Chapter XII
 

A chilly twilight had fallen by the time the castaways arrived at the encampment above the rapids. Kirby and his daughter were shaking from the cold. The Countess Courteau hurried on ahead to start a fire in her tent, and thither she insisted upon taking Rouletta, while her men attended to the father's comfort.

On the way up there had been considerable speculation among those who knew Sam Kirby best, for none of them had ever seen the old fellow in quite such a frame of mind as now. His misfortune had crushed him; he appeared to be numbed by the realization of his overwhelming loss; gone entirely was that gambler's nonchalance for which he was famous. The winning or the losing of large sums of money had never deeply stirred the old sporting-man; the turn of a card, the swift tattoo of horses' hoofs, often had meant far more to him in dollars and cents than the destruction of that barge-load of liquor; he had seen sizable fortunes come and go without a sign of emotion, and yet to-night he was utterly unnerved.

With a man of less physical courage such an ordeal as he had undergone might well have excused a nervous collapse, but Kirby had no nerves; he had, times without number, proved himself to be a man of steel, and so it greatly puzzled his friends to see him shaken and broken.

He referred often to Danny Royal's fate, speaking in a dazed and disbelieving manner, but through that daze ran lightning-bolts of blind, ferocious rage--rage at the river, rage at this hostile, sinister country and at the curse it had put upon him. Over and over, through blue lips and chattering teeth, he reviled the rapids; more than once he lifted the broken-necked bottle to his lips. Of thanksgiving, of gratitude at his own and his daughter's deliverance, he appeared to have none, at least for the time being.

Rouletta's condition was pitiable enough, but she was concerned less with it than with her father's extraordinary behavior, and when the Countess undertook to procure for her dry clothing she protested:

"Please don't trouble. I'll warm up a bit; then I must go back to dad."

"My dear, you're chilled through--you'll die in those wet things," the older woman told her.

Miss Kirby shook her head and, in a queer, strained, apprehensive voice, said: "You don't understand. He's had a drink; if he gets started--" She shivered wretchedly and hid her white face in her hands, then moaned: "Oh, what a day! Danny's gone! I saw him drown--"

"There, there!" The Countess comforted her as best she could. "You've had a terrible experience, but you mustn't think of it just yet. Now let me help you."

Finding that the girl's fingers were stiff and useless, the Countess removed the wet skirt and jacket, wrung them out, and hung them up. Then she produced some dry undergarments, but Miss Kirby refused to put them on.

"You'll need what few things you have," said she, "and--I'll soon warm up. There's no telling what dad will do. I must keep an eye on him."

"You give yourself too much concern. He's chilled through and it's natural that he should take a drink. My men will give him something dry to wear, and meanwhile--"

Rouletta interrupted with a shake of her head, but the Countess gently persisted:

"Don't take your misfortune too hard. The loss of your outfit means nothing compared with your safety. It was a great tragedy, of course, but you and your father were saved. You still have him and he has you."

"Danny knew what was coming," said the girl, and tears welled into her eyes, then slowly overflowed down her white cheeks. "But he faced it. He was game. He was a good man at heart. He had his faults, of course, but he loved dad and he loved me; why, he used to carry me out to see the horses before I could walk; he was my friend, my playmate, my pal. He'd have done murder for me!" Through her tears Rouletta looked up. "It's hard for you to believe that I know, after what he did to you, but--you know how men are on the trail. Nothing matters. He was angry when you outwitted him, and so was father, for that matter, but I told them it served us right and I forbade them to molest you further."

"You did that? Then it's you I have to thank." The Countess smiled gravely. "I could never understand why I came off so easily."

"I'm glad I made them behave. You've more than repaid--" Rouletta paused, she strained her ears to catch the sound of voices from the neighboring tents. "I don't hear father," said she. "I wonder if he could have gone?"

"Perhaps the men have put him to bed--"

But Miss Kirby would not accept this explanation. "I'm afraid--" Again she listened apprehensively. "Once he gets a taste of liquor there's no handling him; he's terrible. Even Danny couldn't do anything with him; sometimes even I have failed." Hurriedly she took down her sodden skirt and made as if to draw it on.

