Chapter XXIX
 

Rouletta Kirby spent an anxious and a thoughtful night. The more she dwelt upon Laure's peculiar behavior the more it roused her suspicions and the more she felt justified in seeking an interview with Colonel Cavendish. She rose early, therefore, and went to Police Headquarters.

Two people were in the office when she entered, one a redcoat, evidently acting in some clerical capacity; the other a girl whom Rouletta had never seen. The colonel was engaged, so Rouletta was told, and she sat down to wait. With furtive curiosity she began to study this other young woman. It was plain that the latter was a privileged person, for she made herself perfectly at home and appeared to be not in the least chilled by the official formality of her surroundings. She wandered restlessly about the room, humming a tune under her breath; she readjusted the window- curtains to her liking; she idly thumbed the books upon the shelves; finally she perched herself upon the table in the midst of the documents upon which the officer was engaged, and began a low-voiced conversation with him.

Rouletta was not a little impressed by this stranger. She had never seen a finer, healthier, cleaner-cut girl. Here for once was a "nice" woman of the town who did not stare at her with open and offensive curiosity. She was not surprised when she overheard the Police officer address her as "Miss Cavendish." No wonder this girl had poise and breeding--the Cavendishes were the best people in the community. With a jealous pang the caller reflected that the colonel's daughter was very much what she herself would like to be, very much her ideal, so far as she could judge.

When, eventually, the commandant himself emerged from his sanctum, he paused for a moment at his daughter's side; then he approached Rouletta.

Very briefly the latter made known the reason of her presence, and the colonel nodded.

"You did quite right in coming here," he declared, "and I'm sure this dance-hall girl knows more than she has told. In fact, I was on the point of sending for her. Please wait until she arrives. Perhaps we can straighten out this whole unpleasant affair informally. I'll need Phillips, too. Meanwhile, there's a friend of yours inside." Stepping to the inner door, he spoke to some one, and an instant later the Countess Courteau came forth.

Rouletta had not seen the Countess alone since early the previous evening. She went swiftly to her now and placed an arm about her shoulders. Hilda responded to this mark of sympathy with a weary smile.

"Well, I had to go through with it to the bitter end," she said, in a low voice. "Henri didn't spare me even that."

Rouletta pressed her closer, murmuring: "Colonel Cavendish is a fine man--I'm sure he understands. You've undergone a dreadful ordeal, but--it's nearly over. He's sending for Laure now. She can tell a good deal, if she will."

"About the theft, yes. But what about the--murder? Joe McCaskey did it. There's no doubt about that. Henri weakened, after I gave him his chance. He got to drinking, I hear, and evidently he conceived the notion of telling those men. He may have gone to warn them, to appeal to them. I don't know. Then they must have quarreled. It's all clear enough when you understand the inside facts. Without knowing them, it was natural to suspect Pierce, so- -I did what I had to do. I doubt if Laure knows anything about this part of the affair."

The two women were still talking when Laure entered, in company with the Mounted Police officer who had been sent to fetch her. At sight of them she halted; a sudden pallor came into her cheeks; she cast a glance of alarm about her as if seeking retreat; but Colonel Cavendish grimly invited her to follow him, and stepped into his private office. The new-comer faltered; then with a defiant toss of her head and with lips curled in disdain she obeyed; the door closed behind her.

Rouletta and the Countess Courteau fell silent now. They found nothing to talk about, and in spite of themselves they strained their ears for some sound from the other room. Even Miss Cavendish seemed vaguely to feel the suspense, for she finally took her stand beside a frost-rimed window and engaged herself in tracing patterns thereon with the tip of her finger. An occasional stormy murmur of voices, deadened by the thick log partition, indicated that Laure and her inquisitor were not getting on well together.

Suddenly the girl at the window started; her apathy vanished; her expression of boredom gave place to one of such lively anticipation as to draw the attention of the two other women. A magic change came over her; she became suddenly animated, alive, atingle in every nerve; her eyes sparkled and a new color flooded her cheeks. The alteration interested her observers; they were mystified as to its cause until a quick step sounded in the entry and the door opened to admit Pierce Phillips.

It was natural that he should first see Miss Cavendish, and that he should greet her before recognizing the other occupants of the room. It was natural, too, that he should be a trifle nonplussed at finding Hilda here; nevertheless, he managed to cover his lack of ease. Not so, however, when, a moment later, the door to Colonel Cavendish's office opened and Laure, of all persons, appeared therein. Quickly Pierce inferred the reason for his summons, but, happily for him, he was spared further embarrassment. Cavendish called to him, took him by the hand in the friendliest manner, and again disappeared into his retreat, drawing the young man with him.

