Chapter XXII
 

Pierce Phillips possessed the average young American's capacities for good or evil. Had he fallen among healthy surroundings upon his arrival at Dawson, in all probability he would have experienced a healthy growth. But, blown by the winds of chance, he took root where he dropped--in the low grounds. Since he possessed the youthful power of quick and vigorous adaptation, he assumed a color to match his environment. Of necessity this alteration was gradual; nevertheless, it was real; without knowing it he suffered a steady deterioration of moral fiber and a progressive change in ideals.

His new life was easy; hours at the Rialto were short and the pay was high. Inasmuch as the place was a playground where cares were forgotten, there was a wholly artificial atmosphere of gaiety and improvidence about it. When patrons won at the gambling-games, they promptly squandered their winnings at the bar and in the theater; when they lost, they cheerfully ignored their ill- fortune. Even the gamblers themselves shared this recklessness, this prodigality; they made much money; nevertheless, they were usually broke. Most of them drank quite as freely as did the customers.

This was not a temperance country. Although alcohol was not considered a food, it was none the less regarded as a prime essential of comfort and well-being. It was inevitable, therefore, that Pierce Phillips, a youth in his growing age, should adopt a good deal the same habits, as well as the same spirit and outlook, as the people with whom he came in daily contact.

Vice is erroneously considered hideous; it is supposed to have a visage so repulsive that the simplest stranger will shudder at sight of it and turn of his own accord to more attractive Virtue. If that were only true! More often than not it is the former that wears a smile and masquerades in agreeable forms, while the latter repels. This is true of the complex life of the city, where a man has landmarks and guide-posts of conduct to go by, and it is equally true of the less complicated life of the far frontier where he must blaze his own trail. Along with the strength and vigor and independence derived from the great outdoors, there comes also a freedom of individual conduct, an impatience at irksome restraints, that frequently offsets any benefits that accrue from such an environment.

So it was in Pierce's case. He realized, subconsciously, that he was changing, had changed; on the whole, he was glad of it. It filled him with contemptuous amusement, for instance, to look back upon his old puritanical ideas. They seemed now very narrow, very immature, very impractical, and he was gratified at his broader vision. The most significant alteration, however, entirely escaped his notice. That alteration was one of outlook rather than of inlook. Bit by bit he had come to regard the general crowd--the miners, merchants, townspeople--as outsiders, and him self as an insider--one of the wise, clever, ease-loving class which subsisted without toil and for whom a freer code of morals existed. Those outsiders were stupid, hard-working; they were somehow inferior. He and his kind were of a higher, more advanced order of intelligence; moreover, they were bound together by the ties of a common purpose and understanding and therefore enjoyed privileges denied their less efficient brethren.

If jackals were able to reason, doubtless they would justify their existence and prove their superiority to the common herd by some such fatuous argument.

Pierce's complacency received its first jolt when he discovered that he had lost caste in the eyes of the better sort of people-- people such as he had been accustomed to associate with at home. This discovery came as the result of a chance meeting with a stranger, and, but for it, he probably would have remained unaware of the truth, for his newly made friends had treated him with consideration and nothing had occurred to disturb his complacency. He had acquired a speaking acquaintance with many of the best citizens, including the Mounted Police and even the higher Dominion officials, all of whom came to the Rialto. These men professed a genuine liking for him, and, inasmuch as his time was pretty full and there was plenty of amusement close at hand, he had never stopped to think that the side of Dawson life which he saw was merely the under side--that a real social community was forming, with real homes on the back streets, where already women of the better sort were living. Oblivious of these facts, it never occurred to Pierce to wonder why these men did not ask him to their cabins or why he did not meet their families.

He had long since become a night-hawk, mainly through a growing fondness for gambling, and he had arrived at the point where daylight impressed him as an artificial and unsatisfactory method of illumination. Recently, too, he had been drinking more than was good for him, and he awoke finally to the unwelcome realization that he was badly in need of fresh air and outdoor exercise.

