Chapter III. In Which Cherry Malotte Displays a Temper
 

The unsuspected luxury of the dining-room, and the excellence of the dinner itself had in a measure prepared Emerson for what he found in the living-room. One thing only staggered him--a piano. The bear-skins on the floor, the big, sleepy chairs, the reading-table littered with magazines, the shelves of books, even the basket of fancy-work--all these he could accept without further parleying; but a piano! in Kalvik! Observing his look, the girl said:

"I am dreadfully extravagant, am I not? But I love it, and I have so little to do. I read and play and drive my dog-team--that's about all."

"And rescue drowning men in time for dinner," added Boyd Emerson, not knowing whether he liked this young woman or not. He knew this north country from bitter experience, knew that none but the strong can survive, and recognizing himself as a failure, her calm assurance and self- certainty offended him vaguely. It seemed as if she were succeeding where he had failed, which rather jarred his sense of the fitness of things. Then, too, conventionality is a very agreeable social bond, the true value of which is not often recognized until it is found missing, and this girl was anything but conventional.

Again he withdrew into that silent mood from which no effort on the part of his hostess could arouse him, and it soon became apparent from the listless hang of his hands and the distant light in his eyes that he had even become unconscious of her presence in the room. Observing the cause of her impatience, Fraser interrupted his interminable monologue to say, without change of intonation:

"Don't get sore on him; he's that way half the time. I rode herd one night on a feller that was going to hang for murder at dawn, and he set just like that for hours." She raised her brows inquiringly, at which he continued: "But you can't always tell; when my brother got married he acted the same way."

After an hour, during which Emerson barely spoke, she tired of the other man's anecdotes, which had long ceased to be amusing, and, going to the piano, shuffled the sheet music idly, inquiring:

"Do you care for music?" Her remark was aimed at Emerson, but the other answered:

"I'm a nut on it."

She ignored the speaker, and cast another question over her shoulder:

"What kind do you prefer?" Again the adventurer outran his companion to the reply:

"My favorite hymn is the Maple Leaf Rag. Let her go, professor."

Cherry settled herself obligingly and played ragtime, although she fancied that Emerson stirred uneasily as if the musical interruption disturbed him; but when she swung about on her seat at the conclusion, he was still lax and indifferent.

"That certainly has some class to it," "Fingerless" Fraser said, admiringly. "Just go through the reperchure from soda to hock, will you? I'm certainly fond of that coon clatter." And realizing that his pleasure was genuine, she played on and on for him, to the muffled thump of his feet, now and then feeding her curiosity with a stolen glance at the other. She was in the midst of some syncopated measure when Boyd spoke abruptly: "Please play something."

She understood what he meant and began really to play, realizing very soon that at least one of her guests knew and loved music. Under her deft fingers the instrument became a medium for musical speech. Gay roundelays, swift, passionate Hungarian dances, bold Wagnerian strains followed in quick succession, and the more utter her abandon the more certainly she felt the younger man respond.

Strange to say, the warped soul of "Fingerless" Fraser likewise felt the spell of real music, and he stilled his loose-hinged tongue. By-and-by she began to sing, more for her own amusement than for theirs, and after awhile her fingers strayed upon the sweet chords of Bartlett's A Dream, a half-forgotten thing, the tenderness of which had lived with her from girlhood. She heard Emerson rise, then knew he was standing at her shoulder. Could he sing, she wondered, as he began to take up the words of the song? Then her dream-filled eyes widened as she listened to his voice breathing life into the beautiful words. He sang with the ease and flexibility of an artist, his powerful baritone blending perfectly with her contralto.

For the first time she felt the man's personality, his magnetism, as if he had dropped his cloak and stood at her side in his true semblance. As they finished the song she wheeled abruptly, her face flushed, her ripe lips smiling, her eyes moist, and looked up to find him marvelously transformed. His even teeth gleamed forth from a brown face that had become the mirror of a soul as spirited as her own, for the blending of their voices had brought them into a similar harmony of understanding.

"Oh, thank you," she breathed.

"Thank you," he said. "I--I--that's the first time in ages that I've had the heart to sing. I was hungry for music, I was starving for it. I've sat in my cabin at night longing for it until my soul fairly ached with the silence. I've frozen beneath the Northern Lights straining my ears for the melody that ought to go with them--they must have an accompaniment somewhere, don't you think so?"

"Yes, yes," she breathed.

"They must have; they are too gloriously, terribly beautiful to be silent. I've stood in the whispering spruce groves and tried to sing contentment back into my heart, but I couldn't do it. This is the first real taste I've had in three years. Three years!"

He was talking rapidly, his blue eyes dancing. Cherry remembered thinking at dinner that those eyes were of too light and hard a blue for tenderness. She now observed that they were singularly deep and passionate.