Brief as had been the interruption, both Hilda and Rouletta had gathered much from it; their inference was borne out when Laure paused before them and in a voice subdued by the very force of her agitation exclaimed:

"Well, I hope you're satisfied! I got it, and got it good." Her face was livid, her dark eyes were blazing wrathfully. She outthrust a shaking hand and unclenched her fingers, displaying therein a crumpled sheet of pink paper, a printed official form, the telltale tint of which indicated its fateful character. Both of her hearers were familiar with the so-called "pink tickets" of the Mounted Police; every one in the Northwest Territory, in fact, knew what they were--deportation orders. But in a tone hoarse and suppressed Laure read, "'--leave by the first safe conveyance!' That's what it says--the first safe conveyance. I suppose you'd like it better if it were a blue ticket and I had to leave in twenty-four hours. You put it over, but I won't forget. I'll get even with you."

"We had nothing to do with that," the Countess declared, quietly. "I'm sorry you take it so hard, but--it serves you right."

"Who wouldn't take it hard? To be expelled, fired out like a thief, a--" The girl's voice broke; then she pulled herself together and uttered a quavering, artificial laugh. She tossed her head again, with an obvious attempt at defiance. "Oh, it takes more than a pink ticket to down me! Anyhow, I'm sick of this place, sick of the people. I hate them." With a vicious fling of her shoulders she swept on to a seat as far from them as possible and sank into it.

So the girl had confessed, Hilda reflected. She was glad, for Pierce's sake, that this miserable complication was in process of clearing up and that he would be finally and completely exonerated; she was glad, too, that her efforts in his behalf, her humiliation, had borne fruit. He would never know how high he had made her pay, but that was all right. She felt very gently toward him at this moment, and experienced a certain wistful desire that he might understand how unselfish had been her part. It might make a difference; probably it would. Things now were not as they had been. She was a free woman. This thought obtruded itself insistently into the midst of her meditations. Yes, Courteau was gone; there was no reason now why she could not look any man honestly in the eye. Of course, there was the same disparity in years between her and Pierce which she had recognized from the beginning, but, after all, was that necessarily fatal? He had loved her genuinely enough at one time. Hilda recalled that windy night on the shores of Linderman when the whimper of a rising storm came out of the darkness, when the tree-tops tossed their branches to the sky, and when her own soul had broken its fetters and defied restraint. She thrilled at memory of those strong young arms about her, those hot lips pressing hers. That was a moment to remember always. And those dreamy, magic days that had followed, the more delightful, the more unreal because she had deliberately drugged her conscience. Then that night at White Horse! He had told her bitterly, broken-heartedly, that he could never forget. Perhaps even yet--With an effort Hilda Courteau roused herself. Never forget? Why, he had forgotten the very next day, as was quite natural. No, she was a foolish sentimentalist, and he--well, he was just one whom fate had cast for a lover's role, one destined to excite affection in women, good and bad. Some day he would find his mate and--Hilda believed she loved him well enough to rejoice in his happiness when it came. There spoke the maternal instinct which Phillips had the knack of rousing; for want of something better, she determined she would cherish that.

Meanwhile Laure sat in her corner, her head bowed, her very soul in revolt. She was tasting failure, disappointment, balked desire, and it was like gall in her mouth. She could have cried out aloud in her rage. She hated these other women whom she blamed for her undoing; she hated Cavendish, Pierce Phillips, herself.

"It serves me right," she told herself, furiously. "I deserve the pink ticket for making a fool of myself. Yes, a fool! What has Pierce ever done for me? Nothing. And I--?" Before her mind's eye came a vision of the opportunities she had let slip, the chances she had ignored. She knew full well that she could have had the pick of many men--the new-made millionaires of Dawson--but instead she had chosen him. And why? Merely because he had a way, a smile, a warm and pleasing personality--some magnetic appeal too intangible to identify. It was like her to make the wrong choice-- she always did. She had come North with but one desire, one determination--namely, to make money, to reap to the full her share of this free harvest. She had given up the life she liked, the people she knew, the comforts she craved, for that and for nothing else, and what a mess she had made of the venture! Other girls not half so smart, not half so pretty as she, had feathered their nests right here before her eyes, while she was wasting her time. They had kept their heads, and they would go out in the spring, first class, with good clothes and a bank-roll in the purser's safe. Some of them were married and respectable. "Never again!" she whispered to herself. "The next one will pay." Chagrin at the treatment she had suffered filled her with a poisonous hatred of all mankind, and soundlessly she cursed Phillips as the cause of her present plight.

