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"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Oh, they didn't bother - much."

"Give me one of your skirts," he demanded.

"I . . ." She faltered. "I only have one."

He looked about him. Tommy had disappeared among the ice-floes.

"We must be getting on," Frona said, attempting to rise.

But he held her back. "Not another step till I fix you. Here goes, so
shut your eyes."

She obeyed, and when she opened them he was naked to the waist, and his
undershirt, torn in strips, was being bound about her feet.

"You were in the rear, and I did not know - "

"Don't apologize, pray," she interrupted. "I could have spoken."

"I'm not; I'm reproaching you. Now, the other one. Put it up!"

The nearness to her bred a madness, and he touched his lips lightly to
the same white little toe that had won the Baron Courbertin a kiss.

Though she did not draw back, her face flushed, and she thrilled as she
had thrilled once before in her life. "You take advantage of your own
goodness," she rebuked him.

"Then I will doubly advantage myself."

"Please don't," she begged.

"And why not? It is a custom of the sea to broach the spirits as the
ship prepares to sink. And since this is a sort of a forlorn hope, you
know, why not?"

"But . . ."

"But what, Miss Prim?"

"Oh! Of all things, you know I do not deserve that! If there were
nobody else to be considered, why, under the circumstances . . ."

He drew the last knot tight and dropped her foot. "Damn St. Vincent,
anyway! Come on!"

"So would I, were I you," she laughed, taking up her end of the canoe.
"But how you have changed, Vance. You are not the same man I met on
the Dyea Trail. You hadn't learned to swear, then, among other things."

"No, I'm not the same; for which I thank God and you. Only I think I
am honester than you. I always live up to my philosophy."

"Now confess that's unfair. You ask too much under the
circumstances - "

"Only a little toe."

"Or else, I suppose, you just care for me in a kind, big-brotherly way.
In which case, if you really wish it, you may - "

"Do keep quiet," he broke in, roughly, "or I'll be making a gorgeous
fool of myself."

"Kiss all my toes," she finished.

He grunted, but did not deign a reply. The work quickly took their
breath, and they went on in silence till they descended the last steep
to where McPherson waited by the open river.

"Del hates St. Vincent," she said boldly. "Why?"

"Yes, it seems that way." He glanced back at her curiously. "And
wherever he goes, Del lugs an old Russian book, which he can't read but
which he nevertheless regards, in some sort of way, as St. Vincent's
Nemesis. And do you know, Frona, he has such faith in it that I can't
help catching a little myself. I don't know whether you'll come to me,
or whether I'll go to you, but - "

She dropped her end of the canoe and broke out in laughter. He was
annoyed, and a hurt spread of blood ruddied his face.

"If I have - " he began.

"Stupid!" she laughed. "Don't be silly! And above all don't be
dignified. It doesn't exactly become you at the present moment, - your
hair all tangled, a murderous knife in your belt, and naked to the
waist like a pirate stripped for battle. Be fierce, frown, swear,
anything, but please don't be dignified. I do wish I had my camera.
In after years I could say: 'This, my friends, is Corliss, the great
Arctic explorer, just as he looked at the conclusion of his
world-famous trip _Through Darkest Alaska_.'"

He pointed an ominous finger at her and said sternly, "Where is your
skirt?"

She involuntarily looked down. But its tatterdemalion presence
relieved her, and her face jerked up scarlet.

"You should be ashamed!"

"Please, please do not be dignified," he laughed. "Very true, it
doesn't exactly become you at the present moment. Now, if I had my
camera - "

"Do be quiet and go on," she said. "Tommy is waiting. I hope the sun
takes the skin all off your back," she panted vindictively, as they
slid the canoe down the last shelf and dropped it into the water.

Ten minutes later they climbed the ice-wall, and on and up the bank,
which was partly a hillside, to where the signal of distress still
fluttered. Beneath it, on the ground, lay stretched the man. He lay
very quietly, and the fear that they were too late was upon them, when
he moved his head slightly and moaned. His rough clothes were in rags,
and the black, bruised flesh of his feet showed through the remnants of
his moccasins. His body was thin and gaunt, without flesh-pads or
muscles, while the bones seemed ready to break through the
tight-stretched skin. As Corliss felt his pulse, his eyes fluttered
open and stared glassily. Frona shuddered.

"Man, it's fair gruesome," McPherson muttered, running his hand up a
shrunken arm.

"You go on to the canoe, Frona," Corliss said. "Tommy and I will carry
him down."