"Why, I've gone about with a comb and a piece of tissue-paper at my lips like any kid. I once made a banjo out of a cigar-box and bale wire, and while I was in the Kougarok I walked ten miles to hear a nigger play a harmonica. I did all sorts of things to coax music into this country, but it is silent and unresponsive, absolutely dead and discordant." He made a gesture which in a woman would have ended in a shudder.

He took a seat near the girl, and continued to talk feverishly, unable to give voice to his thoughts rapidly enough. His reserve vanished, his silence gave way to a confidential warmth which suffused his listener and drew her to him. The overpowering force of his strong nature swept her out of herself, while her ready sympathy took fire and caught at his half- expressed ideas and stumbling words, stimulating him with her warm understanding. Her quick wit rallied him and awoke echoes of his past youth, until they began to laugh and jest with the camaraderie of boy and girl. With their better acquaintance her assumption of masculinity fell from her, and she became the "womanly woman"--dainty, vivacious, captivating.

Fraser, whom both had forgotten, looked on at first in gaping, silent awe, staring and blinking at his travelling companion, who had undergone such a metamorphosis. But restraint and silence were impossible to him for long, and in time he ambled clumsily into the conversation. It jarred, of course, but he could not be ignored, and gradually he claimed more and more of the talk until the young couple yielded to the monologue, smiling at each other in mutual understanding.

Emerson listened tolerantly, idly running through the magazines at his hand, his hostess watching him covertly, albeit her ears were drummed by the other's monotone. How much better this mood became the young man! Suddenly the smile of amusement that lurked about his lip corners and gave him a pleasing look hardened in a queer fashion--he started, then stared at one of the pages while the color died out of his brown cheeks. Cherry saw the hand that held the magazine tremble. He looked up at her, and, disregarding Fraser, broke in, harshly:

"Have you read this magazine?"

"Not entirely. It came in the last mail."

"I'd like to take one page out of it," he said. "May I?"

"Why, certainly," she replied. "You may have the whole thing if you like." He produced a knife, and with one quick stroke cut a single leaf out of the magazine, which he folded and thrust into the breast of his coat.

"Thank you," he muttered; then fell to staring ahead of him, again heedless of his surroundings. This abrupt relapse into his former state of sullen and defiant silence tantalized the girl to the verge of anger, especially now that she had seen something of his true self. She was painfully conscious of a sense of betrayal at having yielded so easily to his pleasant mood, only to be shut out on an instant's whim, while a girlish curiosity to know the cause of the change overpowered her. He offered no explanation, however, and took no further part in the conversation until, noting the lateness of the hour, he rose and thanked her for her hospitality in the same deadly indifferent manner.

"The music was a great treat," he said, looking beyond her and holding aloof--"a very great treat. I enjoyed it immensely. Good-night."

Cherry Malotte had experienced a new sensation, and she didn't like it. She vowed angrily that she disliked men who looked past her; indeed, she could not recall any other who had ever done so. Her chief concern had always been to check their ardor. She resolved viciously that before she was through with this young man he would make her a less listless adieu. She assured herself that he was a selfish, sullen boor, who needed to be taught a lesson in manners for his own good if for nothing else; that a woman's curiosity had aught to do with her exasperation she would have denied. She abhorred curiosity. As a matter of fact, she told herself that he did not interest her in the least, except as a discourteous fellow who ought to be shocked into a consciousness of his bad manners, and therefore the moment the two men were well out of the room she darted to the table, snatched up the magazine, and skimmed through it feverishly. Ah! here was the place!

A woman's face with some meaningless name beneath filled each page. Along the top ran the heading, "Famous American Beauties." So it was a woman! She skipped backward and forward among the pages for further possible enlightenment, but there was no article accompanying the pictures. It was merely an illustrated section devoted to the photographs of prominent actresses and society women, most of whom she had never heard of, though here and there she saw a name that was familiar. In the centre was that tantalizingly clean-cut edge which had subtracted a face from the gallery --a face which she wanted very much to see. She paused and racked her brain, her brows furrowed with the effort at recollection, but she had only glanced at the pages when the magazine came, and had paid no attention to this part of it. Her anger at her failure to recall this particular face aroused her to the fact that she was acting very foolishly, at which she laughed aloud.

"Well, what of it?" she demanded of the empty room. "He's in love with some society ninny, and I don't care what she looks like." She shrugged her shoulders carelessly; then, in a sudden access of fury, she flung the mutilated magazine viciously into a far corner of the room.

The travellers slept late on the following morning, for the weariness of weeks was upon them, and the little bunk-room they occupied adjoined the main building and was dark. When they came forth they found Chakawana in the store, and a few moments later were called to breakfast.

"Where is your mistress?" inquired Boyd.

