Chapter IX
 

The change in the weather had not escaped Pierce Phillips' notice, and before going to bed he stepped out of his tent to study the sky. It was threatening. Recalling extravagant stories of the violence attained by storms in this mountain-lake country, he decided to make sure that his boats and cargo were out of reach of any possible danger, and so walked down to the shore.

A boisterous wind had roused Lake Linderman, and out of the inky blackness came the sound of its anger. As Pierce groped his way up to the nearest skiff he was startled by receiving a sharp challenge in the Countess Courteau's voice.

"Who is that?" she cried.

"It's I, Pierce," he answered, quickly. He discovered the woman finally, and, approaching closer, he saw that she was sitting on a pile of freight, her heels drawn up beneath her and her arms clasped around her knees. "I came down to make sure everything was snug. But what are you doing here?"

She looked down into his upturned face and her white teeth showed in a smile. "I came for the same purpose. Now I'm waiting for the storm to break. You can make out the clouds when your eyes grow accustomed--"

"It's too windy. You'll catch cold," he declared.

"Oh, I'm warm, and I love storms!" She stared out into the night, then added, "I'm a stormy creature."

Again he urged her to return to her tent, and in his voice was such genuine concern that she laid her hand upon his shoulder. It was a warm, impulsive gesture and it betrayed a grateful appreciation of his solicitude; it was the first familiarity she had ever permitted herself to indulge in, and when she spoke it was in an unusually intimate tone:

"You're a good friend, Pierce. I don't know what I'd do without you."

Phillips' surprise robbed him momentarily of speech. This woman possessed a hundred moods; a few hours before she had treated him with a cool indifference that was almost studied; now, without apparent reason, she had turned almost affectionate. Perhaps it was the night, or the solitude, that drew them together; whatever the reason, those first few words, that one impulsive gesture, assured Pierce that they were very close to each other, for the moment at least.

"I'm--glad," he said, finally. "I wish I were more--I wish--"

"What?" she queried, when he hesitated.

"I wish you couldn't do without me." It was out; he realized in a panic that his whole secret was hers. With no faintest intention of speaking, even of hinting at the truth, he had blurted forth a full confession. She had caught him off guard, and, like a perfect ass, he had betrayed himself. What would she think? How would she take his audacity, his presumption? He was surprised to feel her fingers tighten briefly before her hand was withdrawn.

The Countess Courteau was not offended. Had it not been for that pressure upon his shoulder Phillips would have believed that his words had gone unheard, for she entirely ignored them.

"Night! Wind! Storm!" she said, in a queer, meditative tone. "They stir the blood, don't they? Not yours, perhaps, but mine. I was always restless. You see, I was born on the ocean--on the way over here. My father was a sailor; he was a stormy-weather man. At a time like this everything in me quickens, I'm aware of impulses I never feel at other times--desires I daren't yield to. It was on a stormy night that the Count proposed to me." She laughed shortly, bitterly. "I believed him. I'd believe anything--I'd do, I'd dare anything--when the winds are reckless." She turned abruptly to her listener and it seemed to him that her eyes were strangely luminous. "Have you ever felt that way?"

He shook his head.

"Lucky for you; it would be a man's undoing. Tell me, what am I? What do you make of me?" While the young man felt for an answer she ran on: "I'd like to know. What sort of woman do you consider me? How have I impressed you? Speak plainly--no sentiment. You're a clean-minded, unsophisticated boy. I'm curious to hear--"

"I can't speak like a boy," he said, gravely, but with more than a hint of resentment in his tone, "for--I'm not a boy. Not any longer."

"Oh yes, you are! You're fresh and wholesome and honorable and-- Well, only boys are that. What do I seem, to you?"

"You're a chameleon. There's nobody in the world quite like you. Why, at this minute you're different even to yourself. You--take my breath--"

"Do you consider me harsh, masculine--?"

"Oh no!"

"I'm glad of that. I'm not, really. I've had a hard experience and my eyes were opened early. I know poverty, disappointment, misery, everything unpleasant, but I'm smart and I know how to get ahead. I've never stood still. I've learned how to fight, too, for I've had to make my own way. Why, Pierce, you're the one man who ever did me an unselfish favor or a real, disinterested courtesy. Do you wonder that I want to know what kind of a creature you consider me?"

"Perhaps I'm not altogether unselfish," he told her, sullenly.

The Countess did not heed this remark; she did not seem to read the least significance into it. Her chin was upon her knees, her face was turned again to the darkness whence came the rising voice of stormy waters. The wind whipped a strand of her hair into Phillips' face.

"It is hard work fighting men--and women, too--and I'm awfully tired. Tired inside, you understand. One gets tired fighting alone--always alone. One has dreams of--well, dreams. It's a pity they never come true."