But her lips set firmly. Though the descent was made easier by her
aid, the man was well shaken by the time they laid him in the bottom of
the canoe, - so well shaken that some last shreds of consciousness were
aroused. He opened his eyes and whispered hoarsely, "Jacob Welse . . .
despatches . . . from the Outside." He plucked feebly at his open
shirt, and across his emaciated chest they saw the leather strap, to
which, doubtless, the despatch-pouch was slung.

At either end of the canoe there was room to spare, but amidships
Corliss was forced to paddle with the man between his knees. La Bijou
swung out blithely from the bank. It was down-stream at last, and
there was little need for exertion.

Vance's arms and shoulders and back, a bright scarlet, caught Frona's
attention. "My hopes are realized," she exulted, reaching out and
softly stroking a burning arm. "We shall have to put cold cream on it
when we get back."

"Go ahead," he encouraged. "That feels awfully good."

She splashed his hot back with a handful of the ice-cold water from
over-side. He caught his breath with a gasp, and shivered. Tommy
turned about to look at them.

"It's a guid deed we'll 'a doon this day," he remarked, pleasantly.
"To gie a hand in distress is guid i' the sight of God."

"Who's afeared ?" Frona laughed.

"Weel," he deliberated, "I was a bit fashed, no doot, but - "

His utterance ceased, and he seemed suddenly to petrify. His eyes
fixed themselves in a terrible stare over Frona's shoulder. And then,
slowly and dreamily, with the solemnity fitting an invocation of Deity,
murmured, "Guid Gawd Almichty!"

They whirled their heads about. A wall of ice was sweeping round the
bend, and even as they looked the right-hand flank, unable to compass
the curve, struck the further shore and flung up a ridge of heaving
mountains.

"Guid Gawd! Guid Gawd! Like rats i' the trap!" Tommy jabbed his
paddle futilely in the water.

"Get the stroke!" Corliss hissed in his ear, and La Bijou sprang away.

Frona steered straight across the current, at almost right angles, for
Split-up; but when the sandspit, over which they had portaged, crashed
at the impact of a million tons, Corliss glanced at her anxiously. She
smiled and shook her head, at the same time slacking off the course.

"We can't make it," she whispered, looking back at the ice a couple of
hundred feet away. "Our only chance is to run before it and work in
slowly."

She cherished every inward inch jealously, holding the canoe up as
sharply as she dared and at the same time maintaining a constant
distance ahead of the ice-rim.

"I canna stand the pace," Tommy whimpered once; but the silence of
Corliss and Frona seemed ominous, and he kept his paddle going.

At the very fore of the ice was a floe five or six feet thick and a
couple of acres in extent. Reaching out in advance of the pack, it
clove through the water till on either side there formed a bore like
that of a quick flood-tide in an inland passage. Tommy caught sight of
it, and would have collapsed had not Corliss prodded him, between
strokes, with the point of his paddle.

"We can keep ahead," Frona panted; "but we must get time to make the
landing?"

"When the chance comes, drive her in, bow on," Corliss counselled; "and
when she strikes, jump and run for it."

"Climb, rather. I'm glad my skirt is short."

Repulsed by the bluffs of the left bank, the ice was forced towards the
right. The big floe, in advance, drove in upon the precise point of
Split-up Island.

"If you look back, I'll brain you with the paddle," Corliss threatened.

"Ay," Tommy groaned.

But Corliss looked back, and so did Frona. The great berg struck the
land with an earthquake shock. For fifty feet the soft island was
demolished. A score of pines swayed frantically and went down, and
where they went down rose up a mountain of ice, which rose, and fell,
and rose again. Below, and but a few feet away, Del Bishop ran out to
the bank, and above the roar they could hear faintly his "Hit 'er up!
Hit 'er up!" Then the ice-rim wrinkled up and he sprang back to escape
it.

"The first opening," Corliss gasped.

Frona's lips spread apart; she tried to speak but failed, then nodded
her head that she had heard. They swung along in rapid rhythm under
the rainbow-wall, looking for a place where it might be quickly
cleared. And down all the length of Split-up Island they raced vainly,
the shore crashing behind them as they fled.

