Chapter XXI
 

In taking charge of a sick girl, a helpless, hopeless stranger, 'Poleon Doret had assumed a responsibility far greater than he had anticipated, and that responsibility had grown heavier every day. Having, at last, successfully discharged it, he breathed freely, his first relaxation in a long time; he rejoiced in the consciousness of a difficult duty well performed. So far as he could see there was nothing at all extraordinary, nothing in the least improper, about Rouletta's engagement at the Rialto. Any suggestion of impropriety, in fact, would have greatly surprised him, for saloons and gambling-halls filled a recognized place in the every-day social life of the Northland. Customs were free, standards were liberal in the early days; no one, 'Poleon least of all, would have dreamed that they were destined to change in a night. Had he been told that soon the country would be dry, and gambling-games and dance-halls be prohibited by law, he would have considered the idea too utterly fantastic for belief; the mere contemplation of such a dreary prospect would have proved extremely dispiriting. He--and the other pioneers of his kind-- would have been tempted immediately to pack up and move on to some freer locality where a man could retain his personal liberty and pursue his happiness in a manner as noisy, as intemperate, and as undignified as suited his individual taste.

In justice to the saloons, be it said, they were more than mere drinking-places; they were the pivots about which revolved the business life of the North country. They were meeting-places, social centers, marts of trade; looked upon as evidences of enterprise and general prosperity, they were considered desirable assets to any community. Everybody patronized them; the men who ran them were, on the whole, as reputable as the men engaged in other pursuits. No particular stigma attached either to the places themselves or to the people connected with them.

These gold-camps had a very simple code. Work of any sort was praiseworthy and honorable, idleness or unproductivity was reprehensible. Mining, storekeeping, liquor-selling, gambling, steamboating, all were occupations which men followed as necessity or convenience prompted. A citizen gained repute by the manner in which he deported himself, not by reason of the nature of the commodity in which he dealt. Such, at least, was the attitude of the "old-timers."

Rouletta's instant success, the fact that she had fallen among friends, delighted a woodsman like 'Poleon, and, now that he was his own master again, he straightway surrendered himself to the selfish enjoyment of his surroundings. His nature and his training prescribed the limits of those pleasures; they were quite as simple as his everyday habits of life; he danced, he gambled, and he drank.

To-night he did all three, in the reverse order. To him Dawson was a dream city; its lights were dazzling, its music heavenly, its games of chance enticing, and its liquor was the finest, the smoothest, the most inspiriting his tongue had ever tested. Old friends were everywhere, and new ones, too, for that matter. Among them were alluring women who smiled and sparkled. Each place 'Poleon entered was the home of carnival.

By midnight he was gloriously drunk. Ere daylight came he had sung himself hoarse, he had danced two holes in his moccasins, and had conducted three fist-fights to a satisfactory if not a successful conclusion. It had been a celebration that was to live in his memory. He strode blindly off to bed, shouting his complete satisfaction with himself and with the world, retired without undressing, and then sang himself to sleep, regardless of the protests of the other lodgers.

"Say! That Frenchman is a riot," Kid Bridges declared while he and Lucky Broad were at breakfast. "He's old General Rough-houser, and he set an altogether new mark in disorderly conduct last night. Letty 'most cried about it."

"Yeah? Those yokels are all alike--one drink and they declare a dividend." Lucky was only mildly concerned. "I s'pose the vultures picked him clean."

"Nothin' like it," Bridges shook his head. "He gnawed 'em naked, then done a war-dance with their feathers in his hat. He left 'em bruised an' bleedin'."

For a time the two friends ate in silence, then Broad mused, aloud: "Letty 'most cried, eh? Say, I wonder what she really thinks of him?"

"I don't know. Miller told me she was all broke up, and I was goin' to take her home and see if I could fathom her true feelin's, but--Phillips beat me to it."

"Phillips! He'll have to throw out the life-line if Laure gets onto that. She'll take to Letty just like a lone timber-wolf."

"Looks like she'd been kiddin' us, don't it? She calls him her 'brother' and he says she's his masseur--you heard him, didn't you?" There was another pause. "What's a masseur, anyhow?"

"A masseur," said Mr. Broad, "is one of those women in a barber- shop that fixes your fingernails. Yes, I heard him, and I'm here to say that I didn't like the sound of it. I don't yet. He may mean all right, but--them foreigners have got queer ideas about their women. Letty's a swell kid and she's got a swell job. What's more, she's got a wise gang riding herd on her. It's just like she was in a church--no danger, no annoyance, nothing. If Doret figures to start a barber-shop with her for his masseur, why, we'll have to lay him low with one of his own razors."