"What are some of them?" he inquired.

The woman, still under the spell of her hour, made as if to answer; then she stirred and raised her head. "This isn't a safe night to talk about them. I think I shall go to bed." She extended her hand to Phillips, but instead of taking it he reached forth and lifted her bodily down out of the wind. She gasped as she felt his strong hands under her arms; for a moment her face brushed his and her fragrant breath was warm against his cheek. Philips lowered her gently, slowly, until her feet were on the ground, but even then his grasp lingered and he held her close to him.

They stood breast to breast for a moment and Pierce saw that in this woman's expression was neither fear nor resentment, but some strange emotion new-born of the night--an emotion which his act had started into life and which as yet she did not fully understand. Her eyes were wide and wondering; they remained fixed upon his, and that very fixity suggested a meaning so surprising, so significant, that he felt the world spin dizzily under him. She was astonished, yet expectant; she was stunned but ready. He experienced a fierce desire to hold her closer, closer, to crush her in his arms, and although she resisted faintly, unconsciously she yielded; her inner being answered his without reserve. She did not turn her face away when his came closer, even when his lips covered hers.

After a long moment she surrendered wholly, she snuggled closer and bowed her head upon his shoulder. Her cheek against his was very cold from the wind and Pierce discovered that it was wet with tears.

"It has been a long fight," she sighed, in a voice that he could scarcely hear. "I didn't know how tired I was."

Phillips groped for words, but he could find nothing to say, his ordered thoughts having fled before this sudden gust of ardor as leaves are whirled away before a tempest. All he knew was that in his arms lay a woman he had knelt to, a worshipful goddess of snow and gold before whom he had abased himself, but who had turned to flesh at his first touch.

He kissed her again and again, warmly, tenderly, and yet with a ruthless fervor that grew after each caress, and she submitted passively, the while those tears stole down her cheeks. In reality she was neither passive nor passionless, for her body quivered and Phillips knew that his touch had set her afire; but rather she seemed to be exhausted and at the same time enthralled as by some dream from which she was loath to rouse herself.

After a while her hand rose to his face and stroked it softly, then she drew herself away from him and with a wan smile upon her lips said:

"The wind has made a fool of me."

"No, no!" he cried, forcefully. "You asked me what I think of you- -Well, now you know."

Still smiling, she shook her head slowly, then she told him, "Come! I hear the rain."

"But I want to talk to you. I have so much to say--"

"What is there to talk about to-night? Hark!" They could feel, rather than hear, the first warnings of the coming downpour, so hand in hand they walked up the gravelly beach and into the fringe of the forest where glowed the dull illumination from lamplit canvas walls. When they paused before the Countess' tent Pierce once more enfolded her in his arms and sheltered her from the boisterous breath of the night. His emotions were in a similar tumult, but as yet he could not voice them, he could merely stammer:

"You have never told me your name."

"Hilda."

"May I--call you that?"

She nodded. "Yes--when we are alone. Hilda Halberg, that was my name."

"Hilda! Hilda--Phillips." Pierce tried the sound curiously. The Countess drew back abruptly, with a shiver; then, in answer to his quick concern, said:

"I--I think I'm cold."

He undertook to clasp her closer, but she held him off, murmuring:

"Let it be Hilda Halberg for to-night. Let's not think of--Let's not think at all. Hilda--bride of the storm. There's a tempest in my blood, and who can think with a tempest raging?"

She raised her face and kissed him upon the lips, then, disengaging herself once more from his hungry arms, she stepped inside her shelter. The last he saw of her was her luminous smile framed against the black background; then she let the tent-fly fall.

As Phillips turned away big raindrops began to drum upon the near- by tent roofs, the spruce-tops overhead bent low, limbs threshed as the gusty night wind beat upon them. But he heard none of it, felt none of it, for in his ears rang the music of the spheres and on his face lingered the warmth of a woman's lips, the first love kiss that he had ever known.

Tom Linton roused himself from a chilly doze to find that the rain had come at last. It was a roaring night; his tent was bellied in by the force of the wind, and the raindrops beat upon it with the force of buckshot. Through the entrance slit, through the open stovepipe hole, the gale poured, bringing dampness with it and rendering the interior as draughty as a corn-crib. Rolling himself more tightly in his blankets, Linton addressed the darkness through chattering teeth.

"Darned old fool! This'll teach him!" He strained his ears for sounds of Jerry, but could hear nothing above the slatting of wet canvas, the tattoo of drops, and the roar of wind in the tree- tops. After the first violence of the squall had passed he fancied he could hear his former partner stirring, so he arose and peered out into the night. At first he could see nothing, but in time he dimly made out Jerry struggling with his tarpaulin. Evidently the fly had blown down, or up, and its owner was restretching it. Linton grinned. That would drench the old dodo to the skin and he'd soon be around, begging shelter.