As they darted across the mouth of the back-channel to Roubeau Island
they found themselves heading directly for an opening in the rim-ice.
La Bijou drove into it full tilt, and went half her length out of water
on a shelving cake. The three leaped together, but while the two of
them gripped the canoe to run it up, Tommy, in the lead, strove only to
save himself. And he would have succeeded had he not slipped and
fallen midway in the climb. He half arose, slipped, and fell again.
Corliss, hauling on the bow of the canoe, trampled over him. He
reached up and clutched the gunwale. They did not have the strength,
and this clog brought them at once to a standstill. Corliss looked
back and yelled for him to leave go, but he only turned upward a
piteous face, like that of a drowning man, and clutched more tightly.
Behind them the ice was thundering. The first flurry of coming
destruction was upon them. They endeavored desperately to drag up the
canoe, but the added burden was too much, and they fell on their knees.
The sick man sat up suddenly and laughed wildly. "Blood of my soul!"
he ejaculated, and laughed again.

Roubeau Island swayed to the first shock, and the ice was rocking under
their feet. Frona seized a paddle and smashed the Scotsman's knuckles;
and the instant he loosed his grip, Corliss carried the canoe up in a
mad rush, Frona clinging on and helping from behind. The rainbow-wall
curled up like a scroll, and in the convolutions of the scroll, like a
bee in the many folds of a magnificent orchid, Tommy disappeared.

They fell, breathless, on the earth. But a monstrous cake shoved up
from the jam and balanced above them. Frona tried to struggle to her
feet, but sank on her knees; and it remained for Corliss to snatch her
and the canoe out from underneath. Again they fell, this time under
the trees, the sun sifting down upon them through the green pine
needles, the robins singing overhead, and a colony of crickets chirping
in the warmth.




CHAPTER XXVI

Frona woke, slowly, as though from a long dream. She was lying where
she had fallen, across Corliss's legs, while he, on his back, faced the
hot sun without concern. She crawled up to him. He was breathing
regularly, with closed eyes, which opened to meet hers. He smiled, and
she sank down again. Then he rolled over on his side, and they looked
at each other.

"Vance."

"Yes."

She reached out her hand; his closed upon it, and their eyelids
fluttered and drooped down. The river still rumbled en, somewhere in
the infinite distance, but it came to them like the murmur of a world
forgotten. A soft languor encompassed them. The golden sunshine
dripped down upon them through the living green, and all the life of
the warm earth seemed singing. And quiet was very good. Fifteen long
minutes they drowsed, and woke again.

Frona sat up. "I - I was afraid," she said.

"Not you."

"Afraid that I might be afraid," she amended, fumbling with her hair.

"Leave it down. The day merits it."

She complied, with a toss of the head which circled it with a nimbus of
rippling yellow.

"Tommy's gone," Corliss mused, the race with the ice coming slowly back.

"Yes," she answered. "I rapped him on the knuckles. It was terrible.
But the chance is we've a better man in the canoe, and we must care for
him at once. Hello! Look there!" Through the trees, not a score of
feet away, she saw the wall of a large cabin. "Nobody in sight. It
must be deserted, or else they're visiting, whoever they are. You look
to our man, Vance, - I'm more presentable, - and I'll go and see."

She skirted the cabin, which was a large one for the Yukon country, and
came around to where it fronted on the river. The door stood open,
and, as she paused to knock, the whole interior flashed upon her in an
astounding picture, - a cumulative picture, or series of pictures, as it
were. For first she was aware of a crowd of men, and of some great
common purpose upon which all were seriously bent. At her knock they
instinctively divided, so that a lane opened up, flanked by their
pressed bodies, to the far end of the room. And there, in the long
bunks on either side, sat two grave rows of men. And midway between,
against the wall, was a table. This table seemed the centre of
interest. Fresh from the sun-dazzle, the light within was dim and
murky, but she managed to make out a bearded American sitting by the
table and hammering it with a heavy caulking-mallet. And on the
opposite side sat St. Vincent. She had time to note his worn and
haggard face, before a man of Scandinavian appearance slouched up to
the table.

The man with the mallet raised his right hand and said glibly, "You do
most solemnly swear that what you are about to give before the
court - " He abruptly stopped and glowered at the man before him.
"Take off your hat!" he roared, and a snicker went up from the crowd as
the man obeyed.

Then he of the mallet began again. "You do most solemnly swear that
what you are about to give before the court shall be the truth, the
whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

The Scandinavian nodded and dropped his hand.

"One moment, gentlemen." Frona advanced up the lane, which closed
behind her.

St. Vincent sprang to his feet and stretched out his arms to her.
"Frona," he cried, "oh, Frona, I am innocent!"

