Chapter XXIV
 

Although 'Poleon had spoken with confidence, he found, upon arriving at Police Headquarters, that the situation was by no means as simple as it had appeared, and that something more than a mere word regarding Phillips' character would be required to offset the very definite accusation against him. Courteau, he learned, had pressed his charge with vigor, and although the two McCaskeys had maintained their outward show of reluctance at being dragged into the affair, they had, nevertheless, substantiated his statements with a thoroughness and a detail that hinted more than a little at vindictiveness. Pierce, of course, had denied his guilt, but his total inability to explain how the gold-dust in dispute came to be concealed in the cashier's cage, to which no one but he had access, had left the Police no alternative except to hold him. By the time 'Poleon arrived Pierce had been locked up for the night.

Drawing Rock aside, Doret put in an earnest plea for his young friend. The lieutenant answered him with some impatience:

"I admit it looks fishy, but what is there to do? The colonel likes Pierce, as we all do, but--he had no choice."

"It's dirty frame-up."

"I imagine he believes so. And yet--how the deuce did that sack get where it was? I was standing alongside the McCaskeys when Courteau went up to pay his check, and I'm sure they had no part in it."

"M'sieu' le Comte is sore," 'Poleon asserted. "Me, I savvy plenty. Wal, how we goin' get dat boy from out of jail, eh? By Gar! I bet I don' sleep none if I'm lock up."

"Get bail for him."

'Poleon was frankly puzzled at this suggestion, but when its nature had been explained his face lit up.

"Ho! Dat's nice arrangements, for sure. Come! I fix it now."

"Have you got enough money?"

"I got 'bout t'irty dollar, but dat ain't mak' no differ. I go to workin' somewhere. Me, I'm good for anyt'ing."

"That won't do," Rock smiled. "You don't understand." Laboriously he made more plain the mysteries of court procedure, whereupon his hearer expressed the frankest astonishment.

"Sacre!" the latter exclaimed. "What for you say two, free t'ousan' dollar? Courteau 'ain't lose but six hundred, an' he's got it back. No! I'm t'inkin' you Policemans is got good sense, but I lak better a miners' meetin'. Us 'sour-dough' mak' better law as dem feller at Ottawa."

"Morris Best was willing to go his bail," Rock informed him, "but Miller wouldn't allow it. Ben is sore at having the Rialto implicated--there's been so much short-weighing going on. Understand?"

'Poleon wagged his head in bewilderment. "I don' savvy dis new kin' of law you feller is bring in de country. S'pose I say, 'M'sieu' Jodge, I know dis boy long tam; he don' steal dat gold.' De Jodge he say, 'Doret, how much money you got? T'ousand dollar?' I say, 'Sure! I got 'bout t'ousand dollar.' Den he tell me, 'Wal, dat ain't 'nough. Mebbe so you better gimme two t'ousan' dollar biffore I b'lieve you.' Bien! I go down-town an' win 'noder t'ousan' on de high card, or mebbe so I stick up some feller, den I come back and m'sieu' le jodge he say: 'Dat's fine! Now we let Phillips go home. He don' steal not'in'.' Wat I t'ink of dem proceedin's? Eh? I t'ink de jodge is dam' grafter!"

Rock laughed heartily. "Don't let Colonel Cavendish hear you," he cautioned. "Seriously now, he'd let Pierce go if he could; he told me so. He'll undoubtedly allow him the freedom of the Barracks, so he'll really be on parole until his trial."

"Trial? You goin' try him again?" The woodsman could make little of the affair. "If you try him two tam, dose crook is mak' t'ief of Pierce for sure. One trial is plenty. I s'pose mebbe I better kill dem feller off an' settle dis t'ing."

"Don't talk like that," Rock told him. "I'm not saying they don't need killing, but--nobody gets away with that stuff nowadays."

"No?" 'Poleon was interested and a trifle defiant. "For why? You never catch me, M'sieu'. Nobody is able for doin' dat. I'm good traveler."

Rock eyed the stalwart speaker meditatively. "I'd hate to take your trail, that's a fact, but I'd have to do it. However, that would be a poor way to help Pierce. If he's really innocent, Courteau will have a hard job to convict him. I suggest that you let matters rest as they are for a day or so. We'll treat the kid all right."

On the way to her room Rouletta met the Countess Courteau, and in a few words made known the facts of Pierce's arrest. The elder woman listened in astonishment.

"Arrested? For theft? Absurd! Who made the charge?"

"Count Courteau."

"Courteau? Where did he get a thousand dollars?" The speaker's face was set in an expression of utter incredulity.