Mr. Bridges nodded his complete approval of this suggestion. "Right-o! I'll bust a mirror with him myself. Them barber-shops is no place for good girls."

Broad and Bridges pondered the matter during the day, and that evening they confided their apprehensions to their fellow-workers. The other Rialto employees agreed that things did not look right, and after a consultation it was decided to keep a watch upon the girl. This was done. Prompted by their pride in her, and a genuinely unselfish interest in her future, the boys made guarded attempts to discover the true state of her feelings for the French Canadian, but they learned little. Every indirect inquiry was met with a tribute to 'Poleon's character so frank, so extravagant, as to completely baffle them. Some of the investigators declared that Rouletta was madly in love with him; others were equally positive that this extreme frankness in itself proved that she was not. All agreed, however, that 'Poleon was not in love with her--he was altogether too enthusiastic over her growing popularity for a lover. Had the gamblers been thoroughly assured of her desires in the matter, doubtless they would have made some desperate effort to marry 'Poleon to her, regardless of his wishes-they were men who believed in direct action--but under the circumstances they could only watch and wait until the uncertainty was cleared up.

Meanwhile, as 'Poleon continued his celebration, Rouletta grew more and more miserable; at last he sobered up--sufficiently to realize he was hurting her. He was frankly puzzled at this; he met her reproaches with careless good-nature, brushing aside the remonstrances of Lucky Broad and his fellows by declaring that he was having the time of his life, and arguing that he injured nobody. In the end the girl prevailed upon him to stop drinking, and then bound him to further sobriety by means of a sacred pledge. When, perhaps a week later, he disappeared into the hills Rouletta and her corps of self-appointed guardians breathed easier.

But the boys did not relax their watchfulness; Rouletta was their charge and they took good care of her. None of the Rialto's patrons, for instance, was permitted to follow up his first acquaintance with "the lady dealer." Some member of the clan was always on hand to frown down such an attempt. Broad or Bridges usually brought her to work and took her home, the Snowbird and the Mocha Kid made it a practice to take her to supper, and when she received invitations from other sources one or the other of them firmly declined, in her name, and treated the would-be host with such malevolent suspicion that the invitation was never repeated. Far from taking offense at this espionage, Rouletta rather enjoyed it; she grew to like these ruffians, and that liking became mutual. Soon most of them took her into their confidence with a completeness that threatened to embarrass her, as, for instance, when they discussed in her hearing incidents in their colorful lives that the Mounted Police would have given much to know. The Mocha Kid, in particular, was addicted to reminiscence of an incriminating sort, and he totally ignored Rouletta's protests at sharing the secrets of his guilty past. As for the Snowbird, he was fond of telling her fairy-stories. They were queer fairy-stories, all beginning in the same way:

"Once upon a time there was a beautiful Princess and her name was Rouletta."

All the familiar characters figured in these narratives, the Wicked Witch, the Cruel King, the Handsome Prince; there were other characters, too, such as the Wise Guy, the Farmer's Son, the Boob Detective, the Tough Mary Ann and the Stony-hearted Jailer.

The Snowbird possessed a fertile fancy but it ran in crooked channels; although he launched his stories according to Grimm, he sailed them through seas of crime, of violence, and of bloodshed too realistic to be the product of pure imagination. The adventures of the beautiful Princess Rouletta were blood-curdling in the extreme, and the doings of her criminal associates were unmistakably autobiographic. Naturally Rouletta never felt free to repeat these stories, but it was not long before she began to look forward with avid interest to her nightly entertainment.

Inasmuch as Pierce Phillips went off shift at the same time as did Rouletta, they met frequently, and more than once he acted as her escort. He offered such a marked contrast to the other employees of the Rialto, his treatment of her was at such total variance with theirs, that he interested her in an altogether different way. His was an engaging personality, but just why she grew so fond of him she could not tell; he was neither especially witty and accomplished nor did he lay himself out to be unusually agreeable. He was quiet and reserved; nevertheless, he had the knack of making friends quickly. Rouletta had known men like Broad and Bridges and the Mocha Kid all her life, but Pierce was of a type quite new and diverting. She speculated considerably regarding him.

Their acquaintance, while interesting, had not progressed much beyond that point when Rouletta experienced a disagreeable shock. She had strolled into the theater one evening and was watching the performance when Laure accosted her. As Rouletta had not come into close contact with any of the dance-hall crowd, she was surprised at the tone this girl assumed.

