Back to God's Country and Other Stories
James Oliver Curwood
Part 3 out of 4
Billy was looking at him steadily. Slowly he rose to his feet, lifted his
manacled hands, and turned down the light.
"Hurts my eyes," he said, and he laughed frankly as he caught the
suspicious glint in Brokaw's eyes. He seated himself again, and leaned
over toward the other. "I haven't talked to a white man for three
months," he added, a little hesitatingly. "I've been hiding--close. I had
a dog for a time, and he died, an' I didn't dare go hunting for another.
I knew you fellows were pretty close after me. But I wanted to get enough
fur to take me to South America. Had it all planned, an' SHE was going to
join me there--with the kid. Understand? If you'd kept away another
There was a husky break in his voice, and he coughed to clear it.
"You don't mind if I talk, do you--about her, an' the kid? I've got to do
it, or bust, or go mad. I've got to because--to-day--she was
twenty-four--at ten o'clock in the morning--an' it's our wedding day--"
The half gloom hid from Brokaw what was in the other's face. And then
Billy laughed almost joyously. "Say, but she's been a true little
pardner," he whispered proudly, as there came a lull in the storm. "She
was just born for me, an' everything seemed to happen on her birthday,
an' that's why I can't be downhearted even NOW. It's her birthday? you
see, an' this morning, before you came, I was just that happy that I set
a plate for her at the table, an' put her picture and a curl of her hair
beside it--set the picture up so it was looking at me--an' we had
breakfast together. Look here--"
He moved to the table, with Brokaw watching him like a cat, and brought
something back with him, wrapped in a soft piece of buckskin. He unfolded
the buckskin tenderly, and drew forth a long curl that rippled a dull red
and gold in the lamp-glow, and then he handed a photograph to Brokaw.
"That's her!" he whispered.
Brokaw turned so that the light fell on the picture. A sweet, girlish
face smiled at him from out of a wealth of flowing, disheveled curls.
"She had it taken that way just for me," explained Billy, with the
enthusiasm of a boy in his voice. "She's always wore her hair in
curls--an' a braid--for me, when we're home. I love it that way. Guess I
may be silly but I'll tell you why. THAT was down in York State, too. She
lived in a cottage, all grown over with honeysuckle an' morning glory,
with green hills and valleys all about it--and the old apple orchard just
behind. That day we were in the orchard, all red an' white with bloom,
and she dared me to a race. I let her beat me, and when I came up she
stood under one of the trees, her cheeks like the pink blossoms, and her
hair all tumbled about her like an armful of gold, shaking the loose
apple blossoms down on her head. I forgot everything then, and I didn't
stop until I had her in my arms, an'--an' she's been my little pardner
ever since. After the baby came we moved up into Canada, where I had a
good chance in a new mining town. An' then--" A furious blast of the
storm sent the overhanging spruce tops smashing against the top of the
cabin. Straight overhead the wind shrieked almost like human voices, and
the one window rattled as though it were shaken by human hands. The lamp
had been burning lower and lower. It began to flicker now, the quick
sputter of the wick lost in the noise of the gale. Then it went out.
Brokaw leaned over and opened the door of the big box stove, and the red
glow of the fire took the place of the lamplight. He leaned back and
relighted his pipe, eyeing Billy. The sudden blast, the going out of the
light, the opening of the stove door, had all happened in a minute, but
the interval was long enough to bring a change in Billy's voice. It was
cold and hard when he continued. He leaned over toward Brokaw, and the
boyishness had gone from his face.
"Of course, I can't expect you to have any sympathy for this other
business, Brokaw," he went on. "Sympathy isn't in your line, an' you
wouldn't be the big man you are in the service if you had it. But I'd
like to know what YOU would have done. We were up there six months, and
we'd both grown to love the big woods, and she was growing prettier and
happier every day--when Thorne, the new superintendent, came up. One day
she told me that she didn't like Thorne, but I didn't pay much attention
to that, and laughed at her, and said he was a good fellow. After that I
could see that something was worrying her, and pretty soon I couldn't
help from seeing what it was, and everything came out. It was Thorne. He
was persecuting her. She hadn't told me, because she knew it would make
trouble and I'd lose my job. One afternoon I came home earlier than
usual, and found her crying. She put her arms round my neck, and just
cried it all out, with her face snuggled in my neck, and kissin' me--"
Brokaw could see the cords in Billy's neck. His manacled hands were
"What would you have done, Brokaw?" he asked huskily. "What if you had a
wife, an' she told you that another man had insulted her, and was forcing
his attentions on her, and she asked you to give up your job and take her
away? Would you have done it, Brokaw? No, you wouldn't. You'd have hunted
up the man. That's what I did. He had been drinking--just enough to make
him devilish, and he laughed at me--I didn't mean to strike so hard.--But
it happened. I killed him. I got away. She and the baby are down in the
little cottage again--down in York State--an' I know she's awake this
minute--our wedding day--thinking of me, an' praying for me, and counting
the days between now and spring. We were going to South America then."
Brokaw rose to his feet, and put fresh wood into the stove.
"I guess it must be pretty hard," he said, straightening himself. "But
the law up here doesn't take them things into account--not very much. It
may let you off with manslaugher--ten or fifteen years. I hope it does.
Let's turn in."
Billy stood up beside him. He went with Brokaw to a bunk built against
the wall, and the sergeant drew a fine steel chain from his pocket. Billy
lay down, his hands crossed over his breast, and Brokaw deftly fastened
the chain about his ankles.
"And I suppose you think THIS is hard, too," he added. "But I guess you'd
do it if you were me. Ten years of this sort of work learns you not to
take chances. If you want anything in the night just whistle." It had
been a hard day with Brokaw, and he slept soundly. For an hour Billy lay
awake, thinking of home, and listening to the wail of the storm. Then he,
too, fell into sleep--a restless, uneasy slumber filled with troubled
visions. For a time there had come a lull in the storm, but now it broke
over the cabin with increased fury. A hand seemed slapping at the window,
threatening to break it. The spruce boughs moaned and twisted overhead,
and a volley of wind and snow shot suddenly down the chimney, forcing
open the stove door, so that a shaft of ruddy light cut like a red knife
through the dense gloom of the cabin. In varying ways the sounds played a
part in Billy's dreams. In all those dreams, and segments of dreams, the
girl--his wife--was present. Once they had gone for wild flowers and had
been caught in a thunderstorm, and had run to an old and disused barn in
the middle of a field for shelter. He was back in that barn again, with
HER--and he could feel her trembling against him, and he was stroking her
hair, as the thunder crashed over them and the lightning filled her eyes
with fear. After that there came to him a vision of the early autumn
nights when they had gone corn roasting, with other young people. He had
always been afflicted with a slight nasal trouble, and smoke irritated
him. It set him sneezing, and kept him dodging about the fire, and she
had always laughed when the smoke persisted in following him about, like
a young scamp of a boy bent on tormenting him. The smoke was unusually
persistent to-night. He tossed in his bunk, and buried his face in the
blanket that answered for a pillow. The smoke reached him even there, and
he sneezed chokingly. In that instant the girl's face disappeared. He
sneezed again--and awoke.
A startled gasp broke from his lips, and the handcuffs about his wrists
clanked as he raised his hands to his face. In that moment his dazed
senses adjusted themselves. The cabin was full of smoke. It partly
blinded him, but through it he could see tongues of fire shooting toward
the ceiling. He could hear the crackling of burning pitch, and he yelled
wildly to Brokaw. In an instant the sergeant was on his feet. He rushed
to the table, where he had placed a pail of water the evening before, and
Billy heard the hissing of the water as it struck the flaming wall.
"Never mind that," he shouted. "The shack's built of pitch cedar. We've
got to get out!" Brokaw groped his way to him through the smoke and began
fumbling at the chain about his ankles.
"I can't--find--the key--" he gasped chokingly. "Here grab hold of me!"
He caught Billy under the arms and dragged him to the door. As he opened
it the wind came in with a rush and behind them the whole cabin burst
into a furnace of flame. Twenty yards from the cabin he dropped Billy in
the snow, and ran back. In that seething room of smoke and fire was
everything on which their lives depended, food, blankets, even their
coats and caps and snowshoes. But he could go no farther than the door.
He returned to Billy, found the key in his pocket, and freed him from the
chain about his ankles. Billy stood up. As he looked at Brokaw the glass
in the window broke and a sea of flame sprouted through. It lighted up
their faces. The sergeant's jaw was set hard. His leathery face was
curiously white. He could not keep from shivering. There was a strange
smile on Billy's face, and a strange look in his eyes. Neither of the two
men had undressed for sleep, but their coats, and caps, and heavy mittens
were in the flames.
Billy rattled his handcuffs. Brokaw looked him squarely in the eyes.
"You ought to know this country," he said. "What'll we do?"
"The nearest post is sixty miles from here," said Billy.
"I know that," replied Brokaw. "And I know that Thoreau's cabin is only
twenty miles from here. There must be some trapper or Indian shack nearer
than that. Is there?" In the red glare of the fire Billy smiled. His
teeth gleamed at Brokaw. It was a lull of the wind, and he went close to
Brokaw, and spoke quietly, his eyes shining more and more with that
strange light that had come into them.
"This is going to be a big sight easier than hanging, or going to jail
for half my life, Brokaw--an' you don't think I'm going to be fool enough
to miss the chance, do you? It ain't hard to die of cold. I've almost
been there once or twice. I told you last night why I couldn't give up
hope--that something good for me always came on her birthday, or near to
it. An' it's come. It's forty below, an' we won't live the day out. We
ain't got a mouthful of grub. We ain't got clothes enough on to keep us
from freezing inside the shanty, unless we had a fire. Last night I saw
you fill your match bottle and put it in your coat pocket. Why, man, WE
AIN'T EVEN GOT A MATCH!"
In his voice there was a thrill of triumph. Brokaw's hands were clenched,
as if some one had threatened to strike him.
"You mean--" he gasped.
"Just this," interrupted Billy, and his voice was harder than Brokaw's
now. "The God you used to pray to when you was a kid has given me a
choice, Brokaw, an' I'm going to take it. If we stay by this fire, an'
keep it up, we won't die of cold, but of starvation. We'll be dead before
we get half way to Thoreau's. There's an Indian shack that we could make,
but you'll never find it--not unless you unlock these irons and give me
that revolver at your belt. Then I'll take you over there as my prisoner.
That'll give me another chance for South America--an' the kid an' home."
Brokaw was buttoning the thick collar of his shirt close up about his
neck. On his face, too, there came for a moment a grim and determined
"Come on," he said, "we'll make Thoreau's or die."
"Sure," said Billy, stepping quickly to his side. "I suppose I might lie
down in the snow, an' refuse to budge. I'd win my game then, wouldn't I?
But we'll play it--on the square. It's Thoreau's, or die. And it's up to
you to find Thoreau's."
