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. Sernee Canadian serial rights owned by The MacLean Publishing Co.
I FOUND the Youth awaiting me. “Say, pardiner,” said he, “I was just getting a bit anxious about you. I thought sure that fairy had you in tow for a sucker. I’m going to stay right with you, and you’re not going to shake me. See!” “All right,” I said; “come on and we’ll watch the dance.”
So we got in the front row of spectators, while behind us the crowd packed as closely as matches in a box. The champagne I had taken had again aroused in me thar vivid sense of joy and strength and color. Again the lights were effulgent, the music witching, the women divine. As I swayed a little I clutched unsteadily at the Youth. He looked at me curiously.
“Brace up, old man,” he said. “Guess you’re not often in town. You’re not much used to the dance-hall racket.” “No,” I assured him.
“Well,” he continued, “it’s the rottenest game ever. I’ve seen more poor beggars put plumb out of business by the dance-halls than by all the saloons and gambling-j oints put together. It’s tbi game of catching the sucker brought to the point of perfection, and there’s very few cases where it fails.”
He perceived I was listening earnestly, and he warmed up to his subject.
“You see, the boys get in after they’ve been out on the claim for six months at a stretch, and town looks mighty good to
them. The music sounds awful nice, and the women, well, they look just like angeU. The boys are all right, but they’ve gor that mad craving for the sight of a woman a man gets after he’s been off out in the Wild, and these women have got the captivation of men down to a fine art. Once one of them gets to looking at you with eyes that eat right into you, and soft white hands, and pretty coaxing ways, well, it’s mighty hard to hold back. A man’s a fool to come near these places if he’s got a poke—’cept, like me, he knows the ropes and he’s right onto himself.”
The Youth said this with quite a complacent air. He went on:
“These girls work on a percentage basis. You’ll notice every time you buy them a drink the waiter gives them a check. That means that when the night’s over they cash in and get twenty-five per cent, of the money you’ve spent on them. That’s how they’re so keen on ordering fresh bottles. Sometimes they’ll say a bottle’s gone flat before it’s empty, and have you order another. Or else they’ll pour half of it into the cuspidor when you’re not looking. Then, when you get too full to notice the difference, they’ll run in ginger ale on you. Or else they’ll get you ordering by the case, and have half a dozen dummy bottles in it. Oh, there’s all kinds of schemes these box rustlers are on to. When you pay for a drink you toss over your poke, and they take the price out. Do you think they’re particular to a quarter ounce or so? No, sir! and you always get the short end of it. It’s a bad game to go up against.”
The Youth looked at me as thougti proud of his superior sophistication.
The floor was cleared. Girls were now coming from behind the stage, preening themselves and chaffing with the crowd. The orchestra struck up some jubilant ragtime that set the heart dancing and the heels tapping in tune. Brighter than ever seemed the lights; more dazzling the white and gilt of the walls. Some of the girls were balancing lightly to a waltz rhythm. There was a witching grace in their movements, and the Youth watched them intently. He looked down at Ins feet clad in old moccasins.
“Gee, I’d like just to have one spin,” he said; “just one before*I leave the darned old country for good. I was always crazy about dancing. I’d ride thirty miles to attend a dance back home.”
His eyes grew very wistful. Suddenly the music stopped and the floor-master came forward. He was a tall, dark man with a rich and vibrant baritone voice.
“That’s the best spieler in the Yukon,” said the Youth.
“Come on, boys,” boomed the spieler. “Look alive there. Don’t keep the ladies waiting, Take your hands out of you** pockets and get in the game. Just going to begin, a dreamy waltz or a nice juicy two-step, whichever you prefer. Hey, professor, strike up that waltz!”
Once more the music swelled out.
“How’s that, boys? Doesn’t that make your feet like feathers? Come on, boys! Here you are for the nice, glossy floor and the nice, flossy girls. Here you are ! Here you are! Here you are! That’s righi, select your partners ! Swing your honeys ! Hurry up there! Just a-goin’ to begiu. What’s the matter with you fellows? Wake up! a dance won’t break yoo. Come on ! don’t be a cheap skate. The girls are fine, fit and fairy-like, the music’s swell and the floor’s elegant. Come on, boys!”
There was a compelling power in hh voice, and already a number of couples were waltzing round. The women were exquisite in their grace and springy lightness. They talked as they danced, gazing with languishing eyes and siren smiles at the man of the moment.
Some of them, who had not got partners, were picking out individuals from the crowd and coaxing them to come forward. A drunken fellow staggered onto the floor and grabbed a girl. She was young, dainty and pretty, but she showed no repugnance for him. Round and round he cavorted, singing and whooping, a wild, weird object; when, suddenly, he tripped and fell, bringing her down with him. The crowd roared; but the girl good-naturedly picked him up, and led him off to the bar.
A man in a greasy canvas suit with mucklucks on his feet had gone onto the floor. His hair was long and matted, his beard wild and rank. He was dancing vehemently, and there was the glitter of wild excitement in his eyes. He looked as if he had not bathed for years, but again I could see no repulsion in the face of the handsome brunette with whom he was waltzing. Dance after dance they had together, locked in each other’s arms.
“That’s a dive one,’ ” said the Youth. “He’s just come in from Dominion with a hundred ounces, and it won’t last him over the night. Amber, there, will get if all. She won’t let the other girls go near. He’s her game.”
Between dances the men promenaded to the bar and treated their companions to a drink. In the same free, trusting way they threw over their pokes to the bartender and had the price weighed out. The dances were very short, and the drinks very frequent.
Madder and madder grew the merriment. The air was hot; the odor of patchouli mingled with the stench of stale garments and the reek of alcohol. Men dripping with sweat whirled round in wild gyrations. Some of them danced beautifully ; some merely shuffled over the floor. It did not make any difference to the girls. They were superbly muscular and used to the dragging efforts of the novices. After a visit to the bar back they came once more, licking their lips, and fell to with fresh energy.
There was no need to beg the crovrd now. A wave of excitement seemed to have swept over them. They clamoured to get a dance. The “live one” whooped and pranced on his wild career, while Amber steered him calmly through the mazes of the waltz. Touch-the-Button-Nell was talking to a tall fair-moustached man whom I recognized as a black-jack booster. Suddenly she left him and came over to us. She went up to the Youth.
She had discarded her blond wig, and her pretty brown hair parted in the middle and rippled behind her ears. Her large violet-blue eyes had a devouring look that would stir the pulse of a saint. She accosted the Youth with a smile of particular witchery.
“Say, kid, won’t you come and have a two-step with me? I’ve been looking at you for the last half-hour and wishing you’d ask me.”
The Youth had advised me: “If any of them asks you, tell them to go to the devil;” but now he looked at her and his boyish face flushed.
“Nothing doing,” he said stoutly.
“Oh, come now,” she pleaded; “honest to goodness, kid, I’ve turned down the other fellow for you. You won’t refuse me, will you? Come on; just one, sweetheart.”