Such thoughts as these ran tumbling through the girl's mind; her rage and her resentment were real enough; nevertheless, through this overtone there ran another note; a small voice was speaking in the midst of all her tumult--a small voice which she refused to listen to. "What I ever saw in him I don't know," she sneered, goading herself to further bitterness and stiffening her courage. "I never really cared for him; I'm too wise for that. I don't care for him now. I detest the poor, simple-minded fool. I--hate him." So she fought with herself, drowning the persistent piping of that other voice. Then her eyes dropped to that fatal paper in her lap and suddenly venom fled from her. She wondered if Cavendish would tell Pierce that he had given her the pink ticket. Probably not. The Mounted Police were usually close-mouthed about such things, and yet--Laure crushed the paper into a crumpled ball and furtively hid it in the pocket of her coat; then she raised wild, apprehensive eyes to the door. If only she dared slip out now, before Pierce reappeared, before he had a chance to see her. It seemed as if she could not bear to have him know, but--Cavendish had ordered her to wait. "My God!" the girl whispered. "I'll die, if he knows! I'll die!" She began to tremble wretchedly and to wring her hands; she could not remove her gaze from the door.

This waiting-room at the Barracks had housed people of divers and many sorts during its brief history; it had harbored strained faces, it had been the scene of strong emotional conflicts, but never, perhaps, had its narrow walls encompassed emotions in wider contrast than those experienced by the four silent women who waited there at this moment. One object of interest dominated the thoughts of each of them. These thoughts were similar in nature and sprang from the same starting-point. Curiously enough, however, they took channels as wide apart as the poles.

Josephine Cavendish had heard just enough about the incidents of the previous night to awaken her apprehensions and to stir her feeling of loyalty to the depths. The suggestion that Pierce Phillips was in the slightest degree responsible for the death of Count Courteau had roused her indignation and her fighting-blood. Unable to endure the suspense of idle waiting, she had sought relief by assuming a sort of sentinel post where she could watch developments. It was something to be close to his affairs. It was next to being close to him; hence the reason of her presence and her insistence upon remaining.

In her mind there had never been the slightest question of Pierce's innocence; any doubt of it, expressed or implied, awoke in her a sharp and bitter antagonism quite remarkable; no bird could have flown quicker to the aid of her chick, no wolf mother could have bristled more ferociously at threat to her cub, than did this serene, inexperienced girl-woman at hint of peril to Pierce Phillips. And yet, on the surface, at least, she and Pierce were only friends. He had never voiced a word of love to her. But- -of what use are words when hearts are full and when confession lurks in every glance, every gesture; when every commonplace is thrilling and significant?

In her eyes no disgrace whatever attached to him as a result of the notoriety he had suffered. On the contrary, she considered him a martyr, a hero, the object of a deep conspiracy, and his wrongs smarted her. He was, in short, a romantic figure. Moreover, she had recently begun to believe that this entire situation was contrived purely for the purpose of bringing them together, of acquainting them with each other, and of testing the strength of their mutual regard. These other women, whom she saw to-day for the first time, she considered merely extra figures in the drama of which she and Pierce played the leads--witnesses in the case deserving no attention. She would be grateful to them, of course, if they succeeded in helping him, but, at best, they were minor characters, supers in the cast. Once Pierce himself strode into the scene, she forgot them entirely.

What a picture her lover made, she reflected; how he filled her eye! What importance he possessed! Surely the world must see and feel how dominant, how splendid he was. It must recognize how impossible it would be for him to do wrong. The mere sight of him had set her to vibrating, and now inspired in her a certain reckless abandon; guilty or innocent, he was her mate and she would have followed him at a word. But--he was innocent; it was her part to wait here as patiently as she could until the fact was proved and until he could ask that question which forever trembled between them.

Such thoughts as these were impossible to conceal; they were mirrored upon the face of the colonel's daughter as she stood raptly gazing at the door through which Pierce Phillips had disappeared. Her lips were parted; the shadow of the smile his coming had evoked still lingered upon them; her soul was in her shining eyes. Unknown to her, at least one of the other women present had read her sudden emotions and now watched her curiously, with an intent and growing astonishment.

Rouletta Kirby had been as quick as the Countess to correctly interpret Laure's chagrin, and she, too, had experienced a tremendous relief. Oddly enough, however, she had felt no such fierce and jealous exultation as she had anticipated; there had been no selfish thrill such as she had expected. What ailed her? she wondered. While groping for an answer, her attention had been challenged by the expression upon Miss Cavendish's face, and vaguely she began to comprehend the truth. Breathlessly now she watched the girl; slowly conviction grew into certainty.

