The Trail of ’98
Robert W. Service
Author of " The Songs of a Sourdough ” and “ Ballads of a Cheechako.”
Registered in accordance with the Copyright Act by Robert W. Service.
Canadian serial rights owned by The MacLean Publishing Co
CHAPTER XXII Continued.
“It’s all right, Berna,” I said; “I don’t believe him, and if a million others were to say the same, if they were to thunder it in my ears down all eternity, I would tell them they lied, they lied!”
A heaven-lit radiance was in the grey eyes. She made as if to come to me, but she swayed, and I caught her in my arms.
“Don’t be frightened, little girl. .Give me your hand. See! I’ll kiss it, dear. Now, don’t cry; don’t, honey.”
Her arms were around me. She clung to me ever so tightly.
“Garry,” I said, “this is my wife. When I have lost my belief in all else, I will believe in her. You have made us both suffer. As for what you’ve said—you’re mistaken. She’s a good, good girl. I will not believe that by thought, word or deed she has been untrue to me. She will explain everything. Now, good-bye. Come, Berna.”
Suddenly she stopped me. Her hand was on my arm, and she turned towards Garry. She held herself as proudly as a queen.
“I want to explain now,” she said, “before you both.”
She pulled from her bosom a little crumpled note, and handed it to me. Then, as I read it, a great light burst on me. Here it was:
“For heaven’s sake be on your guard. Jack Locasto is on his way north again. I think he’s crazy. I know he’ll stick at nothing, and I don’t want to see blood spilt. He says he means to wipe out all old sores. For your sake, and for the sake of one dear to you, be warned.
“I got it two days ago,” she said. “Oh, I’ve been distracted with fear. I did not like to show it to you. I’ve brought you nothing but trouble, and I’ve never spoken of him, never once. You understand, don’t you?”
“Yes, little girl, I understand.”
“I wanted to save you, no matter at what cost. To-night Í tried to prevent you going out there, for I feared you might meet him. I knew he was very near. Then, when you had gone, my fear grew and grew. There I sat, thinking over everything. Oh, if I only had a friend, I thought; some one to help me. Then, as I sat, dazed, distracted, the ’phone rang. It was your brother.”
“Yes, go on, dear ”
“He told me he wanted to see me; he begged me to come at once. I thought of ou, of your danger, of some terrible misap. I was terrified. I went.”
She paused a moment, as if the recital was infinitely painful to her, then she went on.
“I found my way to his room. My mind was full of you, of that man, of how to save you. I did not think of myself, of my position. At first I was too agitated to speak. He bade me sit down, compose myself. His manner was quiet, grave. Again I feared for you. He asked me to excuse him for a moment, and left the room. He seemed to be gone an age, while I sat there, trying to fight down my terror. The suspense was killing me. Then he came back. He closed and locked the door. All at once I heard a step outside, a knock. ‘Hush! go in there/ he said. He opened the door. I heard him speaking to some one. I waited, then you burst in on me. You know the rest.”
“As for your brother, I’ve tried, oh, so hard, to be nice to him for your sake. I liked him; I Tvanted to be to him as a sister, but never an unfaithful thought has entered my head, never a wrong feeling sullied my heart. I’ve been true to you. You told me once of a love that gives all and asks for nothing; a love that would turn its back on friends and kindred for the sake of its beloved. You said: ‘His smile will be your rapture, his frown your anguish. For him will you dare all, bear all. To him will you cling in sorrow, suffering and poverty. Living, you would follow him round the world ; dying, you would desire but him.’—Well, I think I love you like that.”
“Oh, my dear, my dear!”
“I want to bring you happiness, but I only bring you trouble, sorrow. Sometimes, for your sake, I wish we had never met.”
She turned to Garry.
“As for you, you’ve done me a great wrong. I can never forget it. Will you go now, and leave us in peace?”
His head was bent, so that I could not see his face.
“Can you not forgive?” he groaned.
She shook her head sadly. “No, I am afraid I can never forgive.”
“Can I do nothing to atone?”