She was holding the lapels of his coat and dragging him gently forward. I could see him biting his lip in embarrassment.
“No, thanks, I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I don’t know how to dance. Besides, I’ve got no money.”
She grew more coaxing.
“Never mind about the coin, honev. Come on, have one on me. Don’t turn me down. I’ve taken such a notion to you. Come on now; just one turn.
I watched his face. His eyes clouded with emotion, and I knew the psychology of it. He was thinking:
“Just one—surely it wouldn’t hurh Surely I’m man enough to trust myself, to know when to quit. Oh, lordv, wouldn’t it be sweet just to get my arm round a woman’s waist once more! The sight of them’s honey to me; surelv it wouldn’t matter. One round and I’ll shake her and go home.”
The hesitation was fatal. By an irresistable magnetism the Youth was drawn to this woman whose business it ever wa« to lure and beguile. By her siren strength she conquered him as she had conquered many another, and as she led him off there was a look of triumph on her face. Poor Youth ! At the end of the dance he did not go home, nor did he “shake” her
He had another and another and anothei. The excitement began to paint his cheek*, the drink to stoke wild fires in his eyes. As I stood deserted I tried to attract him. to get him back ; but he no longer heeded me.
“I don’t see the Madonna to-night,” said a little, dark individual in spectacles. Somehow he looked to me like a newspaper man “chasing” copy.
“No,” said one of the girls; “she ain't workin’, She’s sick; she don’t take very kindly to the business, somehow. Don’t seem to get broke in easy. She’s funny, poor kid.”
Carelessly they went on to talk of other things, while I stood there gasping, staring, sick at heart. All my vinous joy was gone, leaving me a haggard, weary wretch of a man, disenchanted and miserable to the verge of—what? I shuddered. The lights seemed to have gone blurred and dim. The hall was tawdry, cheap and vulgar. The women, who but a moment before had seemed creatures of grace and charm, were now nothing more than painted, posturing harridans, their seductive smiles the leers of shameless sin.
And this was a Dawson dance-hall, the trump card in the nighty game of despol' ation. Dance-halls, saloons, gamblingdens, brothels, the heart of the town was a cancer, a hive of iniquity. Here had flocked the most rapacious of gamblers, the most beautiful and unscrupulous women on the Pacific slope. Here in the gold-born city they waited for their prev. the Man with the Poke. Back there ir the silent Wild, with pain and bloodv sweat, he toiled for them. Sooner or late1’ must he come within reach of their talons to be fleeced, flouted and despoiled. It was an organized system of sharper«, thugs, harpies, and birds of prey of every kind. It was a blot on the map. It was a great whirlpool, and the eddy of it encircled the furthest outpost of the golden valley. It was a vortex of destruction, of ruin and shame. And here was I. hovering on its brink, likely to be soon sucked down into its depths.
I pressed my way to the door, and stood there staring and swaying, but whether with váne or weakness I knew not. In the vociferous and flamboyant street I could hear the raucous voices of the spielers, the jigging tunes of the orchestra5, the click of ivory balls, the popping of corks, the hoarse, animal laughter of men, the shrill, inane giggles of women. Day and night the game went on without abatement, the game of despoliation.
And I was on the verge of the vortex. Memories of Glengyle, the laughing of the silver-scaled sea, the tawny fisher-lads with their honest eyes, the herring glittering like jewels in the brown nets, the women with their round health-hued cheeks and motherly eyes. Oh, Home, with your peace and rest and content, can you not save me from this?
And as I stood there wretchedly a timid little hand touched my arm.
It is odd how people who have been parted a weary while, yet who have thought of each other constantly, will often meet with as little show of feeling as if they had but yesterday bid good-bye. I looked at her and she at me, and I don’t think either of us betrayed any emotion Yet must we both have been infinitely moved.
She was changed, desperately, pitifully changed. All the old sweetness was there, that pathetic sweetness which had made the miners call her the Madonna; but alas, forever gone from her was the fragrant flower of girlhood. Her pallor was excessive, and the softness had vanished out of her face, leaving there only lines of suffering. Sorrow had kindled in her grey eyes a spiritual lustre, a shining, tearless brightness. Ah me, sad, sad, indeed, was the change in her!
So she looked at me, a long and level look in which I could see neither love nor hate. The bright, grey eyes were clear and steady, and the pinched and pitiful lips did not quiver. And as I gazed on her I felt that nothing ever would be the same again. Love could no more be the radiant spirit of old, the prompter of impassioned words, the painter of bewitching scenes. Never again could we feel the world recede from us as we poised on bright wings of fancy; never again compare our joys with that of the heavenborn ; never again welcome that pure ideal that comes to youth alone, and that pitifully dies in the disenchantment of graver days. We could sacrifice all things for each other; joy and grieve for each
other — live and die for each other — but the Hope, the Dream, the exaltation of love’s dawn, the peerless white glory of it—had gone from us forever and forever.
Her lips moved:
“How you have changed!”
“Yes, Berna, I have been ill. But you, you too have changed.”
“Yes,” she said very slowly. “I have been—dead.”
There was no faltering in her voice, never a throb of pathos. It was like the voice of one who has given up all hope, the voice of one who has arisen from the grave. In that cold mask of a face I could see no glimmer of the old-time joy, the joy of the season when wild roses were aglow. We both were silent, two pitifully cold beings, while about us the howling bedlam of pleasure-plotters surged and seethed.
“Come upstairs where we can talk,” said she. So we sat down in one of the boxes, while a great freezing shadow seemed to fall and wrap us around. It was so strange, this silence between us. We were like two pale ghosts meeting in the misty gulfs beyond the grave.
“And why did you not come?” she asked.
“Come—I tried to come.”
“But you did not.” Her tone was measured, her face averted.
“I would have sold my soul to come. I was ill, desperately ill, nigh to death. I was in the hospital. For two weeks I was delirious, raving of you, trying to get to you, making myself a hundred times worse because of you. But what could I do? No man could have been more helpless. I was out of my mind, weak as a child, fighting for my life. That was why I did not come.”
When I began to speak she started. As I went on she drew a quick, choking breath. Then she listened ever so intently, and when I had finished a great change came over her. Her eyes stared glassily, her head drooped, her hands clutched at the chair, she seemed nigh to fainting. When she spoke her voice was like a whisper.
“And they lied to me. They told me you were too eager gold-getting to think of me; that you were in love with some other woman out there; that you cared no more for me. They lied to me. Well, it’s too late now.”
She laughed, and the once tuneful voice was harsh and grating. Still were her eyes blank with misery. Again and again she murmured : “Too late, too late.”
Quietly I sat and watched her, yet in my heart was a vast storm of agony. 1 longed to comfort her, to kiss that face so white and worn and weariful, to bring tears to those hopeless eyes. There seemed to grow in me a greater hunger for the girl than ever before, a longing to bring joy to her again, to make her forget What did it all matter? She was still my love. I yearned for her. We both had suffered, both been through the furnace. Surely from it would come the love that passeth understanding. We would rear no lily walls, but out of our pain would we build an abiding place that would outlast the tomb.