"Oh, child, you mustn't! You simply must not go out this way. Wait here. I'll find him for you and make sure he's all right."

The half-clad girl smiled miserably. "Thank you," said she. But when the Countess had stepped out into the night she finished dressing herself. Her clothing, of course, was as wet as ever, for the warmth of the tent in these few moments had not even heated it through; nevertheless, her apprehension was so keen that she was conscious of little bodily discomfort.

"You were right," the Countess announced when she returned. "He slipped into some borrowed clothes and went up-town. He told the boys he couldn't sit still. But you mustn't follow--at least in that dress-"

"Did he--drink any more?"

"I'm afraid he did."

Heedless of the elder woman's restraining hands, Rouletta Kirby made for the tent opening. "Please don't stop me," she implored. "There's no time to lose and--I'll dry out in time."

"Let me go for you."

"No, no!"

"Then may I go along?"

Again the girl shook her head. "I can handle him better alone. He's a strange man, a terrible man, when he's this way. I--hope I'm not too late."

Rouletta's wet skirts slatted about her ankles as she ran; it was a windy, chilly night, and, in spite of the fact that it was a steep climb to the top of the low bluff, she was chilled to the bone when she came panting into the sprawling cluster of habitations that formed the temporary town of White Horse. Tents were scattered over a dim, stumpy clearing, lights shone through trees that were still standing, a meandering trail led past a straggling row of canvas-topped structures, and from one of these issued the wavering, metallic notes of a phonograph, advertising the place as a house of entertainment.

Sam Kirby was at the bar when his daughter discovered him, and her first searching look brought dismay to the girl. Pushing her way through the crowd, she said, quietly:

"Father!"

"Hello!" he exclaimed, in surprise. "What are you doing here?"

"I want to speak to you."

"Now, Letty," he protested, when she had drawn him aside, "haven't you been through enough for one day? Run back to the Countess' camp where I left you."

"Don't drink any more," she implored. with an agony of dread in her face.

Kirby's bleak countenance set itself in stony lines. "I've got to," said he. "I'm cold--frozen to the quick. I need something to warm me up."

Letty could smell the whisky on his breath, she could see a new light in his eyes and already she sensed rather than observed a subtle change in his demeanor.

"Oh, dad!" she quavered; then she bowed her head weakly upon his arm and her shoulders shook.

Kirby laid a gentle hand upon her, then exclaimed, in surprise: "Why, kid, you're still wet! Got those same clothes on, haven't you?" He raised his voice to the men he had just left. "Want to see the gamest girl in the world? Well, here she is. You saw how she took her medicine to-day? Now listen to this: she's wet through, but she came looking for her old dad--afraid he'd get into trouble!"

Disregarding the crowd and the appreciative murmur her father's praise evoked, Rouletta begged, in a low, earnest voice: "Please, dear, come away. Please--you know why. Come away--won't you--for my sake?"

Kirby stirred uneasily. "I tell you I'm cold," he muttered, but stopped short, staring. "Yes, and I see Danny. I see him as he went overboard. Drowned! I'll never get him out of my sight. I can't seem to understand that he's gone, but--everything's gone, for that matter. Everything!"

"Oh no, dad. Why, you're here and I'm here! We've been broke before."

Kirby smiled again, but cheerlessly. "Oh, we ain't exactly broke; I've got the bank-roll on me and it 'll pull us through. We've had bad luck for a year or two, but it's bound to change. You cheer up--and come over to the stove. What you need is to warm up while I get you a little drink."

Rouletta gazed up into the gray face above her. "Dad, look at me." She took his hand. "Haven't we had enough trouble for one day?"

The gambler was irritated at this persistence and he showed it. "Don't be foolish," he cried, shortly. "I know what I need and I know what I can stand. These men are friends of mine, and you needn't be uneasy. Now, kid, you let me find a place for you to spend the night."

"Not until you're ready to go along."