"But I won't let him in, not if he drowns," Tom muttered, harshly. He recalled one of Jerry's gibes at the saw-pit, a particularly unfeeling, nay, a downright venomous insult which had rankled steadily ever since. His former friend had seen fit to ridicule honest perspiration and to pretend to mistake it for raindrops. That remark had been utterly uncalled for and it had betrayed a wanton malice, a malevolent desire to wound; well, here was a chance to even the score. When Jerry came dripping to the tent door, Tom decided he would poke his head out into the deluge and then cry in evident astonishment: "Why, Jerry, you've been working, haven't you? You're all sweaty!" Mr. Linton giggled out loud. That would be a refinement of sarcasm; that would be a get- back of the finest. If Jerry insisted upon coming in out of the wet he'd tell him gruffly to get out of there and try the lake for a change.

But Mr. Quirk made no move in the direction of the tent; instead he built a fire in his stove and crouched over it, endeavoring vainly to shelter himself from the driving rain. Linton watched him with mingled impatience and resentment. Would the old fool never get enough? Jerry was the most unreasonable, the most tantalizing person in the world.

After a time Mr. Linton found that his teeth were chattering and that his frame had been smitten as by an ague; reluctantly he crept back into bed. He determined to buy, beg, borrow, or steal some more bedding on the morrow--early on the morrow in order to forestall Jerry. Jerry would have to find a tent somewhere, and inasmuch as there were none to be had here at Linderman, he would probably have to return to Dyea. That would delay him seriously-- enough, perhaps, so that the jaws of winter would close down upon him. Through the drone of pattering drops there came the faint sound of a cough. Mr. Linton sat up in bed. "Pneumonia!" he exclaimed. Well, Jerry was getting exactly what he deserved. He had called him, Tom, an "old fool," a "dam' old fool," to be precise. The epithet in itself meant nothing--it was in fact a fatuous and feeble term of abuse as compared to the opprobrious titles which he and Jerry were in the habit of exchanging--it was that abominable adjective which hurt. Jerry and he had called each other many names at times, they had exchanged numerous gibes and insults, but nothing like that hateful word "old" had ever passed between them until this fatal morning. Jerry Quirk himself was old, the oldest man in the world, perhaps, but Tom had exercised an admirable regard for his partner's feelings and had never cast it up to him. Thus had his consideration been repaid. However, the poor fellow's race was about run, for he couldn't stand cold or exposure. Why, a wet foot sent him to bed. How, then, could a rickety ruin of his antiquity withstand the ravages of pneumonia-- galloping pneumonia, at that?

Linton reflected that common decency would demand that he wait over a day or two and help bury the old man--people would expect that much of him. He'd do it. He'd speak kindly of the departed; he'd even erect a cross and write an epitaph upon it--a kindly, lying epitaph extolling the dead man's virtues, and omitting all mention of his faults.

Once more that hacking cough sounded, and the listener stirred uneasily. Jerry had some virtues--a few of the common, elemental sort--he was honest and he was brave, but, for that matter, so were most people. Yes, the old scoundrel had nerve enough. Linton recalled a certain day, long past, when he and Quirk had been sent out to round up some cattle-rustlers. Being the youngest deputies in the sheriff's office, the toughest jobs invariably fell to them. Those were the good, glad days, Tom reflected. Jerry had made a reputation on that trip and he had saved his companion's life--Linton flopped nervously in his bed at the memory. Why think of days dead and gone? Jerry was an altogether different man in those times. He neither criticized nor permitted others to criticize his team-mate, and, so far as that particular obligation went, Linton had repaid it with compound interest. If anything, the debt now lay on Jerry's side.

Tom tried to close the book of memory and to consider nothing whatever except the rankling present, but, now that his thoughts had begun to run backward, he could not head them off. He wished Jerry wouldn't cough; it was a distressing sound, and it disturbed his rest. Nevertheless, that hollow, hacking complaint continued and finally the listener arose, lit a lantern, put on a slicker and untied his tent flaps.

Jerry's stove was sizzling in the partial shelter of the canvas sheet; over it the owner crouched in an attitude of cheerless dejection.

"How you making out?" Tom inquired, gruffly. His voice was cold, his manner was both repellent and hostile.

"Who, me?" Jerry peered up from under his glistening sou'wester. "Oh, I'm doin' fine!"

Linton remained silent, ill at ease; water drained off his coat; his lantern flared smokily in the wind. After a time he cleared his throat and inquired:

"Wet?"

"Naw!"

There was a long pause, then the visitor inquired: "Are you lying?"

