Copyright
Francis Hall.

The Century, Volume 11 online

. (page 4 of 163)
Online LibraryFrancis HallThe Century, Volume 11 → online text (page 4 of 163)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Moving slowly and laboriously — amoving
with such an uncertain mode of progression
that at first it was difiicult to detect whether
it was brute or human — sometimes on all
fours, sometimes erect, again hurrying for-
ward like a drunken man, but always with
a certain definiteness of purpose, toward the
canon.

As it approached nearer you saw that it
was a man. A haggard man, ragged and
envdoped in a tattered bufialo robe, but still
a man, and a determined one. A young
man, despite hi§ bent figure and wasted
limbs — a young man despite the premature
furrows that care and anxiety had set upon
his brow and in the comeis of his rigid
mouth — a young man notwithstanding the
expression of savage misanthropy with which
suffering and famine had overlaid the fiank
impulsiveness of youth.

When he reached the tree*at the entrance
of the canon, he brushed the film of snow
fix)m the canvas placard, and then leaned
for a few moments exhaustedly against its
trunk. There was something in the aban-
donment of his attitude that mdicated even
more pathetically than his &ce and figure
his utter prostration — a prostration quite in-
consistent with any visible cause. When he
had rested himself, he again started forward
with a nervous intensity, shambling, shuffling,
falling, stopping to replace the rudely ex-
temporized snow-shoes of fir bark that fie-
quendy slipped from his feet, but always
starting on again with the feverishness of
one who doubted even the sustaining power
of his will.

A mile beyond the tree the canon nar-
rowed and turned gradually to the south,
and at this point a thin curling doud of
smoke was visible that seemed to rise from
some crevice in the snow. As he came
nearer, the impression of recent foot-prints
began to show; there was some displace-
ment of the snow around a low moimd fix)m
which the smoke now plainly issued. Here
he stopped, or rather lay down, before an
opening or cavern in the snow, itnd uttered
a feeble shout It was responded to still
more feebly. Presently a face appeared
above the opening, and a ragged figure like
his own, then another, and then another,
until eight human creatures, men and women,
surrounded him in the snow, squatting like
Vol. XL— 2.



animals, and like animals lost to all sense
of decency and shame.

They were so haggard, so faded, so for-
lorn, so wan, — so piteous in their human
aspect, or rather all that was left of a human
aspect, — that they might have been wept over
as they sat. there; diey were so brutal, so
imbecile, unreasoning and grotesque in these
newer animal attributes, that they might
have provoked a smile. They were origi-
nally country people, mainly of that social
dass whose self-respect is apt to be depend-
ent rather on their circumstances, position
and surroundings, than upon any individual
moral power or intellectual force. They had
lost the sense of shame in the sense of equal-
ity of suffering; there was nothing within
them to take die place of the material enjoy-
ments they were losing. They were childish
without the ambition or emulation of child-
hood ; they were men and women without
the dignity or simplicity of man and woman-
hood. All that had raised them above the
level of the brute was lost in the snow.
Even the characteristics of sex were gone ;
an old woman of sixty quarreled, fought,
and swore with the harsh utterance and un-
gainly gestures of a man ; a young man of
scorbutic temperament wept, sighed, and
fainted with the hysteria of a woman. So
profound was their degradation that the
stranger who had thus evoked them from
the ^irth, even in his very rags and sadness,
seemed of another race.

They were all intellectually weak and
helpless, but one, a woman, appeared to
have completely lost her mind. She carried
a small blanket wrapped up to represent a
child — ^the tangible memory of one that had
starved to death in her arms a few days be-
fore — and rocked it from side to side as she
sat, with a faith that was piteous. But even
more piteous was the fact that none of her
companions took the least notice, either by
sympathy or complaint, of her aberration.
When a few moments later she called upon
them to be quiet, for that " baby " was asleep,
they glared at her indifferendy and went on.
A red-haired man, who was chewing a piece
of bufi^o hide, cast a single murderous
glance at her, but the next moment seemed
to have forgotten her presence in his more
absorbing occupation.

The stranger paused a moment rather to
regain his breath than to wait for their more
orderly and undivided attention. Then he
uttered the single word :

" Nothing 1"

" Nothing." They all echoed the word.



Digitized by



Google



i8



GABRIEL CONROY.



simultaneously, but with different inflection
and significance — one fiercely, another
gloomily, another stupidly, another mechan-
ically. The woman with the blanket baby
explained to it, "he says * nothing,'" and
laughed.