"Hello! Looking for new conquests?" Laure began.

Miss Kirby shook her head in vague denial, but the speaker eyed her with open hostility and there was an unmistakable sneer behind her next words:

"What's the matter? Have you trimmed all the leading citizens?"

"I've finished my work, if that's what you mean."

"Now you're going to try your hand at box-rustling, eh?"

Rouletta's expression altered; she regarded her inquisitor more intently. "You know I'm not," said she. "What are you driving at?"

"Well, why don't you? Are you too good?"

"Yes." The visitor spoke coldly. She turned away, but Laure stepped close and cried, in a low, angry voice:

"Oh no, you're not! You've fooled the men, but you can't fool us girls. I've got your number. I know your game."

"My game? Then why don't you take a shift in the gambling-room? Why work in here?"

"You understand me," the other persisted. "Too good for the dance- hall, eh? Too good to associate with us girls; too good to live like us! You stop at the Courteau House, the respectable hotel! Bah! Miller fell for you, but--you'd better let well enough alone."

"That's precisely what I do. If there were a better hotel than the Courteau House I'd stop there. But there isn't. Now, then, suppose you tell me what really ails you."

Laure's dusky eyes were blazing, her voice was hoarse when she answered:

"All right. I'll tell you. I want you to mind your own business. Yes, and I'm going to see that you do. You can't go home alone, can you? Afraid of the dark, I suppose, or afraid some man will speak to you. My goodness! The airs you put on--you! Sam Kirby's girl, the daughter of a gambler, a--"

"Leave my father out of this!" There was something of Sam Kirby's force in this sharp command, something of his cold, forbidding anger in his daughter's face. "He's my religion, so you'd better lay off of him. Speak out. Where did I tread on your toes?"

"Well, you tread on them every time you stop at the gold-scales, if you want to know. I have a religion, too, and it's locked up in the cashier's cage."

There was a pause; the girls appraised each other with mutual dislike.

"You mean Mr. Phillips?" "I do. See that you call him 'Mister,' and learn to walk home alone."

"Don't order me. I can't take orders."

Laure was beside herself at this defiance. She grew blind with rage, so much so that she did not notice Phillips himself; he had approached within hearing distance. "You've got the boss; he's crazy about you, but Pierce is mine--"

"What's that?" It was Phillips who spoke. "What are you saying about me?" Both girls started. Laure turned upon him furiously.

"I'm serving notice on this faro-dealer, that's all. But it goes for you, too--"

Phillips' eyes opened, his face whitened with an emotion neither girl had before seen. To Rouletta he said, quietly:

"The other boys are busy, so I came to take you home."

Laure cried, wildly, hysterically: "Don't do it! I warn you!"

"Are you ready to go?"

"All ready," Rouletta agreed. Together they left the theater.

Nothing was said as the two trod the snow-banked streets; not until they halted at the door of the Courteau House did Rouletta speak; then she said:

"I wouldn't have let you do this, only--I have! a temper."

"So have I," Pierce said, shortly. "It's humiliating to own up."

"I was wrong. I have no right to hurt that girl's feelings."

"Right?" He laughed angrily. "She had no right to make a scene."

"Why not? She's fighting for her own, isn't she? She's honest about it, at least." Noting Pierce's expression of surprise, Rouletta went on: "You expect me to be shocked, but I'm not, for I've known the truth in a general way. You think I'm going to preach. Well, I'm not going to do that, either. I've lived a queer life; I've seen women like Laure--in fact, I was raised among them--and nothing they do surprises me very much. But I've learned a good many lessons around saloons and gambling-places. One is this: never cheat. Father taught me that. He gave everybody a square deal, including himself. It's a good thing to think about-- a square deal all around, even to yourself."

"That sounds like an allopathic sermon of some sort," said Pierce, "but I can't see just how it applies to me. However, I'll think it over. You're a brick, Miss Kirby, and I'm sorry if you had an unpleasant moment." He took Rouletta's hand and held it while he stared at her with a frank, contemplative gaze. "You're an unusual person, and you're about the nicest girl I've met. I want you to like me."