“No, I’m afraid your \ unishment must be—that you can do nothing:.”
He said never a word. She turned to me:
“Come, my husband, we will go.”
I was opening the door to leave him forever. Suddenly I heard a step coming up the stairs, a heavy, hurried tread. I looked down a moment, then I pushed her back into the room.
“Be prepared, Berna,” I said quietly; “here comes Locasto.”
There we waited, Garry and I, and between us, Berna. We heard that heavy tread come up, up the creaking stairway, stumble a moment, then pause on the landing. There was something ominous, something pregnant in that pause. The steps halted, wavered a little, then, inflexible as doom, on they came towards us. The next instant the door was thrown open, and Locasto stood in the entrance.
Even in that brief moment I was struck by the change in him. He seemed to have aged by twenty years. He was gaunt and lank as a starved timber wolf : his face was hollow almost as a death’s head; his hair was long and matted, and his eves burned with a strange, unnatural fire. In that dark, aquiline face the Indian was never more strongly revealed. He limped, and I noticed his left hand was gloved.
From under his bristling brows he glared at us. As he swayed there he minded me of an evil beast, a savage creature, a mad, desperate thing. He reeled in the doorwav. and to steady himself put out his gloved hand. Then with a malignant laugh, the fleering laugh of a fiend, he stepped into the room.
“So! Seems as if I’d lighted on a pretty nest of love-birds. Ho! ho! my sweet! You’re not satisfied with one lover, you must have two. Well, you are going to be satisfied with one from now on, and that’s Jack Locasto. I’ve stood enough from you, you white-faced jade. You’ve haunted me, you’ve put some kind of a spell on me. You’ve lured me back to this land, and now I’m going to have you or die! You’ve played with me long enough. The jig’s up. Stand out from between those two. Stand out, I say! March out of that door.”
She only shrank back the farther.
“You won’t come, curse you; you won’t come, you milk-faced witch, with your great eyes that bore holes in me, that turn my heart to fire, that make me mad. You won’t come. Stand back there, you two, and let the girl come.”
We shielded her.
“Ha! that’s it—you defy me. You won’t let me get her. Well, it’ll be all the worse for her. I’ll make her life a hell. I’ll beat her You won’t stand back. You, the dark one—don’t I know you; haven’t I hated you more than the devil hates a saint; hated you worse than bitter poison? These three black years you’ve balked me, you’ve kept her from me. Oh, I’ve itched to kill you times without number, and I’ve spared you. But now it’s my call. Stand back there, stand back I say Your time’s come. Here’s where I shoot ”
His hand leapt up and I saw it gripped a revolver. He had me covered. His face was contorted with devilish triumph, and I knew he meant to kill. At last, at last my time had come. I saw his fingers twitching on the trigger, I gazed into the hollow horror of that barrel. My heart turned to ice. I could not breathe. Oh, for a respite, a moment—Ugh! . . .
he pulled the trigger, and, at the same instant, Garry sprang at him!
What had happened? The shot rang in my ears. I was still standing there. 1 felt no wound. I felt no pain. Then, as I stared at my enemy, I heard a heavy fall. Oh, God ! there at my feet lay Garry, lay in a huddled, quivering heap, lay on his face, and in his fair hair I saw a dark stain start and spread. Then, in a moment, I realized what my brother had done.
I fell on my knees beside him.
“Garry, Garry!” I moaned. I heard Berna scream, and I saw that Locasto was coming for me. He was a man no longer. He had killed. He was a brute, a fury, a devil, mad with the lust of slaughter. With a snarl he dashed at me. Again I thought he was going to shoot, but no! He raised the heavy revolver and brought it crashing down on my head. I felt the blow fall, and with it my strength seemed to shoot out of me. My legs were paralysed. ^ I could not move. And, as I lay there in a misty daze, he advanced on Berna.
There she stood at bay, a horror-stricken thing, weak, panting, desperate. I saw him corner her. His hands were stretched out to clutch her ; a moment more and he would have her in his arms, a moment —ah! With a suddenness that was like a flash she had raised the heavy readinglamp and dashed it in his face.