« No — nothing," repeated the speaker.
" Yesterday's snow blocked up the old trail
again. The beacon on the summit's burnt
out. I left a notice at the Divide. Do that
again, Dumphy, and I'll knock the top of
your d— d head off"."

Dumphy, the red-haired man, had rudely
shoved and stricken the woman with the baby
— she was his wife, and this conjugal act
may have been partly habit — ^as she was
crawling nearer the speaker. She did not
seem to notice the blow or its giver — the
apathy with which these people received
blows or slights was more terrible than
wrangling — ^but said, assuringly, when she
had reached the side of the young man :

" To-morrow, then ? "

The face of the young man softened as
he made the same reply he had made for
the last eight days to the same question :

" To-morrow, surely ! "

She crawled away, still holding the effigy
of her dead baby very careftiUy, and retreated
down the openmg.

" 'Pears to me you don't do much enny-
way, out scouting ! 'Pears to me you ain't
worth shucks ! " said the harsh- voiced woman,
glancing at the speaker. " Why don't some
on ye take his place ? Why do you trust
your lives and the lives of women to that thar
Ashley ? " she continued, with her voice raised
to a strident bark.

The hysterical young man, Henry Conroy,
who sat next to her, turned a wild, scared
face upon her, and then, as if fearful of being
dragged into the conversation, disappeared
hastily after Mrs. Dumphy.

Ashley shrugged his shoulders and, re-
plying to the group, rather than any indi-
vidual speaker, said curtly :

" There's but one chance— equal for all —
open to all. You know what it is. To stay
here is death ; to go, cannnot be worse than
that."

He rose and walked slowly away up the
canon a few rods to where another mound
was visible, and disappeared from their view.
When he had gone, a querulous chatter went
around the squatting circle.

" Gone to see the old Doctor and the gal.
We're no account."

" Thar*s two too many in this yet party."

" Yes — the crazy Doctor and Ashley."



" They're both interlopers, any way."

"Jonahs."

" Said no good could come of it, ever since
we picked him up."

"But the Cap'n invited the ol' Doctor,
and took all his stock at Sweetwater, and
Ashley put in his provisions with the rest."

The speaker was McCormicL Some-
where in the feeble depths of his conscious-
ness there was still a lingering sense of jus-
tice. He was himgry, but not unreasonable.
Besides, he remembered with a tender regret
the excellent quality of provision that Ashley
had fiimished

" What's that got to do with it ? " screamed
Mrs. Brackett. " He brought the bad luck
with him. Ain't my husband dead, and
isn't that skunk — an entife stranger — still
livin'?"

The voice was masculine, but the logic
was feminine. In cases of great prostration
with mental debility, in the hopeless vacuity
that precedes death by inanition or starva-
tion, it is sometimes very effective. They
all assented to it, and by a singular intellect-
ual harmony the expression of each was the
same. It was simply " G— d d ^n him !"

" What are you goin' to do ?"

" If I was a man, I'd know !"

"Knife him!"

" Kill him, and ''

The remainder of this sentence was lost to
the others in a confidential whisper between
Mrs. Brackett and Dumphy. After this
confidence they sat and wagged their heads
together like two unmatched but hideous
Clunese idols.

" Look at his strenth ! and he not a workin'
man like us," said Dumphy. " Don't tell me
he don't get suthin reg'lan"

"Suthin what?"

"Suthin TO EAT I"

But it is impossible to convey even by
capitals the intense emphasis put upon this
verb. It was followed by a horrible pause.

" Let's go and see."

" And kill him," suggested the gende Mrs.
Brackett.

They all rose with a common interest al-
most like enthusiasm. But after they had
tottered a few steps, they fell. Yet even
then there was not enough self-respect left
among them to feel any sense of shame or
mortificarion in their baffled design. They
stopped, all except Dumphy.

" Wot's that dream you was talkin* 'bout
jess now?" said Mr. McCormick, sitting
down and abandoning the enterprise with
the most shameless inddfierence.



Digitized by



Google



GABRIEL CONROY.



19



"'Bout the dinner at St. Jo?" asked the
person addressed — a gentleman whose fac-
ulty of alimentary imagination had been at
once the bliss and torment of his present
social circle.

"Yes."

They all gathered eagerly aroimd Mr.
McCormick; even Mr. Dumphy, who was
still moving away, stopped.

« Well," said Mr. March, « it began with
beefsteak and injins — ^beefeteak, you know,
juicy and cut very thick, and jess squashy
with gravy and injins." There was a very
perceptible watering of the mouth ia the
party, and Mr. March, with the genius of a
true narrator, under the plausible disguise
of having forgotten his story, repeated the
last sentence — "jess squashy with gravy and
injins. And taters — ^baked."