After numerous half-hearted attempts, he arose one day about noon; then, having eaten a tasteless breakfast and strengthened his languid determination by a stiff glass of "hootch," he strolled out of town, taking he first random trail that offered itself. It was a wood trail, leading nowhere in particular, a fact which precisely suited his resentful mood. His blood moved sluggishly, he was short of breath, the cold was bitter. Before long he decided that walking was a profitless and stultifying occupation, a pastime for idiots and solitaire-players; nevertheless, he continued in the hope of deriving some benefit, however indirect or remote.

It was a still afternoon. A silvery brightness beyond the mountain crests far to the southward showed where the low winter sun was sweeping past on its flat arc. The sky to the north was empty, colorless. There had been no wind for some time, and now the firs sagged beneath burdens of white; even the bare birch branches carried evenly balanced inch-deep layers of snow. Underfoot, the earth was smothered in a feathery shroud as light, as clean as the purest swan's-down, and into it Pierce's moccasins sank to the ankles. He walked as silently as a ghost. Through this queer, breathless hush the sounds of chopping, of distant voices, of an occasional dog barking followed him as he went deeper into the woods.

Time was when merely to be out in the forest on such a day would have pleased him, but gone entirely was that pleasure, and in its place there came now an irritation at the physical discomfort it entailed. He soon began to perspire freely, too freely; nevertheless, there was no glow to his body; he could think only of easy-chairs and warm stoves. He wondered what ailed him. Nothing could be more abhorrent than this, he told himself. Health was a valuable thing, no doubt, and he agreed that no price was too high to pay for it--no price, perhaps, except dull, uninteresting exercise of this sort. He was upon the point of turning back when the trail suddenly broke out into a natural clearing and he saw something which challenged his attention.

To the left of the path rose a steep bank, and beyond that the bare, sloping mountain-side. In the shelter of the bank the snow had drifted deep, but, oddly enough, its placid surface was churned up, as if from an explosion or some desperate conflict that had been lately waged. It had been tossed up and thrown down. What caused him to stare was the fact that no footprints were discernible--nothing except queer, wavering parallel streaks that led downward from the snowy turmoil to the level ground below. They resembled the tracks of some oddly fashioned sled.

Pierce halted, and with bent head was studying the phenomenon, when close above him he heard the rush of a swiftly approaching body; he looked up just in time to behold an apparition utterly unexpected, utterly astounding. Swooping directly down upon him with incredible velocity was what seemed at first glance to be a bird-woman, a valkyr out of the pages of Norse mythology. Wingless she was, yet she came like the wind, and at the very instant Pierce raised his eyes she took the air almost over his head-- quite as if he had startled her into an upward flight. Upon her feet was a pair of long, Norwegian skees, and upon these she had scudded down the mountain-side; where the bank dropped away she had leaped, and now, like a meteor, she soared into space. This amazing creature was clad in a blue-and-white toboggan suit, short skirt, sweater jacket, and knitted cap. As she hung outlined against the wintry sky Pierce caught a snap-shot glimpse of a fair, flushed, youthful face set in a ludicrous expression of open-mouthed dismay at sight of him. He heard, too, a high-pitched cry, half of warning, half of fright; the next instant there was a mighty upheaval of snow, an explosion of feathery white, as the human projectile landed, then a blur of blue-and-white stripes as it went rolling down the declivity.

"Good Lord!" Pierce cried, aghast; then he sped after the apparition. Only for the evidence of that undignified tumble, he would have doubted the reality of this flying Venus and considered her some creature of his imagination. There she lay, however, a thing of flesh and blood, bruised, broken, helpless; apprehensively he pictured himself staggering back to town with her in his arms.

He halted, speechless, when the girl sat up, shook the snow out of her hair, gingerly felt one elbow, then the other, and finally burst into a peal of ringing laughter. The face she lifted to his, now that it wore a normal expression, was wholly charming; it was, in fact, about the freshest, the cleanest, the healthiest and the frankest countenance he had ever looked into.

"Glory be!" he stammered. "I thought you were--completely spoiled."