He looked back over his shoulder at the burning cabin as they entered the
edge of the forest, and in the gray darkness that was preceding dawn he
smiled to himself. Two miles to the south, in a thick swamp, was Indian
Joe's cabin. They could have made it easily. On their way to Thoreau's
they would pass within a mile of it. But Brokaw would never know. And
they would never reach Thoreau's. Billy knew that. He looked at the man
hunter as he broke trail ahead of him--at the pugnacious hunch of his
shoulders, his long stride, the determined clench of his hands, and
wondered what the soul and the heart of a man like this must be, who in
such an hour would not trade life for life. For almost three-quarters of
an hour Brokaw did not utter a word. The storm had broke. Above the
spruce tops the sky began to clear. Day came slowly. And it was growing
steadily colder. The swing of Brokaw'a arms and shoulders kept the blood
in them circulating, while Billy's manacled wrists held a part of his
body almost rigid. He knew that his hands were already frozen. His arms
were numb, and when at last Brokaw paused for a moment on the edge of a
frozen stream Billy thrust out his hands, and clanked the steel rings.
"It must be getting colder," he said. "Look at that."
The cold steel had seared his wrists like hot iron, and had pulled off
patches of skin and flesh. Brokaw looked, and hunched his shoulders. His
lips were blue. His cheeks, ears, and nose were frost-bitten. There was a
curious thickness in his voice when he spoke.
"Thoreau lives on this creek," he said. "How much farther is it?"
"Fifteen or sixteen miles," replied Billy. "You'll last just about five,
Brokaw. I won't last that long unless you take these things off and give
me the use of my arms."
"To knock out my brains when I ain't looking," growled Brokaw. "I
guess--before long--you'll be willing to tell where the Indian's shack
is." He kicked his way through a drift of snow to the smoother surface of
the stream. There was a breath of wind in their faces, and Billy bowed
his head to it. In the hours of his greatest loneliness and despair Billy
had kept up his fighting spirit by thinking of pleasant things, and now,
as he followed in Brokaw's trail, he began to think of home. It was not
hard for him to bring up visions of the girl wife who would probably
never know how he had died. He forgot Brokaw. He followed in the trail
mechanically, failing to notice that his captor's pace was growing
steadily slower, and that his own feet were dragging more and more like
leaden weights. He was back among the old hills again, and the sun was
shining, and he heard laughter and song. He saw Jeanne standing at the
gate in front of the little white cottage, smiling at him, and waving
Baby Jeanne's tiny hand at him as he looked back over his shoulder from
down the dusty road. His mind did not often travel as far as the mining
camp, and he had completely forgotten it now. He no longer felt the sting
and pain of the intense cold. It was Brokaw who brought him back into the
reality of things. The sergeant stumbled and fell in a drift, and Billy
fell over him. For a moment the two men sat half buried in the snow,
looking at each other without speaking. Brokaw moved first. He rose to
his feet with an effort. Billy made an attempt to follow him. After three
efforts he gave it up, and blinked up into Brokaw's face with a queer
laugh. The laugh was almost soundless. There had come a change in
Brokaw's face. Its determination and confidence were gone. At last the
iron mask of the Law was broken, and there shone through it something of
the emotions and the brotherhood of man. He was fumbling in one of his
pockets, and drew out the key to the handcuffs. It was a small key, and
he held it between his stiffened fingers with diffic ulty. He knelt down
beside Billy. The keyhole was filled with snow. It took a long time--ten
minutes--before the key was fitted in and the lock clicked. He helped to
tear off the cuffs. Billy felt no sensation as bits of skin and flesh
came "with them. Brokaw gave him a hand, and assisted him to rise. For
the first time he spoke.
"Guess you've got me beat, Billy," he said.
"Where's the Indian's?"
He drew his revolver from its holster and tossed it in the snowdrift. The
shadow of a smile passed grimly over his face. Billy looked about him.
They had stopped where the frozen path of a smaller stream joined the
creek. He raised one of his stiffened arms and pointed to it.
"Follow that creek--four miles--and you'll come to Indian Joe's shack,"
"And a mile is just about our limit"
"Just about--your's," replied Billy. "I can't make another half. If we
had a fire--"
"IF--" wheezed Brokaw.
"If we had a fire," continued Billy. "We could warm ourselves, an' make
the Indian's shack easy, couldn't we?"
Brokaw did not answer. He had turned toward the creek when one of Billy's
pulseless hands fell heavily on his arm.
"Look here, Brokaw."
Brokaw turned. They looked into each other's eyes.
"I guess mebby you're a man, Brokaw," said Billy quietly. "You've done
what you thought was your duty. You've kept your word to th' law, an' I
believe you'll keep your word with me. If I say the word that'll save us
now will you go back to headquarters an' report me dead?" For a full half
minute their eyes did not waver.
Then Brokaw said:
Billy dropped his hand. It was Brokaw's hand that fell on his arm now.
"I can't do that," he said. "In ten years I ain't run out the white flag
once. It's something that ain't known in the service. There ain't a
coward in it, or a man who's afraid to die. But I'll play you square.
I'll wait until we're both on our feet, again, and then I'll give you
twenty-four hours the start of me."
Billy was smiling now. His hand reached out. Brokaw's met it, and the two
joined in a grip that their numb fingers scarcely felt.
"Do you know," said Billy softly, "there's been somethin' runnin' in my
head ever since we left the burning cabin. It's something my mother
taught me: 'Do unto others as you'd have others do unto you.' I'm a d---
fool, ain't I? But I'm goin' to try the experiment, Brokaw, an' see what
comes of it. I could drop in a snowdrift an' let you go on--to die. Then
I could save myself. But I'm going to take your word--an' do the other
thing. I'VE GOT A MATCH."
"Just one. I remember dropping it in my pants pocket yesterday when I was
out on the trail. It's in THIS pocket. Your hand is in better shape than
mine. Get it."
Life had leaped into Brokaw's face. He thrust his hand into Billy's
pocket, staring at him as he fumbled, as if fearing that he had lied.
When he drew his hand out the match was between his fingers.
"Ah!" he whispered excitedly.
"Don't get nervous," warned Billy. "It's the only one."
Brokaw's eyes were searching the low timber along the shore. "There's a
birch tree," he cried. "Hold it--while I gather a pile of bark!"
He gave the match to Billy, and staggered through the snow to the bank.
Strip after strip of the loose bark he tore from the tree. Then he
gathered it in a heap in the shelter of a low-hanging spruce, and added
dry sticks, and still more bark, to it. When it was ready he stood with
his hands in his pockets, and looked at Billy.
"If we had a stone, an' a piece of paper--" he began.
Billy thrust a hand that felt like lifeless lead inside his shirt, and
fumbled in a pocket he had made there. Brokaw watched him with red, eager
eyes. The hand reappeared, and in it was the buckskin wrapped photograph
he had seen the night before, Billy took off the buckskin. About the
picture there was a bit of tissue paper. He gave this and the match to
"There's a little gun-file in the pocket the match came from," he said.
"I had it mending a trapchain. You can scratch the match on that."
He turned so that Brokaw could reach into the pocket, and the man hunter
thrust in his hand. When he brought it forth he held the file. There was
a smile on Billy's frostbitten face as he held the picture for a moment
under Brokaw's eyes. Billy's own hands had ruffled up the girl's shining
curls an instant before the picture was taken, and she was laughing at
him when the camera clicked.
"It's all up to her, Brokaw," Billy said gently. "I told you that last
night. It was she who woke me up before the fire got us. If you ever
prayed--pray a little now. FOR SHE'S GOING TO STRIKE THAT MATCH!"
He still looked at the picture as Brokaw knelt beside the pile he had
made. He heard the scratch of the match on the file, but his eyes did not
turn. The living, breathing face of the most beautiful thing in the world
was speaking to him from out of that picture. His mind was dazed. He
swayed a little. He heard a voice, low and sweet, and so distant that it
came to him like the faintest whisper. "I am coming--I am coming,
Billy--coming--coming--coming--" A joyous cry surged up from his soul,
but it died on his lips in a strange gasp. A louder cry brought him back
to himself for a moment. It was from Brokaw. The sergeant's face was
terrible to behold. He rose to his feet, swaying, his hands clutched at
his breast. His voice was thick--hopeless.
"The match--went--out--" He staggered up to Billy, his eyes like a
madman's. Billy swayed dizzily. He laughed, even as he crumpled down in
the snow. As if in a dream he saw Brokaw stagger off on the frozen trail.
He saw him disappear in his hopeless effort to reach the Indian's shack.
And then a strange darkness closed him in, and in that darkness he heard
still the sweet voice of his wife. It spoke his name again and again, and
it urged him to wake up--wake up--WAKE UP! It seemed a long time before
he could respond to it. But at last he opened his eyes. He dragged
himself to his knees, and looked first to find Brokaw. But the man hunter
had gone--forever. The picture was still in his hand. Less distinctly
than before he saw the girl smiling at him. And then--at his back--he
heard a strange and new sound. With an effort he turned to discover what
The match had hidden an unseen spark from Brokaw's eyes. From out of the
pile of fuel was rising a pillar of smoke and flame.
THE HONOR OF HER PEOPLE
"It ees not so much--What you call heem?--leegend, thees honor of the
Beeg Snows!" said Jan softly.
He had risen to his feet and gazed placidly over the crackling box-stove
into the eyes of the red-faced Englishman.
"Leegend is lie! Thees is truth!"
There was no lack of luster in the black eyes that roved inquiringly from
the Englishman's bantering grin to the others in the room. Mukee, the
half Cree, was sitting with his elbows on his knees gazing with stoic
countenance at this new curiosity who had wandered four hundred miles
northward from civilization. Williams, the Hudson's Bay man who claimed
to be all white, was staring hard at the red side of the stove, and the
factor's son looked silently at Jan. He and the half-breed noted the warm
glow in the eyes that rested casually upon the Englishman.
"It ees truth--thees honor of the Beeg Snows!" said Jan again, and his
moccasined feet fell in heavy, thumping tread to the door.
That was the first time he had spoken that evening, and not even the half
Cree, or Williams, or the factor's son guessed how the blood was racing
through his veins. Outside he stood with the pale, cold glow of the
Aurora Borealis shining upon him, and the limitless wilderness, heavy in
its burden of snow, reaching out into the ghost-gray fabric of the night.
The Englishman's laugh followed him, boisterous and grossly thick, and
Jan moved on,--wondering how much longer the half Cree and Williams and
the factor's son would listen to the things that this man was saying of
the most beautiful thing that had ever come into their lives.
"It ees truth, I swear, by dam'--thees honor of what he calls the 'Beeg
Snows!'" persisted Jan to himself, and he set his back to the factor's
office and trudged through the snow.
When he came to the black ledge of the spruce and balsam forest he
stopped and looked back. It was an hour past bedtime at the post. The
Company's store loomed up silent and lightless. The few log cabins
betrayed no signs of life. Only in the factor's office, which was the
Company's haven for the men of the wilderness, was there a waste of
kerosene, and that was because of the Englishman whom Jan was beginning
to hate. He stared back at the one glowing window with a queer thickening
in his throat and a clenching of the hands in the pockets of his
caribou-skin coat. Then he looked long and wistfully at a little cabin
which stood apart from the rest, and to himself he whispered again what
he had said to the Englishman. Until to-night--or, perhaps, until two
weeks ago--Jan had been satisfied with his world. It was a big,
passionless world, mostly of snow and ice and endless privation, but he
loved it, and there was only a fast-fading memory of another world in his
brain. It was a world of big, honest hearts kept warm within caribou
skins, of moccasined men whom endless solitude had taught to say little
and do much--a world of "Big Snows," as the Englishman had said, in which
Jan and all his people had come very close to the things which God
created. Without the steely gray flash of those mystery-lights over the
Arctic pole Jan would have been homesick; his soul would have withered
and died in anything but this wondrous land which he knew, with its
billion dazzling stars by night and its eye-blinding brilliancy by day.
