Chapter XXV
 

"You really must do something for this boy Pierce Phillips." Mrs. Cavendish spoke with decision.

The newspaper which the colonel was reading was barely six weeks old, therefore he was deeply engrossed in it, and he looked up somewhat absentmindedly.

"Yes, yes. Of course, my dear," he murmured. "What does he want now?"

"Why, he wants his liberty! He wants this absurd charge against him dismissed! It's a shame to hold a boy of his character, his breeding, on the mere word of a man like Count Courteau."

Colonel Cavendish smiled quizzically. "You, too, eh?" said he.

"What do you mean by that?"

"Why, you're the fourth woman who has appealed to me since his arrest. I dare say I'll hear from others. I never saw a fellow who had the female vote so solidly behind him. I'm beginning to regard him as a sort of domestic menace."

"You surely don't believe him guilty?"

When her husband refused to commit himself Mrs. Cavendish exclaimed, "Rubbish!"

"First Josephine came to me," the colonel observed. "She was deeply indignant and considerably disappointed in me as a man and a father when I refused to quash the entire proceedings and apologize, on behalf of the Dominion Government, for the injury to the lad's feelings. She was actually peeved. What ails her I don't know. Then the Countess Courteau dropped in, and so did that 'lady dealer' from the Rialto. Now you take up his defense." The speaker paused thoughtfully for an instant. "It's bad enough to have the fellow hanging around our quarters at all hours, but Josephine actually suggested that we have him dine with us!"

"I know. She spoke of it to me. But he isn't 'hanging around at all hours.' Josephine is interested in his case, just as I am, because--"

"My dear! He's a weigher in a saloon, a gambling-house employee. D'you think it wise to raise such a dust about him? I like the boy myself--can't help liking him--but you understand what he's been doing? He's been cutting up; going the pace. I never knew you to countenance a fellow--"

"I never saw a boy toward whom I felt so--motherly," Mrs. Cavendish said, with some irrelevance. "I don't like wild young men any better than you do, but--he isn't a thief, of that I'm sure."

"Look here." Colonel Cavendish laid down his paper, and there was more gravity than usual in his tone. "I haven't told you everything, but it's evidently time I did. Phillips was mixed up with bad associates, the very worst in town--"

"So he told me."

"He couldn't have told you what I'm about to. He had a most unfortunate affair with a dance-hall girl--one that reflects no credit upon him. He was on the straight path to ruin and going at a gallop, drinking, gambling--everything."

"All the more reason for trying to save him. Remember, you were pretty wild yourself."

"Wait! I don't say he's guilty of this charge; I want to believe him innocent--I'd like to help prove it. For that very reason it occurred to me that Laure--she's the dance-hall girl--might throw some light on the matter, so I put Rock to work on her. Well, his report wasn't pleasant. The girl talked, but what she said didn't help Phillips. She confessed that he'd been stealing right along and giving her the money."

Mrs. Cavendish was shocked, incredulous. After a moment, however, she shook her head positively and exclaimed, "I don't believe a word of it."

"She's going to swear to it."

"Her oath would be no better than her word--"

"Good Lord!" the colonel cried, testily. "Has this young imp completely hypnotized you women? The Kirby girl is frightened to death, and the Countess--well, she told me herself that her husband's jealousy was at the bottom of the whole thing. Laure, in spite of what she said to Rock, is behaving like a mad person. I dropped in at the Rialto this evening and she asked me what was the worst Pierce could expect. I made it strong, purposely, and I thought she'd faint. No, it's a nasty affair, all through. And, by Jove! to cap the climax, you and Josephine take part in it! I flatter myself that I'm democratic, but--have him here to dine! Gad! That's playing democracy pretty strong."

"It isn't fair to imply that he's nothing more than a ladies' man. They're detestable. The men like Phillips, too."

"True," Cavendish admitted. "He has the God-given faculty of making friends, and for that alone I can forgive him almost anything. It's a wonderful faculty--better than being born lucky or rich or handsome. I'm fond of him, but I've favored him all I can. If I thought Josephine were seriously interested in him-- well, I wouldn't feel so friendly." The speaker laughed shortly, "No. The man who claims that girl's attention must be clean through and through. He must stand the acid test."

When his wife silently approved this sentiment the colonel picked up Ms paper and resumed his reading.