"I don't know. It's all too wretched, too terrible--" Rouletta's voice broke; she hid her face in her hands. For a moment there was silence; then the elder woman exclaimed, harshly, peremptorily:

"Tell me everything. Quick! There's a reason why I must know all about it."

Drawing Rouletta into her room, she forced her into a chair, then stood over her while the latter repeated the story in greater detail.

"So! That's it!" the Countess cried, at last. "The McCaskeys backed him up. Of course! And he referred to Sheep Camp--to me. He's the sort to do a thing like that. God! What a dog!" After a time she went on: "I'm sorry Pierce struck him; he'll never get over that and it will make it harder--much harder."

"You think it can be straightened out?" Rouletta s face was strained; her eyes searched the former speaker's face eagerly.

"It's got to be straightened out. It would be monstrous to allow-- " The Countess shook her head, then, with a mirthless smile, exclaimed: "But what a situation! Henri, of all persons! It's pleasant for me, isn't it? Well, somebody planted that poke-- probably one of the McCaskeys. They'd like to railroad the boy. Joe is as vindictive as an Indian and he blames Pierce and me for his brother's death."

In desperation Rouletta cried: "I'll pay the Count back his money- -I'll double it."

"His money?" sneered the woman. "He hasn't a cent, except what I give him. That was McCaskey's dust." She stared at the apprehensive figure crouched upon the edge of the chair, and slowly her expression softened. In a gentler tone she said, "I see you didn't take my advice; you didn't heed my warning."

"Who ever heeds a warning like yours?"

"Does Pierce know that you--feel this way about him?"

Rouletta sighed wearily. "I didn't know myself, although I more than half suspected. I didn't permit myself to think, it made me so unhappy."

"It ought to satisfy me somewhat to learn that he doesn't care for you, but--somehow it doesn't. He didn't care for me, either. But I cared for him. I love him now, just as you love him--better, probably. Oh, why conceal it? I've spent a good many black hours thinking about it and trying to fight it. Mind you, it wasn't his fault; it was just fate. There are some fellows who go smiling and singing along through life--clean, decent fellows, too--attending to their own affairs in a perfectly proper manner, but leaving a trail of havoc behind them. It isn't so true of women--they're usually flirts--their smiles don't last and the echo of their songs dies out. He's perfectly impossible for me. I wouldn't marry him if I were free and if he asked me. But that has nothing whatever to do with the case."

"I had no idea!" Rouletta said. "I suppose there's no hope for me, either. I'm not his kind. He's told me about his life, his people. I wouldn't fit in."

"It isn't that--people are adaptable, they make themselves fit, for a while at least--it's a question of identities. As much a matter of family histories as anything else. You're his antithesis in every respect and--like should mate with like. Now then, about this other trouble. I must work in my own way, and I see but one. I'll have to pay high, but--" The speaker lifted her shoulders as if a cold wind had chilled her. "I've paid high, up to date, and I suppose I shall to the end. Meanwhile, if you can get him out of jail, do so by all means. I can't. I daren't even try."

When, at a late hour, Count Henri Courteau entered the establishment that bore his name he was both surprised and angered to find his wife still awake. The guests of the hotel were asleep, the place was quiet, but the Countess was reading in an easy-chair beside the office stove. She was in negligee, her feet were resting upon the stove fender. She turned her head to say:

"Well, Henri, you look better than I thought you would."

The Count passed a caressing hand over his swollen cheek and his discolored left eye. "You heard about the fight, eh?" he inquired, thickly.

"Yes--if you'd call it that."

Courteau grimaced, but there was a ring of triumph and of satisfaction in his voice when he cried:

"Well, what do you think of that fellow? It was like him, wasn't it, after I had caught him red-handed?"

"To punch you? Quite like him," agreed the woman.

"Pig! To strike a defenseless man. Without warning, too. It shows his breeding. And now"--the speaker sneered openly--"I suppose you will bail him out."

"Indeed! Why should I?"

"Oh, don't pretend innocence!" the Count stormed. "Don't act so unconcerned. What's your game, anyhow? Whatever it is, that fellow will cut cord-wood for the rest of the winter where the whole of Dawson can see him and say, 'Behold the lover of the Countess Courteau!'"

"There's some mistake. He isn't a thief."

"No?" The husband swayed a few steps closer, his face working disagreeably. "Already it is proved. He is exposed, ruined. Bah! He made of me a laughing-stock. Well, he shall suffer! A born thief, that's what he is. What have you to say?"

"Why--nothing. I hoped it was a mistake, that's all."