For Jan, in a way, was fortunate. He had in him an infinitesimal measure
of the Cree, which made him understand what the winds sometimes whispered
in the pine-tops; and a part of him was French, which added jet to his
eyes and a twist to his tongue and made him susceptible to the beautiful,
and the rest was "just white"--the part of him that could be stirred into
such thoughts and visions as he was now thinking and dreaming of the
The "honor of the Beeg Snows" was a part of Jan's soul; it was his
religion, and the religion of those few others who lived with him four
hundred miles from a settlement, in a place where God's name could not be
spelled or written. It meant what civilization could not understand, and
the Englishman could not understand--freezing and slow starvation rather
than theft, and the living of the tenth commandment above all other
things. It came naturally and easily, this "honor of the Beeg Snows." It
was an unwritten law which no man cared or dared to break, and to Jan,
with his Cree and his French and his "just white" blood, it was in full
measure just what the good God meant it to be.
He moved now toward the little isolated cabin, half hidden in its drift
of snow, keeping well in the deep shadows of the spruce and balsam, and
when he stopped again he saw faintly a gleam of light falling in a wan
streak through a big hole in a curtained window. Each night, always when
the twenty-odd souls of the post were deep in slumber, Jan's heart would
come near to bursting with joy at the sight of this grow from the
snow-smothered cabin, for it told him that the most beautiful thing in
the world was safe and well. He heard, suddenly, the slamming of a door,
and the young Englishman's whistle sounded shrill and untuneful as he
went to his room in the factor's house. For a moment Jan straightened
himself rigidly, and there was a strange tenseness in the thin, dark face
that he turned straight up to where the Northern Lights were shivering in
their midnight play. When he looked again at the light in the little
cabin the passion-blood was rushing through his veins, and he fingered
the hilt of the hunting knife in his belt.
The most beautiful thing in the world had come into Jan's life, and the
other lives at the post, just two summers before. Cummins, red-headed,
lithe as a cat, big-souled as the eternal mountain of the Crees and the
best of the Company's hunters, had brought her up as his bride. Seventeen
rough hearts had welcomed them. They had assembled about that little
cabin in which the light was shining, speechless in their adoration of
this woman who had come among them, their caps in their hands, faces
shining, eyes shifting before the glorious ones that looked at them and
smiled at them as the woman shook their hands, one by one. Perhaps she
was not beautiful, as most people judge. But she was beautiful here--four
hundred miles beyond civilization. Mukee, the half-Cree, had never seen a
white woman, for even the factor's wife was part Chippewayan, and no one
of the others went down to the edge of the southern wilderness more than
once each twelve-month or so. Her hair was brown and soft, and it shone
with a sunny glory that reached away back into their conception of things
dreamed of but never seen, her eyes were as blue as the early snowflowers
that came after the spring floods, and her voice was the sweetest sound
that had ever fallen upon their ears. So these men thought when Cummins
first brought home his wife, and the masterpiece which each had painted
in his soul and brain was never changed. Each week and month added to the
deep-toned value of that picture, as the passing of a century might add
to a Raphael or a Van Dyke. The woman became more human, and less an
angel, of course, but that only made her more real, and allowed them to
become acquainted with her, to talk with her, and to love her more. There
was no thought of wrong--until the Englishman came; for the devotion of
these men who lived alone, and mostly wifeless, was a great passionless
love unhinting of sin, and Cummins and his wife accepted it, and added to
it when they could, and were the happiest pair in all that vast
The first year brought great changes. The girl--she was scarce more than
budding into womanhood--fell happily into the ways of her new life. She
did nothing that was elementally unusual--nothing more than any pure
woman reared in the love of a God and home would have done. In her spare
hours she began to teach the half dozen wild little children about the
post, and every Sunday told them wonderful stories out of the Bible. She
ministered to the sick, for that was a part of her code of life.
Everywhere she carried her glad smile, her cheery greeting, her wistful
earnestness to brighten what seemed to her the sad and lonely lives of
these silent, worshipful men of the North. And she succeeded, not because
she was unlike other millions of her kind, but because of the difference
between the fortieth and the sixtieth degrees--the difference in the
viewpoint of men who fought themselves into moral shreds in the big game
of life and those who lived a thousand miles nearer to the dome of the
earth. At the end of this first year came the wonderful event in the
history of the Company's post, which had the Barren Lands at its back
door. One day a new life was born into the little cabin of Cummins and
After this the silent, wordless worship of Jan and his people was filled
with something very near to pathos. Cummins' wife was a mother. She was
one of them now, a part of their indissoluble existence--a part of it as
truly as the strange lights forever hovering over the Pole, as surely as
the countless stars that never left the night skies, as surely as the
endless forests and the deep snows! There was an added value to Cummins
now. If there was a long and dangerous mission to perform it was somehow
arranged so that he was left behind. Only Jan and one or two others knew
why his traps made the best catch of fur, for more than once he had
slipped a mink of an ermine or a fox into one of Cummins' traps, knowing
that it would mean a luxury or two for the woman and the baby. And when
Cummins left the post, sometimes for a day and sometimes longer, the
mother and her child fell as a brief heritage to those who remained. The
keenest eyes would not have discovered that this was so.
In the second year, with the beginning of trapping, fell the second and
third great events. Cummins disappeared. Then came the Englishman. For a
time the first of these two overshadowed everything else at the post.
Cummins had gone to prospect a new trap-line, and was to sleep out the
first night. The second night he was still gone. On the third day came
the "Beeg Snow." It began at dawn, thickened as the day went, and
continued to thicken until it became that soft, silent deluge of white in
which no man dared venture a thousand yards from his door. The Aurora was
hidden. There were no stars in the sky at night. Day was weighted with a
strange, noiseless gloom. In all that wilderness there was not a creature
that moved. Sixty hours later, when visible life was resumed again, the
caribou, the wolf and the fox dug themselves up out of six feet of snow,
and found the world changed.
It was at the beginning of the "Beeg Snow" that Jan went to the woman's
cabin. He tapped upon her door with the timidity of a child, and when she
opened it, her great eyes glowing at him in wild questioning, her face
white with a terrible fear, there was a chill at his heart which choked
back what he had come to say. He walked in dumbly and stood with the snow
falling off him in piles, and when Cummins' wife saw neither hope nor
foreboding in his dark, set face she buried her face in her arms upon the
little table and sobbed softly in her despair. Jan strove to speak, but
the Cree in him drove back what was French and "just white," and he stood
in mute, trembling torture. "Ah, the Great God!" his soul was crying.
"What can I do?"
Upon its little cot the woman's child was asleep. Beside the stove there
were a few sticks of wood. He stretched himself until his neck creaked to
see if there was water in the barrel near the door. Then he looked again
at the bowed head and the shivering form at the table. In that moment
Jan's resolution soared very near to the terrible.
"Mees Cummin, I go hunt for heem!" he cried. "I go hunt for heem--an'
He waited another moment, and then backed softly toward the door.
"I hunt for heem!" he repeated, fearing that she had not heard.
She lifted her face, and the beating of Jan's heart sounded to him like
the distant thrumming of partridge wings. Ah, the Great God--would he
ever forget that look! She was coming to him, a new glory in her eyes,
her arms reaching out, her lips parted! Jan knew how the Great Spirit had
once appeared to Mukee, the half-Cree, and how a white mist, like a snow
veil, had come between the half-breed's eyes and the wondrous thing he
beheld. And that same snow veil drifted between Jan and the woman. Like
in a vision he saw her glorious face so near to him that his blood was
frightened into a strange, wonderful sensation that it had never known
before. He felt the touch of her sweet breath, he heard her passionate
prayer, he knew that one of his rough hands was clasped in both her
own--and he knew, too, that their soft, thrilling warmth would remain
with him until he died, and still go into Paradise with him.
When he trudged back into the snow, knee-deep now, he sought Mukee, the
half-breed. Mukee had suffered a lynx bite that went deep into the bone,
and Cummins' wife had saved his hand. After that the savage in him was
enslaved to her like an invisible spirit, and when Jan slipped on his
snowshoes to set out into the deadly chaos of the "Beeg Storm" Mukee was
ready to follow. A trail through the spruce forest led them to the lake
across which Jan knew that Cummins had intended to go. Beyond that, a
matter of six miles or so, there was a deep and lonely break between two
mountainous ridges in which Cummins believed he might find lynx. Indian
instinct guided the two across the lake. There they separated, Jan going
as nearly as he could guess into the northwest, Mukee trailing swiftly
and hopelessly into the south, both inspired in the face of death by the
thought of a woman with sunny hair, and with lips and eyes that had sent
many a shaft of hope and gladness into their desolate hearts.
It was no great sacrifice for Jan, this struggle with the "Beeg Snows"
for the woman's sake. What it was to Mukee, the half-Cree, no man ever
guessed or knew, for it was not until the late spring snows had gone that
they found what the foxes and the wolves had left of him, far to the
A hand, soft and gentle, guided Jan. He felt the warmth of it and the
thrill of it, and neither the warmth nor the thrill grew less as the
hours passed and the snow fell deeper. His soul was burning with a joy
that it had never known. Beautiful visions danced in his brain, and
always he heard the woman's voice praying to him in the little cabin, saw
her eyes upon him through that white snow veil! Ah, what would he not
give if he could find the man, if he could take Cummins back to his wife,
and stand for one moment more with her hands clasping his, her joy
flooding him with a sweetness that would last for all time! He plunged
fearlessly into the white world beyond the lake, his wide snowshoes
sinking ankle-deep at every step. There was neither rock nor tree to
guide him, for everywhere was the heavy ghost-raiment of the Indian God.
The balsams were bending under it, the spruces were breaking into
hunchback forms, the whole world was twisted in noiseless torture under
its increasing weight, and out through the still terror of it all Jan's
voice went in wild echoing shouts. Now and then he fired his rifle, and
always he listened long and intently. The echoes came back to him,
laughing, taunting, and then each time fell the mirthless silence of the
storm. Night came, a little darker than the day, and Jan stopped to build
a fire and eat sparingly of his food, and to sleep. It was still night
when he aroused himself and stumbled on. Never did he take the weight of
his rifle from his right hand or shoulder, for he knew this weight would
shorten the distance traveled at each step by his right foot, and would
make him go in a circle that would bring him back to the lake. But it was
a long circle. The day passed. A second night fell upon him, and his hope
of finding Cummins was gone. A chill crept in where his heart had been so
warm, and somehow that soft pressure of a woman's hand upon his seemed to
become less and less real to him. The woman's prayers were following him,
her heart was throbbing with its hope in him--and he had failed! On the
third day, when the storm was over, Jan staggered hopelessly into the
post. He went straight to the woman, disgraced, heartbroken. When he came
out of the little cabin he seemed to have gone mad. A wondrously strange
thing had happened. He had spoken not a word, but his failure and his
sufferings were written in his face, and when Cummins' wife saw and
understood she went as white as the underside of a poplar leaf in a
clouded sun. But that was not all. She came to him, and clasped one of
his half-frozen hands to her bosom, and he heard her say, "God bless you
forever, Jan! You have done the best you could!" The Great God--was that
not reward for the risking of a miserable, worthless life such as his? He
went to his shack and slept long, and dreamed, sometimes of the woman,
and of Cummins and Mukee, the half-Cree.