Pierce's friends were indeed uniformly indignant, and without exception they maintained their faith in his innocence; most of them, in fact, actually applied themselves to the task of clearing him of Courteau's charge. But of the latter the one who applied herself the most thoughtfully, the most seriously, was the Countess Courteau. Having reasoned that she herself was indirectly responsible for his plight, she set about aiding him in a thoroughly feminine and indirect manner. It was an unpleasant undertaking; she took it up with intense abhorrence; it required her utmost determination to carry it on. Her plan had formed itself immediately she had learned what had happened; her meeting with the Count that evening and her unexpected solicitude, her unbidden attention to his injury, were a part of it. As time went on she assumed an air that amazed the man. She meekly accepted his reproaches, she submitted to his abuse; cautiously, patiently she paved the way to a reconciliation.

It was by no means easy, for she and Henri had long lived in what was little better than a state of open hostility, and she had been at no pains to conceal the utter disregard and contempt she felt for him. He, of course, had resented it; her change of demeanor now awoke his suspicion. He was a vain and shallow person, however; his conceit was thoroughly Latin, and Hilda's perseverance was in a way rewarded. Slowly, grudgingly he gave ground before her subtle advances--they were, in fact, less advances on her part than opportunities for him--he experienced a feeling of triumph and began to assume a masterful air that was indeed trying to one of her disposition. Before his friends he boasted that his energetic defense of his honor had worked a marvel in his home; in her presence he made bold to take on a swagger and an authority hitherto unknown.

Hilda stood it, with what cost no one could possibly understand. In some manner she managed to convey the idea that he dominated her and that she cringed spiritually before him. She permitted him occasionally to surprise a look of bewilderment, almost of fright, in her eyes, and this tickled the man immensely. With a fatuous complacency, thoroughly typical, he told himself that she feared and respected him--was actually falling in love with him all over again. When he felt the impulse to scout this idea he went to his mirror and examined himself critically, Why not? he asked himself. He was very pleasing. Women had always been wax in his hands; he had a personality, an air, an irresistible something that had won him many conquests. It seemed not unlikely that Hilda had been shocked into a new and keener realization of his many admirable qualities and was ready to make up, if, or when, he graciously chose to permit her.

On the very evening that Colonel Cavendish and his wife were discussing Pierce Phillips' affair, Courteau, feeling in a particularly jubilant mood, decided to put the matter to a test; therefore he surprised his wife by walking into her room unannounced.

"My dear," he began, "it's high time we had a talk."

"Indeed!" said she. "What about?"

"About you, about me, about our affairs. Are we husband and wife or are we not? I ask you."

With a queer flicker of her eyelids she answered: "Why--of course. You have appeared to forget it sometimes, but--"

"No reproaches, please. The past is gone. Neither of us is without blame. You've had your fling, too, but I've shown you that I'm made of stern stuff and will tolerate no further foolishness. I am a different Courteau than you ever knew. I've had my rebirth. Now then, our present mode of life is not pleasing to me, for I'm a fellow of spirit. Think of me--in the attitude of a dependent!"

"I share generously with you. I give you money--"

"The very point,' he broke in, excitedly. "You give; I accept. You direct; I obey. It must end now, at once. I cannot play the accompaniment while you sing. Either I close my eyes to your folly and forgive, utterly--either we become man and wife again and I assume leadership--or I make different plans for the future."

"Just what do you propose, Henri?"

The fellow shrugged. "I offer you a reconciliation; that, to begin with. You've had your lesson and I flatter myself that you see me in a new light. The brave can afford to be generous. I--well, I've always had a feeling for you; I've never been blind to your attractions, my dear. Lately I've even experienced something of the--er--the old spell. Understand me? It's a fact.' I'm actually taken with you, Hilda; I have the fire of an impetuous lover."

Courteau's eyes gleamed; there was an unusual warmth to his gaze and a vibrance to his tone. He curled his mustache, he swelled his chest, he laughed lightly but deeply. "What do you say, eh? I'm not altogether displeasing. No? You see something in me to admire? I thrill you? Confess."

The wife lowered her eyes. "You have some power--" she murmured.

"Power! Precisely." The Count nodded and there was a growing vivacity and sparkle to him. "That is my quality--a power to charm, a power to achieve, a power to triumph. Well, I choose now to win you again for myself. It is my whim. To rekindle a love which one has lost is a test of any man's power, n'est-ce pas? You are fond of me. I see it. Am I not right, my sweet?"

He laid his soft white hands upon his wife's shoulders and bent an ardent gaze upon her. Hilda faced him with an odd smile; her cheeks were white, her ice-blue eyes were very wide and bright and they held a curious expression.