"All right, stick around for a little while. I Won't be long." Old Sam drew a bench up beside the stove and seated the girl upon it. "I'm all broke up and I've just got to keep moving," he explained, more feelingly. Then he returned to the bar.

Realizing that he was completely out of hand and that further argument was futile, Rouletta Kirby settled herself to wait. In spite of her misery, it never occurred to her to abandon her father to his own devices, even for an hour--she knew him too well to run that risk. But her very bones were frozen and she shivered wretchedly as she held her shoes up to the stove. Although the fire began slowly to dry her outer garments, the clothes next to her flesh remained cold and clammy. Even so, their chill was as nothing to the icy dread that paralyzed the very core of her being.

Pierce Phillips told himself that this had been a wonderful day-- an epoch-making day--for him. Lately he had been conscious that the North was working a change in him, but the precise extent of that change, even the direction it was taking, had not been altogether clear; now, however, he thought he understood.

He had been quite right, that first hour in Dyea, when he told himself that Life lay just ahead of him--just over the Chilkoot. Such, indeed, had proved to be the case. Yes, and it had welcomed him with open arms; it had ushered him into a new and wondrous world. His hands had fallen to men's tasks, experience had come to him by leaps and bounds. In a rush he had emerged from groping boyhood into full maturity; physically, mentally, morally, he had grown strong and broad and brown. Having abandoned himself to the tides of circumstance, he had been swept into a new existence where Adventure had rubbed shoulders with him, where Love had smiled into his eyes. Danger had tested his mettle, too, and to- day the final climax had come. What roused his deepest satisfaction now was the knowledge that he had met that climax with credit. To-night it seemed to him that he had reached full manhood, and in the first flush of realization he assured himself that he could no longer drift with the aimless current of events, but must begin to shape affairs to his own ends.

More than once of late he had pondered a certain thought, and now, having arrived at a decision, he determined to act upon it. Ever since that stormy evening at Linderman his infatuation for Hilda had increased, but, owing to circumstances, he had been thwarted in enjoying its full delights. During the daylight hours of their trip, as matter of fact, the two had never been alone together even for a quarter of an hour; they had scarcely had a word in confidence, and in consequence he had been forced to derive what comfort he could from a chance look, a smile, some inflection of her voice. Even at night, after camp was pitched, it had been little better, for the thin walls of her canvas shelter afforded little privacy, and, being mindful of appearances, he had never permitted himself to be alone with her very long at a time--only long enough, in fact, to make sure that his happiness was not all a dream. A vibrant protestation now and then, a secret kiss or two, a few stolen moments of delirium, that was as far as his love-affair had progressed. Not yet had he and Hilda arrived at a definite understanding; never had they thoroughly talked out the subject that engrossed them both, never had they found either time or opportunity in which to do more than sigh and whisper and hold hands, and as a result the woman remained almost as much of a mystery to Pierce as she had been at the moment of her first surrender.

It was an intolerable situation, and so, under the spell of his buoyant spirits, he determined to make an end of it once for all.

The Countess recognized his step when he came to her tent and she spoke to him. Mistaking her greeting for permission to enter, he untied the strings and stepped inside, only to find her unprepared for his reception. She had made her shelter snug, a lively fire was burning, the place was fragrant of pine boughs, and a few deft feminine touches here and there had transformed it into a boudoir. Hilda had removed her jacket and waist and was occupied in combing her hair, but at Pierce's unexpected entrance she hurriedly gathered the golden shower about her bare shoulders and voiced a protest at his intrusion. He stood smiling down at her and refused to withdraw.

Never had Phillips seen such an alluring picture. Now that her hair was undone, its length and its profusion surprised him, for it completely mantled her, and through it the snowy whiteness of her bare arms, folded protectingly across her rounded breasts, was dazzling. The sight put him in a conquering mood; he strode forward, lifted her into his embrace, then smothered her gasping protest with his lips. For a long moment they stood thus. Finally the woman freed herself, then chided him breathlessly, but the fragrance of her hair had gone to his brain; he continued to hold her tight, meanwhile burying his face in the golden cascade.