On the first crust of the new snow came the Englishman up from Fort
Churchill, on Hudson's Bay. He came behind six dogs, and was driven by an
Indian, and he bore letters to the factor which proclaimed him something
of considerable importance at the home office of the Company, in London.
As such he was given the best bed in the factor's rude home. On the
second day he saw Cummins' wife at the Company's store, and very soon
learned the history of Cummins' disappearance.
That was the beginning of the real tragedy at the post. The wilderness is
a grim oppressor of life. To those who survive in it the going out of
life is but an incident, an irresistible and natural thing, unpleasant
but without horror. So it was with the passing of Cummins. But the
Englishman brought with him something new, as the woman had brought
something new, only in this instance it was an element of life which Jan
and his people could not understand, an element which had never found a
place, and never could, in the hearts and souls of the post. On the other
hand, it promised to be but an incident to the Englishman, a passing
adventure in pleasure common to the high and glorious civilization from
which he had come. Here again was that difference of viewpoint, the
eternity of difference between the middle and the end of the earth. As
the days passed, and the crust grew deeper upon the "Beeg Snows," the
tragedy progressed rapidly toward finality. At first Jan did not
understand. The others did not understand. When the worm of the
Englishman's sin revealed itself it struck them with a dumb, terrible
The Englishman came from among women. For months he had been in a torment
of desolation. Cummins' wife was to him like a flower suddenly come to
relieve the tantalizing barrenness of a desert, and with the wiles and
soft speech of his kind he sought to breathe its fragrance. In the weeks
that followed the flower seemed to come nearer to him, and this was
because Jan and his people had not as yet fully measured the heart of the
woman, and because the Englishman had not measured Jan and his people he
talked a great deal when enthused by the warmth of the box stove and his
thoughts. So human passions were set at play. Because the woman knew
nothing of what was said about the box stove she continued in the even
course of her pure life, neither resisting nor encouraging the newcomer,
yet ever tempting him with that sweetness which she gave to all alike,
and still praying in the still hours of night that Cummins would return
to her. As yet there was no suspicion in her soul. She accepted the
Englishman's friendship. His sympathy for her won him a place in her
recognition of things good and true. She did not hear the false note, she
saw no step that promised evil. Only Jan and his people saw and
understood the one-sided struggle, and shivered at the monstrous evil of
it. At least they thought they saw and understood, which was enough. Like
so many faithful beasts they were ready to spring, to rend flesh, to tear
life out of him who threatened the desecration of all that was good and
pure and beautiful to them, and yet, dumb in their devotion and faith,
they waited and watched for a sign from the woman. The blue eyes of
Cummins' wife, the words of her gentle lips, the touch of her hands had
made law at the post. She, herself, had become the omniscience of all
that was law to them, and if she smiled upon the Englishman, and talked
with him, and was pleased with him, that was only one other law that she
had made for them to respect. So they were quiet, evaded the Englishman
as much as possible, and watched--always watch ed.
These were days when something worse than disease was eating at the few
big honest hearts that made up the life at the post. The search for
Cummins never ceased, and always the woman was receiving hope. Now it was
Williams who went far into the South, and brought back word that a
strange white man had been seen among the Indians; then it was Thoreau,
the Frenchman, who skirted the edge of the Barren Lands three days into
the West, and said that he had found the signs of strange campfires. And
always Jan was on the move, to the South, the North, the East and the
West. The days began to lengthen. It was dawn now at eight o'clock
instead of nine, the silvery white of the sun was turning day by day more
into the glow of fire, and for a few minutes at midday the snow softened
and water dripped from the roofs.
Jan knew what it meant. Very soon the thick crust of the "Beeg Snow"
would drop in, and they would find Cummins. They would bring what was
left of him back to the post. And then--what would happen then?
Every day or two Jan found some pretext that took him to the little log
cabin. Now it was to convey to the woman a haunch of a caribou he had
slain. Again it was to bring her child a strange plaything from the
forest. More frequently it was to do the work that Cummins would have
done. He seldom went within the low door, but stood outside, speaking a
few words, while Cummins' wife talked to him. But one morning, when the
sun was shining down with the first promising warmth of spring, the woman
stepped hack from the door and asked him in.
"I want to tell you something, Jan," she said softly. "I have been
thinking about it for a long time. I must find some work to do. I must do
Jan's eyes leaped straight to hers in sudden horror.
The word fell from him as if in its utterance there was something of
crime. Then he stood speechless, awed by the look in her eyes, the hard
gray pallor that came into her face.
"May God bless you for all you have done, Jan, and may God bless the
others! I want you to take that word to them from me. But he will never
come back, Jan--never. Tell the men that I love them as brothers, and
always shall love them, but now that I know he is dead I can no longer
live as a drone among them. I will do anything. I will make your coats,
do your washing and mend your moccasins. To-morrow I begin my first
He heard what she said after that as if in a dream. When he went out into
the day again, with her word to his people, he knew that in some way
which he could not understand this big, cold world had changed for him.
To-morrow Cummins' wife was to begin writing letters for the Englishman!
His eyes glittered, his hands clenched themselves upon his breast, and
all the blood in him submerged itself in one wild resistless impulse. An
hour later Jan and his four dogs were speeding swiftly into the South.
The next day the Englishman went to the woman's cabin. He did not return
in the afternoon. And that same afternoon, when Cummins' wife came into
the Company's store, a quick flush shot into her cheeks and the glitter
of blue diamonds into her eyes when she saw the Englishman standing
there. The man's red face grew redder, and he shifted his gaze. When
Cummins' wife passed him she drew her skirt close to her, and there was
the poise of a queen in her head, the glory of mother and wife and
womanhood, the living, breathing essence of all that was beautiful in
Jan's "honor of the Beeg Snows." But Jan, twenty miles to the south, did
He returned on the fourth night and went quietly to his little shack in
the edge of the balsam forest. In the glow of the oil lamp which he
lighted he rolled up his treasure of winter-caught furs into a small
pack. Then he opened his door and walked straight and fearlessly toward
the cabin of Cummins' wife. It was a pale, glorious night, and Jan lifted
his face to its starry skies and filled his lungs near to bursting with
its pure air, and when he was within a few steps of the woman's door he
burst into a wild snatch of triumphant forest song. For this was a new
Jan who was returning to her, a man who had gone out into the solitudes
and fought a great battle with the elementary things in him, and who,
because of his triumph over these things, was filled with the strength
and courage to live a great lie. The woman heard his voice, and
recognized it. The door swung open, wide and brimful of light, and in it
stood Cummins' wife, her child hugged close in her arms.
Jan crowed close up out of the starry gloom.
"I fin' heem, Mees Cummins--I fin' heem nint' miles back in Cree
wigwam--with broke leg. He come home soon--he sen' great love--an'
And he dropped his furs at the woman's feet....
"Ah, the Great God!" cried Jan's tortured soul when it was all over. "At
least she shall not work for the dirty Englishman."
First he awoke the factor, and told him what he had done. Then he went to
Williams, and after that, one by one, these three visited the four other
white and part white men at the post. They lived very near to the earth,
these seven, and the spirit of the golden rule was as natural to their
living as green sap to the trees. So they stood shoulder to shoulder to
Jan in a scheme that appalled them, and in the very first day of this
scheme they saw the woman blossoming forth in her old beauty and joy, and
at times fleeting visions of the old happiness at the post came to these
lonely men who were searing their souls for her. But to Jan one vision
came to destroy all others, and as the old light returned to the woman's
eyes, the glad smile to her lips, the sweetness of thankfulness and faith
into her voice, this vision hurt him until he rolled and tossed in agony
at night, and by day his feet were never still. His search for Cummins
now had something of madness in it. It was his one hope--where to the
other six there was no hope. And one day this spark went out of him. The
crust was gone. The snow was settling. Beyond the lake he found the chasm
between the two mountains, and, miles of this chasm, robbed to the bones
of flesh, he found Cummins. The bones, and Cummins' gun, and all that was
left of him, he buried in a crevasse.
He waited until night to return to the post. Only one light was burning
when he came out into the clearing, and that was the light in the woman's
cabin. In the edge of the balsams he sat down to watch it, as he had
watched it a hundred nights before. Suddenly something came between him
and the light. Against the cabin he saw the shadow of a human form, and
as silently as the steely flash of the Aurora over his head, as swiftly
as a lean deer, he sped through the gloom of the forest's edge and came
up behind the home of the woman and her child. With the caution of a
lynx, his head close to the snow, he peered around the end of the logs.
It was the Englishman who stood looking through the tear in the curtained
window! Jan's moccasined feet made no sound. His hand fell as gently as a
child's upon the Englishman's arm.
"Thees is not the honor of the Beeg Snows!" he whispered. "Come."
A sickly pallor filled the Englishman's face. But Jan's voice was soft
and dispassionate, his touch was velvety in its hint, and he went with
the guiding hand away from the curtained window, smiling in a
companionable way. Jan's teeth gleamed back. The Englishman chuckled.
Then Jan's hands changed. They flew to the thick reddening throat of the
man from civilization, and without a sound the two sank together upon the
snow. It was many minutes before Jan rose to his feet. The next day
Williams set out for Fort Churchill with word for the Company's home
office that the Englishman had died in the "Beeg Snow," which was true.
The end was not far away now. Jan was expecting it day by day, hour by
hour. But it came in a way that he did not expect. A month had gone, and
Cummins had not come up from among the Crees. At times there was a
strange light in the woman's eyes as she questioned the men at the post.
Then, one day, the factor's son told Jan that she wanted to see him in
the little cabin at the other end of the clearing.
A shiver went through him as he came to the door. It was more than a
spirit of unrest in Jan to-day, more than suspicion, more than his old
dread of that final moment of the tragedy he was playing, which would
condemn him to everlasting perdition in the woman's eyes. It was pain,
poignant, terrible--something which he could not name, something upon
which he could place his hand, and yet which filled him with a desire to
throw himself upon his face in the snow and sob out his grief as he had
seen the little children do. It was not dread, but the torment of
reality, that gripped him now, and when he faced the woman he knew why.
There had come a terrible change, but a quiet change, in Cummins' wife.
The luster had gone from her eyes. There was a dead whiteness in her face
that went to the roots of her shimmering hair, and as she spoke to Jan
she clutched one hand upon her bosom, which rose and fell as Jan had seen
the breast of a mother lynx rise and fall in the last torture of its
"Jan," she panted, "Jan--you have lied to me!"
Jan's head dropped. The worn caribou skin of his coat crumpled upon his
breast. His heart died. And yet he found voice, soft, low, simple.
"Yes, me lie!"
"You--you lied to me!"
His head dropped lower. He heard the sobbing breath of the woman, and
gently his arm crooked itself, and his fingers rose slowly, very slowly,
toward the hilt of his hunting knife.