So! That was why the colonel's daughter was here. That was why, at sound of a certain step, she had become glorified. That was why Pierce had been blind to her own and Hilda's presence in the room.

It would be untrue to say that Rouletta was not shocked by this discovery. It came like a thunderclap, and its very unexpectedness jolted her mind out of the ruts it had been following these many days. But, astonishing to relate, it caused her no anguish. After the first moment or two of dizzy bewilderment had passed she found that her whole being was galvanized into new life and that the eyes of her soul were opened to a new light. With understanding came a peculiar emotional let-down, a sudden, welcome relaxation-- almost a sensation of relief.

Rouletta asked herself, over and over, what could be the matter with her; why she felt no twinge, no jealousy; why the sight of that eager, breathless girl with the rapturous face failed to cause her a heartache. She was amazed at herself. It could not be that she no longer cared for Pierce, that she had mistaken her feelings toward him. No, he was what he had always been--her ideal--the finest, the most lovable, the dearest creature she had ever met; just the sort of fellow she had always longed to know, the kind any girl would crave for lover, friend, brother. She felt very tender toward him. She was not greatly surprised that the nicest girl in Dawson had recognized his charm and had surrendered to it. Well, he deserved the nicest girl in the world.

Rouletta was startled at the direction her thoughts were taking. Did she love Pierce Phillips as she had believed she did, or had she merely fallen in love with his good qualities? Certainly he had never been dearer to her than he was at this moment, and yet-- Rouletta abandoned the problem of self-analysis and allowed her bubbling relief at the turn events had taken to remain a mystery for the time being.

The door to the commandant's office opened without warning. Pierce stood framed in it. His head was up, his shoulders were back, his countenance was alight; with confident tread he entered the big room and crossed it directly to the girl who stood waiting beside the table. He held out his two hands to her and with a flash of her clear blue eyes she placed hers in his. Gladness, trust, blind faith, and adoration were in her face. She murmured something which Rouletta did not hear, for at that instant Colonel Cavendish appeared with the curt announcement:

"That is all, ladies. You needn't remain longer."

Blindly, confusedly, Rouletta rose and fumbled with her wraps. She saw the colonel go to Laure and speak with her in a stiff, formal way. She saw Pierce and Josephine turn away hand in hand, their heads close together--he had not even glanced in her direction; then Cavendish was speaking to her directly.

At first she did not understand him, but finally made out that he was telling her that everything had been cleared up, including even the mystery of Count Courteau's gold-sack.

"Laure confessed that she got a duplicate key to the cashier's cage," she heard the colonel say. "Got it from Pierce. It was she who put the evidence in there during the confusion. Pretty ingenious, I call it, and pretty spiteful."

"Did she--have anything to say about the--the murder?" Rouletta inquired.

"No. But the Countess has that figured out right, I'm sure. We'll have the proof when Rock brings back his prisoners."

As Rouletta moved toward the door Pierce stopped her. There was a ring in his voice as he said:

"Rouletta, I want you to meet Miss Cavendish. I want the two nicest girls in the world to know each other. Josephine, this is Miss Kirby, of whom I've said so much." Then without reason he laughed joyously, and so did the colonel's daughter.

The latter took Rouletta's hand in a warm and friendly clasp. Her smiling lips were tremulous. Engagingly, shyly, she said:

"Pierce has told me how splendid you've been to him, and I'm sure you're as happy as we are, but--things always come out right if we wish for them hard enough. Don't you think so?"

The Countess Courteau was walking slowly when Rouletta overtook her a block or so down the street. She looked up as the younger woman joined her.

"Well," she said, "I presume you saw. Not a look, not a thought for any one but her--that other girl."

"Yes, I saw." There was a pause, then: "She's wonderful. I think I'm very glad."

"Glad?" Hilda raised her brows; she glanced curiously at the speaker.

"If I had a brother I'd want him to love a girl like that."

"But--you have no brother, outside of 'Poleon Doret." Hilda was more than ever amazed when her companion laughed softly, contentedly.

"I know, but if I had one, I'd want him to be like--Pierce. I--My dear, something has changed in me, oh, surprisingly! I scarcely know what it is, but--I'm walking on air and my eyes are open for the first time. And you? We've been honest with each other--how do you feel?"

"I?" The Countess smiled wistfully. "Why--it doesn't matter how I feel! The boy has found himself, and nothing else is of the least importance."