"You said fried before! — and dripping
with fet!" — interposed Mrs. Brackett, hast-
ily.

" For them as likes fried — but baked goes
furder — skins and all — and sassage and
coffee and — flapjacks ! "

At this magical word they laughed, not
mirthfully perhaps, but eagerly and expect-
antly, and said, "Go onl"

"And flapjacks!"

"You said that afore" — said Mrs. Brackett
with a burst of passion. " Go on, d — n you ! "

The giver of this Barmacide feast, saw his
dangerous position, and looked around for
Dumphy. But he had disappeared.

CHAPTER II.
WITHIN.

The hut into which Ashley descended
was, like a Greenlander's "iglook," below
the surface of the snow. Accident rather
than design had given it this Arctic resem-
blance. As snow upon snow had blocked
up its entrance, and reared its white ladders
against its walls, and as the strength of its
exhausted inmates slowly declined, commu-
nication with the outward world was kept
up only by a single narrow passage. Ex-
cluded from the air, it was close and stifling,
but it had a warmth that perhaps the thin
blood of its occupants craved more than
light or ventilation.

A smoldering fire in a wooden chimney
threw a faint flicker on the walls. By its
light, lying upon the floor, were discernible
four figures — a young woman and a child
of three .or four years wrapped in a single
blanket, near the fire; nearer the door two
men separately enwrapped lay apart: They



might have been dead, so deep and motion-
less were their slumbers.

Perhaps some fear of this filled the mind
of Ashley as he entered, for after a moment's
hesitation, without saying a word, he passed
quickly to the side of the young woman, and,
kneeling beside her, placed his hand upon
her face. Slight as was the touch, it awak-
ened her. I know not what subtile mag-
netism was in that contact, but she caught
the hand in her own, sat up, and before her
eyes were scarcely opened, uttered the sin-
gle word :

"PhUip!"

"Grace— hush!"

He took her hand, kissed it, and pointed
wamingly toward the other sleepers.

" Speak low. I have much to say to you."

The young girl seemed to be content to
devour the speaker with her eyes.
. " You have come back," she whispered,
with a fiunt smile, and a look that showed
too plainly the predominance of that fact
above all others m her mind. " I dreamed
of you — Philip."

" Dear Grace," he kissed her hand again.
" Listen to me, darling ! I have come back,
but only with the old story — no signs of
succor, no indications of help from without !
My belief is, Grace," he added, in a voice
so low as to be audible only to the quick
ear to which it was addressed, "that we
have blundered far south of the usual trav-
eled trail. Nothing but a miracle or a mis-
fortune like our own would bring another
train this way. We are alone and helpless
— in an unknown region that even the sav-
age and brute have abandoned. The only
aid we can calculate upon is from within —
from ourselves. What that aid amounts to,"
he continued, ttuning a cynical eye toward
the sleepers, " you know as well as I."

•She pressed his hand, apologetically, as
if accepting the reproach herself, but did
not sp^.

"As a party we have no strength — no
discipline," he went on. " Since your father
died we have had no leader — I know what
you would say, Grace, dear," he continued,
answering the mute protest of the girl's hand,
" bureven if it were true — ^if /were capable of
leading them, they would not take my coun-
sels. Perhaps it is as well. If we kept to-
gether, the greatest peril of our situation
would be ever present — the peril from our-
selves P'

He looked intendv at her as he spoke,
but she evidently die not take his meaning.

"Grace," he said, desperately, "when



Digitized by



Google



20



GABRIEL CONROY.



starving men are thrown together, they are
capable of any sacrifice — of any crime, to
keep the. miserable life that they hold so
dear— just in proportion as it becomes value-
less. You have read in books — Grace!
good God — what is the matter?"

If she had not read his meaning in books,
she might have read it at that moment in
the face that was peering in the door, a face
with so much of animal suggestion in its
horrible wistfulness that she needed no fur-
ther revelation ; a face full of inhuman fe-
rocity and watchful eagerness, and yet a face
familiar in its outhnes — the face' of Dumphy 1
Even with her danger came the swifter in-
stinct of feminine tact and concealment, and
without betraying the real cause of her mo-
mentary horror, she dropped her head upon
Philip's shoulder and whispered, " I under-
stand." When she raised her head again
the face was gone.