"Unh-hunh!"

Again silence claimed both men until Tom broke out, irritably: "Well, you aim to set here all night?"

"Sure! I ain't sleepy. I don't mind a little mist and I'm plenty warm." This cheerful assertion was belied by the miserable quaver in which it was voiced.

"Why don't you-er-run over to my tent?" Linton gasped and swallowed hard. The invitation was out, the damage was done. "There's lots of room."

Mr. Quirk spared his caller's further feelings by betraying no triumph whatever. Rather plaintively he declared: "I got room enough here. It ain't exactly room I need." Again he coughed.

"Here! Get a move on you, quick," Linton ordered, forcefully. "The idea of you setting around hatching out a lungful of pneumonia bugs! Git! I'll bring your bedding."

Mr. Quirk rose with alacrity. "Say! Let's take my stove over to your tent and warm her up. I bet you're cold?"

"N-no! I'm comfortable enough." The speaker's teeth played an accompaniment to this mendacious denial. "Of course I'm not sweating any, but--I s'pose the stove would cheer things up, eh? Rotten night, ain't it?"

"Worst I ever saw. Rotten country, for that matter."

"You said something," Mr. Linton chattered. He nodded his head with vigor.

It was wet work moving Jerry's belongings, but the transfer was finally effected, the stove was set up and a new fire started. This done, Tom brought forth a bottle of whisky.

"Here," said he, "take a snifter. It'll do you good."

Jerry eyed the bottle with frank astonishment before he exclaimed: "Why, I didn't know you was a drinkin' man. You been hidin' a secret vice from me?"

"No. And I'm not a drinking man. I brought it along for--you. I-- er--that cough of yours used to worry me, so--"

"Pshaw! I cough easy. You know that."

"You take a jolt and"--Linton flushed with embarrassment--"and I'll have one with you. I was lying just now; I'm colder 'n a frog's belly."

"Happy days," said Quirk, as he tipped the bottle.

"A long life and a wicked one!" Linton drank in his turn. "Now then, get out of those cold compresses. Here's some dry underclothes--thick, too. We'll double up those henskin blankets-- for to-night--and I'll keep the fire a-going. I'll cure that cough if I sweat you as white as a washwoman's thumb."

"You'll do nothing of the sort," Jerry declared, as he removed his sodden garments and hung them up. "You'll crawl right into bed with me and we'll have a good sleep. You're near dead."

But Linton was by no means reassured; his tone was querulous when he cried: "Why didn't you come in before you caught cold? S'pose you get sick on me now? But you won't. I won't let you." In a panic of apprehension he dug out his half of the contents of the medicine-kit and began to paw through them. "Who got the cough syrup, Jerry; you or me?" The speaker's voice broke miserably.

Mr. Quirk laid a trembling hand upon his ex-partner's shoulder; his voice, too, was shaky when he said, "You're awful good to me, Tom."

The other shook off the grasp and undertook to read the labels on the bottles, but they had become unaccountably blurred and there was a painful lump in his throat. It seemed to him that Old Jerry's bare legs looked pitifully thin and spidery and that his bony knees had a rheumatic appearance.

"Hell! I treated you mighty mean," said he. "But I'most died when you--began to cough. I thought sure--"Tom choked and shook his gray head, then with the heel of his harsh palm he wiped a drop of moisture from his cheek. "Look at me--cryin'!" He tried to laugh and failed.

Jerry, likewise, struggled with his tears.

"You--you dam' old fool!" he cried, affectionately.

Linton smiled with delight. "Give it to me," he urged. "Lam into me, Jerry. I deserve it. Gosh! I was lonesome!"

A half-hour later the two friends were lying side by side in their bed and the stove was glowing comfortably. They had ceased shivering. Old Jerry had "spooned" up close to old Tom and his bodily heat was grateful.

Linton eyed the fire with tender yearning. "That's a good stove you got."

"She's a corker, ain't she?"

"I been thinking about trading you a half interest in my tent for a half interest in her."

"The trade's made." There was a moment of silence. "What d'you say we hook up together--sort of go pardners for a while? I got a long outfit and a short boat. I'll put 'em in against yours. I bet we'd get along all right. I'm onnery, but I got good points."

Mr. Linton smiled dreamily. "It's a go. I need a good partner."

"I'll buy a new fryin'-pan out of my money. Mine got split, somehow."

Tom chuckled. "You darned old fool!" said he.

Jerry heaved a long sigh and snuggled closer; soon he began to snore. He snored in a low and confidential tone at first, but gradually the sound increased in volume and rose in pitch.

Linton listened to it with a thrill, and he assured himself that he had never heard music of such soul-satisfying sweetness as issued from the nostrils of his new partner.