"I'm badly twisted," the girl managed to gasp, "but I guess I'm all here. Oh! What a bump!"

"You scared me. I never dreamed--I didn't hear a thing until-- Well, I looked up and there you were. The sky was full of you. Gee! I thought I'd lost my mind. Are you quite sure you're all right?"

"Oh, I'll be black and blue again, but I'm used to that. That's the funniest one I've had, the very funniest. Why don't you laugh?"

"I'm--too rattled, I suppose. I'm not accustomed to flying girls. Never had them rain down on me out of the heavens."

The girl's face grew sober. "You're entirely to blame," she cried, angrily. "I was getting it beautifully until you showed up. You popped right out of the ground. What are you doing in the Queen's Park, anyhow? You've no business at the royal sports."

"I didn't mean to trespass."

"I think I'll call the guards."

"Call the court physician and make sure--"

"Pshaw! I'm not hurt." Ignoring his extended hand, she scrambled to her feet and brushed herself again. Evidently the queenly anger was short-lived, for she was beaming again, and in a tone that was boyishly intimate she explained:

"I'd made three dandy jumps and was going higher each time, but the sight of you upset me. Think of being upset by a perfectly strange man. Shows lack of social training, doesn't it? It's a wonder I didn't break a skee."

Pierce glanced apprehensively at the bluff overhead. "Hadn't we better move out of the way?" he inquired. "If the royal family comes dropping in, we'll be ironed out like a couple of handkerchiefs. I don't want to feel the divine right of the king, or his left, either."

"There isn't any king-nor any royal family. I'm just the Queen of Pretend."

"You're skee-jumping, alone? Is that what you mean?"

The girl nodded.

"Isn't that a dangerous way to amuse self? I thought skees were-- tricky."

"Have you ever ridden them?" the girl inquired, quickly.

"Never."

"You don't know what fun is. Here--" The speaker stooped and detached her feet from the straps. "Just have a go at it." Pierce protested, but she insisted in a business-like way. "They're long ones--too long for me. They'll just suit you."

"Really, I don't care to--"

"Oh yes, you do. You must."

"You'll be sorry," Pierce solemnly warned her. "When my feet glance off and leave me sticking up in the snow to starve, you'll- -Say! I can think of a lot of things I want to do, but I don't seem to find skee-jumping on the list."

"You needn't jump right away." Determination was in the girl's tone; there was a dancing light of malice in her eyes. "You can practise a bit. Remember, you laughed at me."

"Nothing of the sort. I was amazed, not amused. I thought I'd flushed a very magnificent pheasant with blue-and-white stripes, and I was afraid it was going to fly away before I got a good look at it. Now, then--"He slowly finished buckling the runners to his feet and looked up interrogatively. "What are your Majesty's orders?"

"Walk around. Slide down the hill."

"What on?"

The girl smothered a laugh and waved him away. She looked on while he set off with more or less caution. When he managed to maintain an upright position despite the antics of his skees her face expressed genuine disappointment.

"It's not so hard as I thought it would be," he soon announced, triumphantly. "A little awkward at first, but--" he cast an eye up at the bank. "You never know what you can do until you try."

"You've been skeeing before," she accused him, reproachfully.

"Never."

"Then you pick it up wonderfully. Try a jump."

Her mocking invitation spurred him to make the effort, so he removed the skees and waded a short distance up the hill. When he had secured his feet in position for a second time he called down:

"I'm going to let go and trust to Providence. Look out."

"The same to you," she cried. "You're wonderful, but--men can do anything, can't they?"

There was nothing graceful, nothing of the free abandon of the practised skee-runner in Pierce's attitude; he crouched apelike, with his muscles set to maintain an equilibrium, and this much he succeeded in doing--until he reached the jumping, off place. At that point, however, gravity, which he had successfully defied, wreaked vengeance upon him; it suddenly reached forth and made him its vindictive toy. He pawed, he fought, he appeared to be climbing an invisible rope. With a mighty flop he landed flat upon his back, uttering a loud and dismayed grunt as his breath left him. When he had dug himself out he found that the girl, too, was breathless. She was rocking in silent ecstasy, she hugged herself gleefully, and there were tears in her eyes.