" Enough ! I did not mean to frighten
you, Grace, but only to show you what we
must avoid — what we have still strength left
to avoid. There is but one chance of es-
cape, you know what it is — a desperate one,
but no more desperate than this passive
waiting for a certam end. I ask you again
— ^will you share it with me ? When I first
spoke I was less sanguine than now. Since
then I have explored the ground carefiilly,
and studied die trend of these mountains.
It \& possible, I say no more."

" But my sister and brother ? "

" The child would be a hopeless impedi-
ment, even if she could survive the fetigue
and exposure. Yoiu* brother must stay with
her; she will need all his remaining strength
and all the hopefiilness that keeps him up.
No, Grace, we must go alone. Remember,
our safety means theirs. Their strength will
last until we can send relief; while they
would sink in the attempt to reach it with
us. I would go alone, but I cannot bear,
dear Grace, to leave you here."

" I should die if you lefl me," she said
simply.

" I believe you would, Grace," he said as
simply.

" But can we not wait ? Help may come
at any moment — to-morrow."

"To-morrow will find us weaker. I
should not trust your strength nor my own
a day longer."

" But the old man— the Doctor ?"

" He will soon be beyond the reach of
help," said the young man sadly. " Hush,^
he is moving ! "

One of the blanketed figtu'es had rolled



over. Philip walked to the fire, threw on a
fresh stick and stirred the embers. The up-
springing flash showed the face of an old
man whose eyes were fixed with feverish in-
tensity upon him.

"What are you doing with the fire?" he
asked querulously, with a slight foreign ac^
cent.

"Stirring it!"

"Leave it alone!"

Philip lisdessly turned away.

"Come here," said ^e old man.

Phihp approached.

"You ncHsd say nothing," said the old
man, after a pause, in which he examined
Philip's face keenly. " I read your news in
your face — ^the old story — I know it by
heart"

"Well?" saidPhiUp.

"Well!" said the old man, stolidly.

Philip again turned away.

"You buried the case and papers?"
asked the old man.

"Yes."

"Through the snow — ^in the earth ?*•

"Yes.''

"Securely?"

" Securely."

" How did you indicate it ?"

" By a cairn of stones."

"And the notices — ^in German and
French?"

" I nailed them up wherever I could, near
the old trail"

" Good."

The cynical look on Philip's fece deep-
ened as he once more tiuned away. But
before he reached the door he paused, and
drawing fix)m his breast a faded flower, with
a few limp leaves, handed it to the old man.

"I found a duplicate of the plant you
were looking for."

The old man half rose on his elbow,
breathless with excitement as he clutched
and eagerly examined the plant

" It is the same," he said, with a sigh of
relief, " and yet — ^you said there was no
news ! "

" May I ask what it means ?" said Philip,
with a slight smile.

" It means that I am right, and Liimseus,
Darwin, and Eschenholtz are wrong. It
means a discovery. It means that this
which you call an Alpine flower is not one,
but a new species."

"An important fact to starving men," said
Philip, bitterly.

" It means more," continued the old man,
without heeding Philip's tone. " It means



Digitized by



Google



GABRIEL CONROY,



21



that this flower is not developed in perpetual
snow. It means that it is first germinated
in a warm soil and under a kindly sun. It
means that if you had not plucked it, it
would have fulfilled its destiny imder those
conditions. It means that in two months
grass will be springing where you found it —
eveij where we now he. We are below the
limit of perpetual snow."

"In two months!" said the yoimg girl,
eagerly, clasping her hands.

" In two months," said the young man,
bitterly. " In two months we shall be fiar
firom here, or dead."

"Probably!" said the old man, coolly,
" but if you have fiilfilled my injunctions m
regard to my papers and the collection, they
w3l in good time be discovered and saved."

Ashley turned away with an impatient
gestiure, and the old man's head again sank
exhaustedly upon his arm. Under the pre-
text of caressing the child, Ashley crossed
over to Grace, uttered a few hurried and
almost inaudible words, and disappeared
through the door. When he had gone, the
old man raised his head again and called
feebly :

"Grace!"

"Dr. Devarges!"

"Come here!"

She rose and crossed over to his side.

"Why did he stir the fire, Grace?" said
Devarges, with a suspicious glance.

" I don't know."

"You tell him everything— did you tell
him that?"

" I did not, sir."

Devarges looked as if he would read the
inmost thoughts of the girl, and then, as if
re-assured, said :

" Take it fi-om the fire, and let it cool in
the snow."