"You hoped! To be sure!" sneered the speaker. "Well, what are you going to do about it?" When his wife said nothing the man muttered, in some astonishment: "I didn't expect you to take it so quietly. I was prepared for a scene. What ails you?"

Hilda laid down her book. She turned to face her accuser. "Why should I make a scene?" she asked. "I've had nothing to do with Phillips since we parted company at White Horse. I've scarcely spoken to him, and you know it."

"You don't deny there was something between you?"

The woman shrugged non-committally, her lips parted in a faint, cheerless smile. "I deny nothing. I admit nothing."

Although Courteau's brain was fogged, he experienced a growing surprise at the self-possession with which his wife had taken this blow which he had aimed as much at her as at Pierce Phillips; he studied her intently, a mingling of suspicion, of anger, and of admiration in his uncertain gaze. He saw, for one thing, that his effort to reach her had failed and that she remained completely the mistress of herself. She reclined at ease in her comfortable chair, quite unstirred by his derision, his jubilation. He became aware, also, of the fact that she presented an extremely attractive picture, for the soft white fur of the loose robe she wore exposed an alluring glimpse of snowy throat and bosom; one wide sleeve had fallen back, showing a smoothly rounded arm; her silken ankles, lifted to the cozy warmth of the stove, were small and trim; her feet were shod in neat high-heeled slippers. The Count admired neatly shod ladies.

"You're a very smart-looking woman," he cried, with some reluctance. "You're beautiful, Hilda. I don't blame the young fool for falling. But you're too old, too wise--"

Hilda nodded. "You've said it. Too old and too wise. If I'd been as young and as silly as when I met you--who knows? He's a handsome boy."

Again the husband's anger blazed up.

"But I'm not young and silly," his wife interrupted.

"Just the same, you played me a rotten trick," the Count exploded. "And I don't forget. As for him"--he swore savagely--"he'll learn that it's not safe to humiliate me, to rob me of any woman--wife or mistress. You've never told me the half; I've had to guess. But I'm patient, I know how to wait and to use my eyes and my ears. Then to strike me! Perdition! I'll follow this through, never fear."

"How did you get a thousand dollars, Henri?" the wife inquired, curiously.

Courteau's gaze shifted. "What difference? I won it on a turn at the North Star; it was given to me; I found it. Anyhow, I had it. It was a good night for me; yes, a very good night. I had my revenge and I showed my friends that I'm a man to be reckoned with."

In a tone unexpectedly humble the woman said: "I had no idea you cared very much what I did or how I carried on. After all, it was your own fault."

"Mine?" The Count laughed in derision and astonishment.

"Exactly! If you had taken the trouble to show me that you cared-- well, things might have been different. However--" The Countess rose, and with another change of voice and manner said: "Come along. Let's do something for your eye."

The Count stared at her in bewilderment, then he turned away, crying: "Bah! I want no help." At the door he paused to jeer once more. "Pierce Phillips! A common thief, a despicable creature who robs the very man he had most deeply injured. I've exposed him to the law and to public scorn. Sleep on that, my dear. Dream on it." With a chuckle he traced an uncertain course to the stairs, mounted them to his room, and slammed his door behind him.

He had undressed and flung himself into bed, but he had not yet fallen asleep when the door reopened and his wife entered, bearing in her hand a steaming pitcher of hot water. This she deposited; into it she dipped a folded towel.

"I'm sorry you're disfigured, Henri," she told him, quietly.

Despite his surly protests, she bathed and soothed his swollen features until he dropped asleep, after which she stole out and down to her room on the floor below. There, however, she paused, staring back up the empty stairway, a look of deepest loathing upon her face. Slowly, carefully, she wiped her hands as if they were unclean; her lips curled into a mirthless smile; then she passed into her chamber and turned the key behind her.

Rock had spoken truly in assuring 'Poleon that Pierce Phillips' lot would be made as easy for him as possible. That is what happened. No one at the Barracks appeared to take much stock in Courteau's charge, and even Colonel Cavendish, the commandant, took the trouble to send for him early the next morning and to ask for the whole story in detail. When Pierce had given it the officer nodded. "It looks very much like a spite case. I couldn't imagine your doing such a thing, my boy."

"It is a spite case, nothing else."

"Courteau is a rotter, and your affair with his wife explains his animosity."

"It wasn't exactly an 'affair,' sir." Pierce colored slightly as he went on to explain. "You see, I was perfectly honest. I didn't know there was a count, and when I learned there was I up stakes and ended it. She was the first woman who ever--Well, sir, I admired her tremendously. She--impressed me wonderfully."