Roughly, masterfully, he rained kisses upon her. He devoured her with his caresses, and the heat of his ardor melted her resistance until, finally, she surrendered, abandoning herself wholly to his passion.

When, after a time, she flung back her head and pushed him away, her face, her neck, her shoulders were suffused with a coral pinkness and her eyes were misty.

"You must be careful!" she whispered in a tone that was less of a remonstrance than an invitation. "Remember, we're making shadowgraphs for our neighbors. That's the worst of a tent at night--one silhouettes one's very thoughts."

"Then put out the light," he muttered, thickly; but she slipped away, and her moist lips mocked him in silent laughter.

"The idea! What in the world has come over you? Why, you're the most impetuous boy--"

"Boy!" Pierce grimaced his dislike of the word. "Don't be motherly; don't treat me as if I had rompers on. You're positively maddening to-night. I never saw you like this. Why, your hair"--he ran his hands through that silken shower once more and pressed it to his face--"it's glorious!"

The Countess slipped into a combing-jacket; then she seated herself on the springy couch of pine branches over which her fur robe was spread, and deftly caught up her long runaway tresses, securing them in place with a few mysterious twists and expert manipulations.

"Boy, indeed!" he scoffed, flinging himself down beside her. "That's over with, long ago."

"Oh, I don't feel motherly," she asserted, still suffused with that telltale flush. "Not in the way you mean. But you'll always be a boy to me--and to every other woman who learns to care for you."

"Every other woman?" Pierce's eyes opened. "What a queer speech. There aren't going to be any other women." He looked on while she lighted a cigarette, then after a moment he inquired, "What do you mean?"

She answered him with another question. "Do you think I'm the only woman who will love you?"

"Why--I haven't given it any thought! What's the difference, as long as you're the only one I care for? And I do love you, I worship--"

"But there will be others," she persisted, "There are bound to be. You're that kind."

"Really?"

The Countess nodded her head with emphasis. "I can read men; I can see the color of their souls. You have the call."

"What call?" Pierce was puzzled.

"The--well, the sex-call, the sex appeal."

"Indeed? Am I supposed to feel flattered at that?"

"By no means; you're not a cad. Men who possess that attraction are spoiled sooner or later. You don't realize that you have it, and that's what makes you so nice, but--I felt it from the first, and when you feel it you'll probably become spoiled, too, like the others." This amused Phillips, but the woman was in sober earnest. "I mean what I say. You're the kind who cause women to make fools of themselves--old or young, married or single. When a girl has it--she's lost."

"I'm not sure I understand. At any rate, you haven't made a fool of yourself."

"No?" The Countess smiled vaguely, questioningly. She opened her lips to say more, but changed her mind and in an altered tone declared, "My dear boy, if you understood fully what I'm driving at you'd be insufferable." Laying her warm hand over his, she continued: "You resent what you call my 'motherly way,' but if I were sixteen and you were forty it would be just the same. Women who are afflicted with that sex appeal become men's playthings; the man who possesses it always remains a 'boy' to the woman who loves him--a bad boy, a dangerous boy, perhaps, but a boy, nevertheless. She may, and probably will, adore him fiercely, passionately, jealously, but at the same time she will hover him as a hen hovers her chick. He will be both son and lover to her."

He had listened closely, but now he stirred uneasily. "I don't follow you," he said. "And it isn't exactly pleasant for a fellow to be told that he's a baby Don Juan, to be called a male vampire in knee-pants--especially by the woman he's going to marry." Disregarding her attempt to speak, he went on: "What you said about other women--the way you said it--sounded almost as if-- well, as if you expected there would be such, and didn't greatly care. You didn't mean it that way, I hope. You do care, don't you, dear? You do love me?" The face Phillips turned upon the Countess Courteau was earnest, worried.

Her fingers tightened over his hand. When she spoke there was a certain listlessness, a certain fatigue in her tone. "Do you need to ask that after--what happened just now? Of course I care. I care altogether too much. That's the whole trouble. You see, the thing has run away with me, Pierce; it has carried me off my feet, and--that's precisely the point I'm trying to make."