"Come! A kiss!" he persisted. "Oho! You tremble, you shrink like a maiden. I, too, am exhilarated, but--" With a chuckle he folded her in his embrace and she did not resist. After a moment he resumed: "This is quite too amusing. I wish my friends to see and to understand. Put on your prettiest dress--"

"What for?"

"We are going down-town. We shall celebrate our reunion--we shall drink to it publicly. All Dawson shall take note. They have said, 'Courteau is a loafer, a ne'er-do-well, and he permits another to win his wife away from him.' I propose to show them."

"You mean you propose to show me off. Is that it? Another conquest, eh?"

"Have it as you will. I--"

"I won't go," Hilda cried, furiously. She freed herself from his arms. "You know I won't go. You'd like to parade me in the places you frequent--saloons, dance-halls, gambling-houses. The idea!"

"You won't? Tut, tut! What is this?" Courteau cried, angrily. "Rebellious so soon? Is this recent change of demeanor assumed? Have you been fooling me?"

"What change?" the woman parried. "I don't know--"

"Oh yes, you do! For the first time in years you have treated me as a husband should be treated; half-measures will no longer satisfy me. We have arrived at the show-up. Are you a miserable Delilah or--"

"Please don't ask me to go out with you, Henri," the woman pleaded, in genuine distress, now that she saw he was in earnest. "To be paraded like an animal on a chain! Think of my feelings."

"Indeed! Think of mine," he cried. "This is my hour, my triumph; I propose to make it complete. Now that I carefully consider it, I will put you to the test. You've had a fine time; if you pay a price for it, whose fault is that? No! One must be cruel to be kind."

"Cruel! Kind!" Hilda sneered. "It merely pleases you to humiliate me."

"Very well!" blazed the Count. "If it pleases me, so be it. That is my attitude now and henceforth--my will is to be law. Come! Your prettiest dress and your prettiest smile, for we celebrate. Yes, and money, too; I'm as poverty-ridden as usual. We will treat my friends, we will gamble here and there, we will watch the shows to an accompaniment of popping corks so that every one shall see us and say: 'Yonder is Courteau and his wife. They have made up and she adores him like a mistress. Parbleu! The man has a way with women, eh!' It shall be a great night for me."

"Are you really serious?"

Courteau stamped his felt-shod foot. "Anger me no more."

Hilda's face was colorless, her eyes were still glowing with that peculiar light of defiance, of desperation, of curiosity; nevertheless, she turned away and began to dress herself.

Courteau was not disappointed. His appearance in the river-front resorts, accompanied by his wife, created a sensation indeed. And Hilda's bearing, under the circumstances, added to his gratification, for, now that the die was cast, she surrendered completely, she clung to him as if feeling a new dependence, and this filled his cup to overflowing. It was an outrageous thing to do; no one save a Courteau would have thought of subjecting the woman who bore his name to such a humiliation. But he was a perverse individual; his mind ran in crooked courses; he took a bizarre delight in the unusual, and morality of the common sort he knew not. To smirch her, even a little bit, to subject her to seeming disgrace, not only taught her a lesson, but also united them more closely, so he told himself. That he had the ability to compel her to do anything against her will immensely tickled his vanity, for her stubborn independence had always been a trial to him. He knew that her social status was not of the highest; nevertheless, her reputation was far better than his, and among all except the newest arrivals in Dawson she bore a splendid name. To be, himself, the cause of blackening that name, in order to match his own, gratified his feelings of resentment. All in all, it was a night of nights for him and he was at no pains to conceal his satisfaction. From one place to another he led her, taking malicious enjoyment from the distress he caused.

Courteau was not loud nor blatant; nevertheless, his triumphant demeanor, his proprietary air, fairly shouted the fact that he had tamed this woman and was exhibiting her against her inclinations. At every bar he forced her to drink with him and with his friends; he even called up barroom loafers whom he did not know and introduced them with an elaborate flourish. The money he spent was hers, of course, but he squandered it royally, leaving a trail of empty champagne-bottles behind. Champagne, at this time, sold for twenty dollars a quart and, although Hilda saw her earnings melting away with appalling rapidity, she offered no protest. Together they flung their chips broadcast upon the gambling- tables, and their winnings, which were few, went to buy more popularity with the satellites who trailed them.