"No doubt," the colonel smiled. "She's an impressive person. Are you still fond of her?"

"Not in the same way."

"What about this girl Laure?"

This time Pierce flushed uncomfortably. "I've no excuses to offer there, sir--no explanations. We--just drifted together. It was a long trip and the Yukon does that sort of thing. Force of circumstance as much as anything, I presume. I've been trying to break away, but--" he shrugged.

"You've been a pretty foolish lad." Pierce remained silent at this accusation, and the colonel went on: "However, I didn't bring you here to lecture you. The Royal Mounted have other things to think about than young wasters who throw themselves away. After all, it's a free-and-easy country and if you want to play ducks and drakes it's your own business. I merely want you to realize that you've put yourself in a bad light and that you don't come into court with clean hands."

"I understand. I put in a wakeful night thinking about it. It's the first time in a long while that I've done any serious thinking."

"Well, don't be discouraged. A little thinking will benefit you. Now then, I'm going to put Rock at work on your case, and meanwhile you may have the liberty of the Barracks. You're a gentleman, and I trust you to act as one."

Pierce was only too grateful for this courtesy, and to realize that he retained the respect of this middle-aged, soldierly officer, whom he had long admired, filled him with deep relief. He gave his promise readily enough.

Later in the day Broad and Bridges came in to see him, and their indignation at the outrage, their positive assertion that it was nothing less than a deliberate conspiracy, and so considered among the Front Street resorts, immensely cheered him.

"You remember the holler I let up when them Sheep-Campers wanted to hang McCaskey?" Broad inquired. "It was my mistake. His ear and a hemp knot would go together like rheumatism and liniment."

Bridges agreed. "Funny, us three bein' tillicums, ain't it?" he mused. "Especially after the way we dredged you. We didn't need your loose change, but--there it was, so we took it."

"You'd of done better if you'd turned on the hollow of your foot that day and romped right back to the old farm," Broad asserted. "You'd never of doubled up with the McCaskeys and you'd still be the blushing yokel you was."

"Yes, you're a different kid, now." Both gamblers, it seemed, were in the melancholy mood for moralizing. "Why, we was talkin' to Rouletta about you this morning. She's all bereaved up over this thing; she sent us here to cheer you. You was clean as an apple, then--and easier to pick--now you're just a common bar-fly, the same as us. Laure done it. She's the baby vampire that made a bum of you."

"You're not very flattering." Phillips smiled faintly.

"Oh, I'm sort of repeatin' what Letty said. She put me to thinkin'. She's quite a noisy little missionary when she gets started."

"Missionary!" Broad exclaimed, in disdain. "I don't like the word. Them birds is about useful as a hip pocket in an undershirt. Why, missionaries don't do no real, lasting good outside of Indian villages! Us sure-thing guys are the best missionaries that ever struck this country. Look at the good we done around Dyea and Skagway. Them gospel-bringers never touched it. We met the suckers on the edge of the Frozen North and we turned 'em back by the score. Them three walnut husks done more good than the Ten Commandments. Yes, sir, a set of cheatin' tools will save more strayed lambs than a ship-load of Testaments."

"Letty figgers that somebody tossed that goldsack over the top of the cage after you follered the Count out."

"Impossible," Pierce declared.

"I got an idea." It was Broad speaking again. "The mere contemplation of physical violence unmans that Frog. He'd about as soon have a beatin' as have a leg cut off with a case-knife. S'pose me and the Kid lure him to some lonely spot--some good yellin'-place--and set upon him with a coupla pick-handles. We'll make him confess or we'll maim and meller him till he backs out through his bootlegs. What d'you say?"

Pierce shook his head. "Something must be done, but I doubt if that's it. It's tough to be--disgraced, to have a thing like this hanging over you. I wouldn't mind it half so much if I were up for murder or arson or any man's-sized crime. Anything except stealing!"

"A mere matter of choice," the former speaker lightly declared. "We got boys around the Rialto that has tried 'em all. They don't notice no particular difference."

For some time the three friends discussed the situation, then, when his visitors rose to go, Pierce accompanied them to the limits of the Barracks premises and there stood looking after them, realizing with a fresh pang that he was a prisoner. It was an unfortunate predicament, he reflected, and quite as unpleasant as the one which had brought him into conflict with the angry men of Sheep Camp. That had been an experience fraught with peril, but his present plight was little better, it seemed to him, for already he felt the weight of the Dominion over him, already he fancied himself enmeshed in a discouraging tangle of red tape. There was no adventurous thrill to this affair, nothing but an odious feeling of shame and disgrace which he could not shake off.