“Berna,” I said, “it’s not too late.”
There was a desperate bitterness in her face. “Yes, yes, it is. You do not understand. You—it’s all right for you, you are blameless; but I-”
“You too are blameless, dear. We have both been miserably duped. Never mind, Berna, we will forget all. T love you, Oh how much I never can tell you, girl! Come, let us forget and go away and be happy.”
It seemed as if my every word was like a stab to her. The sweet face was tragically wretched.
“Oh no,” she answered, “it can never be. You think it can, but it can’t. You could not forget. I could not forget. We would both be thinking; always, alwavs torturing each other. To you the thought would be like a knife thrust, and the more you lowd me the deeper would pierce its blade. And I, too, can you realise how fearfully I would look at you, always knowing you were thinking of THAT, and what an agony it would be to me to watc11 your agony? Our home would be a haunted one, a place of ghosts. Neve’ again can there be a joy between you and me. It’s too late, too late !”
She was choking back the sobs now, but still the tears did not come.
“Berna,” I said gently, “I think I could forget. Please give me a chance to prove it. Other men have forgotten. I know it was not your fault. I know that spiritu-
ally you are the same pure girl you were before. You are an angel, dear; my angel.”
“No, I was not to blame. When you failed to come I grew desperate. When I wrote you and still you failed to come, I was almost distracted. Night and day he was persecuting me. The others gave me no peace. If ever a poor girl was hounded to dishonor I was. Yet I had made up my mind to die rather than yield. Oh, it’s too horrible.”
“Never mind, dear, don’t tell me about it.”
"When I awoke to life sick, sick for many days, 1 wanted to die, but I could not. There seemed to be nothing for it but to stay on there. I was so weak, so ill, so indifferent to everything that it did not seem to matter. That was where I made my mistake. I should have killed myself. Oh, there’s something in us all that makes us cling to life in spite of shame But I would never let him come near me again. You believe me, don’t you?”
“I believe you.”
“And though, when he went away, I’ve gone into this life, there’s never been an> one else. I’ve danced with them, laughed with them, but that’s all. You believe me?”
“Thank God for that! And now we must say got d-bye.”
“I said—good-bye. I would not spoil your life. You know how proud I am, how sensitive. I would not give you such as I. Once I would have given myself to you gladly, but now—please go awav.” “Impossible.”
“No, the other is impossible. You don’t know what these things mean to a woman. Leave me, please.”
“Leave you—to what?”
“To death, ruin—I don’t know what. If I’m strong enough I will die. If I am weak I will sink in the mire. Oh, and I am only a girl too, a young girl !” “Berna, will you marrv me?”
“No! No! No!”
“Berna, I will never leave you. Here I tell you frankly, plainly, I don’t know whether or not you still love me—you haven’t said a word to show it—but I know I love you, and I will love you as long as life lasts. I will never leave you. Listen to me, dear: let us go away, far. far away. You will forget, I will forget, It will never be the same, but perhaps it will be better, greater than before. Come with me. 0 my love! Have pity on me. Berna, have pity. Marry me. Be my wife.”
She merely shook her head, sitting there cold as a stone.
“Then,” I said, “if you call yourself dishonored, I, too, will become dishonored. If you choose to sink in the mire, I, too, will sink. We will go down together, you and I. Oh, i would rather sink with you, dear, than rise with the angels. You have chosen—well, I too have chosen. We stand on the edge of the vortex, now will we plunge down. You will see me steep myself in sname, then when I am a hundred shades blacker than you can ever hope to be, my angel, you will stoop and pity me. Oh, I don’t care any more. I’ve played the fool too long; now I’ll play the devil, and you’ll stand by and watch me. Sometimes it’s nice to make those we love suffer, isn’t it? I would break my arm to make you feel sorry for me. But now you’ll see me in the vortex. We’ll go down together, dear. Hand in hand hell ward we’ll go down, we’ll go down.”
She was looking at me in a frightened way. A madness seemed to have gotten into me.
“Berna, you’re on the dance-halls. You’re at the mercy of the vilest wretch that’s got an ounce of gold in his filthy poke. They can buy you as they buy white flesh everywhere on ear’ll. You must dance with them, drink w’ih them, go away with them. Berna, I can buy you. Come, dance with me, drink with me. We’ll live, live. We’ll eat, drink and be merry. On with the dance! Oh, for the joy of life! Since you’ll not be my love, you’ll be my light-of-love. Come, Berna, come!”
I paused. With her head lying on the cushioned edge of the box, she was crying. The plush was streaky with her tears.
“Will you come?” I asked again.
She did not move.
“Then,” said I, “there are others, and 1 have money, lots of it. I can buy them.
I am going down into the vortex. Look on and watch me.”
I left her crying.
It is with shame I write the following pages. Would I could blot them out of my life. To this day there must be many who remember my meteoric career in the firmanent of fast life. It did not last long, but in less than a week I managed to squander a small fortune.
Those were the days when Dawson might fitly have been called the dissolute. It was the régime of the dance-hall girl, and the taint of the tenderloin was over the town. So far there were few decent women to be seen on the streets. Respectable homes were being established, but even there social evils were discussed with an astonishing frankness and indifference. In the best society men were welcomed who were known to be living in open infamy. A general callousness to social corruption prevailed.
For Dawson was at this time the Mecca of the gambler and the courtesan. Of its population probably two-thirds began their day when most people finished it. It was only toward nightfall that the town completely roused up, that the fever of pleasure providing began. Nearly every one seemed to be affected by the spirit of degeneracy. On the faces of many of the business men could be seen the stamp of the pace they were going. Cases in Court had to be adjourned because of the debauches of lawyers. Bank tellers stepped into their cages sleepless from allnight orgies. Government officials lived openly with wanton women. High and low were attainted by the corruption. In those days of headstrong excitement, of sudden fortune, of money to be had almost for the picking up, when the goldcamp was a reservoir into which poured by a thousand channels the treasure of the valley, few were those among the men who kept a steady head, whose private records were pure and blameless.
No town of its size has ever broken up more homes. Men in the intoxication of fast-won wealth in that far-away land gave way to excesses of every kind. Fathers of families paraded the streets arm in arm with dmi-m on daines. To be seen talking to a loose woman was unworthy of comment, not to have a mistress was not to be in the swim. Words cannot express the infinite and general degradation. It is scarcely possible to exaggerate it. That teeming town at the mouth of the Klondike set a pace in libertinism that ha? never been equalled.
I would divide its population into three classes : the sporting fraternity, whose business it was to despoil and betray; the business men, drawn more or less into th vortex of dissipation ; the miners from the creeks, the Man with the Poke, here today, gone to-morrow, and of them all the most worthy of respect. He was the prop and mainstay of the town. It was like a vast trap set to catch him. He would “blow in” brimming with health and high spirits; for a time he would “get into the game;” sooner or later he would cut loose and “hit the high places;” then, at last, beggared and broken, he would crawl back in shame and sorrow to the claim. 0, that grey city ! could it ever tell its woes and sorrows the great white stars above would melt into compassionate tears.