As time passed and Hilda continued to meet the test, her husband's satisfaction gained a keener edge. He beamed, he strutted, he twisted his mustache to needle-points. She was a thoroughbred, that he assured himself. But, after all, why shouldn't she do this for him? The women with whom he was accustomed to associate would not have counted such an evening as this a sacrifice, and, even had they so considered it, he was in the habit of exacting sacrifices from women. They liked it; it proved their devotion.

Her subjugation was made complete when he led her into a box at the Rialto Theater and insisted upon the two McCaskeys joining them. The brothers at first declined, but by this time Courteau's determination carried all before it.

Joe halted him outside the box door, however, to inquire into the meaning of the affair.

"It means this," the Count informed him. "I have effected a complete reconciliation with my adorable wife. Women are all alike--they fear the iron, they kiss the hand that smites them. I have made her my obedient slave, mon ami. That's what it means."

"It don't look good to me," Joe said, morosely. "She's got an ace buried somewhere."

"Eh? What are you trying to say?"

"I've got a hunch she's salving you, Count. She's stuck on Phillips, like I told you, and she's trying to get a peek at your hole card."

It was characteristic of Courteau that he should take instant offense at this reflection upon his sagacity, this doubt of his ability as a charmer.

"You insult my intelligence," he cried, stiffly, "and, above all, I possess intelligence. You--do not. No. You are coarse, you are gross. I am full of sentiment--"

"Rats!" McCaskey growled. "I get that way myself sometimes. Sentiment like yours costs twenty dollars a quart. But this ain't the time for a spree; we got business on our hands."

The Count eyed his friend with a frown. "It is a personal affair and concerns our business not in the least. I am a revengeful person; I have pride and I exact payment from those who wound it. I brought my wife here as a punishment and I propose to make her drink with you. Your company is not agreeable at any time, my friend, and she does you an honor--"

"Cut out that tony talk," Joe said, roughly. "You're a broken- hipped stiff and you're trying to grab her bank-roll. Don't you s'pose I'm on? My company was all right until you got your hand in the hotel cash-drawer; now I'm coarse. Maybe she's on the square-- she fell for you once--but I bet she's working you. Make sure of this, my high and mighty nobleman"--for emphasis the speaker laid a heavy hand upon the Count's shoulder and thrust his disagreeable face closer--"that you keep your mouth shut. Savvy? Don't let her sweat you--"

The admonitory words ended abruptly, for the door of the box reopened and Joe found the Countess Courteau facing him. For an instant their glances met and in her eyes the man saw an expression uncomfortably reminiscent of that day at Sheep Camp when she had turned public wrath upon his brother Jim's head. But the look was fleeting; she turned it upon her husband, and the Count, with an apology for his delay, entered the box, dragging McCaskey with him.

Frank, it appeared, shared his brother's suspicions; the two exchanged glances as Joe entered; then when the little party had adjusted itself to the cramped quarters they watched the Countess curiously, hoping to analyze her true intent. But in this they were unsuccessful. She treated both of them with a cool, impartial formality, quite natural under the circumstances, but in no other way did she appear conscious of that clash on the Chilkoot trail. It was not a pleasant situation at best, and Joe especially was ill at ease, but Courteau continued his spendthrift role, keeping the waiters busy, and under the influence of his potations the elder McCaskey soon regained some of his natural sang-froid. All three men drank liberally, and by the time the lower floor had been cleared for dancing they were in a hilarious mood. They laughed loudly, they shouted greetings across to other patrons of the place, they flung corks at the whirling couples below.

Meanwhile, they forced the woman to imbibe with them. Joe, in spite of his returning confidence, kept such close watch of her that she could not spill her glass into the bucket, except rarely. Hilda hated alcohol and its effect; she was not accustomed to drinking. As she felt her intoxication mounting she became fearful that the very medium upon which she had counted for success would prove to be her undoing. Desperately she battled to retain her wits. More than once, with a reckless defiance utterly foreign to her preconceived plans, she was upon the point of hurling the bubbling contents of her glass into the flushed faces about her and telling these men how completely she was shamming, but she managed to resist the temptation. That she felt such an impulse at all made her fearful of committing some action equally rash, of dropping some word that would prove fatal.

It was a hideous ordeal. She realized that already the cloak of decency, of respectability, which she had been at such pains to preserve during these difficult years, was gone, lost for good and all. She had made herself a Lady Godiva; by this night of conspicuous revelry she had undone everything. Not only had she condoned the sins and the shortcomings of her dissolute husband, but also she had put herself on a level with him and with the fallen women of the town--his customary associates. Courteau had done this to her. It had been his proposal. She could have throttled him where he sat.

