Chapter XIII
 

Rouletta Kirby could not manage to get warm. The longer she sat beside the stove the colder she became. This was not strange, for the room was draughty, people were constantly coming in and going out, and when the door was opened the wind caused the canvas walls of the saloon to bulge and its roof to slap upon the rafters. The patrons were warmly clad in mackinaw, flannel, and fur. To them the place was comfortable enough, but to the girl who sat swathed in sodden undergarments it was like a refrigerator. More than once she regretted her heedless refusal of the Countess Courteau's offer of a change; several times, in fact, she was upon the point of returning to claim it, but she shrank from facing that wintry wind, so low had her vitality fallen. Then, too, she reasoned that it would be no easy task to find the Countess at this hour of the night, for the beach was lined with a mile of tents, all more or less alike. She pictured the search, herself groping her way from one to another, and mumbling excuses to surprised occupants. No, it was better to stay here beside the fire until her clothes dried out.

She would have reminded her father of her discomfort and claimed his assistance only for the certainty that he would send her off to bed, which was precisely what she sought to prevent. Her presence irritated him; nevertheless, she knew that his safety lay in her remaining. Sam Kirby sober was in many ways the best of fathers; he was generous, he was gentle, he was considerate. Sam Kirby drunk was another man entirely--a thoughtless, wilful, cruel man, subject to vagaries of temper that were as mysterious to the girl who knew him so well as they were dangerous to friend and foe alike. He was drunk now, or in that peculiar condition that passed with him for drunkenness. Intoxication in his case was less a condition of body than a frame of mind, and it required no considerable amount of liquor to work the change. Whisky, even in small quantities, served to suspend certain of his mental functions; it paralyzed one lobe of his brain, as it were, while it aroused other faculties to a preternatural activity and awoke sleeping devils in him. The more he drank the more violent became his destructive mood, the more firmly rooted became his tendencies and proclivities for evil. The girl well knew that this was an hour when he needed careful watching and when to leave him unguarded, even temporarily, meant disaster. Rouletta clenched her chattering teeth and tried to ignore the chills that raced up and down her body.

White Horse, at this time, was purely a make-shift camp, hence it had no facilities for gambling. The saloons themselves were little more than liquor caches which had been opened overnight for the purpose of reaping quick profits; therefore such games of chance as went on were for the most part between professional gamblers who happened to be passing through and who chose to amuse themselves in that way.

After perhaps an hour, during which a considerable crowd had come and gone, Sam Kirby broke away from the group with which he had been drinking and made for the door. As he passed Rouletta he paused to say:

"I'm going to drift around a bit, kid, and see if I can't stir up a little game."

"Where are we going to put up for the night?" his daughter inquired.

"I don't know yet; it's early. Want to turn in?"

Rouletta shook her head.

"I'll find a place somewhere. Now you stick here where it's nice and warm. I'll be back by and by."

With sinking heart the girl watched him go. After a moment she rose and followed him out into the night. She was surprised to discover that the mud under foot had frozen and that the north wind bore a burden of fine, hard snow particles. Keeping well out of sight, she stumbled to another saloon door, and then, after shivering wretchedly outside for a while, she stole in and crept up behind the stove.

She was very miserable indeed by this time, and as the evening wore slowly on her misery increased. After a while her father began shaking dice with some strangers, and the size of their wagers drew an audience of interested bystanders.

Rouletta realized that she should not have exposed herself anew to the cold, for now her sensations had become vaguely alarming. She could not even begin to get warm, except now and then when a burning fever replaced her chill; she felt weak and ill inside; the fingers she pressed to her aching temples were like icicles. Eventually--she had lost all track of time--her condition became intolerable and she decided to risk her father's displeasure by interrupting him and demanding that he secure for both of them a lodging-place at once.

There were several bank-notes of large denomination on the plank bar-top and Sam Kirby was watching a cast of dice when his daughter approached; therefore he did not see her. Nor did he turn his head when she laid a hand upon his arm.