"I'm--so--sorry!" she exclaimed, in a thin, small voice. "Did you- -trip over something?"

The young man grinned. "Not at all. I was afraid of a sprained ankle, so I hit on my head. We meet on common ground, as it were."

Once again he climbed the grade, once again he skidded downward, once again he went sprawling. Nor were his subsequent attempts more successful. After a final ignominious failure he sat where he had fetched up and ruefully took stock of the damage he had done himself. Seriously he announced:

"I was mistaken. Women are entitled to vote--they're entitled to anything. I've learned something else, too--Mr. Newton's interesting little theory is all wrong; falling bodies travel sixteen miles, not sixteen feet, the first second."

The girl demanded her skees, and, without rising, Pierce surrendered them; then he looked on admiringly while she attached them to her feet and went zigzagging up the hill to a point much higher than the one from which he had dared to venture. She made a very pretty picture, he acknowledged, for she was vivid with youth and color. She was lithe and strong and confident, too; she was vibrant with the healthy vigor of the out-of-doors.

She descended with a terrific rush, and this time she took the air with grace and certainty. She cleared a very respectable distance and ricocheted safely down the landing-slope.

Pierce applauded her with enthusiasm. "Beautiful! My sincere congratulations, O Bounding Fawn!"

"That's the best I've done," she crowed. "You put me on my mettle. Now you try it again."

Pierce did try again; he tried manfully, but with a humiliating lack of success. He was puffing and blowing, his face was wet with perspiration, he had lost all count of time, when his companion finally announced it was time for her to be going.

"You're not very fit, are you?" said she.

Pierce colored uncomfortably. "Not very," he confessed. He was relieved when she did not ask the reason for his lack of fitness. Just why he experienced such relief he hardly knew, but suddenly he felt no great pride in himself nor in the life that had brought him to such a state of flabbiness. Nor did he care to have this girl know who or what he was. Plainly she was one of those "nice people" at whom Laure and the other denizens of the Rialto were wont to sneer with open contempt; probably that was why he had never chanced to meet her. He felt cheated because they had not met, for she was the sort of girl he had known at home, the sort who believed in things and in whom he believed. Despite all his recently acquired wisdom, in this short hour she had made him over into a boy again, and somehow or other the experience was agreeable. Never had he seen a girl so cool, so candid, so refreshingly unconscious and unaffected as this one. She was as limpid as a pool of glacier water; her placidity, he imagined, had never been stirred, and in that fact lay much of her fascination.

With her skees slung over her shoulder, the girl strode along beside Phillips, talking freely on various topics, but with no disposition to chatter. Her mind was alert, inquisitive, and yet she had that thoughtful gravity of youth, wisdom coming to life. That Pierce had made a good impression upon her she implied at parting by voicing a sincere hope that they would meet again very soon.

"Perhaps I'll see you at the next dance," she suggested.

"Dance!" The word struck Pierce unpleasantly.

"Saturday night, at the Barracks."

"I'd love to come," he declared.

"Do. They're loads of fun. All the nice people go."

With a nod and a smile she was gone, leaving him to realize that he did not even know her name. Well, that was of no moment; Dawson was a small place, and--Saturday was not far off. He had heard about those official parties at the Barracks and he made up his mind to secure an invitation sufficiently formal to permit him to attend the very next one.

His opportunity came that night when one of the younger Mounted Police officers paused to exchange greetings with him. Lieutenant Rock was a familiar figure on the streets of Dawson and on the trails near by, a tall, upstanding Canadian with a record for unfailing good humor and relentless efficiency. He nodded at Pierce's casual reference to the coming dance at Headquarters.

"Great sport," said he. "It's about the only chance we fellows have to play."