As he walked back down-town Pierce pondered Rouletta's words, "a square deal all around, even to yourself." They were a trifle puzzling. Whom had he cheated? Surely not Laure. From the very first he had protested his lack of serious interest in her, and their subsequent relations were entirely the result of her unceasing efforts to appropriate him to herself. He had resisted, she had persisted. Nor could he see that he had cheated--in other words, injured--himself. This was a liberal country; its code was free and it took little account of a man's private conduct. Nobody seriously blamed him for his affair with Laure; he had lost no standing by reason of it. It was only a part of the big adventure, a passing phase of his development, an experience such as came to every man. Since it had left no mark upon him, and had not seriously affected Laure, the score was even. He dismissed Rouletta's words as of little consequence. In order, however, to prevent any further unpleasant scenes he determined to put Laure in her place, once for all.

Rouletta went to her room, vaguely disturbed at her own emotions. She could still feel the touch of Phillips' hand, she could still feel his gaze fixed earnestly, meditatively, upon hers, and she was amazed to discover the importance he had assumed in her thoughts. Importance, that was the word. He was a very real, a very interesting, person, and there was some inexplicable attraction about him that offset his faults and his failings, however grave. For one thing, he was not an automaton, like the other men; he was a living, breathing problem, and he absorbed Rouletta's attention.

She was sitting on the edge of her bed, staring at the wall, when the Countess Courteau knocked at her door and entered. The women had become good friends; frequently the elder one stopped to gossip. The Countess flung herself into a chair, rolled and lit a cigarette, then said:

"Well, I see you and Agnes saved the bankroll again."

Rouletta nodded. "Agnes is an awful bluff. I never load her. But of course nobody knows that."

"You're a queer youngster. I've never known a girl quite like you. Everybody is talking about you."

"Indeed? Not the nice people?"

"Nice people?" The Countess lifted her brows. "You mean those at the Barracks and up on the hill? Yes, they're talking about you, too."

"I can imagine what they say." Rouletta drew her brows together in a frown. "No doubt they think I'm just like the dance-hall girls. I've seen a few of them--at a distance. They avoid me as if I had measles."

"Naturally. Do you care?"

"Certainly I care. I'd like to be one of them, not a--a specimen. Wouldn't you?"

"Um-m, perhaps. I dare say I could be one of them if it weren't for Courteau. People forget things quickly in a new country."

"Why did you take him back? I'm sure you don't care for him."

"Not in the least. He's the sort of man you can't love or hate; he's a nine-spot. Just the same, he protects me and--I can't help being sorry for him."

Rouletta smiled. "Fancy you needing protection and him giving--"

"You don't understand. He protects me from myself. I mean it. I'm as unruly as the average woman and I make a fool of myself on the slightest provocation. Henri is a loafer, a good-for-nothing, to be sure, but, nevertheless, I have resumed his support. It was easier than refusing it. I help broken miners. I feed hungry dogs. Why shouldn't I clothe and feed a helpless husband? It's a perfectly feminine, illogical thing to do."

"Other people don't share your opinion of him. He can be very agreeable, very charming, when he tries."

"Of course. That's his stock in trade; that's his excuse for being. Women are crazy about him, as you probably know, but--give me a man the men like." There was a pause. "So you don't enjoy the thing you're doing?"

"I hate it! I hate the whole atmosphere--the whole underworld. It's-unhealthy, stifling."

"What has happened?"

Slowly, hesitatingly, Rouletta told of her encounter with Laure. The Countess listened silently.

"It was an unpleasant shock," the girl concluded, "for it brought me back to my surroundings. It lifted the curtain and showed me what's really going on. It's a pity Pierce Phillips is entangled with that creature, for he's a nice chap and he's got it in him to do big things. But it wasn't much use my trying to tell him that he was cheating himself. I don't think he understood. I feel almost--well, motherly toward him."

Hilda nodded gravely. "Of course you do. He has it."

"Has it? What?"

"The call--the appeal--the same thing that lets Henri get by."

"Oh, he's nothing like the Count!" Rouletta protested, quickly.

The elder woman did not argue the point. "Pierce has more character than Henri, but a man can lose even that in a gambling- house. I was very fond of him--fonder than I knew. Yes, it's a fact. I'm jealous of Laure, jealous of you--"

"Jealous? of me? You're joking!"

"Of course. Don't take me seriously. Nevertheless, I mean it." The Countess smiled queerly and rose to her feet. "It's improper for a married woman to joke about such things, even a woman married to a no-good count, isn't it? And it's foolish, too. Well, I'm going to do something even more foolish--I'm going to give you some advice. Cut out that young man. He hasn't found himself yet; he's running wild. He's light in ballast and he's rudderless. If he straightens out he'll make some woman very happy; otherwise--he'll create a good deal of havoc. Believe me, I know what I'm talking about, for I collided with Henri and--look at the result!"