I heard his shriek of fear; I saw him fall as the thing crashed between his eyes; I saw the flames spurt and leap. High in the air he rose, awful in his agony. He was in a shroud of fire; he was in a pool of flame. He howled like a dog and fell over on the bed.
Then suddenly the oil-soaked bedding caught. The curtains seemed to leap and change into flame. As he rolled and roared in his agony, the blaze ran up the walls, and caught the roof. Help, help! the room was afire, was burning up. Fire ! Fire !
Out in the corridor I heard a great running about, shouting of men, screaming of women. The whole place seemed to be alive, panic-stricken, frenzied with fear. Everything was in flames now, burning fiercely, madly, and there was no stopping them. The hotel was burning, and I, too, must burn. What a horrible end! Oh, if I could only do something! But I could not move. From the waist down I was like a dead man. Where was Berna? Pray God she was safe. I could not cry for aid. The room was reeling round and round. I was faint, dizzy, helpless.
The hotel was ablaze. In the streets below crowds were gathering. People were running up and down the stairway, fighting to get free, mad with terror, leaping from the windows. Oh, it was awful, to burn, to burn ! I seemed to be caged in flames that were darting at me savagely, spitefully. Would nobody save me?
Yes, some one was trying to save me, was dragging my body across the floor. Consciousness left me, and it seemed for ages T lay in a stupor. When I opened my eyes again some one was still tugging at me. We were going down the stairway, and on all sides of us were sheets of flapping flame. I was wrapped in a blanket. How had it got there? Who was that dark figure pulling at me so desperately, trying to lift me, staggering a few paces with me, stumbling blindly on? Brave one, noble one, whoever you be!
Foolhardy one, reckless one, whoever you be! Save yourself while yet there is time. Leave me to my fate. But. oh, the agony of it to burn, to burn . . .
Another desperate effort and we are almost at the door. Flames are darting at us like serpents, leaping kitten-like at our heels. Above us is a billowy canopy of fire soaring upward with a vast crackling roar. Fiery splinters shoot around us, while before us is a black pit of smoke. Smooth walls of fire uprear about us. We are in a cavern of fire, and in another •moment it will engulf us. Oh, my rescuer, a last frenzied effort ! We are almost at the door. Then I am lifted up and we both tumble out into the street. Not a second too soon, for, like a savage beast foiled of its prey, a blast of flame shoots after us, and the doorway is a gulf of blazing wrath.
I am lying in the snow, lying on a blanket, and some one holds my head.
“Berna, is that you?”
She nods. She does not speak. I shudder as I look at her, Her face is like a great burn, a black mask in which her eyes and teeth gleam whitely.....
“Oh, Berna, Berna, and it was you that dragged me out . . . !”
My eyes go to the fiery hell in front. As I look the roof crashes in and we are showered by falling sparks. I see a fireman run back. He is swathed in flame. Madly he rolls in the snow. The hotel is like a cascade of flame; it spouts outward like water, beautiful golden water. In its centre is a wonderful whirlpool. I see the line of a black girder leap out, and hanging over it a limp, charred shape. A moment it hangs uncertainly, then plunges downward into the roasting heart of the pit. And I know it for Locasto.
Oh, Berna, Berna, I can’t bear to look at her. Why did she do it? It’s pitiful, pitiful. . . .
The fire is spreading. Right and left it swings and leaps in giant strides. Sudden flames shoot out, curl over and roll
like golden velvet down the black faces of the buildings. The fire leaps the street. All is pandemonium now. Mad with fear and excitement, men and women rave and curse and pray. Water! water! is the cry; but no water comes, Suddenly a mob of terror-goaded men comes surging down the street. They bring the long hose line that connects with the pump station on the river. Hurrah! now they will soon have the flames under control. Water, water is coming.