When no invitation to share in the treat was forthcoming Pierce told of meeting a most attractive girl that afternoon, and, having obtained his hearer's interest, he described the youthful goddess of the snows with more than necessary enthusiasm. He became aware of a peculiar expression upon Rock's face.

"Yes. I know her well," the latter said, quietly. "D'you mean to say she invited you to the ball?"

"It wasn't exactly an invitation--"

"Oh! I see. Well"--Rock shook his head positively--"there's nothing doing, old man. It isn't your kind of a party. Understand?"

"I--don't understand," Pierce confessed in genuine surprise.

The officer eyed him with a cool, disconcerting directness. "We draw the lines pretty close--have to in a camp like this. No offense, I trust." With a smile and a careless wave of the hand he moved on, leaving Pierce to stare after him until he was swallowed up by the crowd in the gambling-room.

A blow in the face would not have amazed Pierce Phillips more, nor would it have more greatly angered him. So, he was ostracized! These men who treated him with such apparent good-fellowship really despised him; in their eyes he was a renegade; they considered him unfit to know their women. It was incredible!

This was the first deliberate slight the young man had ever received. His face burned, his pride withered under it; he would have bitten out his tongue rather than subject himself to such a rebuff. Who was Rock? How dared he? Rock knew the girl, oh yes! But he refused to mention her name--as if that name would be sullied by his, Pierce's, use of it. That hurt most of all; that was the bitterest pill. Society! Caste! On the Arctic Circle! It was to laugh!

But Phillips could not laugh. He could more easily have cried, or cursed, or raved; even to pretend to laugh off such an affront was impossible. It required no more than this show of opposition to fan the embers of his flickering desire into full flame, and, now that he was forbidden to meet that flying goddess, it seemed to him that he must do so at whatever cost. He'd go to that dance, he decided, in spite of Rock; he'd go unbidden; he'd force his way in if needs be.

This sudden ardor died, however, as quickly as it had been born, leaving him cold with apprehension. What would happen if he took the bit in his teeth? Rock knew about Laure--those detestable redcoats knew pretty much everything that went on beneath the surface of Dawson life--and if Pierce ran counter to the fellow's warning he would probably speak out. Rock was just that sort. His methods were direct and forceful. What then? Pierce cringed inwardly at the contemplation. That snow-girl was so clean, so decent, so radically different from all that Laure stood for, that he shrank from associating them together even in his thoughts.

Well, he was paying the fiddler, and the price was high. Even here on the fringe of the frontier society exacted penalty for the breach of its conventions. Pierce's rebellion at this discovery, his resentment at the whole situation, prevented him from properly taking the lesson to heart. The issue was clouded, too, by a wholly natural effort at self-justification. The more he tried this latter, however, the angrier he became and the more humiliating seemed his situation.

He was in no mood to calmly withstand another shock, especially when that shock was administered by Joe McCaskey, of all persons; nevertheless, it came close upon the heels of Rock's insult.

Pierce had not seen either brother since their departure for Hunker Creek, therefore Joe's black visage leering through the window of the cashier's cage was an unwelcome surprise.

"Hello, Phillips! How are you making it?" the man inquired.

"All right."

Despite this gruffness, Joe's grin widened. There was nothing of pleasure at the meeting, nor of friendliness behind it, however. On the contrary, it masked both malice and triumph, as was plain when he asked:

"Did you hear about our strike?"

"What strike?"

"Why, it's all over town! Frank and I hit pay in our first shaft-- three feet of twenty-cent dirt."

"Really?" Pierce could not restrain a movement of surprise.

Joe nodded and chuckled, meanwhile keeping his malignant gaze focused upon the younger man's face. "It's big. We came to town to buy grub and a dog-team and to hire a crew of hands. We've got credit at the A. C. Company up to fifty thousand dollars."

There was a brief pause which Pierce broke by inquiring, as casually as he could:

"Did Tom and Jerry have any luck?"

"Sure thing! They've hit it, the same as us. You tossed off a home-stake, kid. Don't believe it, eh? Well, here's the proof- coarse gold from Hunker." With an ostentatious flourish the speaker flung down a half-filled poke, together with a bar check. "Cash me in, and don't let any of it stick to your fingers."