He was staring morosely at the ground between his feet when he heard a voice that caused him to start. There, facing him with a light of pleasure in her blue eyes, was the girl of the skees.

"Hello!" said she. She extended her hand, and her mitten closed over Pierce's fingers with a firm clasp. "I'm awfully glad to see you again, Mr--" She hesitated, then with a smile confessed, "Do you know, you're my only pupil and yet I've never heard your name."

"Phillips," said he.

"You don't deserve to be remembered at all, for you didn't come to the dance. And after you had promised, too."

"I couldn't come," he assured her, truthfully enough.

"I looked for you. I was quite hurt when you failed to appear. Then I thought perhaps you expected something more formal than a mere verbal invitation, and in that way I managed to save my vanity. If I'd known who you were or how to find you I'd have had my father send you a note. If it wasn't that, I'm glad. Well, there's another dance this week and I'll expect you."

"I--I'm not dancing," he stammered. "Not at the Barracks, anyhow."

The girl was puzzled; therefore Pierce summoned his courage and explained, with as brave an attempt at lightness as he could afford: "You see before you a victim of unhappy circumstance," a person to be shunned. I'm worse than a case of smallpox. I don't think you should be seen talking to me."

"What are you driving at?"

"I'm getting up the spiritual momentum necessary to tell you that I'm a thief! Truly. Anyhow, three choice gentlemen are so sure of it that they went to the trouble of perjuring themselves and having me arrested--"

"Arrested? You?"

"Exactly. And the evidence is very strong. I almost think I must be guilty."

"Are you?"

Pierce shook his head.

"Of course you're not. I remember, now--something father said at breakfast, but I paid no attention. You fought with that good- looking French count, didn't you?"

"Thank you for reminding me of the one cheerful feature connected with the entire affair. Yes, I raised my hand to him in anger--and let it fall, but Lieutenant Rock spoiled the whole party."

"Tell me everything, please."

Pierce was more than willing to oblige, and he began his recital at the time of his first meeting with Joe McCaskey on the beach at Dyea. While he talked the girl listened with that peculiar open- eyed meditative gravity he had noted upon their former meeting. When he had finished she cried, breathlessly:

"Why, it's as exciting as a book!"

"You think so? I don't. If I were only a clever book character I'd execute some dramatic coup and confound my enemies--book people always do. But my mind is a blank, my ingenuity is at a complete standstill. I feel perfectly foolish and impotent. To save me, I can't understand how that gold got where it was, for the cashier's cage is made of wire and the door has a spring-lock. I heard it snap back of me when I followed the Count outside. I had an insane idea that his nose would stretch if I pulled it and I believe yet it would. Well, I've spent one night in the dungeon and I'm not cut out to enjoy that mode of life. All I can think about is the Prisoner of Chillon and the Man in the Iron Mask and other distressing instances of the law's injustice. I feel as if I'd grown a gray beard in the last twelve hours. Do I look much older than when we met?"

The girl shook her head. "It's tremendously dramatic. Think what a story it will make when it's over and when you look back on it."

"Do you feel that way, too?" Pierce inquired, curiously. "As if everything is an adventure? I used to. I used to stand outside of myself and look on, but now--I'm on the inside, looking out. I suppose it's the effect of the gray beard. Experience comes fast in this country. To one thing I've made up my mind, however; when I get out of this scrape, if I ever do, I'm going away up into the hills where the wind can blow me clean, and stay there."

"It's a perfect shame!" the girl said, indignantly. "I shall tell father to fix it. He fixes everything I ask him to. He's wonderful, as you probably know."

"Inasmuch as I haven't the faintest idea who he is--"

"Why, he's Colonel Cavendish! I'm Josephine Cavendish. I thought everybody knew me."

Pierce could not restrain a start of surprise. Very humbly he inquired:

"Now that you understand who I am and what I'm charged with, do you want to--know me; be friends with me?"

"We are friends," Miss Cavendish warmly declared. "That's not something that may happen; it has happened. I'm peculiar about such matters; I have my own way of looking at them. And now that we're friends we're going to be friends throughout and I'm going to help you. Come along and meet mother."

"I--don't know how far my parole extends," Pierce ventured, doubtfully.

"Nonsense! There's only one authority around here. Father thinks he's it, but he isn't. I am. You're my prisoner now. Give me your word you won't try to escape--"

"Escape!" Pierce smiled broadly. "I don't much care if I never get out. Prisons aren't half as bad as they're pictured."

"Then come!"