"Yes--Mees Cummins--me lie--"
There came a sudden swift, sobbing movement, and the woman was at Jan's
feet, clasping his hand to her bosom as she had clasped it once before
when he had gone out to face death for her. But this time the snow veil
was very thick before Jan's eyes, and he did not see her face. Only he
"Bless you, dear Jan, and may God bless you evermore! For you have been
good to me, Jan--so good--to me--"
And he went out into the day again a few moments later, leaving her alone
in her great grief, for Jan was a man in the wild and mannerless ways of
a savage world, and he knew not how to comfort in the fashion of that
other world which had other conceptions and another understanding of what
was to him the "honor of the Beeg Snows." A week later the woman
announced her intention of returning to her people, for the dome of the
earth had grown sad and lonely and desolate to her now that Cummins was
forever gone. Sometimes the death of a beloved friend brings with it the
sadness that spread like a pall over Jan and those others who had lived
very near to contentment and happiness for nearly two years, only each
knew that this grief of his would be as enduring as life itself. For a
brief space the sweetest of all God's things had come among them, a pure
woman who brought with her the gentleness and beauty and hallowed
thoughts of civilization in place of its iniquities, and the pictures in
their hearts were imperishable.
The parting was as simple and as quiet as when the woman had come. They
went to the little cabin where the sledge dogs stood harnessed. Hatless,
silent, crowding back their grief behind grim and lonely countenances,
they waited for Cummins' wife to say good-bye. The woman did not speak.
She held up her child for each man to kiss, and the baby babbled
meaningless things into the bearded faces that it had come to know and
love, and when it came to Williams' turn he whispered, "Be a good baby,
be a good baby." And when it was all over the woman crushed the child to
her breast and dropped sobbing upon the sledge, and Jan cracked his whip
and shouted hoarsely to the dogs, for it was Jan who was to drive her to
civilization. Long after they had disappeared beyond the clearing those
who remained stood looking at the cabin; and then, with a dry, strange
sob in his throat, Williams led the way inside. When they came out
Williams brought a hammer with him, and nailed the door tight.
"Mebby she'll come back some day," he said.
That was all, but the others understood.
For nine days Jan raced his dogs into the South. On the tenth they came
to Le Pas. It was night when they stopped before the little log hotel,
and the gloom hid the twitching in Jan's face.
"You will stay here--to-night?" asked the woman.
"Me go back--now," said Jan.
Cummins' wife came very close to him. She did not urge, for she, too, was
suffering the torture of this last parting with the "honor of the Beeg
Snows." It was not the baby's face that came to Jan's now, but the
woman's. He felt the soft touch of her lips, and his soul burst forth in
a low, agonized cry.
"The good God bless you, and keep you, and care for you evermore, Jan,"
she whispered. "Some day we will meet again."
And she kissed him again, and lifted the child to him, and Jan turned his
tired dogs back into the grim desolation of the North, where the Aurora
was lighting his way feebly, and beckoning to him, and telling him that
the old life of centuries and centuries ago was waiting for him there.
Father Brochet had come south from Fond du Lac, and Weyman, the Hudson's
Bay Company doctor, north through the Geikee River country. They had met
at Severn's cabin, on the Waterfound. Both had come on the same
mission--to see Severn; one to keep him from dying, if that was possible,
one to comfort him in the last hour, if death came. Severn insisted on
living. Bright-eyed, hollow-cheeked, with a racking cough that reddened
the gauze handkerchief the doctor had given him, he sat bolstered up in
his cot and looked out through the open door with glad and hopeful gaze.
Weyman had arrived only half an hour before. Outside was the Indian
canoeman who had helped to bring him up.
It was a glorious day, such as comes in its full beauty only in the far
northern spring, where the air enters the lungs like sharp, warm wine,
laden with the tang of spruce and balsam, and the sweetness of the
"It was mighty good of you to come up," Severn was saying to the doctor.
"The company has always been the best friend I've ever had--except
one--and that's why I've hung to it all these years, trailing the sledges
first as a kid, you know, then trapping, running, and--oh, Lord!"
He stopped to cough, and the little black-frocked missioner, looking
across at Weyman, saw him bite his lips.
"That cough hurts, but it's better," Severn apologized, smiling weakly.
"Funny, ain't it, a man like me coming down with a cough? Why, I've slept
in ice a thousand times, with snow for a pillow and the thermometer down
to fifty. But this last winter it was cold, seventy or lower, an' I
worked in it when I ought to have been inside, warming my toes. But, you
see, I wanted to get the cabin built, an' things all cleared up about
here, before SHE came. It's the cold that got me, wasn't it, doc?"
"That's it," said Weyman, rolling and lighting a cigarette. Then he
laughed, as the sick man finished another coughing spell, and said:
"I never thought you'd have a love affair, Bucky!"
"Neither did I," chuckled Severn. "Ain't it a wonder, doc? Here I'm
thirty-eight, with a hide on me like leather, an' no thought of a woman
for twenty years, until I saw HER. I don't mean it's a wonder I fell in
love, doc--you'd 'a' done that if you'd met her first. The wonder of it
is that she fell in love with me." He laughed softly. "I'll bet Father
Brochet'll go in a heap himself when he marries us! It's goin' to happen
next month. Did you ever see her, father--Marie La Corne, over at the
post on Split Lake?"
Severn dropped his head to cough, but Weyman say the sudden look of
horror that leaped into the little priest's face.
"Marie La Corne!"
"Yes, at Split Lake."
Severn looked up again. He had missed what Weyman had seen.
"Yes, I've seen her."
Bucky Severn's eyes lit up with pleasure.
"She's--she's beautiful, ain't she?" he cried in hoarse whisper. "Ain't
it a wonder, father? I come up there with a canoe full of supplies, last
spring about this time, an'--an' at first I hardly dast to look at her;
but it came out all right. When I told her I was coming over here to
build us a home, she wanted me to bring her along to help; but I
wouldn't. I knew it was goin' to be hard this winter, and she's never
goin' to work--never so long as I live. I ain't had much to do with
women, but I've seen 'em and I've watched 'em an' she's never goin' to
drudge like the rest. If she'll let me, I'm even goin' to do the cookin'
an' the dish-washing and scrub the floors! I've done it for twenty-five
years, an' I'm tough. She ain't goin' to do nothin' but sew for the kids
when they come, an' sing, an' be happy. When it comes to the work that
there ain't no fun in, I'll do it. I've planned it all out. We're goin'
to have half an arpent square of flowers, an' she'll love to work among
'em. I've got the ground cleared--out there--you kin see it by twisting
your head through the door. An' she's goin' to have an organ. I've got
the money saved, an' it's coming to Churchill on the next ship. That's
goin' to be a surprise--'bout Christmas, when the snow is hard an'
sledging good. You see--"
He stopped again to cough. A hectic flush filled his hollow cheeks, and
there was a feverish glow in his eyes. As he bent his head, the priest
looked at Weyman. The doctor's lips were tense. His cigarette was
"I know what it means for a woman to die a workin'," Severn went on. "My
mother did that. I can remember it, though I was only a kid. She was bent
an' stoop-shouldered, an' her hands were rough and twisted. I know now
why she used to hug me up close and croon funny things over me when
father was away. When I first told my Marie what I was goin' to do, she
laughed at me; but when I told her 'bout my mother, an' how work an'
freezin' an' starvin' killed her when I needed her most, Marie jest put
her hand up to my face an' looked queer--an' then she burst out crying
like a baby. She understands, Marie does! She knows what I'm goin' to
"You mustn't talk any more, Bucky," warned the doctor, feeling his pulse.
"It'll hurt you."
"Hurt me!" Severn laughed hysterically, as If what the doctor had said
was a joke. "Hurt me? It's what's going to put me on my feet, doc. I know
it now, I been too much alone this last winter, with nothin' but my dogs
to talk to when night come. I ain't never been much of a talker, but she
got me out o' that. She used to tease me at first, an' I'd get red in the
face an' almost bust. An' then, one day, it come, like a bung out of a
hole, an' I've had a hankerin' to talk ever since. Hurt me!"
He gave an incredulous chuckle, which ended in a cough.
"Do you know, I wish I could read better 'n I can!" he said suddenly,
leaning almost eagerly toward Father Brochet. "She knows I ain't great
shucks at that. She's goin' to have a school just as soon as she comes,
an' I'm goin' to be the scholar. She's got a packful of books an'
magazines an' I'm goin' to tote over a fresh load every winter. I'd like
to surprise her. Can't you help me to--"
Weyman pressed him back gently.
"See here, Bucky, you've got to lie down and keep quiet," he said. "If
you don't, it will take you a week longer to get well. Try and sleep a
little, while Father Brochet and I go outside and see what you've done."
When they went out, Weyman closed the door after them. He spoke no word
as he turned and looked upon what Bucky Severn had done for the coming of
his bride. Father Brochet's hand touched the doctor's and it was cold and
"How is he?" he asked.
"It is the bad malady," said Weyman softly. "The frost has touched his
lungs. One does not feel the effect of that until spring comes. Then--a
cough--and the lungs begin literally to slough away."
"That there is no hope--absolutely none. He will die within two days."
As he spoke, the little priest straightened himself and lifted his hands
as if about to pronounce a benediction.
"Thank God!" he breathed. Then, as quickly, he caught himself. "No, I
don't mean that. God forgive me! But--it is best." Weyman stared
incredulously into his face.
"It is best," repeated the other, as gently as if speaking a prayer. "How
strangely the Creator sometimes works out His ends! I came straight here
from Split Lake. Marie La Corne died two weeks ago. It was I who said the
last prayer over her dead body!"
HIS FIRST PENITENT
In a white wilderness of moaning storm, in a wilderness of miles and
miles of black pine-trees, the Transcontinental Flier lay buried in the
snow. In the first darkness of the wild December night, engine and tender
had rushed on ahead to division headquarters, to let the line know that
the flier had given up the fight, and needed assistance. They had been
gone two hours, and whiter and whiter grew the brilliantly lighted
coaches in the drifts and winnows of the whistling storm. From the black
edges of the forest, prowling eyes might have looked upon scores of human
faces staring anxiously out into the blackness from the windows of the
In those coaches it was growing steadily colder. Men were putting on
their overcoats, and women snuggled deeper in their furs. Over it all,
the tops of the black pine-trees moaned and whistled in sounds that
seemed filled both with menace and with savage laughter.
In the smoking-compartment of the Pullman sat five men, gathered in a
group. Of these, one was Forsythe, the timber agent; two were traveling
men; the fourth a passenger homeward bound from a holiday visit; and the
fifth was Father Charles. The priest's pale, serious face lit up in
surprise or laughter with the others, but his lips had not broken into a
story of their own. He was a little man, dressed in somber black, and
there was that about him which told his companions that within his
tight-drawn coat of shiny black there were hidden tales which would have
gone well with the savage beat of the storm against the lighted windows
and the moaning tumult of the pine-trees.
Suddenly Forsythe shivered at a fiercer blast than the others, and said:
"Father, have you a text that would fit this night--and the situation?"
Slowly Father Charles blew out a spiral of smoke from between his lips,
and then he drew himself erect and leaned a little forward, with the
cigar between his slender white fingers.
"I had a text for this night," he said, "but I have none now, gentlemen.
I was to have married a couple a hundred miles down the line. The guests
have assembled. They are ready, but I am not there. The wedding will not
be to-night, and so my text is gone. But there comes another to my mind
which fits this situation--and a thousand others--'He who sits in the
heavens shall look down and decide.' To-night I was to have married these
young people. Three hours ago I never dreamed of doubting that I should
be on hand at the appointed hour. But I shall not marry them. Fate has
enjoined a hand. The Supreme Arbiter says 'No,' and what may not be the
"They will probably be married to-morrow," said one of the traveling men.
"There will be a few hours' delay--nothing more."