The line is laid and a cry goes up to turn on the water. Hurry there ! But no water comes. What can be the matter? Then the dread whisper goes round that the man in charge of the pumping-station has neglected his duty, and the engine fires are cold. A howl of fury and despair goes up to the lurid heavens. Women wring their hands and moan : men stand by in a stupor of helpless agony. And the fire, as if it knew of its victory, leaps up in a roaring ecstasy of triumph.
There we watched, Berna and I, lying in the snow that melts all around us in the fierce, scorching glare. Through the lurid rift of smoke I can see the friendly stars. Against that curtain of blaze, strangely beautiful in its sinuous strength, I watch the black silhouettes of men running hither and thither like rats, gutting the houses, looting the stores, tearing the hearts out of the homes. The fire seems a great bird, and from its nest of furnace heat it spreads its flapping wings over the city.
Yes, there is no hope. The gold-born city is doomed. From where I lie the scene is one long vista of blazing gables, ribs and rafters hugged bv tawny arms of fire. Squat cabins swirling in mad eddies of flame; hotels, dance-halls, brothels swathed and smothered in flame-rent blankets of swirling smoke. There is no hope. The fire is a vast avenger, and before its wrath the inanity of the tenderloin is swept awav. Thatflimsy hive of humanity, with its sins and secrets and sorrows, goes up in smoke and ashes to the silent stars.
The gold-born citv is doomed. Yet. as I lay there, it seemed to me like a infirment, and that from its ruins would rise a new city, clean, upright, incorruptible. Yes. the gold-camp would find itself. Even as the gold, must it pass through the fur-
nace to be made clean. And from the site where in the olden days the men who toiled for the gold were robbed by every device of human guile, a new city would come to be—a great city, proud and prosperous, beloved of homing hearts, and blessed in its purity and peace.
“Beloved,” I sighed through a gathering mist of consciousness. I felt some hot tears falling on my face. I felt a kiss seal my lips. I felt a breathing in my ear.
“Oh, my dear, my dear!” she said. “I’ve only brought you sorrow and pain, but you’ve brought me love, that love that is a dazzling light, besides which the sunshine is as darkness.”
“Berna!” I raised myself; I put out my arms to clasp her. They clasped the empty air. Wildly, wildly I looked around. She was gone.
“Berna!” Again I cried, but there was no reply. I was alone, alone. Then a great weakness come over me. . . .
I never saw her again.
It is finished. I have written here the story of my life, or of that portion of it which means everything to me, for the rest means nothing. Now that it is done, I too have done, so I sit me down and wait. For what am I waiting? A divine miracle perhaps.
Somehow I feel I will see her again, somehow, somewhere. Surely God would not reveal to us the shining light of the Great Reality only to plunge us again into outer darkness? Love cannot be in vain. I will not believe it. Somehow, somewhere !
So in the glow of the great peat fire I sit me down and wait, and the faith grows
in me that she will come to me again; that I will feel the soft caress of her hand upon my pillow, that I will hear her voice all tuned to tenderness, that I will see through my tear-blinded eyes her sweet compassionate face. Somehow, somewhere !
With the aid of my crutch I unlatch one of the long windows and step out onto the terrace. I peer through the darkness and once more I have a sense of that land of imperious vastitudes so unfathomably lonely. With an unspeakable longing in my heart, I try to pierce the shadows that surround me. From the cavernous dark the snowflakes sting my face, but the great night seems good to me, and I sink into a garden seat. Oh, I am tired, tired . . .
I am waiting, waiting. I close my eyes and wait, I know she will come. The snow is covering me. White as a statue, I sit and wait.
Ah, Berna, my dear, my dear! I knew you would return ; I knew, I knew. Come to me, little one. I’m tired, so tired. Put your arms around me, girl; kiss me, kiss me. I’m weak and ill, but now you’ve come I’ll soon be well again. You won’t leave me any more; will you, honey? Oh, it’s good to have you once again! It seems like a dream. Kiss me once more, sweetheart. It’s all so cold and dark. Put your arms around me. . . .
Oh, Berna, Berna, light of my life, 1 knew all would come riqht at last—beyond the mists, beyond the dreaming; at least, dear love, at last!