It struck her like a blow, the unexpectedness of it, and for the
instant, in the sickly light, she was conscious only of the ring of
white faces, each face set with eyes that burned. Innocent of what?
she thought, and as she looked at St. Vincent, arms still extended, she
was aware, in a vague, troubled way, of something distasteful.
Innocent of what? He might have had more reserve. He might have
waited till he was charged. She did not know that he was charged with
anything.

"Friend of the prisoner," the man with the mallet said authoritatively.
"Bring a stool for'ard, some of you."

"One moment . . ." She staggered against the table and rested a hand
on it. "I do not understand. This is all new . . ." But her eyes
happened to come to rest on her feet, wrapped in dirty rags, and she
knew that she was clad in a short and tattered skirt, that her arm
peeped forth through a rent in her sleeve, and that her hair was down
and flying. Her cheek and neck on one side seemed coated with some
curious substance. She brushed it with her hand, and caked mud rattled
to the floor.

"That will do," the man said, not unkindly. "Sit down. We're in the
same box. We do not understand. But take my word for it, we're here
to find out. So sit down."

She raised her hand. "One moment - "

"Sit down!" he thundered. "The court cannot be disturbed."

A hum went up from the crowd, words of dissent, and the man pounded the
table for silence. But Frona resolutely kept her feet.

When the noise had subsided, she addressed the man in the chair. "Mr.
Chairman: I take it that this is a miners' meeting." (The man nodded.)
"Then, having an equal voice in the managing of this community's
affairs, I demand to be heard. It is important that I should be heard."

"But you are out of order. Miss - er - "

"Welse!" half a dozen voices prompted.

"Miss Welse," he went on, an added respect marking his demeanor, "it
grieves me to inform you that you are out of order. You had best sit
down."

"I will not," she answered. "I rise to a question of privilege, and if
I am not heard, I shall appeal to the meeting."

She swept the crowd with her eyes, and cries went up that she be given
a fair show. The chairman yielded and motioned her to go on.

"Mr. Chairman and men: I do not know the business you have at present
before you, but I do know that I have more important business to place
before you. Just outside this cabin is a man probably dying from
starvation. We have brought him from across the river. We should not
have bothered you, but we were unable to make our own island. This man
I speak of needs immediate attention."

"A couple of you nearest the door go out and look after him," the
chairman ordered. "And you, Doc Holiday, go along and see what you can
do."

"Ask for a recess," St. Vincent whispered.

Frona nodded her head. "And, Mr. Chairman, I make a motion for a
recess until the man is cared for."

Cries of "No recess!" and "Go on with the business!" greeted the
putting of it, and the motion was lost.

"Now, Gregory," with a smile and salutation as she took the stool
beside him, "what is it?"

He gripped her hand tightly. "Don't believe them, Frona. They are
trying to" - with a gulping swallow - "to kill me."

"Why? Do be calm. Tell me."

"Why, last night," he began hurriedly, but broke off to listen to the
Scandinavian previously sworn, who was speaking with ponderous slowness.

"I wake wide open quick," he was saying. "I coom to the door. I there
hear one shot more."

He was interrupted by a warm-complexioned man, clad in faded mackinaws.
"What did you think?" he asked.

"Eh?" the witness queried, his face dark and troubled with perplexity.

"When you came to the door, what was your first thought?"

"A-w-w," the man sighed, his face clearing and infinite comprehension
sounding in his voice. "I have no moccasins. I t'ink pretty damn
cold." His satisfied expression changed to naive surprise when an
outburst of laughter greeted his statement, but he went on stolidly.
"One more shot I hear, and I run down the trail."

Then Corliss pressed in through the crowd to Frona, and she lost what
the man was saying.

"What's up?" the engineer was asking. "Anything serious? Can I be of
any use?"

"Yes, yes." She caught his hand gratefully. "Get over the
back-channel somehow and tell my father to come. Tell him that Gregory
St. Vincent is in trouble; that he is charged with - What are you
charged with, Gregory?" she asked, turning to him.

"Murder."

"Murder?" from Corliss.

"Yes, yes. Say that he is charged with murder; that I am here; and
that I need him. And tell him to bring me some clothes. And,
Vance," - with a pressure of the hand and swift upward look, - "don't
take any . . . any big chances, but do try to make it."

"Oh, I'll make it all right." He tossed his head confidently and
proceeded to elbow his way towards the door.

"Who is helping you in your defence?" she asked St. Vincent.