"She go see my sick broder," said the Indian girl, recalling Cherry's mention of the child ill with measles. "She all the time give medicine to Aleut babies," Chakawana continued. "All the time give, give, give something. Indian people love her."

"She's sort of a Lady Bountiful to these bums," remarked Fraser.

"Does she let them trade in yonder?" Boyd asked, indicating the store.

"Oh yes! Everything cheap to Indian people. Indian got no money, all the same." Then, as if realizing that her hasty tongue had betrayed some secret of moment, the Aleut girl paused, and, eying them sharply, demanded, "What for you ask?"

"No reason in particular."

"What for you ask?" she insisted. "Maybe you b'long Company, eh?" Emerson laughed, but she was not to be put off easily, and, with characteristic guile, announced boldly: "I lie to you. She no trade with Aleut people. No; Chakawana lie!"

"She's afraid we'll tell this fellow Marsh," Fraser remarked to Emerson; then, as if that name had some powerful effect upon their informant, Chakawana advanced to the table, and, leaning over it, said:

"You know Willis Marsh?" Her pretty wooden face held a mingled expression of fear, malice, and curiosity.

"Ouch!" said Fraser, shoving back from his plate. "Don't look at me like that before I've had my coffee."

"Maybe you know him in San Flancisco, eh?"

"No, no! We never heard of him until last night."

"I guess you lie!" She smiled at them wheedlingly, but Boyd reassured her.

"No! We don't know him at all."

"Then what for you speak his name?"

"Miss Malotte told us about him at dinner."

"Oh!"

"By-the-way, what kind of a looking feller is he?" asked Fraser.

"He's fine, han'some man," said Chakawana. "Nice fat man. Him got hair like--like fire."

"He's fat and red-headed, eh? He must be a picture."

"Yes," agreed the girl, rather vaguely.

"Is he married?"

"I don't know. Maybe he lie. Maybe he got woman."

"The masculine sex seems to stand like a band of horse-thieves with this dame," Fraser remarked to his companion. "She thinks we're all liars."

After a moment, Chakawana continued, "Where you go now?"

"To the States; to the 'outside,'" Boyd answered.

"Then you see Willis Marsh, sure thing. He lives there. Maybe you speak, eh?"

"Well, Mr. Marsh may be a big fellow around Kalvik, but I don't think he occupies so much space in the United States that we will meet him," laughed Emerson; but even yet the girl seemed unconvinced, and went on rather fearfully: "Maybe you see him all the same."

"Perhaps. What then?"

"You speak my name?"

"Why, no, certainly not."

"If I see him, I'll give him your love," offered "Fingerless" Fraser, banteringly; but Chakawana's light-hued cheeks blanched perceptibly, and she cried, quickly:

"No! No! Willis Marsh bad, bad man. You no speak, please! Chakawana poor Aleut girl. Please?"

Her alarm was so genuine that they reassured her; and having completed their meal, they rose and left the room. Outside, Fraser said: "This cannery guy has certainly buffaloed these savages. He must be a slave- driver." Then as they filled their pipes, he added: "She was plumb scared to death of him, wasn't she?"

"Think so?" listlessly.

"Sure. Didn't she show it?"

"Um-m, I suppose so."

They were still talking when they heard the jingle of many bells, then a sharp command from Constantine, and the next instant the door burst open to admit Cherry, who came with a rush of youth and health as fresh as the bracing air that followed her. The cold had reddened her cheeks and quickened her eyes; she was the very embodiment of the day itself, radiantly bright and tinglingly alive.

"Good-morning, gentlemen!" she cried, removing the white fur hood which gave a setting to her sparkling eyes and teeth. "Oh, but it's a glorious morning! If you want to feel your blood leap and your lungs tingle, just let Constantine take you for a spin behind that team. We did the five miles from the village in seventeen minutes."

"And how is your measley patient?" asked Fraser.

"He's doing well, thank you." She stepped to the door to admit Chakawana, who had evidently hurried around from the other house, and now came in, bareheaded and heedless of the cold, bearing a bundle clasped to her breast. "I brought the little fellow home with me. See!"

The Indian girl bore her burden to the stove, where she knelt to lift the covering from the child's face.

"Hey there! Look out!" ejaculated Fraser, retreating in alarm. "I never had no measles." But Chakawana went on cuddling the infant in a motherly fashion while Cherry reassured her guests.

"Is that an Indian child?" asked Emerson, curiously, noting the little fellow's flushed fair skin. The kneeling girl turned upward a pair of tearful, defiant eyes, answering quickly:

"Yes, him Aleut baby."

"Him our little broder," came the deep voice of Constantine, who had entered unnoticed; and a moment later, in obedience to an order from Cherry, they bore their charge to their own quarters at the rear.