Now women, especially pretty women, were common enough sights in Alaskan drinking-places. So it was not strange that Rouletta's presence had occasioned neither comment nor curiosity. More than once during the last hour or two men had spoken to her with easy familiarity, but they had taken no offense when she had turned her back. It was quite natural, therefore, that the fellow with whom Kirby was gambling should interpret her effort to claim attention as an attempt to interrupt the game, and that he should misread the meaning of her imploring look. There being considerable money at stake, he frowned down at her, then with an impatient gesture he brushed her aside.

"None of that, sister!" he warned her. "You get out of here."

Sam Kirby was in the midst of a discussion with the proprietor, across the bar, and because there was a deal of noise in the place he did not hear his daughter's low-spoken protest.

"Oh, I mean it!" The former speaker scowled at Rouletta. "You dolls make me sick, grabbing at every nickel you see. Beat it, now! There's plenty of young suckers for you to trim. If you can't respect an old man with gray hair, why--" The rest of his remark caused the girl's eyes to widen and the chattering voices to fall silent.

Sam Kirby turned, the dice-box poised in his right hand.

"Eh? What's that?" he queried, vaguely.

"I'm talking to this pink-faced gold-digger--"

"Father!" Rouletta exclaimed.

"I'm just telling her--"

The fellow repeated his remark, whereupon understanding came to Kirby and his expression slowly altered. Surprise, incredulity, gave place to rage; his eyes began to blaze.

"You said that to--her?" he gasped, in amazement. "To my kid?" There was a moment of tense silence during which the speaker appeared to be numbed by the insult, then, "By God!" Sam placed the dice-box carefully upon the bar. His movement was deliberate, but he kept his flaming gaze fixed upon the object of his wrath, and into his lean, ashen countenance came such demoniac fury as to appal those who saw it.

Rouletta uttered a faint moan and flung herself at her father; with a strength born of terror she clung to his right wrist. In this she was successful, despite old Sam's effort to shake her off, but she could not imprison both his arms. Kirby stepped forward, dragging the girl with him; he raised that wicked artificial left hand and brought it sweeping downward, and for a second time that day the steel shaft met flesh and bone. His victim spun upon his heels, then, with outflung arms and an expression of shocked amazement still upon his face, he crashed backward to the floor.

Kirby strode to him; before other hands could come to Rouletta's assistance and bear him out of reach he twice buried his heavy hobnailed boot in the prostrate figure. He presented a terrible exhibition of animal ferocity, for he was growling oaths deep in his throat and in his eyes was the light of murder. He fought for liberty with which to finish his task, and those who restrained him found that somehow he had managed to draw an ivory-handled six-shooter from some place of concealment. Nor could they wrench the weapon away from him.

"He insulted my kid--my girl Letty!" Kirby muttered, hoarsely.

When the fallen man had been lifted to his feet and hurried out of the saloon old Sam tried his best to follow, but his captors held him fast. They pleaded with him, they argued, they pacified him as well as they could. It was a long time, however, before they dared trust him alone with Rouletta, and even then they turned watchful eyes in his direction.

"I didn't want anything to happen." The girl spoke listlessly.

Kirby began to rumble again, but she interrupted him. "It wasn't the man's fault. It was a perfectly natural mistake on his part, and I've learned to expect such things. I--I'm sick, dad. You must find a place for me, quick."

Sam agreed readily enough. The biting cold of the wind met them at the door. Rouletta, summoning what strength she could, trudged along at his side. It did not take them long to canvass the town and to discover that there were no lodgings to be had. Rouletta halted finally, explaining through teeth that chattered:

"I--I'm frozen! Take me back where there's a stove--back to the saloon--anywhere. Only do it quickly."

"Pshaw! It isn't cold," Kirby protested, mildly.