Ah, well, to the devil wdth all moralising! A short life and a merry one. Switch on the lights! Ring up the curtain ! On with the play !
In the casino a crowd is gathering round the roulette wheel. Three-deep they stond. A woman rushes out from the dance-hall and pushes her way through the throng. She is very young, very fair and redundant of life. A man jostles her. From frank blue eyes she flashes a look at him, and from lips sweet as those of a child there comes the remonstrance : “Curse you; take care.”
The men make way for her, and she throws a poke of dust on the red. “A hundred dollars out of that,” she says. The coupier nods ; the wheel spins round ; she loses.
“Give me another two hundred in chips,” she cries eagerly. The dealer hands them to her, and puts her poke in a drawer. _ Again and again she plavs, placing chips here and there round thctable. Sometimes she wins, sometimes she loses. At last she has quite a pils of chips before her. She laughs gleefully. “I guess I’ll cash in now,” she says. “That’s good enough for to-night,”
The man hands her back her poke, writes out a cheque for her winnings, and off she goes like a happv child.
“Who’s that?” I ask.“
“That? that’s Blossom. She’s a hute,’ she is. Want a knockdown? Come on round to the dance-hall.”
Once more I see the Youth. He is nearing the end of his tether. He borrows a few hundred dollars from me. “One more night,” he says with a bitter grin, “and the hog goes back to wallow in the
mire. They’ve got you going, too-
Oh, Lord, it’s a great game! Ha! ha!”
He goes off unsteadily; then from out of the luminous mists there appears the Jam-wagon. In a pained wray he looks at me. “Here, chuck it, old man,” he says; “come home to my cabin and straighten up.”
“All rignt,” I answer; “just one drink more.”
One more means still one more. Poor old Jam-wagon! It’s the blind leading the blind.
Mosher haunts me with his gleaming bald head and his rat-like eyes. He is living with the little ninety-five-pound woman, the one with the mop of hair.
Oh, its a hades of a life I am steeped in ! I drink and I drink. It seems to me I am always drinking. Rarely do I eat, I am one of half a dozen spectacular “live ones.” All the camp is talking of us, but it seems to me I lead the bunch in the race to ruin. I wonder what Berna thinks of it all. Was there ever such a senstive creature? Where did she get that obstinate pride? Child of misfortune! She minded me of a delicate china cup that gets mixed in with the coarse crockery of a hash joint.
Remonstrantly the Prodigal speeds to town.
“Are you crazy?” he cries. “I don’t mind you making an ass of yourself, but lushing around all that coin the way you’re doing—it’s wicked; it makes me sick. Come home at once.”
I yon t.” I say. “What if I am crazy? Isn t it my money? I've never sown my wild oats yet. I’m trying to catch up. that’s all. WTien the money’s done I’ll quit. I’m having the time“ of my life. Don’t come spoiling it with your precepts.
What a lot of fun I’ve missed by being good. Come along; ‘listen to the last word of human philosophy—have a drink.’ ’’
He goes away shaking his head. There’s no fear of him ever breaking loose. He, with his smile of sunshine, would make misfortune pay. He is a rolling stone that gathers no moss, but manages to glue itself to greenbacks at every turn.
I am in a box at the Palace Grand. The place is packed with rowdy men and ribald women. I am at the zenith of mv shame. Eight and left I am buying wine. Like vultures at a feast they bunch into the box. Like carrion flies they buzz around me. That is what I feel myself to be—carrion.
How I loathe myself! but I think of Berna, and the thought goads me to fresh excesses. I will go on till flesh and blood can stand it no longer, till I drop in my tracks. I realise that somehow I must make her pity me, must awake in her that guardian angel which exists in every woman. Only in that way can I break down the barrier of her pride and arouse the love latent in her heart.
There are half a dozen girls in the box, a bevy of beauties, and I buy a case of wine for each, over a thousand dollars’ worth. Screaming with laughter they toss it in bottles down to their friends in the audience. It is a scene of riotous excitement. The audience roars, the girls shriek, the orchestra tries to make itself heard. Madder and madder grows the merriment. The fierce fever of it scorches in my veins. I am mad to spend, to throw away money, to outdo all others in bitter, reckless prodigality. I fling twenty-dollar gold pieces to the singers. I open bottle after bottle of wine. The girls are spraying the crowd with it, the floor of the box swims with it. I drop my pencil signing a tab, and when I look down it is floating in a pool of champagne.
Then comes the last. The dance has begun. Men in fur caps, mackinaw coats and mucklucks are waltzing with women clad in Paris gowns and sparkling with jewels. The floor is thronged. I have a large, hundred-ounce poke of dust, and I unloose the thong. Suddenly with a mad shout I scatter its contents round the hall. Like a shower of golden rain it falls
on men and women alike. See how they grovel for it, the brutes, the vampires! How they fight and grab and sprawl over it ! How they shriek and howl and curse ! It is like an arena of wild beasts; it is pandemonium. Oh, how I despise them! My gorge rises, but—to the end, to the end. I must play my part.
Always amid that lurid carnival of sin floats the figure of Blossom, Blossom with her child-face of dazzling fairness, her china-blue eyes, her round, smooth cheeks. How different from the pinched pallid face of Berna! Poor, poor Berna! I never see her, but amid all the saturnalia she haunts me. The thought of her is agony, agony. I cannot bear to think of her. I know she watches me. If she would only stoop and save me now! Or have I not fallen low enough? What a faith I have in that deep mother-love of hers that will redeem me in the end. I must go deeper yet. Faster and faster must I swirl into the vortex.
Oh, these women, how in my heart I loathe them ! I laugh with them, I quaff with them, I let them rob me; but that’s all.
In all that fierce madness of debauch, thank God, I retained my honor. They beguiled me, they tried to lure me into their rooms; but at the moment I went to enter I recoiled. It was as if an invisible arm stretched across the doorway and barred me out.
And Blossom, she, too, tried hard to lure me, and because I resisted it inflamed her. Half angel, half devil, was Blossom, a girl in years, but woefully wise, a soft siren when pleased, a she-devil when roused. She made me her special quarry. She fought for me. She drove off all the other girls. We talked together, we drank together, we “played the tables” together, but nothing more. She would coax me with the prettiest gestures, and cajole me with the sweetest endearments; then, when I steadfastly resisted her, she would fly into a fury and flout me with the foulness of the stews. She was beautiful, but born to be bad. No power on heaven or earth could have saved her. Y et in her badness she was frank, natural and untroubled as a child.
It was in one of the corridors of the dance-hall in the early hours of the morning. The place was deserted, strewed with débris of the night’s debauch. The air was fetid, and from the gambling-hall down below arose the shouts of the players. We were up there, Blossom and I. I was in a strange state of mind, a state bordering on frenzy. Not much longer, I felt, could I keep up this pace. Something had to happen, and that soon.