He slipped an arm about her waist and drew her close. "I knew it wasn't merely an animal appeal that stirred you. I knew it was something bigger and more lasting than that."

"Even yet you don't understand," she declared. "The two may go together and--" But without allowing her to finish he said, vibrantly:

"Whatever it is, you seem to find it an obstacle, an objection. Why struggle against the inevitable? You are struggling--I've seen you fighting something ever since that first night when truth came to us out of the storm. But, Hilda dear, I adore you. You're the most wonderful creature in the world! You're a goddess! I feel unworthy to touch the hem of your garments, but I know--that you are mine! Nothing else matters. Think of the miracle, the wonder of it! It's like a beautiful dream. I've had doubts about myself, and that's why I've let matters drift. You see, I was a sort of unknown quantity, but now I know that I've found myself. To-day I went through hell and--I came out a man. I'm going to play a man's part right along after this." He urged her eagerly. "We've a hard trip ahead of us before we reach Dawson; winter may overtake us and delay us. We can't continue in this way. Why wait any longer?"

"You mean--?" the woman inquired, faintly.

"I mean this--marry me here, to-morrow."

"No, no! Please--" The Countess freed herself from Pierce's embrace.

"Why not? Are you afraid of me?" She shook her head silently.

"Then why not to-morrow instead of next month? Are you afraid of yourself?"

"No, I'm afraid of-what I must tell you."

Phillips' eyes were dim with desire, he was ablaze with yearning; in a voice that shook he said: "Don't tell me anything. I won't hear it!" Then, after a brief struggle with himself, he continued, more evenly: "That ought to prove to you that I've grown up. I couldn't have said it three months ago, but I've stepped out of-- of the nursery into a world of big things and big people, and I want you. I dare say you've lived--a woman like you must have had many experiences, many obstacles to overcome; but--I might not understand what they were even if you told me, for I'm pretty green. Anyhow, I'm sure you're good. I wouldn't believe you if you told me you weren't. It's no credit to me that I haven't confessions of my own to make, for I'm like other men and it merely so happens that I've had no chance to-soil myself. The credit is due to circumstance."

"Everything is due to circumstance," the woman said. "Our lives are haphazard affairs; we're blown by chance--"

"We'll take a new start to-morrow and bury the past, whatever it is."

"You make it absolutely necessary for me to speak," the Countess told him. Her tone again had a touch of weariness in it, but Pierce did not see this. "I knew I'd have to, sooner or later, but it was nice to drift and to dream--oh, it was pleasant--so I bit down on my tongue and I listened to nothing but the song in my heart." She favored Pierce with that shadowy, luminous smile he had come to know. "It was a clean, sweet song and it meant a great deal to me." When he undertook to caress her she drew away, then sat forward with her heels tucked close into the pine boughs, her chin upon her knees. It was her favorite attitude of meditation; wrapped thus in the embrace of her own arms, she appeared to gain the strength and the determination necessary to go on.

"I'm not a weak woman," she began, staring at the naked candle- flame which gave light to the tent. "It wasn't weakness that impelled me to marry a man I didn't love; it was the determination to get ahead and the ambition to make something worth while out of myself--a form of selfishness, perhaps, but I tell you all women are selfish. Anyhow, he seemed to promise better things and to open a way whereby I could make something out of my life. Instead of that he opened my eyes and showed me the world as it is, not as I had imagined it to be. He was--no good. You may think I was unhappy over that, but I wasn't. Really, he didn't mean much to me. What did grieve me, though, was the death of my illusions. He was mercenary--the fault of his training, I dare say--but he had that man-call I spoke about. It's really a woman-call. He was weak, worthless, full of faults, mean in small things, but he had an attraction and it was impossible to resist mothering him. Other women felt it and yielded to it, so finally we went our separate ways. I've seen nothing of him for some time now, but he keeps in touch with me and--I've sent him a good deal of money. When he learns that I have prospered in a big way he'll undoubtedly turn up again."

Pierce weighed the significance of these words; then he smiled. "Dear, it's all the more reason why we should be married at once. I'd dare him to annoy you then."