The nature of this remark showed more plainly than anything he had said or done during the evening that the speaker was not himself. It signified such a dreadful change in him, it marked so surely the extent of his metamorphosis, that Rouletta's tears came.

"Looks like we'd have to make the best of it and stay awake till morning," the father went on, dully.

"No, no! I'm too sick," the girl sobbed, "and too cold. Leave me where I can keep warm; then go find the Countess and--ask her to put me up."

Returning to their starting-point, Kirby saw to his daughter's comfort as best he could, after which he wandered out into the night once more. His intentions were good, but he was not a little out of patience with Letty and still very angry with the man who had affronted her; rage at the insult glowed within his disordered brain and he determined, before he had gone very far, that his first duty was to right that wrong. Probably the miscreant was somewhere around, or, if not, he would soon make his appearance. Sam decided to postpone his errand long enough to look through the other drinking-places and to settle the score.

No one, on seeing him thus, would have suspected that he was drunk; he walked straight, his tongue was obedient, and he was master of his physical powers to a deceptive degree; only in his abnormally alert and feverish eyes was there a sign that his brain was completely crazed.

Rouletta waited for a long while, and steadily her condition grew worse. She became light-headed, and frequently lost herself in a sort of painful doze. She did not really sleep, however, for her eyes were open and staring; her wits wandered away on nightmare journeys, returning only when the pains became keener. Her fever was high now; she was nauseated, listless; her chest ached and her breathing troubled her when she was conscious enough to think. Her surroundings became unreal, too, the faces that appeared and disappeared before her were the faces of dream figures.

Unmindful of his daughter's need, heedless of the passage of time, Sam Kirby loitered about the saloons and waited patiently for the coming of a certain man. After a time he bought some chips and sat in a poker game, but he paid less attention to the spots on his cards than to the door through which men came and went. These latter he eyed with the unblinking stare of a serpent.

Pierce Phillips' life was ruined. He was sure of it. Precisely what constituted a ruined life, just how much such a one differed from a successful life, he had only the vaguest idea, but his own, at the moment, was tasteless, spoiled. Dire consequences were bound to follow such a tragedy as this, so he told himself, and he looked forward with gloomy satisfaction to their realization; whatever they should prove to be, however terrible the fate that was to overtake him, the guilt, the responsibility therefor, lay entirely upon the heartless woman who had worked the evil, and he earnestly hoped they would be brought home to her.

Yes, the Countess Courteau was heartless, wicked, cruel. Her unsuspected selfishness, her lack of genuine sentiment, her cool, calculating caution, were shocking. Pierce had utterly misread her at first; that was plain.

That he was really hurt, deeply distressed, sorely aggrieved, was true enough, for his love--infatuation, if you will--was perfectly genuine and exceedingly vital. Nothing is more real, more vital, than a normal boy's first infatuation, unless it be the first infatuation of a girl; precisely wherein it differs from the riper, less demonstrative affection that comes with later years and wider experience is not altogether plain. Certainly it is more spontaneous, more poignant; certainly it has in it equal possibilities for good or evil. How deep or how disfiguring the scar it leaves depends entirely upon the healing process. But, for that matter, the same applies to every heart affair.

Had Phillips been older and wiser he would not have yielded so readily to despair; experience would have taught him that a woman's "No" is not a refusal; wisdom would have told him that the absolute does not exist. But, being neither experienced nor wise, he mistook the downfall of his castle for the wreck of the universe, and it never occurred to him that he could salvage something, or, if need be, rebuild upon the same foundations.

What he could neither forget nor forgive at this moment was the fact that Hilda had not only led him to sacrifice his honor, or its appearance, but also that when he had managed to reconcile himself to that wrong she had lacked the courage to meet him half- way. There were but two explanations of her action: either she was weak and cowardly or else she did not love him. Neither afforded much consolation.