She put her arms around me. I could feel her cheek pressed to mine. I could see her bosom rise and fall.
“Come,” she said.
She led me towards her room. No longer was I able to resist. My foot was on the threshold and I was almost over when-
It was a messenger. Confusedly I took the flimsy envelope and tore it open. Blankly I stared at the line of type. T stared like a man in a dream. I was sober enough now.
“Ain’t you coming?” said Blossom, putting her arms round me.
“No,” I said hoarsely, “leave me, please leave me. Oh, my God!”
Her face changed, became vindictive, the face of a fury.
“Curse you!” she hissed, gnashing her teeth. “Oh, I knew. It’s that other, that white-faced doll you care for. Look at me! Am I not better than her? And vou scorn me. Oh, I hate you. I’ll get even with you and her. Curses you, curse
She snatched up an empty wine bottle. Swinging it by the neck she struck me square on the forehead. I felt a stunning blow, a warm rush of blood. Then I fell limply forward, and all the lights seemed to go out.
There I lav in a heap, and the blood spurting from my wound soaked the little piece of paper. On it was written :
“Mother died this morning. Garry.”
“Where am I?”
“Here, with me.”
Low and sweet and tender was the voice. 1 was in bed and my head was heavily bandaged, so that the cloths weighed upon my eyelids. It was difficult to see, and I n’as too weak to raise myself, but I seemed
to be in semi-darkness. A lamp burning on a small table nearby was turned low. By my bedside some one was sitting, and a soft, gentle hand was holding mine.
“Where is here?” I asked faintly.
“Here—my cabin. Rest, dear.”
“Is that you, Berna?”
“'Yes, please don’t talk.”
I thrilled with a sudden sweetness of joy. A flood of sunshine bathed me. It was all over, then, the turmoil, the storm, the shipwreck. I was drifting on a tranquil ocean of content. Blissfully I closed my eyes. Oh. I was happy, happy!
In her cabin, with her, and she was nursing me—what had happened? What new turn of events had brought about this wonderful thing? As I lay there in the quiet, trying to recall the something that went before, my poor sick brain groped but feebly amid a murk of sinister shadows.
“Berna,” I said. “I’ve had a bad dream.”
“Yes, dear, you’ve been sick, very sick. You’ve had an attack of fever, brain fever. But don’t try to think, just rest quietly.”
So for a while longer I lay there, thrilled with a strange new joy, steeped in the ineffable comfort of her presence, and growing better, stronger with every breath. Memories came thronging back, memories that made me cringe and wince, and shudder with the shame of them. Yet ever the thought that she was with me was like a holy blessing. Surely it was all good since it had ended in this.
Yet there was something else, some memory darker than the others, some shadow of shadows that baffled me. Then as I battled with a growing terror and suspense, it all came back to me, the telegram, the news, my collapse. A great grief welled up in me, and in my agony I spoke to the girl.
“Berna, tell me, is it true? Is my Mother dead?”
“Yes, it’s true, dear. You must try to bear it bravely.”
I could feel her bending over me, could feel her hand holding mine, could feel her hair brush my cheek, yet I forgot even her just then. I thought only of Mother, of her devotion and of how little I had done to deserve it. So this was the end: a narrow grave, a rending grief and the haunting spectre of reproach.
I saw my Mother sitting at that window that faced the west, her hands meekly folded on her lap, her eyes wistfully gazing over the grey sea. I knew there was never a day of her life when she did not sit thus and think of me. I could guess at the heartache that gentle face would not betray, the longing those tender lips would not speak, the grief those sweet eyes studied to conceal. As, sitting there in the strange clouded sunset of my native land, she let her knitting drop on her lap, I knew she prayed for me. Oh, Mother! Mother !
My sobs were choking me, and Berna was holding my hand very tightly. Yet in a little I grew calmer.
“Berna,” I said, “I’ve only got you now, only you, little girl. So you must love me, you mustn’t leave me.”
“I’ll never leave you—if you want me to stay.”
“God bless you, dear. I can’t tell you the comfort you are to me. I’ll try to be quiet now.”
I will always remember those days as I grew slowly well again. The cot in which I lay stood in the sitting-room of the cabin, and from the window I could overlook the city. Snow had fallen, the days were diamond bright, and the smoke ascended sharply in the glittering air. The little room was papered with a design of wild roses that minded me of the Whitehorse Rapids. On the walls were some little framed pictures; the floor was carpeted in dull brown, and a little heater gave out a pleasant warmth. Through a doorway draped with a curtain I could see her busy in her little kitchen.
She left me much alone, alone with my thoughts. Often when all was quiet I knew she was sitting there beyond the curtain, sitting thinking, just as I was thinking. Quiet was the kevnote of our life, quiet and sunshine. That little cabin might have been a hundred miles from the gold-born city, it was so quiet. Here drifted no echo of its abandoned gaiety, its glory of demoralization. How sweet she looked in her spotless home attire, her neat waist, her white apron with bib and sleeves, her general air of a little housewife. And never was there so devoted a
Sometimes she would read to me from one of the few books I had taken everywhere on my travels, a page or two from my beloved Stevenson, a poem from my great-hearted Henley, a luminous passage from my Thoreau. How those readings brought back the time when, tired of flicking the tawny pools, I would sit on the edge of the boisterous little burn and read till the grey shadows sifted down! I was so happy then, and I did not know it. Now everything seemed changed. Life had lost its zest. Its savour was no longer sweet. Its verv success was more bitter than failure. Would I ever get back that old-time rapture, that youthful joy, that satisfaction with all the world?
It was sweet prolonging my convalescence, yet the time came when I could no longer let her wait upon me. What was going to happen to us? I thought of that at all times, and she knew I thought of it. Sometimes I could see a vivid color in her cheeks, an eager briehtness in her eye. Was ever a stranger situation? She slept in the little kitchen, and between us there was but that curtain. The faintest draught stirred it. There I lay through the long, long night in that quiet cabin. I heard tier breathing. Sometimes even I heard her murmur in her sleep. I knew she was there, within a few vards of me. I thought of her alwavs. I loved her bevond all else on earth. T was gaining dailv in health and strength, vet not for the wealth of the nmrld would I have passed that little curtain. She was as safe there as if she were guarded with swords. And she knew it.
Once when I was in agonv I called to her in the night, and she came to me. She came with a mother’s tenderness, with exnnisite endearments, with the great love shining in her eyes. She leaned over me. «he kissed me. As she bent over my bed T put my arm round her. There in the darkness were we, she and I, her kisses warm upon my lips, her hair brushing my brow, and a. great love devouring us. Oh, it was hard, but I released her, put her from me. told her to go away.
“I’ll play the game fair,” I said to myself. I must be very, very careful. Our po«ition was full of danger. So I forced mvself to be cold to her. and she looked both surprised and pained at the change in me. Then she seemed to put forth special effort to please-me. She changed the fashion of her hair, she wore pretty bows of ribbon. She talked brightly and lightly in a febrile way. She showed little coquettish tricks of manner that were charming to my mind. Ever she looked at me with wistful concern. Her heart was innocent, and she could not understand my sudden coldness. Yet that night had given me a lightning glimpse of my nature that frightened me. The girl was winsome beyond words, and I knew I had but to say it and she would come to me. Yet I checked myself. I retreated behind a barrier of reserve. “Play the game,” I said; “play the game.”