He shook his head. "No. They wanted to appoint some one, - a renegade
lawyer from the States, Bill Brown, - but I declined him. He's taken
the other side, now. It's lynch law, you know, and their minds are
made up. They're bound to get me."

"I wish there were time to hear your side."

"But, Frona, I am innocent. I - "

"S-sh!" She laid her hand on his arm to hush him, and turned her
attention to the witness.

"So the noospaper feller, he fight like anything; but Pierre and me, we
pull him into the shack. He cry and stand in one place - "

"Who cried?" interrupted the prosecuting lawyer.

"Him. That feller there." The Scandinavian pointed directly at St.
Vincent. "And I make a light. The slush-lamp I find spilt over most
everything, but I have a candle in my pocket. It is good practice to
carry a candle in the pocket," he affirmed gravely. "And Borg he lay
on the floor dead. And the squaw say he did it, and then she die, too."

"Said who did it?"

Again his accusing finger singled out St. Vincent. "Him. That feller
there."

"Did she?" Frona whispered.

"Yes," St. Vincent whispered back, "she did. But I cannot imagine what
prompted her. She must have been out of her head."

The warm-faced man in the faded mackinaws then put the witness through
a searching examination, which Frona followed closely, but which
elicited little new.

"You have the right to cross-examine the witness," the chairman
informed St. Vincent. "Any questions you want to ask?"

The correspondent shook his head.

"Go on," Frona urged.

"What's the use?" he asked, hopelessly. "I'm fore-doomed. The verdict
was reached before the trial began."

"One moment, please." Frona's sharp command arrested the retiring
witness. "You do not know of your own knowledge who committed this
murder?"

The Scandinavian gazed at her with a bovine expression on his leaden
features, as though waiting for her question to percolate to his
understanding.

"You did not see who did it?" she asked again.

"Aw, yes. That feller there," accusative finger to the fore. "She say
he did."

There was a general smile at this.

"But you did not see it?"

"I hear some shooting."

"But you did not see who did the shooting?"

"Aw, no; but she said - "

"That will do, thank you," she said sweetly, and the man retired.

The prosecution consulted its notes. "Pierre La Flitche!" was called
out.

A slender, swart-skinned man, lithe of figure and graceful, stepped
forward to the open space before the table. He was darkly handsome,
with a quick, eloquent eye which roved frankly everywhere. It rested
for a moment on Frona, open and honest in its admiration, and she
smiled and half-nodded, for she liked him at first glance, and it
seemed as though they had met of old time. He smiled pleasantly back,
the smooth upper lip curling brightly and showing beautiful teeth,
immaculately white.

In answer to the stereotyped preliminaries he stated that his name was
that of his father's, a descendant of the _coureurs du bois_. His
mother - with a shrug of the shoulders and flash of teeth - was a
_breed_. He was born somewhere in the Barrens, on a hunting trip, he
did not know where. Ah, _oui_, men called him an old-timer. He had
come into the country in the days of Jack McQuestion, across the
Rockies from the Great Slave.

On being told to go ahead with what he knew of the matter in hand, he
deliberated a moment, as though casting about for the best departure.

"In the spring it is good to sleep with the open door," he began, his
words sounding clear and flute-like and marked by haunting memories of
the accents his forbears put into the tongue. "And so I sleep last
night. But I sleep like the cat. The fall of the leaf, the breath of
the wind, and my ears whisper to me, whisper, whisper, all the night
long. So, the first shot," with a quick snap of the fingers, "and I am
awake, just like that, and I am at the door."

St. Vincent leaned forward to Frona. "It was not the first shot."

She nodded, with her eyes still bent on La Flitche, who gallantly
waited.

"Then two more shot," he went on, "quick, together, boom-boom, just
like that. 'Borg's shack,' I say to myself, and run down the trail. I
think Borg kill Bella, which was bad. Bella very fine girl," he
confided with one of his irresistible smiles. "I like Bella. So I
run. And John he run from his cabin like a fat cow, with great noise.
'What the matter?' he say; and I say, 'I don't know.' And then
something come, wheugh! out of the dark, just like that, and knock John
down, and knock me down. We grab everywhere all at once. It is a man.
He is in undress. He fight. He cry, 'Oh! Oh! Oh!' just like that.
We hold him tight, and bime-by pretty quick, he stop. Then we get up,
and I say, 'Come along back.'"


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Online LibraryJack LondonA Daughter of the Snows → online text (page 17 of 20)