Pierce was impelled to hurl the gold sack at Joe's head, but he restrained himself. His hands were shaky, however, and when he untied the thongs he was mortified at spilling some of the precious yellow particles. Mortification changed to anger when the owner cried, sharply:

"Hey! Got cashier's ague, have you? Just cut out the sleight-of- hand!"

Pierce smothered a retort; silently he brushed the dust back into the blower and set the weights upon his scales. But McCaskey ran on with an insulting attempt at banter:

"I'm onto you short-weighers. Take your bit out of the drunks; I'm sober."

When Pierce had retied the sack and returned it he looked up and into Joe's face. His own was white, his eyes were blazing.

"Don't pull any more comedy here," he said, quietly. "That short- weight joke doesn't go at the Rialto."

"Oh, it don't? Joke!" McCaskey snorted. "I s'pose it's a joke to spill dust--when you can't get away with it. Well, I've spotted a lot of crooked cashiers in this town."

"No doubt. It takes a thief to catch a thief." McCaskey started. His sneer vanished. "Thief! Say--" he blustered, angrily. "D'you mean--" The clash, brief as it had been, had excited attention. Noting the fact that an audience was gathering, the speaker lowered his voice and, thrusting his black, scowling countenance closer to the cage opening, he said: "You needn't remind me of anything. I've got a good memory. Damn' good!" After a moment he turned his back and moved away.

When Pierce went off shift he looked up Lars Anderson and received confirmation of the Hunker strike. Lars was in a boisterous mood and eager to share his triumph.

"I knew that was a rich piece of ground," he chuckled, "and I knew I was handing those boys a good thing. But a fellow owes something to his friends, doesn't he?"

"I thought you said it was low grade?"

"Low grade!" Big Lars threw back his head and laughed loudly. "I never said nothing of the kind. Me knock my own ground? Why, I'd have banked my life on Hunker!"

Here was luck, Pierce told himself. A fortune had been handed him on a silver platter, and he had shoved it aside. He was sick with regret; he was furious with himself for his lack of wisdom; he hated Laure for the deception she had practised upon him. The waste he had made of this opportunity bred in him a feeling of desperation.

Toward the close of the show Laure found him braced against the bar; the face he turned upon her was cold, repellent. When she urged him to take her to supper he shook his head.

"What's the matter?" she inquired.

"Big Lars never told you Hunker was low grade," he declared.

The girl flushed; she tossed her dark head defiantly. "Well, what of it?"

"Simply this--Tom and Jerry and the McCaskeys have struck rich pay."

"Indeed?"

"You lied to me."

Laure's lips parted slowly in a smile. "What did you expect? What would any girl do?" She laid a caressing hand upon his arm. "I don't care how much they make or how poor you are--"

Pierce disengaged her grasp. "I care!" he cried, roughly. "I've lost my big chance. They've made their piles and I'm--well, look at me."

"You blame me?"

He stared at her for a moment. "What's the difference whether I blame you or myself? I'm through. I've been through for some time, but--this is curtain."

"Pierce!"

Impatiently he flung her off and strode out of the theater.

Laure was staring blindly after him when Joe McCaskey spoke to her. "Have a dance?" he inquired.

She undertook to answer, but her lips refused to frame any words; silently she shook her head.

"What's the idea? A lovers' quarrel?" McCaskey eyed her curiously, then he chuckled mirthlessly. "You can come clean with me. I don't like him any better than you do."

"Mind your own business," stormed the girl in a sudden fury.

"That's what I'm doing, and minding it good. I've got a lot of business--with that rat." Joe's sinister black eyes held Laure's in spite of her effort to avoid them; it was plain that he wished to say more, but hesitated. "Maybe it would pay us to get acquainted," he finally suggested. "Frank and me and the Count are having a bottle of wine upstairs. Better join us."

"I will," said Laure, after a moment. Together they mounted the stairs to the gallery above.