So as I grew better and stronger she seemed to lose her cheerfulness. Always she had that anxious, wistful look. Once came a sound from the kitchen like stifled sobbing, and again in the night I heard her cry. Then the time came when I was well enough to get up, to go away.
I dressed, looking like the cadaverous ghost I felt myself to be. She was there in the kitchen, sitting quietly, waiting. “Berna,” I called
She came, with a smile lighting up her face.
The smile vanished, and left her with that high proud look, yet behind it was a lurking fear.
“You’re going?” she faltered.
“Yes,” I said roughly, “I’m going.”
She did not speak.
“Are you ready?” I went on.
“Yes, you’re going, too.”
I took her suddenly in mv arms.
“Why, you dear little angel, to get married, of course. Come on, Berna, we’ll find the nearest parson. We won’t lose any more precious time.”
Then a great rush of tears came into her eyes. But still she hung back. She shook her head.
“Why, Berna, what’s the matter? Won’t you come?”
“I think not.”
“In Heaven’s name, what is wrong, dear? Don’t you love me?”
“Yes. I love you. It’s because I love you I won’t come.”
“Won’t you marry me?”
“No, no, I can’t. You know what I said before. I haven’t changed any. I’m
'■nil the same—dishonored girl. You never give me your name.”
“You’re as pure as iho driven snow, little one.”
“No one thinks so but you, and it’s that 'hat makes all the diftVience. Everybody knows. No, I could never marry you, never take your name, never bind you to me.”
' Well, what’s to be done?”
‘ You must go awa.T, or—slay.”
“Yes. You’ve been living alone with me for a month. I picked you up that night in the dance-hall. I had you brought here. I nursed you. Do you think people don’t give us credit for the worst? We are as innocent as children, yet do you think I have a shred of reputation left? Already I am supposed to be your mistress. Everybody knows; nobody cares. There are so many living that way here. If you told them we were innocent they would scofi at us. If you go they will say you have discarded me.”
“What shall I do?”
“Just stay. Oh, why can’t we go on as we’ve been doing? It’s been so like home. Don’t leave me, dear. I don’t want to bind you. I just want to be of some use to you, to help you,* to be with you always. Love me for a little, anyway. Then when you're tired of me you can go, but don’t go now.”
I was dazed, but she went on.
“What does the ceremony matter? "We love each other. Isn’t that the real marriage? It’s more; it’s an ideal. ~We’ll both be free to go if we wish. There will be no bonds but those of love. Is not that beautiful, two people cleaving together for love’s sake, living for each other, sacrificing for each other, yet with no man-made law to tell them: This must ye do?’ Oh, stay, stay!”
Her arms were round my neck. The grey eyes were full of pleading. The sweet lips had the old, pathetic droop. I yielded to the empery of love.
“Well,” I said, “we will go on awhile, on one condition—that bye-and-bye you marry me.”
“Yes, I will, I will; I promise. If you don’t tire of me; if you are sure beyond all doubt you will never regret it, then I will marry you with the greatest joy in the world.”
So it came about that I stayed.
In this infernal irony of an existence why do the good things of life always come when we no longer have the same appetite to enjoy them? The year following, in which Berna and I kept house, was not altogether a happy one. Somehow we had both just missed something. We had suffered too much to recover our poise very easily. We were sick, not in body, but in mind. The thought of her terrible experience haunted her. She was as sensitive as the petal of a delicate flower, and often would I see her lips quiver and a look of pain come into her eyes. Then I knew of what she was thinking. I knew and I, too, suffered.
I tried to make her forget, yet I could not succeed; and even in my most happy moments there was always a shadow, the shadow of Locasto; there was always a fear, the fear of his return. Yes, it seemed at times as if we were two unfortunates, as if our happiness had come too late, as if our lives were irretrievably shipwrecked.
Locasto! where was he? For near a year had he been gone, somewhere in that wild country at the Back of Beyond. Somewhere amid the wilder peaks and valleys of the Rockies he fought his desperate battle with the Wild. There had been sinister rumors of two lone prospectors who had perished up in that savage country, of two bodies that lay rotting and half buried by a landslide. I had a. sudden, wild hope that one of them might be my enemy; for I hated him and I would have joyed at his death. When ] loved Berna most exquisitely, when I gazed with tender joy upon her sweetness, when, with glad, thankful eyes, I blessed her for the sympathy and sunshine of her presence, then between us would come a shadow, dark, menacing and mordant. So the joy-light would vanish from my eyes and a great sadness fall upon me.
What would I do if he returned? I wondered. Perhaps if he left us alone I might let by-gones be by-gones ; but if he ever came near her again—well, I oiled the chambers of my Colt and heard its joyous click as it revolved. “That’s for
him,” I said, “that’s for him, if by look, by word, or by act he ever molests her again.” And I meant it, too. Suffering had hardened me, made me dangerous. I would have killed him.
Then, as the months went past and the suspicion of his fate deepened almost to a certainty, I began to breathe more freely.
I noticed, too, a world of difference in Berna. She grew light-hearted. She sang and laughed a good deal. The sunshine came back to her eyes, and the shadow seldom lingered there. Sometimes the thought that we were not legally married troubled me, but on all sides were men living with their Klondike wives, either openly or secretly, and where this domestic menage was conducted in quietness there was little comment on it. We lived to ourselves, and for ourselves. We left our neighbours alone. We made few friends, and in the ferment of social life we were almost unnoticed.
Of course, the Prodigal expostulated with me in severe terms. I did not attempt to argue with him. He would not have understood my point of view. There are heights and depths in life to which he with his practical mind could never attain. Yet he became very fond of Berna, and often visited us.
“Why don’t you go and get churched decently, if you love her?” he demanded.
“So I will,” I answered calmly; “give me a little time. Wait till we get more settled.”
And, indeed, we were up to our necks in business these days. Our Gold Hill property had turned out well. We had a gang of men employed there, and I made frequent trips out to Bonanza. We had given the Halfbreed a small interest, and installed him as manager. The Jamwagon, too, we had employed as a sort of assistant foreman. Jim was busy installing his hydraulic plant on Ophir Creek, and altogether we had enough to think about. I had set my heart on making a hundred thousand dollars, and as things were looking it seemed as if two more years would bring me to that mark.
“Then,” said I to Berna, “We’ll go and travel all over the world, and do it in style.”
“Will we, dear?” she answered tenderly. “But I don’t want money much now, and I don’t know that I care so much about travel either. What I would like would be to go to your home, and settle down and live quietly. What I want is a nice flower garden, and a pony to drive into town, and a home to fuss about. 1 would embroider, and read, and play a little, and cook things, and—just be with you.”