In choosing a course of conduct no man is strong enough to divorce himself entirely from his desires, to follow the light of pure reason, for memories, impulses, yearnings are bound to bring confusion. Although Pierce told himself that he must renounce this woman--that he had renounced her--nevertheless he recalled with a thrill the touch of her bare arms and the perfume of her streaming golden hair as he had buried his face in it, and the keenness of those memories caused him to cry out. The sex-call had been stronger than he had realized; therefore, to his present grief was added an inescapable, almost irresistible feeling of physical distress--a frenzy of balked desire--which caused him to waver irresolutely, confusing the issue dreadfully.

For a long time he wandered through the night, fighting his animal and his spiritual longings, battling with irresolution, striving to reconcile himself to the crash that had overwhelmed him. More than once he was upon the point of rushing back to the woman and pouring out the full tide of his passion in a desperate attempt to sweep away her doubts and her apprehensions. What if she should refuse to respond? He would merely succeed in making himself ridiculous and in sacrificing what little appearance of dignity he retained. Thus pride prevented, uncertainty paralyzed him.

Some women, it seemed to him, not bad in themselves, were born to work evil, and evidently Hilda was one of them. She had done her task well in this instance, for she had thoroughly blasted his life! He would pretend to forget, but nevertheless he would see to it that she was undeceived, and that the injury she had done him remained an ever-present reproach to her. That would be his revenge. Real forgetfulness, of course, was out of the question. How could he assume such an attitude? As he pondered the question he remembered that there were artificial aids to oblivion. Ruined men invariably took to drink. Why shouldn't he attempt to drown his sorrows? After all, might there not be real and actual relief in liquor? After consideration he decided to try it.

From a tent saloon near by came the sounds of singing and of laughter, and thither he turned his steps. When he entered the place a lively scene greeted him. Somehow or other a small portable organ had been secured, and at this a bearded fellow in a mackinaw coat was seated. He was playing a spirited accompaniment for two women, sisters, evidently, who sang with the loud abandon of professional "coon shouters." Other women were present, and Phillips recognized them as members of that theatrical troupe he had seen at Sheep Camp--as those "actresses" to whom Tom Linton had referred with such elaborate sarcasm. All of them, it appeared, were out for a good time, and in consequence White Horse was being treated to a free concert.

The song ended in a burst of laughter and applause, the men at the bar pounded with their glasses, and there was a general exodus in that direction. One of the sisters flung herself enthusiastically upon the volunteer organist and dragged him with her. There was much hilarity and a general atmosphere of license and unrestraint.

Phillips looked on moodily; he frowned, his lip curled. All the world was happy, it seemed, while he nursed a broken heart. Well, that was in accord with the scheme of things--life was a mad, topsy-turvy affair at best, and there was nothing stable about any part of it. He felt very grim, very desperate, very much abused and very much outside of all this merriment.

Men were playing cards at the rear of the saloon, and among the number was Sam Kirby. The old gambler showed no signs of his trying experience of the afternoon; in fact, it appeared to have been banished utterly from his mind. He was drinking, and even while Pierce looked on he rapped sharply with his iron hand to call the bartender's attention. Meanwhile he scanned intently the faces of all new-comers.

When the crowd had surged back to the organ Pierce found a place at the bar and called for a drink of whisky--the first he had ever ordered. This was the end he told himself.

He poured the glass nearly full, then he gulped the liquor down. It tasted much as it smelled, hence he derived little enjoyment from the experience. As he stripped a bill from his sizable roll of bank-notes the bartender eyed him curiously and seemed upon the point of speaking, but Pierce turned his shoulder.

After perhaps five minutes the young man acknowledged a vague disappointment; if this was intoxication there was mighty little satisfaction in it, he decided, and no forgetfulness whatever. He was growing dizzy, to be sure, but aside from that and from the fact that his eyesight was somewhat uncertain he could feel no unusual effect. Perhaps he expected too much; perhaps, also, he had drunk too sparingly. Again he called for the bottle, again he filled his glass, again he carelessly displayed his handful of paper currency.