"Perhaps," replied Father Charles, as quietly as before. "And--perhaps
not. Who can say what this little incident may not mean in the lives of
that young man and that young woman--and, it may be, in my own? Three or
four hours lost in a storm--what may they not mean to more than one human
heart on this train? The Supreme Arbiter plays His hand, if you wish to
call it that, with reason and intent. To someone, somewhere, the most
insignificant occurrence may mean life or death. And
A sudden blast drove the night screeching over our heads, and the whining
of the pines was almost like human voices. Forsythe sucked a cigar that
had gone out.
"Long ago," said Father Charles, "I knew a young man and a young woman
who were to be married. The man went West to win a fortune. Thus fate
separated them, and in the lapse of a year such terrible misfortune came
to the girl's parents that she was forced into a marriage with wealth--a
barter of her white body for an old man's gold. When the young man
returned from the West he found his sweetheart married, and hell upon
earth was their lot. But hope lingers in your hearts. He waited four
years; and then, discouraged, he married another woman. Gentlemen, three
days after the wedding his old sweetheart's husband died, and she was
released from bondage. Was not that the hand of the Supreme Arbiter? If
he had waited but three days more, the old happiness might have lived.
"But wait! One month after that day the young man was arrested, taken to
a Western State, tried for murder, and hanged. Do you see the point? In
three days more the girl who had sold herself into slavery for the
salvation of those she loved would have been released from her bondage
only to marry a murderer!"
There was silence, in which all five listened to that wild moaning of the
storm. There seemed to be something in it now--something more than the
inarticulate sound of wind and trees. Forsythe scratched a match and
relighted his cigar.
"I never thought of such things in just that light," he said.
"Listen to the wind," said the little priest. "Hear the pine-trees shriek
out there! It recalls to me a night of years and years ago--a night like
this, when the storm moaned and twisted about my little cabin, and when
the Supreme Arbiter sent me my first penitent. Gentlemen, it is something
which will bring you nearer to an understanding of the voice and the hand
of God. It is a sermon on the mighty significance of little things, this
story of my first penitent. If you wish, I will tell it to you."
"Go on," said Forsythe.
The traveling men drew nearer.
"It was a night like this," repeated Father Charles, "and it was in a
great wilderness like this, only miles and miles away. I had been sent to
establish a mission; and in my cabin, that wild night, alone and with the
storm shrieking about me, I was busy at work sketching out my plans.
After a time I grew nervous. I did not smoke then, and so I had nothing
to comfort me but my thoughts; and, in spite of my efforts to make them
otherwise, they were cheerless enough. The forest grew to my door. In the
fiercer blasts I could hear the lashing of the pine-trees over my head,
and now and then an arm of one of the moaning trees would reach down and
sweep across my cabin roof with a sound that made me shudder and fear.
This wilderness fear is an oppressive and terrible thing when you are
alone at night, and the world is twisting and tearing itself outside. I
have heard the pine-trees shriek like dying women, I have heard them
wailing like lost children, I have heard them sobbing and moaning like
human souls writhing in agony--"
Father Charles paused, to peer through the window out into the black
night, where the pine-trees were sobbing and moaning now. When he turned,
Forsythe, the timber agent, whose life was a wilderness life, nodded
"And when they cry like that," went on Father Charles, "a living voice
would be lost among them as the splash of a pebble is lost in the roaring
sea. A hundred times that night I fancied that I heard human voices; and
a dozen times I went to my door, drew back the bolt, and listened, "with
the snow and the wind beating about my ears.
"As I sat shuddering before my fire, there came a thought to me of a
story which I had long ago read about the sea--a story of impossible
achievement and of impossible heroism. As vividly as if I had read it
only the day before, I recalled the description of a wild and stormy
night when the heroine placed a lighted lamp in the window of her
sea-bound cottage, to guide her lover home in safety. Gentlemen, the
reading of that book in my boyhood days was but a trivial thing. I had
read a thousand others, and of them all it was possibly the least
significant; but the Supreme Arbiter had not forgotten.
"The memory of that book brought me to my feet, and I placed a lighted
lamp close up against my cabin window. Fifteen minutes later I heard a
strange sound at the door, and when I opened it there fell in upon the
floor at my feet a young and beautiful woman. And after her, dragging
himself over the threshold on his hands and knees, there came a man.
"I closed the door, after the man had crawled in and fallen face downward
upon the floor, and turned my attention first to the woman. She was
covered with snow. Her long, beautiful hair was loose and disheveled, and
had blown about her like a veil. Her big, dark eyes looked at me
pleadingly, and in them there was a terror such as I had never beheld in
human eyes before. I bent over her, intending to carry her to my cot; but
in another moment she had thrown herself upon the prostrate form of the
man, with her arms about his head, and there burst from her lips the
first sounds that she had uttered. They were not much more intelligible
than the wailing grief of the pine-trees out in the night, but they told
me plainly enough that the man on the floor was dearer to her than life.
"I knelt beside him, and found that he was breathing in a quick, panting
sort of way, and that his wide-open eyes were looking at the woman. Then
I noticed for the first time that his face was cut and bruised, and his
lips were swollen. His coat was loose at the throat, and I could see
livid marks on his neck.
"'I'm all right,' he whispered, struggling for breath, and turning his
eyes to me. 'We should have died--in a few minutes more--if it hadn't
been for the light in your window!'
"The young woman bent down and kissed him, and then she allowed me to
help her to my cot. When I had attended to the young man, and he had
regained strength enough to stand upon his feet, she was asleep. The man
went to her, and dropped upon his knees beside the cot. Tenderly he drew
back the heavy masses of hair from about her face and shoulders. For
several minutes he remained with his face pressed close against hers;
then he rose, and faced me. The woman--his wife--knew nothing of what
passed between us during the next half-hour. During that half-hour
gentlemen, I received my first confession. The young man was of my faith.
He was my first penitent."
It was growing colder in the coach, and Father Charles stopped to draw
his thin black coat closer to him. Forsythe relighted his cigar for the
third time. The transient passenger gave a sudden start as a gust of wind
beat against the window like a threatening hand.
"A rough stool was my confessional, gentlemen," resumed Father Charles.
"He told me the story, kneeling at my feet--a story that will live with
me as long as I live, always reminding me that the little things of life
may be the greatest things, that by sending a storm to hold up a coach
the Supreme Arbiter may change the map of the world. It is not a long
story. It is not even an unusual story.
"He had come into the North about a year before, and had built for
himself and his wife a little home at a pleasant river spot ten miles
distant from my cabin. Their love was of the kind we do not often see,
and they were as happy as the birds that lived about them in the
wilderness. They had taken a timber claim. A few months more, and a new
life was to come into their little home; and the knowledge of this made
the girl an angel of beauty and joy. Their nearest neighbor was another
man, several miles distant. The two men became friends, and the other
came over to see them frequently. It was the old, old story. The neighbor
fell in love with the young settler's wife.
"As you shall see, this other man was a beast. On the day preceding the
night of the terrible storm, the woman's husband set out for the
settlement to bring back supplies. Hardly had he gone, when the beast
came to the cabin. He found himself alone with the woman.
"A mile from his cabin, the husband stopped to light his pipe. See,
gentlemen, how the Supreme Arbiter played His hand. The man attempted to
unscrew the stem, and the stem broke. In the wilderness you must smoke.
Smoke is your company. It is voice and companionship to you. There were
other pipes at the settlement, ten miles away; but there was also another
pipe at the cabin, one mile away. So the husband turned back. He came up
quietly to his door, thinking that he would surprise his wife. He heard
voices--a man's voice, a woman's cries. He opened the door, and in the
excitement of what was happening within neither the man nor the woman saw
nor heard him. They were struggling. The woman was in the man's arms, her
hair torn down, her small hands beating him in the face, her breath
coming in low, terrified cries. Even as the husband stood there for the
fraction of a second, taking in the terrible scene, the other man caught
the woman's face to him, and kissed her. And then--it happened.
"It was a terrible fight; and when it was over the beast lay on the
floor, bleeding and dead. Gentlemen, the Supreme Arbiter BROKE A
PIPE-STEM, and sent the husband back in time!"
No one spoke as Father Charles drew his coat still closer about him.
Above the tumult of the storm another sound came to them--the distant,
piercing shriek of a whistle.
"The husband dug a grave through the snow and in the frozen earth,"
concluded Father Charles; "and late that afternoon they packed up a
bundle and set out together for the settlement. The storm overtook them.
They had dropped for the last time into the snow, about to die in each
other's arms, when I put my light in the window. That is all; except that
I knew them for several years afterward, and that the old happiness
returned to them--and more, for the child was born, a miniature of its
mother. Then they moved to another part of the wilderness, and I to still
another. So you see, gentlemen, what a snow-bound train may mean, for if
an old sea tale, a broken pipe-stem--"
The door at the end of the smoking-room opened suddenly. Through it there
came a cold blast of the storm, a cloud of snow, and a man. He was
bundled in a great bearskin coat, and as he shook out its folds his
strong, ruddy face smiled cheerfully at those whom he had interrupted.
Then, suddenly, there came a change in his face. The merriment went from
it. He stared at Father Charles. The priest was rising, his face more
tense and whiter still, his hands reaching out to the stranger.
In another moment the stranger had leaped to him--not to shake his hands,
but to clasp the priest in his great arms, shaking him, and crying out a
strange joy, while for the first time that night the pale face of Father
Charles was lighted up with a red and joyous glow.
After several minutes the newcomer released Father Charles, and turned to
the others with a great hearty laugh.
"Gentlemen," he said, "you must pardon me for interrupting you like this.
You will understand when I tell you that Father Charles is an old friend
of mine, the dearest friend I have on earth, and that I haven't seen him
for years. I was his first penitent!"
Peter God was a trapper. He set his deadfalls and fox-baits along the
edge of that long, slim finger of the Great Barren, which reaches out of
the East well into the country of the Great Bear, far to the West. The
door of his sapling-built cabin opened to the dark and chilling gray of
the Arctic Circle; through its one window he could watch the sputter and
play of the Northern Lights; and the curious hissing purr of the Aurora
had grown to be a monotone in his ears.
Whence Peter God had come, and how it was that he bore the strange name
by which he went, no man had asked, for curiosity belongs to the white
man, and the nearest white men were up at Fort MacPherson, a hundred or
so miles away.
Six or seven years ago Peter God had come to the post for the first time
with his furs. He had given his name as Peter God, and the Company had
not questioned it, or wondered. Stranger names than Peter's were a part
of the Northland; stranger faces than his came in out of the white
wilderness trails; but none was more silent, or came in and went more
quickly. In the gray of the afternoon he drove in with his dogs and his
furs; night would see him on his way back to the Barrens, supplies for
another three months of loneliness on his sledge.
It would have been hard to judge his age--had one taken the trouble to
try. Perhaps he was thirty-eight. He surely was not French. There was no
Indian blood in him. His heavy beard was reddish, his long thick hair
distinctly blond, and his eyes were a bluish-gray.
For seven years, season after season, the Hudson's Bay Company's clerk
had written items something like the following in his record-books:
Feb. 17. Peter God came in to-day with his furs. He leaves this afternoon
or to-night for his trapping grounds with fresh supplies.
The year before, in a momentary fit of curiosity, the clerk had added:
Curious why Peter God never stays in Fort MacPherson overnight.
And more curious than this was the fact that Peter God never asked for
mail, and no letter ever came to Fort MacPherson for him.