"My boy, don't you understand? I can't marry you, being still married to him."

Phillips recoiled; his face whitened. Dismay, reproach, a shocked surprise were in the look he turned upon his companion.

"Still married!" he gasped. "Oh--Hilda!"

She nodded and lowered her eyes. "I supposed you knew--until I got to telling you, and then it was too late."

Pierce rose; his lips now were as colorless as his cheeks. "I'm surprised, hurt," he managed to say. "How should I know? Why, this is wretched--rotten! People will say that I've got in a mess with a married woman. That's what it looks like, too." His voice broke huskily. "How could you do it, when I meant my love to be clean, honorable? How could you let me put myself, and you, in such a position?"

"You see!" The woman continued to avoid his eye. "You haven't grown up. You haven't the least understanding."

"I understand this much," he cried, hotly, "that you've led me to make something worse than a cad of myself. Look here! There are certain things which no decent fellow goes in for--certain things he despises in other men--and that's one of them." He turned as if to leave, then he halted at the tent door and battled with himself. After a moment, during which the Countess Courteau watched him fixedly, he whirled, crying:

"Well, the damage is done. I love you. I can't go along without you. Divorce that man. I'll wait."

"I'm not sure I have legal grounds for a divorce. I'm not sure that I care to put the matter to a test--as yet."

"What?" Pierce gazed at her, trying to understand. "Say that over again!"

"You think you've found yourself, but--have you? I know men pretty well and I think I know you. You've changed--yes, tremendously-- but what of a year, two years from now? You've barely tasted life and this is your first intoxication."

"Do you love me, or do you not?" he demanded.

"I love you as you are now. I may hate you as you will be to- morrow. I've had my growth; I've been through what you're just beginning--we can't change together."

"Then will you promise to marry me afterward?"

The Countess shook her head. "It's a promise that would hold only me. Why ask it?"

"You're thinking of no one but yourself," he protested, furiously. "Think of me. I've given you all I have, all that's best and finest in me. I shall never love another woman--"

"Not in quite the way you love me, perhaps, but the peach ripens even after its bloom has been rubbed off. You have given me what is best and finest, your first love, and I shall cherish it."

"Will you marry me?" he cried, hoarsely. She made a silent refusal.

"Then I can put but one interpretation upon your actions."

"Don't be too hasty in your judgment. Can't you see? I was weak. I was tired. Then you came, like a draught of wine, and--I lost my head. But I've regained it. I dreamed my dream, but it's daylight now and I'm awake. I know that you believe me a heartless, selfish woman. Maybe I am, but I've tried to think for you, and to act on that good impulse. I tell you I would have been quite incapable of it before I knew you. A day, a month, a year of happiness! Most women of my age and experience would snatch at it, but I'm looking farther ahead than that. I can't afford another mistake. Life fits me, but you--why, you're bursting your seams."

"You've puzzled me with a lot of words," the young man said, with ever-growing resentment, "but what do they all amount to? You amused yourself with me and you're ready enough to continue so long as I pour my devotion at your feet. Well, I won't do it. If you loved me truly you wouldn't refuse to marry me. Isn't that so? True love isn't afraid, it doesn't quibble and temporize and split hairs the way you do. No, it steps out boldly and follows the light. You've had your fun, you've--broken my heart." Phillips' voice shook and he swallowed hard. "I'm through; I'm done. I shall never love another woman as I love you, but if what you said about that sex-call is true, I--I'll play the game as you played it." He turned blindly and with lowered head plunged out of the tent into the night.

The Countess listened to the sounds of his departing footsteps; then, when they had ceased, she rose wearily and flung out her arms. There was a real and poignant distress in her eyes.

"Boy! Boy!" she whispered. "It was sweet, but--there had to be an end."

For a long time she stood staring at nothing; then she roused herself with a shiver, refilled the stove, and seated herself again, dropping her chin upon her knees as she did instinctively when in deep thought.

"If only I were sure," she kept repeating to herself. "But he has the call and--I'm too old."