. The rider fired as he fell, but missed, and, in an instant, Pierre and the girl were over. The fallen man fired the second time, but again missed. They had a fair start, but the open prairie was ahead of them, and there was no chance to hide. Riding must do all, for their pursuers were in full cry. For an hour they rode hard. They could see their hunters not very far in the rear. Suddenly Pierre started and sniffed the air.
"The prairie's on fire," he said exultingly, defiantly. Almost as he spoke, clouds ran down the horizon, and then the sky lighted up. The fire travelled with incredible swiftness: they were hastening to meet it. It came on wave-like, hurrying down at the right and the left as if to close in on them. The girl spoke no word; she had no fear: what Pierre did she would do. He turned round to see his pursuers: they had wheeled and were galloping back the way they came. His horse and hers were travelling neck and neck. He looked at her with an intense, eager gaze.
"Will you ride on?" he asked eagerly. "We are between two fires." He smiled, remembering his words to Liddall.
"Ride on," she urged in a strong, clear voice, a kind of wild triumph in it. "You shall not go alone."
There ran into his eyes now the same infinite look that had been in hers --that had conquered him. The flame rolling towards them was not brighter or hotter.
"For heaven or hell, my girl!" he cried, and they drove their horses on --on.
Far behind upon a Divide the flying hunters from Guidon Hill paused for a moment. They saw with hushed wonder and awe a man and woman, dark and weird against the red light, ride madly into the flickering surf of fire.