The Great Barren enveloped him and his mystery. The yapping foxes knew
more of him than men. They knew him for a hundred miles up and down that
white finger of desolation; they knew the peril of his baits and his
deadfalls; they snarled and barked their hatred and defiance at the glow
of his lights on dark nights; they watched for him, sniffed for signs of
him, and walked into his clever deathpits.
The foxes and Peter God! That was what this white world was made up
of--foxes and Peter God. It was a world of strife between them. Peter God
was killing--but the foxes were winning. Slowly but surely they were
breaking him down--they and the terrible loneliness. Loneliness Peter God
might have stood for many more years. But the foxes were driving him mad.
More and more he had come to dread their yapping at night. That was the
deadly combination--night and the yapping. In the day-time he laughed at
himself for his fears; nights he sweated, and sometimes wanted to scream.
What manner of man Peter God was or might have been, and of the
strangeness of the life that was lived in the maddening loneliness of
that mystery-cabin in the edge of the Barren, only one other man knew.
That was Philip Curtis.
Two thousand miles south, Philip Curtis sat at a small table in a
brilliantly lighted and fashionable cafe. It was early June, and Philip
had been down from the North scarcely a month, the deep tan was still in
his face, and tiny wind and snow lines crinkled at the corners of his
eyes. He exuded the life of the big outdoors as he sat opposite
pallid-cheeked and weak-chested Barrow, the Mica King, who would have
given his millions to possess the red blood in the other's veins.
Philip had made his "strike," away up on the Mackenzie. That day he had
sold out to Barrow for a hundred thousand. To-night he was filled with
the flush of joy and triumph.
Barrow's eyes shone with a new sort of enthusiasm as he listened to this
man's story of grim and fighting determination that had led to the
discovery of that mountain of mica away up on the Clearwater Bulge. He
looked upon the other's strength, his bronzed face and the glory of
achievement in his eyes, and a great and yearning hopelessness burned
like a dull fire in his heart. He was no older than the man who sat on
the other side of the table--perhaps thirty-five; yet what a vast gulf
lay between them! He with his millions; the other with that flood of red
blood coming and going in his body, and his wonderful fortune of a
hundred thousand! Barrow leaned a little over the table, and laughed. It
was the laugh of a man who had grown tired of life, in spite of his
millions. Day before yesterday a famous specialist had warned him that
the threads of his life were giving way, one by one. He told this to
Curtis. He confessed to him, with that strange glow in his eyes,--a glow
that was like making a last fight against total extinguishment,--that he
would give up his millions and all he had won for the other's health and
the mountain of mica.
"And if it came to a close bargain," he said, "I wouldn't hold out for
the mountain. I'm ready to quit--and it's too late."
Which, after a little, brought Philip Curtis to tell so much as he knew
of the story of Peter God. Philip's voice was tuned with the winds and
the forests. It rose above the low and monotonous hum about them. People
at the two or three adjoining tables might have heard his story, if they
had listened. Within the immaculateness of his evening dress, Barrows
shivered, fearing that Curtis' voice might attract undue attention to
them. But other people were absorbed in themselves. Philip went on with
his story, and at last, so clearly that it reached easily to the other
tables, he spoke the name of Peter God.
Then came the interruption, and with that interruption a strange and
sudden upheaval in the life of Philip Curtis that was to mean more to him
than the discovery of the mica mountain. His eyes swept over Barrow's
shoulder, and there he saw a woman. She was standing. A low, stifled cry
had broken from her almost simultaneously with his first glimpse of her,
and as he looked, Philip saw her lips form gaspingly the name he had
She was so near that Barrow could have turned and touched her. Her eyes
were like luminous fires as she stared at Philip. Her face was strangely
pale. He could see her quiver, and catch her breath. And she was looking
at him. For that one moment she had forgotten the presence of others.
Then a hand touched her arm. It was the hand of her elderly escort, in
whose face were anxiety and wonder. The woman started and took her eyes
from Philip. With her escort she seated herself at a table a few paces
away, and for a few moments Philip could see she was fighting for
composure, and that it cost her a struggle to keep her eyes from turning
in his direction while she talked in a low voice to her companion.
Philip's heart was pounding like an engine. He knew that she was talking
about him now, and he knew that she had cried out when he had spoken
Peter God's name. He forgot Barrow as he looked at her. She was
exquisite, even with that gray pallor that had come so suddenly into her
cheeks. She was not young, as the age of youth is measured. Perhaps she
was thirty, or thirty-two, or thirty-five. If some one had asked Philip
to describe her, he would have said simply that she was glorious. Yet her
entrance had caused no stir. Few had looked at her until she had uttered
that sharp cry. There were a score of women under the brilliantly lighted
chandeliers possessed of more spectacular beauty, Barrow had partly
turned in his seat, and now, with careful breeding, he faced his
"Do you know her?" Philip asked.
Barrow shook his head.
"No." Then he added: "Did you see what made her cry out like that?"
"I believe so," said Philip, and he turned purposely so that the four
people at the next table could hear him. "I think she twisted her ankle.
It's an occasional penance the women make for wearing these high-heeled
shoes, you know."
He looked at her again. Her form was bent toward the white-haired man who
was with her. The man was staring straight over at Philip, a strange
searching look in his face as he listened to what she was saying. He
seemed to question Philip through the short distance that separated them.
And then the woman turned her head slowly, and once more Philip met her
eyes squarely--deep, dark, glowing eyes that thrilled him to the quick of
his soul. He did not try to understand what he saw in them. Before he
turned his glance to Barrow he saw that color had swept back into her
face; her lips were parted; he knew that she was struggling to suppress a
Barrow was looking at him curiously--and Philip went on with his story of
Peter God. He told it in a lower voice. Not until he had finished did he
look again in the direction of the other table. The woman had changed her
position slightly, so that he could not see her face. The uptilt of her
hat revealed to him the warm soft glow of shining coils of brown hair. He
was sure that her escort was keeping watch of his movements.
Suddenly Barrow drew his attention to a man sitting alone a dozen tables
"There's DeVoe, one of the Amalgamated chiefs," he said. "He has almost
finished, and I want to speak to him before he leaves. Will you excuse me
a minute--or will you come along and meet him?"
"I'll wait," said Philip.
Ten seconds later, the woman's white-haired escort was on his feet. He
came to Philip's table, and seated himself casually in Barrow's chair, as
though Philip were an old friend with whom he had come to chat for a
"I beg your pardon for the imposition which I am laying upon you," he
said in a low, quiet voice. "I am Colonel McCloud. The lady with me is my
daughter. And you, I believe, are a gentleman. If I were not sure of
that, I should not have taken advantage of your friend's temporary
absence. You heard my daughter cry out a few moments ago? You observed
that she was--disturbed?"
"I could not help it. I was facing her. And since then I have thought
that I--unconsciously--was the cause of her perturbation. I am Philip
Curtis, Colonel McCloud, from Fort MacPherson, two thousand miles north
of here, on the Mackenzie Kiver. So you see, if it is a case of mistaken
"No--no--it is not that," interrupted the older man. "As we were passing
your table we--my daughter--heard you speak a name. Perhaps she was
mistaken. It was--Peter God."
"Yes. I know Peter God. He is a friend of mine."
Barrow was returning. The other saw him over Philip's shoulder, and his
voice trembled with a sudden and subdued excitement as he said quickly:
"Your friend is coming' back. No one but you must know that my daughter
is interested in this man--Peter God. She trusts you. She sent me to you.
It is important that she should see you to-night and talk with you alone.
I will wait for you outside. I will have a taxicab ready to take you to
our apartments. Will you come?"
He had risen. Philip heard Barrow's footsteps behind him.
"I will come," he said.
A few minutes later Colonel McCloud and his daughter left the cafe. The
half-hour after that passed with leaden slowness to Philip. The fortunate
arrival of two or three friends of Barrow gave him an opportunity to
excuse himself on the plea of an important engagement, and he bade the
Mica King good-night. Colonel McCloud was waiting for him outside the
cafe, and as they entered a taxicab, he said:
"My daughter is quite unstrung to-night, and I sent her home. She is
waiting for us. Will you have a smoke, Mr. Curtis?"
With a feeling that this night had set stirring a brew of strange and
unforeseen events for him, Philip sat in a softly lighted and richly
furnished room and waited. The Colonel had been gone a full quarter-hour.
He had left a box half filled with cigars on a table at Philip's elbow,
pressing him to smoke. They were an English brand of cigar, and on the
box was stamped the name of the Montreal dealer from whom they had been
"My daughter will come presently," Colonel McCloud had said.
A curious thrill shot through Philip as he heard her footsteps and the
soft swish of her skirt. Involuntarily he rose to his feet as she entered
the room. For fully ten seconds they stood facing each other without
speaking. She was dressed in filmy gray stuff. There was lace at her
throat. She had shifted the thick bright coils of her hair to the crown
of her head; a splendid glory of hair, he thought. Her cheeks were
flushed, and with her hands against her breast, she seemed crushing back
the strange excitement that glowed in her eyes. Once he had seen a fawn's
eyes that looked like hers. In them were suspense, fear--a yearning that
was almost pain. Suddenly she came to him, her hands outstretched.
Involuntarily, too, he took them. They were warm and soft. They thrilled
him--and they clung to him.
"I am Josephine McCloud," she said. "My father has explained to you? You
know--a man--who calls himself--God?"
Her fingers clung more tightly to his, and the sweetness of her hair, her
breath, her eyes were very close as she waited.
"Yes, I know a man who calls himself Peter God."
"Tell me--what he is like?" she whispered. "He is tall--like you?"
"No. He is of medium height."
"And his hair? It is dark--dark like yours?"
"No. It is blond, and a little gray."
"And he is young--younger than you?"
"He is older."
"And his eyes--are dark?"
He felt rather than heard the throbbing of her heart as she waited for
him to reply. There was a reason why he would never forget Peter God's
"Sometimes I thought they were blue, and sometimes gray," he said; and at
that she dropped his hands with a strange little cry, and stood a step
back from him, a joy which she made no effort to keep from him flaming in
It was a look which sent a sudden hopelessness through Curtis--a stinging
pang of jealousy. This night had set wild and tumultous emotions aflame
in his breast. He had come to Josephine McCloud like one in a dream. In
an hour he had placed her above all other women in the world, and in that
hour the little gods of fate had brought him to his knees in the worship
of a woman. The fact did not seem unreal to him. Here was the woman, and
he loved her. And his heart sank like a heavily weighted thing when he
saw the transfiguration of joy that came into her face when he said that
Peter God's eyes were not dark, but were sometimes blue and sometimes
"And this Peter God?" he said, straining to make his voice even. "What is
he to you?"
His question cut her like a knife. The wild color ebbed swiftly out of
her cheeks. Into her eyes swept a haunting fear which he was to see and
wonder at more than once. It was as if he had done something to frighten
her. "We--my father and I--are interested in him," she said. Her words
cost her a visible effort. He noticed a quick throbbing in her throat,
just above the filmy lace. "Mr. Curtis, won't you pardon this--this
betrayal of excitement in myself? It must be unaccountable to you.
Perhaps a little later you will understand. We are imposing on you by not
confiding in you what this interest is, and I beg you to forgive me. But
there is a reason. Will you believe me? There is a reason."
Her hands rested lightly on Philip's arm. Her eyes implored him.
"I will not ask for confidences which you are not free to give," he said
He was rewarded by a soft glow of thankfulness.