Engaged thus, he heard a voice close to his ear; it said:

"Hello, man!"

Pierce turned to discover that a girl was leaning with elbows upon the plank counter at his side and looking at him. Her chin was supported upon her clasped fingers; she was staring into his face.

She eyed him silently for a moment, during which he returned her unsmiling gaze. She dropped her eyes to the whisky-glass, then raised them again to his.

"Can you take a drink like that and not feel it?" she inquired.

"No. I want to feel it; that's why I take it," he said, gruffly.

"What's the idea?"

"Idea? Well, it's my own idea--my own business."

The girl took no offense; she maintained her curious observation of him; she appeared genuinely interested in acquainting herself with a man who could master such a phenomenal quantity of liquor. There was mystification in her tone when she said:

"But--I saw you come in alone. And now you're drinking alone."

"Is that a reproach? I beg your pardon." Pierce swept her a mocking bow. "What will you have?"

Without removing her chin from its resting-place, the stranger shook her head shortly, so he downed his beverage as before. The girl watched him interestedly as he paid for it.

"That's more money than I've seen in a month," said she. "I wouldn't be so free and easy with it, if I were you."

"No? Why not?"

She merely shrugged, and continued to study him with that same disconcerting intentness--she reminded him of a frank and curious child.

Pierce noticed now that she was a very pretty girl, and quite appropriately dressed, under the circumstances. She wore a boy's suit, with a short skirt over her knickerbockers, and, since she was slim, the garments added to her appearance of immaturity. Her face was oval in outline, and it was of a perfectly uniform olive tint; her eyes were large and black and velvety, their lashes were long, their lids were faintly smudged with a shadowy under- coloring that magnified their size and intensified their brilliance. Her hair was almost black, nevertheless it was of fine texture; a few unruly strands had escaped from beneath her fur cap and they clouded her brow and temples. At first sight she appeared to be foreign, and of that smoky type commonly associated with the Russian idea of beauty, but she was not foreign, not Russian; nor were her features predominantly racial.

"What's your name?" she asked, suddenly.

Pierce told her. "And yours?" he inquired.

"Laure."

"Laure what?"

"Just Laure--for the present."

"Humph! You're one of this--theatrical company, I presume." He indicated the singers across the room.

"Yes. Morris Best hired us to work in his place at Dawson."

"I remember your outfit at Sheep Camp. Best was nearly crazy--"

"He's crazier now than ever." Laure smiled for the first time and her face lit up with mischief. "Poor Morris! We lead him around by his big nose. He's deathly afraid he'll lose us, and we know it, so we make his life miserable." She turned serious abruptly, and with a candor quite startling said, "I like you."

"Indeed!" Pierce was nonplussed.

The girl nodded. "You looked good to me when you came in. Are you going to Dawson?"

"Of course. Everybody is going to Dawson."

"I suppose you have partners?"

"No!" Pierce's face darkened. "I'm alone--very much alone." He undertook to speak in a hollow, hopeless tone.

"Big outfit?"

"None at all. But I have enough money for my needs and--I'll probably hook up with somebody." Now there was a brave but cheerless resignation in his words.

Laure pondered for a moment; even more carefully than before she studied her companion. That the result satisfied her she made plain by saying:

"Morris wants men. I can get him to hire you. Would you like to hook up with us?"

"I don't know. It doesn't much matter. Will you have something to drink now?"

"Why should I? They don't give any percentage here. Wait! I'll see Morris and tell you what he says." Leaving Pierce, the speaker hurried to a harassed little man of Hebraic countenance who was engaged in the difficult task of chaperoning this unruly aggregation of talent. To him she said:

"I've found a man for you, Morris."

"Man?"

"To go to Dawson with us. That tall, good-looking fellow at the bar."

Mr. Best was bewildered. "What ails you?" he queried. "I don't want any men, and you know it."

"You want this fellow, and you're going to hire him."