The young giii raked away the embers
oi the dying fire, and disclosed what seemed
to be a stone of the size of a hen's egg,
incandescent and glowing. With the aid
of two half-burnt sticks she managed to
extract it, and deposited it in a convenient
snow-drift near the door, and then returned
to the side of the old man.

"Grace!"

"Sir!"

" You are going away !"

Grace did not speak. '

" Don't deny it I overheard you. Per-
haps it is the best that you can do. But
whether it is or not you will do it — of
course. Grace, what do you know of thafc
man?"



Neither the contact of daily fomiliarity,
the equality of sufiering, nor the presence
of approaching death could subdue the
woman's nature in Grace. She instantly
raised her shield. From behind it she began
to fence feebly with the dying man.

" Why, what we all know of him, sir, — a
true fiiend ; a man to whose courage, intel-
lect, and endurance we owe so much. And
so unselfish, sir!"

« Humph !— what else? "

" Nothing— except that he has always
been your devoted fiiend — and I thought
you were his. You brought him to us," she
said, a Httle Viciously.

"Yes — I picked him up at Sweetwater.
But what do you know of his history?
What has he told you ?"

" He ran away fix)m a wicked step-father
and relations whom he hated. He came
out West to live alone — among the Indians —
or to seek his fortune in Oregon. He is
very proud — you know, sir. He is as unlike
us as you are, sir, — ^he is a gentleman. He
is educated."

"Yes, I believe that's what they call it
here, and he doesn't know the petals of a
flower from the stamens," mutteied Devar-
ges. "Well! After you run away with
him does he propose to marry you ?"

For an instant a faint flush deepened the
wan cheek of the girl, and she lost her guard.
But the next moment she recovered it.

" Oh, sir," said this arch hypocrite, sweetly,
" how can you jest so cruelly at such a mo-
ment ? The life of my dear brother and sis-
ter, the lives of the poor women in yonder
hut, depend upon our going. He and I are
the only ones left who have strength enough
to make the trial I can assist him, for,
although strong, I require less to support
my strength than he. Something tells me
we shall be successful; we shall return soon
with help. Oh, sir, — it is no time for trifling
now ; our lives— even your own is at stake ! "

" My own life," said the old man impas-
sively, " is aheady spent. Before you return,
if you return at all, I shall be beyond your
help."

A spasm of pain appeared to pass over
his face. He lay still for a moment as if to
concentrate his strength for a fiirther efibrt.
But, when he again spoke, his voice was
much lower, and he seemed to articulate
with difficulty,

" Grace," he said at last, " come, nearer,
girl, — I have something to tell you."

Grace hesitated. Within the last few
moments a shy, nervous dread of the man



Digitized by



Google



22



GABRIEL CONROY,



which she could not account for had taken
possession of her. She looked toward her
sleeping brother.

"He will not waken," said Devarges,
following the direction of her eyes. " The
anodyne still holds its effect. Bring me
what you took from the fire."

Grace brought the stone — a dull bluish-
gray slag. The old man took it, examined
it, and then said to Grace :

" Rub it briskly on your blanket"

Grace did so. After a few moments it
began to exhibit a faint white luster on its
polished surface.

** It looks likesilver,"said Grate, doubtfully.

" It is silver I " rephed Devarges.

Grace put it down quickly and moved
slightly away.

"Take it," said the old man,— "it is
yours. A year ago I found it in a ledge of
the mountain range far west of this. I know
where it lies in bulk — a fortime, Grace, do
you hear ? — ^hidden in the bluish stone you
put in the fire for me last night. I can tell
you where and how to find it I can give
you the tide to it — the right of discovery.
Take it — it is yours."

" No, no," said the girl hurriedly, keep
it yourself. You will live to enjoy it"

" Never, Grace 1 even were I to live I
should not make use of it I have in
my life had more than my share of it, and it
brought me no happiness. It has no value
to me — ^the rankest weed that grows above
it is worth more in my eyes. Take it To
the world it means everything, — wealth and
position. Take it. It will make you as
proud and independent as your lover — ^it
will make you alwa)rs gracious in his eyes ; —
it will be a setting to your beauty, — ^it will
be a pedestal to your virtue. Take it — it is
yours."

"But you have relatives — ^friends," said
the girl, drawing away from the shining
stone with a half superstitious awe. " There
are others whose claims — "

"None greater than yours," interrupted
the old man, with the nervous haste of fail-
ing breath. " Call it a reward if you choose.
Look upon it as a bribe to keep your lover



Online LibraryFrancis HallThe Century, Volume 11 → online text (page 4 of 163)