She was greatly interested in my description of Glengyle. She never tired of questioning me about it. Particularly was she interested in my accounts of Garry, and rather scoffed at my enthusiastic description of him.
“Oh, that wonderful brother of yours! One would think he 'was a small god, to hear you talk. I declare I'm half afraid of him. Do you think he would like me?”
“He would love you, little girl ; any one would.”
“Don’t be foolish,” she chided me. And then she drew my head down and kissed me.
I think we had the prettiest little cabin in all Dawson. The big logs were peeled smooth, and the ends squarely cut. The chinks were filled in with mortar. The whole was painted a deep rich crimson. The roof was covered with sheet-iron, and it, too, was painted crimson. There was a deep porch to it. It was the snuggest, neatest little home in the world.
Windows hung with dainty lace curtains peeped through its clustering greenery of vines, but the glory of it all was the flower garden. There was a bewildering variety of flowers, but mostly I remember stocks and pinks, Iceland poppies, marguerites, asters, marigolds, verbenas, hollyhocks, pansies and petunias, growing in glorious profusion. Even the roughest miner would stond and stare at them as he tramped past on the board sidewalk.
They were a mosaic of glowing color, yet the crowning triumph was the poppies and sweet peas. Set in the centre of the lawn was a circle that was a leaping glow of poppies. Of every shade were they, from starry pink to luminous gold, from snowy white to passionate crimson. Like vari-colored lamps they swung, and wakened you to wTonder and joy with the exultant challenge of their beauty. And the sweet peas! All up the south side of the cabin they grew, overtopping the eaves in their riotous perfection. They rivalled the poppies in the radiant confusion of
their color, and they were so lavish of blossom we could not pick them fast enough. I think ours was the pioneer garden of the gola-born city, and awakened many to the growth-giving magic of the long, long day.
And it was the joy and pride of Berna’s heart. I would sit on the porch of a summer's evening when down the mighty Yukon a sunset of vast and violent beauty flamed and languished, and I would watch her as she worked among her flowers. I can see her flitting figure in a dress of dainty white as she hovered over a beautiful blossom. I can hear her calling me, her voice like the music of a flute, calling me to come and see some triumph of her skill. I have a picture of her coming towards me with her arms full of flowers, burying her face lovingly among tne velvet petals, and raising it again, the sweetest flower of all. How radiantly outshone her eyes, and her face, delicate as a cameo, seemed to have stolen the fairest tints of the lily and the rose.
Starry vines screened the porch, and everywhere were swinging baskets of silver birch, brimming over with the delicate green of smilax or clouded in an amethystine mist of lobelias. I can still see the little sitting-room with its piano, its plentitude of cushions, its book-rack, its Indian corner, its tasteful paper, its pictures, and always and everywhere flowers, flowers. The air was heavy with the fragrance of them. They glorified the crudest corner, and made our home like a nook in fairyland.
I remember one night as I sat reading she came to me. Never did I see her look so happy. She was almost childlike in her joy. She sat down by my chair and looked up at me. Then she put her arms around me.
“Oh, I'm so happy,” she said with a sigh.
“Are you, dearest?” I caressed the soft floss of her hair.
“Yes, I just wish we could live like this forever;” and she nestled up to me ever so fondly.
Aye, she was happy, and I will always bless the memory of those days, and thank God I was the means of bringing a little gladness into her marred life. She was happy, and yet we were living in what society would call sin. Conventionally we were not man and wife, yet never were man and wife more devoted, more selfrespecting. Never were man and wife endowed with purer ideals, with a more exalted conception of the sanctity of love. Yet there were many in the town not half so delicate, so refined, so spiritual, who would have passed my little lady like a pariah. But what cared we?
And perhaps it was the very greatness of my love for her that sometimes made me fear; so that often in the ecstasy of a moment I would catch my breath and wonder if it all could last. And when the poplars turned to gold, and up the valley stole a shuddering breath of desolation, my fear grew apace. The sky was all resplendent with the winter stars, and keen and hard their facets sparkled. And I knew that somewhere underneath those stars there slept Locasto. But was it the sleep of the living or of the dead? Would he return?
Two men were crawling over the winterlocked plain. In the aching circle if its immensity they were like little black ants. One, the leader, was of great bulk and of a vast strength; while the other was small and wiry, of the breed that clings like a louse to life while better men perish.
On all sides of the frozen lake over which they were travelling were hills covered with harsh pine, that pricked funereally up to the boulder-broken snows. Above that was a stormy and fantastic sea of mountains baring many a fierce peakfang to the hollow heavens. The sky was a waxen grey, cold as a corpse-light. The snow was an immaculate shroud, unmarked by track of bird or beast. Death-sealed the land lay in its silent vastitude, in its despairful desolation.
The small man was breaking trail. Down almost to his knees in the soft snow, he sank at every step ; yet ever he dragged a foot painfully upward, and made another forward plunge. The snowshoe thong, jagged with ice, chafed him cruelly. The muscles of his legs ached as insistently as if clamped in a vice. He lurched forward with fatigue, so that he seemed to be ever stumbling, yet recovering himself.
“Come on there, you darned little shrimp; get a move on you,” growled the
big man from within the frost-fringed hood of his parka.
The little man started as if galvanized into sudden life. His breath steamed and almost hissed as it struck the icy air. At each raw intake of it his chest heaved. He beat his mittened hands on his breast to keep them from freezing. Under the hood of his parka great icicles had formed, hanging to the hairs of his beard, walruslike, and his eyes, thickly wadded with frost, glared out with the furtive fear of a hunted beast.
“Curse him, curse him,” he whimpered; but once more he lifted those leaden snowshoes and staggered ón.
The big man lashed fiercely at the dogs, and as they screamed at his blows he laughed cruelly. They were straining forward in the harness, their bellies almost level with the ground, their muscles standing. out like whale-bone. Great, gaunt brutes they were, with ribs like barrelstaves, and hip-bones o sharp as stakes. Their wooly coats were white with frost, their sly, slit-eyed faces ice-sheathed, their feet torn so that they left a bloody track on the snow at every step.
“Mush on there, you curs, or I’ll cut you in two,” stormed the big man, and once again the heavy whip fell on the yelling pack. They were pulling for all they were worth, their heads down, their shoulders squared. Their breath came pantingly, their tongues gleamed redly, their white teeth shone. They were fighting, fighting for life, fighting to placate a cruel master in a world where all was cruelty and oppression.
For there in the Winter Wild pity was not even a name. It was the struggle for life, desperate and never-ending. The Wild abhorred life, abhorred most of all these atoms of heat and hurry in the midst of her triumphant stillness. The Wild would crush those defiant pigmies that disputed the majesty of her invincible calm.
A dog was hanging back in the harness. It whined; then as the husky following snapped at it savagely, it gave a lurch and fell. The big man shot forward with a sudden fury in his eyes. Swinging the heavy-thonged whip, again and again he brought it down on the writhing brute. Then he twisted the thong around his hand and belaboured its hollow ribs with the butt. It screamed for awhile, but soon it ceased to scream ; it only moaned a little. With glistening fangs and ears up-pricked the other dogs looked at their fallen comrade. They longed to leap on it, to rend its gaunt limbs apart, to tear its quivering flesh; but there was the big man with his murderous whip, and they cowered before him.