"Am I? What makes you think so?"

"Because it's--him or me," Laure said, calmly.

Mr. Best was both surprised and angered at this cool announcement. "You mean, I s'pose, that you'll quit," he said, belligerently.

"I mean that very thing. The man has money--"

Best's anger disappeared as if by magic; his tone became apologetic. "Oh! Why didn't you say so? If he'll pay enough, and if you want him, why, of course--"

Laure interrupted with an unexpected dash of temper. "He isn't going to pay you anything: you're going to pay him--top wages, too. Understand?"

The unhappy recipient of this ultimatum raised his hands in a gesture of despair. "Himmel! There's no understanding you girls! There's no getting along with you, either. What's on your mind, eh? Are you after him or his coin?"

"I--don't know." Laure was gazing at Phillips with a peculiar expression. "I'm not sure. Maybe I'm after both. Will you be good and hire him, or--"

"Oh, you've got me!" Best declared, with frank resentment. "If you want him, I s'pose I'll have to get him for you, but"--he muttered an oath under his breath--"you'll ruin me. Oy! Oy! I'll be glad when you're all in Dawson and at work."

After some further talk the manager approached Phillips and made himself known. "Laure tells me you want to join our troupe," he began.

"I'll see that he pays you well," the girl urged. "Come on."

Phillips' thoughts were not quite clear, but, even so, the situation struck him as grotesquely amusing. "I'm no song-and- dance man," he said, with a smile. "What would you expect me to do? Play a mandolin?"

"I don't know exactly," Best replied. "Maybe you could help me ride herd on these Bernhardts." He ran a hand through his thin black hair, thinner now by half than when he left the States. "If you could do that, why--you could save my reason."

"He wants you to be a Simon Legree," Laure explained.

The manager seconded this statement by a nod of his head. "Sure! Crack the whip over 'em. Keep 'em in line. Don't let 'em get married. I thought I was wise to hire good-lookers, but--I was crazy. They smile and they make eyes and the men fight for 'em. They steal 'em away. I've had a dozen battles and every time I've been licked. Already four of my girls are gone. If I lose four more I can't open; I'll be ruined. Oy! Such a country! Every day a new love-affair; every day more trouble--"

Laure threw back her dark head and laughed in mischievous delight. "It's a fact," she told Pierce. "The best Best gets is the worst of it. He's not our manager, he's our slave; we have lots of fun with him." Stepping closer to the young man, she slipped her arm within his and, looking up into his face, said, in a low voice: "I knew I could fix it, for I always have my way. Will you go?" When he hesitated she repeated: "Will you go with me or--shall I go with you?"

Phillips started. His brain was fogged and he had difficulty in focusing his gaze upon the eager, upturned face of the girl; nevertheless, he appreciated the significance of this audacious inquiry and there came to him the memory of his recent conversation with the Countess Courteau. "Why do you say that?" he queried, after a moment. "Why do you want me to go?"

Laure's eyes searched his; there was an odd light in them, and a peculiar intensity which he dimly felt but scarcely understood. "I don't know," she confessed. She was no longer smiling, and, although her gaze remained hypnotically fixed upon his, she seemed to be searching her own soul. "I don't know," she said again, "but you have a--call."

In spite of this young woman's charms, and they were numerous enough, Phillips was not strongly drawn to her; resentment, anger, his rankling sense of injury, all these left no room for other emotions. That she was interested in him he still had sense enough to perceive; her amazing proposal, her unmistakable air of proprietorship, showed that much, and in consequence a sort of malicious triumph arose within him. Here, right at hand, was an agency of forgetfulness, more potent by far than the one to which he had first turned. Dangerous? Yes. But his life was ruined. What difference, then, whether oblivion came from alcohol or from the drug of the poppy? Deliberately he shut his ears to inner warnings; he raised his head defiantly.

"I'll go," said he.

"We leave at daylight," Best told him.