The long night dragged on interminably. Like leeches the two McCaskeys clung to their prodigal host, and not until the early hours of morning, when the Count had become sodden, sullen, stupefied, and when they were in a condition little better, did they permit him to leave them. How Hilda got him home she scarcely knew, for she, too, had all but lost command of her senses. There were moments when she fought unavailingly against a mental numbness, a stupor that rolled upward and suffused her like a cloud of noxious vapors, leaving her knees weak, her hands clumsy, her vision blurred; again waves of deathly illness surged over her. Under and through it all, however, her subconscious will to conquer remained firm. Over and over she told herself:

"I'll have the truth and then--I'll make him pay."

Courteau followed his wife into her room, and there his maudlin manner changed. He roused himself and smiled at her fatuously; into his eyes flamed a desire, into his cheeks came a deeper flush. He pawed at her caressingly; he voiced thick, passionate protestations. Hilda had expected nothing less; it was for this that she had bled her flesh and crucified her spirit these many hours.

"You're--wonderful woman," the man mumbled as he swayed with her in his arms. "Got all the old charm and more. Game, too!" He laughed foolishly, then in drunken gravity asserted: "Well, I'm the man, the stronger vessel. To turn hate into love, that--"

"You've taken your price. You've had your hour," she told him. Her head was thrown back, her eyes were closed, her teeth were clenched as if in a final struggle for self-restraint.

Courteau pressed his lips to hers; then in a sudden frenzy he crushed her closer and fell to kissing her cheeks, her neck, her throat. He mistook her shudder of abhorrence for a thrill responsive to his passion, and hiccoughed:

"You're mine again, all mine, and--I'm mad about you. I'm aflame. This is like the night of our marriage, what?"

"Are you satisfied, now that you've made me suffer? Do you still imagine I care for that foolish boy?"

"Phillips? Bah! A noisy swine." Again the Count chuckled, but this time his merriment ran away with him until he shook and until tears came to his eyes.

Without reason Hilda joined in his laughter. Together they stood rocking, giggling, snickering, as if at some excruciating jest.

"He--he tried to steal you--from me. From me. Imagine it! Then he struck me. Well, where is he now, eh?"

"I never dreamed that you cared enough for me to--do what you did. To risk so much."

"Risk?"

Hilda nodded, and her loose straw-gold hair brushed Courteau's cheek. "Don't pretend any longer. I knew from the start. But you were jealous. When a woman loses the power to excite jealousy it's a sign she's growing old and ugly and losing her fire. She can face anything except that."

"Fire!" Henri exclaimed. "Parbleu! Don't I know you to be a volcano?"

"How did you manage the affair--that fellow's ruin? It frightens me to realize that you can accomplish such things."

The Count pushed his wife away. "What are you talking about?" he demanded.

"Oh, very well! Carry it out if you wish," she said, with a careless shrug. "But you're not fooling me in the least. On the contrary, I admire your spirit. Now then, I'm thirsty. And you are, too." With a smile she evaded his outstretched arms and left the room. She was back in a moment with a bottle and two glasses. The latter she filled; her own she raised with a gesture, and Courteau blindly followed suit.

In spite of his deep intoxication the man still retained the embers of suspicion, and when she spoke of Pierce Phillips they began to glow and threatened to burst into flame. Cunningly, persistently she played upon him, however. She enticed, she coquetted, she cajoled; she maddened him with her advances; she teased him with her repulses; she drugged him with her smiles, her fragrant charms. Time and again he was upon the point of surrender, but caught himself in time.

She won at last. She dragged the story from him, bit by bit, playing upon his vanity, until he gabbled boastfully and took a crapulent delight in repeating the details. It was a tale distorted and confused, but the truth was there. She made an excuse to leave him, finally, and remained out of the room for a long time. When she returned it was to find him sprawled across her bed and fast asleep.

For a moment she held dizzily to the bedpost and stared down at him. Her mask had slipped now, her face was distorted with loathing, and so deep were her feelings that she could not bear to touch him, even to cover him over. Leaving him spread-eagled as he was, she staggered out of his unclean presence.

Hilda was deathly sick; objects were gyrating before her eyes; she felt a hideous nightmare sensation of unreality, and was filled with an intense contempt, a tragic disgust for herself. Pausing at the foot of the stairs, she strove to gather herself together; then slowly, passionately she cursed the name of Pierce Phillips.