The big man kicked the fallen dog repeatedly. The little man paused in his painful progress to look on apathetically.
“You’ll stave in its ribs,” he remarked presently; “ and then we’ll never make timber by nightfall.”
The big man had failed in his efforts to rouse the dog. There in that lancinating cold, in an ecstasy of rage, despairfully he poised o^er it.
“Who told you to put in your lip?” he snarled. “Who’s running this show, you or I? I’ll stave in its ribs if I choose, and I’ll hitch you to the sled and make you pull your guts out, too.”
The little man said no more. Then, the dog still refusing to rise, the big man leapt over the harness and came down on the animal with both feet. There was a scream of pitiful asonv, and the snap of breaking bones. Rut the big man slipped and fell. Down he came, and like a flash the whole pack piled onto him.
For a moment there was a confused muddle of dogs and master. This was the time for which they had waited, these savage semi-wolves. This man had beaten them, had starved them, had been a devil to them, and now he was down and at their mercy. Ferociously they sprang on him, and their white fangs snapped like traps in his face. They fought to eet at his throat. They tore at his parka. Oh, if they could only make their teeth meet in his warm flesh ! But no ; they were all tangled up in the harness, and the man was fighting like a giant. He had the leader by the throat and was using her a? a shield against the others. His right hand swung the whip with flail-like blows. Foiled and confused the dogs fell to fighting among themselves, and triuphantly the man leapt to his feet.
He was like a fiend now. Fiercely he raged among the snarling pack, kicking, clubbing, cursing, till one and all he had them beaten into cowering subjection.
He was still panting from his struggle. His face was deathly pale, and his eyes were glittering. He strode up to the little man, who had watched the performance stolidly.
“Why didn’t you help me, you dirty little whelp?” he hissed. “You wanted to see them chew me up: you know you did. You’d like to have them rip me to ribbons. You wouldn’t move a finger to save me. Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had enough of you this trip to last me a lifetime. You’ve bucked me right along. Now, blast your dirty little soul, I hate you, and for the rest of the way I’m going to make your life hell. See! Now I’ll begin.”
The little man was afraid. He seemed to grow smaller, while over him towered the other, dark, fierce and malignant. The little man was desperate. Defensively he crouched, yet the next instant he was overthrown. Then, as he lay sprawling in the snow, the big man fell to lashing him with the whip. Time after time he struck, till the screams of his victim became one lone, drawn-out wail of agony. Then he desisted. Jerking the other on his feet once more, he bade him go on breaking trail.
Again they struggled on. The light was beginning to fail, and there was no thought in their minds but to reach that dark belt of timber before darkness came. There was no sound but the crunch of their snowshoe3. the panting of the dogs, the rasping of the si eich. When they paused the silence seemed to fall on them like a blanket. There was something awful in the qualitv of this deathly silence. Tt was as if something material, something tangible, hovered over them, closed in on them, choked them, throttled them. It was almost like a Presence.
Weary and worn were men and dogs as they struggled onwards in the growing gloom, but because of the feeling in his heart the little man no longer was conscious of bodilv pain. Tt was black murder that raged there.
With straining sinews and bones that cracked, the dogs bent to a heavy pull, while at the least sign of shirking down swished the relentle33 whip. And the big man. as if proud of his strength, gazed insolently round on the Wild. He was at home in this land, this stark wolf-land, so callous, so cruel. Was he not cruel, too? Surely this land cowered before him. Its hardships could not daunt him, nor its terrors dismay. As he urged on his bloody-footed dogs, he exulted greatly. Of all Men of the High North was he not king?
At last they reached the forest fringe, and after a few harsh directions he had the little man making camp. The little man worked with a strange willingness. All his taciturnity had gone. As he gathered the firewood and filled the Yukon stove, he hummed a merry air. He had the water boiling and soon there was the fragrance of tea in the little tent. He produced sourdrough bread (which he fried in bacon fat), and some dried moosemeat.
To men of the trail this was a treat. They ate ravenously, but they did not speak. Yet the little man was oddly cheerful. Time and again the big man looked at him suspiciously. Outside it was a steely night, with an icicle of a moon. The cold leapt on one savagely. To step from the tent was like plunging into icy water, yet within those canvas walls the men were warm and snug. The stove crackled its cheer. A grease-light sputtered, and by its rays the little man was mending his ice-stiffened moccasins. He hummed an Irish air, and he seemed to be tickled with some thought he had.
“Stop that tune,” growled the other. “If you don’t know anything else, cut it out. I’m sick of it.”
The little man shut up meekly. Again there was silence, broken by a whining and a scratching outside. It was the five dogs crying for their supper, crying for the frozen fish they had earned so well. They wondered why it was not forthcoming. When they received it they would lie on it, to warm it with the heat of their bodies, and then gnaw off the thawed portions. They were very wise, these dogs, But to-night there was no fish, and they whined for it.
“Dog feed all gone?”
“Yep,” said the small man.
“Hell! I’ll silence these brutes anyway.”
He went to the door and laid onto them so that they slunk away into the shadows.
But they did not bury themselves in the snow and sleep. They continued to prowl round the tent, hunger-mad and desperate.
“We’ve only got enough grub left for ourselves now,” said the big man; “and none too much at that. I guess I’ll put you on half-rations.”
He laughed as if it was the hugest joke. Then rolling himself in a robe, he lay down and slept.
The little man did not sleep. He was still turning over the thought that had come to him. Outside in the atrocious cold the whining malamutes crept nearer and nearer. Savage were they, Indian raised and sired by a wolf. And now, in the agonies of hunger, they cried for fish, and there was none for them, only kicks and curses. Oh, it was a world of ghastly cruelty ! They howled their woes to the weary moon.
“Short rations, indeed,” mumbled the little man. He crawled into his sleeping bag, but he did not close his eyes. He was watching.
About dawn he rose. An evil dawn it was, sallow, sinister and askew.
The little man selected the heavy-handled whip for the job. Carefully he felt its butt, then he struck. It was a shrewd blow and a neatly delivered, for the little man had been in the business before. It fell on the big man’s head, and he crumpled up. Then the little man took some rawhide thongs and trussed up his victim. There lay the big man, bound and helpless, with a clotted blood-hole in his black hair.
Then the little man gathered up the rest of the provisions. He looked around carefully, as if fearful of leaving anything behind. He made a pack of the food and lashed it on his back. Now he was ready to start. He knew that within fifty miles, traveling to the south, he would strike a settlement. He was safe.
He turned to where lay the unconscious body of his partner. Again and again he kicked it; he cursed it; he spat on it. Then, after a final look of gloating hate, he went off and left the big man to his fate.
At last, at long last, the. Worm had turned.
(To be Continued.)