"I cannot make you understand how much that means to me," she cried
tremblingly. "And you will tell us about Peter God? Father--"
Colonel McCloud had reentered the room.
With the feeling of one who was not quite sure that he was awake, Philip
paused under a street lamp ten minutes after leaving the McCloud
apartments, and looked at his watch. It was a quarter of two o'clock. A
low whistle of surprise fell from his lips. For three hours he had been
with Colonel McCloud and his daughter. It had seemed like an hour. He
still felt the thrill of the warm, parting pressure of Josephine's hand;
he saw the gratitude in her eyes; he heard her voice, low and tremulous,
asking him to come again to-morrow evening. His brain was in a strange
whirl of excitement, and he laughed--laughed with gladness which he had
not felt before in all the days of his life.
He had told a great many things about Peter God that night; of the man's
life in the little cabin, his loneliness, his aloofness, and the mystery
of him. Philip had asked no questions of Josephine and her father, and
more than once he had caught that almost tender gratitude in Josephine's
eyes. And at least twice he had seen the swift, haunting fear--the first
time when he told of Peter God's coming and goings at Port MacPherson,
and again when he mentioned a patrol of the Royal Northwest Mounted
Police that had passed Peter God's cabin while Philip was there, laid up
during those weeks of darkness and storm with a fractured leg.
Philip told how tenderly Peter God nursed him, and how their acquaintance
grew into brotherhood during the long gray nights when the stars gleamed
like pencil-points and the foxes yapped incessantly. He had seen the dewy
shimmer of tears in Josephine's eyes. He had noted the tense lines in
Colonel McCloud's face. But he had asked them no questions, he had made
no effort to unmask the secret which they so evidently desired to keep
Now, alone in the cool night, he asked himself a hundred questions, and
yet with a feeling that he understood a great deal of what they had kept
from him. Something had whispered to him then--and whispered to him
now--that Peter God was not Peter God's right name, and that to Josephine
McCloud and her father he was a brother and a son. This thought, so long
as he could think it without a doubt, filled his cup of hope to
overflowing. But the doubt persisted. It was like a spark that refused to
go out. Who was Peter God? What was Peter God, the half-wild fox-hunter,
to Josephine McCloud? Yes--he could be but that one thing! A brother. A
black sheep. A wanderer. A son who had disappeared--and was now found.
But if he was that, only that, why would they not tell him? The doubt
sputtered up again.
Philip did not go to bed. He was anxious for the day, and the evening
that was to follow. A woman had unsettled his world. His mica mountain
became an unimportant reality. Barrow's greatness no longer loomed up for
him. He walked until he was tired, and it was dawn when he went to his
hotel. He was like a boy living in the anticipation of a great
promise--restless, excited, even feverishly anxious all day. He made
inquiries about Colonel James McCloud at his hotel. No one knew him, or
had even heard of him. His name was not in the city directory or the
telephone directory. Philip made up his mind that Josephine and her
father were practically strangers in the city, and that they had come
from Canada--probably Montreal, for he remembered the stamp on the box of
That night, when he saw Josephine again, he wanted to reach out his arms
to her. He wanted to make her understand how completely his wonderful
love possessed him, and how utterly lost he was without her. She was
dressed in simple white--again with that bank of filmy lace at her
throat. Her hair was done in those lustrous, shimmering coils, so bright
and soft that he would have given a tenth of his mica mountain to touch
them with his hands. And she was glad to see him. Her eagerness shone in
her eyes, in the warm flush of her cheeks, in the joyous tremble of her
That night, too, passed like a dream--a dream in paradise for Philip. For
a long time they sat alone, and Josephine herself brought him the box of
cigars, and urged him to smoke. They talked again about the North, about
Fort MacPherson--where it was, what it was, and how one got to it through
a thousand miles or so of wilderness. He told her of his own adventures,
how for many years he had sought for mineral treasure and at last had
found a mica mountain.
"It's close to Fort MacPherson," he explained.
"We can work it from the Mackenzie. I expect to start back some time in
She leaned toward him, last night's strange excitement glowing for the
first time in her eyes.
"You are going back? You will see Peter God?"
In her eagerness she laid a hand on his arm.
"I am going back. It would be possible to see Peter God."
The touch of her hand did not lighten the weight that was tugging again
at his heart.
"Peter God's cabin is a hundred miles from Fort MacPherson," he added.
"He will be hunting foxes by the time I get there."
"You mean--it will be winter."
"Yes. It is a long journey. And"--he was looking at her closely as he
spoke--"Peter God may not be there when I return. It is possible he may
have gone into another part of the wilderness."
He saw her quiver as she drew back.
"He has been there--for seven--years," she said, as if speaking to
herself. "He would not move--now!"
"No; I don't think he would move now."
His own voice was low, scarcely above a whisper, and she looked at him
quickly and strangely, a flush in her cheeks.
It was late when he bade her good-night. Again he felt the warm thrill of
her hand as it lay in his. The next afternoon he was to take her driving.
The days and weeks that followed these first meetings with Josephine
McCloud were weighted with many things for Philip. Neither she nor her
father enlightened him about Peter God. Several times he believed that
Josephine was on the point of confiding in him, but each time there came
that strange fear in her eyes, and she caught herself.
Philip did not urge. He asked no questions that might be embarrassing. He
knew, after the third week had passed, that Josephine could no longer be
unconscious of his love, even though the mystery of Peter God restrained
him from making a declaration of it. There was not a day in the week that
they did not see each other. They rode together. The three frequently
dined together. And still more frequently they passed the evenings in the
McCloud apartments. Philip had been correct in his guess--they were from
Montreal. Beyond that fact he learned little.
As their acquaintance became closer and as Josephine saw in Philip more
and more of that something which he had not spoken, a change developed in
her. At first it puzzled and then alarmed him. At times she seemed almost
frightened. One evening, when his love all but trembled on his lips, she
turned suddenly white.
It was the middle of July before the words came from him at last. In two
or three weeks he was starting for the North. It was evening, and they
were alone in the big room, with the cool breeze from the lake drifting
in upon them. He made no effort to touch her as he told her of his love,
but when he had done, she knew that a strong man had laid his heart and
his soul at her feet.
He had never seen her whiter. Her hands were clasped tightly in her lap.
There was a silence in which he did not breathe. Her answer came so low
that he leaned forward to hear.
"I am sorry," she said. "It is my fault--that you love me. I knew. And
yet I let you come again and again. I have done wrong. It is not
fair--now--for me to tell you to go--without a chance. You--would want
me if I did not love you? You would marry me if I did not love you?"
His heart pounded. He forgot everything but that he loved this woman with
a love beyond his power to reason.
"I don't think that I could live without you now, Josephine," he cried in
a low voice. "And I swear to make you love me. It must come. It is
inconceivable that I cannot make you love me--loving you as I do."
She looked at him clearly now. She seemed suddenly to become tense and
vibrant with a new and wonderful strength.
"I must be fair with you," she said. "You are a man whose love most women
would be proud to possess. And yet--it is not in my power to accept that
love, or give myself to you. There is another to whom you must go."
"And that is--"
It was she who leaned forward now, her eyes burning, her bosom rising and
falling with the quickness of her breath.
"You must go to Peter God," she said. "You must take a letter to
him--from me. And it will be for him--for Peter God--to say whether I am
to be your wife. You are honorable. You will be fair with me. You will
take the letter to him. And I will be fair with you. I will be your wife,
I will try hard to care for you--if Peter God--says--"
Her voice broke. She covered her face, and for a moment, too stunned to
speak, Philip looked at her while her slender form trembled with sobs.
She had bowed her head, and for the first time he reached out and laid
his hand upon the soft glory of her hair. Its touch set aflame every
fiber in him. Hope swept through him, crushing his fears like a
juggernaut. It would be a simple task to go to Peter God! He was tempted
to take her in his arms. A moment more, and he would have caught her to
him, but the weight of his hand on her head roused her, and she raised
her face, and drew back. His arms were reaching out. She saw what was in
"Not now," she said. "Not until you have gone to him. Nothing in the
world will be too great a reward for you if you are fair with me, for you
are taking a chance. In the end you may receive nothing. For if Peter God
says that I cannot be your wife, I cannot. He must be the arbiter. On
those conditions, will you go?"
"Yes, I will go," said Philip.
It was early in August when Philip reached Edmonton. From there he took
the new line of rail to Athabasca Landing; it was September when he
arrived at Fort McMurray and found Pierre Gravois, a half-breed, who was
to accompany him by canoe up to Fort MacPherson. Before leaving this
final outpost, whence the real journey into the North began, Philip sent
a long letter to Josephine.
Two days after he and Pierre had started down the Mackenzie, a letter
came to Fort McMurray for Philip. "Long" La Brie, a special messenger,
brought it from Athabasca Landing. He was too late, and he had no
instructions--and had not been paid--to go farther.
Day after day Philip continued steadily northward. He carried Josephine's
letter to Peter God in his breast pocket, securely tied in a little
waterproof bag. It was a thick letter, and time and again he held it in
his hand, and wondered why it was that Josephine could have so much to
say to the lonely fox-hunter up on the edge of the Barren.
One night, as he sat alone by their fire in the chill of September
darkness, he took the letter from its sack and saw that the contents of
the bulging envelope had sprung one end of the flap loose. Before he went
to bed Pierre had set a pail of water on the coals. A cloud of steam was
rising from it. Those two things--the steam and the loosened flap--sent a
thrill through Philip. What was in the letter? What had Josephine McCloud
written to Peter God?
He looked toward sleeping Pierre; the pail of water began to bubble and
sing--he drew a tense breath, and rose to his feet. In thirty seconds the
steam rising from the pail would free the rest of the flap. He could read
the letter, and reseal it.
And then, like a shock, came the thought of the few notes Josephine had
written to him. On each of them she had never failed to stamp her seal in
a lavender-colored wax. He had observed that Colonel McCloud always used
a seal, in bright red. On this letter to Peter God there was no seal! She
trusted him. Her faith was implicit. And this was her proof of it. Under
his breath he laughed, and his heart grew warm with new happiness and
hope. "I have faith in you," she had said, at parting; and now, again,
out of the letter her voice seemed to whisper to him, "I have faith in
He replaced the letter in its sack, and crawled between his blankets
close to Pierre.
That night had seen the beginning of his struggle with himself. This
year, autumn and winter came early in the North country. It was to be a
winter of terrible cold, of deep snow, of famine and pestilence--the
winter of 1910. The first oppressive gloom of it added to the fear and
suspense that began to grow in Philip.
For days there was no sign of the sun. The clouds hung low. Bitter winds
came out of the North, and nights these winds wailed desolately through
the tops of the spruce under which they slept. And day after day and
night after night the temptation came upon him more strongly to open the
letter he was carrying to Peter God.
He was convinced now that the letter--and the letter alone--held his
fate, and that he was acting blindly. Was this justice to himself? He
wanted Josephine. He wanted her above all else in the world. Then why
should he not fight for her--in his own way? And to do that he must read
the letter. To know its contents would mean--Josephine. If there was
nothing in it that would stand between them, he would have done no
wrong, for he would still take it on to Peter God. So he argued. But if
the letter jeopardized his chances of possessing her, his knowledge of
what it contained would give him an opportunity to win in another way. He
could even answer it himself and take back to her false word from Peter
God, for seven frost-biting years along the edge of the Barren had surely
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